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Conspiracy girl, p.15
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       Conspiracy Girl, p.15

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  ‘You OK?’ I hear Finn ask.

  I look up. He’s standing behind me. I nod, still unable to speak because my teeth are rattling so hard. The pain in my fingers and toes is excruciating; from being numb my whole body now feels like it’s catching fire from the inside. Finn sits down behind me and I wonder what he is doing, but then his arms wrap around my waist and he pulls me backwards so I’m resting against his chest, his legs on either side of mine. He opens his blanket and wraps it around us both and draws me even closer against his chest.

  I sink into his arms as though I belong there. The heat from the fire warms my face, the heat from Finn’s body warms my back and, within seconds, everything fades to black.

  When I wake up, the first thing I notice is that the whistling sound of the wind spiralling down the chimney has stopped. It feels as if someone has pressed a mute button on the world and I’m cocooned inside a warm, dark cave. I have no desire to move out of it but then, with a start, I realise that the weight across my waist is Finn’s arm. We are both lying on our sides. He’s behind me and I’m curled tight against his chest, his arms wrapped around me as we lie under a nest of blankets. Beneath the faintly mildewy smell of the blankets rises the familiar smell of him and it makes me want to inhale, makes me want far more disturbingly to press myself closer against him.

  A wave of heat washes over me as I recall him stripping my wet clothes off me yesterday and another wave of heat drenches me as I remember we’re both practically naked under these blankets. In fact, somehow the blankets have become twisted and Finn’s arm is lying against the bare skin of my stomach and our legs are tangled together. In the next second I become aware of Finn’s breathing in my ear, slow and steady. He’s still asleep. For a moment I lie there, holding my breath, torn between the desire to nestle closer to the warmth of his body and the need to tear myself out of his arms.

  What is going on? This is the guy who’s called me a liar. The guy who helped my mother’s killers walk free. Why do I keep feeling drawn to him? And why am I finding it hard to prise myself away from him? It’s not because I don’t want to get cold – because the truth is that the cabin is no longer that cold, the fire has made it warmer and the snow drifts piled around the door and windows are helping trap the heat.

  Finn mumbles something in his sleep, his hand tightening possessively against my stomach and pulling me backwards. Heat from his fingers sears a pattern into the skin just below my ribs and my stomach does a little flip.

  Letting out a breath slowly so as not to wake him, I try to ignore the way my heartbeat has sped up and my mouth has gone dry. I try to ignore too my brain’s immediate reaction, which is to imagine his hand moving lower, stroking across my stomach.

  Finn shifts in his sleep just then and I freeze in his arms. I’m not in any hurry to extricate myself. In fact my hips are pressing ever so slightly backwards, and my heart has shifted up another gear. I forget all about the fact we’re being hunted, all about the fact it’s Finn Carter. It feels so good to just lie here for a moment as if I’ve found a safe haven from the nightmare that continues on around me.

  Just then a log in the fire crackles. I twist my head and see that it’s practically all embers and ash and, not wanting it to die out, I ease myself reluctantly from beneath Finn’s arm and slip out from under the blanket. I pick up a few pieces of wood from the broken bed and toss them on to the fire, poking them with another stick until they take. Then I stretch and turn around.

  The light filtering through the snow-caked windows is a dull grey. It must be around dawn. I have no way of knowing. I glance down at Finn, who has rolled over on to his back. One arm is flung out and the top of his shoulder and half his chest is on display. There’s a livid purple bruise just below his shoulder and I frown at the sight. When did that happen?

  I fight off the desire to climb back under the blankets and feel his arm come around me, resist the urge to run my fingers over the bruise on his shoulder, and look away, flushing, reminding myself of the situation we’re in. No matter how safe it felt in his arms, it’s just an illusion. There is no shelter anywhere, no safe house. The faster I learn that and the quicker I learn to rely on myself the better off I’ll be.

