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Losing lila, p.27
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       Losing Lila, p.27

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  An image of my mum floated in front of me. It wasn’t the image of her from a few minutes previously, lying like a corpse in my father’s arms, but from before, from way back. She was kneeling on the deck by the swimming pool of our old house in Washington, a towel in her outstretched arms. She was smiling, saying something I couldn’t hear. She was waiting for me to climb out of the pool so she could wrap me up in it and bundle me dry. I felt my limbs heavy and cold as though I was treading water in a lake of quicksand. I couldn’t reach her and a panic took hold of my heart and squeezed with all its might. The image turned foggy and dissolved. And then a thought poked through the darkness, swamping my head. Jack. Was he OK? I tried to turn my head to look, but black and red spots jumped and swam in front of my eyes. I tried to call out for Alex, but my mouth felt as if it had been crammed full of rusty coins. I choked on a warm stream of bile that gushed up my throat then rinsed back down.

  A sudden jolt. Warmth against my cheek. Wetness underneath me. Hands clutching me. Then footsteps pounding, jarring me with each stride, sending rivers of fire flashing through my veins. And then cool air engulfed me, stinging and vicious against my skin. The softness of arms was replaced by hard, unforgiving ground. Hands were tugging and voices were calling my name, barking orders at me. Then, just as the darkness started to throb and close over me and the pain started to lessen, a stream of molten lava was poured directly into the hole in my chest. A scream tore out of my throat, slicing apart the night air, and seemed to cleave my whole body in two as well. The lava cooled instantly, turning to rock, pressing down so heavily on my chest that I could no longer breathe and the darkness was falling again, heavier this time, a blizzard of black ice which was slowly burying me.

  ‘Come back to me, Lila!’

  That was Alex. I had come back to him. What was he talking about? I always came back to him. I always would.

  ‘Stay awake. Come on, wake up, damn it!’ He shook my shoulders hard. ‘Don’t go to sleep. Open your eyes. Lila, listen to me, I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere, but you have to stay too. You can’t just give up.’ His voice was hoarse, threaded through with panic.

  I tried to smile. Why was he panicking? Alex never panicked. I wasn’t going anywhere. I just needed to sleep a little bit. If he could just hold me, I could sleep right now. But he’d need to hold me really tight because it was so cold. Freezing in fact. The air con was blasting. Or maybe it was because my clothes were wet from the sprinkler.

  Oh. OK. I got it.

  And then I was free-falling backwards, tumbling into a velvet-black hole.

  ‘Lila!’

  That sounded like Jack. He’d been shot, hadn’t he? I’d seen him fall. Was he OK? He had to be OK. He was here and he was talking. That was good. But he could heal. Of course he was fine. I felt myself smile and something warm and wet spilled over my lips and dribbled down my chin.

  ‘Stay with me,’ Jack shouted. ‘You’re not going anywhere, goddamn it, Lila. You never bloody listen!’

  I tried to smile again, but something was bubbling in the way. I wanted to spit. But I couldn’t lift my head. Jack was asking me to stay. He had finally agreed I wasn’t going anywhere. That was so funny.

  And I so wanted to tell him how amusing that was. I sighed and let the darkness wash over me.

  It was just too bad that I couldn’t stay.

  This was what people meant when they talked about a bright white light.

  This is dying. This is death. It registered in some small recess of my brain where the light was still on. As warm and dark as a womb. I was floating, languid and peaceful, the pain in my chest gone. And suddenly a pinprick of light through the dark, a space, opening and widening, through which the sunlight soared.

  And someone was kissing me. No. Not someone. Alex was kissing me. Kissing me hard, his lips bruising mine, his breath hot in my mouth, tasting of smoke.

  ‘Breathe, goddamn it. Breathe!’ he was shouting.

  Then his lips were on mine again and he was forcing mine apart, blowing air into my mouth and lungs.

  The light swirling round me started to get brighter and hotter. It was sparking, racing in electric ribbons up my legs, flowing down my arms, spinning through the hole in my chest where the bullet had passed. The bone was knitting back together as though it was made of Playdoh.

  And then came an enormous judder, an explosion of light and noise and a thump that didn’t let up – a pounding drum in my chest. And my head was alive with the sound of it.

