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Conspiracy girl, p.13
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       Conspiracy Girl, p.13

           Sarah Alderson
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  We walk on into the kitchen, which looks like a replica kitchen from a fifties TV show. There’s even a cast-iron kettle on the hob that looks like it might have been around since pioneer days, and an old-style refrigerator that makes a noise like a truck in reverse. Sitting at the large wooden table by the window are two girls aged about six, dressed in dungarees and aprons. They’re both up to their arms in cookie dough mix, one standing on a chair and the other sitting and attempting to roll out the dough with a rolling pin almost bigger than her.

  When we walk in they both scream, the rolling pin hits the table and clatters to the floor, and the next thing I know they’re leaping from their chairs and flying towards us in a cloud of flour.

  Finn drops to his knees and gathers them both into his arms, picking them up and swinging them around. He holds one on each side and they throw their arms around his neck, squealing.

  ‘Uncle Finn! Uncle Finn!’ the first one yells.

  ‘You came to visit!’ the other one cries.

  Finn grins at them. ‘Yes I did. I said I would, didn’t I?’

  ‘Who’s she?’ the first one asks, noticing me. They both have long, straight dark hair with blunt-cut fringes and liquid-brown eyes, and looking between them I realise they must be twins, as they’re pretty much identical. But whose children are they? They called him uncle. Which means they must be Rob’s daughters, I guess.

  Finn turns awkwardly to me. ‘This is Nic,’ he says, setting the girls down.

  The first one, the more confident of the two, struts over to me with her hands on her hips. ‘Are you Finn’s girlfriend?’ she asks.

  ‘Er, no,’ I say, struck by the forthrightness of one so young.

  ‘Isn’t Nic a boy’s name?’ asks the other one, who’s holding Finn’s hand and swinging on it.

  ‘No, it’s a girl’s name too,’ Finn says, cutting her off. ‘Where are your manners?’ He looks up at me then for the first time, apprehension in his eyes and I wonder why. It’s as if he’s afraid of my reaction. ‘Are you going to introduce yourselves to our guest?’ he asks the girls.

  The louder one sticks out her hand. ‘I’m Melia,’ she says, ‘and that’s Grace.’

  I shake her hand. ‘Pleased to meet you.’

  She skips off, flicking her hair over her shoulder and shooting me a suspicious-looking smile. Like grandmother, like granddaughter.

  ‘What are you making?’ Finn asks as Melia throws herself into his arms once again. ‘Chocolate chip cookies, for me?’

  They both squeal. ‘No! They’re for us!’

  ‘Oh, come on,’ he says, ruffling their hair, ‘you never heard about sharing? I just drove through a blizzard to get here.’

  I shake my head slowly in bewilderment, watching him.

  ‘You want some tea? Coffee? You look like you could use some.’

  I turn around. Iris is behind me, standing with her hands on her hips. She comes off as gruff to the point of surly, but there’s a tenderness I see in the way her gaze falls on Finn playing with his nieces.

  ‘Um . . .’ I say, noticing Finn glancing at the clock.

  Iris strides to the stove anyway and lights the gas beneath the kettle. I follow her, wondering whether or not Finn is planning on telling her why we’re here, and what I should say if she asks.

  ‘I didn’t know Finn had nieces,’ I say to make conversation.

  ‘They’re Rob’s girls. They’ve been with me three years now. Since they were three.’ She reaches for the coffee in a tin to my right. ‘He tell you about the accident?’

  ‘Yes,’ I say, my eyes drawn back to Finn and the girls. He’s helping them roll out the dough. ‘But he didn’t tell me there were children involved.’

  Iris nods to herself, smiling ruefully.

  ‘They lost both their parents. Rob was drunk. They were coming home from a bar. He lost control of the car and hit a tree.’ She sighs heavily, shaking her head. ‘There’s been a lot of tragedy in this family, but I guess that topped it all.’ She stops spooning coffee into the mugs and then looks up and fixes me with a cold blue stare. ‘But I guess you know all about tragedy,’ she says.

  I am so shocked my mouth falls open. Of course she knows who I am. She recognises me from the trial coverage and Finn gave her my name. She nods her head at me, her lips still pressed together in a grim smile. ‘So you’re the girl,’ she says, still nodding.

  I frown at her.

