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Lila shortcuts, p.7
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       Lila Shortcuts, p.7

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  I bound down the steps. ‘I think maybe you can,’ I say, ‘I was looking for Jack.’

  She sighs. ‘I’m his sister.’

  It is her! Jack didn’t send her back to London after all. Demos will be happy about this.

  ‘Nice to meet you, Jack’s sister,’ I say, ‘I’m Suki.’ I hold out my hand, wincing internally as I remember that’s how we got in this situation to start with. Me introducing myself. I really need to get an alias and stick with it.

  ‘Hi, I’m Lila,’ she says, taking my hand. ‘So, um, should I tell him you called round?’

  I almost don’t hear the question because I’m focusing so hard on all the images swirling around her head, trying to make some sense of them. She’s disappointed with Jack, thinking something about a leopard not changing its spots and then I catch a glimpse of Alex. And then another glimpse – the memories of him are everywhere, overlaid like blankets – the strongest one, the most recent is of his hand on her thigh, he’s crouching looking up at her and I feel my own heart stutter in my chest. But then, interrupting all of these memories, cutting right through them, is an image of a knife hanging in mid-air, its pin-point end scraping the white of an eyeball as though about to skewer it.

  And I blink at her.

  She’s one of us. She’s a psy. This girl Lila, Jack’s sister, is a psy.

  I haven’t let go of her hand, and she’s tugging at it now, trying to pull away and I realise I’m grinning at her like a lunatic. And then the thought comes to me – if the Unit are hunting us, then surely once they find out about her, they’ll be hunting Lila too?

  RECRUITING JACK

  Seventeen. She’s only seventeen. I don’t care what Alex says. She is still a kid. And there’s no way this is about a boy.

  And if it is about a boy then I’m going to kill him. Forget about Lila being on the next flight back to London, I’m going to be on it. I let my eyes slide around the arrivals terminal, scanning faces, looking for any suspicious movements, anyone out of place. It’s automatic, I’m barely aware I’m doing it. In the years after my mum died I kept seeing her wherever I went. I’d spot a blonde woman in a crowd and my heart would leap like someone was yanking it on a string. Then a stranger would turn and my heart would plummet to the bottom of my chest as I realised all over again that my mum was gone and I was never going to see her again.

  I stopped seeing my mum’s face the day I was shown a photograph of Demos. Now it’s his face I see everywhere I go.

  I flex my foot and feel the comforting pressure of the gun in my ankle holster. I wish I was wearing my shoulder holster too but I figured flashing a weapon would freak out Lila as well as airport security. And besides, a gun offers a false sense of security. I wish The Unit’s weapons developers would pull their finger out and get on with whatever it is they’re developing because going up against Demos and his crew with just bullets and grenades is like going up against King Kong with a toy truncheon and I’m getting sick of trying and failing to get close to him.

  As I watch the bleary-eyed travellers wheeling trolleys through the sliding doors then throwing themselves into the arms of waiting friends and lovers, I wonder for the five hundredth time since Lila sent me that email, what the hell is going on in her head. Then I get hit with a wave of guilt – because if I were any kind of a brother I would know. I would know because I would have bothered to ask. I am a shit brother. I know it. Alex emails her and speaks to her more than I do. But, truthfully, I just don’t know what to say to her anymore. I can’t talk to her about what I do for a job, and seeing how I don’t have anything else going on in my life except for my job it limits the conversation quite a bit. Talking to Lila about her life just reminds me of how much I’ve failed her. Firstly by letting her go to England. Secondly, by not being there when mum died, and thirdly by failing so far to find the guy who did it.

  I frown at a bunch of Japanese tourists coming through arrivals, reminded suddenly of the girl from last night – Suki – the one we let slip through our fingers. I’m still grimacing at the thought she was standing right beside us at the bar probably reading our minds while I stood there encouraging Alex to hit on her.

  The problem is that Demos is recruiting people faster than a Google search. Our estimates are that there are a couple of hundred of them out there, but Demos is managing to find them faster than we can. I mean, it’s not like they come stamped with the word mutant on their foreheads, so it’s not that easy to pinpoint who they are. Somehow though, he’s managing it.

