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Losing lila, p.14
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       Losing Lila, p.14

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  A gun appeared on the table – on top of the cookies. It seemed symbolic, but I couldn’t work out how. I automatically scanned the gun for the safety catch, thinking how strange it was that a couple of weeks ago Alex had had to show me how to hold a gun and aim straight and already I felt like a pro.

  ‘Um, do you always bring your gun on dates?’ I said, looking up at Jonas.

  ‘Is that what this is? A date?’ he asked, flashing a huge white smile at me.

  For a moment I felt really sorry for him. I was being so unfair using him like this. Then I remembered who he was working for and the guilt evaporated.

  Jonas dropped into the seat, moving his gun off the table and resting it upright against the table leg. I pushed his coffee across the table towards him. ‘So, how’s your brother?’ he asked.

  ‘He’s OK, I think.’

  ‘I hear your dad’s starting work for the Unit. Cool.’

  Yeah, it was really, really cool. ‘Yeah,’ I said.

  ‘What’s he working on?’ Jonas asked.

  I paused for a second. I had to assume that as Jonas was a lower rank than Alex or Jack, he probably didn’t know that much, if anything, about the real work the Unit were doing.

  ‘He doesn’t really tell me much. I’m not sure,’ I shrugged.

  ‘You know,’ Jonas said, leaning across the table, and letting his voice drop, ‘I heard the other day that they’re doing tests on them.’

  I swallowed some coffee and it burnt my tongue.

  ‘Demos and his people – when the Unit catches them. They’re testing them to find a way of fixing them.’

  ‘Really?’ I asked, anger flooding through my body. I looked at the cookie and it moved a fraction of a centimetre across the table. My heart dived after it. Damn it. I looked up, terrified. But Jonas hadn’t noticed, his eyes were fixed on my face.

  ‘So, what was he like?’

  ‘What was who like?’ I stammered.

  ‘You were with him, right? Demos?’ He said his name in a hushed tone as though Demos was a celebrity he couldn’t believe I’d met. ‘What’s he like? I can’t believe you actually got to, like, meet him. The Unit’s been trying to catch him for years. He’s like the big boss. Did you get to talk to him?’

  ‘Well, he kidnapped me so I guess that counts as meeting him.’

  ‘What did he do to you? Did he use his power on you?’

  ‘Yes.’

  His eyes widened. ‘Wow, what did it feel like?’

  ‘It wasn’t very nice,’ I said, remembering the feeling I’d had of being lassoed round the ankles and slammed against an invisible concrete block.

  ‘How did you get away?’

  ‘He was busy fighting off the Unit. He couldn’t hold everyone so we managed to escape.’

  Jonas was listening, bug-eyed, his mouth hanging open.

  ‘Were you there?’ I asked. ‘At Joshua Tree?’

  ‘I was in the third vehicle,’ he said. ‘They turned it over. We were all inside. It was nasty.’

  I flushed. ‘But you were OK?’ It had been weighing on me. Just a little. Not as much as my mum or Jack or the thought of getting caught were weighing on me, but the knowledge that I’d hurt people, that Alex had maybe killed people, was there – a monster lurking in the recess of my mind, prodding me with angry fingers, trying to make me face it. So far I’d kept my back turned on it. There was just too much else to deal with.

  ‘I was fine,’ he smiled at me, throwing back his shoulders. ‘A couple of the others in my team came off a bit worse. A broken leg and a broken collarbone, that sort of thing. But Alpha team got hit hard. They lost three men.’

  His eyes were shining bright with tears and I looked away and started fiddling with the cookies, breaking them apart and crumbling them onto the table. Alex had tried to tell me there were always casualties in war. That this was a war. That he’d have shot every single one of them if it meant protecting me. His words had registered on some level but a remote one. All I cared about at that point were Jack and my mum. The men from the Unit didn’t figure at all in my reckoning. They hadn’t figured at all until now.

  But here was the reality. People were dead. They were dead because of me and because of Alex. People who didn’t know the truth – who were just cannon fodder for Stirling Enterprises.

