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Losing lila, p.28
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       Losing Lila, p.28

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  ‘Yeah,’ Demos laughed under his breath, putting an arm round me. ‘We’re family, aren’t we? Or close as.’ He twisted me round so I was standing in front of him, holding me there with his hands resting on my shoulders. His expression was serious, his gaze fixed on me. ‘Lila, don’t tell him, OK? He doesn’t need to know.’

  I sucked in a breath of sea air, let it fill my lungs.

  I glanced over at Jack. He and Amber were sitting up on the top deck. He stood up while I was watching and reached behind him for a blanket which he then draped round Amber’s shoulders. He noticed me looking and smiled, lifting his hand in farewell to Demos, who acknowledged it with a nod and a smile so fleeting it was gone by the time I could clear my throat and croak, ‘OK.’

  ‘How’s he doing about Sara?’ Demos asked after a while, nodding his head towards Jack.

  I shrugged. ‘He hasn’t really said anything. He asked Harvey if she made it to the hospital, but he didn’t seem to care whether she was OK. Not that I care much either. You know – my dad was the one that shot her.’ It still surprised me that my dad had actually fired a gun.

  ‘Yeah, I heard.’

  ‘She did kind of deserve it, though.’

  ‘Thought we weren’t supposed to be in it for revenge, Lila. Isn’t that the big lesson here?’

  I grinned up at him.

  ‘See you around, Lila,’ he said finally. Then he picked up his bag and walked off down the jetty. I watched him go. A single, dark figure disappearing like a ghost into the night.

  Alex found me like that, standing on the jetty, staring into the darkness, which seemed heavier all of a sudden.

  ‘Hey,’ he said.

  ‘Hi,’ I replied, turning round and sliding my arms round his waist.

  ‘We’re all set,’ he murmured, stroking my hair behind one ear.

  ‘Where are we going?’ I asked, not really caring so long as it wasn’t Mexico City and so long as it was going to take months to get there. Months on a boat in the middle of the ocean where no one could find us and where I could get to work on Alex’s resolve.

  ‘There’s this great beach I know in Mexico.’ Alex’s voice was so low it actually started my legs quivering.

  I looked at his eyes flashing in the moonlight. ‘I think I know that beach. It’s good for skinny-dipping, right?’

  He laughed softly. ‘I told you I’d bring you back there one day,’ he said, lifting my chin with his finger, his lips so close I could feel their heat.

  Finally, inevitably, he closed the distance and kissed me. The synapses in my brain sparked, starting a small electrical fire in my head.

  It was OK. At least I knew I could control it.

  AND JUST IN CASE YOU NEED AN EXTRA FIX

  OF ALEX, READ ON . . .

  The moment

  A short story from Alex’s point of view

  The last time I saw her was in Washington. Three years ago. Just over.

  There’s a memory I have from back then that I can’t seem to shake. It’s of the three of us – Jack, Lila and me – we’re playing basketball in my backyard. I think someone took a photo – maybe that’s why I remember it so clearly.

  None of us were saying very much. We were playing hard and fast, sweating despite the cold. In the car on the way to mine Jack had had a fight with his dad. He was mad – kept slamming the ball against the hoop like he was trying to knock it clean off the wall, not shoot the ball through it. Lila was trying not to cry and I was trying to intercept Jack’s passes before someone – or the hoop – got hurt.

  The buzzer sounds and I cross the hallway to let Jack in. I know it’s him because he always holds his finger on it for as long as it takes me to get there.

  ‘What’s up?’ he says through the intercom. ‘Do you have company?’

  ‘No,’ I answer drily. ‘I just hang out all day counting down the seconds until I see you again, Jack.’

  I buzz him in and while I wait for him to take the elevator up to my apartment I walk the few steps back down the hallway and into the kitchen to turn on the espresso machine. Today is going to be a long day.

  Jack is grim-faced and scowling when I open the door to let him in. He kicks past me into the hallway.

  ‘Goddamn my sister,’ he says, by way of greeting.

