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Lila shortcuts, p.9
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       Lila Shortcuts, p.9

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  I figure it’s my job to fix this though, I can’t let Alex take all the flak, so I steel myself and head outside. I pat Alex on the back and he takes the hint and backs away. But then I don’t know what to say. So I just put my arm around Lila’s shoulder and after a beat she leans into me with a sigh.

  As we stand there in the dark looking up at the stars, I feel my heart squeezing tight and that burning sensation filling my throat once again. The garden is banked in shadows and I shudder a little and pull her closer, once again flexing my foot and drawing comfort from the gun at my ankle. She has no idea how much danger she is in here. And I have no idea how I’m going to keep her safe.

  The truth is I’ve never been so afraid in all my life of losing something as I am of losing her.

  There are eight of us. One team to take down one girl. CCTV footage and an interview with the concierge has confirmed that she’s on her own in the hotel room. Alex was right. It didn’t take long for Suki to start abusing her credit card. I got the call just after midnight and left Alex at the house with Lila.

  Hicks is talking through my headset. Normally I try to zone him out but he’s back in the control centre – a van parked down the block. They’ve got satellite and infra-red cameras in position, firing images back to us of the hotel. We’ve locked down all the exits.

  ‘Lieutenant, it’s a go,’ Hicks barks into my ear.

  I signal the other members of my team and we climb out the back of the van, making our way over the litter-strewn lot towards the service entrance of the hotel. Busboys and waiters scatter out of our way as the infrared dots on our rifles glow like fireflies against their uniforms.

  I have a blueprint of the hotel on the screen I’m holding in my palm and so I lead the way through the kitchen and into the stairwell. The hotel manager is being briefed by Rachel as we speak but no one is about to argue with a dozen men in black army fatigues who are carrying automatic rifles.

  As we sprint up the emergency stairs towards the fifth floor adrenaline pumps through my veins. It crosses my mind it could be a trap. Surely no one is so stupid as to give us their real name and then use a credit card in that same name a few hours later? But if Demos were inside the building we’d have seen it on the CCTV footage.

  I grip my rifle closer though, wishing it wasn’t loaded with tranq darts, but with real bullets.

  At the door to the fifth floor I hold up my hand and my team falls into a silent huddle behind me. I direct them to take up flanking positions but just then we hear someone shouting something in what sounds like German. I bust through the door, yelling out a command and spot a blur in the distance – someone running towards the far end of the corridor, where the elevator lobby is. We pound down the corridor after her. It looks like a girl – but my first impression is that it isn’t Suki.

  I shout an order to two men to check the room while the rest of us sprint after the girl who has now disappeared around the corner. I burst into the elevator lobby and see a door to another stairwell hanging open. We slam through it and out the corner of my eye I catch sight of a movement. Someone flying down the stairs, taking them three, four at a time. I throw myself down the stairs after her, my helmet bashing the wall and my feet sounding like thunder in the confined space. My brain processes that it’s not Suki even as I throw myself over the bannister and leap fifteen feet to tackle the girl to the ground.

  We both go flying, smashing into the steps, my elbow cutting her across the eye socket. She grunts and I wrap my arms around her and roll her over, pinning her to the floor. She puts up a fight, managing to land a punch to my shoulder before I can restrain her. I don’t know what she is or who she is but I know she’s one of them by the look in her eye – bright bold fear at knowing she’s come face to face with the enemy and lost. I’m breathing loud, panting, and sweat is pouring into my eyes. Hicks is in my head yelling at me for an update.

  ‘Subject secured,’ I say breathlessly, as the rest of my team swarms around us, pulling us both to our feet, snapping cuffs on the woman, keeping their guns trained on her the whole time. Red dots dance across her chest, just over her heart. She glares at me defiantly, favouring one leg over the other as she tries to balance. A trickle of blood oozes down her cheek.

  ‘Is is Suki?’ I hear Rachel demanding in my ear.

  ‘No,’ I say. I have no idea who she is.

