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Conspiracy girl, p.14
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       Conspiracy Girl, p.14

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  ‘Listen, Grandma,’ I say, ‘I’ve set up two offshore accounts in the girls’ names. Enough money to see them through college. And enough for you too.’

  ‘Finn—’ my grandma says in a cross voice.

  ‘Just listen, would you? Anything happens to me, you call this number.’ I hand her my banker’s card. ‘Speak to Lloyd. He has all the details. He’ll know what to do. You won’t have to worry, OK? It’s all taken care of.’

  My grandma looks like she’s swallowing down a bag full of chilies but she just nods, her eyes glacier blue and just as cutting. Hey, I have to be practical.

  Just then the girls stampede down the stairs and straightaway my grandma starts remonstrating with them about the items they’re carrying, which include a doll in a pram and a plastic doctor’s kit.

  ‘I told you to pack just the essentials,’ she complains.

  ‘Come on girls,’ I interrupt, taking them by the hands. ‘Let’s just get you in the car.’ I have a bad feeling in my gut and my eyes slide to the clock.

  ‘Are you coming too?’ Grace asks, as she sticks on her snowboots and pulls on her coat

  ‘Not this time, but I’ll see you real soon,’ I tell her, dropping a kiss on her head and hustling her out the door. From out of nowhere tears well up in my eyes.

  I grab all the bags and carry them quickly out to my grandma’s Range Rover, one I bought for her last year because her old pick-up wasn’t practical any more, seeing how it was thirty years old.

  Tossing the bags in the trunk I buckle the girls into their seats, trying not to let my anxiety show through. Grace, though, is straight on to it. ‘What’s the matter, Uncle Finn?’ she asks.

  ‘Nothing,’ I say, patting her arm. ‘You be good girls, OK? And, if you are, next week I’ll take you to the zoo.’

  ‘I want to go and see Cirque du Soleil,’ Melia says.

  ‘Deal,’ I tell them. Hell, I’ll take them to see Cirque du Soleil in Paris if we get through this in one piece.

  My grandma has already climbed into the driver’s seat. I reach in through the window and kiss her cheek. She holds my gaze and nods. No words pass between us. It’s all been said.

  I watch them drive down the track, the girls waving, feeling a strange mix of loss and relief, and when I turn around I find Nic standing on the top step of the porch watching, her arms wrapped around herself. She avoids my eye and turns back into the house, shivering slightly and pulling the sleeves of her sweater around her. I follow her back into the hallway.

  ‘OK,’ I say, ‘We’ve got three minutes then we have to be out of here.’

  Nic just nods at me. She’s chewing her lip. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry for dragging you and your family into this.’

  Before I can think about what I’m doing, I walk towards her and put my hand on her shoulder. She glances up at me with a startled look.

  ‘Don’t keep saying sorry. Let’s just get through this, OK?’

  She nods. Her eyes are still red and her shoulder feels so slender beneath my hand that all I want to do is hold her. In the same way Nic evoked the world’s sympathy when she was plastered across the front pages of every newspaper, she evokes some instinct in me that makes me want to protect her. My focus falls to her lips and I have to force myself to step away before I do something stupid like kiss her. Boundaries, I remind myself. When will I ever learn?

  ‘Come on,’ I say gruffly, leading the way back to the kitchen, snatching up my bag as I go. There’s a utility room off to the side where I know my grandma keeps a stash of old boots and coats. There’s another blizzard coming and we have ten miles to cover cross-country.

  We’re just trying on boots when Nic’s head flies up. I cross to the door and glance down the hallway and out through the side window. A black SUV is coming up the track, doing at least sixty miles an hour, bouncing over the ruts.

  Shit. I turn back and slam into Nic, who is standing with one boot on and the other in her hand, staring over my shoulder, her eyes wide.

  ‘We gotta go,’ I tell her, taking her hand and dragging her into the kitchen. We can’t hide in the house. They’ll find us. We need to make a break for the woods. That’s my turf. I know I can lose them in the woods.

  From the front I hear the squeal of tyres and then doors slamming. Shit. I yank open the back door and Nic lets out a small whimper of protest. I turn back, seeing that she only has the one boot on still. She leans against my arm and tugs on the other one. It’s only then I realise we don’t have jackets. I think mine is still in the car. Damn.