  Sighing, I pull out my phone and check it to see if Alex has sent me a message. He’s back at the base putting a trace on Suki, but he’s obviously drawing a blank as he hasn’t called. There’s just one text message from Sara suggesting we get together later and do something that makes me grin for the first time all morning, and another from Rachel asking when I’m planning on coming into work. Man, I was hoping Alex would cover for me with her. The last thing I need is Rachel breaking my balls over this. I’m not sure what I’m going to tell her yet. Relationships, even ones with family, are not allowed. I’m about the only guy in the entire Unit who is dating someone, and I get away with it because Sara works for the Unit.

  I blame Alex for Rachel’s uptightness. It’s well known by just about everyone on base that she’d like to be the boss of Alex in more than one way. And it’s not like it would be a hardship or anything to relieve her pent-up frustration, so I don’t get why Alex keeps ignoring her attempts to hit on him. She’s hot. Even if she does have a megalomaniac streak and a father you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of.

  I cut that train of thought off before it goes somewhere it shouldn’t and focus back on Suki, pondering whether she really was stupid enough to give us her real name. I’m still running the scene over in my head when I catch sight of a blonde woman in the crowd, walking behind some Chinese tourists. For a moment I think it’s my mum, and my heart expands in my chest, adrenaline flooding my system – before I angrily stamp it down. It’s been a long while since my eyes played tricks on me like that, but then the crowd parts and she’s there again. Except it’s not her. My breath catches in my throat. It’s Lila.

  She’s looking around like she’s lost. I call her name. First time it gets stuck in my throat. Second time she looks up, sees me and a smile bursts on her face. She stumbles towards me and I take her in with an element of shock. Alex was right. Shit. She isn’t a kid anymore. When did she get so tall? And when did she lose the braces? As she gets nearer I try to remember what Alex said about keeping my cool. But I don’t get a chance to lose my cool because she collapses against me, and all the anger I’ve been feeling dissipates in an instant. I pull her into my arms and shut my eyes and out of nowhere a wave of emotion rises up my throat taking me completely by surprise. My eyes start stinging and I’m scared if I open my mouth and say anything my voice will crack, so I drop my arms and pull away. Grabbing the bag out of her hand I start weaving my way through the crowd, letting Lila follow behind. Once outside I slip on my shades and start striding towards the car, giving myself some time to pull it together.

  It’s about two hours to Oceanside the way I drive but Lila doesn’t use the time to explain why she stole dad’s credit card and hopped on a flight halfway around the world, and believe me, it takes a lot of willpower on my part not to ask her if it’s about a boy and if so what his name is and where he lives.

  Instead we talk about the weather, and I find myself describing my house like I’m Martha freaking Stewart. Lila doesn’t say much of anything. She just stares out the window and shoots the occasional nervous glance my way. Her hair’s grown longer and it’s darker, not as blonde as when we were kids. She’s thinner too and she has boobs. Which I’m trying not to notice because man, she’s my sister, and when the hell did she get boobs? I glance in her direction and try to consider her as objectively as I can, as though I’m of the guys from my team.

  Yeah, I decide, there’s no way I’m letting her out of
my sight. And she’s not setting foot on the base. As if I need this on top of everything else going on. It has been a crapfest of a week. And yet, as I glance over at her one more time, I have to admit I’m kind of glad to see her. More glad than I thought I would be. Despite the timing.

  Just then she reaches over and tugs up the sleeve of my T-shirt. Her eyebrows shoot up. I flick the T-shirt down to cover my tattoo – the one I got the day we finished basic training.

  ‘Mum would be so mad!’ Lila says, shaking her head at me.

  ‘Yeah?’ I say, ‘Well she’s not around to see it, is she?’

  I step on the gas. What she have to go bring mum up for? And why has she started talking with a weird hybrid English accent? What is that about? I guess five years in an English school might be to blame. Once more guilt washes over me. Has it really been five years?

