Hunting Lila

17-year-old Lila has two secrets she's prepared to take to the grave. The first is that she can move things just by looking at them. The second is that she's been in love with her brother's best friend, Alex, since forever. After a mugging exposes her unique ability, Lila decides to run to the only people she can trust - her brother and Alex. They live in Southern California where they work for a secret organisation called The Unit, and Lila discovers that the two of them are hunting down the men who murdered her mother five years before. And that they've found them. In a world where nothing and no one is quite as they seem, Lila quickly realises that she is not alone - there are others out there just like her - people with special powers -and her mother's killer is one of them...


2. 2

I came through customs warily, stumbling a little from the lack of sleep and the tired throb of my leg. I scanned the blur of faces massing at the sliding arrival doors. I wasn’t sure if Jack would be there. And if he was, whether it would only be to hand me a return ticket and frogmarch me straight to the check-in counter.


A familiar voice made me turn my head. Jack was leaning through the crowd, grinning at me. I felt such intense relief that I wanted to collapse right there and then and let him pick up the pieces of me. When I reached the barrier and fell into his arms, a sob came out of nowhere. I forced it down, pressing my face hard into Jack’s shoulder. He pulled me away, grabbing my bag from me. I ducked under the barrier and he put his free arm round my waist, tugging me gently through the throng of people.

When we were free of the crowd and walking across the terminal he looked at me quizzically. ‘So, good flight?’

I couldn’t help but smile at him, ridiculously grateful and relieved that he wasn’t leading me to the check-in counter and that he hadn’t asked me the question I was dreading – the reason I was there.

He was different to look at. It was hard to put my finger on why, but there was something about him now that definitely hadn’t been there before. Jack had always been confident: good looks and popularity tend to have that effect on people. Now, though, as he manoeuvred us through the busy terminal, I was aware that this aura was somehow enhanced, like he’d been bitten by a spider and had come over all superhero. Whereas before he’d been fully aware of his charm and had worked it to maximum girl-attracting effect, now his confidence seemed utterly unselfconscious. He was completely indifferent to the effect he was having on people. A woman dragging a wheelie suitcase turned to look at him over her shoulder as we passed and a couple of giggling girls a little younger than me nudged each other. He drew people to him but left them in a kind of wake, bobbing hopelessly after him.

Jack was wearing jeans and a white crew-neck T-shirt. His sunglasses hung down from the collar. When we stepped outside into the glaring sunlight he put them on and flashed a smile at me. Yeah, he could have stepped out of a Police sunglasses advert, I thought with a familiar pang of envy. I, on the other hand, felt pale and creased in this land of tanned, polished people. I wanted to get home and shower. Home, I thought, with a shock – I was already thinking of this as home. And this was just the LAX arrivals hall.


Jack kept up a steady stream of conversation on the way south to Oceanside. My sudden arrival sat between us, a great white elephant in the car. I ignored it studiously and focused instead on absorbing everything about him. And the car. I knew nothing about cars, but this one was seriously impressive. How much were they paying Marines these days? It had a leather interior, a low roof, a killer sound system and a disembodied voice which welcomed us when we got in. Jack drove the car smoothly, pushing the limit without an ounce of hesitation as he wove in and out of traffic on the freeway. I relaxed back into the seat and let him talk. His eyes flicked from the road ahead, to the rear-view mirror, then back to me. He was telling me about his house – it was near to the beach, which sounded good, way better than living slap-bang in mugging central, south London.

His words started to wash over me as I focused my attention on him, observing his profile. He looked so much older than the teenage boy he’d been when I’d last seen him, he was tanned and his dark hair was growing out of a crew cut. Three years was a long time I supposed, we’d both changed a lot. I wondered how I looked to him.

As if reading my mind, he cast his eyes in my direction, then looked back at the road. ‘You look different, Lila.’

‘Yeah, I look wasted,’ I said, ‘I don’t think I’ve slept in thirty hours or more.’

He brooded for a moment. I hoped he wasn’t going to ask me why. I could see he was thinking about it.

Instead, he said, ‘I almost didn’t recognise you when you walked through the arrivals hall.’

I didn’t reply. In the three years since we’d last seen each other I’d grown quite a bit taller but was still a good six inches off his six feet. My hair was still long, though perhaps duller than the honey blonde he remembered. No sunshine to streak it in England. We had the exact same eyes, both dark green, both framed with thick black lashes, though his were even longer and thicker than mine. There was, of course, one major change, but it wasn’t something physical and as he couldn’t read my mind, I was certain he wasn’t talking about that. I shifted in my seat, trying to avoid thinking about it.

As he reached to change gears, something caught my eye and I leaned across to touch his arm beneath the sleeve of his T-shirt. He saw my raised eyebrows and reached to tug the sleeve up, exposing his bicep and a tattoo in black ink of two crossed swords. The words Semper Fi were etched above it.

‘Mum would be so mad!’

‘Yeah? Well, she’s not around to see it, is she?’ He flicked the sleeve down and stared at the road ahead.

