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Losing lila, p.12
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       Losing Lila, p.12

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  My dad hung Jack’s chart back up. ‘That’s ridiculous,’ he said, using his doctor voice. ‘Of course he was acting under duress. Lila’s already told you that. What else would he have been doing? For God’s sake, this is absurd. He should be commended for bravery – not treated like a common criminal.’

  ‘Dr Loveday – Michael – I know. It’s not my decision.’ She looked genuinely upset. ‘We operate under military rules. There has to be an investigation.’

  ‘Well,’ my dad said, moving to the door, ‘I want to talk to whoever’s in charge.’

  Sara glanced at me quickly before looking back at my dad. ‘Actually, that’s why I came,’ she said. ‘There’s someone who wants to speak to you. He’s waiting back at HQ.’

  I was left alone with a silent Jack and my anything but silent mind. I crossed to the door and opened it a crack. The view was barred by a black statue standing to attention in front of the doorway. No escape there, then. How on earth were we going to be able to break Jack out of here? I crossed to the window. We were on the second floor. And even if Jack was conscious, I doubted he’d be able to abseil down. He might never be able to walk again. When I’d asked my dad about that, he’d told me not to worry, that until Jack woke up no one knew anything for certain, but I had seen the way he kept staring at Jack’s legs. He was just as worried as I was.

  I sat back down and stared at the beeping machine, and the tubes tangled like intestines poking out of Jack, and tried to think of a way out of this.

  ‘What was that all about? Who wanted to talk to you?’ I asked, springing to my feet as soon as my dad walked through the door.

  ‘Richard Stirling.’

  ‘Who?’

  ‘Richard Stirling. He owns Stirling Enterprises. The Unit is a division of that.’

  I turned away, trying to mask my horror. After a few seconds struggling to compose my expression I turned back round. My dad was studying Jack’s chart as if in the last half-hour his condition might have changed.

  ‘What did he want?’ I asked.

  ‘He offered me a job.’

  For several seconds I stood there, unable to speak. ‘He did what?’ I asked eventually, my voice strangled.

  ‘He asked me to come and work for him.’

  I continued to stare at him. ‘What did you say?’

  ‘I told him I’d think about it. My priority right now is your safety.’ He came over and put his arm round me. ‘I don’t want you in California where Demos can find you. He’s out for revenge, Lila. And I’m not giving him a second chance.’ He paused before adding, ‘Richard said that they could arrange security for us.’

  I cringed at the first-name usage. I bet they could arrange security for us. It would probably entail having one of the Unit’s soldiers supergluing himself to me for the rest of my life.

  ‘Why do they want you to work for them?’ I asked. I knew they wanted his research, but they didn’t need him to work for them for that. They were already stealing it. What did this mean?

  ‘They need my help, Lila,’ my dad answered.

  ‘With what?’

  He sat down in a chair by the window and patted the chair next to him. I walked over to him, feeling the ground swaying slightly beneath me. ‘Well, for the last few years, Lila, I’ve been trying to find a cure for whatever it is that Demos has.’

  And that Mum had. And what I have, I thought, sinking down into the chair. ‘A cure?’

  ‘Yes. I’ve been researching the genes, trying to find a way of unlocking the DNA so we can stop people like him. Make them better.’

  ‘Better? So it’s an illness, then?’

  My dad frowned at me. My tone was a little aggressive. I had to curb it. ‘Not exactly,’ he said, ‘it’s like cystic fibrosis or sickle-cell anaemia. There’s a gene that lies dormant in a tiny percentage of the population. And then sometimes that gene gets woken up and you get someone like Demos.’

  And people like my mother. Had he forgotten that?

  ‘Right. So, you’re trying to fix it, like it’s a kind of cancer?’ I asked.

  ‘Yes,’ he nodded, pleased that I’d understood.

  I stood up and went to stand by Jack, resting my hands on the bed. ‘So, you’re going to work for the Unit?’

  ‘Well, it seems that we’re both trying to achieve the same thing. Seems silly not to work together on it.’

  ‘But you said you’d never come back here,’ I said, rounding on him.

