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       Losing Lila, p.2

           Sarah Alderson
 

  ‘Are you serious? You think they planted a tracking device on you? I mean, in you?’

  ‘Here, here, feel this.’ He grabbed my fingers and pressed them into the muscle. There was a tiny bump under the skin, almost imperceptible, like a raised scar. My eyes went wide.

  ‘I’ve seen this done,’ Alex whispered, tracing the tiny bump again with his fingertips. ‘Not on us, but when someone goes undercover. They plant a device just under the skin so they can track them. It’s almost undetectable. I just didn’t think for a second—’ He shook his head, pulling his T-shirt back on.

  ‘But if they’ve been able to track you this whole time, why didn’t they come after us from the start?’ I asked. ‘When they thought Demos had caught us, when we both disappeared, why didn’t they just follow the tracker then? Why wait until we were in a different country?’

  It didn’t make sense.

  ‘I don’t know.’ Alex shook his head, frowning at his arm.

  ‘What are you going to do?’ I asked, running my hand under his sleeve and over the minuscule bump.

  He didn’t answer. Instead he pulled a switchblade from his back pocket. I took a step backwards, my shoulders bumping the grille behind me. Alex rolled the sleeve of his T-shirt up and lifted the blade to his arm. And then the door flew open.

  A priest in black robes was standing there, his mouth gaping as he took in the scene before him – Alex holding a knife and me clutching a gun. He grabbed the rosary hanging around his neck and started squawking loudly in Spanish, his eyes rolling heavenwards. I glanced at the chapel behind him. Several people had turned to stare.

  ‘Sorry,’ I muttered to the priest as we barged past him out of the booth. The priest shouted something to our backs as we slipped out of the chapel and made our way towards the central aisle of the cathedral, which was now heaving with people. I clutched the gun against my thigh and tried to look inconspicuous, but I could feel the ripple of eyes and the swivel of heads as we passed.

  Alex skidded to a sudden stop in front of me, almost yanking my arm out of its socket. He spun us a hundred and eighty degrees and started heading back the way we’d just come, towards the angry priest. I glanced over my shoulder at the entrance. Six men in black combats had burst through the crowd gathered there. They stopped to let their eyes adjust to the gloom and we took the opportunity to hustle our way down a length of pew and disappear into a pack of tourists standing and admiring the altar. I risked another backwards glance over my shoulder. Two of the men from the Unit had headed off to the chapels on either side of the entrance, two more were heading to the other side of the church away from us, and the last two were moving down the central aisle straight towards us. One of them was holding a small palm-sized device which he kept glancing down at.

  With a final push, we shouldered our way through the crowd towards a little side door behind the altar. Alex reached for the handle and I took a final glance round the cathedral. I spied what I was looking for in a chapel on the far side, away from where the crowds were gathered. A statue of a saint stood in a little alcove high above the entrance. There was no one below it so I said a little prayer then tipped the statue off its plinth. It fell with a splintering crash that rocked through the muttering quiet of the church like a tidal wave. Instantly people started screaming, and running towards the exits and, in the blur of noise and chaos, Alex and I slipped silently through the little door.

  The room we came into was some kind of dressing room. A giant crucifix dominated one wall and choir robes hung from hooks on two other walls. Several candles were burning beneath the crucifix.

  ‘I’m so going to hell,’ I said, looking around.

  ‘Well, I’m going with you,’ Alex replied.

  He pulled the sleeve of his T-shirt up once more and I watched in horror as he ran the blade quickly through a candle flame before pressing the tip of it into the skin of his arm.

  ‘Oh God.’ I leaned against the door, feeling suddenly woozy, but unable to take my eyes off the knife.

  Blood started to trickle down Alex’s arm. He grimaced, and I grabbed a long scarf thing hanging on a hook behind me and handed it to him. Alex held the knife out towards me. On its bloody tip was a tiny metal ball.

  ‘That’s it?’ I asked.

  ‘Yep,’ he said, flipping the knife and letting the ball fall to the flagstones at his feet. He crushed it underfoot before grabbing the cloth out of my hands and wrapping it round his arm, tying it in a knot.

  ‘Right, let’s go,’ he said when he was done.