  My eyes flew open. Alex was hovering a few centimetres above me, his lips reachable. I smiled up at him. He was so damn hot. Even smeared with grime and sweat and blood.

  He rocked backwards onto his haunches. He was breathing hard, his T-shirt was soaked with blood, his hands clasped like a stone on top of my chest.

  That was fine. They could stay there. I didn’t mind.

  ‘Jack, you can stop now. She’s back.’ His voice was husky, slightly broken.

  I turned my head. Jack was kneeling on my other side. His eyes were shut, his head bowed. Then I became aware of his hand, and the heat of his palm where it was resting over my ribcage.

  I peered down at it. What was he doing?

  He gently lifted his hand away and the heat evaporated immediately. I shivered and my head fell back. Slowly I let my fingers trace their way across my stomach and up my ribcage, feeling for the place where the bullet had smashed its way through. Nothing. There was no hole, no splintered fragments of bone, no shredded skin. My ribs didn’t even feel bruised. But there was blood everywhere. The ground was soaked with it. My T-shirt, which had been pushed up, was drenched in it. Suddenly Alex’s hand was on top of mine, flattening over my heart.

  ‘There’s no hole.’

  My eyes widened.

  ‘Jack fixed you.’

  I glanced back at Jack. His eyes were blazing, like he was on fire from the inside. He grinned suddenly. ‘Are you going to admit it now? My power totally beats yours,’ he said.

  I managed to smile. At this point in time I wasn’t going to disagree.

  There was a charred, bloodstained hole in his T-shirt, over his right shoulder. That’s where he’d been shot. He didn’t appear to have even noticed, though.

  ‘Come on, we need to get out of here,’ he said, jumping to his feet. He was silhouetted suddenly against the inferno of the building behind. Flames were lashing at the sky, black towers of smoke rising into the air.

  I had done that. That’s actually pretty cool, I thought in silent wonder. Then I shook myself. What was I saying? I was an arsonist. There was nothing cool about that.

  ‘Go get the car, Jack,’ Alex said, not taking his eyes off me. ‘She’s lost a lot of blood. I’m not sure she can walk.’

  Jack looked ready to say something, but then he got to his feet and jogged off in the direction of the car Sara had brought us in.

  Alex put one arm underneath me and lifted me gently onto his lap. My head fell against his shoulder and I tilted my chin up so I could look at him. He was filthy, his blue eyes smouldering through the grime. I traced a finger over his eyebrows. They were singed. God only knew how I must look right now. I didn’t feel any pain, though. I was still floating. If this was how Jack felt all the time then I had to concede his power was definitely, infinitely better than mine.

  Alex stroked a line down my cheekbone to my lips and I started to float through the stratosphere. ‘You have a go at me about leaving you . . .’ he said. ‘Don’t ever do that to me again.’

  I found my voice. It was raspy. ‘Deal.’

  He considered me for a moment. ‘And while we’re on the subject, you also promised me you weren’t going to push me around anymore. You shouldn’t have done that,’ he said, shaking his head softly, his mouth tightening.

  ‘It was about time I rescued you,’ I said. ‘You know – returned the favour.’

  He raised a singed eyebrow, his eyes dancing, the amber firing in them. And then he bent his head
and kissed me.

  The ribbons of light surged once more up my legs and my heart restarted for a second time.

  45

  ‘I can’t believe it.’

  ‘Shhh, turn it up.’

  Someone hit the volume button. Everyone fell silent. Suki’s face appeared beaming on the television screen. The reporter turned to her. ‘Miss Nakamura, I understand you saw the entire explosion.’

  ‘Yes, I just happened to be driving past this Marine base with my friend Nate . . .’ Nate’s head suddenly bounced into shot. He was grinning from ear to ear. Suki elbowed him slightly out of the way so only half of his face remained in the frame. ‘And boom! The whole place exploded.’

  ‘I can’t believe you elbowed me out of the way,’ Nate yelled from the corner where he was sitting, watching himself on-screen.

  ‘Nate, they wanted someone pretty in the shot. That’s why they interviewed me.’

  ‘Shhhh,’ Demos cut them off.