  FINN

  I crack open an eye and watch Nic as she reaches for her clothes. I almost let out a groan watching her stretch wearing just her underwear. I shouldn’t have pretended to be sleeping just now, but it felt so damn good waking up with her in my arms, listening to the sound of her breathing and knowing that she was OK, that she was safe. I let myself drift for a few minutes, my face buried in her hair, wishing we could stay this way all day. Damn those military-trained assassins.

  My gaze dips to her legs before I can stop myself. Nic turns just then and catches me staring at her ass. I look away fast and roll to my feet, grabbing my jeans which are dry, thank God, and pulling them on, all while trying to ignore the tension fizzing between us.

  It’s not the same tension as before when it felt as if Nic wanted to erect a ten-metre-high barbed wire fence between us. Now it’s the opposite; it’s as if we’re both fighting the urge to reach for each other, as though the space between us is a chasm and we’re trying to find our way across it to reach each other. The only thing is I know I’m not supposed to find a way across it. If she builds a bridge, I’m going to have to burn it.

  Once she’s dressed, it’s easier to set those thoughts aside and focus on the problems facing us; namely how to stay alive and work out what the hell is going on.

  The knowledge that there’s a shooter still out there weighs heavily. It’s doubtful he followed us this far into the woods, but it’s likely he’ll start the hunt again this morning. From the light seeping through the windows, it looks as though the blizzard has blown over and it’s not far past dawn. We have a choice: stay here and hope for the best, or move on. But my legs and arms are stiff from the traipse through the snow and, looking at the way Nic is moving around the cabin, I don’t think she has the strength to push on either. First things first: we need to eat and figure out a route.

  ‘What happened?’ Nic asks, nodding at my shoulder. I glance down and see she’s talking about the purple bruise the size of a fist just below my collar bone. So that’s why my arm was aching. It’s only now I remember the punch that guy threw at me. It makes me feel better to remember it was the last punch he ever threw. I pick up my T-shirt and pull it on, wincing a little at the ache across my upper chest.

  ‘The other guy looks a lot worse,’ I tell Nic, crossing to the kitchen. ‘Believe me.’ A whole lot worse, I think to myself. I guess I had better make sure that the body is taken care of by Maggie, or else the police are going to start asking my grandma some interesting questions.

  For a moment Nic’s expression looks pained, like she wants to say something, but then she pulls herself together, her jaw clenches and she turns away.

  ‘You hungry?’ I ask her.

  ‘I could eat,’ Nic answers.

  I grimace as I scan the bare cupboards. This was my grandfather’s cabin. He used to use it for hunting, so when he stayed he’d normally just cook whatever he’d caught. I never met him. He died before my grandma took us in, but that’s what my grandma told us the first time she brought Rob and I up here. I scrounge two rusting cans from the top shelf of one cupboard.

  ‘Did you kill him?’

  I almost drop the cans. Nic is staring at me, her expression so blank that I can’t tell what she wants the answer to be.

  I nod. I’m not going to lie to her. Her shoulders heave up and then down but the relief that rolls off her makes me glad for having told her the truth.

  I set the cans down. ‘It wasn’t Miles or McCrory,’ I tell her.

  Her brow furrows and her jaw tenses.

  ‘I didn’t have a chance to check him for ID,’ I tell her, ‘but he had a tattoo. If I can get online and hack into the NCIC database I might be able to ID him. If he’s been arrested before, that is. And if not, then I’m
going to see if Maggie can ID the body from his fingerprints.’

  ‘What’s the NCIC database?’ Nic asks.

  ‘The National Crime Information Center. If he’s got a record there will be a note of all distinguishing features. I might be able to make a match.’

  Nic swallows and nods. She’s holding on to her elbows in a gesture I’m coming to recognise. Any minute now she’s going to start pacing.

  ‘Look in the front pocket of my bag,’ I tell her, to give her something to do. ‘There’s a Swiss Army knife.’

  She kneels down and unzips the bag and I get up and toss the remainder of the bed frame on to the flames.

  Nic walks over and hands me my knife.

  ‘How’d you know about this place – that it was here?’ she asks.

  ‘It was my grandfather’s hunting cabin,’ I tell her, focusing my attention on trying to jimmy open the rusting cans. ‘Rob and I would sometimes come up here and camp out.’