  No, I reminded myself sternly, they weren’t dead because of me or because of Alex. They were dead because of one man and one man only – Richard Stirling.

  I focused back in. Jonas appeared to have blinked away the film of tears and was now describing the carnage I’d caused.

  ‘. . . totally destroyed the Humvees. No idea they could do that. It’s amazing. Just imagine being able to do that. Just by looking at something.’

  Yeah. Just imagine. I sipped my coffee.

  ‘We only got one of theirs.’ Jonas was still talking.

  A scalding splash of coffee spilled over my hand. That was Ryder he was talking about. Ryder. I wanted to shake him by the arms and yell Ryder’s name in his face, but I didn’t. I sat there and ground my teeth and tried not to let go of my precarious control.

  ‘We took a giant hit. We’re down to just fourteen men. They’re training some more at the moment, lots more, I hear another four teams, but they won’t be operational for another week or so.’

  I looked down at my coffee and gave it a stir. The odds were not moving in our favour.

  ‘Where do they recruit them from?’

  ‘They take the best of the recruits from out of special ops training.’ His chest puffed out. ‘We’re the best of the best.’

  I thought of Suki and Nate and Amber and the others. They might have mind powers but it wasn’t going to be enough. They weren’t soldiers.

  I gave Jonas a once-over. He looked like a high school quarterback not like a soldier who’d completed special ops training and come out top of the class.

  ‘How old are you?’ I asked.

  ‘Nineteen,’ he answered, jutting out his chin, ‘nearly twenty. And like I told you, we’re the finest trained Marine force in the world. You’ve got the best protection you could want.’

  Huh. Great. That was great. I tried to look relieved and not utterly destroyed by the news.

  ‘And the guys in the lab are making a breakthrough,’ he added because he obviously thought I still looked panic-stricken.

  I looked up. ‘They are?’

  ‘Yeah, so I hear.’

  ‘What kind of a breakthrough?’

  ‘I’m not sure, some way of being able to trace them better – so we can find them easier. That’s the biggest problem. They just stay one step ahead all the time; we can’t get close.’

  ‘Oh yeah?’

  ‘Yeah, not sure what it is, but it’s gonna be big. The guys are all talking about it.’

  My stomach lurched. ‘You don’t have any idea what it could be?’ I said, trying not to sound like I gave a damn when really I was this close to snatching up his gun with my mind and holding it against his head until he told me or went away and found out.

  ‘No, but exciting, huh?’

  I made some kind of noise, a strangled gurgle, which he took for agreement.

  ‘So, soon enough you won’t have to worry about a thing. This is going to be over before you know it.’ He reached across the table and took my hand.

  It took a moment to register and another moment to fight the urge to shake it off – mentally. Control, control, I repeated over and over in my head. His hand felt hot and heavy on top of mine.

  ‘So, you want to go see a movie sometime or go for pizza one night? I mean . . . only if you want to . . .’

  ‘Um, I need to check with my dad. He’s kind of overprotective. Like Jack.’

  I saw the disappointment on his face as he stood. ‘OK, well, let me know.’ He smiled, embarrassed, his cheeks flushing. ‘Because I’d really like to hang out some more.’

  I nodded and tried to smile.

  ‘I’ve got to get back to HQ,’
he said. ‘Sorry. I’ll see you tonight, though.’

  I nodded absently, then did a double take. ‘Tonight?’

  ‘Yeah, I’m on duty for the first part of the evening. I’m stationed outside your house – your very own security detail, just like the President has.’

  ‘Well, in that case, I’ll see you later,’ I said, forcing myself to keep smiling when all I really wanted to do was rest my head on the table and cry.

  After he’d gone I sat for a few minutes staring mutely at the tabletop until the remaining cookie lifted a few centimetres off the table and hurtled to the floor.

  26

  The problem was that I was bugged. And I had no phone. And I couldn’t go anywhere without an armed guard. So technically, it was more than one problem I had to deal with. It was several.

  I reminded myself of what Demos had said about what the Unit would have the potential to do when they made a breakthrough. It didn’t exactly spell world peace. Stirling Enterprises made its money through weapons dealing, legitimate and otherwise. They’d sell their weapons to the highest bidder and farewell world as we knew it. Hello crazy new world order. I could hear Jack in my head calling me melodramatic, but from where I was sitting it seemed a pretty good assessment. He was in a coma. What did he know?

