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Losing lila, p.24
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       Losing Lila, p.24

           Sarah Alderson
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  Asking Suki to help me practise controlling fire was like getting a toddler to oversee a space mission.

  ‘It’s only fire, Lila,’ said Suki. ‘Don’t be so scared.’

  I was standing in front of a candle barely able to disguise my terror. There was no point faking confidence anyway, not with Suki able to read my mind.

  ‘Just try it,’ she urged. ‘Look on the bright side: if you cause an inferno, you can always put it out with a tidal wave.’

  ‘Very funny,’ I snapped. ‘I just don’t see why everyone is relying on me. It’s so unfair. I’ve never even done this before. I made a big wave . . . that’s entirely different to making fire do what I tell it to. I can’t just do it on demand like I’m some kind of performing seal.’

  Suki put her hand on her hip and raised her eyebrows. ‘Finished?’ I huffed. ‘Wait here,’ she told me and skipped out of the door. She came back a minute later holding a fire extinguisher in one hand.

  ‘Thanks for the vote of confidence,’ I muttered.

  ‘Well, I don’t want to end up a fireball.’

  ‘Don’t tempt me.’

  ‘OK,’ she said, lighting the candle, ‘now try making it do something.’

  I stared at the tiny flickering flame. ‘Like what?’ I asked.

  ‘I don’t know. Make it move.’

  I stared harder at the flame, noticing the blue colour in the middle, the dancing black and orange and yellow licking round the wick. The flame seemed to flicker, but I could have imagined it. I concentrated harder. I tried to feel the air around the flame; it felt like pins and needles or like trying to catch fat spattering in a pan. I tried to grasp at one part of the flame that I could sense the edge of. The flame elongated before us, stretching up long and thin until it was at eye level.

  I heard Suki breathe in deeply. ‘Now make it do something good.’

  I felt my grip on the flame go. It dropped back to normal height. I twisted my head to Suki and glared at her. ‘You’re supposed to be helping.’

  ‘I am,’ she said brightly, holding up the extinguisher. Its nozzle was poised in my direction.

  I turned round, trying to ignore her, and focused instead on the flame.

  ‘You can do this.’

  I smiled to myself and turned slowly. Alex was standing just behind me. ‘You can do this,’ he said again.

  I turned back to the candle, tried to feel for the blue beating heart of it. Then, just like that, I felt it tingle and spark against my mind. I took a firm hold of it and ordered it to jump. The flame leapt upwards, almost to the ceiling, then dropped down again. I pushed it sideways, back down, up, to the other side. Tried a diagonal. It was like a little firework show. I gave an inwards whoop and the candle flipped off the table and landed at my feet. Suki gave a little scream and covered our feet and the carpet in foam.

  I looked at Alex. ‘I told you you could do it,’ he said.

  I bit my lip and looked at the charred patch of carpet covered in white froth. I hoped he was right. Or we’d all be toast.

  Alex took my hand. ‘I have to go now.’

  I looked up at him, trying to erase the fear in my eyes. ‘Please be careful,’ I said. He and Jack were going to meet Sara to set up the break-in. They were taking Amber along for the ride to once and for all settle the issue of whether Sara could be trusted or not.

  ‘It’s OK,’ Alex said, stroking my cheek. ‘Sara will come alone. They’ll want to know what we’re planning. Why settle for just Jack and me when they could wait a day and get us all?’


  ‘Suki?’ I whispered in the half-light of the morning. ‘Are they back?’

  ‘Hmmmmm?’ she murmured, rolling slightly towards me, pushing a purple silk eye mask off her face.

  ‘Are Jack and Alex back?’

  She was silent a minute and my heartbeat filled the quiet. ‘Mmmm,’ she sighed, ‘I can hear Jack.’ She rubbed her forehead. ‘Ow, he’s loud. He’s angry. I don’t want to wake up to this.’

  ‘Why’s he angry?’ I asked, already knowing with a sinking feeling what that meant.

  ‘Sara,’ she muttered and rolled over, pulling a pillow over her head. ‘Evil minion.’

  ‘What happened?’ I said, sitting up.

  ‘I don’t know. I’m sleeping, Lila. Go and find lover boy and ask him.’

