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       Losing Lila, p.5

           Sarah Alderson

  Alex knelt in the sand in front of her. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.

  Alicia grinned at him. ‘Apology accepted. And thank you for springing me out of that place. We’re cool.’

  Alex grinned back at her and stood up. Demos introduced him to Harvey and I watched the three of them fall into a small huddle and start talking as if a fortnight ago they hadn’t all been trying to kill each other.

  ‘Did you find us OK?’ I asked, turning to Suki.

  She raised a perfect eyebrow. ‘We’re here, aren’t we?’

  ‘I mean, was it difficult? We had to leave Mexico City. The Unit found us. There was a tracker in Alex’s arm.’

  ‘We know. Nate was there in the cathedral; he won’t stop going on about it – particularly the part where Alex took his T-shirt off.’

  My mouth fell open. Nate had been in the confessional with us?

  ‘He followed you here too,’ Suki went on, without pausing for breath, ‘but by the time he got back to us, we were way behind you. It took us a while to drive down here – nice place by the way – and we had to stop in Mexico City, of course.’ Her face puckered.

  ‘How is Amber?’ I asked.

  ‘Not good,’ Suki said with a sigh. ‘She’s angry. Very angry. With Demos. With the Unit. With everyone. She didn’t want to come with us.’

  ‘How did you get the Unit off your tail?’ I said, changing the subject as I saw Suki’s lip tremble.

  ‘They were never on it,’ she said. ‘We drove north, but they went south almost immediately. They were following you from the get-go. Once we realised, we turned straight round and tried to get to you before they did, but it wasn’t so easy. We got pulled over three times by the police and they tried to stop us at the border too.’

  ‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘How’d you get through?’

  ‘Demos.’ Suki shrugged. ‘He just froze them and we drove on by.’

  Not for the first time I felt a stab of jealousy at Demos’s ability. It made things so much easier. He would never have to befriend a psychotic Mafia drug lord or be manhandled by his minions.

  ‘A who?’ Suki burst out. ‘What did you just say about a Mafia drug lord manhandling your minions?’

  ‘Nothing.’ I frowned at her. ‘I didn’t say anything.’

  It was making me wonder now why we’d bothered with the fake passports. We could have just waited for Demos and crossed the border with him.

  ‘What are you talking about?’ Suki asked, her smooth forehead creasing.

  ‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said quickly. ‘Come on, show me where Nate is. I want to say hi.’

  She bounced up, grinning, her black hair flapping like a crow’s wing. ‘He’s going to be so mad he didn’t get to see Alex in his underwear.’

  ‘Wait, hang on a second,’ I said, grabbing her by the wrist, ‘what about Rachel?’

  I noticed everyone had fallen silent. Alex’s own head had pricked up at the sound of Rachel’s name. Last time we’d seen Rachel she’d been fighting tooth and nail as she was hauled onto the bus.

  ‘Urgh, her,’ Suki groaned. ‘Yeah, she’s still with us. And she’s still a pain in the culo. I’m learning Spanish,’ she said brightly. ‘Culo means ass.’

  ‘Yeah, I’m aware of that. Did you get any information out of her?’ I asked, unable to keep the hope out of my voice. I looked anxiously over at Demos and the others.

  ‘Nothing helpful,’ Suki said. ‘She just keeps singing nursery rhymes in her head every time Alicia and I try to read her mind. Over and over. If I hear her singing she’ll be coming round the mountain one more time, I think I’m going to have to shoot her.’

  Get to the back of the line, I thought to myself.

  ‘We know where they’re holding your mum, though,’ said Demos. ‘We got that out of her. She’s still on the base at Pendleton – down in prisoner holding.’ He glanced at Alex. ‘We were hoping you could help with the plans of the building and the entry codes.’

  Alex shook his head, his expression grim. ‘They’ll have changed the codes and barred my access,’ he said. ‘And we’ll need more than just a layout of the building. We need a plan of how we’re going to get in there. I won’t be able to go anywhere near the base. And the whole place is rigged with alarms so none of you can either.’ He paused. ‘Let me speak to Rachel, see if I can get something out of her.’

  And if that doesn’t work, I thought to myself, just let me at her. It would make what I did to that Humvee back in Joshua Tree look like tossing a pancake.