  We’ve started driving alongside the base – Camp Pendleton – I point it out to Lila. It’s two hundred square miles and from here looks like some kind of nature reserve. There’s no indication of the torture that takes place behind the razor wire fences. Because that’s what basic training amounts to: torture. Alex and I didn’t just go through standard military training, we also went through Marine Corps boot camp, which was thirteen weeks of extra hell with a cherry on top.

  I pull into the drive of the house and punch in the alarm. Beside me I hear Lila catch her breath and I pray she doesn’t ask about the alarm system. That’s going to be a hard one to explain. To distract her I start showing her around the house.

  Lila hovers for a while in front of the refrigerator staring at the photographs pinned there. For a moment, watching her face as her eyes rove over them, I want to put my arm around her and ask her how she’s doing. I want to beg her to tell me what’s wrong so I can fix it. I want to elbow her in the ribs and make her laugh. I want to go back in time to how it used to be. I want to be the big brother she remembers. But I can’t. Too much has happened. Too much time has passed and there are just too many secrets and things left unsaid between us. So I just ask her if she wants something to eat.

  After the tour I convince her to take a nap, partly because Alex has emailed over all the information he’s managed to pull on Suki and I want a few hours to go over it and also because Lila looks exhausted.

  Once she hits the sack, I print off the information on Suki and take it into the kitchen. I pause at the refrigerator and look at the same photograph that Lila was staring at – the picture of mum and us when we were little. The edges are curling and it’s faded. For a long time I couldn’t look at it, couldn’t look at any pictures of mum, but when I stopped seeing her in crowds I was scared I was starting to forget her face, so I pinned this one right here. On the days when it’s hard to get out of bed and keep going it helps me remember exactly what I’m fighting for. Next to it there’s a picture of Lila that Alex took last time she was over. The three of us were playing basketball in the yard of Alex’s house. It was a week after Alex and I had dropped out of college and we were just about to move to Oceanside to start basic training.

  At the time Alex’s home was also my home. His parents had pretty much adopted me after mum died. Alex’s father is a diplomat. At the time he worked at the Swedish embassy in Washington but he was about to be sent on assignment somewhere in Europe and they were busy packing up the house. They were pissed at Alex for dropping out of college but I think they recognised that arguing with either of us was pointless. My father however wasn’t so understanding.

  For the first time since packing his bags and leaving the US he came back. I hadn’t seen him or Lila for almost two years and I hadn’t spoken to my dad once in all that time. So pretty frankly, I couldn’t have given a crap what my dad thought about me “throwing away my future.” Nor did I care much for his repeated insistence that I move to London with him. Far as I was concerned he’d lost the right to tell me what to do when he gave up on mum and on getting justice and moved to England, as though it didn’t matter what had happened to her or why. If it had been me, if it had been my wife, if it was Sara or Lila that had been murdered, I wouldn’t have ever stopped looking for who did it. Even Alex, who isn’t family, cares more than he does about finding them and getting justice. Yeah, there’s nothing that man can say will ever make me forgive him.

  I grab a can of coke from the fridge, sit down and start reading through all the information on Suki.

  Alex is walking ahead of me. He has his arm around a girl and she’s leaning into him. It’s a totally vomit-inducing display of loved up grossness and it makes me feel like I’m about to break out in hives. He’s carrying a pile of books in his free arm and she’s gazing up at him like she wants to drop everything and have his babies.

  It’s barely our first month as College Freshman and Alex has already broken the first rule of Freshman Club by hooking up with a girl and then staying hooked up with her. I mean, what’s that about? But I guess that always was Alex’s MO. It makes him a useless wingman. Not that I need a wingman. I wave at a cluster of girls sitting on the steps of their dorm building and they all wave back and then start talking among themselves while shooting glances my way. I think I hooked up with one of them last week, but I can’t be totally sure. Best to just smile and wave in a case like that. A girl walking towards me flicks her hair over her shoulder and gives me a smile that tells me she’d be open to me stopping and asking her on a date but I’m already late for one so I give her a smile and turn to watch her as she sashays on past. Sweet. On second thoughts . . .