  ‘And maybe I was wrong. Jack stayed. He stayed because he wanted to find who killed your mother. I left. I wanted to protect you. I had to.’

  ‘Yeah, I know,’ I said, watching Jack’s chest rise and fall in time with the respirator. ‘But you were so angry with Jack for joining them.’

  My dad sighed and came over to stand by my side, looking down at Jack. ‘Because I was scared something like this would happen. He was just a kid, still at college, of course I was mad. And besides,’ he said, his voice dropping, ‘it wasn’t his job to stop Demos. It was mine.’

  I clamped my lips shut.

  ‘There’s something else, Lila . . .’ I turned, my stomach already churning and my body tense with foreboding.

  ‘They’ll drop the charges against Jack,’ my dad said. ‘Hold a closed inquiry, not a criminal one. He’ll be free to go.’ He shrugged. I noticed his suit was creased. ‘All I need to do is agree to work for them.’

  I stared at him and didn’t say a word. I couldn’t.

  ‘I’ll do anything I need to do to protect you both,’ he said finally.

  21

  I stared at my dad’s watch and then did the calculation. It had been over twenty-four hours since I’d been back, which meant Alex had to be somewhere nearby already. I remembered what he said about being there, even when I couldn’t see him, and the butterflies started tumbling in my stomach. And I felt braver because of it, like suddenly the impossible had become possible.

  I closed my eyes and pictured his face, remembering the way it felt when his arms wrapped round me, closing out the world. How in the water his hands had stroked fire up my back and set my spine alight. To any passing shoals of fish I must have looked like an electric eel. I breathed in the memory of his lips, the softness of them, and how they felt tracing across my skin, leaving ripples of goosebumps in their wake.

  ‘What’s up?’ my dad asked. ‘You just made a groaning sound. Do you have a headache?’

  ‘No, no,’ I said, feeling the heat radiate from my face like a mushroom cloud. ‘I’m fine.’ I squirmed towards the back door. ‘I’m going upstairs,’ I said, letting the screen door slam behind me. I walked through the kitchen, leaving my dad on the outside veranda going through his research notes.

  I flopped onto the bed in my room and buried my head under a pillow. How on earth was Alex going to get near me with the Unit stationed outside the front door and with surveillance all over the place? I sat back up and looked around, wondering whether there were any cameras hidden anywhere that maybe I’d missed. That’s when I noticed Alex’s T-shirt – the one that I’d been wearing the first night in Oceanside when I came downstairs for a glass of water and he startled me in the kitchen. The one I’d subsequently almost died of humiliation while wearing. It was lying beside me on the bed, folded neatly. I hadn’t left it there. I most certainly hadn’t folded it neatly either.

  It was a sign. Alex had been here. I got up and ran to the closet, throwing open the door, not exactly sure what I was looking for, but feeling the nudge of disappointment when I didn’t find Alex hiding there amidst Jack’s dress uniform and old shoeboxes. I threw back the covers of the bed. Nothing. Then I tossed the pillows aside. There it was. A piece of paper. I smiled widely and picked it up.

  It just had one sentence written on it in Alex’s neat handwriting.

  1 a.m. Previous escape route. x

  I frowned. Previous escape route? What did that mean? Then I smiled, figuring it out. When I’d run out on him before, I’d jumped the back fe
nce into the neighbours’ garden. I lay back down on the bed, grinning at the ceiling. I was going to see Alex soon.

  My dad stayed up late working. I offered to make him hot milk, but he just looked up from his papers and eyed me suspiciously. I even thought about ransacking the bathroom cabinet for some Valium to lace his dinner, but Jack didn’t do drugs – of the medicated or non-medicated kind – so I scratched that idea. Just after midnight, when I thought I was going to have to hit him over the head with a frying pan to knock him out, he finally went up to bed. I waited, fully dressed, under the covers for another fifty minutes, before slipping out of bed and sneaking back downstairs.

  Two cars were still stationed at the front of the house. I hoped to God the Unit security detail wasn’t going to be prowling round the neighbourhood in the dark. The garden backed onto other gardens so they couldn’t park there, which meant it was probably the safest route out of the house. I had to hope Alex had thought about this – he was trained in reconnaissance so I assumed it was likely.