I turned to look out of the window too. I shouldn’t have mentioned Mum. Five years didn’t seem to have softened the effect of hearing her name. I could see the muscles stretched taut around his jaw. He was as easy to read as I was, every emotion slapped across his face like a neon sign. I couldn’t believe I’d managed to upset him within half an hour of seeing him again. I really needed to not do that if I had any hope of convincing him to let me stay for the foreseeable future.

‘What does it mean?’ I asked, to distract him.

Jack’s jaw untensed. ‘It’s the Marine Corps motto. Always Faithful. The crossed swords are the Unit’s emblem. It’s something we all got done when we finished recon and special ops training.’

His unit – he’d spoken only sparingly on the phone to me about his unit. I didn’t know much about it at all; it had taken me months even to figure out that recon meant reconnaissance. Though I still hadn’t figured out what exactly they were reconnaissancing. What I did know was that the training had been two long years, for much of which he hadn’t been contactable. That had been difficult.

A thought occurred to me. ‘Does Alex have one too?’

‘Yep, of course.’

Of course. I could have guessed. I stopped myself from asking him, If Alex drank poison, would you do it too? It was what my mum used to say all the time but I didn’t think the reminder would go down too well.

‘He’ll be over later by the way. He can’t wait to see you.’

My heart lurched. I was sure it punched out of my chest like you see in cartoons. I looked over at my brother, biting the inside of my cheek to rein in my unstoppable grin. I didn’t want him to see how ecstatic that bit of news had just made me.


Half an hour later we were still cocooned in the air-conditioned cool of the car. I was staring out at the blue ocean to my right, wrapped up in imaginings involving Alex in uniform, when Jack interrupted my reverie with a nod to his left. We were passing a turn-off. A large sign announced the entrance to the Marine Corps Base at Camp Pendleton. Several army trucks were turning in ahead of us.

I squinted up the road as we passed it by. ‘So that’s where you work?’

‘It is indeed.’

‘Is it big? It looks big.’

‘Two hundred square miles. We’ve been driving alongside it for the last thirty minutes.’

I thought about that for a bit. ‘Don’t you live on base?’

‘No, our unit doesn’t. We need to be near to San Diego and the border.’

The border? With Mexico, I assumed, not Orange County. I wondered why that was important. The only thing I could think of was drugs, or maybe illegal immigrants, but I didn’t ask as I knew Jack wouldn’t give me a straight answer. He always changed the subject when I asked what his unit actually did. I knew they hadn’t been deployed overseas, thank God, but it seemed a little weird that they’d gone through all that training just to sit around in sunny California, kicking back in civilian clothes and driving fast cars. And, anyway, didn’t the police or border control deal with drugs and immigration?

A few miles further down the road and we came to Oceanside. It was a small, sun-bleached town facing the Pacific, the kind of place you see in the movies, with palm trees swaying languorously in the breeze. We drove through some back streets, away from the ocean, and pulled up outside a small two-storeyed detached house. It had a square of front yard, with scrappy grass and a wooden veranda running along the front. The house was painted grey. There was an integral garage which we drove up to, Jack hitting a button in the car that made the garage door swing open for us.

When we entered the house through the internal door, I stopped short. I had imagined something semi-squalid, like his bedroom used to be, and instead I was confronted with a photo shoot from Ideal Home. I caught my breath in the hallway when I saw the little wooden letter table by the door. It looked strange sitting there. The last time I’d seen it had been five years ago, back in our house in Washington. I looked around the house more carefully, spotting one or two other items from our childhood. A whitewashed bookcase in the living room, a framed print of a Klee painting in the hall, an antique coat rack by the front door. No wonder it had appeared so homey on first glance. It was like putting on a familiar old coat in the winter. Even though she’d never stepped foot inside this house, my mum’s touch was all over it.

The kitchen, which Jack led me into now, was slightly old-fashioned, with a big ceramic sink, crackly lino floor and a flimsy veneer table and chairs. I glanced around for anything familiar in here. The only thing I recognised was a postcard of Big Ben tacked to the fridge door, one I’d sent Jack a year or two back. I wondered what I’d written on the back, probably some barefaced lie about how happy I was.

I wandered over to it. It was posted amongst a litter of other scraps of paper and one or two photos. I flinched when I saw one was of me, taken the last time I was over in Washington, three years ago. I felt sorry for my fourteen-year-old self when I looked at it. I had a stricken expression, like I was hiding a terrible secret. The irony was, back then I hadn’t even known what terrible secrets were – I’d just been a scared fourteen-year-old, confused by the rift opening up between her dad and her brother, and not sure whether she’d see her brother or his best friend ever again. I resisted the urge to tear the photo off the fridge and rip it up.

I almost didn’t want to look at the other photo, which I’d clocked out of the corner of my eye. To do so was like tearing off an itching scab: a momentary thrill of satisfaction, followed rapidly by pain and clotting. It was a dog-eared picture of a stunning blonde woman, caught mid-laugh, one of her arms wrapped tightly around a boy who was looking up at her, his head shadowed beneath her chin, blue sky behind them. The boy was Jack and the woman was my mother. The top of another, blonder, head appeared in the bottom left of the picture, but it was impossible to tell that it was me. I turned away, wanting to shield Jack from the picture, then remembered that he had put it there and was confronted by it every time he went to fetch the milk. I guessed that was progress.

