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Conspiracy girl, p.10
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       Conspiracy Girl, p.10

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  Finn bites the inside of his cheek and stares at me, still looking pained, then he takes out the cartons and lays out two steaks – rare – salad and fries on our plates.

  ‘Best steak in town,’ he says, carrying both plates over to the table. ‘I even got one for Goz.’ He frowns as he says that, probably wondering if that’s such a good idea, given the poo disaster with the curry.

  ‘I spoke to Maggie,’ he tells me when I sit down. ‘When you were in the shower.’

  I look up.

  ‘There’s no news on your stepdad. Hugo’s still in intensive care.’

  ‘And Miles and McCrory?’ I ask.

  He saws at his steak. ‘They’ve disappeared too,’ he finally admits.

  I lay my knife and fork down, my steak untouched. ‘I told you.’

  ‘It doesn’t mean anything,’ Finn says, twisting the cap off his juice.

  My foot taps beneath the table.

  ‘What happens if we don’t find anything in my apartment?’

  ‘Then I keep looking through Aiden’s files until I find a link.’

  ‘And then?’

  ‘Then I follow it.’

  I stare at him. How long are we going to be stuck together? I can’t do this.

  ‘It’s OK,’ Finn says. ‘I’m good at this. I’ve never not broken a case.’

  ‘How many cases have you broken?’ I ask not understanding what he means. Don’t cops work cases?

  ‘A few. I’ve been involved in over thirty murder cases in the last three years, some on the side with Maggie, and others where I’ve been privately contracted by families or lawyers.’

  I try to hide my surprise.

  ‘I’ve also worked with over twenty of the biggest corporations in the world,’ he continues, ‘helping them shore up their internet security against cyber-attacks. And every time I’ve found the weak link. The fatal flaw.’

  I stare at him in shock for a few seconds. He’s not much older than me, yet to hear him speak you’d think he was a seasoned cop twice his actual age.

  ‘How do you know Maggie?’ I ask after a few seconds of silence.

  ‘She was my mentor on the FBI internship programme,’ Finn answers in a flat voice.

  ‘Internship programme?’

  He nods. ‘Yeah. For promising young undergrads. It was my final year at college.’

  I frown at him. ‘How old are you?’ I ask. Doing a rough calculation in my head that would put him at around twenty-five, but he looks early twenties at most.

  ‘Twenty-two,’ he answers, spearing some steak.

  I must look puzzled because he puts his knife and fork down. ‘I graduated high school when I was fourteen,’ he says as though it were no big deal. ‘I finished college before I was eighteen. I was actually already working unofficially for the FBI and the NSA from when I was fourteen. They just couldn’t accept me officially on to the programme until I was in my senior year.’

  What is he? Some kind of prodigy? I pick up my glass of water and take a sip. I’m starting to see why Maggie brought me here.

  ‘So how come you didn’t go on to become an FBI agent then?’ I ask.

  Finn clears his throat, picks up his knife and fork and stares down at his plate. ‘I never actually graduated from the programme,’ he mumbles. ‘So, I kind of blew my chances.’

  Huh. That’s interesting. I glance at the cube. Something to do with his shady internet dealings?

  ‘I would have graduated top of the class though,’ he adds quickly, seeing my look. ‘It wasn’t for lack of skill or ability.’

  ‘I don’t doubt it,’ I say with a smile. ‘Lack of modesty perhaps?’

  He grins at me. ‘No, let’s call it lack of common sense and leave it at that.’

  I bite my tongue, interest thoroughly piqued now, and watch him as he cuts up his steak and feeds a piece to Goz.

  Given what I’ve seen so far, I would have expected him to deliver all this news with a glowingly smug face, but there’s not a trace of arrogance there, no matter how hard I look for it. In fact the thing that strikes me above all is the weariness in his eyes. It seems leagues deep and I can’t believe I haven’t noticed it before.

  ‘But you and Maggie, you stayed friends obviously,’ I probe.

  Finn’s mouth pulls up at the edge. He holds my gaze. ‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘Just friends.’

  I stare down at my food, feeling flustered. I don’t care if he and Maggie were or are friends or friends with benefits or even if they’re dating. It’s no business of mine. I’m not even sure why I asked him. When I look up Finn is glancing down at his own food, pushing it around on his plate with his fork.