  I tiptoed across the squeaky linoleum in the kitchen and eased the deadbolt at the bottom of the door. It was a dark night, the moon shrouded heavily by cloud. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the gloom, focusing on the fence at the back of the garden, which I had to get over. A hand suddenly grabbed me from out of the shadows, catching me round the waist. Before I could scream another hand covered my mouth.

  Then lips replaced the hand, and I was in Alex’s arms, kissing him back so hard that I couldn’t breathe, my hands fumbling to hold on to him and pull him closer.

  He drew back and I was about to speak when he put a finger against my lips. Then his hands dropped to my waist, and his fingers were suddenly tugging at my jeans, undoing the buttons. I looked at him in surprise. What, here on the veranda? With the Unit out the front and my dad just upstairs and the laws of California still in force? He’d chosen a funny time to abandon his resolve. Then I realised what he was doing and with a twinge of disappointment started helping him out, pulling my T-shirt off over my head and shaking off my jeans until I was standing in the shallow moonlight on the decking, completely naked.

  Alex handed me a pile of clothing and then held my gaze with a smile, his eyes not dropping for a single moment as I fumbled my arms through a tank top and hopped into a pair of jogging bottoms. Going commando with a commando, I thought, as I watched Alex kneel and start rifling through my discarded clothing. He held something up near my face. I could see it was a little metal thing, similar to the one we’d pulled out of his arm. When had they planted that on me? I watched as he dropped it back into the front pocket of my jeans. Then he folded my jeans up and put them in a pile with the rest of my clothes under the table.

  We crossed the garden and ducked behind a tree. Alex cupped his hands together and I stepped one foot into them and hauled myself up and over the fence. He dropped down next to me half a second later, took my hand and in silence started pulling me towards the next fence. We hopped over three more fences, dropping quietly into bushes either side, before dashing across lawns and skipping over garden furniture and toys until the final fence gave onto an alley filled with trash cans.

  I glanced around. ‘You sure choose the most romantic places for dates,’ I said.

  Alex pushed me up against the fence, one arm round my waist and the other holding the back of my head, and kissed me.

  ‘OK, I take it back,’ I murmured against his lips. ‘God, I’m so glad you’re here.’

  ‘Me too. Come on, let’s get out of here,’ he said, snatching my hand and pulling me down the alley.

  ‘Where are we going?’ I asked.

  ‘Away from here so we can talk.’ We stopped by a huge dumpster and I burst out laughing.

  ‘Excellent,’ I said, grinning in delight at the sight of a sleek black motorbike.

  Alex handed me a helmet. I put it on and then climbed on behind him, wrapping my arms tight round his stomach. ‘You know, you promised Jack you’d never let me ride on a bike again.’

  ‘I never promised,’ Alex said, grinning at me over his shoulder.

  A sudden scream of sirens shattered the night-time quiet. Alex revved the engine and we flew out of the alley.

  22

  ‘Are you sure they haven’t followed us?’ I asked, looking over my shoulder once more. We’d only driven about half a mile. Alex had parked up by the pier and we had jumped the barricade closing it off and were now walking out along its length.

  ‘Yes, I set up a little distraction.’

  I looked sideways at him. ‘What kind of distraction?’

  ‘I made a phone call to the local police department, pretending to be a concerned citizen who’d spotted two suspicious vehicles parked on your street.’

  ‘Clever,’ I said, my eyes drinking in his face, feeling the magnetic pull of his lips.

  We walked in silence to the end of the pier, our bodies synching, Alex’s hand round my shoulder, my head resting against his body. Everything felt lighter all of a sudden, easier. The doubts and fears that had started to plague me were soothed away just by the sight of him.

  ‘So, what happened when you got back to the base?’ Alex asked as we dropped to the edge and dangled our legs over the side of the pier. There was no one else out here at this time of night and we were hidden from view of anyone on the beach.

  ‘Did Key not tell you? I thought he was here?’ I asked. My eyes were drawn up to the dark sky above us. Was he here right now following us? Was he listening to this conversation?

