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       Losing Lila, p.6

           Sarah Alderson
 

  ‘Soon we won’t be needing her anymore,’ Rachel went on. ‘We’ll be looking for other freaks to experiment on. Maybe we could start with you.’

  Demos cut her off before she could say anything more, freezing her with her mouth wide open and twisted into a snarl. Alex stepped quickly forward and pushed the gag back in.

  I spun round and headed for the door before I lost it completely. The television was wobbling on its bracket, and I wasn’t sure if I could get through the door without using it to decapitate her.

  Outside the room I turned to Alex. ‘So, what do we do now?’ I asked, crossing my arms over my chest. ‘Can we use Rachel as collateral? Offer her in exchange for my mum?’

  Alex shook his head. ‘I’ve thought about that already, but I can’t see how it’ll work. I know him. Richard Stirling wouldn’t put Rachel ahead of his business interests.’

  ‘Who’s Richard Stirling?’ I asked.

  ‘Rachel’s father,’ Demos answered, appearing behind Alex. ‘Richard Stirling is the man who set up the Unit. He’s the man who bribed the senator your mother was working for, who ordered your mother’s kidnap and who then faked her murder.’ I watched the way Demos’s jaw tensed as he spoke and realised how shocked and angry he still was. He seemed to be the only person other than me who felt it in the same way. I’d had a week to absorb the news that my mum was actually alive, and I was still reeling with disbelief. It looked like Demos was struggling to come to terms with it too. He carried on talking.

  ‘Stirling has a business empire so wide and so pervasive that not even the taxman can follow its loops and trails. He has business interests in every country America is at war with, officially and unofficially. He’s on first-name terms with half the military dictators on the planet.’

  ‘I met him once,’ Alex spoke up. ‘Two years ago. He came to the base. He didn’t come all that often – he left Rachel in charge of business there. He lives in Washington.’

  ‘We can’t use Rachel as an exchange,’ Suki piped up, ‘because, let’s face it, who’d want her back? So, what do we do? How do we rescue Lila’s mum?’

  ‘And Jack,’ Demos added, before I could.

  I looked round at everyone then took a deep breath. ‘I have an idea,’ I said.

  8

  ‘No way.’ Alex stood up from where he was kneeling in front of me and walked away.

  I felt the painful stretch of the invisible ties – electrons or protons or whatever they were – that connected me to Alex. They snapped and fizzed with every step he took further from me. I got up and went after him. He had his back turned to me and was standing in the doorway of our room, looking out over the ocean. I’d brought him back here to talk to him in private about my idea. Now I was glad that I had.

  ‘Alex,’ I said, putting my arms round his waist and resting my cheek against his shoulder blade, ‘just hear me out.’

  He ran his thumb along the length of my arm and then turned to face me, his expression hard. But after a few seconds it softened and he nodded. We went and sat on the edge of the bed, side by side.

  I took a deep breath. ‘They don’t know about me. Only Rachel knows what I am.’ I stopped abruptly, thinking back to Joshua Tree, wishing that I’d never given myself away. It was a big mistake. I could tell from Alex’s pursed lips that he wished the same. ‘You said it yourself,’ I continued, taking his hand, ‘otherwise the Unit would have fired that thing at me. They don’t know anything other than that Demos kidnapped me and that you and Jack busted Alicia and Thomas out in order to rescue me. They have no clue that I’m one of them – that I’m a . . . psy.’ I hated using the word; it made me sound like I should be locked up in a padded cell wearing only a straitjacket, but for want of another term, I used it anyway.

  ‘It’s too dangerous,’ Alex said, standing up and marching across the room once more. ‘If they find out about you . . .’ His words trailed off as he spun round to face me.

  ‘They won’t.’

  ‘They will. You take one step inside their headquarters and you’ll trigger the alarm.’

  I frowned. ‘You said the alarm only triggers if someone uses their power – well, what if I don’t?’

  I could see him pausing to think about it. ‘Is that right?’ I pressed. ‘Could I get inside?’

  ‘Yes,’ he finally agreed, ‘but it’s too dangerous, Lila. I can’t let you do this.’