  The woman tips her head back to stop the blood trickling into her eye and observes me with a smile that chills me to my core. ‘But I know who you are, Jack,’ she says. My heart jerks to a standstill. She knows my name. She holds my gaze, seemingly unperturbed by the fact she has a dozen guys aiming guns at her. ‘You have no idea what or who you’re dealing with,’ she adds. ‘You’re so out of your depth.’

  The guys drag her away, down the stairwell and I stand there, my chest heaving up and down, leaning against the wall, listening to Rachel and Hicks yelling in my ear. But all I can think is that she knew my name. And she knew exactly how I was feeling. I am totally out of my depth.

  THE MOMENT

  A short story from Alex’s point of view

  The last time I saw her was in Washington. Three years ago. Just over.

  There’s a memory I have from back then that I can’t seem to shake. It’s of the three of us – Jack, Lila and me – we’re playing basketball in my backyard. I think someone took a photo – maybe that’s why I remember it so clearly.

  None of us were saying very much. We were playing hard and fast, sweating despite the cold. In the car on the way to mine Jack had had a fight with his dad. He was mad – kept slamming the ball against the hoop like he was trying to knock it clean off the wall, not shoot the ball through it. Lila was trying not to cry and I was trying to intercept Jack’s passes before someone – or the hoop – got hurt.

  The buzzer sounds and I cross the hallway to let Jack in. I know it’s him because he always holds his finger on it for as long as it takes me to get there.

  ‘What’s up?’ he says through the intercom. ‘Do you have company?’

  ‘No,’ I answer drily. ‘I just hang out all day counting down the seconds until I see you again, Jack.’

  I buzz him in and while I wait for him to take the elevator up to my apartment I walk the few steps back down the hallway and into the kitchen to turn on the espresso machine. Today is going to be a long day.

  Jack is grim-faced and scowling when I open the door to let him in. He kicks past me into the hallway.

  ‘Goddamn my sister,’ he says, by way of greeting.

  I follow him silently as he heads to the kitchen and watch him as he starts raiding the fridge, tossing aside half a cantaloupe and shaking a jar of salad dressing as though it might contain something more helpful to him in his current mind-set than just olive oil and vinegar.

  ‘Dude, you live like a monk,’ he mutters to the empty shelves.

  I pour most of the milk carton into one mug and pile in some sugar – Jack takes his coffee milkshake style – top it with a shot of steaming espresso and hand it to him without a word. He takes it, also without a word, and starts drinking, his eyes darting to the window, still narrowed in a scowl.

  ‘My dad’s going to freak out,’ he says.

  I interrupt him before he can get going on what I know will be a lengthy tirade. ‘I need to take a shower,’ I say, draining my coffee in one bitter swallow. ‘I’ve just got back from a run.’ I leave him with his head back in the fridge, muttering angrily at the cantaloupe about how it’s got more sense than Lila.

  Jack should have warning signs written on him for when he’s in a mood like this. Then people would know to give him a very wide berth and time – lots of it – to chill out.

  The shower is good. It unknots the muscles in my shoulders and legs and helps clear my mind which, ever since Jack called me, has been trying to process the fact that Lila’s coming back.

  Jack’s raging mad but his anger stems from worry – about Lila being here, in California, and the risk that
poses. I don’t think he’s thought about why she’s coming. Or processed the fact that something must have happened in London to make her drop everything and book a flight to LA with no warning whatsoever.

  As I towel off, I analyse it some more. Jack got the temper and Lila got the impulsiveness in the Loveday family and I’ve often sent silent thanks to the powers that be for their wisdom in not genetically gifting Jack with both temper and impulsiveness, because he’d be doing time by now if they had. But Lila’s never done anything like this before. There must be something behind it. I wonder whether she’ll trust me as much as she used to and will tell me what it is that she’s running from. And whether I’ll still be able to read her. Used to be that Lila was as transparent as a windshield.

  I pause, reminding myself not to second-guess her actions. It could be something trivial – maybe she broke up with her boyfriend. But she doesn’t have a boyfriend, at least, not that I know of. It could be school – but she’s smart. She’s doing OK. I shake my head. Who am I kidding? She’s not OK. I can tell it from her emails. She doesn’t say it in so many words, but it’s there, in the gaps between them, in the way she avoids answering the more probing questions I throw at her.

