Lila Shortcuts, p.6Sarah Alderson
‘It could be about a boy,’ Alex says, shrugging and taking another swig.
‘A what?’ Jack asks.
Alex laughs under his breath. ‘A boy. You know? A Y-chromosome holder? You don’t notice them as much as you do the X-carriers.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Jack asks, frowning in confusion, ‘A boy? She’s just a kid.’
‘She’s seventeen,’ Alex says, ‘She’s not a kid anymore.’
Jack’s face pales, his eyes bulge. I can hear his thought process. It makes the mental leap evolutionarily slowly between the hypothetical boy and what the hypothetical boy might be doing to his sister and then, when he’s figured it out, he jumps off his stool.
‘If any boy ever lays a finger on my sister I’m going to kill him,’ he snarls. Then he pauses to look at Alex. Alex just stares back at him with one eyebrow raised, remembering a whole parade of girls that Jack has laid fingers on, and much more besides, but deciding not to mention that to his face.
Finally, Jack sinks down onto his stool again. ‘You think that might be it?’ he asks, looking as if he just sat on an upright beer bottle.
Alex shrugs. ‘I’m just speculating. When did you last speak to her?’
Jack shakes his head. ‘A couple of weeks ago. She seemed OK.’
‘She seemed a little down to me.’
‘When did you talk to her?’ Jack asks. I hear guilt mixed in with a little bit of irritation in his head. He wishes he was a better brother. He thinks maybe Alex is right but would never in a thousand years admit it.
‘She emailed a couple of days ago,’ Alex says, wary now. He can read Jack. He knows he needs to tread carefully around the topic of Lila.
‘Go gently, OK?’ Alex says, ‘She’s been through a lot.’
Jack rolls his eyes. ‘She shouldn’t be coming. She needs to go back to London. I’m sending her straight back.’
‘You can’t, Jack. Let her stay a few days – a week. Find out what’s up. You owe her that. We owe her that.’
He mumbles this last bit and I see a picture in his head of this girl, Lila. She’s only about fourteen but the memory has a foggy feel to it, which makes me think it’s at least a few years old because isn’t she seventeen now? That’s what Alex just said, anyway. This girl Lila’s got skinny legs, and she’s playing basketball in a back yard somewhere. She has dirty blonde hair tied back in a ponytail and she’s smiling in his memory, kind of gawky and wide-eyed. And then the memory picture flits to some other place and everyone’s wearing black and I’m guessing it’s a funeral and Alex is holding Lila’s hand at the edge of a grave. But then the memory wipes and Alex is back in the moment.
‘It’s not safe for her here,’ Jack says, scowling at the bar.
‘We’ll keep an eye on her. She’ll be fine.’
Not if Demos has his way, I think to myself.
Alicia suddenly bursts into my head-space again, as though she’s an air traffic controller and I’m a circling plane.
Suki, start talking to them. Find out more about Lila if you can and about what the Unit’s next move is. And please, try to focus on gathering useful intel about their next move, we don’t need to find out what their relationship status is.
I tell Alicia silently to roger that and then I lean over the bar, angle my body towards Alex and give him my sultriest smile. ‘What does one have to do to get service around here?’ I say, ‘Strip naked and dance on the bar?’
Jack pauses, shifts on his stool and then gives me a wide smile. ‘You could try that. We wouldn’t stop you,’ he says.
‘Jack,’ Alex warns, shaking his head. He smiles apologetically at me then sticks his hand in the air and nods at the barman, who comes straight over.
‘What can I get you?’ the barman asks.
‘Would you like anything?’ I say, turning to Alex and Jack.
I’m hoping I will hear Alex say ‘just you’ in his head, but he doesn’t. He says, ‘No, thank you,’ to my face, his thoughts distracted, still on this girl Lila.
Jack, on the other hand, is definitely checking me out. I catch him staring at my shoes. He thinks I have cute legs but then he remembers a girl called Sara and looks away guiltily.
‘A diet Coke, please,’ I tell the barman.
‘I’m Jack,’ Jack says to me, ‘and this is Alex.’ He tips his head in Alex’s direction.
