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Lila shortcuts, p.5
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       Lila Shortcuts, p.5

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  The press went wild. You might remember it? It was big news at the time. A prison riot during which a prisoner (prisoner 18974), escaped custody.

  Once we had Harvey it felt like we were finally becoming a force to be reckoned with. What had started as revenge quickly became an offensive on my part – a co-ordinated attack to bring Stirling to its knees and destroy its research programme. We recruited more members – you have all their names – Suki, Nate, Alicia – but the Unit recruited even more. They recruited soldiers, trained killers, and they became relentless in their hunt for us. We were no longer on the offensive but on the defensive, always on the run. Even so we might still have managed to destroy them, to fight back. I think they knew this.

  That’s why they recruited you.

  The first time I saw you, Jack, I realised it straight away. You were walking across the quad, a freshman at Washington State. It was Fall, the leaves tumbling from the trees in confetti gusts. You were walking with another boy – I now know it was Alex. The two of you were with a group of girls. You had your arm around one, were making her laugh. I watched you and the pieces fell into place like fruit on a slot machine. Three in a row. The thunder of coins cascading.

  You were eighteen. I did the math. But even if I hadn’t it would have been obvious if you’ve ever seen photographs of me. I wonder whether you’ve ever noticed it yourself; the dark hair, the olive skin. You have your mother’s eyes but you are very definitely your father’s son.

  The knowledge that your mother had lied to me for all those years was nothing compared to the joy I felt at seeing you and at realising I had a son.

  I wasn’t angry. I understood why Melissa had left, why she had never told me about you. I would not have made a good father. Or perhaps I would. Perhaps knowing I had a child, that I was responsible for another human being, would have been my incentive to change, to be the person that Melissa hoped once I would be. Perhaps that would have redeemed me. But I can’t blame Melissa for not wanting to put that to the test. Michael, the man you grew up knowing as your father, was . . . is a good man. He did a good job raising you.

  I imagine the two men from Stirling Enterprises who visited you that bright fall day wearing dark suits and wraparound sunglasses spun you a story of national security but also tugged sharply at those filial bonds. Did they dangle me before you like a carrot? See who you can help us catch if you join the Unit? The man who murdered your mother in cold blood. The man who would destroy the world.

  How can the truth compete with a story like that?

  For two years I’ve kept my silence. I thought it was safer than having you know the truth. If you had known the truth then what might you have done? Gone after Stirling? After Burns? I think you might have. If you are anything like me, which I think you are, then yes, I’m fairly sure this is what you would have done. And I had already handled that and was handling Stirling. I didn’t need you getting involved, endangering yourself for nothing. You’d go from being the hunter to being the hunted. They would try to kill you just as they did your mother.

  My last promise to Melissa was that I would protect you and your sister, that I would keep you both safe.

  So forgive me. I am a man. I am a father protecting his son.

  I’ll leave you with one last gift. An image I hold in my heart, a memory I take out and study every day, turning it over in my mind like a piece of sea glass that becomes smoother and more polished with every turn.

  Your mother. She’s nineteen, the age you are now. She’s walking away from me, looking back over her shoulder, her eyes bright, burning with conviction and yet her smile is a gossamer shield to her sadness. She’s wearing a scarf, a coat, her cheeks are red with the cold. She’s clutching books to her chest with one hand and the other hand is pressed to her stomach, a gesture I didn’t recognise the significance of until much later.

  She was walking away from me, leaving me in order to save you.

  As your father, now it’s my turn to do the same.

  CATCHING SUKI

  Demos is standing by the side of the bus tapping his finger on his watch as I make my approach. I am walking as fast as I can but the grass is slowing me down because Mr Blahnik designed these shoes with red carpets in mind, not fields. But nobody seems to realise this apart from me, because we keep parking in fields by the side of freeways and never on Rodeo Drive.

  ‘Suki,’ Demos says, before I can put one toe on the step, ‘I swear to God if you buy one more pair of shoes I’m going to have Ryder sift every goddamn thought of fashion out of your head. You’ll be wearing overalls and plastic clogs from Walmart for the rest of your days.’

  I stagger back against the side of the RV.