  ‘Hey!’ I call. She stops, turns, flicks her hair again. That could get annoying but whatever, I’m sure I could overlook it for long enough. ‘You wanna go get a coffee sometime?’ I ask.

  I have to jog to catch up with Alex, shoving my cell into my pocket as I run. He’s saying goodbye to Fran or Faye or whatever her name is. She’s a graduate teaching assistant – total cougar – I give Alex kudos points for bagging an older woman, especially one that has power over his grade point average. I watch for about one point three seconds as they kiss and then clear my throat.

  Alex looks over pointedly, smiles goodbye at the girl, kisses her again for longer than one point three seconds and then turns to me. ‘OK, let’s go,’ he says and starts striding off.

  We walk across campus to the library where we’re due to meet these two guys from Sterling Enterprise. From the digging we’ve done – OK, that Alex has done – they’re a defense company, mostly involved in providing weapons to the US military and developing intelligence systems for the Pentagon. They showed up out of the blue on campus yesterday. Alex and I were playing basketball when we noticed two guys in suits sitting in the bleachers. We thought they were scouts at first, then they approached us as we were coming off court and gave us their cards. Turned out they weren’t scouts for the NBA at all, but for a newly-formed specialist military unit, and they were there to recruit us.

  Alex is naturally suspicious – but that’s just his personality. He’d be suspicious of a piece of cheese. Though the cheese would never know it because Alex’s poker face is the reason I never play poker against him.

  I think this is a brilliant opportunity. I contemplated joining the police after High School but a decade wearing a blue uniform didn’t seem like it would be the fastest way of finding out who killed my mum, and my experience of cops after what happened to my mum hasn’t given me much faith in their detecting ability. But military training and intelligence contacts? A fast-track to officer level? Beats philosophy 101 and college debt. Plus girls dig a guy in uniform.

  As Alex strides on ahead of me I get that familiar lurch in my gut. It’s guilt that I’m dragging him yet again into something against his will. Then I remind myself that these Sterling Enterprise guys in suits came here specifically to recruit us both. Also, this is totally different to making him break into our High School gym to spray canned-cheese graffiti on the walls.

  The two guys are waiting for us on the steps of the library, wearing
dark grey suits, charcoal-coloured ties and black wrap-around shades. I wonder if that’s part of the uniform because I’m not sure I want to wear a suit. We follow them inside and discover they’ve booked out a meeting room on the ground floor. A tray of coffee and cookies awaits us so I help myself as they start spreading folders on the table.

  The guys have removed their sunglasses but their eyes give nothing away. The one on the left with the body-builder bulk that his suit barely manages to cover is called Hicks. He has a square head and an even squarer jaw and light green eyes. The one on the right is called Ciccone, which makes me think of Madonna. Maybe they’re related. He’s dark, with a buzz cut and eyebrows like a girl. But I wouldn’t ever tell him that because I’ve also noted that they are both wearing shoulder holsters and that the shoulder holsters contain guns.

  ‘Wow, you’ve done your research,’ I hear Alex say as I’m adding cream to my coffee. He’s flipping through one of the folders. I take my coffee over and join him at the table.

  Alex hands me a folder. I flip the pages and find all my college transcripts, my SAT scores, my attendance records. I keep flipping trying to hide my reaction. But holy crap. They have all my school records – all the way back to first grade.

  ‘We always research our candidates thoroughly,’ Hicks says. ‘It’s how we know we’re recruiting the best of the best.’

  Alex smiles politely – he’s the son of a diplomat after all.

  ‘All that’s missing is my inside leg measurement,’ I say, dropping the folder onto the table.

  Alex shoots me a wry look but his jaw is tense and he has this glint in his eye that he gets when he’s watching an opposing team play a penalty shot.

  ‘Mr Loveday, Mr Wakeman,’ Ciccone says. ‘Let’s get down to business. I’m sure you’ve researched Stirling and know who we are, or who you think we are, but we’re here to give you the inside information, the knowledge that you won’t find on the internet or by asking around.’

 
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