  Dropping the towel, I pull on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, check there’s a full chamber in my gun and then push it down the back of my jeans, careful to pull my T-shirt over it. Everyone in this apartment building thinks I work as a personal trainer for wealthy, bored housewives. If my neighbours saw the firepower I carry to go jogging, they’d wonder at my personal-training technique.

  I stand and stare at myself hard in the mirror, running a hand over my head and the buzz cut I had two days ago. What will Lila see? Will she even recognise me and Jack? We’re not the same people she left behind. Three years have passed since we saw each other – two spent in Marine Special Ops training and one spent working for the Unit, hunting down her mother’s killers. When I look in the mirror these days, I’m not even sure I recognise myself. It’s not the muscle Jack and I have both built up in training, or the scars. Not even the tattoos on our arms mark us out as changed. It’s something more than that. Beyond the physical.

  We’re always on guard, always on the lookout, always wary, careful, suspicious. We’ve had to master secrets and deceit, while learning at the same time to decipher other people’s lies and secrets. We’ve become adept at closing out the ones we love and even those we might love – at blanking our emotions so there’s no chink of vulnerability left visible. We hide our true selves so well that sometimes I worry I’ll never find the real me again.

  I keep staring unflinchingly at my reflection. This is not a life that Lila needs to know about. When Jack and I are done, when we’ve caught the man who killed her mother, then we’ll tell her. Some of it at least. Not all. Truth doesn’t have smooth, soft round edges. It has razor-sharp ones. Holding that truth will only hurt her.

  Jack’s sprawled on the sofa when I walk into the living room. He’s hit play on my iPod deck and I pause in the doorway, trying to hide my smile.

  ‘What is this?’ Jack asks, nodding at the speakers. ‘I’ve not heard it before.’

  ‘Just something new,’ I say, dropping down onto the easy chair opposite him. It’s a playlist Lila put together and sent me a few weeks ago, but I don’t think it’s such a good idea to bring her name up now he seems to have calmed down.

  ‘It’s good,’ Jack mumbles, nodding appreciatively along to the music.

  ‘Did you report in to the base?’ I ask, changing the subject.

  ‘Yeah, I let Sara know what was happening. Told her we’d be in a little late. You should probably call Rachel, though,’ he says, referring to our boss.

  ‘I already have,’ I answer. ‘We should get going, though. Rachel said they’d picked up some new activity. Possibly a sighting of Demos in LA.’

  At this, Jack’s head flies up. He swings his legs off the sofa and sits up. ‘And you’re only telling me this now?’ he asks. ‘You see – this is why she can’t come back. He’s nearby. It’s too dangerous.’ He swears under his breath as he jumps to his feet.

  I stand up and grab the keys to my bike. ‘She’s coming back, Jack, and it’s all going to be OK,’ I say. ‘We’ll talk about it later. Right now we need to get to work.’

  We pull up outside the West Coast headquarters of Stirling Enterprises – located on Camp Pendleton Marine Base, just north of San Diego. The building sits like a sparkling UFO amongst the smaller, squatter, altogether plainer military installations – barracks, offices and even a hospital – that scatter the base.

  We did our training with the First Recon Marines out of Pendleton, so in a lot of ways the base feels like home. Having said that, when I pull up on my bike next to a drill sergeant with purple veins bulging like live snakes under his skin and hear him screaming abuse at a band of new recruits who are sweating valiantly in the midday heat, I can’t say I miss those days.

  Most of the Unit’s employees are trained Marines – at least the soldiers are; the scientists are not. But we’re not working under the remit of the US army. Our chain of command is shrouded in layers of mystery, but it’s thought that only one or two key people in the very highest, darkest corners of government know what we’re really doing.

  We’re our own secret enclave. And the building on the base which Jack and I are walking into reeks of that secrecy – its reflective glass and steel front means no one outside the Unit has ever caught a glimpse of what’s inside. I glance up as we walk inside. There are no guns mounted on the roof, but there are other invisible ways the building has of repelling enemies and I always feel a slight easing up of tension once I’m through the entry system and inside the lobby.