  I knew I should have snuck in later with Nate’s help. The problem with living on this stupid bus with a million other people, one of them another mind-reader, is that there’s no privacy. And that’s not the only problem. There’s no closet space, either.

  ‘You wouldn’t sift me,’ I say to Demos, tipping up my chin, ‘because you need me. And I need shoes. Ergo,’ I use this word I just learnt from Nate, ‘Ergo, you need my shoes.’

  ‘You’re not the only mind-reader, Suki, we’d manage without you,’ Demos warns, but he’s smiling as he says it. ‘We’re going to need a container ship to carry all your shoes if this keeps on.’

  He is always grumbling: ooh the baddies, ooh we have to run, oooh too many shoes . . . I roll my eyes and move past him to climb up into the bus.

  ‘How do you even pay for all this stuff?’ he asks.

  I turn on the step and raise an eyebrow in a perfect arch and give him a look I learnt from watching Judge Judy, though my way is far more attractive. ‘You are asking me that question?’

  I see the smile twitch at the corner of his mouth. He looks less serious and less like a brain freezer when he smiles, which is about a once a month occurrence. I wondered at first what made Alicia go all Bella Swan over him because Alicia is as hot as any supermodel and Demos is no Edward Cullen but then I read her mind one day, totally by accident of course, and I saw just exactly why, and now it’s hard to look Demos in the eye properly, and when I’m around Alicia – who is also a mind-reader – I have to do a lot of la-la la-ing.

  ‘Go on, get inside,’ Demos says, whacking the bag I’m holding.

  Demos has a history involving banks. And that history does not involve paying money into one, using an ATM, or working as a bank manager. I found this out by accident too, talking to Harvey one day. He is a mine of information.

  Inside the bus, Nate is with Ryder and they are playing on his Wii and I don’t need to ask or look to know that Ryder is whipping Nate’s ass.

  Nate leaps up when he sees me. ‘You went shopping without me?’ he squeals. ‘That’s so unfair. What did you buy? Let me see!’

  He is like a puppy that needs a pee but I drop the bag on the sofa and take out the box containing my new shoes that feel like they’re made from baby bunnies but thankfully aren’t because that would be gross as well as making them exceedingly hard to clean.

  ‘You so promised you’d take me shopping next time,’ Nate says, pouting at me. ‘I’m totally telling your dad that you stole his credit card.’

  ‘I did not steal his credit card,’ I say, clutching the shoes to my chest.

  ‘You stole the PIN number from his head. Same difference,’ Nate says snatching for my shoes.

  Not the same difference and my father is rich – he won’t notice four hundred dollars.’

  ‘Four hundred today, maybe,’ Ryder pipes up from the sofa where he is still playing with his Wii. ‘But how much did you spend yesterday? And the day before that? Even the International Monetary Fund is going to start noticing his credit card bill soon.’

  ‘What is this International Money Fund?’ I ask in alarm. ‘Can you sift it?’

  ‘OK, people, listen up.’

  It’s Demos. He’s standing in the doorway.

  ‘Are we leaving?’ I ask. I thi
nk it’s about time we checked into a hotel with a swimming pool and room service. It isn’t as if we don’t have the money. And even if we didn’t, and the International whatever Fund cut off my dad’s credit card, Demos could always pay a ‘trip’ to the bank. I keep making this argument but Demos just gives me this look, like he’s thinking about permanently freezing me into a statue. ‘Soon,’ he answers. ‘We’re going to head down to San Diego tomorrow.’

  ‘Oooh, are we going to spy on the Unit some more?’ Nate asks, shooting me a look, and I don’t need to be a mind-reader to appreciate exactly what he’s thinking.

  He’s thinking hot men in uniform. Now I am too.

  ‘You two!’ Alicia suddenly says from behind me.

  I whip around. I hadn’t heard her coming, probably because the images from Nate’s head were so overwhelming that everything else was blanked out.

  ‘Need we remind you that the Unit is the enemy?’ she says. ‘Not some boy band for you to dribble over.’

  ‘I’m not dribbling!’ Nate protests.