  ‘Maggie’s my best friend. She stood by me when things were rough.’

  What the hell did he do? He glances up, a slightly bashful look in his blue eyes and my heart gives a sudden sharp kick in my chest. I almost drop my fork. Where in the heck did that come from? OK, he’s good-looking. OK, he’s intelligent, which is also a bonus, but I still can’t stand him.

  ‘So what work were you doing for the FBI and NSA then when you were just a kid?’ I ask, trying to ignore the unpleasant feeling of butterflies starting to stretch their wings in my stomach.

  ‘Mainly computer crime.’ He pushes his food aside half eaten and stands up quickly as though wanting to put a stop to the conversation. ‘It’s almost nine. I’m going to get back to work.’ He heads towards the cube. ‘We’ll leave at two-thirty. You should try to sleep.’

  FINN

  She doesn’t sleep. She sits on the floor at the foot of my bed reading a book she’s plucked from the pile stacked against the wall. I think it’s one on meditation and mindfulness, but it doesn’t seem to be working because every five minutes or so she gets up, does a circuit of the room, pauses by the windows to look out, and then goes and sits back down.

  I can feel her sitting there like an unguarded fire. It’s a distraction. I keep wanting to swivel towards her and check on her. I worked in the cube for a while, trying to see if four concrete walls would help me stay focused, but I found it hard to concentrate because I couldn’t see her, so I moved back to the computers in the loft.

  At midnight I get up and make some coffee. Nic joins me, leaning against the countertop and watching as I grind the beans. I notice that she seems more relaxed than earlier – the tension which was pulsing off her like sparks from an electric fence seems to have dropped in wattage. She no longer purses her lips at everything I say and she isn’t keeping an Olympic swimming pool’s length between us. At one point I have to lean past her for the mugs and accidentally brush against her arm. She stiffens but doesn’t leap away like she would have done just a few hours ago.

  When she reaches to take her coffee and her hair falls over her shoulder I get an unexpected hit of her shampoo – my shampoo – and I have to fight the urge to pull her closer, push her hair to one side, lean in and take another breath. Instead I usher her back towards the desk, letting her lead the way, giving myself a stern and silent talking to. She’s a witness, I remind myself angrily. And she’s not my greatest fan either. Now is not the time to fall for a girl. Shit. I jolt to a stop and hot coffee spills over my hands, though I barely notice. Is that what I’m doing? Falling for her? For Nic Preston? No. I throw the thought off, fling it aside as if it were a rabid animal in fact. I’m drawn to the case, that’s all.

  ‘What’s Maggie doing?’ Nic asks, stopping abruptly beside my chair.

  My head flies up. It takes me a second to realise Nic’s pointing at the screen. I come to stand beside her. There, on the CCTV, is Maggie. She’s outside Nic’s apartment, talking to the cop on duty. They exchange a few words and then she ducks under the yellow tape that bars the door.

  ‘That’s Agent Wise,’ Nic says, pointing as another man steps into shot, following Maggie into the apartment. He’s tall, rangy, with a reddish-brown buzz cut and the standard FBI dark grey suit that just reeks of federal agent.

  I lean over and hit a command
and the camera angle switches to inside the apartment.

  ‘What are they doing?’ Nic asks.

  I am guessing they’re doing a walk-through now the crime scene techs are gone. ‘Let’s watch and see,’ I tell Nic.

  We sip our coffees and watch as Maggie and Wise walk through the apartment. It’s not clear what they’re looking for but they are thorough, searching on top of the refrigerator and cabinets in the kitchen, turning over the sofa, looking under the rug. They disappear into the bedrooms but there are no cameras there so we watch frustrated until they exit, both of them looking grim-faced, clearly empty-handed. Is it wrong that I feel relieved? I want to be the one to find whatever it is they were after.

  Nic is standing beside me with her arms now crossed over her chest. She’s balancing on one leg, the other foot tucked up against her knee. She is glaring at the monitor. I guess it’s pretty crappy watching someone root around your own house.

  Finally, after a couple of hours, they leave. ‘Right, let’s move,’ I say, crossing to the door. ‘Wear something warm.’

  I pull on a sweater and a jacket and then throw my backpack over my shoulder. It’s got a few tools in it we might need.

