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Conspiracy girl, p.17
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       Conspiracy Girl, p.17

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  Finn glides over to meet me and I have to bite back the smile. In truth he actually looks kind of cute in the poncho. Like a Mexican Mariachi on skis.

  He catches me trying not to smile and shakes his head, muttering to himself. Then he pushes off and I follow after him. I haven’t skied in about five years and my legs are wobbly from yesterday. But within a few minutes we’ve picked up a rhythm and all I can hear is the soft swish of our skis though the snow, the sound of my breathing, and the occasional call of a bird.

  Finn has obviously been doing this since he was a kid – it’s like second nature to him. He’s graceful and fast, but thanks to my OCD exercise routine I’m fit enough to keep pace with him.

  ‘You ski well,’ Finn tells me, slowing up so he’s parallel to me.

  ‘I learned when I was younger. School trips to the Alps. I mainly snowboarded.’

  ‘One day I’ll have to take you to Aspen,’ Finn says and then shuts up immediately as he realises what he’s just implied. That there will be something between us beyond this moment in our lives. I don’t say anything. ‘Tell me about your mom,’ he says quickly, as he steers us around a tree.

  ‘She was the chief exec of a charity,’ I say.

  ‘I know,’ Finn says. ‘She ran Aiden’s non-profit right?’

  ‘Yeah,’ I say.

  ‘It focuses on environmental stuff?’ he asks.

  ‘Yeah. She ran an organisation a bit like Greenpeace back in London. But the new charity that she set up with Aiden was focused on funding eco-friendly tech solutions. Mainly in Africa. She was very into saving the world, one solar panel at a time,’ I add wryly.

  About an hour later I’m completely exhausted, having to force my arms and legs to obey and keep moving. My hands are completely numb, frozen to the poles. ‘Just another mile,’ Finn huffs. He too seems like he’s close to exhaustion.

  I open my mouth to answer when a crack shatters the stillness around us. We both stop, our heads whipping sideways in the direction the sound came from. It was a gunshot. Finn doesn’t have to tell me that. I know the noise a gun makes. A flock of crows has risen cawing, terrified into the sky.

  My heart starts beating furiously, panic infusing my veins with a toxic mix of adrenaline and cortisol. Finn is over at my side instantly. Another crack sounds out and Finn puts his hand on my back and pushes me forwards, urging me on. In the distance, I can just make out some tall chimneys, a building of some description, maybe the logging camp we were headed to. With a destination to aim for I tuck my chin in, hunch down and push forwards. But before I make it two metres I’m pitched forwards as another crack sounds out right by my ear almost deafening me. I let out a cry as pain explodes in hot shards across my back. I try to keep going but my skis snag on something buried under the snow and my arm gives out as I try to stay upright. I tumble sideways, my legs ungainly, pain rocketing through my back and arm.

  Finn is beside me in the next moment, crouched down in the snow. One of the guns is in his hand. He grips my arm tight. ‘What? Are you hit?’ he asks, but then his eyes drop to the snow and he tails off.

  I twist my head and see he’s staring at a spot of red behind me which is growing bigger and bigger as drops of blood rain down. I blink at it for what feels like an eternity before I process that it’s my blood I’m staring at.

  Finn grabs me around the waist and hauls me behind a clump of bushes. I smother the scream as the pain expands, momentarily blinding me and making the world spin. Finn is kneeling in the snow beside me, gun trained on the woods, his eyes darting between the trees.

  Are they out there? Where? How many are there? How are we ever going to make it out of the woods? All these thoughts flash into my mind in the slivers of space between searing flashes of pain.

  ‘Can you stand?’ Finn asks, throwing a glance my way.

  I nod, though I’m not actually sure.

  Finn scans the woods one more time, then turns quickly to me and starts tugging frantically at the knots holding my boots to my skis, pulling them free. I try to help but it feels as if an army of red ants is burrowing into my back. When he’s done with my skis, he turns to his own, yanking them off as fast as his stiff fingers can allow. I sit there, cradling my elbow, watching the woods all around for any sign of movement, feeling completely exposed and expecting a bullet to punch me backwards at any point.