  I poked my head round the door to the main cabin. The sun was just coming through the portholes, sending slanting shadows across the floor. Amber was standing in the centre of the room while Jack paced in front of her. Alex and Demos were sitting at the table.

  ‘She was lying,’ Amber said.

  ‘You’re sure?’ Demos asked quickly.

  Amber shot him a look so venomous that I flinched. Her hair was loose, falling like a blazing halo round her face, which was still pale but more animated than before. She still looked haunted, but there was a tinge of hardness to her grey eyes. I recognised the look well. She was playing the grief game – she had crossed through disbelief and anger, taken a leap over acceptance and had finally landed on revenge where the rest of us had been stuck for some time.

  I stepped into the room. Alex smiled wanly when he saw me. He looked utterly exhausted and his eyes didn’t rest on me long before darting back to Jack who was still striding back and forth across the room.

  ‘What happened?’ I asked warily, my eyes on Jack.

  ‘Amber says Sara was lying,’ Jack burst out. ‘Because she’s the wrong colour.’

  ‘Her aura was the wrong colour,’ Amber cut in.

  ‘And that’s like what?’ Jack shouted. ‘The equivalent of a lie-detector test?’

  ‘Better,’ Amber answered coolly.

  ‘Right, so because you saw some colour in an aura you’re saying my girlfriend is what? In on all this?’

  ‘I wouldn’t call her your girlfriend if I were you. I don’t think she feels the same. And yes, I’m saying she’s in on it. She was lying about not knowing the Unit had your mum. She was lying about not knowing what the Unit are really doing too. She knows. Believe me, she knows.’

  Jack stood still. He shut his eyes for a long second.

  ‘Look, I’m sorry, Jack, I know it’s not what you want to hear,’ Demos said, walking over to him and placing a placatory hand on his shoulder.

  Jack’s eyes flew open. He spun round, freezing Demos with one glance. Like father like son, I thought to myself, sucking in a breath between my teeth.

  ‘I’ll give Sara one thing,’ Alex said, shaking his head, ‘she’s a great actress. She even cried when she saw Jack. Told him she’d do whatever he asked. She had me fooled too.’

  Jack didn’t say anything. I could see the deep furrows running across his forehead and his jaw was pulsing furiously.

  ‘Amber’s always right on these things, Jack,’ Demos said. ‘I trust her judgement.’

  Jack glared at him once more and then he glared at Amber. His face was so readable I felt my heart catch as I watched him trying to gather his feelings and hide them from the rest of us.

  ‘When we go onto the base, when we get inside,’ Jack said, his eyes flashing angrily, ‘Sara’s mine. I deal with her.’ He looked at Demos. And then at Alex. ‘Understood?’

  Alex shot Demos a quick look. Then they both nodded.

  Jack strode to the bar and poured himself a double shot of something. He tipped it down his throat in one go. And then he poured a second glass. No one made a move to stop him. I guessed I’d do the same if I’d found out Alex had betrayed me and was torturing my mum.

  ‘So, what exactly did you say to Sara?’ I whispered to Alex who was keeping his eyes fixed on Jack.

  ‘We told her that we needed her help to break into the building. We told her it was just you, me and Jack coming with your dad. She’s agreed. She’ll switch off the alarm system until we’re safely inside. I told her I was worried you’d set it off otherwise – said you were struggling to control your ability. It’ll allow for Demos and Harvey to follow us ins

  ‘So then, it’s all set? We’re all set for tonight?’

  He nodded. ‘We just need to alert the press about the drugs bust in Washington.’

  ‘And then I’ll call the DEA,’ Demos added.

  ‘The drugs people, right?’

  ‘Yep,’ Alex answered.

  I wanted to listen in to that call. What did you say? Who did you even call? 911?

  What’s your emergency?

  There’s a stash of drugs and money in Richard Stirling’s house. Here’s the address – go check it out. No, this isn’t a hoax.

  Oh well, Demos was the one man on the planet who could make anyone do anything so I guessed he’d make it work.

  ‘And once we’ve blown the lid on Washington, we head onto the base. It’ll be a huge news story. The DEA raids Stirling Enterprises and their HQ blows up an hour later. It will look like a huge cover-up. The press on both coasts will go wild. Richard Stirling won’t be able to just walk away from this.’