‘I’m Suki Nakamura,’ I say, holding out my hand.
Oh, good one, Suki, why not just tell them you’re a psy and ask them to contain you whilst you’re at it? Alicia hisses.
‘So,’ I begin, hurrying on, hoping if I smile brightly enough and flutter my eyelashes they’ll forget my name. ‘What do you two do?’ I pause. ‘No, don’t tell me! Do you catch bad guys?’
‘How did you guess?’ Jack asks, smiling.
‘I’m a mind-reader,’ I say, then laugh loudly trying to cover up Alicia swearing in my head. ‘Haha, just kidding. I just know that this is where all the Marines hang out.’
‘So, you like a man in uniform then?’ Jack asks. He’s propped up against the bar but he leans in towards me, and in a low, conspiratorial voice that almost sends me into spasm, says, ‘Maybe Alex can show you his weapon later.’
I glance at Alex. He looks like he’s deeply interested in the game playing on the television over the bar but, in actual fact, he’s thinking about how he’s going to kill Jack later.
I giggle. He can show me anything, so long as it’s not that weapon the Unit use to paralyse us.
‘Are you good at catching bad guys?’ I ask, forcing a light tone into my voice.
Jack’s expression turns grim. He frowns and for a second he looks like he’s about eight years’ old. An image of Demos appears in his head. It’s painted red.
‘We’re good at catching bad guys,’ I hear Alex say. ‘And very soon we’ll have caught the bad guy we’ve been hunting for a very long time. And then we’re going to make him pay.’
Before I even turn around I see the same image of Demos in Alex’s head. ‘Soon?’ I ask, turning around to face him, smiling innocently. ‘How soon? As in tomorrow? What did he do this very bad bad guy?”
Alex frowns at me, his eyes narrowing. ‘I didn’t say that out loud,’ he murmurs, slowly rising from his stool.
For an instant I’m frozen like a bunny in headlights on a dark road. I hear an intake of air from Jack . . . and then I’m out of there.
Mr Blahnik might not have designed his shoes for running in but somehow I manage to make it to the door, sliding under someone’s arm even as the shout goes up around me . . . and Alicia is yelling in my head at me to run and I burst through the front door and Demos has flung open the car door and I sprint towards him, reaching for his outstretched hand even as Alicia guns the engine, and I throw myself into the car as we take off in a screech of wheels. I look back over my shoulder, panting and clutching the side of the seat as we swerve into traffic. Alex and Jack are standing on the sidewalk guns in hand, but they’re not firing. Then I see that they are frozen solid as statues.
I glance at Demos. He’s staring at them, holding them in place, and he’s scowling. But I know that the scowl is really intended for me.
The bathtub alone is bigger than the whole bus. There are closets that I can walk into and which are huge enough to host a runway show. There’s a fluffy white robe and a TV with five thousand channels and room service and boys in cute uniforms to carry my bags and bring me cheeseburgers. And the best thing is that they take Amex.
And the second best thing is Demos doesn’t know where I am. Though I know he’ll find me eventually with Amber’s help – or Nate’s, if he feels like betraying me. But if I have to sit through another lecture about how few brain cells there are occupying my frontal lobes then I’m going to take my new bunny fur shoes and drill a hole through my own head with them.
It’s not as if it’s my fault.
OK. It’s maybe my fault.
And then the knock comes.
I bolt upright. I haven’t ordered room service. I do a quick scan.
Then I think about hiding under the bed.
‘Suki,’ comes Alicia’s voice through the door. ‘Hiding under the bed is a really dumb idea. Just open the door. We know you’re in there.’
We? I listen harder. He has betrayed me. Nate is with her.
I roll off the bed with a groan and slouch over to the door.
‘Go away,’ I say to the wood panels.
‘No,’ Alicia answers.
How on earth did they find me? I wonder.
‘All you’ve been talking about for weeks now is room service and closet space. It didn’t take a detective.’
‘Suki, let us in!’ This time it’s Nate. ‘It’s just us.’