  Finn eventually tosses the skis to one side and then reaches for me, his arm sliding behind my shoulders. ‘OK, we’re going to have to make a run for it,’ he says.

  I nod, though the thought of getting to my feet and moving seems impossible.

  ‘You see that ridge?’ He points to a hill, behind which the roof of the logging camp rises up. ‘That’s where we’re headed.’

  Finn helps me to my feet and I grit my teeth as I sway against him. Fire leaps in flaming rivers down my side and along my shoulder. I hiss through my teeth and Finn’s grip on me tightens.

  ‘I’ve got you,’ he says but his words are interrupted by a blood-curdling cry that freezes us both to the spot.

  It sounds like an animal being tortured.

  I glance at Finn, my legs threatening to give way, and watch as a slow smile spreads across his face.

  ‘What is that?’ I whisper, grimacing against the pain.

  ‘It’s a hunting call,’ he grins at me. ‘It’s just hunters. It’s fox and rabbit season. I should have remembered.’

  Hunters? It takes me a second to understand what he means. I got shot by a fox hunter, not by a trained assassin. I want to laugh but it hurts too much.

  ‘What are the odds, huh?’ Finn asks.

  Finn props me against the tree as another gunshot cracks through the wood, this time much further away. Poor rabbits, I think to myself.

  I watch Finn bury our skis and poles in a snow drift and I concentrate on staying upright and trying to breathe. The pain is now just in my shoulder, but I imagine this is what being stabbed with a white-hot poker might feel like.

  When Finn is done he slides his arm around me again. I lean against him and together we start to make our way towards the logging camp. With every step I have to bite harder on my lip and, by the time we reach the fence to the camp, my face is buried in Finn’s shoulder and I’m seeing stars.

  Finn pulls off his jacket poncho and lays it on the ground, then sets me down on it beside another tree, about ten yards from the road into the camp and about one hundred metres from the entrance. There doesn’t seem to be anyone guarding the way in and, beyond the chain-link fence that surrounds it, I can see stacks and stacks of timber, a huge building with chimneys and several fork lift trucks.

  Finn crouches behind me and I hear him ripping something. I can’t turn but I’m assuming it’s a strip of blanket, and next thing I feel him winding something around my shoulder and over my arm. I try not to cry out when he pulls it tight.

  Once he’s done he kneels down in front of me and pulls my blanket tighter around me. His thumb brushes my jaw and for a moment I think he’s about to drop a kiss on my head. But he doesn’t. ‘Wait here,’ he tells me, backing away.

  ‘I’m not going anywhere,’ I manage to answer through a clenched jaw.

  Finn slips between the trees and heads towards the fence.

  I sit huddled, trying not to move because even shivering sends hot arrows of pain juddering through me. I can feel my eyelids starting to droop, wooziness draping over me like a blanket. Fighting the temptation to slide sideways and curl up in the snow, I stay awake by picturing Finn’s face, the blue of his eyes, the shape of his lips, the fearful expression when he saw the blood dripping on to the snow and thought I’d been hurt. I let my mind wander back to the cabin, to the memory of us lying half naked under a pile of blankets. It’s amazing how far that memory works to stop me shivering and to raise my core temperature.

  A few minutes later I hear the sound of an engine and twist my head as far as I can without moving my body. A truck with a flatbed is exiting the camp. That c
an’t be Finn, can it? A sudden panic hits me. What if he’s been caught? But then I remember this is Finn we’re talking about, and I relax.

  The truck comes to a halt just parallel to where I’m propped against the tree, the cab door opens and Finn jumps out. I smile at the sight of him as he jogs towards me up the bank. He lifts me and pretty much carries me to the road, helping me up into the cab of the truck before running around to his side.

  Inside he has the heat on full. He puts the truck in drive and then glances across at me. ‘You’re going to be OK,’ he says.

  And I manage to smile at him before I pass out.

  FINN

  I took out the guy guarding the camp, which wasn’t hard as he was busy yanking his own chain in the toilet block. When he comes to he’ll have a lump on his head the size of a baseball, but it was the only way to make sure the alarm wasn’t sounded for at least a few hours.