  Everyone fell silent again. I lifted my head off Alex’s chest. We were curled on the sofa in the main room of the boat. His hand was tracing up my spine, stopping every now and then to stroke under my top where the bullet had gone in. It was making me shudder, distracting me from the news.

  The reporter handed over to the studio. A man in a suit and a red tie was staring seriously at the camera, his voice thick with faux gravity. ‘That footage was shot earlier this evening at Camp Pendleton Marine Base outside San Diego,’ he announced, ‘where Stirling Enterprises Headquarters was significantly damaged in a fire. Initial reports are unclear on the causes of the fire, though arson has not yet been ruled out.’

  Demos tossed me a grin over his shoulder. I grinned back.

  ‘Arsonist,’ Alex whispered into my ear. Again with the shudder.

  ‘What does significantly damaged mean? Did we destroy it or not?’ Jack asked. He was sitting on the sofa arm by my leg.

  ‘Wait, listen,’ I shushed him.

  ‘What about me? Why aren’t they showing me?’ Suki whined.

  ‘You shouldn’t even have been there,’ Demos scowled at her.

  She stuck her tongue out at him, but he didn’t notice. He was listening to the news report.

  ‘The fire coincides with the DEA drugs bust of Stirling Enterprises’ offices in Washington DC. Several million dollars’ worth of class A drugs and an undisclosed amount of money were found in CEO Richard Stirling’s home and office. Four other members of the board have been arrested in joint DEA and FBI raids following an anonymous tip-off to police. The government has reacted by trying to distance itself from Stirling Enterprises, which holds several billion-dollar defence contracts. The White House issued a statement earlier this evening announcing a full inquiry into the highly secretive nature of the defence work being carried out on the base. Certainly the timing of this fire will raise serious questions as to what was really happening on this Marine base.

  ‘One high-level source inside the DEA disclosed that a link had been discovered between Stirling Enterprises and a drugs cartel in Mexico City.’ A photo of Carlos flashed onto the screen. Alex’s hand froze on my back.

  ‘Richard Stirling’s daughter, Rachel Stirling, an employee of the company, was this evening arrested in Mexico City after yet another tip-off, suggesting the link between the drugs found in Stirling Enterprises’ offices and known cartel boss Carlos Mendoza may be more than just simple conjecture.’

  I sat up as a picture of Rachel flashed onto the screen. It was grainy film footage of her being handcuffed by four heavily armed Mexican police officers and bundled into a police car. It gave me a moment’s mild satisfaction, but not nearly enough.

  The voice-over from the studio continued. ‘Richard Stirling has not been seen since the raid on his home and offices, but several witnesses have stated that he was on the base at the time of the explosion. He is wanted for questioning by the police.’

  Demos hit the mute button. We all stared at him, mute too.

  Finally Alex spoke up. ‘Where is he? Did you kill him?’

  Demos stared at Alex blankly for a second then he shook his head. ‘No.’

  ‘Where is he, then?’ I asked. My throat still felt hoarse from the smoke and all the blood that I’d choked up.

  ‘I let him go when I heard the gunfire. When Jack got shot.’

  ‘You let him go?’ Jack blurted.

  ‘Yes.’

  We stared at Demos in grim silence. Even Suki stayed quiet. ‘Where did he go?’ Jack asked, his voice strained.

  ‘I don’t know,’ Demos answered quietly.

  I sank back against Alex’s chest. All that for nothing? He’d got away?

  ‘We destroyed Stirling Enterprises,’ Alex said. ‘Even if he didn’t die in the fire, there’s no way he can ever recover from this. He’s lost everything. The police will catch up with him eventually. Where’s he going to go? His face is all over the news.’

  No one said anything. Eventually, Demos turned in a small circle, taking us all in, and then he walked out of the room in silence. I watched him go, my breath catching in my throat. Someone should go after him.

  ‘Where’s Alicia?’ I asked, looking around.

  ‘She left already,’ Amber replied quietly. She was sitting on the floor by Jack’s feet.

  ‘Why?’ I asked. Amber turned and gave me a look.

  Oh. Demos and my mum. It wasn’t just what Alicia had seen in the lobby. I wondered what she’d also heard in Demos’s head. I couldn’t read minds, but even I had seen it. He was still clearly in love with my mum.

