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Conspiracy girl, p.11
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       Conspiracy Girl, p.11

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  I know the panic must be written on my face as Finn is straightaway in front of me. He pulls me silently behind the door. I look up at him and he presses his finger to his lips. My heart is beating hard but Finn just gives me a faint shake of the head as though he’s telling me not to worry, then steps straight out into the living room, leaving me standing there. What is he doing? I glance through the crack in the door.

  ‘Agent Carter,’ he says in a loud voice, striding towards the cop who’s now standing in the doorway, panting.

  ‘I’m working with Agent Wise,’ Finn continues, ‘just taking a look around.’

  Finn’s faking being an FBI agent. I’m pretty sure that’s a federal offence. But this is Finn, I remind myself. Since when does he care about the law? The cop’s hand is resting on his hip holster though and he doesn’t seem like he’s buying it. Finn isn’t wearing a gun holster or a badge and he’s dressed in jeans and a jacket. He doesn’t look anything like an FBI agent. The ones I’ve met have all been wearing suits. The cop’s hand closes around the butt of his gun and he moves to draw it.

  Finn reacts so fast all I see is his arm come up and then the cop’s head go flying back with a snap.

  ‘Sorry,’ Finn grunts as he grabs the flailing cop and spins him around into a choke hold. The cop kicks out uselessly, his hat going flying. After a few seconds of struggle, Finn relaxes his arm and the cop sags to the floor. Finn lays him out gently, grabbing a cushion from the sofa and easing it under his head. I must have stepped out from behind the door at some point during this because now I’m standing right behind Finn, staring slack-jawed. He just assaulted a police officer.

  ‘Come on,’ Finn says, stripping off his gloves and holding out his hand to me.

  My nervous system is just a bundle of conflicting messages. I can’t move. Finn eventually takes my hand and yanks me under the tape and down the stairs. Halfway down, I snatch my hand from his but keep following him to the bottom. The door to the street is open and we tumble out just as a patrol car comes screaming around the corner, lights flashing.

  ‘Oh God,’ I murmur.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ Finn says and then throws his arm around my shoulders.

  ‘What are you doing?’ I hiss, my body tensing at his touch.

  ‘Act like you’re drunk,’ he says, setting our pace to a casual saunter.

  I turn to face him even as the cop car comes tearing towards us. What? But Finn is just grinning at me and without warning his hands fall to my waist and he tickles me. I double over, not laughing but gasping and swiping at him, my elbow clipping him hard in the stomach. What the hell is he doing? We’re going to get arrested. He laughs louder and then edges me backwards gently until my back is against the wall. He’s not touching me any longer – in fact he leaves a clear gap between us, resting his arm against the wall by my head.

  My heart rate rockets, my brain ignoring all the danger signals and the flashing blue and red lights over his shoulder. Meanwhile my body is fighting two warring instincts – the first to lash out, break free and run. And the second, much more terrifying one – the desire to pull him closer.

  Behind him I catch sight of a sudden blur of movement.

  ‘We’re just two drunk people,’ Finn whispers into my ear as the patrol car comes to a swerving halt right by us, ‘just coming home from a night out.’

  He ducks his head and, though his lips don’t touch my skin, my back arches anyway and I feel his breath hot against my neck. It sends a shiver racing through me and I inhale loud enough for him to hear. His hand suddenly falls to my waist and with a firm tug he draws me nearer. Now we’re really touching, our bodies pressed to each other, our eyes locked, an apology in his that takes me by surprise.

  In the background I hear the sound of car doors slamming, footsteps running towards us, but it’s dulled because all I can focus on is the feel of Finn’s body against mine, the bright glimmer in his eyes.

  A swathe of light from a streetlamp is illuminating his face and I register his lips are half parted, that he’s breathing faster, that his gaze has dropped to my own lips. Everything in the background fades to black, not even the cops register. There’s just Finn. His hand tightens almost imperceptibly but I feel the change in pressure like a dip in altitude.

  But then he’s tugged away. I’m left leaning against the wall, half swaying, and I reel instantly back into the moment with a blast of shock and total disorientation when I see there’s a cop behind Finn and he has him by the arm.