  He is dribbling. But anyone with eyes would understand and forgive him that. The Unit might be out to get us but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re also very buff and two of them in particular are beyond buff – indeed they occupy a whole new federation of hotness. They are almost as hot as me. Only in a man way.

  ‘Suki,’ Alicia says, rolling her eyes.

  ‘What?’ I protest. ‘They are cute.’

  Demos makes a funny shape with his mouth as if he’s just eaten a truckload of wasabi.

  ‘Suki, these men would kill you as soon as look at you. Let’s see how cute you find them when they’re sticking a gun to your head and threatening to blow your brains out.’ He pauses, giving me his flat-eyed stare, ‘or worse.’

  Even the images in Nate’s head detour at this point out of the bedroom and somewhere much more emo. The room falls silent. Ryder pauses the game and throws the controller onto the sofa. Amber has appeared from somewhere and she drops onto the sofa next to Ryder and rests her head on his shoulder. Normally listening in on those two is like listening to a Taylor Swift album playing on repeat, but now they’re both subdued. Right now they’re both thinking about the Unit.

  I look at Demos and hear the anger crackling loud in his thoughts – images striking like lightning before vanishing almost instantly – mainly he’s thinking about that woman – the woman he often thinks of: the dead woman with the green eyes. And he’s also thinking about Jack Loveday, one of the leaders of the Unit.

  Demos thinks about him and this woman a lot. But his thoughts and feelings are so tangled up – so shockingly violent and devastatingly sad – that it gives me a headache just to look at him. Sometimes I wonder why he doesn’t do some of his mind control on himself or get Ryder to sift those memories and remove them completely. I think I would. But I know Demos prefers to remember, needs to remember.

  The Unit are after Demos like he’s an A class drug. They’re after all of us, but Demos is the one they want the most.

  The rest of us have powers – Nate can fly outside his body, Alicia can read minds, Ryder can sift memories – removing whole chunks of your past. Harvey and Bill can rob banks and make things move just by looking at them, and Amber can see people’s auras, which are apparently big balls of light. But Demos – he can freeze people with just a single look. He can stop people from thinking, from moving – even from feeling. And that’s why the Unit want him so much. He’s what Ryder calls the motherlode.

  Sometimes I wonder if Demos did something to my head to convince me to join his group of psys, which is what the Unit calls us, because I’m not sure how else he got me to agree to live on this bus with no closet space, but here I am.

  It was Amber who found me. I was shopping and her and Demos cornered me in a changing room. Amber can spot a psy a mile away just by scanning auras. If you’d told me that was possible before I would have thought you were crazy but I’ve seen her do it – with Nate – so I know it’s true. At first I thought Demos and Amber were whacko people trying to kidnap me. But then they introduced me to Alicia and Ryder and Bill and it was the first time in my whole entire life I’d ever met anyone else with a superhot mind power, never mind a whole group of them.

  ‘We need to find out what the Unit are planning next,’ Demos says, interrupting my thoughts. ‘We can’t keep waiting for them to catch up with us. We need to fight back – put an end to this – to them.’ He turns to me, ‘And Suki, we need you for this.’

  I cross my arms over my chest. ‘I thought you just said you could do without me? Don’t you have another mind-reader you can use?’ I widen my eyes at Alicia.

  ‘The Unit know Alicia,’ Demos answers. ‘They don’t know you. We need you to get close to them.’

  I hear Nate snicker behind me.

  ‘So, ergo, you do need my shoes,’ I say, grinning, ‘Admit it.’

  ‘OK, Suki,’ Demos sighs, ‘I need your shoes.’

  The bar is called Belushi’s. It has a flashing neon sign outside, advertising Budweiser and T-bone steaks. It is not the kind of establishment that has valet parking and a security man on the door who’ll let me skip the line. There is no line. I don’t think this is the kind of place people would ever line up to enter. Though maybe to leave.

  I walk slowly towards the door, like a lamb entering a lion’s den. I might be torn to shreds or end up being manhandled by the Unit back to their headquarters and God only knows what would happen to me if I ended up there. We’ve never been able to get inside because of their alarm thing. But a quick scan of the bar reveals that most people inside are thinking about three things: who’s winning the game, who’s buying the next round and which girl they’re going to try their luck with next.

