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Conspiracy girl, p.18
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       Conspiracy Girl, p.18

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  ‘OK.’ He takes a towel from the rack and runs the hot tap as I sit down on the edge of the bath. Soaking the towel, Finn gets down on his haunches and starts wiping the blood from my back. When he’s done, he leaves the bathroom for a few minutes. When he comes back, he hands me something.

  ‘Here.’

  I glance upwards. He’s holding a clean shirt that he must have found in one of the wardrobes. He helps me stand and, holding the shirt, he turns his head while I drop the towel and slide one arm into the shirt and then the other, grimacing with pain the whole time. Finn comes around and buttons it up, keeping his gaze fixed the whole time at my collarbone, as I stand there feeling like a small, useless child.

  I stare at him, standing so close, taking in the day-old stubble flecking his jaw, the dark sweep of his lashes, as well as the stubborn set of his mouth, and have to resist the urge I have to stroke a hand through his hair and press my lips to his.

  I swallow and focus on the burning sensation in my shoulder, hoping it will distract me from his closeness. But it doesn’t. I’m not sure at this stage if anything short of losing a limb could. Certainly the thought that at any moment people could come bursting through the door firing guns isn’t enough.

  When Finn finishes buttoning up the shirt, his hands stay there, holding the shirt bunched at my hips. He doesn’t make a move and for a moment neither of us speaks. I’ve stopped breathing.

  My stomach flips. The atmosphere in the bathroom is electric, flammable. I swallow again, loud enough to be heard. I don’t want to move in case he drops his hands and I don’t want him to do that. In fact, I want him to undo the very buttons he just did up and run his hands over my body, as gently as he did just now with the towel.

  My breathing speeds up and my eyes fly to his face. Finn is staring down at his hands, which are still gripping the shirt together at hip level. His jaw is pulsing as though he’s fighting some inner voice or instinct. But then he looks up and our eyes meet and in that split second he stops listening to whatever warning the voice is giving him. He pulls me against his chest, his hands sliding around my back, and I reach up on tiptoe and in the next second we’re kissing.

  The pain in my shoulder evaporates and there’s just the heat of his lips instead. Though his hands are gentle, holding me, there’s nothing gentle in this kiss. It’s desperate, hungry, unguarded, and I respond in the same way.

  I can’t lift my arms, so I make do instead with sliding my hands under his T-shirt, laying my fingers over the hard ridges of his stomach. I’m unable to focus on anything other than his mouth on mine, the feel of his lips, and the pressure of his fingers as they skim the skin of my lower back, lighting trails of fire. It’s like there isn’t enough oxygen in the world. My head spins and whirls, lights dancing behind my eyes, and from a very long way away I hear Finn whispering my name.

  FINN

  I catch her, but not in time, and she smacks her head on the edge of the basin. I sink to my knees, holding her in my arms. She’s out cold, her head lolling back. I crouch with her in my arms for several seconds in alarm, before I stroke her hair out of her face and then get to my feet. I carry her through to the bedroom.

  Man, that’s the first time I’ve ever knocked a girl out with a kiss.

  I lay her down on the bed. I shouldn’t have kissed her. What was I thinking? She wasn’t even steady on her feet – and now look what’s happened. I’m furious with myself. That was quite a thunk.

  I stare at her for a few seconds. Her breathing is steady and she seems OK. I check her pulse and she mumbles in her sleep and tries to roll over. Her jeans are soaked through from the snow. I ponder what to do and then decide to take them off. I undo the buttons, the whole time trying not to let my mind wander back to that kiss or my gaze wander to her legs. But that’s kind of hard, given I can still feel her lips against mine, can still taste her on my tongue . . . and when I pull off her jeans I get a view of her underwear and legs that sends the blood redirecting to parts of my anatomy not known for their bright decision-making.

  I force myself to think about our current situation. I summon Maggie’s voice in my head telling me to steer clear of the witness. I know that getting distracted by Nic, no matter how distracting she might be, is a recipe for disaster. It’s clouding my decisions. The fact I ran straight out from behind the house the other day without even checking my blind spots is evidence of that. That and the fact I just kissed her when she was looking like she was about to faint. It’s why FBI agents aren’t allowed to form relationships with their juniors or with a witness. It impairs judgment. I know all this. I know exactly how dangerous it is, never mind to me, but for Nic.