  I sighed. ‘I have to go, Alex – I have to try. It’s the only way. You said we needed a way in. Maybe I’m the way in. If I’m on the base, if I’m in the headquarters, then maybe I can find that chink – maybe. I know it’s a long shot, but it’s the only idea we’ve got right now.’

  Alex held my gaze, his eyes the blue of the sea just outside. ‘What will you do if I say no?’ he asked.

  I hesitated. He saw the answer in my eyes and the flare of anger that crossed his face sent a stab of pain right through me. ‘Please. I need to go back,’ I said, walking across the room and taking his hand. ‘I can tell them you let me go. That I was slowing you down – that you were scared of them catching up with you. I’ll say that you knew you were in trouble for breaking the rules, for turning on your own men, so you’re running. They’ll have to let me see Jack. I’m his sister.’

  ‘They know you were with Demos. They’ll assume he told you about what the Unit is really doing, and about your mum.’

  ‘I’ll act like he didn’t say anything. I’ll tell them that he tried to kill me like he killed my mother.’

  ‘You’re the world’s worst liar,’ Alex countered, pulling his hand from mine.

  I’d already considered that. I’d been working on this plan for a few days. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’ll tell the truth, just not the whole truth. That way I won’t have to lie.’

  He cocked an eyebrow at me. ‘Sara will see through you. She’s trained to interrogate people who are far more skilled than you at lying.’

  I shook this thought off. ‘We don’t know what Sara knows,’ I argued, ‘or how involved she is. She could have been fooled like you and Jack.’ I could hear the desperation in my voice and tried to rein it in. I needed to sound confident not desperate. ‘We might be able to get Sara on our side. She loves Jack. I can’t believe she’s one of them.’

  Alex sighed. ‘I can’t either. But if you’d told me two weeks ago what the Unit was really doing, I wouldn’t have believed that either. It’s too dangerous, Lila. There has to be another way.’

  I took a step closer towards him. ‘Alex, you know there isn’t. If there was another way, believe me I’d take it. But I have to do this. This is my mother and brother we’re talking about.’

  Alex stared at me fiercely. ‘This is you we’re talking about.’ I felt my resolve falter.

  ‘I’m coming with you,’ he said. ‘You’re not doing this alone.’

  I smiled up at him. ‘I was hoping you’d say that.’

  9

  Key was waiting when we joined the others back in Nate and Suki’s room. He jumped up as soon as he saw me.

  ‘Your dad’s with him,’ were the first words out of his mouth.

  I stared at him, wondering what he was talking about. I looked around the room to see who he might be talking to. Whose dad was with Jack?

  But when I looked back at Key, he was still staring straight at me. ‘Your dad,’ he said, ‘he’s in the hospital with Jack.’

  ‘What?’ Alex interrupted.

  ‘I just got back from another recce of the base. Your dad is at the hospital. I didn’t hang around long – figured you’d want to know.’

  ‘My dad?’ A bubble of realisation burst through the meniscus of my brain. Oh God.

  ‘Didn’t you speak to him?’ Alex asked, rounding on me.

  I swallowed, my throat suddenly as dry as ash. ‘Not exactly. I couldn’t get hold of him so I left a message with Maria, our housekeeper. I told her we’d all gone on a camping trip to Death Valley and that we’d be back in a week. And then, maybe, I sort of fo
rgot to call him.’ I gave him a big, fake, apologetic grin.

  Alex didn’t say anything, he just continued to stare at me, his lips pressed together, turning slowly white.

  ‘He really believed that one,’ Key muttered under his breath. ‘He’s in California. At the base. And he’s wondering why Jack’s been shot and is under arrest and why you’re missing.’

  ‘Jack’s under arrest?’ I burst out.

  ‘Well, what did you think was going to happen when he got into a gunfight with the Unit?’ Key asked, looking at me like I was stupid. ‘He shot his own men. They’re not going to be giving him the Medal of Honor any time soon.’

  ‘Hey, hey, don’t worry her,’ Alex cut in.

