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       Losing Lila, p.3

           Sarah Alderson
 

  3

  The taxi driver asked if we were sure.

  ‘Si,’ Alex replied.

  I could only follow a bit of the conversation, my Spanish being remedial at best. I could order a burrito and ask for a double room and that was about it.

  ‘Why does he keep asking if we’re sure?’ I whispered to Alex.

  ‘Because tourists don’t usually ask to go to this part of town.’

  ‘I can’t think why,’ I muttered to myself, looking out of the window. There were a lot of red lights and dark alleys and flashing signs for Negra Modelo and Corona. It was nearly two in the morning and the streets were eerily empty. Even the locals obviously had more sense than to come out after dark.

  I turned to face Alex across the back seat. ‘So, remind me once more what we’re doing here?’

  ‘We both need new passports. And we need them fast. We can’t use our old passports to cross back into the States. The Unit will have an APB out on us by now.’

  ‘And illegal passports aren’t something they sell in the supermarket. I get it, but why are we here?’ I wasn’t seeing a flashing sign for a passport shop.

  ‘I asked the driver to take us to the worst part of the city.’

  ‘OK,’ I said as if I understood.

  Alex turned to the driver and spoke to him in fluent Spanish and I stared at him in surprise, wondering how many more skills he had that I didn’t know about.

  ‘Aquí?’ the driver said, gesticulating at the area around us like it was a plague zone. I was on the driver’s side. This didn’t look like too safe a place to be getting out for a stroll, even with Alex and his gun for company.

  They spoke for a few more minutes before the driver, shaking his head, took the money Alex was holding out to him and killed the engine. We were sitting on the side of a narrow road, parked between two other cars. About fifty metres down the road was a building with boarded-up windows. A dark reddish light was escaping through the slats.

  We sat in the dark for another ten minutes until I noticed that Alex was watching a man half-hidden in the shadows. He was hovering in a doorway, and every so often a car would pull up and the man would bend down and speak to the driver. An exchange would happen and then the car would drive off.

  ‘I thought we came for passports, not crack,’ I whispered to Alex.

  ‘Follow the street crime, which leads to the local dealer, which leads to the boss.’

  ‘What kind of boss? Who do they work for?’

  ‘The Mafia,’ Alex said, not taking his eyes off the man in the shadows. ‘In Central America there are various cartels. They control it all – the drugs, money laundering, arms, passports.’

  I stared at him, wide-eyed, processing only the word Mafia. He didn’t look like he was joking. I nodded slowly. ‘So, we walk up to the nice man on the corner,’ I said, ‘convince him in Spanish to take us to his Mafia boss, and ask him nicely to give us new passports. Good plan.’

  ‘Thanks,’ Alex said, ignoring my sarcasm.

  ‘OK,’ I said, taking a deep breath, ‘are we going to stay here all night, or are we going to go introduce ourselves to the man on the corner with the drugs?’

  We reached for the door handles, but then Alex turned suddenly back towards me, putting a hand on my thigh. OK, we could stay here all night. I sank back into my seat.

  ‘Lila—’ Alex started then stopped.

  ‘What?’

  He shook his head and removed his hand. ‘Nothing. I was going to say stay close to me, but I don’t think I need to tell you how to look after yourself.’

  The same look of irritation I’d seen earlier flashed through his eyes, making the blue momentarily darken. I had an instinct about what was causing it. I leaned over, putting my hand over his. ‘I still need you, Alex,’ I whispered.

  He gave me a smile in return, but it didn’t reach his eyes, and then he turned away and opened his door. I sat there for a few seconds before I followed him out. The taxi sped off with a screech of burning rubber as soon as I shut the door.

  I looked around at the dark street and steeled myself, then followed Alex over to the man standing on the corner. He saw us coming, and his eyes darted up and down the street as if he was expecting the police to leap out at any moment from behind parked cars. We stopped in front of him.

  He smiled a nervous kind of smile, revealing a black hole where his front teeth should have been. His feet were jittery on the sidewalk. I checked him up and down for any sign of a gun or a knife, realising that at some point in the last month surreptitious weapons checking had become my immediate reaction on meeting someone for the first time. I saw a familiar bulge under his shirt and his right trouser leg was rucked up as if he had something holstered to his ankle. I decided I’d go for the gun on his waist if I needed to.

  Alex and the man had a brief conversation. The man didn’t seem to be playing ball. He kept shaking his head. I caught sight of Alex slipping the man a folded wedge of dollars. The man looked at it and then finally he shrugged, muttered something under his breath and started walking down the street. We followed him.

  ‘What did he say?’ I whispered to Alex.

  ‘He said, “It’s your funeral,” but he’s taking us to see the boss.’

  ‘Great,’ I said.

  ‘I shouldn’t have brought you,’ Alex muttered, frowning as he looked over his shoulder.

  ‘You had no choice, Alex,’ I reminded him, nudging him with my elbow. ‘You’re not allowed to leave me, remember?’

  He put his arm round me in answer, pulling me tight against his side, but I could see the way his jaw was clenched.

  We headed down a back alley and stopped in front of a heavy, reinforced door. The dealer knocked loudly three times. A bolt slid back on the other side and then the door cracked open a fraction. There were raised voices inside – the dealer was talking to someone behind the door. Whoever it was didn’t sound too happy. I clutched Alex’s hand tighter and prayed he knew enough Spanish to get us through this. And that if he didn’t, he had enough bullets in his gun.

  The door finally cracked open another few centimetres and the dealer stepped out of the way, letting the light from inside fall in a strip on Alex and me. I threw back my shoulders and tried to look as relaxed as Alex did. He was veering on the nonchalant, acting as if fronting up to drug dealers was something he did every single day of his life. There was a moment’s silence and then the door swung wide on its hinges. We stepped inside and the door slammed shut behind us with a solid clang.

  Before I could get a glance at the room or who was in it, a hand shoved me roughly against the wall. Other hands started patting up my legs, working their way up to my hips and waist – where the patting became more like groping. I let out a yelp as a hand squeezed my butt, then drew in a deep breath, trying to remember what Alex had said about not revealing my ability unless I absolutely had to. The hand slid round my ribcage and I gritted my teeth, wondering at what point we reached absolutely.

  ‘La chica no tiene armas!’ Alex shouted. ‘She’s unarmed! We’re both unarmed.’

  Alex was unarmed? I twisted my head to look at him, forgetting all about the hands groping me. Alex was spreadeagled against the wall next to me, as the biggest man I’d ever seen held a gun to the small of his back and patted him down for a weapon. I gaped at Alex. For an entire week, he’d been surgically attached to his gun and then, when we pay a visit to a Mafia boss, he decides it’s time to detach himself from weaponry? He shook his head at me ever so slightly, a warning look in his eyes.

  The man holding me against the wall let me go finally and I jerked round. I was ready to lash out, could feel the anger coiling inside me, as I tried to shrug off the lingering sensation of fat fingers pressing into my thighs, but it drained away instantly, ice-cold fear flooding my system instead as I registered the four men in front of us.

  The one who’d been groping me had a scar running the length of his cheek. It was puckered like a silk scarf tha
t had snagged on a thorn. He was staring at me, glassy-eyed, his tongue poking out between his teeth. The one beside him had a tattoo flowering from his chest and winding up round his neck of a snake twined round a naked, large-breasted woman. The third man – the one who’d been patting down Alex – was a solid mountain of muscle. It would take a battering ram just to get through him, never mind the door. I edged closer to Alex instinctively as my eyes finally lit on the fourth man.

  He was sitting behind a table at the back of the room. He was older than the others, his hair shaved to the skull, and he had razor-sharp cheekbones below eyes as sunken and dark as pits. His shirt was open to the navel and a large crucifix hung against his tattooed chest. He didn’t exactly look like Tony Soprano, but he was, without doubt, what my dad would have called of the criminal persuasion. He could definitely pass for a Mafia boss. Or a psycho killer. Whichever. Alex took a small step forward, as if he could somehow block me from the man’s snake-like, unblinking gaze.

  ‘American?’ the man asked, staring straight at me.

  ‘Yes,’ Alex answered.

  ‘You’re looking for something I hear.’ His eyes slowly travelled to Alex, narrowing to pinpoints.

  ‘Yes,’ Alex said again, keeping his voice even. ‘I’ve been told you might be the man to ask.’

  ‘I might be,’ the man said, rubbing a hand over his stubbly chin. ‘Depends who’s asking. And how much they’re paying. Drink?’ he said, nodding at the unlabelled bottle sitting in front of him on the table.

  ‘Sure,’ Alex answered.

  I saw his head turn as he studied the room – was he assessing our exits? Or the odds of us getting out alive? I couldn’t tell, but I was starting to question his judgement in bringing us here and, more particularly, the wisdom of drinking whatever the hell was in that bottle – it looked like a shrivelled-up worm was floating at the bottom of it.

  Alex finally walked to the table and I followed, sitting down in the chair beside him, acutely aware of the three men right behind us. They were all armed – two with guns, one with a knife the size of a sword. Our exit was blocked. There was only one other door directly behind the desk, but it was shut and possibly even locked. The room we were in was clearly where the deals went down. I wasn’t sure what kind of deals, but from the bits of foil and the weighing scales sitting on the table in front of us it wasn’t too hard to guess. My foot started tapping and I rested my hand on my thigh to try to still it.

  The man sloshed whatever was in the bottle into three smeared shot glasses. He pushed one across the table towards me. I looked over at Alex. His eyes were locked on the man and, though his face was as impassive as ever, I could sense the tension in his body. I could see it too – in the straight line of his jaw, the set of his mouth and the bulge of tendons in his forearm, resting casually on the table.

  ‘Salud,’ the man said, downing the liquid and slamming his glass down on the table. His eyes never left my face and I could feel my skin starting to prickle as though fire ants were grazing on my neck. Alex picked up his shot glass and drank it back in one gulp without taking his eyes off the man.

  ‘And you?’ the man asked, nodding at my untouched glass. ‘What’s your name, Señorita?’

  ‘Lila,’ I said, casting a nervous glance at Alex, wondering if I should have given my real name.

  ‘You not drinking your drink, Lila?’ the man asked, nodding his head at my almost overflowing shot glass.

  What was the etiquette here? ‘Um, I’m not thirsty,’ I hazarded.

  ‘I think you should drink,’ the man said.

  It was an order. I thought for one second about disobeying it, but then I remembered the three men behind me so I picked up the shot glass and tipped whatever was in it down my throat. Burning, burning! I spluttered and coughed. Alex started smacking me hard between my shoulder blades.

  The man laughed as I tried to breathe through the fumes filling my mouth and nose. ‘My name is Carlos,’ he said.

  Great. I was on first-name terms and drinking Tequila with a Mafia boss. My dad would be ecstatic.

  ‘So, you want papers? Passports?’

  ‘Yes,’ Alex said.

  Carlos grunted. Then he turned to me. ‘You running from something, Lila?’

  I held his gaze. ‘Not anymore,’ I answered. His expression showed an instant of puzzlement before the dead-eyed stare returned.

  ‘Ten thousand American dollars,’ Carlos said to Alex. ‘You pay now.’

  ‘Half now, half on receipt,’ Alex countered.

  Carlos appraised him slowly as I sat there, gripping the seat, willing Alex to just get out his wallet and pay up in full so we could leave with all our body parts still attached.

  Carlos finally laughed under his breath. ‘For a gringo you got balls. OK, sí, half now, half later.’ He lit a cigarette, his eyes falling back on me as he drew in a lungful of smoke.

  ‘How long?’ Alex asked.

  ‘I assume you want express delivery – so let’s say twenty-four hours. You got photos? Names – you don’t get to choose. You get what we give you, what we got in stock, but they’ll be American passports. Real nice. You’ll have no trouble.’

  Alex reached into his back pocket and pulled out an envelope. It had passport photos of both of us in it, taken just a few hours ago down in a metro station. He counted out five thousand dollars in hundred dollar bills and placed them on the table. Carlos checked it was all there. Then he said something to one of his men, the one with the naked woman writhing with a snake tattooed on his chest, and he came and took the money and photographs and disappeared through the internal door.