  ‘Oh, Nate, if only you could see what I’ve just seen!’ Suki sighed, dropping down onto the bed Nate was stretched out on. We were in the room next to mine and Alex’s. The others were all outside, sitting under some palm trees, talking. We could see them through the open door, but couldn’t hear them over the roar of the surf outside and the whir of the fan overhead.

  Nate rolled over sleepily and smiled widely as he saw me.

  ‘Hey,’ I said.

  ‘Hey,’ he answered, rubbing his eyes. ‘What’s going on?’

  ‘Oh, just Alex half naked, that’s all,’ Suki smirked.

  Nate sat bolt upright. ‘I missed it?’ He sighed and lay back down. ‘Oh well, I’ve seen him completely naked already.’

  I leapt off the bed. ‘Please don’t tell me you were following us the entire time, Nate?’ I begged. Oh God, what had he seen? I squeezed my eyes shut, recalling some of the more graphic moments Nate might have been witness to, and let the blush swallow me whole. A loud gasp from Suki made me cover my ears and scrunch my eyes even tighter shut, as if that might somehow stop her from getting a visual on the images running wantonly through my mind.

  ‘La la la la la la la la la,’ I started singing, trying to picture a blank white wall instead of Alex in all his naked perfection.

  ‘Nate has been following you all the time,’ Suki said, cutting through my la-ing, ‘and yes, he has seen everything. And reported back to me. So I’m all up to speed.’

  I opened my eyes and started scanning the room for something to launch at her head.

  ‘Nice work, Lila,’ Suki continued, lowering her voice. ‘Shame you can’t get him to – you know . . .’

  ‘I can’t believe you guys!’ I yelled.

  ‘All in the name of duty,’ Nate beamed. ‘Someone had to make sure we didn’t lose you. If it wasn’t for me following you guys, we wouldn’t have known where you’d run off to and we might never have found you – and then what? Seriously? Who chooses a romantic beach getaway at a time like this?’

  I glared at him. And at Suki. A serious talk about the concepts of privacy and invasion was going to be occurring when I had calmed down.

  ‘We’re sorry, please forgive us,’ Suki said, nudging Nate, who nodded, the corners of his mouth turning down as he attempted a contrite look.

  ‘Well, don’t do it again, OK?’ I hissed. ‘You’ve found us now. There’s no more need to spy. Agreed?’

  Neither of them said a word. They just shot each other a look out of the corner of their eyes.

  ‘Agreed?’ I growled. Nate opened his mouth to argue, but Suki elbowed him in the ribs and he shut his mouth quickly and nodded.

  ‘And you,’ I said, turning to Suki, ‘stay out of my head, OK? It’s really starting to get annoying.’

  ‘Easier said than done, but I’ll try.’

  I held her gaze, imagining in graphic, bloody detail what I would do to her if she or Nate spied on me again, or on Alex. Or on the two of us together.

  ‘OK, I get it!’ Suki yelled, throwing her hands up. She patted the bed and, after a few seconds, I relented and went and sat back down.

  ‘What happened to the bus?’ I asked, referring to the giant RV tour bus that they’d been travelling in up until now.

  ‘We had to get rid of it – it was kind of obvious as Batmobiles go. Harvey was very sad, but Demos bought him a BMW instead – actually, he stole it, he didn’t buy it. And he also stole a van,
because we needed somewhere to put Rachel. You know, it’s not such a good idea driving around with a gagged girl in the front seat of a car. We didn’t want people thinking that we were trying to kidnap her.’

  ‘We did kidnap her,’ I reminded Suki. ‘So, where is she?’ I tried to sound like I didn’t care. I was itching to go and see Rachel right that second, but I also knew that if I did, I might not be able to control myself.

  ‘I think she’s still in the van,’ Suki said, her eyes narrowing at me as she read my mind. ‘She’s not very compliant with our wishes. Every time we take the gag off she starts screaming about how her father’s going to kill us when he finds us.’

  ‘But not before he rips open our brains and finds out what makes us so freaking special,’ Nate butted in.

  ‘Nate!’ Suki shouted, glaring at him. ‘Lila doesn’t need to hear this.’

  ‘Whoops, sorry,’ he said, biting his lip.