  I glance towards the utility room – is there time to grab some? But no, my instinct is to keep moving, to get Nic somewhere safe. Adrenaline floods my body. My mind is already ten steps ahead, picturing their moves, evaluating our best chances. They’ll circle the house, one going to the front and one to the back. They’re already probably doing that. We need to move.

  The barn is two hundred feet off. That’s the best route. If we can get behind the barn it’s only another two hundred feet to the woods. The snow is at mid-calf height, which will slow us down. I make a decision.

  ‘I’m going to distract them,’ I tell Nic. ‘You’re going to make a run for the barn.’ I ignore her look of disbelief. ‘Go around it and wait for me behind the log pile.’

  Nic glances at the gun I’ve drawn, then looks at me with eyes filled with terror. I smile at her. ‘It’s going to be fine. Run on my signal, OK?’

  She looks like she’s about to argue but then we hear a crunch as a foot presses down on compacted snow and she nods at me.

  I edge towards the side of the house where the sound was coming from and then, looking back over my shoulder at Nic, I nod. She takes a breath and starts to run, but it’s more of a dragging walk as the snow is so deep. I pray I’ve done the right thing, but there’s no going back now. I wait, crouched low, focusing my hearing on the area just to my right. I tuck my gun into my jeans, not wanting to use it because I don’t have a silencer and don’t want to alert the other one to my whereabouts.

  Three. Two. One. I breathe out and roll forwards. He’s right there in front of me and I’ve managed to take him by surprise. I barely catch a glimpse of his face, because I’m focused purely on the gun in his hand. All I notice is that he’s white, about six-two, with pocked skin and his lips drawn back over his teeth. I smack his arm hard, hitting the elbow joint and hearing a loud crack. He drops his gun with a bellow and I ram my fist into his solar plexus. He doubles over with a gasp, sucking in air like a fish on a line, and I use the leverage of his weight to smash my other fist into his face. Blood spurts all over the ground.

  He throws himself forward then, enraged and showering us both with blood. His fist slams against my shoulder. When I stagger back, he grabs for his gun. I dive for it too and for a moment we’re locked in a struggle, the gun twisting in our hands. Pressed up against each other I catch a glimpse of his face, the startling blue of his eyes, and the only thoughts that come into my head are that it’s neither Miles nor McCrory and that he’s fighting like someone trained in hand-to-hand combat, like a commando. But I’m a mixed martial arts pro. No contest. I snap his fingers back and he lets out a scream, twisting away. Without warning, the gun goes off.

  I fall to my knees, buckling under the guy’s weight. The gun falls into the snow as I heave him off me. The top of his skull has been blown away and I stare for a few seconds in shock at the jagged bits of bone and globs of brain spattering the snow, bile rising up my throat.

  Breathing heavily, I pick up the gun. I want to search his body for a wallet, for some sign of who he might be, but there’s no time. The other one will have heard something. He doesn’t look like FBI, though. Didn’t fight like one either. This guy fought dirty. As I step back, something catches my eye and I lean down and tug aside the collar of his jacket. His neck bears the faded ink of a homemade tattoo.

  A gunshot makes me jerk around, my heart exploding in my chest. Nic. I beat a path through th
e snow, sprinting around the house, following the sound. Adrenaline mixes with fear in a way I’ve never felt before. I’ve always been able to keep my head, to make rational decisions in the face of extreme danger, but as images of Nic wounded or dead fly through my mind I lose all sense of reason. I sprint across the open ground without even stopping to glance sideways or to check it’s clear. Please God, let her be OK.

  A gunshot rends the iron-grey sky, and I feel the whip of a bullet zipping past my ear. Cowering lower as I run, I point my gun in the vague direction of the shooter and fire back.

  Another bullet smacks into the side of the barn just as I throw myself behind it. I do a rough calculation. The shooter is at the north-west edge of the house, on the front veranda. I sprint towards the woodpile and find Nic hunched down behind it. She’s clutching a piece of wood in her hands, holding it like a baseball bat. As soon as she sees me, though, she drops it.

  ‘Are you OK?’ I pant.