  I throw a blanket over her bare legs, making a firm decision as I do that that’s the last time I ever look at her like that again, and definitely the last time I touch her.

  I take a shower, find some old sweatpants and a sweater in a closet that I borrow while my clothes are drying, and then head downstairs. The house is warming up and I walk through into a well-appointed kitchen and set my bag down on the table. There’s a window running the length of the room, with a back veranda and steps down to the lake, which I can see glinting like dull steel in the distance. The sky is a dark pigeon-grey and the night is closing in fast. We should be safe here at least over night. But I keep the lights turned off anyway.

  There are no personal effects in the house, no photographs or paraphernalia that would suggest people live here. And the fridge is bare, except for some long-life milk and a bag of coffee beans. It’s clearly a holiday home. The larder has more to offer: pasta, some jars of sauce and soup. I realise I’m ravenous and I cook up a vat of pasta, emptying a whole jar of sauce on top.

  While I’m eating, I power up my laptop. I need to make contact with Maggie. But first I want to do some more digging. My spidey-senses started to tingle when Nic mentioned the non-profit her mom worked for, and what it does. She mentioned Africa. The guy I killed was South African, I’m almost certain of it. Diamonds are mainly mined in Africa. There’s a link here and, while everyone’s been digging into Firenze, because that seemed the most obvious, now I’m wondering if all along it’s not been something to do with the non-profit Nic’s mum was running. I think we’ve been looking in the wrong place all this time.

  Within minutes, I’ve hacked into the server for the non-profit, which has a pretty substantial firewall – something that immediately makes me suspicious. I start looking through the files.

  Straightaway something leaps out at me; a week before Nic’s mom’s death, the entire hard drive was wiped. Someone employed a disk-wipe. Normally that would make it impossible to recover any data, but I have ways. I can pull up scraps – not whole documents but fragments of them – and slowly, painstakingly, I begin to piece together a picture.

  There are communications between an offshore lawyer in Gibraltar and Nic’s mom and Aiden. It looks like they were setting up a company. A tech company of some sort. When I follow this up I find that the company went dormant after the homicide, but then I come across some land deeds, recently signed by the same lawyer in Gibraltar, for several hundred acres of woodland about sixty miles outside of Boston.

  From another file I pull up a fragment of a blueprint to what looks like a piece of laboratory equipment. I resort to Google. And within half an hour I have a damn good idea finally of what’s going on, and why these people are chasing Nic.

  My food goes cold in the bowl beside me as I run a check through the NCIC database. It normally takes a few hours to draw a hit on any identifying mark but I narrow the parameters a lot, describing the guy I killed: his weight, his height, his eye colour, hair colour, probable nationality and then his tattoo. It comes up almost straightaway with a hit. The guy is called Marius Swart. He’s ex-armed forces, from Port Elizabeth in South Africa. He’s on an Interpol most wanted list, cited as the lead suspect in the murder of a young girl in South Africa three years ago.

  I do some more digging in Interpol’s
files and discover Swart is a known member of a neo-Nazi group that is thought to regularly contract its ‘services’ to a number of corporations in Africa, among them a company called Vorster, which is one of the biggest diamond mining companies in the world.

  More and more pieces of the puzzle are sliding into place with a certainty that’s chilling. There’s one last thing I need to do and that’s to check local police department reports to see if I can dredge up any information on Miles and McCrory. I focus on reports of unidentified John Does because my gut is telling me they’re already dead.

  I wake at dawn, feeling groggy and sleep-deprived and my body aching. I worked until late, checked on Nic and then passed out on the sofa in the living room. Rubbing my eyes, I trudge through into the kitchen. I make coffee and pull my clothes and Nic’s out of the dryer. I trawled through endless paperwork earlier and got a hit on a dead body in Juneau, Alaska, fished out of a river by two hunters. I hacked into the coroner’s records and pulled up the photographs of the body and identified him as McCrory. I’m doubtful Miles will ever be found, but my gut says he’s dead too. Whoever is behind this wanted the two of them to take the rap for the break-in at Nic’s.