I open the door and Nate shoves past. He takes a flying leap onto the bed. ‘Woooooah, check this place out!’
‘This is my room. Get your own,’ I say.
‘Suki . . . I’ve come to get you and bring you back,’ Alicia interrupts.
‘Why? So Demos can yell at me some more?’
Alicia shrugs one shoulder, ‘You know what he’s like,’ she says, with a lopsided smile. ‘He didn’t mean to get so angry. It’s just the Unit didn’t know about you before. And now they do. It makes this more dangerous for you.’
She has a point. She hears me think this because her smile widens.
‘He’s really sorry,’ Alicia says.
I cross my arms over my chest. ‘Yeah? Well, why’s he not here then telling me this himself?’
Alicia’s smile fades. ‘Because he thought you’d just think he was using his powers to convince you.’
I harrumph. ‘I don’t want to be part of his silly gang anymore.’
I turn away but Alicia grabs hold of me by the elbow. ‘Suki – you know why we’re doing this,’ she says quietly. ‘It isn’t for fun. We need to stop them. And now they know who you are, you’re in as much danger as the rest of us. We need to stick together until this is over.’
It’s never going to be over, I think to myself.
Alicia scowls and then she says quickly, ‘Look, it’s not safe to stay here. We need to go.’ She glances around, and I see the fear take over her face at the same time I hear the thought. And then she speaks it out loud. ‘Please, at least tell me you didn’t use your name or pay for all this with a credit card.’
She hears the answer, even though I try to cover it up with some super-loud la-la-la-ing
‘Suki!’ she screams.
‘What?’ I shrug. But I can already see the pictures in her head . . . pictures of men in black combats . . .
Nate bounds over to the doorway where we’re still standing. He’s wearing the fluffy white bathrobe over his clothes clutching a bag of peanuts from the minibar in one hand and the room service menu in the other. ‘What? What’s going on?’ he asks, looking between us.
‘When are you going to learn?’ Alicia sighs.
‘Learn what?’ Nate asks.
‘They know your name,’ Alicia says, ignoring Nate and talking straight to me. Her nostrils are flaring like an angry horse. ‘You can’t use any ID any more with that name on it. The unit will have your name flagged.’
‘Come on, we need to get out of here now!’
And then, just then, we both hear an explosion of voices – commands being yelled – a thousand jumbling ping-ponging thoughts flying like bullets into our brains. It’s as if there’s a game playing and the stadium is my head. Alicia winces and I cover my ears – not that that helps.
Alicia’s fingers grip my wrist and she yanks me out of the door and into the corridor.
‘But—’ I start, my free hand hanging on for dear life to the door post. I’m thinking of my bag and my new shoes and all the little mini bottles of shampoo and conditioner I’m leaving behind.
‘Suki – there’s no time!’ Alicia screeches, tugging me until my fingers lose their grip on the door. ‘We need to go. Come on, run!’
So we do. We run to the end of the hallway, to the elevator, and Nate jabs the button but the metal doors stay peaceful and shut as a dead person’s eyes.
Alicia pulls us to the emergency stairwell next to the elevator and we fall into an echoey, hollow stairwell. Roaring up from the bottom comes the sound of feet stomping.
Turn around, Alicia screams silently into my head.
I twist and push Nate back through the door, tripping on his heels. Alicia shoves us down the hallway. Suddenly a doorway opens and a sleepy-looking man with a pregnant hairy belly and wearing just a towel around his waist is standing there. ‘What the hell is going on?’ he asks in a funny accent, peering out into the corridor. ‘What’s all the noise?’
I hear Alicia’s thought a second before she follows through with it and dart out the way of her elbow, which comes smashing down against the man’s temple.
Nate is speechless and blinking as the man goes crashing backwards, letting out a low bellow. Just then the elevator door pings. Alicia’s hands are on my back.
‘Inside! Inside!’ she shouts, shoving Nate and I over the groaning man lying on the floor and into his room.
The man grunts as my foot catches him in the groin and I stumble. I can hear his thoughts tumbling around like pebbles in an empty tin can but they’re in another language I don’t understand.