  ‘Don’t worry me? My brother’s lying in a coma, possibly paralysed and under arrest, and my dad’s just walked right into all this. And you’re saying don’t worry me?’ The full awfulness of the situation settled on me. ‘What’s he even doing here?’ I asked, panic making me breathless. ‘He always said he’d never come back to the States. That he’d never set foot on US soil again. Not after what happened to my mum.’

  I felt Alex’s arm come round my shoulders and I turned to him. ‘God, he doesn’t know about her, Alex. He has no idea she’s still alive. Why did he have to come back? He can’t be involved in all this.’ I pressed my head into Alex’s shoulder. ‘That’s my whole family, Alex, right there. The Unit has them all.’

  There was a deathly silence.

  ‘What does your dad know about the Unit?’ Harvey finally said. He was puffing on a cigarette by the open door.

  ‘Nothing,’ I said, still reeling from shock, my legs feeling wobbly and my voice wavering. ‘He doesn’t know anything about them or us. He knows nothing.’

  ‘Actually, that’s not quite true.’

  I looked at Demos. ‘What?’

  His gaze flashed to Alex and then to me. He cleared his throat. ‘Your father knew about your mother – about her being a telepath.’

  ‘He what?’

  ‘He knows. And he knows about the Unit too, but he believes that the Unit’s mission is to contain people like us – contain psys – because we’re dangerous. He thinks I killed your mother, because that’s what the Unit told him.’

  My jaw fell open. The silence thickened as I tried to get my head round the fact that my father had known about my mother’s powers all this time. It suddenly made sense – why he’d dragged me straight on a plane to London after my mother’s funeral. Why he’d been so mad at Jack for staying behind. Why he’d freaked out about me coming back. Oh God. I put a hand to my head to try to contain all the thoughts banging against my skull. How much more freaking out would he be doing now? With me missing?

  This was so bad. So, so bad.

  ‘There’s more,’ Demos said, because clearly he could tell I wasn’t panicked enough already. I looked up warily, bracing myself.

  ‘Your father’s been working on something all this time.’

  I waited.

  ‘He’s been carrying out research to find out what makes us this way.’

  ‘No, he hasn’t,’ I laughed, but my laugh sounded empty and false. ‘He’s a paediatric specialist. He researches childhood diseases. He writes papers. He’s always at conferences and stuff. I’ve been to the hospital where he works.’

  Demos just shrugged. ‘For the last five years your father’s been trying to find a medical cure for what we are.’

  ‘But we’re not sick,’ Suki spoke up from the corner of the room.

  ‘No,’ Demos said. ‘But to Lila’s dad, we’re suffering from a kind of cancer and he’s been trying to invent what you might describe as a type of chemotherapy, some way of curing us.’

  No one spoke. It seemed like this was news to everyone – not just to me.

  I drew in a breath. All this time. The whole time we were in London. The trips abroad, the hours spent in his study, in his lab, working, working, working. And never enough time for me. And there I was thinking my dad was just working to put my mother out of his mind when all the time he’d been working with her right at the forefront of his mind. For her. Because he thought if he could find the answers to curing us, he could what? Stop Demos? Undo what had happened? Fix something? Is that what my mother had wanted too? To be cured? Because I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted.

  ‘How do you know this?’ Alex asked.

  ‘Because I’ve been keeping a close eye on him,’ Demos answered, his eyes darting to me. ‘And Lila. And Jack. I promised Melissa that I would look out for them and protect them if anything ever happened to her.’

  ‘You’ve been spying on us? Since when?’ I shouted.

  ‘Lila,’ Demos said, his voice shot through with weariness, ‘I was only interested in making sure you were safe. When your dad took you to London I breathed easier, but I still needed to make sure the Unit weren’t going to try something. Luckily they didn’t see the need to.’

  ‘Why not?’ I demanded.

  Demos chewed his lip. I guessed he was trying to evaluate how many more surprises I could take, which I had to admit wasn’t many.

  ‘We think the Unit knows about your father’s research. It makes sense. It explains why they’ve left you both in peace.’

  Why we’re still alive, he meant.

  Suki stamped her foot. ‘Can someone please start explaining everything to me in simple English. I’m just not getting it. Any of it. And it’s very annoying.’