  ‘I don’t read the papers as a general rule and there’s no TV in the house, but Finn told me all about you.’

  That takes me aback. He did? When? Not in the last day I’m assuming, so when? And what did he say exactly?

  She turns back to the kettle. ‘He tried so hard to find them, you know.’

  What is she talking about? ‘Find who?’ I ask, confused.

  ‘The people who did that terrible thing to your family.’

  I open my mouth to ask her what she means, but just at that moment Finn appears at my side.

  ‘Can we talk?’ he says to his grandma.

  ‘Sure, I’m just making coffee,’ Iris answers with a steel edge to her voice. I can see where Finn gets his grit from.

  ‘It’s urgent,’ Finn says under his breath so the girls can’t hear.

  ‘I can make the coffee,’ I say, interrupting them.

  Iris looks between us, but then she purses her lips and nods. The two of them leave the kitchen and I watch them go, wondering what Finn plans on telling her and feeling a surge of guilt. I’m putting them all in danger just being here. We should leave. They should leave.

  A little hand suddenly taps me on the back. It’s Melia. I can tell only because she’s the precocious one, and now I see she’s also missing two of her bottom teeth. Grace is busy pressing out cookies at the table, humming to herself.

  ‘Will you help us?’ Melia asks.

  ‘Sure,’ I say, heading to the table.

  ‘Here.’ Melia hands me a cookie cutter and I start pressing out rounds, remembering with a sharp pang of sadness doing this same activity once upon a time with my mum.

  ‘So, no school today?’ I ask to make conversation and so I don’t let my thoughts get the better of me.

  ‘We don’t go to school yet,’ Grace tells me. ‘Grams is teaching us how to read and write and we’re going to go to school next year.’

  ‘Where is the nearest school?’ I ask, glancing out the window. The sloping garden gives way to woods and in the corner I see the barn. I wonder how far the nearest town is.

  ‘It’s pretty far,’ Melia pipes up. ‘But Grams says we have to go, and one day I want to be an astronaut so I have to learn science, and Grams says that’s where the limit of her knowledge lies.’

  ‘What about you, Grace?’ I ask the quieter sister, my attention drawn to the road at the bottom of the track, where a car has just driven slowly past. ‘What do you want to be?’ I watch the car drive out of sight and swallow drily. Is Finn overreacting? Would they find us here? Could they have followed us? My heart drums faster.

  ‘I want to be an FBI agent like Uncle Finn,’ Grace says, as she stamps out a cookie.

  ‘He’s not in the FBI any more, silly,’ Melia answers. ‘And he was never a real agent anyway.’

  That captures my attention. Grace looks at her defiantly, her chin jutting. ‘But he’s still stopping bad guys.’ She turns to me. ‘Did you know Uncle Finn stops bad guys in the internet. He told me.’

  ‘On the internet,’ Melia corrects her.

  ‘Oh, yeah?’ I ask, trying not to smile.

  ‘Yeah. And he’s so smart he finished school when he was fourteen and he went to Harvard on a scholarship and he met the President one time and played basketball with him and beated him.’

  My eyebrows must be somewhere above my hairline. ‘No. I did not know that,’ I tell her.

  ‘He’s really smart,’ she says, grinning up at me.

  ‘I knew that,’ I admit.

  Melia narrows her eyes at me. ‘And are y
ou sure you’re not his girlfriend?’ she demands, hands on hips.

  ‘Yeah, I’m pretty sure,’ I say, though I feel a twinge in my gut even to imagine it. Finn doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who has girlfriends.

  ‘Why are you here then?’ she asks.

  ‘Um, he wanted to check you guys were OK.’

  Her nose wrinkles and she studies me suspiciously. ‘But we were going to visit him next weekend anyway,’ she says.

  The pink toothbrushes from Finn’s bathroom flash into my mind. That’s who they were for. Whoops. I clear my throat and quickly grab the baking tray that’s sitting on the side. ‘You want help putting these on the tray?’ I ask, nodding at the cut-out cookies.

  ‘Yes, please.’ Grace smiles up at me.

  ‘You know,’ I say, heading to the refrigerator and grabbing the butter, ‘my mum taught me to grease the tray first so they don’t stick.’

  ‘Our mom is dead,’ Grace says in a quiet voice.

  ‘Why do you talk funny?’ Melia asks at the same time.