  ‘Ready?’ I ask.

  Nic nods.

  On the street outside my apartment, Nic comes to a halt. I glance at her. She’s staring at me with her eyebrow raised and the pursed lips are back in play. ‘What’s up?’ I ask, knowing full well what she’s about to say.

  ‘A motorbike?’ she asks, hands now on her hips.

  ‘Fastest way around town,’ I say, passing her a helmet. She looks like I’ve just handed her a plate of Goz’s steaming crap.

  ‘Need some help?’

  ‘No,’ she snaps back. ‘I got it.’ But clearly she hasn’t, as she fumbles with the strap. I bite back the smile and step towards her, making no sudden moves, checking she’s OK with me being so close. I tighten the strap beneath her chin then rap my knuckles on the side of the helmet. She glares up at me.

  ‘Let’s go,’ I say swinging my leg over my bike.

  ‘Where’s your helmet?’ she asks, her voice extra loud as her ears are muffled and she can’t hear so well.

  ‘You’re wearing it,’ I say, revving the engine.

  She huffs before she swings her leg over the bike and I wait for her to put her arms around my waist, but she doesn’t. Instead she’s gripping tight to the seat.

  ‘That’s not going to work,’ I tell her.

  ‘What’s not?’ she shouts.

  ‘You need to hold on.’

  ‘I am holding on.’

  I take my hand off the accelerator and take hold of her wrist. She resists but I tug it gently around my waist. ‘Hold on,’ I tell her, pushing her hand flat against my stomach.

  Grudgingly she moves her other hand and clasps them in front of me. Her arms stay rigid. She’s trying not to touch me. It would be better all round if we could take a cab but I can’t risk a driver remembering us or recognising Nic. So with a shake of my head I kick up the stand and squeeze the accelerator.

  Nic’s arms instantly tighten around me, her thighs crushing against mine. I’d be lying if I said my mind stays on the job in hand. She’s pressed against my back and when I take a corner she starts to lean with me, her thighs relaxing then tensing, her arms losing their rigidity and her palms flattening against my stomach. With silent admonishments that would make Maggie’s warnings pale in comparison, I wrestle my thoughts back on track.

  When I pull up a block away from her apartment, Nic instantly swings her leg over the seat, ignoring my outstretched hand. I see she’s shivering and curse myself. I should have given her my jacket or another sweater. It’s cold enough to snow and, factoring in the wind chill, it’s no surprise she’s freezing. She pulls off the helmet, her hair flying everywhere. Her cheeks are flushed and her eyes are blazing.

  ‘You drive like an idiot,’ she shouts. She gets that death ray look in her eye, like she’s trying to send a laser beam through my brain, then she shoves the helmet in my direction and starts striding towards her apartment.

  I hurry to lock up the bike and the helmet. ‘Hold up!’ I yell after her.

  The street is deserted. It’s nearly three a.m. But we need to be careful. I catch up with her and block her path. ‘Wait,’ I say, holding up my hands but taking care not to touch her.

  We’re toe to toe. She’s still glaring up at me. ‘Would you just wait?’ I say again, more quietly. ‘We can’t go running in there. Come on, this way.’

  I lead her into an alley between two buildings. Straightaway she starts pacing, looking for her exits.

  ‘Just a second.’ I want to put my hands on her shoulders to calm her down, but am reminded again of that wild cat. I let her pace, pull out my phone and dial 911.

  ‘Hello? Yeah, I want to report a robbery in progress at two-one-one East Tenth. Please hurry.’ I hang up and see Nic has stopped pacing to stare at me, open-mouthed.

  ‘Why’d you do that?’

  ‘My bet is they’ll send their nearest unit and hopefully that’ll be the guy guarding your place.’ She closes her mouth. ‘Come here.’ I beckon her over. She doesn’t move.

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Because.’ And as I say it we hear footsteps pounding down the sidewalk. Nic’s head swivels to the street then she steps quickly to join me, pressing against the wall of the alleyway behind a dumpster so we’re both out of sight.

  The cop goes running past, one hand on his holster, the other on his radio.

  ‘Come on,’ I say, stepping out on to the street.