  At seven I place a call to Maggie.

  ‘Oh my God, where are you? What’s happening?’ she asks, the moment I start speaking.

  ‘We’re fine. We’re safe,’ I tell her before running her through everything I’ve found out, including the shoot-out at my grandmother’s house.

  She stays silent on the other end of the phone but when I finish she draws a breath. ‘So you’re telling me that you think one of the biggest diamond companies in the world is behind this?’ she asks. ‘For real?’

  ‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Google it. There’s a piece in The Smithsonian all about it. Synthetic diamonds. They’re able to grow them in a lab. No need to wait a million years any more and mine for them, when you can grow a flawless diamond the size of a baseball in a petri dish in only two months.’

  Until I Googled it, I hadn’t realised how advanced the synthetic diamond industry was. It’s still in its infancy but my guess is that Nic’s mom convinced Aiden of the real cost of the diamond trade – the blood-diamond trade, that is; the wars waged in Africa over control of the mines, the environmental devastation, the child labour, the corruption of diamond companies who seek to hold the prices at artificially inflated rates. But with synthetic diamonds flooding the market, traditional diamond companies face ruin.

  ‘But Aiden Cooper owns a jewellery company,’ Maggie points out. ‘Wouldn’t this totally undermine his own company? Kill his profits?’

  ‘Yes, but he’s no longer even a major shareholder in Firenze,’ I explain. ‘He sold out. I think Nic’s mom convinced him that the future lay in synthetics, in man-made diamonds. And not necessarily for jewellery either. Synthetic diamonds are being used by the military, by tech companies, by aeronautical companies. They’re an amazing conductor of heat and the hardest naturally occurring material on earth.’

  Maggie cuts me off as I’m just getting into the swing of things. ‘So you think Aiden Cooper has set up a company to make synthetic diamonds. And that Vorster has employed some neo-Nazi gang to threaten Aiden to make him stop?’ The scepticism in her voice is thick as mud.

  ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘After they killed his wife and daughter, he did stop. The company went dormant. But now he’s starting the venture up again. I found deeds to a piece of land just outside of Boston all in the name of this company—’

  ‘And that’s why you think they’re coming after Nic?’ Maggie interrupts.

  ‘Yes. And I also think that they’re looking for something they think she has, that they think Aiden’s given her.’

  ‘What?’ Maggie asks.

  ‘I’m guessing the blueprints to whatever it is he’s developed to grow the diamonds. There are two major systems being used right now. I think he’s invented something new. I found some emails – well, fragments of emails – which hint at it.’ I start explaining the two different types of lab systems, basically huge microwaves, that are currently on the market, but Maggie cuts me off.

  ‘So where are they?’ she asks. ‘Does Nic have them?’

  ‘What?’

  ‘The blueprints.’

  ‘If she does have them, then she doesn’t know it,’ I admit. ‘But don’t worry. I’m going to find them.’

  NIC

  I wake with a groan. My head hurts as though it’s been crushed between a vice. As if on cue, my shoulder erupts into flames. I squeeze my eyes shut, biting down the urge to cry. I try to get my bearings. I’m lying on a bed. I am covered with a blanket. It’s dark but there’s a slither of light falling across my face, which must mean it’s daytime. Bits and pieces start to come back to me. The house by the lake that we broke into. The bathroom. The blood. Finn cleaning up my shoulder . . .

  . . . the kiss. Oh God. We kissed. I sit up, having to push myself with my good arm. My back burns but my lips burn hotter at the memory of kissing Finn. My head pulses and I lift my hand gingerly to my temple. Why does my head hurt? What happened yesterday? I remember kissing him, but nothing beyond that. I move my head slowly from side to side. I’m in a bedroom. The curtains are drawn but sunlight filters through and paints a stripe across the bed. How the hell did I get here?

  I throw back the blanket and swing my legs off the side of the bed. I’m not wearing my jeans. I sit there for a few seconds, not breathing. I don’t remember taking them off. Confused, I get to my feet. I need to find Finn. I take a few steps and my head starts to pound in time with my pulse. My body aches with leaden fatigue and my stomach is grumbling.