  No, he won’t, I thought, not if I have anything to do with it. He’ll never walk anywhere ever again; he’ll be buried in the rubble.

  I glanced at Jack, who was still bent over the bar, staring into the bottom of a glass.

  It looked like Sara would be too.


  I glanced in the rear-view mirror and caught Alex staring at me. A look passed between us and a twinge hit me. If I died today, or got contained, I’d never get to be Mrs Wakeman. Damn Alex and his resolve. If I died a virgin, I’d never forgive him.

  Alex turned round in his seat. ‘So, let me do the talking, OK?’

  I looked out of the back window. Demos and Harvey were following us in a black Toyota rental. Alicia and Amber were with them. No one had explicitly said why they were coming, but it was obvious. Alicia wanted to make sure the headquarters got destroyed and Amber wanted revenge on the people who’d killed Ryder. She was there to make sure she got it.

  Key was somewhere in the ether. Maybe he was floating above the car right now. Possibly Nate was too. I wasn’t too sure that the command Demos had given him and Suki to stay put on the boat was going to be followed. It was asking for trouble.

  Demos was going to drive straight onto the base with the others. It was unlikely he’d have any problems getting through the barricade. He’d just freeze the soldiers from a distance and then drive on by.

  ‘So, we have to buy Demos and Harvey as much time as possible,’ Alex was saying. ‘Our mission is to get down into prisoner holding, find your mum, rescue her and get out again. Harvey will deactivate the alarm so that Demos can hold the Unit off while we get out. They’ll want us all in prisoner holding before they make a move.’

  ‘Are you OK, Dad?’ I asked. He hadn’t said a word so far.

  He gave me a wan smile. He wasn’t so used to the subterfuge-filled, fugitive life as we were. I wanted to reach over, pat his hand and tell him not to worry, that you got used to it pretty quickly, but Alex said something and it made us all look up.

  ‘She’s waiting,’ he said again. I raised my head and scanned the road. We had arrived.

  And there was Sara, standing on the sidewalk next to a black SUV, her arms crossed over her chest, her face stricken. I glanced up the street and at the house. Jack stared at it too. It was the first time he’d seen his house in a while.

  ‘Let’s go,’ Alex said, throwing open his door.

  Sara ran to the car and threw her arms round Jack before he could even get out. Wow, she was a good actress. I felt Alex’s hand circle my wrist even as the licks of fire started scorching down my veins.

  ‘Lila!’ Alex whistled a warning under his breath as if he’d read my mind or felt my anger transmuted as electricity through my skin.

  I took a deep breath and tried to smile as I watched Jack’s hands travel up Sara’s back in comforting strokes. His acting wasn’t bad either. He even managed not to throttle her when she started kissing him. She extracted herself after a good half-minute and rushed over to me.

  ‘Lila! You’re safe! I’m so glad,’ she cried, pulling me into a huge hug. I watched Jack’s face over her shoulder. He looked like he was trying to fire laser beams at her back.

  ‘Mmmm,’ I said. No thanks to you. I patted her half-heartedly on the shoulder, saw Alex’s warning glance and squeezed her tighter.

  ‘I wish you could have trusted me,’ she whispered in my ear.

  Luckily she moved onto my dad and Alex took hold of my curled fists and tugged me back.

  ‘Dr Loveday,’ Sara said, taking my dad’s hand in both of hers. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ she choked. ‘I’m so sorry.’

  He stood ashen-faced, looking at her with undisguised loathing, and Jack stepped quickly between them, pulling Sara away from him before she noticed.

  ‘Where are the Unit’s teams?’ Jack asked quickly.

  ‘Alpha and Beta teams are en route to Washington. We’ve just caught wind of something,’ Sara said with a frown. ‘You were right. We think Demos is there.’

  I shot Alex a look. So the ball was rolling. The DEA must have raided Stirling Enterprises already.

  ‘OK, let’s go,’ Jack said, marching towards the SUV.

  Sara pulled open the driver’s door. We climbed in in silence and it felt like clambering into my own coffin again.