  ‘They want Lila’s father’s research,’ Alex said, almost as if he was speaking to himself, ‘because it might help them unlock the secrets about what you are. He’s helping them – without meaning to.’

  ‘Alex is right,’ Demos said. ‘The Unit is waiting until Michael unlocks the answers to the genetic code that makes us this way. There’s almost no better person to do the job. He’s an expert in childhood diseases – hereditary ones.’ He paused and I thought about what he was saying.

  Whatever we all had that made us this way, it was genetic. Everyone seemed to agree on that. But no one knew how many people had the gene, or how many people it was active in. I had it but Jack didn’t – why that was, was a total mystery. But perhaps not to my dad.

  ‘And more than any person on the planet,’ Demos continued, ‘Michael’s got the incentive to find the answers. They don’t even have to pay him.’

  ‘So, what? They’re waiting until he cracks the cure or whatever the hell he’s doing and then they’ll steal it? I don’t get it. They don’t want a cure. They don’t want to destroy the gene or whatever the hell it is that makes us this way, they want to generate it. They want to create more people like us.’

  ‘The science is the same,’ Alex said, glancing at me, but his thoughts were miles away, already evaluating what new mess we were in. ‘To fix something you’ve got to understand first how it works. Your dad thinks he’s making things better. But really he’s making it worse.’

  ‘Why didn’t you stop him if you knew that the Unit were wanting to steal his work?’ I yelled at Demos.

  ‘Stop him how exactly?’ he asked.

  ‘Er,’ I looked at him like he was lobotomised, ‘you know that little ability you have? Could have been useful, don’t you think?’

  Demos rolled his eyes at me. ‘I couldn’t spend my life following your father around freezing him. I do have other things to do. And besides, he thinks I killed your mother so he’s not likely to listen to anything I have to say, is he?’

  I scowled at him. I didn’t want to listen either. I got up and walked unsteadily to the door.

  10

  Alex dropped onto the sand next to me a metre or so away. I glanced over at him. He was sitting like me with his knees drawn up, his arms wrapped round them, staring out at the sun as it melted into the sea. The beach was completely deserted. I stopped toying with the leather bracelet wrapped round my wrist and shifted in the sand towards him until I could rest my head against his arm. He reached out and curled his fingers through mine.
<
br />   ‘I just can’t believe my dad has been working on this all this time,’ I murmured. Alex didn’t say anything.

  ‘And I don’t know how to feel about it. Or the fact he’s trying to cure me. I don’t want to be cured, Alex. There’s nothing wrong with me.’

  He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, a smile twitching at the side of his mouth. ‘Debatable,’ he said. I kicked sand at him and he pulled me down so we were lying flat on our backs, looking up at the purple sky.

  ‘Why’d my dad have to come back?’

  ‘Same reason you’re going back. Same reason I gave you. When you love someone, you don’t have a choice.’

  I turned my head to look at him and he held my gaze. I felt tears pricking the back of my eyes and turned to stare up at the sky so Alex wouldn’t see.

  ‘I should go back and apologise to Demos for storming out like that,’ I said, making no move to get up.

  ‘Tomorrow,’ Alex answered. ‘I talked to the others. I told them your plan. They thought it might work. But we’ll discuss it tomorrow and everything about your dad, because first I need to do something.’ He pulled me closer towards him until our lips were almost touching.

  ‘What might that be?’ I managed to stutter, closing my eyes, anticipating the warmth of his lips against mine. But the kiss didn’t come. I opened my eyes. Alex had jumped to his feet.

  ‘Swim,’ he said, grinning at me. ‘Come on.’

  ‘Swim?’ I pouted, unable to hide my disappointment that he wanted to swim rather than make out with me.

  Alex pulled his T-shirt off in one swift move. My eyes fell straightaway to his chest – which was tanned, smooth and ripped with muscle, and which, when you studied it as I had done, in fine detail, you discovered wasn’t a six-pack but actually a twelve-pack. My eyes flitted to the shadowed hollows where his hips disappeared into his shorts, causing a flutter in parts of my body that up until three weeks ago had been flutter-dormant. Alex’s hands dropped to his shorts and he started undoing his belt.

 
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