  I follow him silently as he heads to the kitchen and watch him as he starts raiding the fridge, tossing aside half a cantaloupe and shaking a jar of salad dressing as though it might contain something more helpful to him in his current mind-set than just olive oil and vinegar.

  ‘Dude, you live like a monk,’ he mutters to the empty shelves.

  I pour most of the milk carton into one mug and pile in some sugar – Jack takes his coffee milkshake style – top it with a shot of steaming espresso and hand it to him without a word. He takes it, also without a word, and starts drinking, his eyes darting to the window, still narrowed in a scowl.

  ‘My dad’s going to freak out,’ he says.

  I interrupt him before he can get going on what I know will be a lengthy tirade. ‘I need to take a shower,’ I say, draining my coffee in one bitter swallow. ‘I’ve just got back from a run.’ I leave him with his head back in the fridge, muttering angrily at the cantaloupe about how it’s got more sense than Lila.

  Jack should have warning signs written on him for when he’s in a mood like this. Then people would know to give him a very wide berth and time – lots of it – to chill out.

  The shower is good. It unknots the muscles in my shoulders and legs and helps clear my mind which, ever since Jack called me, has been trying to process the fact that Lila’s coming back.

  Jack’s raging mad but his anger stems from worry – about Lila being here, in California, and the risk that poses. I don’t think he’s thought about why she’s coming. Or processed the fact that something must have happened in London to make her drop everything and book a flight to LA with no warning whatsoever.

  As I towel off, I analyse it some more. Jack got the temper and Lila got the impulsiveness in the Loveday family and I’ve often sent silent thanks to the powers that be for their wisdom in not genetically gifting Jack with both temper and impulsiveness, because he’d be doing time by now if they had. But Lila’s never done anything like this before. There must be something behind it. I wonder whether she’ll trust me as much as she used to and will tell me what it is that she’s running from. And whether I’ll still be able to read her. Used to be that Lila was as transparent as a windshield.

  I pause, reminding myself not to second-guess her actions. It could be something trivial – maybe she broke up with her boyfriend. But she doesn’t have a boyfriend, at least, not that I know of. It could be school – but she’s smart. She’s doing OK. I shake my head. Who am I kidding? She’s not OK. I can tell it from her emails. She doesn’t say it in so many words, but it’s there, in the gaps between them, in the way she avoids answering the more probing questions I throw at her.

  Dropping the towel, I pull on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, check there’s a full chamber in my gun and then push it down the back of my jeans, careful to pull my T-shirt over it. Everyone in this apartment building thinks I work as a personal trainer for wealthy, bored housewives. If my neighbours saw the firepower I carry to go jogging, they’d wonder at my personal-training technique.

  I stand and stare at myself hard in the mirror, running a hand over my head and the buzz cut I had two days ago. What will Lila see? Will she even recognise me and Jack? We’re not the same people she left behind. Three years have passed since we saw each other – two spent in Marine Special Ops training and one spent working for the Unit, hunting down her mother’s killers. When I look in the mirror these days, I’m not even sure I recognise myself. It’s not the muscle Jack and I have both built up in training, or the scars. Not even the tattoos on our arms mark us out as changed. It’s something more than that. Beyond the physical.

  We’re always on guard, always on the lookout, always wary, careful, su
spicious. We’ve had to master secrets and deceit, while learning at the same time to decipher other people’s lies and secrets. We’ve become adept at closing out the ones we love and even those we might love – at blanking our emotions so there’s no chink of vulnerability left visible. We hide our true selves so well that sometimes I worry I’ll never find the real me again.

  I keep staring unflinchingly at my reflection. This is not a life that Lila needs to know about. When Jack and I are done, when we’ve caught the man who killed her mother, then we’ll tell her. Some of it at least. Not all. Truth doesn’t have smooth, soft round edges. It has razor-sharp ones. Holding that truth will only hurt her.

  Jack’s sprawled on the sofa when I walk into the living room. He’s hit play on my iPod deck and I pause in the doorway, trying to hide my smile.

  ‘What is this?’ Jack asks, nodding at the speakers. ‘I’ve not heard it before.’