Alicia screams, ‘Stay put!’ and her eyes are wild. And then she slams the door in my face.
What is she doing? I jump to my feet. My hand is on the doorhandle, turning it, when I hear feet pounding towards us, shaking the floor like an earthquake and men’s voices yelling so loud it’s as if they’re on fire.
I hear the panic in Alicia’s head, scrambling, fleeting, blurry thoughts – run run run . . . she’s trying to run faster, her heart pounding in her chest. I can see the door she’s heading towards, I can see her hand outstretched before her as the footsteps come thundering up behind her, closer and closer. I can feel her fear, can taste the panic. And I can see Demos too, though I know that’s just an image in her head, and in amongst it all I hear her telling me to get Nate and get out and then—
I’m being stabbed in the head by someone with razor-tipped acrylic nails. They are poking right into my skull, trying to grab handfuls of brain, and now they are squeezing hold of it. Next to me, Nate goes crashing to the floor, landing on top of the groaning man, who stops groaning altogether and falls silent.
And then the room squishes on top of me and I think I must be on the floor too because I can feel the soft carpet like cloud beneath my cheek.
After what feels like a hundred years the pain does start to fade and it’s like waking up from a coma. I feel like one of the characters in the Mexican soaps that Bill likes to watch when he thinks no one is around. I open one eye and see Nate still curled in a ball, with his arms wrapped around his head. He is lying with his face on the half-naked man’s belly, though the half-naked man is no longer half-naked but wholly naked, his towel tangled beneath him, and he has gloopy stuff dribbling out his mouth. Nate must have knocked him unconscious when he went crashing to the floor.
I turn my head slowly, painfully, to the door and crank my ears. I scan the hallway outside. How long have we been lying here? Where is Alicia?
I roll onto my knees and shut my eyes and silently I yell her name.
But she doesn’t answer, or maybe it’s just that I can’t hear her, not through all the thick clouds of smog filling up my head. Everything is muffled. Then, in the distance – a sound.
I stagger to the door, holding my head in my hands and behind me hear Nate start to make a whimpering noise.
I press my ear to the door and squeeze my eyes shut again, trying to concentrate.
And the noise rushes in like another explosion from that weapon, peeling back layer upon layer of skin and bone until it hits me right in the centre of my head a
And my head is filled with images – of men holding her down. Men dressed all in black, and they’re hurting her, gripping her wrists, holding her by the ankles and the waist as she struggles against them, and they throw her gagged into a black car – I only catch glimpses as she sees it – a handle, a darkened window, a gun. And then a face.
Demos hasn’t come out and said he blames me and the thoughts in his head don’t say it either. He’s blaming the Unit. But it is my fault. And Nate didn’t argue with me about that as we stood outside the hotel, him still wearing the stolen bathrobe, both of us clutching our heads.
So I need to be the one to get Alicia back. Which is why I’m standing outside Jack’s house right now. If I can get inside maybe I can find something useful – like a key to the base or a password or something – anything that might help us get Alicia back.
I’ve been scanning the house for the last fifteen minutes. I’m peering tentatively through the letterbox trying to guess whether the alarm system is on or not because I do not particularly want to end up saying hello to the sidewalk, when I hear the slap of feet. I jump around.
There’s a girl wearing jogging shorts and a t-shirt and sneakers and she’s standing at the bottom of the steps to the veranda. Sweat is pouring down her face. I’m not sure if it’s the same girl that I saw in Alex’s head the other night. That girl was younger and more blurry.
‘Can I help you?’ she asks, out of breath, squinting up at me.
I do a quick mind-scan. She’s wondering who the hell I am. She decides that I look more like a Manga cartoon character than a neuroscientist, which seems like a very random judgement call.
‘You live here?’ I ask, confused, and wanting to check it actually is her – is this girl called Lila.
‘Yeah,’ she answers, wiping the sweat from her forehead and frowning at me suspiciously. ‘Can I help you?’ she asks again, more assertive this time.
Lila Shortcuts by Sarah Alderson / Young Adult / Fantasy / Romance & Love have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes