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       Losing Lila, p.7

           Sarah Alderson
 

  I reassessed the swimming option. I could definitely do swimming.

  He shrugged off his shorts, but before I could catch an eyeful of anything, he was off, jogging towards the water. I paused for a nanosecond, weighing up my embarrassment at stripping naked over my desire to follow him. With a deep breath, I tore off my dress then kicked off my underwear and started running towards the sea, praying Nate wasn’t doing a fly-by.

  The water was warm and flat as a bath. I could see Alex in the distance, his skin gleaming in the now inky moonlight. When I got close to him, his hand snaked under the water, wrapped round my waist and pulled me towards him. I didn’t resist because I’d forgotten in that instant how to swim. And then he kissed me and I prayed silently and fervently that he took my shudder to be the effect of the cold water.

  I tried sticking myself onto him like a barnacle, but eventually Alex managed to pull himself free, holding my wrists in his hand so I couldn’t reattach. His resolve was as solid as a nuclear bunker’s walls. Alex had said there were always chinks. But I couldn’t seem to find the one in his armour. He swam two long strokes away from me. I trod water and stayed where I was, feeling confused, glad that the night was dark enough to hide my expression.

  ‘I’m just trying to protect your honour,’ he said, guessing it anyway.

  I groaned and rolled my eyes. When was he going to understand that I was happy for him to protect every other part of me, just not my honour?

  He swam silently back to my side.

  ‘I know we have to leave,’ I sighed, ‘but it feels like this is the only place in the world right now where we’re safe. Where nothing bad can happen.’

  ‘We’ll come back,’ Alex said, his hand reaching under the water to stroke down my back.

  ‘You think?’ I looked at him hopefully.

  ‘I know so,’ Alex said, pulling me close once more. ‘I’ll bring you back here. It’s inevitable.’

  I couldn’t work out if it was the salt water that was making me float like a jellyfish on the water or him.

  11

  ‘I like it. Lila, it’s a genius idea.’

  I hadn’t said anything. I’d just been thinking idly, following random ideas this way and that in my head while the others talked about Stirling Enterprises and how we were going to destroy them – as if bringing down global corporations was as easy as knocking down a house of cards.

  ‘What? What idea?’ I glanced over at Suki. She was bouncing on her heels and clapping her hands.

  ‘Carlos. The Mafia man.’

  Carlos? What? ‘I didn’t have an idea. I was just thinking,’ I blurted, suddenly fearing where this might be heading.

  ‘What were you thinking?’ Demos asked, swivelling to me.

  ‘You were talking about how we needed to bring down Stirling Enterprises,’ I said, squirming in my seat. ‘Not just destroy the Unit, but the whole company, and I was thinking about how to do that.’

  ‘And she thought about this man.’ Suki bounced forward. ‘This Carlos. With the bald skeleton head and the mean eyes and the baddie tattooed bodyguards. I like this plan.’

  ‘It’s not a plan,’ I almost shouted.

  ‘No, there’s something there. Wait,’ Alex said. He took a few seconds to think. Everyone waited.

  ‘It was stupid,’ I interrupted before he could think any further. ‘I just thought that the only way to really hurt Richard Stirling and destroy his company would be if we could set him up somehow.’

  ‘And she thought drugs,’ Suki said, still bouncing on the balls of her feet.

  ‘I thought about drugs and money,’ I corrected her. ‘Which made me think of Carlos. But not seriously. It was just a random thought. It wasn’t meant for public consumption.’

  ‘This Carlos guy – he’s the guy you got the passports from?’ Demos asked.

  ‘Yes,’ Alex answered.

  ‘She’s onto something,’ Alicia spoke up, her face brightening.

  ‘No, I’m not onto anything.’ Everyone needed to calm the hell down.

  ‘DEA. That could do it,’ Harvey said, nodding.

  ‘DEA?’ Suki asked. ‘What is this DEA?’

  ‘Drug Enforcement Agency,’ said Alex. ‘They’d have to investigate. If we could tie some drugs to Stirling, a lot of drugs to him—’

  ‘What? Make it look like Stirling Enterprises was a massive drug-laundering cartel?’ Key asked.

  ‘Yes,’ Alex nodded. ‘Exactly. Stirling would lose all its government contracts, the Unit would be shut down. And Richard Stirling would face a trial and prison.’

  ‘I like the sound of this DEA. See, it’s a good idea.’ Suki was beaming. ‘I told you.’

  Demos was scratching his chin. ‘You know, it might just work.’

  ‘Are you serious?’ I announced, standing up. ‘What’s the plan? We break into Carlos’s drugs den, take out his henchmen and steal all his drugs?’

  ‘And his money. We need dirty money too,’ Harvey said, lighting a cigarette. ‘Lots of it. Money that can be traced back to Carlos.’

  ‘OK, and then what?’ I asked sarcastically. ‘We’re not X-Men in case you hadn’t noticed.’

  ‘No, we’re way better than them,’ Demos answered. ‘What next?’ he asked, smiling. ‘We plant it.’

  ‘Where?’ I assumed he wasn’t meaning in the ground.

  ‘All over Stirling’s office and house. We link the money and drugs to him so clearly he can’t deny it. A watertight case neither he nor his lawyer can buy their way out of.’

  ‘And how the hell are you going to do that?’ I spluttered.

  Alex looked over at Demos and they grinned at each other like two college kids planning the prank of the century.

  ‘We can’t. We just can’t,’ I said in growing panic, looking round the room for someone to back me up, but everyone was grinning like they were on something.

  ‘You got a better idea?’ Key asked me.

  ‘No, she doesn’t,’ Suki answered.

  12

  ‘We need a sifter,’ Demos said, from his position at the head of the table.

  We were still in Suki’s room, which had become the unofficial headquarters of the stupid and ridiculous plot to bring down Stirling Enterprises. It was already past 3 a.m. I could feel my eyes starting to close, my head tilting dangerously near to the table we were sitting round.

  ‘Go and lie down,’ Alex whispered to me.

  ‘No, no way,’ I said, getting up and moving to the minibar for a Coke.

  ‘Getting in and getting out are easy. It’s the part where we don’t want them coming after us that’s the problem.’

  We were discussing the plan for Carlos. So far all we had was a strategy for getting into the place and for getting our hands on the drugs. The plan involved Alex giving directions, Demos doing his mind-control thing, Harvey and I stealing all the money and drugs and carrying them out to the getaway car, which Nate had decided he was driving and the rest of us had decided that Harvey was driving.

  That was the extent of our plan. Even though I’d spent three hours arguing with everyone about the insanity of said plan and shooting graphic death thoughts at Suki for having read my mind yet again, no one had listened. Not even Alex. And Suki was ignoring me. Which meant I had no choice but to eventually sit down and join in. And I also had to concede, though not out loud, that the plan wasn’t actually all that bad.

  But there was one major issue – in amongst all the millions of minor ones – and Demos had hit on it. How to avoid having the Central American Mafia on our tail afterwards. We had the police and the Unit on it already. Adding an angry Mexican drug lord to the equation seemed like asking for trouble.

  Ryder’s name hung in the air like a ghost we were all trying to avoid. He had been a sifter: able to rearrange memories, even remove them entirely. Without him, we were stuck.

  ‘I know a sifter.’

  It took a few seconds for everyone round the table to register and take note of Key, sitti
ng on the floor by the door. We’d thought he was sleeping. He wasn’t. He was watching us with his yellowing, dusty eyes.

  ‘I know a sifter,’ he said again.

  ‘Who?’ Harvey asked.

  ‘My mama.’

  ‘Grandma’s a sifter?’ Nate yelled from across the room where he and Suki were huddled together doing something on a laptop.

  ‘Yes, she is,’ Key sighed.

  I didn’t remember falling asleep, but when I woke, it was to find Alex’s arms wrapped round me. We were back in our room – he must have carried me there. I stretched and rolled over. Alex was still sleeping, his face bathed in the slatted golden light coming through the window. I watched him, listening to the soft sound of his breathing and studying his face, trying to etch it onto the surface of my mind. As if it wasn’t already imprinted there in indelible pen. A memory flashed into my head all of a sudden – of lying just like this in a motel room only a few weeks previously, watching Alex as he slept. I smiled to myself, remembering how his eyes had flashed open as though he’d sensed me watching him. And how he’d leaned towards me and kissed me for the first time and I’d known right then that nothing would ever be the same again.

  Alex stirred and, finally, his eyelids flickered. He gave me a long, sleepy smile. ‘Morning, beautiful,’ he said, his hand reaching out to brush a strand of hair out of my eyes.

  My stomach contracted and I felt the stinging burn at the back of my throat and behind my eyes. This was our last morning waking up together – hopefully not forever, but for a while at least. These moments ahead of us were it. Tomorrow I wouldn’t be waking up in these arms. I might be waking up in a cell about to have my head hacked open by the Unit as they experimented on me.

  I sat up in bed, fumbling at the leather bracelet on my wrist with an urgency that surprised me. I needed to get it off. I tugged and pulled until Alex grabbed hold of my wrist.

  ‘What are you doing?’

  ‘I want to get it off.’

  ‘Why?’

  I could see he was confused. The bracelet had been yo-yoing between us for years as a goodbye present. First he’d given it to me five years ago when I left for London, then I’d given it back to him on his birthday just a few weeks ago, then he’d given it to me just before he’d left me with Jack. And now here I was needing to give it back to him for yet another goodbye. I had this crazy feeling that it would protect him. Keep him safe when I couldn’t be near him.

  ‘I want you to have it again,’ I said.

  ‘Hold on, wait,’ he said, sitting up. He rolled out of bed and crossed to the chair where he’d thrown his clothes. He fumbled in a pocket and came back with his switchblade by which time I’d managed to untie the knot.

  ‘Here,’ he said, ‘give it to me.’

  I realised what he was thinking and handed the bracelet to him. He cut through the leather strand, stiff with salt water and faded beyond a light brown, and then tied one half round my wrist. When he was done, he picked up the other half and tied it round his own wrist. I helped him out with the knot. It felt suddenly solemn. Like we were making each other a promise that nothing would divide us ever again, and I held on to that thought as though I could force it to come true.

  The others were waiting for us, sitting under a palm tree on the veranda outside Demos’s room. There was no sign of Rachel and I noticed that Alicia sat apart from the others, her knees drawn up to her chest, looking out towards the sea. Key too was nowhere to be seen. Then I spotted him in the distance, striding back and forth down the beach, his trousers rolled up to the knee.

  ‘Harvey, Alicia, Nate and Suki are coming with me to Washington once we’re done with Carlos,’ Demos was saying.

  I looked over at Suki and Nate. Suki had a heavy gold chain hanging around her neck and was wearing a pair of ripped jeans with white sneakers. I hadn’t known that Suki owned any jewellery quite so bling or any shoes less than three inches tall. She looked incredibly short and weighed down. Nate had attempted to tie a bandana round his afro, but his hair was springing out from underneath as though attempting a prison break. He was wearing reflective sunglasses and a white tank top, which only served to emphasise his skinny shoulders and arms. It crossed my mind that he and Suki had probably been up all night researching the fashion preferences of the Mexican criminal underworld and that this was their quite serious attempt at going undercover.

  ‘Alex is going with you back to Oceanside, Lila,’ Demos said, ‘but he has to keep a distance from the base. Key’s the only one of us who isn’t known to the Unit so he’s going back with you as well – at least he’ll project back there. He won’t be there in person.’

  I smiled at Key. It made me feel a whole lot better knowing that Key would literally be my shadow – like having an invisible lifeline to the others.

  ‘We’ll keep his body with us,’ Demos continued. ‘It’s safer all round for him and that way he can get back to us instantly and let us know if you’re in any danger.’

  ‘But remember,’ Alex said, pulling up a chair, ‘Key can’t go into the Unit’s HQ or within five metres of the perimeter wall or he’ll trigger the alarm. You’ll be OK, though; you can walk straight through the front door like everyone else. Just be very careful not to use your power when you’re inside or anywhere nearby. The alarm works by picking up any changes to the electromagnetic field, so as long as you keep it under control, you’ll be fine.’

  I noted the extra emphasis he put on the word control and the look he was giving me, his eyes fairly bulging in his head.

  ‘Under control,’ I repeated, ‘got it.’ Though to myself I was thinking CRAP.

