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Conspiracy girl, p.1
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       Conspiracy Girl, p.1

           Sarah Alderson
 
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Conspiracy Girl


  Also by Sarah Alderson:

  HUNTING LILA

  LOSING LILA

  FATED

  THE SOUND

  OUT OF CONTROL

  Available as eBook originals:

  TORMENTING LILA

  LILA SHORTCUTS

  First published in Great Britain in 2015 by Simon and Schuster UK Ltd

  A CBS COMPANY

  Copyright © 2015 Sarah Alderson

  This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.

  No reproduction without permission.

  All rights reserved.

  The right of Sarah Alderson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

  Simon & Schuster UK Ltd

  1st Floor, 222 Gray’s Inn Road

  London

  WC1X 8HB

  www.simonandschuster.co.uk

  Simon & Schuster Australia, Sydney

  Simon & Schuster India, New Delhi

  A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

  PB ISBN: 978-1-47112-196-8

  EBOOK ISBN: 978-1-47112-197-5

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Typeset by Hewer Text UK Ltd, Edinburgh

  Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY

  For Nichola Stallwood and bump

  Contents

  NIC

  FINN

  NIC

  NIC

  FINN

  NIC

  FINN

  NIC

  FINN

  NIC

  FINN

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  FINN

  NIC

  FINN

  NIC

  FINN

  NIC

  FINN

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  FINN

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  FINN

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  FINN

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  FINN

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  FINN

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  FINN

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  FINN

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  FINN

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  FINN

  NIC

  FINN

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  FINN

  NIC

  FINN

  NIC

  EPILOGUE

  NIC

  Dusk is falling fast so I up my pace. One hand is in my pocket, wrapped tightly around my Taser, and the other is clutching on to Goz’s leash. I turn the corner on to my street and take a quick glance over my shoulder as I approach my front door, which is a slab of metal as thick as a cell door. There’s no number. No mailbox. No name. It’s as deliberately anonymous as the street, which is tucked away in a semi-quiet corner of the East Village.

  ‘Sit,’ I tell Goz as we pull up in front of it. I scan in all directions before pulling out my key.

  Goz sits facing the sidewalk, covering my back, but as soon as I enter the alarm code into the pad hidden in the wall and push open the door he steamrollers ahead of me, anxious to get in out of the cold and no doubt snarf his dinner in front of Dancing with the Stars.

  I slam the door behind me and then, bracing myself, cling on to Goz’s leash as he bounds up the stairs, dragging me behind him like a chariot.

  On the second landing I pause briefly outside Hugo’s door, wondering if I should knock and say hi, but it’s late and Goz has other ideas anyway.

  ‘OK, OK,’ I say, switching the leash to my other hand and letting him tow me up to the third floor. ‘Calm down.’

  A growl bursts out of Goz’s throat the second we reach the door to my apartment. He hunkers down, his pinball head sinking between the broad slabs of his shoulders, and bares his teeth at the door.

  My hand freezes halfway to the lock, my heart rocketing into my throat, pulsing wildly. My eyes fly to the keypad – it’s placidly flashing green – then to the ceiling, checking that the cameras are all switched on.

  ‘Quit it,’ I tell Goz, yanking on his leash angrily. Some guard dog he’s turning out to be, barking at his own shadow all the time. He’s supposed to make me feel safer, not more paranoid.

  Goz ignores me and keeps whining as I punch in the alarm code and insert my key into the lock.

  I take a deep breath, my heart still galloping, and push open the door. The leash goes flying out of my hand as Goz races into the living room, leaping over the sofa as though he’s watched one too many stunt movies.

  The apartment is just as I left it – blinds drawn, lights on, bedroom doors shut. Not a cushion out of place. Goz slides to a halt in the middle of the living room and looks around, confused, his head tipping to one side. He sniffs a bit and then pads over towards the kitchen, glancing back at me to see if I’m catching the hint. The security company advised me to get a French mastiff and, while I love Goz, sometimes I wonder at the size of his brain. In comparison to the rest of his body, which looks like it’s been fed steroids, his head is peanut-small.

  I shake my head and close the door behind me, drawing the three bolts across it and then resetting the alarm. I check the bolts twice, out of habit, and when I’m done with that little ritual I strip off my jacket, scarf and hat and toss them on to the sofa along with my bag.

  It’s late, I’m tired and all my muscles are aching from the workout I just did. I kick off my boots and head towards the kitchen, which is separated from the living room by a long wooden counter. When I had the architects remodel the apartment I told them I wanted as few doorways and walls as possible. No blind spots. Nowhere anyone could hide. The result is an open-plan living space that I’ve tried hard to make homely. There are framed photographs of family on the walls, a couple of vintage ballet posters, a large squashy sofa, lots of lamps – which I walk around switching on now until the room is ablaze – and a large-screen television on one wall.

  Despite all these things though, because of the cameras set into the ceiling, I sometimes feel as if I’m starring in a one-girl version of Big Brother, and that my apartment is nothing more than an elaborate television set with me the solitary star faking the part of being a normal person.