  Nic wanders over to the little door beside the kitchen. I hope she’s not expecting five-star facilities. I remember Rob and I would pee behind a bush rather than use that sorry excuse for a bathroom. Nic goes in and locks the door behind her. I hear the pipes groan and clank when she tries to turn the faucet. Good luck with that, I think. They must be frozen through. She’d have better luck getting water out of a stone.

  While she’s out of sight I root through my bag, doing a stock-take. There’s my gun, a spare clip, the gun the guy dropped in the snow, which is out of ammo, a bundle of cash wrapped in a sock, the wire I used to jimmy the car door, a few bars of chocolate, a bottle of water, a lighter, my laptop, spare batteries, a phone, data cards, a hard drive, a jammer, a notebook and paper, and a first-aid kit.

  I’d planned on bringing a stash of food and an aerial so I could get a signal with my laptop but I never had time to grab them before we had to run. With those things we could have holed up here for days. Without them, however, and knowing that they’re going to be looking for us out here, we need to move fast.

  My mind has also been working while I slept and has put together a few more pieces of the puzzle. The tattoo on the guy’s neck was a swastika, but it wasn’t the normal design; it was three black sevens, arranged in a particular way. I’m pretty sure it’s the symbol used by a white supremacist group from South Africa. I remember seeing a reference to it on a case I worked on a few years back. And if it is, then things are starting to add up. I’d place a bet that the language the two of them were speaking on the stairs to my loft was Afrikaans.

  Links form in my head faster than lightning. South Africa has a big diamond trade. Aiden’s company, Firenze Inc, trades mostly in diamonds. All I need to do is double-check this theory by trying to ID the guy, then check police records for known associates.

  By the time that Nic emerges from the bathroom with her hair tied up in a ponytail, I have the dubious contents of the cans simmering in a pan by the fire.

  Nic sits down beside me, staring into the flames. ‘Thank you,’ she says after a moment of heavy silence.

  I turn to look at her, uncertain what she’s thanking me for.

  ‘For yesterday. For getting us here.’ She stares down at her feet, her fingers tangling in the blankets. ‘For everything.’

  We stay staring at each other and once again I feel that unmistakable pull, as though the two of us are invisibly bound by thread and it’s spooling tighter.

  ‘You’re welcome,’ I say, looking away.

  She’s out of bounds, the voice in my head yells. And even if she wasn’t, what am I going to do? Make love to her on the floor on a pile of mouldy blankets while keeping one eye on the door in case an assassin bursts through it?

  ‘What is that? Dog food?’ she asks now, leaning over my shoulder to stare at the brown gloop in the pan. I’m hyperaware of how close she is, of the smell of her hair, of her breath on my neck.

  ‘If I tell you it’s beef stew, will you eat it?’ I ask, sensitive to the fact that if I turn my head just a fraction further, my lips will be pressing against her neck.

  ‘Right now I could probably eat a live dog,’ she says, then she falls abruptly quiet. She’s thinking of Goz. I hand her a fork to distract her.

  ‘How long are we staying?’ she asks, her voice husky.

  ‘They know roughly where we are. They’ll have narrowed it down to a twenty-five mile radius, I would guess, which means it won’t be long before they find us. And I need to get a signal. So our best bet is to head north. There’s a town where we can . . . ’ I break off. I had been going to say steal, but I amend it to, ‘find a car’.

  I set the pan down, noticing that it looks like jellied intestines and wishing the label hadn’t come off the cans so I could identify the animal, at least. Though maybe it’s for the best that I can’t. I stick the knife into the mess of it, impaling a lump of something gross on the end and shoving it in my mouth. It tastes exactly what I imagine jellied intestines marinated in botulism would taste like, but I keep chewing and then I swallow, because a bar of chocolate is not going to be enough fuel to take us ten miles cross-country in this weather.

  ‘How are we going to get anywhere in this snow?’ Nic asks. ‘We won’t even be able to get out the door.’

  I look at her and grin. ‘Can you ski?’ I ask.