  I walk inside, throwing back my shoulders and striking a pose I should have patented because I saw it the other day on America’s Top Model and they’d blatantly stolen it from me.

  Men in uniform. Lots of men in uniform – on every surface, playing pool, propping up the bar, chatting up girls with nylon hair extensions, drinking beer, yelling, laughing and thinking generally about one thing. A few men notice me as I stand in the doorway. I pause a moment to lap up the thoughts. Yes, I was right about this dress. It’s grrrrrr.

  I hear Alicia all of a sudden in my head, yelling at me to focus. She’s sitting outside in the getaway vehicle with Demos. My own personal walkie-talkie.

  OK, I yell back, I hear you. Now shhh, so I can focus.

  I scan the room. There they are. Lieutenant Jack Loveday and Lieutenant Alex Wakeman. I’ve only seen their photos so far and the pictures that are in Demos’s head, but the truth is Demos did not do them justice. In fact, Demos’s head needs a tune up or a reboot or an entirely new operating system altogether.

  Jack’s profile is turned towards me. He’s glowering at his iPhone. He’s got dark hair and the kind of face Nate would roll over and play dead for. Alex is facing me, sitting on a stool, one leg propped up on the rail. He’s wearing a white T-shirt and it’s clinging to his body so hard I’m actually jealous – if it’s possible to be jealous, that is, of a piece of clothing.

  Alex has blond hair and eyes so blue I can see their colour from here. I scan his body. Forget his mind.

  His jeans are in the way.

  For not the first time in my life I wish my superhot power wasn’t mind-reading but X-ray vision.

  Suki!

  Ah. Alicia is in my head again.

  Remember why you’re there! she yells.

  My mission, which I chose to accept, is to infiltrate the enemy. Jack and Alex are the enemy. I pause, wondering how Demos defines infiltration.

  Not that way, Alicia answers for him.

  I wander up to the bar, standing several feet away from Jack and Alex.

  Jack suddenly turns. He notices me and his eyes graze up my body. Then he turns back to Alex. ‘Check out the cute girl,’ he says.

  I turn my head and pretend I’m not listeni
ng.

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

  ‘I have,’ Jack protests. ‘I’m looking for you. It’s about time you hooked up with someone. It’s been ages.’

  ‘You know the rules,’ Alex answers.

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

  ‘Not my style, Jack,’ Alex says.

  ‘Well then, what about Rachel?’ Jack asks. ‘That would be allowed. She works for the Unit.’

  I slide slightly around so I can peek at them out of the corner of my eye.

  ‘She’s blonde, hot, seriously rich . . . you telling me you’ve never considered it?’ Jack asks with a grin.

  ‘You’re so shallow,’ Alex says, laughing and taking another swig from his bottle. ‘Does Sara realise this? Maybe I should tell her.’

  Jack smirks at him. Alex nods his head at the iPhone in Jack’s hand. ‘What did it say exactly?’ he asks.

  ‘Here, read it—’ Jack says, handing it to him.

  I can’t see what he’s looking at so I scan Alex’s head as he reads. It’s an email.

  Surprise! I’m coming to LA. My flight gets in around midday. Lila x

  In my head I hear Alicia conferring with Demos outside but I zone them out so I can concentrate on Alex and Jack and what they’re saying about this girl Lila.

  ‘Something’s up,’ Alex says, handing the phone back to Jack.

  ‘Not necessarily,’ Jack answers, pocketing it. ‘You think this is the first time Lila’s been impulsive? Seriously, dude, you do remember my sister, right? Short, blonde, impulsive as shock therapy? Stubborn as a mule who won’t take no for an answer?’

  Alex raises an eyebrow. Without reading his mind I can tell he’s thinking that that’s like the ear wax laughing at the snot.

  Jack sits up straighter on his bar stool. ‘Hey, I’m not short or blond,’ he says. He is standing in such a way that forces me to admire his backside. Jack has what Alicia calls an ego. But, let me tell you, this boy’s ego is writing cheques his body can most definitely cash.

 
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