  Goz whines in anticipation as I head his way, drool hanging like viscous vines from his teeth. The refrigerator is empty except for a single egg. Goz stares at the bare shelves then looks up at me with big brown eyes, cocking his head accusingly.

  ‘Sorry, all out,’ I tell him. ‘No milk, no ice cream, no nothing.’

  I could order in, or go out for groceries, but it’s dark outside now and as a rule I don’t go out at night or let delivery men into the building.

  Ignoring Goz’s stare I shrug and close the refrigerator door. ‘Looks like it’s just you, me and The Notebook tonight, Goz. And a scrambled egg.’

  Goz makes a hacking sound, shaking his head so hard drool splatters the wooden floorboards.

  I raise my eyebrows at him and he goes and lies down in a humph on his bed in the corner of the kitchen next to his bowl of untouched Kibble.

  ‘I’m just going to run a bath,’ I tell him.

  Goz ignores me but a waft of something pungent hits my nostrils and I know he’s making clear his displeasure without actually giving growly voice to it.

  ‘Nice,’ I tell him. ‘That’s going to make you a real hit with the ladies.’

  I roll my eyes at myself. I can’t believe I’m talking to a dog. But the fact is on most days I probably speak more words to Goz than to any person, except for the days I have therapy and have to listen to myself drone on to Dr
Phipps telling him all the things I’m doing to move forward with my life.

  I walk into my bedroom, set my phone to charge on the nightstand beside a photograph of my mum and Taylor, and head into the en-suite bathroom to run the bath, noticing that Goz has got over his huff and followed after me. I smile, feeling a sudden wave of affection for my dog as he stations himself in the doorway like a slobbering sphinx. I might be a screw-up when it comes to human relationships, but at least I can get canine ones right.

  ‘Come on then,’ I say to him with a sigh, heading back through the living room to the kitchen, where the solitary egg awaits us.

  Goz pads after me, his barrel body brushing my thigh, and I am just reaching down to pet him when a creaking noise from somewhere in the apartment makes us both freeze mid-step. I turn, adrenaline flooding my system like wildfire. Goz careers past me, barking at the top of his lungs, his paws clattering sharply against the wooden floor. He leaps at the door to the spare bedroom, throwing his whole weight against it, barking and growling furiously.

  For a few seconds I think I must have imagined it, but then it comes again, the wooden floorboards creaking under the weight of a footstep.

  Someone is inside my apartment.

  It takes me several seconds to process that fact. And once I do, my brain stalls and paralysis takes over, despite the adrenaline that’s making my heart smash into my ribs like fists against a door.

  Finally, my legs unglue themselves and I dart for the front door, panic fuelling me. At the very last moment I catch sight of the three bolts drawn across it and veer in blind terror towards my bedroom.

  ‘Goz!’ I shout hoarsely as I sprint towards it. ‘Get over here!’

  Goz glances at me, then back at the door, and I see him hesitate before his training kicks in and he turns and races after me. I slam my bedroom door shut and draw the bolt, scrambling towards the panic button that’s built into the bedside table and ramming the heel of my hand down on it. Collapsing to my knees, I stare wide-eyed at the door. Three minutes, I tell myself. The armed response unit will be here in three minutes.

  The door is reinforced with steel. Nothing, no one, can get through it. The security guy told me my apartment was as safe as the President’s nuclear bunker. Even so, my whole body is locked rigid and a sob is blocking my throat. The room is starting to close in on me.

  Glass shatters somewhere in the apartment and I shrink back against the bed with a whimper, drawing my knees to my chest. Oh God. Not again.

  Footsteps make their way slowly across the living room. Where is the armed response team? How long has it been? It feels like hours but it must only have been a few seconds.

  I bury my head in my arms and cover my ears but it doesn’t matter because the voices are inside my head and I can’t get away from them. I hear my mum pleading, begging for her life. I hear Taylor – her screams echoing in my skull. Their voices drown out Goz, who is working himself into a wild frenzy, bashing against the door.

  I want to call him over to me, but my voice won’t work. Get it together, I order myself furiously. Come on! Forcing my eyes open, I struggle to my knees and grab my phone. I dial 911. Nothing happens. There’s no dial tone. I shake the phone desperately. What the hell is going on? I dial again, terror now taking hold of my breathing, making me almost hyperventilate. Still nothing. The phone won’t connect.

  All of a sudden my attention flies back to the door. Goz has stopped barking and is edging silently backwards away from it.

  We watch the door handle twist slowly one way and then the other. Goz hunkers down and lets out a low growl. The door handle stops moving. I keep staring, holding my breath, half expecting the door to burst open.

  But then, from the living room, comes a scraping sound as the bolts on the front door are drawn back. My head flies up. Are they leaving? I strain to listen.

  An explosion – what sounds like a gunshot – makes me jolt backwards. A second later I hear the front door smash against the concrete wall of the landing and footsteps careering down the stairs and then, as I huddle unmoving, unsure what is happening, desperately hoping it’s the armed response unit, I hear something else. The faint sound of someone begging for help.

  It’s a voice I recognise. I crawl on hands and knees towards the bedroom door, my gut squeezing tight.

  Don’t come out. I hear my mum’s voice in my head, pleading with me. Don’t come out!