  ‘Just something new,’ I say, dropping down onto the easy chair opposite him. It’s a playlist Lila put together and sent me a few weeks ago, but I don’t think it’s such a good idea to bring her name up now he seems to have calmed down.

  ‘It’s good,’ Jack mumbles, nodding appreciatively along to the music.

  ‘Did you report in to the base?’ I ask, changing the subject.

  ‘Yeah, I let Sara know what was happening. Told her we’d be in a little late. You should probably call Rachel, though,’ he says, referring to our boss.

  ‘I already have,’ I answer. ‘We should get going, though. Rachel said they’d picked up some new activity. Possibly a sighting of Demos in LA.’

  At this, Jack’s head flies up. He swings his legs off the sofa and sits up. ‘And you’re only telling me this now?’ he asks. ‘You see – this is why she can’t come back. He’s nearby. It’s too dangerous.’ He swears under his breath as he jumps to his feet.

  I stand up and grab the keys to my bike. ‘She’s coming back, Jack, and it’s all going to be OK,’ I say. ‘We’ll talk about it later. Right now we need to get to work.’

  We pull up outside the West Coast headquarters of Stirling Enterprises – located on Camp Pendleton Marine Base, just north of San Diego. The building sits like a sparkling UFO amongst the smaller, squatter, altogether plainer military installations – barracks, offices and even a hospital – that scatter the base.

  We did our training with the First Recon Marines out of Pendleton, so in a lot of ways the base feels like home. Having said that, when I pull up on my bike next to a drill sergeant with purple veins bulging like live snakes under his skin and hear him screaming abuse at a band of new recruits who are sweating valiantly in the midday heat, I can’t say I miss those days.

  Most of the Unit’s employees are trained Marines – at least the soldiers are; the scientists are not. But we’re not working under the remit of the US army. Our chain of command is shrouded in layers of mystery, but it’s thought that only one or two key people in the very highest, darkest corners of government know what we’re really doing.

  We’re our own secret enclave. And the building on the base which Jack and I are walking into reeks of that secrecy – its reflective glass and steel front means no one outside the Unit has ever caught a glimpse of what’s inside. I glance up as we walk inside. There are no guns mounted on the roof, but there are other invisible ways the building has of repelling enemies and I always feel a slight easing up of tension once I’m through the entry system and inside the lobby.

  Sixty metres below us right now, as we walk across the marble-floored lobby of this impenetrable building, lies a row of cells, empty except for one. Every time I cross this lobby that’s what I think about. What lies beneath.

  Empty cells and the fact we’ve only captured one.

  For the last five years Stirling Enterprises has been working for the US government on a project considered too sensitive for the public to ever find out about. Our mission is to contain a group of people called psygens – people with an incurable genetic malfunction that makes them not only different to everyone else – endowed with special abilities like telekinesis and telepathy – but also that renders them incapable of empathy or rational human thought. The Unit psychs claim they’re off-the-scale sociopaths.

  As if Jack and I needed to be told that – as if we didn’t already have proof.

  There’s no cure. There is only management. Containment, as it’s termed. The only problem is that they’re fast, they see us coming, they outmanoeuvre us every single time, always staying one step ahead. They have powers we don’t, ways of communicating and spying and stopping us in our tracks, which makes containing them a challenge.

  We’re closing the net on them, though – on the group we’re targeting – and once they’re contained, maybe then it will be safe for Lila to come back here for good. And maybe then Jack and I might have a shot at living a normal life too. I glance at Jack, who’s tapping his foot impatiently, waiting for the elevator doors to close. Maybe not, I think. For Jack, revenge is so in his blood, has become so much a part of who he is, I doubt that he’ll ever stop hunting them, even after we catch Demos and his crew – not when there are more out there.

  Rachel’s in full-on debrief mode when we slip into the tactical team meeting. She nods at us, but doesn’t miss a beat, continuing to narrate over a rush of images projected onto the wall behind her – maps of downtown LA, some sketchy black-and-white shots drawn from CCTV cameras which she pauses on. They purport to be images of Demos and his right-hand man Harvey – but they’re so blizzarded out, it’s hard to tell for certain. Rachel wraps up with a reminder for us all to stay focused. As if we’re ever not, I think grimly to myself, watching her out of the corner of my eye.