  ‘I’m English,’ I say, then turn to Grace. ‘And I know. I’m sorry. My mum died too. I know how hard it is not to have a mummy.’

  ‘It sucks,’ she says, biting her lip as she starts laying out the cookies on the tray.

  ‘Yeah. It does suck,’ I say. ‘Big time.’

  ‘But we have Grams and Uncle Finn and we have each other,’ she says, her chin quivering.

  It feels as if I have a piece of barbed wire in my throat. I can’t swallow or speak and I can feel tears stinging the back of my eyes. Clutching a hand to my side I move slowly to the oven on the pretext of checking the temperature, trying to blink away the tears before they can fall.

  ‘Are you OK?’ Grace is at my side.

  I give her a weak smile. ‘Yeah, I’m OK.’

  ‘Do you have a Grams?’ she asks.

  I shake my head.

  ‘Or a sister?’

  I shake my head some more, this time feeling the tears shake loose. To my horror they start to spill. I’m thinking of Taylor and Goz and Aiden and my mum and everybody I’ve loved being taken from me one by one, and even though crying in front of a six-year-old wasn’t my plan it’s like a stopper’s been pulled.

  Grace slips her hand into mine. It’s sticky and warm but comforting all the same. ‘It’s OK,’ she says. ‘You have Finn. We don’t mind sharing him.’


  Iris has walked into the room. She claps her hands and I jerk around, swiping at my face with my sleeve.

  ‘Come on now, girls,’ she says, without looking at me. ‘Take those aprons off and get upstairs. You’re both to pack a bag. You have five minutes.’

  ‘What?’ Melia starts to protest. ‘Why? Where are we going?’

  ‘Are we going to Uncle Finn’s?’ Grace asks delightedly.

  ‘No, we’re going on a little adventure.’ Iris grabs the aprons they hold out to her and waves them out of the kitchen. ‘Come along now.’

  ‘But what about our cookies?’ Grace asks sadly.

  ‘The cookies will wait. You go off upstairs. And remember to pack something warm, your gloves, hats, pyjamas and your toothbrushes.’

  We listen to the two of them clatter up the stairs, chattering as they go.

  Feeling awkward I turn to the stove and switch it off, then I rest the baking tray with the cookies down on the side. Finally I shoot a furtive glance in Iris’s direction. I’m expecting her to be mad. I’m the one, after all, bringing all this drama down on them. But she doesn’t look mad. She’s just watching me intently.

  ‘You OK?’ she asks me, with such concern in her voice that I draw in a sharp breath. I don’t know whether to blame tiredness or the conversation I just had with Grace or the sympathy I see in her eyes, but I find myself swiping at a fresh batch of tears. God, I’m being pathetic. I need to pull it together. I just wish I knew what had happened to Goz.

  Iris is suddenly in front of me and, quite unexpectedly, she wraps me up in her arms. At first I go completely stiff, unused to being hugged or held by anyone, but then I find myself letting go completely and sobbing against her shoulder. Her arms are strong and she has the gruffness of a man, but she smells of rose water and her hand as she pats my back is gentle. ‘There, there,’ she says to me until I quieten down.

  I feel embarrassed when I pull myself away, still using my sleeve to dry my tears.

  ‘Finn told me all you’ve been through,’ Iris says, watching me closely.

  I nod, staring down at my feet. Sympathy is just too hard to handle right now and I don’t want to cry any more. I definitely don’t want Finn to see me crying.

  ‘You trust him, OK?’ Iris says, gripping my arm. ‘He’s a good boy, my grandson. He knows what he’s doing. He’ll take care of you.’

  Her grip on my arm tightens. I nod and she finally lets me go. I take a step backwards, needing to put space between me and her and me and everything. The word trust sets my teeth on edge. I haven’t trusted anyone in a long time.

  Trust Finn, she said.

  Do I trust him?

  He walks in the door just then and I stop pacing and let out a sigh of relief, my body instantly calming at the sight of him.

  I guess I do.


  Nic’s been crying. She turns her head away when I walk in but I see her eyes are red-rimmed. She walks over to the back door as though she wants to put distance between us, and I glance over at my grandma, wondering what the two of them were just talking about.