  NIC

  ‘What?’ I ask, spearing a lump of questionable meat with the end of Finn’s knife and then sniffing it. It smells worse than Goz’s Thai chicken curry poo.

  ‘Can you ski?’ he asks again.

  I scan the cabin, but don’t see anything that we can craft two sets of skis out of, A-Team style. ‘Yes I can ski,’ I say, tentatively starting to chew. It doesn’t actually taste that bad, if you can get past the texture, which reminds me of rubbery intestines. Where is he going with the skiing thing?

  Grinning, Finn gets up and walks over to the other side of the room. Set into the floorboards is a metal ring. Finn prises it up with the blade of his knife and I get up and walk over to him.

  ‘It’s a crawl space.’

  ‘I see that.’ It’s a hole about three metres wide by one metre deep with packed earth walls. It looks like a yawning empty grave and my spine stiffens at the sight.

  Finn jumps down into it, pulling a torch from his back pocket. He flashes it around and I see that stockpiled at one end of the space are two old pairs of skis, covered in dirt and cobwebs, as well as a pile of boxes and some blankets. Finn hands the skis and the blankets up to me. I pile them by the door and then offer him my hand to climb out. He takes it with a curious smile, and our fingers stay linked for just a second longer than necessary before Finn drags his hand free and closes the lid with a bang. Is he feeling it too? Like there’s sheet lightning crackling between us? Or is that just me? I keep catching him looking at me when he thinks I’m not aware of it, like when I was getting dressed.

  Get it together, Nic, I tell myself angrily. As if he’s thinking about that with all this going on. And why the hell are you thinking about it? Have you forgotten about Hugo? Forgotten about Goz? Taking a deep breath, I force my eyes off Finn’s arms and turn back to the jellied meat instead.

  After we’ve eaten, Finn hurriedly lays out a map he found in the trunk across the floor. I’ve never been one for orienteering, and the squiggly lines and little icons scattered across the paper are as indecipherable to me as hieroglyphs.

  ‘If we leave in an hour,’ Finn says glancing at his watch, ‘we should make it before nightfall. The only problem is clothing. You should take my sweater.’

  ‘I’m not taking your sweater,’ I tell him straight up.

  He sighs. ‘You only have that,’ he says, pointing at my hooded sweater. ‘It’s no wonder you almost froze to death yesterday.’

  ‘If I take yours you’ll freeze to death.’

  ‘I can cut up one of the blankets.’

  ‘We can both keep our sweaters and use the blankets.’

  He frowns.

  ‘Where are we
going to go?’ I ask, ignoring him.

  ‘We’ll head here,’ Finn says, stabbing his finger on to the map. I lean over his shoulder, feeling the warmth pulsing off his body and resisting the urge to lean in closer. ‘It’s a small logging town.’

  ‘Won’t they be looking for us there?’ I ask.

  ‘Look, there’s no other choice,’ he says tersely, and the voice in my head which pipes up ready to argue is silenced when I remember that he was almost an FBI agent and he has got us this far. I didn’t even manage to stick out Girl Guides. He knows what he’s doing, he’s shown me that much. And he can at least read a map.

  ‘I didn’t mean to question you,’ I say, taking a step away from him and crossing my arms over my chest. ‘I just—’

  Finn looks at me over his shoulder. ‘We’ve got no other choice.’ He gestures at the map. ‘You see anywhere else we could go? We need clothes, provisions, wheels and –’ he pauses ‘– we need a signal.’

  ‘What about here?’ I say, pointing at a name on the map.

  Finn peers down. ‘That’s just an old logging station.’

  ‘Is it closed?’

  ‘No. I don’t think so. I saw signs for it back on the road.’

  ‘Well, won’t they have vehicles? There’s an access road.’ At least, that’s what I think the thin white line snaking through acres of green stands for.

  Finn frowns, then rubs his hands through his hair.

  ‘OK, fine,’ he says. ‘It’s the same distance. But if we can’t make it on the skis we have to double back, so you’d better be a good skier.’

 
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