  In my head I pull up a map of the area. There’s a lake a few miles north-east from here and I’m guessing, like most of the lakes in Vermont, it will have its fair share of rental properties lapping its shores. That seems like the best bet. It’s off season. We need to stop as soon as possible to treat Nic’s shoulder. She’s passed out, but beads of sweat have broken out on her brow and her lips are so white they’re almost translucent. The only colour in her face is caused by the band of sunburn across the bridge of her nose and her cheekbones.

  I crank the heat up higher and put my foot to the pedal. About fifteen minutes further on I take a road that leads to the lake. I need to find a house with a long driveway that doesn’t look like it’s had any fresh tyre tracks for a while. I pass a half dozen before I find one where the snow is piled heavily down the driveway. The house rises up in the distance, just the steepled roof visible through the trees. Perfect.

  I keep driving, looking in my mirrors, checking we’re alone. About half a mile further on I see the ghost outline of another track that leads into the woods on the other side of the road. I shift the truck into four-wheel drive and edge the nose up the bank of snow. The engine grunts and complains but finds traction and I drive for about half a mile until we’re well clear of the road and pull up in a clearing that I guess in summer serves as a picnic spot. This will have to do, I suppose.

  I shake Nic gently awake and help her out of the cab, glancing at her shoulder. It’s not pretty. The bandage I tied around her shoulder is already soaked through with blood. It’s difficult to see the extent of the damage until we take her clothes off but I’m praying the bullet comes out clean and hasn’t done any damage to the muscle or nerve. There’s no way we can risk a trip to the hospital. I’ve no doubt that they have those under surveillance.

  ‘We have to walk for about ten minutes,’ I tell Nic. ‘Think you can manage?’

  She makes a grunting sound I take as acquiescence but then leans heavily against me, drawing in a sharp breath. I put my arm under her shoulder and we start walking. We make it to the road but it’s clear that Nic is finding every step agony. I glance in both directions, checking the road is clear, and then before Nic can protest I swing her up into my arms. She doesn’t argue and though she stiffens a little, within a few seconds she’s nestling close, tucking her head beneath my chin. Her hands are fisted against my shoulder and her hair tickles my jaw.

  She doesn’t weigh much and we make much quicker progress, even though the snow is almost to knee height in places. The house I’m aiming for rises up from between the trees. I scan it for any signs of life, but there’s no car parked outside, the lights are off despite the lengthening shadows of the day and the air is silent and still.

  Even so I pause and set Nic down. She sways on her feet and I hold her tight against me to keep her upright. We hide behind a tree and I watch the house, making sure my brain and gut are both on the same page and that it really is empty. When I’m totally convinced, I sweep Nic up into my arms again and carry her up to the front door.

  ‘Whose place is this?’ she mumbles, stirring and looking around.

  I set her down. ‘No idea,’ I say, starting to run my hands over the door frame. There’s no key hidden up there so I check beneath the mat and then under the plant pot. I come up trumps, flashing the key in Nic’s face.

  She gives me a weak smile and I slide the key into the lock and open the front door. There’s no alarm, thankfully, and I wonder at the stupidly trusting nature of people, while also being supremely grateful for it.

  The house is beautifully furnished and frigidly cold. I head to the thermostat on the wall and turn it on high then head back to get Nic, who’s standing leaning against the wall. I kick the door shut and then stamp my feet to get some feeling back into them. OK, priorities: getting Nic upstairs and into a bathroom so we can clean her up. Then food. Then I need to get to work.

  I go to pick Nic up but she shakes her head and, gritting her teeth, shuffles towards the stairs. She clutches the bannister and starts making her way up the steps. I follow behind, scared she’s going to fall, but she makes it to the top OK.

  The landing stretches in two directions and there are several doors coming off it. I head to the one that looks like it might be the master bedroom, the one with the view of the lake, and find it is indeed the master. There’s an enormous king-sized bed and an en-suite bathroom.

  Nic makes her way determinedly towards it, her face coated in a sheen of sweat, her eyes startlingly green against the white of her skin. At the door, she turns to face me, almost banging into me. ‘Just give me a minute,’ she says and shuts the door in my face.