  I shrugged it off as best I could and glanced through the open door to where I could see Alex. He was sitting on a sunbed, locked in conversation with Demos, but he sensed me looking and glanced over. He said something quickly to Demos then stood up and strolled towards us, hesitating at the door until Suki waved him in. He crossed to where I was sitting on the bed and dropped to a crouch by my side. Suki and Nate fell silent. I could have sworn I heard one of them sigh.

  ‘Nate, hi, nice to meet you properly,’ Alex said, extending his hand. Nate blushed to the roots of his hair and I tried to suppress a laugh.

  ‘Hi,’ Suki answered for him, in her tinkling sing-song voice, ‘it’s nice to meet you too – properly, I mean. Nate’s already met you, so to speak. He follows you a lot.’

  Nate blushed even harder, glaring at Suki. Alex laughed it off, shooting me a puzzled look. I shrugged. It was better all round not to go there.

  ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ Alex asked me, his face suddenly turning serious.

  ‘Are you kidding?’ I answered, standing up.

  ‘Only the last time you saw Rachel you wanted to kill her,’ he said, looking at me doubtfully.

  ‘Yep, I still want to kill her,’ I said, ‘but not before she tells us everything we need to know.’

  He looked even more worried. I shrugged. What did he expect? That suddenly I’d feel like sharing milk and cookies with the woman? This was the person who was behind the Unit, behind my mother’s imprisonment and probable torture. Yes, I wanted to kill her.

  Alex considered me for a minute, probably trying to work out whether or not he could trust me to control myself. I was still trying to work the same thing out, but I wasn’t about to tell him that and I hoped Suki wouldn’t either.

  ‘OK, let’s do this,’ he finally said, clearly having decided that he could trust me. ‘She’s next door, in Demos’s room.’

  Rachel sat on the edge of the bed, her ankles and hands bound together and a gag in her mouth. She was wearing a pair of ugly grey sweatpants, cheap white sneakers and a T-shirt three sizes too large, with the slogan ‘Tijuana makes me HAPPY’ stamped on the front in big red letters. The whole picture combined to make me very happy.

  Rachel’s eyes were vacant, her face blank. She looked like a recently salvaged thrift store mannequin, one where the sheen had worn off the plastic limbs and the wig had taken on a life of its own.

  ‘OK, go ahead and unfreeze her, Demos,’ Alex said, and it was only then that I noticed Demos looming over her, giving her one of his you will do exactly as I say stares.

  Demos stepped aside and Rachel suddenly blinked into consciousness. A sneer instantly replaced the vacuous, glazed expression. Her eyes widened immediately at the sight of me and Alex standing in front of her.

  My gut tightened, my jaw tensing so hard that my teeth ground against each other audibly. Both Demos and Alex turned and shot me warning looks. OK, OK, I whispered silently to myself. Control. I’ve got it under control. I can do this. I will not kill her. I will not kill her. At least not quite yet.

  Suki was focusing hard on Rachel, her brow furrowed with concentration. I wondered if Rachel was busy singing nursery rhymes in her head, but she seemed too distracted by the sight of me and Alex in the room and her eyes were darting all over the place as she struggled to get her bearings. I noticed her gaze fly to Alex’s arm, where the bottom of a bandage could be seen poking out from under his sleeve, and a frown gratifyingly puckered her forehead.

  Alex walked over to her and pulled the gag down. ‘Rachel,’ he said, by way of greeting.

  ‘Alex,’ she replied coolly, ‘how lovely to see you.’ Her eyes flicked towards me like a serpent’s tongue. ‘Still babysitting the mutant, I see.’

  ‘You not going to play nice, Rachel?’ Alex asked in a pleasant tone.

  She blew her hair out of her face, unable to use her hands. ‘I just don’t get it, Alex,’ she said.

  ‘You don’t get what?’ he asked.

  ‘What you see in her.’

  I felt her gaze travelling up my body like a rash. I hadn’t ever realised what hackles were, but now I was feeling them rise. The urge to take something heavy and smack Rachel over the head with it was growing. There was a wide-screen television fixed to the wall. I wondered how hard it would be to tear it from its hinges and spin it at her, Frisbee-style. Then the thought vanished, along with any desire to do violence. I felt floaty good. I glanced at Demos out of the corner of my eye. He raised his eyebrows at me in warning. He was right, I knew. In this situation I was the one who could afford a little magnanimity. I was, after all, the one with Alex. Not the one bound and gagged and wearing questionable clothing. But still . . .