  We ran again, through doorways, beneath arches and through empty rooms, until we reached a heavy wooden door that came out at the side of the cathedral. The sun was starting to go down and the shadows were lengthening, spiking the square with oblongs and pyramids of dark.

  We hung there, in the shadows, waiting. Alex pressed against me, sheltering me against the wall. After a minute he shifted position. ‘Here they come,’ he said under his breath.

  I peered out from under his arm, spotting the men from the Unit as they came running out of the cathedral, like spiders disgorged from a nest. They scanned the square, searching for us, people scattering in panic out of their path. The one holding the black device in his hand was frowning and shaking his head.

  We watched as they headed over to a black van that had pulled up on the far side of the square, and climbed inside. After another minute it drove off and disappeared into the flow of traffic.

  ‘Where to now?’ I asked Alex, feeling suddenly like I needed to lie down.

  ‘Back to the hotel. We need that bag. It’s got all our money in it.’

  Technically it wasn’t really our money. It was the money we’d got from selling Jack’s car back in California. But it was all we had and we were going to need every cent of what was left to get ourselves out of here to somewhere the Unit couldn’t find us.

  ‘Are you sure it’s a good idea to go back to the hotel? Won’t they look for us there?’

  He shook his head. ‘They’d assume we wouldn’t be that stupid. It’s probably the safest place to go right now.’

  I sighed. ‘OK. So we go back and get the bag and then what? Find somewhere else to sleep?’

  ‘No. No sleeping. We have one more thing to do tonight.’

  I studied his face. He looked grim. I was guessing the one more thing wasn’t a candlelit dinner and a movie.

  2

  We’d retrieved the bag from the cleaning closet and broken into an empty room on the top floor of the hotel, with a view of the street below. Alex was now busy sorting through the bag, laying everything out on the bed next to me. I was watching him. There was about fifty thousand dollars, give or take a few thousand; three guns; several clips of bullets; our passports; and a change of clothes for both of us. Alex repacked everything, emptying a pile of dollars into his wallet. We’d fixed up his arm with some surgical tape and a bandage. I reached out a hand and stroked up his arm. He stopped what he was doing and looked down at me. Then he pushed the bag aside and lay down on the bed, putting his uninjured arm round me. I curled into him.

  ‘How are you doing?’

  I didn’t answer. How was I doing? I wasn’t sure. I tried prodding my brain like it was flesh and I could feel where the bruises were, but it didn’t work like that. It just shut down like a clam wherever I poked it. I was trying not to think about anything else other than Alex right here, next to me, holding me.

  ‘He’ll be OK, Lila.’

  Jack. He meant Jack.

  ‘Hey, don’t cry.’

  I hadn’t realised I was, but tears were trickling down my cheeks and onto his chest. I tried to stop them, but they just kept coming.

  ‘We left him. We just left him, Alex.’

  Alex’s grip on me tightened. His fingers went under my chin and he forced it up so I was looking him in the eye.

  ‘We had to, Lila.’

  I stared at him. Did we?

  ‘It was the only thing we could do,’ he sa
id. ‘If either of us had gone to help him, we’d have been shot too. We’ve talked about this. Jack would have done the same thing. He would have wanted you to be safe.’

  A part of me knew what Alex was saying was true, but it wasn’t enough to make the guilt untwist the knots it had made in my gut.

  ‘But Alex, what if he’s—’

  I thought about Ryder lying dead in the dirt and of Jack at his side with a bullet wound in his chest and scrunched my eyes shut. He wasn’t in a good way. That’s what Key had said. He was in a coma. He could be paralysed. He could be dead. And I didn’t know because I was here. And Jack was there. And so was my mum. And there was no way of getting to either of them because between us and them was the Unit.

  Alex put his hands on either side of my face. I opened my eyes. He was looking straight at me. ‘Jack’s fine,’ he said, ‘I know it. He’s too tough not to be. And anyway, Jack has a very good reason to stay alive.’

  ‘My mum?’ It was a good reason. We had thought she was dead, but she wasn’t.

  ‘That,’ Alex said, a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth, ‘but I was thinking more that he’ll want the opportunity to kick my ass.’