‘It’s a nice place, Jack. Really nice.’

‘Yeah,’ he nodded, ‘it’s good to come home to.’

I agreed silently, then, experimenting with my indifferent voice, asked, ‘So where does Alex live? I’m surprised you two aren’t room-mates.’ My indifferent voice needed work.

Jack laughed. ‘Contrary to popular opinion, sis, Alex and I are not joined at the hip. Alex lives five minutes away. He has a very cool bachelor pad on the oceanfront.’

My heart rebounded back into my chest. Bachelor pad? Of course. It was absurd that Alex wouldn’t be dating girls. He was beautiful, and yes, I was blinded by bias, but it was still an indisputable fact. By anyone. Together, he and Jack had cornered the market in good looks and charisma. When I was about ten I’d had to watch in silent agony as Alex dated a few girls – all older than me, all able to fill a bra – and it had almost killed me to watch. But in the fantasy world I’d created in my mind since leaving, Alex lived in a woman-free vacuum. It was the only way I’d kept myself sane. Now the words ‘bachelor’ and ‘pad’ were being bandied around and my mind was erasing that carefully crafted fantasy and redrawing it with images of hot tubs and women in bikinis.

Breathe, I reminded myself. This is Alex. Not Jack. Alex, who always played the cool, collected one to Jack’s extrovert. He’d never been one to chase the girls, he was the one who always apologised to them when Jack forgot their names. He would hang back, watching silently with one blond eyebrow raised whenever Jack went in for the kill. And even if he did have a bachelor pad, it didn’t mean he was entertaining streams of women every night, or even any night.

Yeah, keep clutching at those straws, Lila.

‘You hungry? Thirsty?’ Jack asked.

I certainly wasn’t hungry now. My stomach was in knots. I shook my head.

Jack led me through into the hallway, where he stopped in front of a small white box on the wall by the front door.

‘This is the alarm,’ he said, flicking open the box. Inside was a space-age-looking row of blinking lights and a touchpad with both letters and numbers on it.

‘The code is 121205,’ he said. ‘You need to set the alarm when you’re in the house, not just when you go out. If something sets it off when you’re inside, the whole place will lock down. You won’t be able to get out. Just hang tight and wait for me or the police.’

I stared at him in silence for a few seconds. I hadn’t taken in the instructions, just the code. It was the date of my mother’s death. Jack ignored my expression and snapped the box shut. I understood the paranoia. Dad had installed an alarm on the house in London too. But having an alarm hadn’t helped Mum.

Jack picked up my bag which he’d dumped at the bottom of the stairs and waved me forwards, up them. I went first, pausing on the landing, not sure which door to take.

Jack edged past me to the door at the end of the short corridor. He opened it and let me go first into what was going to be my bedroom for the next however many days he let me stay. It was nice and simple. A single bed, a dresser with a spiky cactus in a red pot on top and a blue comfy chair wedged in the corner – another relic from our previous lives. The window looked out over the back garden. I could definitely make this room my home forever.

‘It’s great. Thanks,’ I said, turning towards him. It was kind of awkward, him not knowing why I was there. Me not telling, him not asking.

He put my bag on the chair and said, ‘Do you want to have a sleep? You could probably use it. I’ve got a few things to do this afternoon. You sleep. When you wake up, we’ll have dinner and talk.’

Yeah, there, he’d said it, Talk. Guess I knew it was coming. I had a few more hours to think up something to tell him. I glanced at the clock on the bedside table. It was coming up for 3.30 p.m. Sleep was seeming like a very good idea indeed, especially when I looked again at the bed.

‘OK, sounds like a plan,’ I agreed.

I looked at him then walked over to where he was standing by the door. I stopped a few inches away from him and let my head fall against his chest. He brought his arms around me as I mumbled into his T-shirt, ‘Thanks.’

‘Hey, no problem,’ he said softly. I felt his lips press against the top of my head and then he left.

I sat down on the edge of the bed and kicked off my shoes, then fell backwards onto the cool sheets. It felt so inviting but my skin was tacky and glazed from travel and I needed a shower more than I needed to sleep. I groaned and sat back up, glancing around for my bag. It hovered off the chair, unzipped itself and moved towards me. With a shock I realised what I was doing and let it fall to the floor with a thud.

‘Lila? You OK?’ Jack yelled from downstairs.

‘Er, yeah, fine, just dropped my bag,’ I called back.
I knelt on the floor, breathing loudly. I had to get this under control. No more using my ability, for anything. That was the rule. I absolutely had to stick to it if I wanted to avoid any more eyeball incidents. Or worse. I had to concentrate. I’d pretty much managed it at school and when I was around people. It was just being tired that made it harder to control. Tiredness and having a knife held to my throat.

I reached into my bag, feeling for my wash things and a clean T-shirt. It felt weird. I was using muscles I hadn’t used in a while. I was going to have to get used to that.


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