  But I ignore the voice and draw the bolt with a shaking hand, praying the whole time that I’m mistaken. As soon as I throw open the door Goz flies past me, snarling. He leaps towards a body lying on the floor and I scream, calling him off, even as I throw myself towards the person on the ground.

  Hugo – the guy who lives in the apartment below me – is lying sprawled on the landing outside my front door wearing only a pair of sweatpants and a dressing gown. Blood seeps around his head like a crimson halo.

  ‘Oh God, oh God.’ I lean over him. There’s a baseball bat by his body and blood is gushing in spurts from a gash in his neck. He must have been coming up to investigate the noise. My hands hover over him uselessly. I don’t know what to do. I press my palms to the wound, trying to stem the bleeding.

  Blood pulses hot and slick over my fingers. ‘Hugo!’ I sob, but he’s unresponsive. ‘Help!’ I scream at the top of my lungs. Somebody, please help me. And then Lara, my other tenant, appears in her doorway. She’s wearing pyjamas, her hair hanging loose over her shoulders, and she stares down at us – her face pale and her eyes round and unfocused with shock.

  ‘Lara, call an ambulance!’ I scream at her. She comes to, spins around and flies back into her apartment.

  I stay kneeling, with my hands pressed against Hugo’s neck, trying to hold back the flow of blood. It’s slowing. It’s no longer gushing, but rather oozing gently between my fingers.

  ‘Come on, please, don’t die, don’t die,’ I whisper, over and over. And in my head I’m thinking, Not again. Please not again.

  FINN

  I’m moving from one attack vector to another, trying to find a way in. According to the client the target’s impenetrable, but I have a one hundred percent success rate so I’m not sweating it. There’s always a back door left open, a chink somewhere that’s waiting to be exploited. You just have to know where to look. And after a few minutes I find a hole.

  I throw a hook through and execute a few commands. It takes a handful of seconds but then the monitor in front of me springs to life, code scrolling in ribbons across the bottom.

  Result. I hit enter, sit back and watch as the new program I wrote installs itself. It only took me eight minutes to hack a FTSE 100 company’s internal server. Impenetrable I don’t think. I just installed undetectable spyware without them even knowing it.

  If I was working for one of their competitors they’d have reason to be worried. Luckily they employed me to test their firewalls and security. I have a report to write up but I shelve it and stand up, stretching out. I’ve been sitting here for ten hours straight but I’ve earned well into five figures in the meantime, so I’m not going to complain about having a sore ass.

  I walk across the loft and press my thumb to the panel in the wall of the cube – a square room I built myself in the centre of the loft. The walls are reinforced concrete. It has its own electricity and air supply. Inside, my servers hum like a living thing. I pat the server stack hello. The fans are going full but I quickly close the door to make sure the temperature stays stable and sit down at the bank of computers. This is where the real work happens.

  First off I check on the growing list of people I’m tracking, making sure they’re all behaving themselves, and then I do a few basic admin tests on the firewall of a major non-profit that works on environmental and human rights issues. It’s been receiving hit after take-down hit from Chinese hackers so I’ve been helping shore it up. Pro bono of course. Most the work that takes place in this room is unpaid.

  Once I’m done with that I check the forums where a
ll the hackers gather – mainly in Eastern Europe these days – and see what’s going on in the world of internet crime. Within a few seconds of entering the chat room under my pseudonym, Grey Hat, I can pick out which of the people in there are feds and which are the legit criminals. The feds are pretending to be hackers but they may as well change their user names to FBI1 and FBI2, they’re that obvious. Though I guess no one else is picking up on it because the chatter about credit-card scams and insider tips on how to get hold of the latest unissued computer games goes on uncensored. I exchange a few words with Ivarstheblack – a Latvian hacker I’ve worked with a few times – then I log out. It doesn’t matter how many times the feds close in, internet crime grows and grows like fungus in a damp room. They’ll close this site down and within a day it will be up and running somewhere else.

  Locking up the cube, I head to the kitchen. It’s after ten and I’m starving. The countertop is stacked with every appliance known to man, from pasta makers to an ice crusher that looks like a medieval torture implement, but the only one I ever use is the coffee machine. I don’t want an espresso, though – tonight I’m celebrating my win against the machine, so I open a cupboard and pour myself a shot of tequila. It burns the back of my throat and I move to the refrigerator, figuring I should probably line my stomach before I knock back any more celebratory shots.

  The refrigerator, which is almost as big as the cube, contains about fifty bottles of Snapple green tea, a box of gourmet Belgian chocolate and a tub of Skippy peanut butter.

  I shut the door. Man, I need to do some grocery shopping. Barefoot, I slope over to my bed – still unmade from this morning – and grab a T-shirt and my keys.

  Goddamn, it’s cold outside. I shove my hands into the pockets of my jacket and start jogging down the block, wishing I’d stopped to put socks on. The Striphouse is still busy when I push inside. Its windows are all fogged up, people are pressing against the bar and there’s a line of folk waiting to be seated. The maître d’ clocks me the second I walk in and saunters over, flicking her hair over her shoulder. Ignoring the three waiting couples in front of me, she flashes me a blinding, bleached-white smile.

 
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