  ‘He saw you go into the headquarters and then come out. I had a call from Demos – Key had reported back,’ Alex said. ‘What happened – did they question you? Did you see Sara?’

  I turned my attention back to Alex. ‘Yeah, she was there – she met me as soon as I walked in the door. She was the one who questioned me. And there was a man with her, a Dr Pendegast. He just took a lot of notes. I think I did OK. It’s hard to tell what they believed. But they let me go, though; that’s got to be a good sign, right?’

  Alex nodded. He was staring out at the ocean, the line running between his eyes giving away his anxiety.

  ‘Did you hear about my dad’s job offer?’

  He looked back at me. ‘Yes. Key heard you and your dad talking about it.’ He nodded to himself. ‘So, Richard Stirling’s here. Did you meet him?’

  ‘No,’ I said, shaking my head.

  If I ever met Richard Stirling, I would probably inadvertently kill him. Or maybe not so inadvertently. I gazed down at the black waves slapping the pier beneath us. Then my eyes lit on an orange buoy out in the ocean about fifty metres away and just like that it started to move, as if it was a jet ski, tearing through the dark mass of water until it became a pinprick in the distance before vanishing over the horizon.

  ‘Hey, hey, Lila . . .’ I tore my gaze from the waves and looked back at Alex. He seemed troubled. I reached a hand over, unthinking, and stroked the line between his eyes until it disappeared. He took hold of my fingers. ‘You can’t lose it, Lila. You have to control your power. Especially, and I mean especially, around the Unit. If you do meet Richard Stirling, you can’t let him know how you feel. You can’t give yourself away. Promise me.’

  ‘OK,’ I whispered.

  He held my gaze for a few more seconds, his lips pursed in an anxious way. He was right to worry. My record for self-control with regards to both him and my power was pretty terrible.

  ‘Have you heard anything from Demos and the others?’ I asked, hoping to steer him away from any more lectures about control.

  ‘They’re good,’ Alex said. ‘They should be in Washington soon.’

  ‘How long will they need to get everything in place?’

  ‘A day or so.’

  I chewed my bottom lip, thinking about how long that gave me to figure out an escape plan. ‘I don’t know how we’re going to get Jack off the base, Alex,’ I finally admitted. ‘There are soldiers all over the place. And the headquarters is like some ki
nd of Fort Knox – there are all these security checks to get through to even use the elevator.’

  ‘I know,’ Alex said quietly.

  ‘So, how will we get in? Let alone out?’

  ‘Maybe having your dad working for them isn’t such a bad idea,’ Alex said quietly.

  I looked up, startled, snatching my hand out of his. ‘What?’

  Alex said nothing for a while then he turned to me and I saw the moonlight had turned his eyes a pale blue topaz colour. ‘It could help having someone on the inside,’ he said.

  ‘No way!’ I shouted. ‘He needs to know, Alex. Imagine if it was me and you thought I was dead? It’s killing me not being able to tell him. It’s like this voice in my head is screaming all day long at me to tell him. We have to! We can’t let him work for them. It’s just too horrible.’

  Alex shook his head at me. ‘If we tell him, he might not react so well. I know I’d struggle to act rationally in the same situation. And we can’t risk having him blow our cover. Right now we need to be able to control as much of the situation as we can. He’s an asset, but we have to keep him in the dark until the time comes when we can make use of him.’

  I thumped the pier with my closed fist. It sure didn’t feel like the right thing to do. It made me feel sick just to contemplate my father working for the Unit. But Alex was the Recon Marine – and, though I didn’t like to admit it, maybe he was right. If my dad found out now, he’d probably try to do something crazy or stupid – like call the police – or, I drew in a breath, he might not even believe me.

  Alex laid his hand on my arm. ‘We’ll just keep him in the dark for a few more days. And anyway, if he takes the job, then it also helps remove any suspicion off you,’ he said. ‘They’ll assume that if you did know about the Unit, or the fact they’re holding your mother, that you’d have told him.’

  I sighed. I could see he was right. ‘I suppose.’

 
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