  Sixty metres below us right now, as we walk across the marble-floored lobby of this impenetrable building, lies a row of cells, empty except for one. Every time I cross this lobby that’s what I think about. What lies beneath.

  Empty cells and the fact we’ve only captured one.

  For the last five years Stirling Enterprises has been working for the US government on a project considered too sensitive for the public to ever find out about. Our mission is to contain a group of people called psygens – people with an incurable genetic malfunction that makes them not only different to everyone else – endowed with special abilities like telekinesis and telepathy – but also that renders them incapable of empathy or rational human thought. The Unit psychs claim they’re off-the-scale sociopaths.

  As if Jack and I needed to be told that – as if we didn’t already have proof.

  There’s no cure. There is only management. Containment, as it’s termed. The only problem is that they’re fast, they see us coming, they outmanoeuvre us every single time, always staying one step ahead. They have powers we don’t, ways of communicating and spying and stopping us in our tracks, which makes containing them a challenge.

  We’re closing the net on them, though – on the group we’re targeting – and once they’re contained, maybe then it will be safe for Lila to come back here for good. And maybe then Jack and I might have a shot at living a normal life too. I glance at Jack, who’s tapping his foot impatiently, waiting for the elevator doors to close. Maybe not, I think. For Jack, revenge is in his blood, has become so much a part of who he is, I doubt that he’ll ever stop hunting them, even after we catch Demos and his crew – not when there are more out there.

  Rachel’s in full-on debrief mode when we slip into the tactical team meeting. She nods at us, but doesn’t miss a beat, continuing to narrate over a rush of images projected onto the wall behind her – maps of downtown LA, some sketchy black-and-white shots drawn from CCTV cameras which she pauses on. They purport to be images of Demos and his right-hand man Harvey – but they’re so blizzarded out, it’s hard to tell for certain. Rachel wraps up with a reminder for us all to stay focused. As if we’re ever not, I think grimly to myself, watching her out of the corner of my eye.

  Rachel works hard to prove t
hat she’s not just in her position because of who she is – despite the fact that her name is Rachel Stirling and her father owns the company. But sometimes she works it too hard. She’s good at her job. Everyone knows that. She doesn’t need to keep on proving it.

  As Jack and I stand, she holds up a hand and beckons us to stay. I sigh. Jack heads over.

  ‘Sorry we were late,’ he says.

  ‘Family trouble?’ Rachel asks lightly, though her eyes, big and blue and what I imagine to be deceptively innocent, are sharp as needles.

  ‘My sister just told me she’s coming to stay,’ Jack says. ‘Her flight gets in tomorrow around lunchtime.’

  ‘That’s unexpected,’ Rachel says. She’s still smiling, but behind the smile there’s a note of irritation. Her eyes narrow slightly.

  ‘I’ll deal with it,’ Jack says, aware that Rachel’s scrutinising him. ‘It won’t be a problem.’

  Rachel studies him for a moment longer, the sheaf of papers she’s holding pressed against her chest. ‘Let’s hope not,’ she says with a tight smile. ‘We need focus right now, Lieutenant.’

  ‘Absolutely,’ Jack says, holding her gaze steadily.

  She turns to me. ‘We could have used your input, Alex,’ she says and I notice that she’s opted for first-name terms with me rather than Lieutenant.

  I glance up and see Jack winking at me over Rachel’s shoulder. I keep my face blank as Jack walks out of the door, smirking. Rachel lets him go. She takes a minuscule step towards me, so she’s almost pressing against me, and I’m caught between the table and her. When I glance down, I catch a glimpse of lace bra. I look up quickly.

  ‘Busy tonight?’ she asks. I can tell by the way she tilts her head to one side, casually flicking her hair over one shoulder and catching her lip, sticky with gloss, between her teeth, that she’s not asking whether I’m busy on call. She knows that I’m not. She signs off all the shifts.

 
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