  ‘Miss Loveday?’

  I looked up, startled. A man in black combats was towering over me. I felt a kamikaze nosedive of fear. Was this it? Was this the moment I’d been waiting for? Then I came to my senses and started to assess his size and weapons. I could take him. For sure I could. If he touched me, I’d take his arm off. Then go for his gun. Then make a run for it.

  ‘Miss Loveday?’ he said again.

  ‘Yes,’ I said as defiantly as I could muster.

  ‘Would you mind coming with me, miss?’

  I studied him. He was about six feet four tall, solid, oblong shaped – even his head was a rectangle with buzz-cut fuzz decorating the top. His face was expressionless. He reminded me of Robocop. I glanced round the cafeteria. It was empty except for a humming orderly clearing cups off the tables.

  I looked back at the man. ‘Where to?’ I asked. I already knew, of course. He wasn’t here to take me on a guided tour of San Diego zoo.

  ‘There’s someone who wants to see you.’

  I waited a beat, but he wasn’t any more forthcoming. ‘Who?’ I asked.

  ‘If you’d just like to come with me, please,’ he said, pulling the back of my chair out.

  I stood up, gripping the edge of the table for support. ‘Um, I think I need to tell my dad where I’m going so he doesn’t worry.’

  ‘That’s been taken care of.’

  Taken care of? That did not sound good. Had they taken him too?

  My mind bounced around, pinging back and forth, trying to figure out whether to make a break for it now or to wait. If he took me into the Unit’s headquarters, it would be too late. But I couldn’t act now. What if it was completely innocent? I would blow everything if I let them find out about me.

  Before I could figure out what to do, we were outside and the man was steering me by the elbow towards a jeep. Act? Not act? I thought again about dislodging his arm, throwing him backwards and then hopping in the jeep and driving off. But I knew I wouldn’t get far on a military base in a stolen jeep. He pushed me into the passenger seat before I could decide what to do. Maybe he was taking me back to see Dr Pendegast. Did they want to interrogate me again? I clutched the seat and tried to think straight.

  Less than a minute later we pulled up outside the Unit’s monolithic headquarters. I clambered down and followed the man like he was my executioner. I had to go inside. It was too risky to make a move. We stepped into one of the pods, brushing arms as we walked, and I felt myself start to sweat, my skin prickling even in the air-conditioned cool. The door swished open and we walked into the lobby. It was too late to act. I froze, stock-still, in the middle of the lobby, my heart fluttering in my throat, making me feel like I was going to throw up. I should have tried to escape. And now it was too late. My guard looked back scowling over his shoulder and then beckoned me to keep following. I unglued my feet and walked on.

  We stepped into an elevator and the guard swiped our entry onto the top floor – the fifth. At least he wasn’t taking me down to prisoner holding. Though – my stomach lurched – that was where my mum was. But now there were nine floors between her and me. That might as well be nine solar systems for how far away it felt and how impossible to cross.

  The man led me down a hallway and through a door into a room that had windows on two sides and an enormous oval-shaped board table in the centre. A man in a dark grey suit was standing at the far end of the room with his back to me, staring out of the window.

  The door shut with a whispering click and I spun round. My guard had left. I turned slowly back to the room. The man had turned too and was now looking straight at me, appraising me. He was late fifties perhaps, well over six feet tall, with steel-coloured hair and the tan of someone who spent his weekends sailing in the Bahamas. He seemed vaguely familiar. I looked him up and down carefully, trying to place him. There was something about the piercing blue of his eyes and the straight-backed arrogance of his bearing which reminded me of someone. He didn’t look like a doctor. Or a soldier.

  The breath rushed out of me as I figured it out. He looked exactly like I’d imagine the boss of a multi-billion-dollar company to look.

  ‘Miss Loveday, thank you very much for coming,’ he said, striding towards me.

