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Conspiracy girl, p.12
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       Conspiracy Girl, p.12

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  ‘Where are we going?’ I shout.

  ‘Vermont,’ he shouts back.

  Vermont? That’s at least five or six hours from here. We’re going to freeze before we get there, I think to myself, glancing up at the black January sky above us. My face is numb and my eyelashes are stuck together where the tears have frozen to them. My body aches from shivering so hard.

  Finn seems to be impervious to the biting wind, though, accelerating even harder into it. I want to ask what’s in Vermont, but my teeth are chattering too hard to get the words out. Just a few blocks later, Finn makes a sudden turn into a multi-storey parking lot. We fly up the ramp and roar up three flights until we get to the top. He parks behind a pillar, his head tilting to the roof, scanning for cameras.

  ‘Stay here,’ he says. ‘Keep out of sight.’

  I start to protest but he’s off already, walking to the nearest car parked in the corner – a beaten-up old Ford. It’s the only one not in direct sight of a camera and I already have an idea of what he’s about to do.

  I’m right. He swings his bag off his back and pulls out a thin metal rod which he stretches out and then uses to slide between the car’s window and its door. I’ve only seen this in the movies so I’m stunned when it actually works, even more stunned that he carries that thing in his bag.

  The alarm starts to sound – blaring through the concrete space, bouncing off the walls. I clutch the seat of the bike but within seconds Finn has done something to the car’s alarm and rendered it silent.

  ‘OK,’ he yells.

  I take that as my signal to follow him. He’s thrown open the door to the car and he’s busy doing something with a loose nest of wires that he’s kicked free from the steering column. The engine purrs to life and he looks over and smiles at me, nodding for me to shut the door. I do, my hands still stiff with cold. He turns up the heat and shrugs his shoulders as though trying to shake some heat back into his body. Once again I feel guilty as I burrow into his jacket, pulling my hands inside the sleeves. A second later, Finn puts the car in drive.

  ‘Why are we going to Vermont?’ I ask, as Finn pulls on to the street and starts heading north.

  He doesn’t answer for a few seconds and then he says. ‘I need to check on someone.’ He presses the phone to his ear once again, but whoever he is trying to call still doesn’t pick up. He needs to check on someone? He must think someone is in danger. Because of me. An iron fist grips my stomach, squeezing it tight. This is all my fault. More people are going to get hurt because of me. When will it end? How will it end? How can I make it stop?

  ‘I’m sorry,’ I say quietly, after a few minutes have passed. If I had just turned my phone off maybe they wouldn’t have found us.

  ‘Don’t be,’ Finn says, reaching over to turn down the heat at the same time that I do. Our hands touch and he pulls away first.

  ‘But what do we do now?’ I ask.

  ‘Start over,’ Finn says, staring straight ahead through the ice-flecked windscreen.

  FINN

  Nic falls asleep just after we cross the Massachusetts state line, her head pressed against my jacket, which she’s balled up against the window. She’s not wearing enough to keep warm, and when we pass a giant shopping mall I contemplate running in to get us both some heavier clothes, but I can’t stop. Not even for a minute.

  We drove through a blizzard and out the other side. Now, still heading north, snow blankets the ground and the trees, the sky merging with the horizon. Cars joining the highway have six inches of snow piled on their roofs. It should take another three hours to get there, given the traffic conditions. I’m assuming that the car will be reported stolen before then but once we’re off the highway I think we’ll be good. Still, I’m careful to drive under the speed limit despite the fact that with every passing second the tension inside me is ratcheting up another notch.

  As Nic sleeps, I contemplate our situation. Maggie said she was going to head to my apartment to see about Goz, then call a locksmith to fix the damaged door. She isn’t going to report it. I think about my smashed-up computers and grimace. Goddamn. It’s going to take months to get back up and running again at the same level. Right now the future doesn’t look too promising, so best to focus on the present.

  I glance across at Nic, curled on the seat, arms wrapped around her body. That damn dog was all she had, apart from Aiden. Who are these people and why are they so intent on hurting her? And more to the point, how the hell did they find us? It had to have been her phone signal.