  I didn’t register much about the house last night but now in the daylight I see it’s like a show home. There’s expensive art on the walls, cashmere blankets draped over wooden chests and on the landing a cushioned love seat. A picture window halfway up the stairs gives a breathtaking view over the lake. The pine trees are frosted with snow at their tips and the stillness of the scene makes me pause in wonder.

  My feet slide noiselessly down the thickly carpeted stairs. Where is Finn? My heart has started to beat faster at the thought of seeing him again. As I reach the bottom of the stairs I hear his voice and freeze. Who is he talking to?

  Adrenaline floods my system making me weak-kneed. Then I hear another voice – crystal sharp. It’s a woman. Automatically I start looking for somewhere to hide, for a weapon to use, cursing myself for potentially walking into danger because all I could think about was Finn and being close to him. But then the inflection in the woman’s voice gives me pause. I know that voice. Maggie!

  I follow the sound of her voice to the kitchen. Finn is sitting with his back to me at a breakfast bar in front of French doors that offer a view straight down to the lake. A coffee cup sits beside him and his laptop is open, a tangle of cables and hardware beside him. He’s talking to Maggie online while his hands fly over the keyboard.

  ‘You’ve totally fallen for her, haven’t you?’ Maggie says and the inference in her voice is obvious. ‘I knew you would.’

  My foot hovers in mid-air.

  ‘No. Of course not,’ Finn answers tersely.

  ‘Finn. Come on. You’re so predictable.’

  Finn smothers a laugh. ‘I am not.’

  ‘Yes, you are.’

  ‘Look, would you just drop it?’ Finn says with a note of irritation. ‘She’s a witness. In your case, I hasten to add. One I’m trying to keep alive as a favour to you. There’s nothing between us.’

  Blood rushes in my ears loud as a waterfall.

  ‘OK,’ I hear Maggie say. ‘Just so long as we’re clear. You know the rules, Finn.’

  A sigh. ‘Listen how many times do I have to tell you I’m not interested in her? At all.’

  My feet won’t work and neither will my lungs. Fury does battle with embarrassment, both raging for control inside of me. I manage to take a breath even though my lungs feel shrunken. I turn around. I need to get out of he
re. It’s OK, I tell myself as I run up the stairs. It was just a kiss. It didn’t mean anything.

  I make it back to the bedroom and switch on the light, looking around desperately for my clothes. I can’t find them. Damn. There’s a wardrobe so I head towards it and throw open the doors. I’m in luck. Maybe it’s not a vacation rental after all. There’s a shelf of sweaters, a drawer of underwear, and rows and rows of clothes hanging on a rail. I root quickly through them, grabbing some clean socks from the drawer, some underwear, a pair of jeans, a camisole top and a sweater.

  I don’t know why I’m feeling the need for urgency but it’s like I’m suddenly up against a clock. Adrenaline is pumping through my body, mixing in a narcotic rush with the heat of a humiliation I’ve known before – when Davis let the world know all about the night he took my virginity. I was a fool to think I could trust Finn, to ever think getting close to anyone was a good idea.

  Wincing, I manage to undo the buttons on the shirt, choosing to ignore the shooting pain in my shoulder. I just want to get out of here. A part of my brain tries to argue with me, tells me I’m being stupid and unreasonable. What did I expect? What was I hoping for? But the bigger part wants to outrun the humiliation. I just want to put space between me and him. And I don’t want to be tied to him any more.

  With a struggle, I pull on the camisole top and a clean pair of underwear and am standing there shaking out the jeans when the door pushes open and Finn appears. He seems surprised to see me out of bed.

  ‘Hey,’ he says, pausing in the doorway. He glances at my bare legs then quickly looks up. ‘How are you feeling?’

  I stare at him, eyes narrowed. How am I feeling? Let’s start with humiliated, pissed off, angry. Add to that a whole lot of dizzy. ‘Fine,’ I say, snatching for the jeans and turning my back on him.

  I try to shove my foot into the leg but with only one arm working properly it’s tricky and I flail like a fish caught in a net and fall on to the bed. The whole time I’m aware of Finn standing in the room, watching me struggle.

 
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