  She’s staring at me in undisguised horror and I realise I must have blood on my face. ‘It’s not mine,’ I tell her, even as her hand comes up to touch my face.

  ‘I’m OK,’ I say, snatching her hand and pulling her to her feet. ‘Come on!’

  I push her forwards, towards the treeline in the distance, counting down the distance. Twenty metres before the fence I yell at Nic to keep going and I turn around and drop to my knees behind a decaying old log. Nic stops and turns to look at me over her shoulder. I yell at her to keep running and she staggers forwards, uncertain, before upping her pace and struggling on through the snow.

  I turn back to the barn and watch as a shadow slips around the side. He’s sheltered by the woodpile. I don’t have a direct shot, but I fire anyway. Chips of wood fly up and the bullet makes a thwacking sound as it embeds in the side of the barn. I count down how many bullets are left. Two. I have to make them both count. There’s no time to reach into my bag and pull out the other gun.

  I glance quickly behind me. Nic is about to climb the fence. I fire off the last of the bullets to cover her and when I see her tumble to the other side and then pick herself up and start running again towards the treeline I breathe a sigh of relief.

  Now it’s my turn. There’s nothing for it but to run and hope to God they’re a lousy shot.

  With every stride I’m expecting to feel the thud of a bullet in my back, but there’s nothing, only the sound of my breath rasping in my ears. I leap the fence in a single bound and catch Nic up just as she makes the trees. My throat is raw from the cold air and my lungs are burning.

  Taking Nic by the arm, I pull her into the safety of the woods. The snow isn’t as thick here, and the silence is absolute, as though the world is holding its breath.

  Glancing over my shoulder, I see a dark figure edging out from behind the wood shed and coming in our direction.

  NIC

  We’ve been lost out here in the woods for hours but Finn keeps pulling me on, his hand in mine, his voice yelling in my ear. I barely feel his hand or hear him any more though. I’m numb and feel like I’m floating somewhere outside of my body. Snow swirls around us, burying our tracks. We may as well be entombed in a white coffin. We ran for at least an hour before the snow got too thick and too blinding and our pace dropped to a slow plod. I don’t think we’re being followed any more but my brain is fuzzy and I stopped thinking clearly long ago.

  Just as I’m on the verge of collapsing, Finn yanks on my arm. ‘I see it!’ he shouts over the wind, tugging me through the now knee-high snow. I do my best to pick my legs up and push on through the drifts, following in his footsteps even as they dissolve into whiteness.

  ‘Come on,’ Finn shouts over the howling wind, his hand gripping mine.

  I squint but can’t see anything – the snow is flying like glass-tipped darts into my eyes. My lungs burn from the freezing air. I wonder if Finn is hallucinating – the whole world is just white, speared through with the solid dark shadows of trees. We’re walking through static. But then it rises up in front of us – a squat log cabin looking like the rotting carcass of some long-dead animal, black decayed bones sticking out of the ground.

  Finn has to kick a snow drift out the way to reveal the door and I slump against a mound of white, sheltered by the overhang of the roof, and close my eyes. I’m so tired I could fall asleep right where I am, but a voice in my head screams at me to keep my eyes open, to stay awake. But I just can’t. Sleep has its arms wrapped tight around me and is pulling me down. I realise that I’m no longer cold. In fact, I feel toasty warm. I’ve even stopped shivering. The voice in my head screams louder, telling me to snap out of it and in the same instant the voice in my head becomes Finn’s. And my body starts shaking. I force my eyes open, though it feels as if they are stitched shut.

  Finn’s face is pressed close to mine, his expression fierce, he has hold of me by the shoulders and is shaking me hard, shouting at me. I can barely hear him over the sound of the wind but it sounds like he’s telling me to move. He hauls me to my feet, his hands fisted in my sweater, and drags me forward.

  And then I’m inside the cabin and the roar of the wind drops away and in the sudden quiet all the other noises seem amplified – my breathing is loud and jagged and Finn’s curses echo off the walls as he leans all his weight against the door, trying to close it even as snow starts to drift in and pile up around the frame.

  I’m propped against the wall, unable to move, watching him through a dark haze as though he’s standing in a pinpoint of light at the end of a tunnel. I want to help him but I can’t move a muscle. With the door finally secured, Finn turns around and takes in the small, dank cabin. I do the same, but only half-consciously. All I register are two single wooden bed frames, a wooden trunk over in the corner beside a fireplace, a threadbare rug and some kitchen cabinets, the doors hanging off them.