  What is it that she knows – or they think she knows? They took my hardware – all my hard drives that were outside the cube – and tried to get the ones inside the cube. They were looking for something they thought I might have discovered, then.

  I think about my old philosophy teacher telling me about this rule called Occam’s razor. It basically says, don’t complicate things by concocting extravagant theories. Go for the simplest hypothesis every time. The simplest one in this case is that Aiden Cooper has something, or knows something, that is worth enough to kill innocent people for. In California, the police believed that it was thieves who were after the contents of the safe – and what if they still are? What if they believed Aiden had hidden whatever it is in Nic’s apartment? It doesn’t explain though why it’s taken them two years to come looking again. Or why they tried to get my hard drives.

  I need to get back online. That much is obvious. I need to drill deeper into Aiden Cooper’s affairs. But that’s secondary to reaching the farm. I hit dial again on my phone but there’s still no answer. Damn it.

  ‘You OK?’

  I glance over. Nic has woken up. She glances at the phone in my hand.

  ‘Oh, yeah,’ I murmur.

  ‘Who are you trying to call?’

  I hesitate before I tell her. ‘My grandma,’ I finally admit.

  For a moment she looks puzzled but then she shifts in her seat to face me, the frown becoming a mask of fear. ‘You think they’ll look for us at her place? Is that it? You’re worried about her?’

  I nod.

  ‘Is that where we’re going? To check on her?’

  I nod again, my focus on the road.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ she says in a strangled voice that makes something catch in my chest.

  I look over at her. ‘This isn’t your fault,’ I tell her, my tone more aggressive than I’d been aiming for.

  She has turned her head away and is staring out the window, her knees drawn up on to the seat. I feel like punching the wheel all of a sudden.

  ‘Look, I’m sure she’s fine,’ I tell her. ‘She does this sometimes, doesn’t pick up. I just need to make sure she’s OK. And also . . .’ I break off, realising I’m not quite ready to tell her everything. ‘I . . . er . . . I have more equipment there,’ I say, ‘some old laptops, bits and pieces. I need them. We need to get back online.’

  Nic turns to face me and I see the tears glistening in her eyes. I’m struck by just how worn out she looks. ‘Do you want me to drive?’ she asks, surprising me.

  I shake my head. ‘No, it’s OK. But thanks,’ I add.

  She turns away again, staring out at the snow-draped woods that now line the road on both sides.

  ‘Did you grow up around here?’ she asks after a few moments of silence.

  ‘From when I was eight,’ I tell her. ‘Detroit before then.’

  She tips her head and I feel her watching me out the corner of her eye even as I keep my own gaze fixed firmly on the road. Now we’ve turned off the highway the roads are icier. My desire to put my foot to the floor is tempered by having seen what black ice can do to a car and the people in it.

  ‘Where are your parents?’ she asks, wiping the smile straight off my face.

  Damn. I should have known that was coming and prepared an answer. ‘Never knew my dad,’ I say, glad to have the road to concentrate on. ‘And my mom died when I was eight.’ Usually I shake off the question about my parents with a They live in Hawaii.
It’s easier to lie. So why’d I tell Nic the truth?

  ‘Oh God, I’m sorry,’ she says, biting her lip.

  I shake my head. ‘Don’t be. It wasn’t your fault.’

  ‘What happened?’ she asks in a quiet voice before she blurts, ‘I mean, sorry, you don’t have to tell me.’

  ‘She was an addict. She overdosed. Heroin.’

  Beside me, I feel Nic shrink backwards into the seat. It’s a reaction I’ve experienced a few times and the reason I no longer tell anyone the truth. People treat you as though you’re an addict too, by association, or are in some way contagious. My fingers grip the wheel tighter and without thinking my foot stamps down on the gas. Suddenly I feel a hand on my arm and glance down. Nic’s fingers rest on my wrist. I look over at her.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ she says again and I can tell that she means it.

  My foot eases off the gas and I nod, distracted by the feeling of her fingers on my skin and then, when she moves her hand, by the loss of the feeling.