  Finn’s grinning and staggering. ‘Don’t arrest us!’ he says in a drunken slur of a voice. He doubles over, laughing, and the cop shoves him aside.

  ‘Keep an eye on them!’ the first cop yells to his partner before he dives inside my building and starts sprinting up the stairs to my apartment.

  Finn shoots a look at me, then at the cop, who is standing hands on hips in front of us, frowning.

  ‘Hey,’ the cop says, squinting at me and taking a step forwards. ‘Aren’t you that girl they’re—’

  ‘Over there!’ I yell at the top of my lungs, pointing over the cop’s shoulder.

  He spins automatically and in the next instant Finn’s elbow connects with his temple. He goes flying backwards, ploughing into the squad car and smacking his head hard, before sliding sideways to the ground.

  I turn to Finn, who is looking at me in surprise.

  ‘Distraction, first rule of self-defence,’ I say with a shrug as he takes my hand and we start sprinting towards the bike.

  He throws his leg over the seat and without a word I do the same, wrapping my arms around his waist without needing to be told. Behind us we hear someone yelling, ‘Freeze!’

  I glance over my shoulder. The cop who went into the building has come back out and is standing over his partner’s prone form. He starts running towards us, drawing his weapon, aiming it right at us.

  Finn hits the accelerator, the roar of the engine cancelling out the cop’s yells, and we tear off into the night.

  There’s a crack and something whistles past my ear. The back windshield of the car we are passing shatters and an alarm starts to blare. Holy shit. I cower, clinging on to Finn, flinching at the sound of another crack. The bullet hits the asphalt right in front of us, and I hear Finn swear even as he swerves violently right then left. He takes the corner at a sharp angle and I lean with him into the bend, moulding myself to his back.

  When we’re free and clear I sit up straight, still holding on tight, my heart racing as fast as the bike. The wind whips off the Hudson like a sheet of ice but, protected as I am by Finn’s broad shoulders, I don’t feel it. Instead, all I can feel is the lava-hot flow of blood coursing through my body waking up every cell that’s lain dormant since that night two years ago. I feel strangely exhilarated, buzzing.

  This time I got away.

  FINN

  I speed up and Nic leans into me, her arms tightening around my waist. My heart is flying in my chest, adrenaline pumping. We’re lucky we got away – and in no small part down to Nic’s distraction technique with the cop. We make a good team. I just hope we bought ourselves enough time.

  Any second now I’m expecting to hear sirens, all my senses alert to the sight of blue flashing lights bearing down on us. Shit. I curse myself for bringing Nic along with me. I almost got her killed. I almost got us both killed.

  Tonight is turning into one big screw-up. Maggie is going to find out about this. She’ll know it was me taking an unauthorised look around Nic’s apartment and she’s going to kick my ass. The cops are going to be all over it. Maybe I should tell her I’m out, that she needs to find another solution, someone else to look after Nic, that I’m not the man for the job. It’s getting too complicated – on multiple levels.

  But even as I think about quitting I know I’m not going to. I never quit a job. And I gave my word to Maggie. But beyond all that, I want to help Nic. I just need to knock this attraction I have for her on the head. I think back to what just happened ou
tside her apartment. Even though it was just pretend, for a moment there, holding her in my arms, I lost my focus. I can’t help remembering the look on her face though, the gasp she made when I pulled her closer . . . but I’m probably reading into it. Nic Preston loathes me. She couldn’t have made that much clearer. And thank God, too, because if she was even vaguely interested in me it would be impossible to focus on the job.

  I pull up outside my apartment. It’s almost four a.m. The darkest part of the night. Nic hops off the bike and walks to the door without so much as a backwards glance in my direction. I hurry to catch up with her, pulling out my keys, and it’s then that I notice something and I’m reaching for my gun even before I can register fully what it is that has caught my eye.

  Then I see it. There’s a blueberry bush in a pot by my door and it’s at an odd angle, as though someone’s nudged it with their foot. I could be imagining it but I step in front of Nic anyway, blocking her way, and pull out my gun. Straightaway I feel the tension in her body as she stiffens behind me.