  Rachel works hard to prove that she’s not just in her position because of who she is – despite the fact that her name is Rachel Stirling and her father owns the company. But sometimes she works it too hard. She’s good at her job. Everyone knows that. She doesn’t need to keep on proving it.

  As Jack and I stand, she holds up a hand and beckons us to stay. I sigh. Jack heads over.

  ‘Sorry we were late,’ he says.

  ‘Family trouble?’ Rachel asks lightly, though her eyes, big and blue and what I imagine to be deceptively innocent, are sharp as needles.

  ‘My sister just told me she’s coming to stay,’ Jack says. ‘Her flight gets in tomorrow around lunchtime.’

  ‘That’s unexpected,’ Rachel says. She’s still smiling, but behind the smile there’s a note of irritation. Her eyes narrow slightly.

  ‘I’ll deal with it,’ Jack says, aware that Rachel’s scrutinising him. ‘It won’t be a problem.’

  Rachel studies him for a moment longer, the sheaf of papers she’s holding pressed against her chest. ‘Let’s hope not,’ she says with a tight smile. ‘We need focus right now, Lieutenant.’

  ‘Absolutely,’ Jack says, holding her gaze steadily.

  She turns to me. ‘We could have used your input, Alex,’ she says and I notice that she’s opted for first-name terms with me rather than Lieutenant.

  I glance up and see Jack winking at me over Rachel’s shoulder. I keep my face blank as Jack walks out of the door, smirking. Rachel lets him go. She takes a minuscule step towards me, so she’s almost pressing against me, and I’m caught between the table and her. When I glance down, I catch a glimpse of lace bra. I look up quickly.

  ‘Busy tonight?’ she asks. I can tell by the way she tilts her head to one side, casually flicking her hair over one shoulder and catching her lip, sticky with gloss, between her teeth, that she’s not asking whether I’m busy on call. She knows that I’m not. She signs off all the shifts.

  I could take the bait and ask her out. It’s not the first time she’s put it out there, but every time I’ve pretended to be oblivious. If Jack knew I’d ignored the hint, he’d never let up. He’d want to know why – but the only reason I could give him is that I’m just not feeling it. Rachel’s the kind of girl who’s too used t
o getting her own way, to owning things and having people do her bidding. And besides, I don’t want to mix business with pleasure. Last time I did that it ruined my grade-point average.

  ‘I’m going out with Jack tonight,’ I say finally. Rachel holds my gaze for a long moment and I blank my expression as I’ve been trained to do when under interrogation and then edge round her and over to the door. ‘I have to catch up with him. He’s worried about his sister coming back.’

  ‘Lila?’

  I turn, wondering how Rachel knows Lila’s name, then remember that it’s probably all on record and Rachel will have done her homework. She always does her homework.

  ‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Lila.’

  Rachel dismisses me with a curt nod of her head and a forced smile and strides out of the door ahead of me, her heels clicking loudly like machine-gun retorts.

  Jack nods his head at a girl who’s come to stand beside us at the bar. ‘Check out the cute girl,’ he says.

  ‘I thought you weren’t looking anymore,’ I laugh. ‘I thought you’d turned over a new leaf.’

  For the first time in his life Jack’s got a girlfriend – as opposed to a girl who he spends the night with, forgets the name of and never calls again. It’s been quite a revelation – an entertaining and mildly disturbing revelation. Jack in love makes me believe anything is possible – that monkeys can grow wings and fly, that world peace can be achieved and that one day our work with the Unit will be done. The upside of Jack’s metamorphosis into a love butterfly is that I’ve been able to witness it and laugh my ass off.

  ‘I have turned over a new leaf,’ Jack says. ‘I’m looking for you. It’s about time you hooked up with someone. It’s been way too long.’

  ‘You know the rules,’ I answer.

  If anyone knows the rules, it’s Jack. He always learns them, mainly so he can go right ahead and find a way to break them.

  ‘Who’s saying you have to date anyone?’ Jack grins.

 
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