  Richard Stirling. Rachel’s father. The man behind all of this. The man responsible for my mother’s pretend murder. The man sanctioning the experiments. That was the man walking towards me and holding out his hand. And I was expected to shake it without hurling him through the window. My whole body tensed with the effort to control the urge.

  ‘I didn’t have much choice,’ I said through gritted teeth.

  He stopped short, frowning a little. Then he recovered, giving me an apologetic nod of the head. ‘Ah yes, the boys from the Unit, not the most subtle, I’m afraid. I’m very sorry if my request to see you has put you out in any way.’

  I knew I had to behave. That I needed to play the game as Alex would call it, and use him to get information, but my brain didn’t feel too strategic. All I could think about was how much I wanted to kill him. I took a deep breath, forced myself to smile, though it hurt to do so, and then I spoke. ‘No, it was no problem. I just wanted to get back to Jack, that’s all.’

  ‘Yes, of course, I understand. Well, thank you for your time. I’ll keep it brief. Here,’ he pulled out a heavy chair, ‘have a seat.’ I considered it and then sat down, perching on the edge.

  He stayed standing. ‘It’s about my daughter. I understand you were one of the last people to see her?’

  ‘Yes,’ I answered. I held his gaze and wondered if he could see the hatred burning in my eyes.

  ‘Can you tell me what happened?’

  ‘Um, I already told Sara and that doctor what happened,’ I said, grasping at my lies, trying to remember what I’d told them.

  ‘I know, I read the report.’ He smiled though his eyes stayed cold. ‘Thank you for all the information, it was most helpful. I was just wondering whether you’d thought of anything else in the mean time?’

  Er, like the fact your daughter is bound, trussed and stashed in a hotel room in Mexico City? And that one day I’m going to kill you?

  ‘No. Nothing,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘Sorry.’

  His eyes narrowed slightly. ‘So, you’ve no idea where they might have taken her or what they want from her?’

  ‘Sorry, no idea.’

  He stared at me, slightly puzzled, obviously unused to people not giving him the answers he wanted. He stepped closer, leaning against the table by my chair. ‘So, how was your time with Demos and his little friends? Enjoyable?’

  My heart wasn’t so much beating as gasping. Did he know?

  ‘Obviously, I’m su
re it must have been very traumatic for you.’ I nodded slowly, unable to pull my eyes from his face. ‘So,’ he continued, ‘you must see the absolute necessity of containing Demos and all the people like him before things get any more out of hand.’

  He waited again for me to show some sign of agreement. I nodded once more. He smiled and then came to perch on the table right by me, his leg brushing mine. I stared at his neatly manicured hands, resting on his knee. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘we wouldn’t want anyone else in your family to get hurt now, would we?’

  My eyes flew back to his face. Was that a threat? He merely raised his eyebrows and gave the tiniest of shrugs, almost imperceptible through the cut of his suit. I sat on the edge of my seat, toying with the idea of shoving him hard through the plate-glass window behind him. It would only take a flicker of a glance. But then he turned around and his question almost shoved me off my seat.

  ‘Your father’s told you all about the Unit’s mission, I’m sure. Actually, you probably knew all about our mission before he did – didn’t you?’

  I sat speechless. What mission was he referring to? The pretend one my dad thought they were working on, to find a ‘cure’, or the real one, to create new weapons of mass destruction?

  He smiled as if he understood my confusion. ‘It’s still early days,’ he continued. ‘We’re not quite as far advanced as I’d like to be, but we’re making progress. Good progress. With your father’s help, we’re going to crack it soon.’

  It.

  ‘We’re starting to unlock the secrets behind the telepath gene.’

  Oh my God. This had to be the breakthrough Jonas had mentioned. My eyes flitted round the room like a butterfly trying to settle on a piece of solid ground.

  ‘If we can hear their thoughts then we’re so much stronger. We’re still trying to crack that one, but the exciting news is that, thanks to all our research, and your father’s research, of course, we’ve had a breakthrough.’

  My gaze travelled from the floor back to Richard Stirling’s face. He waited until he had my undivided attention. ‘We’ve found a way of blocking telepaths. Isn’t that something?’ I stared at him blankly.

 
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