  I slide my key into the lock and turn it as silently as possible, then ease open the door, ears pricked. There’s no noise. Maybe I’m just being paranoid. Still, my senses are on full alert.

  ‘What? What is it?’ Nic asks. I feel her huddling closer.

  ‘Nothing,’ I whisper.

  She edges past me and starts making for the stairs and I know it’s because she wants to get back to the apartment to see Goz. But something feels off and I reach for her arm, tugging her backwards, picking up at the same time what it is that’s bothering me. I can smell smoke.

  Ignoring Nic’s confused expression I bolt past her and up the stairs, taking them three at a time. The doorway to my apartment has been kicked in. Or rather battered in. The frame is splintered, the door hanging on one hinge.

  Nic lets out a gasp behind me that’s quickly smothered. She bangs into the bannister and I reach a hand back to catch her. I indicate that she should stay where she is and step into the apartment, swinging left to right, scanning the room. It’s empty. Everything’s been turned over, the bed frame smashed, sheets tossed, pillows ripped apart and spewing feathers, some still floating in the air. They were just here. The boxes by the door are all knocked over. The computers over by the window have been smashed to pieces. I take in everything in the space of a few seconds before my gaze flies to the cube, already knowing what the smell of smoke is.

  The door to the cube has been bashed in. They must have used some kind of explosive device to remove it from its hinges. It wouldn’t have mattered though. I wired the cube so that the servers would self-destruct if anyone tried to enter it or tamper with the entry pad.

  Nitrogen-cold anger leaks into my veins. I’m robot calm as I step inside my server room. The server stacks are still smoking. Someone has tried to smash the cases free from the cabinets to remove what hasn’t melted. Shit. My three monitors are also all smashed to pieces. It’s the servers that matter, though. All the data I had on those is now lost. Everything wiped. I don’t back up remotely as it’s too easily compromised.

  I turn away from the cube, thinking fast. We need to go. They could be waiting, watching. Who are they though? Who knew we were here other than Maggie? It must have been Nic’s phone that gave us away. I need to figure it out later though. The priority is to get out of here.

  ‘Goz.’

  I turn around. Nic is standing in the doorway to the apartment. Her face is pale in the black shroud of her hood and her eyes are wide as she takes in the devastation. ‘Where’s Goz?’ she asks in a thin, shaking voice.

  Shit. The dog. I scan the space. He’s nowhere in sight. I walk behind the cube, a deep sense of foreboding gripping me. I’m already holding up an arm, trying to warn Nic back. And I’m right. Goz is lying behind the cube on his side, blood matted in his fur. I drop to my knees. His chest is rising and falling fast as he tries to breathe. I try to figure out where the bullet holes are but there’s too much blood, too much fur. The dog tries to lift his head and lets out a whine, flopping back to the ground.

  ‘Goz!’

  Nic throws herself to her knees beside her dog and starts sobbing. ‘Oh God, oh God, Goz! No! No . . .’ She looks at me, tears running down her face. ‘Do something!’ she cries.

  There’s only one thing to do and that’s put him out of his misery. I get to my feet, the gun in my hand feeling like a lead weight. ‘Get back,’ I say softly to Nic.

  She twists her head to me and her eyes fall to my gun. Then she throws herself in front of Goz. ‘No!’ she snarls. ‘Don’t you dare!’

  I start to protest but am interrupted by the sound of a door smashing into concrete.

  Nic freezes. I grab her by the arm and haul her to her feet, pushing her flush against the wall of the cube. It was the door to the roof. They were up there the whole time – the people who did this to Goz. The people who did this to my cube. The rage inside me reaches peak level. My hand grips my gun, my finger already on the trigger, but then I glance at Nic. She’s staring down at Goz, tears running silently down her cheeks. I push my head back to the wall, trying to weigh my options.

  ‘Come on,’ I say, grabbing Nic. We only have seconds. If that.

  ‘Wh—’ she starts to say but I silence her with a shake of my head, sprinting to the door. There’s no time to grab anything, that’s my only regret. That and having to leave Goz. I just have the rucksack on my back. But all these thoughts are fleeting. The only one really sticking is the knowledge that I have to get Nic out of here. She’s my only priority. Screw the servers. Forget Goz.