  ‘Second point,’ he said, moving swiftly on. ‘If the alarm sounds when you’re inside, you won’t be able to get out. Not just because it will floor you, but because the whole building goes into lockdown.’

  I nodded at him. ‘Control. I heard you.’

  ‘The cells are buried deep underground in an area called prisoner holding. They’re off grid. Before, when we rescued Alicia and Thomas, we needed Rachel to get us in there. We used her access codes. Only she and a few others have that kind of clearance.’

  ‘So, how am I going to get down into this prisoner holding place?’ I asked, trying to focus again.

  ‘You’re not getting down there, Lila,’ Alex said, shooting me a black look. ‘When the time comes, we’ll all go together. At the moment our only option for getting in is Sara.’ He frowned as he said her name. ‘But we don’t know if we can trust her. We need you to try and figure that out.’

  ‘Lila,’ Demos interrupted, his voice a red-flag warning, ‘Alex is right. You’re not to try anything stupid. It could mess up everything. You wait. Understand?’

  It was like he had read my mind. I felt my jaw clenching and unclenching with the effort it took to nod.

  ‘Your priority is to gauge whether we can trust Sara and to find out what’s happening with Jack,’ he said, holding my gaze firmly. ‘They’re treating Jack in the military hospital on the base which is outside the Unit’s jurisdiction. But don’t do anything suspicious, don’t try to break him out, don’t try to rescue your mother – don’t do anything except keep your ears and eyes open. Gather intel and wait for us.’

  ‘OK, I got it the first time,’ I muttered. They all continued staring at me in silence – even Alex. ‘What?’ I burst out. ‘I promise!’

  Demos nodded, a smile brushing his lips. ‘The timing needs to coincide exactly with what we’ve got planned in Washington. There’s no room for error in this.’ He looked at me as he said it.

  Jeez, I thought, enough already with the lectures.

  Suki snickered behind me.

  ‘Alex will follow after you, Lila,’ Demos said.

  ‘What about Rachel?’ I asked. ‘What are we doing with her?’ I had a few ideas about what to do with Rachel, but I didn’t think Demos would want to hear them.

  ‘We’ll leave Rachel in Mexico City with Bill,’ he said. ‘He’s staying to
look after Thomas anyway. They have an apartment there. She’ll be hidden and out of the way.’

  ‘And Amber? What about Amber? Is she staying with Bill and Thomas? Or is she coming with us?’ Nate asked. The rest of us fell silent.

  ‘We’ll see,’ Demos replied, his mouth set in a grim line.

  Key suddenly appeared in the doorway behind him. ‘Well, we got ourselves a sifter,’ he announced.

  13

  I kept getting flashbacks as we drove through the streets of Mexico City at dusk, my eyes darting between the traffic, trying to spot anyone in black combat uniform or an SUV with blacked-out windows on our tail. Alex was on edge too, barely saying a word as we wound our way through the city in the BMW with Harvey, Suki and Nate. Demos was in the van ahead of us with Alicia and Rachel.

  The apartment Bill and Amber were staying in with Thomas was on the tenth floor of a grey, nondescript apartment building in the centre of the city. Harvey pulled into the underground car park and killed the engine.

  Demos suddenly appeared and yanked open the door so fast I almost fell out.

  ‘Coming?’ he asked me.

  I glanced at Alex. He gave me a small smile of encouragement. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go inside and see Amber. What on earth would I say to her? And then there was Thomas. I really wasn’t sure I was ready to see him – to see what the Unit had done to him, or worse, hear about it in detail. But Demos was waiting and the others were staring at me so I undid my seat belt and followed him, dragging my heels all the way to the elevator as if I could somehow delay the moment.

  Alicia came too, so it was the three of us who strolled through the lobby and took the elevator to the tenth floor. We walked silently along the carpeted hallway until we came to the last door. We knocked and, after a few seconds, Bill opened the door. He ushered us inside, motioning with a finger to his lips for us to be quiet.

  ‘How’s Thomas?’ Alicia whispered.

  ‘Come and see for yourself,’ Bill replied, leading us through a small living room and down a short hallway. He opened the door to one of the bedrooms and I glanced in, struggling to make out the shape of a bed and a person lying in it amidst the gloom.

 
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