  ‘You know what I don’t get?’ Alex said after a beat. ‘I don’t get why you’re doing this.’

  ‘Doing what?’ Rachel answered.

  ‘You know what. Why is the Unit doing this?’

  ‘Oh, come on, Alex, don’t be naive. Money makes the world go around.’

  He stepped backwards, shaking his head. ‘That’s what this is all about?’

  Why was he asking her this? We knew that’s what this was all about. Demos had already told me the Unit was trying to find a way of tweaking the genetic code that made us this way so they could create new weapons, which they would then sell to the highest bidder. Ergo – all about money.

  ‘What else would it be about?’ Rachel laughed, a high, braying noise that could have shattered glass.

  ‘Have you even considered the consequences?’

  ‘Oh please, don’t get all righteous on me. Wars will happen regardless. Man has always found a way to inflict harm. This way we get to at least choose the winning side. We get to make the world safer, Alex.’ Her eyes were burning brightly, lit by some kind of scary evangelical fervour.

  ‘Safer according to who?’ Alex snapped back. ‘According to whichever madman pays you the most?’

  Rachel considered him for a moment. ‘Hmmmm. You know your problem, Alex?’ she said after a while. ‘You always get bogged down by morality. You could do with losing a few scruples. You’d sleep easier.’

  ‘I’m sleeping pretty easy, thanks,’ Alex said. ‘Be sleeping even easier if I knew the Unit was no longer in existence.’

  ‘Keep dreaming,’ she sneered at him. ‘You think you and your band of sub-mediocre Heroes rejects here have any chance of putting us out of action?’

  Alex looked at Demos and then me before turning back to her. ‘I think we made a pretty good start, don’t you?’ he said. ‘We’re here, after all. And you’re the one trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey.’

  ‘So, you managed to put a few teams out of action.’ Rachel shrugged. ‘There are plenty more where they came from. You’re just foot soldiers. Useful, but expendable.’ She took pleasure in the last word, spitting it at him and watching greedily for his reaction.

  Alex stared at her for a few seconds. His face remained inscrutable. But I could see that his eyes had turned to ice.

  ‘You can’t take one step on that base, Alex,’ Rac
hel continued, the southern twang of her voice adding a warmth that the words belied. ‘You’ll be history. The military police will come down on you so hard you won’t know what hit you. You fired on your own men. You think what we do is bad? Just wait till you’re locked in a six by eight cell with a psychotic Marine for the rest of your life, you’ll be wishing you had less scruples then.’ She laughed and for a second she looked like a deranged Barbie doll. Then her face blanked out, the fire dying in her eyes and the sneer dropping off her face.

  I looked over at Demos who was now giving her one of his just be quiet stares. Once again I envied the man.

  ‘What are you getting?’ Alex asked, turning to Suki.

  Suki pulled a face. ‘Just the same old craziness. She has some interesting ideas about what she wants to do to you – and let’s just say they’re not the same ideas that Lila and Nate have.’

  ‘OK, unfreeze her again,’ Alex said to Demos.

  Once more Rachel blinked then scowled up at Demos, baring her perfect white teeth as if she wanted to tear out his jugular with them.

  ‘What’s the Unit working on?’ Alex asked, his voice gentle, almost kind.

  I shook my head. Was this how they taught them to interrogate in the Marines? Maybe it was time we skipped the non-violent Gandhi approach and started on the Jack Bauer method. I would be happy to take the lead.

  ‘Whoa.’ Suki suddenly reeled backwards.

  ‘What?’ I asked, thinking that maybe she’d heard my thoughts.

  ‘What is it?’ Alex asked simultaneously.

  ‘They’re doing some kind of weird experiments – I’m not sure – it’s not clear.’ Suki had turned as white as a sheet, her eyes locked on Rachel.

  Rachel smiled smugly up at her. ‘Well done, you read correctly. Give the girl a gold star – I was wondering whether you actually were a mind-reader or not. We are experimenting – and we’re this close to a breakthrough. You know,’ she said, looking at me now, ‘your mum’s been really helpful, Lila.’

  I felt my heart come to a shuddering halt and Demos’s hand squeeze my shoulder, another warning.

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