  I push her out the door and down the stairs, even as from upstairs I hear footsteps and catch the sound of a man’s voice – registering the words aren’t English. I hesitate for a beat but Nic stops too, staring back up at me, her face slick with tears and stricken with fear. I start moving again, one hand on her shoulder, pushing her down faster. They’ve heard us. They’re coming after us. Feet slam down on to the concrete. We make it to the bottom and I have my keys already in my hand. I overtake Nic and kick up the stand to the bike. The helmet is forgotten. I dropped it to the floor in my apartment.

  ‘Get on!’ I yell.

  But Nic is already swinging her leg over the seat. I rev the engine as she throws her arms around me.

  The door to the street bashes open but we’re already flying down the centre of the road, hitting the cross turn and taking it wide. I turn my head just before we disappear from view and catch just a single glimpse, no longer than a second, of a man wearing a black ski mask, a gun in his hand, pointed straight at us. I never get to see who’s with him.

  NIC

  My mum. Taylor. Hugo. Goz. I press my cheek against Finn’s back, feeling my tears freezing to my face and welcoming the knife-sharp pain of the wind slicing through me, as it gives an outlet to the savage ache I’m feeling inside.

  We just left him. I can’t shake the image of Goz looking up at me, begging me to help. He was in pain, he was hurting, and we just left him. I know there was no choice. But . . . we have to go back. I poke my head over Finn’s shoulder. My hair has come loose and whips around my face.

  ‘We have to go back!’ I yell into Finn’s ear.

  He slows up. ‘We can’t,’ he shouts back over his shoulder.

  ‘We have to!’ I shout.

  Finn pulls to a sudden stop down a side street. Already there are signs of life breaking over the city. A truck is unloading fruit and vegetables, stacking the crates at the back entrance of a restaurant. When we pull up behind it, Finn swings his bag around to his front. He’s shivering hard, I notice. We both are. Finn starts unzipping his jacket. He pulls it off and hands it to me.

  I shake my head. He’s only wearing a sweater. He’ll freeze.

  ‘Put it on,’ he tells me.

  ‘But you—’ I start but he interrupts me with a dismissive shake of his head.

  ‘I’m fine,’ he says.

  I pull it on, grateful at the same time as feeling
guilty. Finn pulls out his phone and we sit there, still on the bike, as he dials. I huddle behind him, wanting to press my cheek to his back again, wanting to close my eyes, wanting this to all be over. I keep thinking about Goz and tears are still rolling down my face. They took everything from me already. Now they’ve taken my dog too. What else do I have left? Except my own life, which I’d happily exchange for the others’.

  ‘Maggie?’ Finn’s talking on the phone. ‘My place got hit. I don’t know . . . yeah. Just now. Two of them at least. I didn’t get a visual. One of them was speaking a foreign language. I don’t know for sure.’

  I can’t hear what Maggie is saying but Finn stiffens in front of me. ‘They destroyed all my hard drives. Everything. All the sensitive information was in the cube. But it destructed. They won’t have got anything. Though I don’t even know what they were after.’

  I tilt my head to the side. Could they have thought we were hiding inside the cube? Is that why they tried to get in there? And what does Finn mean that it destructed?

  ‘They shot Nic’s dog.’

  At his words I lean forwards so my forehead rests between Finn’s shoulder blades. He wraps his arm around me awkwardly, having to stretch behind his back, and I am so grateful for his touch that I push myself even closer against him. He presses me closer.

  ‘Is there any chance you can go over there?’

  My ears prick up.

  ‘Thanks, Maggie,’ Finn whispers. Hope ignites inside me. She’s going to go over there. Maybe, maybe there’s a chance Goz will be OK.

  Finn hangs up after a few more seconds of talk and removes his arm from around me so he can make another call. Whoever he’s calling doesn’t answer and he hangs up, swearing under his breath, before tossing the phone into his bag and revving the engine. I put my arms around his waist without him having to tell me to and he takes off.

 
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