  ‘Lila? Jack?’

  I looked up. My dad was in the doorway. His face was different. Like life had poured back into his eyes.

  ‘Your mum’s awake. Do you want to come and see her?’

  I was on my feet already, standing slightly shakily. I was showered and clean, but so nervous and still a little woozy-headed from blood loss.

  It had been five years. What would she think? What would we say to each other?

  I glanced at Alex then around at the others and suddenly remembered there was so much I had to tell her.

  46

  Nate’s face looked like a tragedy mask. ‘We have to go and stay with Grandma.’

  ‘In the Hilton in Acapulco?’ I asked hopefully.

  ‘No. In Atlanta.’

  I bit my lip and tried not to smile. That was too bad. Way too bad.

  ‘The only good news is I’m going with him.’ Suki had appeared by his side. ‘Lila, could you help me with my bags?’

  I glanced over at the six Louis Vuitton bags stacked in the room. I turned back to her.

  ‘I cannot have this Imelda Marcos woman beating me, whoever she is,’ Suki shrugged by way of explanation. Then she smiled. ‘Goodbye, Lila. I’ll miss you.’

  A lump materialised in my throat. Suki pulled me into a tight hug. Nate threw an arm round me too.

  ‘We’ll see you in the summer break, OK?’

  I pulled back. ‘That would be great. I’m not sure where I’m going to be, though,’ I said hesitantly, wondering now whether my dad would want to go back to London or whether we’d stay here. Alex had promised me he’d go wherever I was going so really it didn’t matter anymore where I was. I was hoping to argue the case for the yacht, though. It seemed like a good enough place to live out the rest of my life. So long as I could share a cabin with Alex and we stayed in international waters.

  ‘I might see you before you see me,’ Nate giggled.

  ‘I don’t think he’ll be flying by to see you, Lila. I think he’s more interested in seeing Jack and Alex.’

  I took a swipe at him. ‘What are the others doing?’

  ‘Well,’ Suki answered, ‘Harvey’s packing. He wants to get back to it.’

  ‘Back to what?’

  ‘Back to work, silly.’

  ‘Harvey has a job?’ I couldn’t keep the surprise out of my voice.

  ‘I guess you could call it that,’ she answered, shrugging one shou
lder.

  My eyes widened. I held up a hand, not wanting to know any more. ‘And Amber?’

  Suki smiled slyly. ‘I think she’s staying.’

  ‘She is?’ I brightened instantly. ‘Why?’

  ‘Jack offered. She needs some space to grieve.’

  ‘What about Bill?’ I asked. ‘And Thomas. What about Thomas? Is he OK?’

  ‘They’re in Mexico City still. Thomas is better but not quite back to normal. He could really use your brother doing his special magic on him.’

  ‘I could really use your brother doing his special magic on me,’ sniggered Nate.

  I rolled my eyes at him. It wasn’t actually a bad idea, though. Jack doing his thing on Thomas, that is. He’d done it on my mum and it appeared to be working. Hell, if he could bring me back from the dead, he could definitely fix Thomas.

  Suki turned back to the bags. ‘So, can you help? Or do I have to ask Harvey?’

  Demos was standing on the jetty with his back to me. I jumped down and walked to his side.

  ‘How’s your mum?’ he asked.

  I looked into his cool blue eyes, lighter and flatter than Alex’s, and saw the splinter of pain buried deep in them.

  ‘She’s doing well,’ I said, swallowing back the rush of sadness and gratitude that almost choked me. ‘Jack did his thing on her. Pretty cool, huh? My dad says she’ll be back to normal in no time. She just needs rest now.’

  Demos nodded and turned back to look out at the ocean.

  ‘She asked me to tell you thank you,’ I said quietly. He didn’t respond. ‘She asked me to do this too.’ I stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek.

  His jaw clenched. He took a deep breath and turned in my direction. His eyes were hooded in the dark, as brooding as an overcast sky.

  ‘Keep your brother safe for me, Lila.’

  I raised an eyebrow and he laughed. We both knew that keeping Jack safe was no longer necessary.

  ‘Will I see you again?’ I asked. My voice actually broke. Somehow, somewhere along the way, love had crept into the equation and it startled me somewhat.

 
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