  NIC

  I can still feel the heat of Finn’s hands against my skin. I’m not shivering from the cold. I’m shaking from the adrenaline. It feels as if my blood is ninety-nine per cent cortisol. It’s been so long, so ridiculously long, since I was close to anyone, that my body is overreacting, craving more, veering towards Finn as we head towards my apartment building as though he’s a magnet and I’m made of iron. I hate my body for betraying me in such a way, with Finn Carter of all people. Now, of all times.

  Yellow-and-black crime scene tape bars the way into my apartment. An empty coffee cup and a Dunkin’ Donuts box rest on the ground just outside. The door is open and my eyes snap to the dark red stain on the floorboards by the entrance, which creeps all the way to the rug and the sofa.

  The blinds are drawn, the lights are on. The only sound is the refrigerator humming. Finn lifts the tape and I duck beneath his arm. I notice he’s slipped on latex gloves. Black fingerprint dust marks the walls and windows and is smudged across all the surfaces and the door handles.

  ‘OK,’ Finn says, standing by the door, taking in the room. ‘Walk me through Aiden’s visit. Pretend I’m him.’

  I do a double take, distracted by the fact there’s something different about him, as though when we ducked beneath the black-and-yellow tape he slipped on a new identity. Or rather, an old one. He’s in FBI mode. I can tell by the way he’s observing the room, his eyes scanning every surface, every detail. His eyes flick to me and I realise he’s waiting.

  ‘Um,’ I say, tearing my eyes off him. ‘I let him in, then . . . ’ I break off, trying to remember exactly what happened next when Aiden entered my apartment.

  ‘Where did Aiden go?’ Finn prompts.

  ‘He crossed to the window.’

  Finn strides to the windows. ‘Were the blinds drawn like this?’ he asks.

  I nod. ‘Yeah, he pulled them aside and looked at the street.’

  Finn does the same.

  ‘What d’you talk about?’

  ‘Um, stuff.’ I frown as I try to remember. ‘He asked me about college, about whether I was happy, who I was dating.’ I break off, suddenly embarrassed. Finn glances up at me sharply.

  ‘What did you tell him?’

  ‘That I was fine. That he didn’t need to worry.’

  Finn holds my gaze for a second longer than is necessary. Or maybe I’m imagining it.

 
He crosses to the alarm pad on the wall.

  ‘Motion sensors, cameras, keypad entry.’ Finn ticks off all the systems I have, all of which, except for the cameras, have been disabled by the security company to allow the cops to come and go. Finn glances at me and I shrug, shifting from one foot to the other. ‘Am I missing anything?’ he asks.

  ‘Heat sensors.’

  He presses his lips together but doesn’t say anything. He’s back to studying the angle of the cameras set into the ceiling. I know it looks like I’m obsessive but I think I have every right to be and I don’t care what he thinks.

  ‘The whole system shut down,’ he murmurs to himself, ‘without triggering any kind of warning bell or alarm. And CCTV cameras for a five-block radius were also interrupted during the same time frame.’

  That I did not know, so I look up in surprise. Finn’s now over by the sofa. He runs a hand over his head and exhales.

  ‘Did you show him around?’ he asks, a sense of urgency in his voice now that gets my adrenaline pumping.

  ‘Yeah. I gave him the tour,’ I say walking over to my bedroom. ‘He hadn’t been to the apartment since I bought it. We came in here first.’

  Finn hovers in my bedroom doorway for a moment, before stepping into the room. His gaze has fallen to the photograph of my mum on my nightstand but then it sweeps across my bed. I stand on the threshold, hugging my arms around my body, unable to cross. My closet doors are open, clothes hanging out of drawers and some lie discarded on the floor. Maybe I should grab more while I’m here but something stops me. It feels like the room and everything in it is tainted in some way, as though nothing in it even belongs to me.

  Finn walks to the bookshelf by my bed, reading the titles. His hand glides across the books to the silver ballet shoes at the end of the shelf. My mum gave them to me for my sixteenth birthday, the week before she died. And what are you going to use a pair of silver-plated ballet shoes for, other than as bookends?

  ‘Was he ever by himself?’ Finn asks, turning to me.

  I shake my head, but Finn’s not looking. He’s turned to the door and is holding up a hand to still me. And then I hear it too: heavy footsteps on the stairs up to the apartment, someone shouting, ‘Ten-ten, possible burglary in progress, request back up.’

 
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