  I laughed through my tears. ‘Yeah, he wasn’t too happy, was he?’

  ‘No more than I deserve.’

  ‘No, don’t say that.’ I scrambled to sit up. ‘You can’t do that to me again. You can’t leave me again because of Jack. Because you’re scared of what he thinks. I can’t – I won’t go through that again—’

  I thought back to the days just before all this kicked off. To Alex’s promise not to hurt me, and the way he’d left me so easily, thinking he was doing the right thing. When I thought about it, it made me feel as if the Unit had fired that weapon of theirs right at my heart.

  Alex sat up too and took my hands in his. ‘Lila, I promise you I’ll never leave you again, ever. I promise you that I’ll keep you safe and that we’ll find Jack and your mum, and I promise that even if Jack does kick my ass, which one day I hope he will, I will still never leave you.’

  I weighed his words, analysing their content. Alex had been known to twist the meaning of things. He’d tricked me that way before. I considered him: the arctic-blue eyes, the bruised shadows beneath them, the dark blond crew cut growing out, the soft curve of his lips, the familiar frown line running between his eyes that always made me want to reach out and smudge it away.

  ‘I promise, Lila,’ he said. ‘No hidden meanings. I’m not going to leave you.’

  He leaned forward and kissed me, still smiling. My whole body melted away, the muscles becoming as soft as sponges dipped in a hot bath, all the guilt and worry disappearing back into the corners of my consciousness, where I preferred them to stay.

  After a few minutes Alex pried me off him. I sat up grudgingly as he swung his legs off the bed and watched as he bent to plug the light back into the socket. We had taken to unplugging electrical equipment as a precaution every time we moved to a new hotel room. When it came to proximity to Alex, I couldn’t control my ability and we didn’t need to be advertising our presence to the Unit with a Vegas-style sound and light show.

  ‘Seriously, we have to focus,’ he said, rearranging his T-shirt and running a hand through his hair.

  ‘What do we have to focus on?’ I had thought the bed was a pretty good thing to concentrate on.

  ‘Get up,’ Alex said.

  I narrowed my eyes in suspicion, but slowly got up off the bed and stood in front of him.

  ‘OK, we need to practise.’

  I groaned. ‘I’m so tired.’

  ‘I know,’ he said, ‘but you really need to be able to defend yourself if you have to. So, don’t argue, OK? We just have one more thing to do then we’ll get out of the city and find somewhere safe to wait for Demos and the others.’

  I froze, looking up at him. ‘We have to wait here. They’re coming here.’ I couldn’t hide the note of panic in my voice.

  Alex shook his head at me. ‘We can’t stay in Mexico City. The Unit will be looking for us here.’ He softened his voice. ‘Don’t worry, Nate and Key will find us wherever we go.’

  I hoped he was right. I hoped they hadn’t been caught. When we’d left them back in California, they’d been trying to draw the Unit north, away from us. A pretty futile exercise it now turned out because the Unit had been tracking us this whole time anyway. But it had been over eight days since we’d last had contact with Demos. When I’d suggested it would have been a good idea to swap cellphone numbers, Alex had rolled his eyes and given me a rudimentary introduction to evade-and-resist tactics, which apparently called for the ditching of all electronic, traceable objects. I hadn’t yet pointed out that he should also have ditched his arm. I must have been looking worried still, because Alex took my hand.

  ‘They’ll find us,’ he repeated. ‘They found us before, didn’t they?’ He tugged me to my feet. ‘Now come on, practise.’

  How could I resist a face like that? Anything, he could ask me anything, and I’d do it.

  He turned in a flash and picked up the gun from the bed. His finger was on the trigger before I had flung it out of his grip and back onto the pillow.

  ‘Good,’ he said, reaching to pick it up. ‘But you need to be quicker.’

  Quicker, huh? I spun the gun out of his reach to the foot of the bed.

  He looked at me with a wry smile and I smiled back. ‘Quick enough?’

  He considered me for a long moment and I felt my pulse start to speed up. Finally he strolled around and stood directly behind me. I stayed where I was, feeling his breath tickling the back of my neck and trying not to let it distract me.