  NIC

  I edge over to the sink and stand leaning against it, taking deep breaths. After a minute I risk a look in the mirror. I suck in a breath as I see the pain etched across my face. I’m pale as a corpse except for a sunburned nose, and my lips are chapped and white.

  I use the toilet, having to pull my jeans down and up with just one hand, and then I shuffle back to the sink. A wave of exhaustion hits me. I find myself bent over the sink, sucking in air, gripping the edge of the basin, trying to ride the wave of pain in my shoulder. I can’t do this any more, I think to myself. I’m so tired of running and hiding. I just want to stop.

  A bang on the door makes me jump. ‘Nic?’ Finn calls. ‘Can I come in?’

  He doesn’t wait for me to answer. He opens the door a crack and then, seeing me standing up, he lets it fall open and walks over to me. In his hand he has a first aid kit.

  ‘Here, let’s get this off,’ he says, laying the first aid kit down beside the sink and reaching for the scissors. He snips through the makeshift bandage and nausea rolls up my throat as he pulls it away from the wound. My eyes water.

  Finn sets the scissors down and starts tugging at the bottom of my blanket poncho. Gently, he eases it over my head then starts pulling up my sweater. When I have to lift my arm I let out a hiss through my teeth.

  ‘This isn’t going to work,’ he says, reaching for the scissors again. He eases his hand up under my T-shirt and sweater, his fingers grazing my skin. I jolt at his touch as licks of fire start tracing a new path across my stomach.

  ‘Sorry,’ he whispers.

  I shake my head and he pulls the T-shirt away and starts slicing through both the T-shirt and the sweater. When he’s done, he peels the torn strips over my shoulders and tosses them to the floor. His focus goes straight to my shoulder. I glance sideways in the mirror. The back of my white bra is stained ghoulishly red.

  I close my eyes and grind my teeth as his fingers start probing the skin around my shoulder blade. It feels like a scorpion has buried its tail in my flesh and is wriggling it around. Finn slides the strap of my bra down my arm and I grip the edge of the basin for support.

  ‘I’m going to undo your bra. Is that OK?’ he asks.

  I nod, my eyes still closed. It’s soaked in blood anyway. Carefully he undoes the clasp and I shiver even through the pain as he slides the other strap off my arm and peels my blood-crusted bra away from the skin.

/>   ‘Here,’ he says.

  I open my eyes and see he is handing me a towel. I take it and hold it against my chest. In the mirror I watch Finn. He hasn’t taken his eyes off my back, but as soon as I’m covered up he glances at me in the mirror.

  ‘This is going to hurt,’ he says.

  I nod at him. He gives me a weak smile in return.

  I grip the basin with one hand and watch as Finn unsnaps his Swiss Army knife. He douses it in alcohol and then, without any warning, he sticks the tip of the blade into the flesh above my shoulder blade.

  I let out a cry and then bite down on my lip, feeling tears burn like acid behind my eyelids. Pain flares through me, obliterating all thought. All I see is blinding white light.

  ‘I got it,’ I hear Finn say.

  I hear the clatter of something hitting the basin and look down. A small dull grey piece of metal sits there. That’s it? It’s only the size of a drawing pin. How can something so small hurt so much? Ribbons of watery blood splatter the enamel around it and snake down the drain. My vision starts to swim and Finn guides me to the toilet and makes me sit down.

  ‘I’m going to try butterfly stitching this,’ Finn says, ‘hopefully it will hold.’

  I can’t talk. I can’t even nod.

  His fingers move deftly. He swipes the wound with alcohol, again without warning, making me cry out as fireworks of light burst and pop on the back of my eyelids.

  ‘Sorry,’ Finn whispers under his breath, his voice strained.

  It burns. The pain sears through skin and muscle all the way to the bone and a scream rises up in me that I have to fight down, but after a few seconds it dulls to a tight throb.

  ‘You want some help getting cleaned up?’ Finn asks, when he is done applying the butterfly stitches and a bandage.

  I think about raising an eyebrow at him. I can manage – but then I try to lift my arm and can’t.

  ‘Yes,’ I say, trying to fight back tears.

 
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