  Of all the people in the world I guess Nic Preston would understand loss and all the mixed emotions of guilt and anger that go with it.

  ‘Do you have any brothers or sisters?’ she asks next.

  I take a deep breath. Goddamn. My family history isn’t something I readily share with people. I’ve never told anyone all the gory details. Not even Maggie.

  ‘I had a brother,’ I find myself saying, almost to my surprise.

  Nic falls quiet, probably musing on my use of the past tense.

  ‘He died a few years ago,’ I add.

  Nic turns her head away from me and for a moment I think I’ve gone too far; I mean, it feels like I’m turning it into a competition – who’s had the shittiest luck and lost the most family members? That wasn’t my intention.

  ‘He was an addict too, like my mum. He died in a car accident. He was over the limit. Wrapped his car around a tree.’ Why am I telling her all this? I need to shut up.

  Nic lets out a long exhalation. I can guess what she’s thinking – if they were both addicts, then surely I am too? That it must run in the family – a weakness, a bad gene. Suddenly I know why I’m telling her everything. My subconscious is trying to find a way to let her know I’m not good enough, to admit the worst stuff about me so she knows not to get too close. It’s also why I only ever have one-night flings with girls. To avoid having to have this conversation at some point down the line.

  ‘Sometimes,’ Nic says, ‘you get so wrapped up in your own grief that you forget other people are also hurting and dealing with terrible things.’

  She gives me this look then: one that tells me that she gets it, and that she’s sorry. She knows. She knows how it feels, and for the first time since it happened I feel this lightening in my gut. And then, out of nowhere, a torrent of sadness rises up, coming from a place I never even knew existed. I’ve been so angry at my brother for so long that I’ve never let myself feel sad about him dying. But now really isn’t the time for a grief-fest. I blink a few times to clear my eyes.

  ‘What was his name?’ Nic asks.

  ‘Rob.’ And just like that I find myself telling her all about him . . .

  Half an hour later we’re laughing as I recount stories about Rob pretending to be Father Christmas one year when I was about five and he was ten, all because our mom was too high to remember to buy us anything. He’d got up in the night and filled an old sock with things he’d stolen from a ninety-nine-cent store, but I caught him laying it on the end of my bed.

  Nic tells me stories from her childhood, about her mom and her life in England, which sounds a world away from my roach-infested apartment and a childhood spent playing truant, hanging out in the laundromat to keep warm and scrounging food from a dumpster behind a KFC. She stops when she gets to the part about moving to LA, though.

  I feel a sudden urge to reach out and stroke Nic’s hair behind her ear, to pull her close, but I don’t. The closer I get to Nic, the more important it’s becoming to keep her at arm’s length.

  We both fall silent, as though the sky is pressing down on us through the roof of the car. The conversation we just had was purely a distraction from the present, from talking about our situation, which is somewhere between dire and pretty damn terrible. Nic is chewing her lip, no doubt thinking about Goz, and I force myself to start concentrating, focusing on the problem.

  And by the time we’re close to the farm I think I’ve figured it out.

  NIC

  Finn stops talking. I stare at him out of the corner of my eye. He’s tense, focused, his arms locked rigid and his hands gripping the wheel tightly. For a brief moment I remember his hands on my waist, tugging me closer. I know he was just pretending for the cops, but remembering the way his body felt against mine makes my blood warm and my skin tingle the same way it does when you stand in front of a roaring fire after having been out in the snow for hours. Just being near him does that in fact. Despite everything, being near Finn makes everything more bearable.

  Trying to get my head around all he just told me about his childhood is difficult. It doesn’t fit at all with the idea I had of him. I had assumed he came from a privileged background. I mean, he acts like he does; he’s well educated, well dressed, lives in a loft in the West Village which must have cost a fortune. I can’t imagine him digging in dumpsters for food.

  He was just a kid. I have an unexpected urge to reach over and take his hand. It’s just a thought though. Not one I’d ever act on. That story about his brother makes my heart ache.

  I know he was only telling me stories and making me laugh in order to distract me. And it worked. For half an hour I didn’t think about Goz, or my apartment, or the fact that we’re in a stolen car fleeing God knows whom.