  ‘Tomorrow, we deliver to you.’

  ‘Midnight, at the McDonalds near the cathedral,’ Alex said, standing and pushing back his chair. I followed suit, glancing nervously at the internal door – how did we know they’d actually do it and not just take the money? I really didn’t want to have to come back and ask them to return our five thousand dollars.

  ‘You not going to stay?’ Carlos asked me. ‘Have another drink.’

  ‘No, we’re good, thanks,’ I answered, taking Alex’s hand and edging back towards the door. ‘We should be going.’

  ‘OK, OK, I see that you two have a thing going on. You’re a lucky man, Mr American.’

  Alex didn’t say anything. I turned to the door. The man who looked like a giant pork joint was unbolting it – slowly. The other man said something to Carlos in Spanish and Alex’s grip on my hand tightened as he pulled me closer towards him, his eyes planted firmly on the door, which still hadn’t been opened.

  A harsh laugh burst in my ear and stinking breath lapped my face. I screamed as a strong hand grabbed hold of me from behind, fingers digging into my waist, trying to pry me free from Alex’s grip. Alex shouted something and distantly I heard the scrape of metal, but before anyone could make a move I’d spun the guy with the snake tattoo off me and launched him halfway across the room. He went crashing into the far wall head first, before slumping to the ground. He moaned and rolled onto his side, clutching his head in his hands, blood trickling between the gaps in his fingers. Uh-oh. I couldn’t meet Alex’s eye. I wasn’t sure if he’d agree that what had just happened had constituted absolutely necessary.

  Instead I turned to Carlos. He was staring at me, unblinking, his shot glass dangling precariously in his hand.

  ‘Please tell your friend to get out of the way,’ I said, indicating the enormous man behind us who was barring the door. ‘I don’t want to hurt him.’

  Carlos studied me for a moment and the room fell ominously silent. Even the guy on the floor stopped moaning. Then Carlos threw back his head and started laughing like a madman, his fists hammering the table.

  ‘You want a job?’ he asked me when he had finally pulled himself together and wiped the tears from his eyes.

  I weighed my response carefully. ‘No thanks.’

  He shifted his gaze to Alex. ‘I see why you brought her,’ he said, nodding approval.
‘She’s a good bodyguard.’

  ‘Yeah,’ Alex said, smiling tightly, ‘she’s pretty ninja. You don’t want to get on her bad side.’

  4

  It took twelve hours, driving just under the speed limit, to make it to the coast – to a place so beautiful it looked like the setting for every suncream advert ever filmed. The white sand, topaz sea and blazing sun were such a contrast to Carlos’s drug den and to Mexico City that it took a while for me to absorb it. I stood with my toes buried in the sand, staring back at the three thatched cottages nestled under a grove of palms, waiting for Alex who’d gone to book us a room. Even through the fog of exhaustion I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder and stare down the deserted beach, convinced that at any moment the Unit would appear, black-uniformed men sprinting towards me.

  I turned back, squinting against the sun, and saw that Alex was walking towards me across the burning sand, one arm flung up to shield his eyes. I was wearing his Ray-Bans. He hadn’t asked for them back.

  ‘I got us a room,’ he called out.

  He pointed over his shoulder to one of the cottages with a palm thatch roof and a hammock stretched out across the balcony. It had a clear view over the Caribbean Sea and fronted the beach. The other cottages seemed unoccupied.

  If someone had told me a few weeks ago that I’d be in Mexico with Alex and that he’d be walking across the beach with a smile on his face, having just booked us a room, I’d have dropped dead from excitement. I would have needed defibrillators to bring me round. But here he was, walking across the sand towards me, and he was mine. And I hadn’t dropped down dead. On the contrary, I felt very, very alive.

  ‘They only had a double,’ he said, when he reached me.

  I met his eyes; the amber in the aquamarine was sparkling.

  ‘That’s too bad,’ I said, trying to look annoyed.

 
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