  ‘So, if someone comes up behind you like this, what do you do?’ Alex asked, stepping even closer, his lips brushing the edge of my ear.

  ‘Smack him over the head with something?’ I suggested, trying to focus on the question and not the feel of his lips.

  ‘No,’ he said. ‘You can’t let people know about your ability. Try this instead.’ He put his hand on my shoulder and then, reaching over with his other hand, took my left hand and put it on top of his. ‘Now twist, like this.’ He showed me and I practised until I was able to extricate myself from a headlock. And then we kept practising, purely because I liked the feel of his arms wrapping round me, although I told Alex it was because I was trying to commit the move to memory.

  Alex finally called a halt to the lesson and came to stand in front of me. ‘Do you want to try moving me?’ he asked.

  I rolled my eyes. ‘You know I can’t. We tried already.’

  ‘You can. I know you can do it. Look what you did today, moving that dumpster. You just need to try.’

  I sighed at him. ‘I’m not Demos, Alex. I can’t stop people in their tracks just by looking at them.’

  ‘Maybe not, but I’ve seen you move objects, big objects.’

  He was talking about Humvees – cars as big as tanks that the Unit used. I wasn’t sure how I’d done that, though, except that they had been bearing down on us and there had been no other option other than a future as roadkill.

  ‘You can move a man,’ he said. ‘You just need to practise.’

  He held his arm out in front of me. I stared at it. But all I saw was his arm – tanned and smoothly muscled – and all I could think about was how it felt when that arm held me in the night. Alex cleared his throat.

  ‘It’s too distracting,’ I said, flushing and shrugging at the same time. ‘It’s your arm. I can’t concentrate.’

  He tried not to smile. ‘OK, try this.’ He stood behind me and put his arm round my neck in a stranglehold.

  ‘It’s still your arm.’

  He squeezed a little until it was uncomfortable. I concentrated on trying to break his hold. Nothing happened.

  ‘Imagine I’m Rachel,’ Alex whispered in my ear.

  His arm almost tore out of its socket as I flung it off me. He staggered back away from me.

  I spun round. ‘God, I
’m sorry, are you OK? Damn – I didn’t mean to – you just – you really shouldn’t mention her name . . .’

  Alex was nursing his shoulder, his eyes wide with surprise or possibly shock. Then his face split into a wide grin.

  ‘Again,’ he said, wrapping both arms round my waist.

  I closed my eyes and visualised Rachel’s beautiful, sneering face and the smirk when she told me that my mother was still alive. It took a few seconds but Alex’s grip broke apart as easily as if I was peeling a banana.

  I opened my eyes and turned round. Alex was appraising me now with something approaching awe. At least I hoped it was awe. He stepped towards me with his arms outstretched. Rachel. I punched his arm away with my mind and it jolted backwards. This could be fun. Now I had it, it was easy. And all along Rachel was the key. I wasn’t sure why I was surprised, or why I hadn’t figured it out sooner. Every time I got angry or otherwise emotional, I lost control of my ability, so it made sense that Rachel would be my biggest trigger.

  Alex was keeping his distance now and his smile had faded. He seemed almost too nervous to make another move towards me. And there – was that a slight wince of irritation I caught in his eyes? It vanished as soon as I noticed it and he gave me a brief smile.

  I wondered suddenly if I could make him step towards me. Put his arms round me? Take off his T-shirt? Lie down on the bed again? Kiss me? I couldn’t stop the grin from taking hold of my face. A whole world of opportunity suddenly opened up, involving a lot fewer clothes between him and me and a clear way past Alex’s resolve.

  No, bad Lila, I told myself. Bad, bad Lila. Control.

  ‘You don’t need to make me do that,’ Alex said softly, moving towards me and stopping just a few centimetres from me. The pull was too great. I leaned into him, running my hands up the ridges of his stomach and chest until they looped behind his neck.

  ‘Damn, you can read my mind,’ I murmured.

  ‘No. I just know you,’ he smiled and kissed my ear, then the hollow at the base of my throat and I felt the tremor in my body as my pulse quickened. I pushed my forehead against his shoulder and breathed in deeply. In all this mess, with this nightmare going on around us, at least I had this.

 
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