  Finn throws a glance in my direction and yells something at me which I don’t understand. He sounds far away again and I’m feeling dizzy. I slide down the wall until I’m huddled with my knees to my chest and then I start to shiver, violently. It comes out of nowhere. One moment I’m fine, the next I’m shaking so hard my teeth feel like they’re about to shatter and my whole body locks as though I’m having a seizure. I clutch my numb hands as best I can around my body and tuck my chin into my chest, feeling another inviting pull down into darkness.

  Finn calls my name and through my half-closed eyes I watch him kick apart the bed frame. For a moment I wonder what he is doing. We need to sleep on those. But then I realise there are no mattresses. He smashes his heel down again and again on it until the wood splinters, though I still can’t hear it, watching dazedly as it breaks apart. Grabbing the pieces, he tosses them into the fireplace that’s littered with dirt, leaves and drifts of snow.

  When he’s made a big-enough pile he drops to his knees and roots through his rucksack, pulling out a lighter. I think his hands are shaking . . . but after a while – I don’t know how long – he manages to get a flame. He sets it to the rug which he’s tossed on top of the wood. It catches instantly and goes up with a whoosh that makes him scoot backwards and me close my eyes again. The wood starts to crackle and I open my eyes to see dancing flames shooting towards the chimney. It looks like a mirage and I stare at the orange flames, my vision swimming.

  And then everything goes black and when I come round again I realise that Finn has moved. He’s on his knees in front of me, blocking the fire. With an effort, I focus on his face. I note the snowflakes dusting his hair, the frost caught in his eyelashes and the serious set of his mouth – and then somehow I’m on my feet. With his arm under my shoulders Finn half carries me towards the fire. He leaves me standing there, swaying, inches from the flames, my whole body wracked with tremors, and I wonder what he is doing. A moment later he is back, his hands gripping the bottom of my sweater.

  ‘We’ve got to get out of these clothes,’ Finn says. ‘We need to get warm.’

  I see then that Finn too is shivering hard, h
aving to grit his teeth together to stop them from chattering. I nod, glancing down at my sweatshirt which is sticking to me like a second skin. I start trying to lift it, but my fingers are so numb they feel like claws and I can’t get them to work properly. Finn tears off his sweater and T-shirt and I catch a glimpse of his chest – the ridges of muscle contracted hard against the cold, his skin coated in goosebumps – before he wraps a blanket around his shoulders. Seeing me struggling he reaches out to help, his eyes meeting mine briefly before he looks away.

  I don’t even pretend to be embarrassed. I’m way beyond feeling anything right now beyond a vague and rapidly fading instinct to stay alive, so I stand there, my legs trembling, and let Finn pull my sweatshirt off over my head and then my camisole top, which is sticking to me like a sheet of wet ice. His fingers are shaking only a little less than mine. When he’s done, I’m just standing there in my bra and he turns away, grabs a blanket up off the floor and drapes it around my shoulders.

  Turning his back on me, I hear him kicking off his boots and I sink to my knees and try to do the same. The heat from the fire has melted the snow in my hair and cold rivulets are running down my back, but elsewhere my skin catches fire as the blood beneath starts to warm. My fingers now itch and burn as though they’re wasp-stung. I let out a cry as I try to ease my boots off, and next thing I know Finn has my foot in his lap and is helping again. He tugs off one boot and then the other, then helps me peel off my socks. He looks up then and I give him a nod, lifting my hips and letting him unbutton and peel off my sodden jeans.

  It’s only when I’m sitting shivering in my underwear, wrapped in a blanket, that I realise Finn has stripped bare too – his jeans are tossed to one side and he’s barefoot. He kneels up, holding his blanket close around his shoulders and tosses some wood on to the fire, then breathing heavily and moving noticeably slower, as though the adrenaline has finally leached away and left him exhausted, he lays out our clothes around the fire where they start to steam, letting off great clouds of vapour. The fire cracks and pops and I sit huddled, still shivering violently, watching the sparks float up the chimney like drunk fireflies.

 
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