  My grandma isn’t exactly one for subtlety. Did she say something to make Nic cry? Damn. I don’t have time to go there. Maybe I’m being paranoid, maybe they won’t look for us here, but if they found my loft then it won’t be long before they check my known addresses. It’s what I would do. I’ve tried to erase as much of my history online as possible but my name was in the papers following the Cooper trial and has been in them since too. It’s also in FBI files which I can’t erase without being found out.

  In my hand I’ve got a backpack containing an old laptop I had stashed here and some other equipment I need, though I still have to grab a few more things. I drop the bag by the door. A sense of urgency takes over. Glancing briefly at Nic, who now has her back turned, I take my grandma by the elbow and steer her out into the hallway.

  ‘Here,’ I say, thrusting a thick wedge of cash at her.

  She glances down at it then up at me, her eyebrow twitching. I shrug. I always keep a large stash of cash on me. I don’t trust banks. I have close to twenty thousand dollars in my bag and I’m giving her half that amount. ‘Find a hotel and check in. I’ll call you when it’s safe,’ I tell her. ‘Don’t use your cards. Don’t make any calls.’

  Sighing, she takes the cash from me.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ I tell her again, though she brushes it off. She took the news just how I knew she would, with stoic acceptance, like she has done every major event in our lives: Rob’s death, my getting kicked out of the FBI, her taking custody of the twins. I told her briefly what was happening, but she knew who Nic was already. I had talked about her when the trial was on.

  My grandma is salt of the earth, no fuss, no nonsense. The kind of woman who would have been at the head of a wagon train two hundred years ago. When my mom overdosed she took Rob and me in without hesitation, even though the first she’d known of having grandchildren was when Child Services turned up on her doorstep to tell her. While she wasn’t the type to show much in the way of emotion, we knew from the start that we were loved. Without a doubt she saved the two of us from a much worse fate if we’d gone into care. She took Rob’s death harder even than I did, aging ten years over night. Caring for the twins is the only thing that keeps her going. It’s why they live here and not with me. Plus, my lifestyle isn’t that conducive to taking care of six-year-olds.

  ‘It’s not your fault,’ my grandma says now. She’s giving me one of her looks, as though trying to score her words into me with the sheer intensi
ty of her gaze. I grit my teeth and nod.

  ‘I just want you to be safe,’ I tell her. The thought of anything happening to the girls or her is more than I can deal with. They rely on me – I take care of them financially. But I rely on them far more, just to stay sane. After what happened with Rob they were all I had left. If anything ever happens to any of them I’ll personally kill whoever is responsible. I glance over my shoulder at Nic who is standing by the back door, looking out over the snow-covered woods. I want to kill whoever’s responsible anyway, just for what they’ve done to her.

  I take a deep breath, thoughts jamming my head.

  ‘Where are you going to go?’ my grandma asks.

  ‘The cabin,’ I tell her.

  She nods. ‘No one’s been up there in years,’ she tells me. ‘You still remember how to get there?’

  I nod.

  ‘It’s not your fault,’ she says again. ‘You hear me? Plenty of bad people in this world, Finn, and you’re not one of them.’

  I find myself glowering at the floorboards.

  ‘You take care of yourself.’ Her gnarled hands grip my arms.

  ‘I’ll be fine. I’ll call you when it’s safe.’ I pause a beat before continuing, but finally decide it has to be said. ‘Listen, if anything does happen to me I want you to—’

  She cuts me off. ‘Stop it right there. Nothing’s going to happen to you.’ She jerks her head towards the stairs. ‘Those girls, they need you,’ she tells me.

  I nod but my gaze flits to Nic. ‘This girl needs me too,’ I hear myself say.

  My grandma gives me a rare smile. She hasn’t let go of my arms but her grip softens. ‘I know,’ she says. ‘Remember that cat you once tried to rescue – that flea-bitten, three-legged devil cat?’

  I nod, still glancing Nic’s way.

  ‘And you never could step away from a fight, either. But you never lost one as far as I recall.’ There’s a grim smile on her face, her eyes twinkling.

  I wince and smile at the same time, remembering the number of times I got sent home from school for getting into fights. My defence was that I only took on the bullies that were beating up the kids who couldn’t defend themselves. The fact my grandma never punished me told me she secretly condoned my actions. Someone needed to stand up to them and the teachers sure weren’t interested in justice. By the age of fourteen, though, I’d figured out that there was something more powerful than fists: computer viruses.

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