  ‘How are you going to get us in?’ Jack asked from up front as Sara pulled away from the kerb. I kept my eyes on Alex’s hand holding mine. I could feel his thumb pressing into my palm and I focused on that and not on the fact we were embarking on a suicide mission as though it was just a picnic in the park.

  ‘We’ll go in the back entrance,’ Sara answered. ‘The goods entrance. It’s touch-pad entry. I have the code. There should only be a few people around, mainly lab technicians. We can skirt them and take the goods elevator down to the prisoner level.’

  Her eyes were suddenly on me in the rear-view mirror. ‘I’m so sorry about your mum,’ she said. ‘I can’t believe it’s true.’

  I looked away, out of the window, and took a deep breath. I didn’t want to cause another crash.

  ‘It’s true,’ Jack answered for me. His hand was balled in a fist at his side and his voice was tight, as though he was being strangled.

  We took the turn onto the base a minute later. Sara wound down her window and flashed her laminated ID out of it. The Marines on duty just nodded her through. No stop and search like yesterday morning. They had obviously been primed to expect us and ordered to let us pass.

  The barricade lifted. They’d already replaced the one I’d destroyed on the way out the other day. Dusk was falling, the light was bruised and purple and I couldn’t help wondering if it was the last sunset I’d ever see. We passed the Unit’s headquarters and took the next right, carrying on down a smaller road round the side of the building. The back looked as impenetrable as the front – a solid glass and steel fortress.

  ‘OK, we have to hurry,’ Sara said as she parked the SUV by the back door.

  We all jumped out, Alex and Jack standing sentry, scanning the surroundings, pushing my dad and me behind them.

  Sara crossed to the alarm pad on the wall by two steel doors that reminded me of upright mortuary slabs and tapped in some numbers. I hoped Harvey had done his homework. He had merely dragged long and hard on his cigarette when I’d asked him how confident he was about being able to break in. I wasn’t sure what kind of an answer that was, but right now I was going with very confident.

  The hallway we walked into was empty and long and lit halogen-white. It looked like a Hollywood filmset for God’s waiting room. Our footsteps echoed like righteous thunder. I glanced to the end of it, trying to recall the map Jack had drawn for us. The control room that Harvey and Demos would be heading for was just on the right-hand side before the elevator.

  I suddenly had a moment’s clarity of vision. We were insane. My dad was completely right. Only mad people would attempt what we were attempting. But, on the other hand, maybe it
was so insane the Unit would never suspect it. I had to hope so.

  We reached the elevator at the end of the hallway. This was it. I was just minutes away from seeing my mum again and adrenaline flooded my system, pulsing through my body. Sara pressed her ID card against a reader and then pushed the button for level -4. None of us breathed. Alex held my hand tight.

  The corridor that we spilled into was empty. The ceilings were low, the fluorescent strip lights so startlingly bright I had to blink. We walked towards a double-thickness glass door at the end. There was another touch pad to its right. Sara tapped in the code. The door swooshed open and we stepped through. It slid shut behind us, sealing us inside what could only be prisoner holding.

  The room we found ourselves in was deserted. A bank of computers sat along a central column of desks, their screens blank. Along one side of the room were several white doors, each solid-looking and without handles. The only indication they were doors at all was the thin black outline and the flashing touch pad to the right of each one. Were those the cells? Was my mum inside one? My dad must have been thinking along the same lines because he crossed straight over to them and started banging, calling out her name.

  ‘Where is she? Where’s Melissa?’ my dad shouted, desperation in his voice.

  A slow smile eased across Sara’s face.

  ‘Where is she?’ Jack demanded.

  I saw Sara’s face register his tone and her brown eyes narrowed slightly at him. Then, as I watched, she took a stumbling step backwards, her eyes growing round. Her hands flew to her chest, palms outwards. I glanced at Jack again and did a double take. His gun was in his hand and he was pointing it straight at Sara.

  ‘Where is she, Sara?’ he asked calmly.

  I saw Sara figure it out in that instant – finally understand that we were playing her – that this was a double-cross as Suki had so eloquently put it. Sara’s eyes darted to Alex and then to me and finally to my dad, who had stopped calling my mum’s name and instead was staring straight at her, with a look of pure hatred.

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