  But now the fear is back, magnified by the oppressive heaviness of the slate sky above us and the spiked, black-trunked trees pressing in on either side. At any other time I’d probably be struck by the stark, wintry beauty but right now it just feels dark and sinister, like we’re stuck in a Tim Burton movie. Though it’s nearly midday it could be dusk out, the light grey and pallid.

  About an hour off the highway, we’ve passed through two small towns, stopped very quickly for fuel and I’m wondering how far into the middle of nowhere exactly we’re headed. But then we round a corner and Finn turns down a small, almost hidden track, the only marker a rusting mailbox with the flag down. The snow is piled thickly into banks on either side of the narrow path, but it looks like a snowmobile has been down the road that morning, as the tracks are still clear.

  In the distance there’s a small house, wood framed, with a porch wrapped around it. There’s a barn off to one side. I take it all in, trying to picture Finn growing up here, but I simply can’t imagine it. He seems like he belongs in a city, surrounded by tech and coffee machines and AstroTurf roof gardens. I shake my head. Every time I think I have a handle on Finn Carter, the very next moment I’m forced into an about turn. Nothing I thought about him is turning out to be true. I thought he was an arrogant, smug arsehole, but now when I look at him I can’t help but notice the splinters of pain in his eyes and the invisible weight of the past that he carries on his shoulders. I know exactly what that feels like and it makes me wonder at how similar the two of us actually are, despite all appearances to the contrary.

  As soon as we pull up in front of the house the door opens and a woman who looks to be in her seventies walks out on to the porch. She’s wearing men’s jeans and a thick sweater and her posture is guarded, her chin raised and her arms crossed defensively over her chest. Her grey hair is cropped short and she’s scowling at us in a way that makes me think she doesn’t welcome strangers on the property. But then Finn opens his door and gets out, and straightaway the scowl vanishes and becomes a look of consternation.

  ‘Hey, Grandma,’ Finn says, his eyes darting momentarily towards the barn and then over his shoulder. I follow his gaze. Does he think we were followed?

  ‘What are you doing here
?’ his grandma asks, suspicion lacing her voice, even as she walks down the steps, holding her arms out wide to embrace him.

  Finn walks over and hugs her and I open my car door and get slowly out.

  ‘I’ve been calling all morning,’ I hear Finn say.

  His grandmother pulls back, though keeps hold of him by his arms. ‘You know I never have the phone on ringer, it’s always those blasted sales people, wanting to know if I want to subscribe to this, subscribe to that. And I don’t want cable television. I don’t even own a television, I tell them, and I don’t want any insurance either.’

  ‘I barred those calls for you.’

  She isn’t listening though. She’s staring over his shoulder at me. Her gaze flits the length of me, appraising me before she turns back to Finn. ‘So,’ she says, ‘you going to introduce me to your friend or have you completely forgotten your manners?’

  Finn turns and sees me, then waves me over. ‘Grandma,’ he says, ‘this is Nic Preston. Nic, this is my grandmother, Iris Carter.’

  She appraises me some more. Her eyes are piercing blue, just like Finn’s, and sparking with the same fierce intelligence. Only hers remind me of a magpie’s – small and beady. She offers me her hand to shake.

  ‘Well, pleased to meet you, Nic,’ she says, gripping my hand with enough force to crack the bones. Her hand is rough, the knuckles thick and scarred as blocks of wood. Dropping my hand, she glances at Finn. ‘You look tired. Come in the house. I was just about to start fixing some lunch for the girls.’

  The girls? That stops me in my tracks as neatly as a bullet. I shoot a glance at Finn but he’s studiously avoiding my eye.

  I walk behind them up the steps to the porch. Girls? Whose girls? Finn holds open the door and I follow Iris nervously into the house. It’s like stepping back in time – the décor looks not to have been updated since the fifties. There’s a grandfather clock in the hall, a worn rug, a faded watercolour on the wall. To my right is a living room; I spy a fireplace and a couple of sofas – old but well cared for, with those doily-type things covering the headrests.

 
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