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Conspiracy girl, p.2
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       Conspiracy Girl, p.2

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  ‘Finn,’ she purrs. ‘Table for one?’

  ‘The bar’s fine,’ I say, stamping my feet to get some feeling back into them.

  ‘Can I take your coat?’ she asks as we walk towards the bar.

  ‘No, it’s OK.’ I shoot an apologetic shrug to the people still waiting in line.

  Despite how crowded it is, a stool magically appears at the quieter end of the bar.

  ‘Thanks, Cassie,’ I say, hopping up on to it.

  ‘No problem.’ She flashes me another smile. Lowering her voice she leans in, giving me a clear view of her cleavage. ‘You know, I’m still waiting for you to call,’ she murmurs into my ear.

  I take a deep breath, getting a waft of perfume that makes my eyes water. ‘Yeah, sorry, been busy.’

  ‘Excuses, excuses,’ she says, pouting.

  I shrug, because what am I going to say? It is an excuse. I’ve not been that busy.

  Her hand slips to my thigh and I glance down at it. Wow. New York girls definitely have no problem going after what they want. Problem is, though Cassie is undoubtedly hot, I know better than to have a one-night stand with the maître d’ of my favourite steak house. No matter how good it would be, guaranteed it wouldn’t be better than the rare ribeye they serve here.

  Thankfully, before Cassie can crush me against the bar and force me into naming a time and place, she gets called away. She makes sure she brushes her hand over my thigh one last time before she leaves and I draw in a breath, reminding myself that the ribeye tastes really, really good.

  NIC

  I’m sitting on the sofa but I don’t remember getting here. I’m clutching Goz around the neck with both hands and staring blankly at my smashed television screen.

  ‘Nichola Preston?’

  I start and look up. A man is standing in front of me. He’s wearing a blue jacket and latex gloves. The white paper covers over his shoes are splattered with blood. He crouches down on his haunches before me, shooting a wary look at Goz before returning his attention to me. ‘Nichola?’ he asks.

  ‘It’s Nic,’ I murmur.

  ‘My name’s Agent Ziv,’ he says softly. He’s about forty, with a worn face and kind but tired eyes. ‘This is my partner, Agent Corbell.’

  I glance over his shoulder. She’s young – maybe mid to late twenties, with curly brown hair pulled back into a ponytail and dark brown eyes. She gives me a sympathetic smile.

  ‘We’re FBI,’ Agent Ziv says. ‘We were hoping we could talk with you about what happened here tonight.’

  ‘Is Hugo going to be OK?’ I ask. No one has told me anything. The ambulance crew arrived, pushed me out of the way and started working on him, yelling things to each other and into their radios, hefting him on to a gurney as the cops tried to calm Lara and get me to tell them what had happened.

  Once I gave them my name and they checked it against their records, they went strangely quiet and now I know why. They were calling the feds. I guess that’s what happens when history repeats itself.

  ‘He’s on his way to the ER. We’ll let you know as soon as we hear anything,’ Agent Ziv tells me.

  ‘Thanks,’ I manage to say. My throat is hoarse and I can’t think why, then I remember that I was screaming.

  ‘Just to get this straight,’ Agent Ziv says to me, ‘Hugo is your downstairs tenant – is that correct?’

  I nod.

  ‘And Lara has the apartment on the ground floor?’

  I nod again.

  ‘And you own the building?’ Agent Corbell asks, taking in my apartment with a slightly awed-looking expression on her face.

  ‘Yes,’ I whisper. I know, it’s a big building for an eighteen-year-old to own, but I bought it with the life insurance I received after my mother was murdered. If I could have my mum back I would gladly live in a cardboard box for the rest of my life.

  Oh God. Suddenly I clutch my stomach and fold forwards, spots whirling like a blizzard in front of my eyes. What have I done? Why did I think I could be safe here in New York? That it wouldn’t happen again? The ground starts to shake, and then I realise it’s not the ground that’s shaking. It’s me. And I can’t stop.

  ‘Hey.’

  I look up. It’s the woman – Agent Corbell. She’s stepped forwards. She drops down to her knees in front of me and smiles. ‘Why don’t we go into the bedroom and get you cleaned up, then we can find somewhere else to talk.’

  For a brief second I want to argue with her, but then I look down and see I’m drenched in blood. When I stand up I note, with a strange feeling of detachment, that I’ve got blood all over the cushions and the rug. Agent Corbell puts her hand under my elbow and steers me towards the bedroom. She closes the door gently behind us but then we hear a scratching sound, followed by a bark, and she has to let Goz in too.

  ‘Come on,’ Agent Corbell says, leading me through to the bathroom. The water comes up to the very edge of the tub and has already turned ice cold. The cops who first arrived on the scene must have turned it off. Or did I? I don’t remember. Agent Corbell reaches over and pulls the plug and then fetches me a clean towel.

  ‘Do you want me to help?’ Agent Corbell says.

  ‘I want a shower,’ I manage to say.

  She moves quickly to the shower and turns it on for me. ‘I’m going to step outside. I’ll be in the bedroom if you need me.’

  I nod and she leaves, giving me another sympathetic smile as she closes the door.

  I turn to face the mirror and flinch in fright. I look like I’m wearing a Halloween mask. My hands, when I hold them up in front of my face, are bright red gloves. My eyes pop out starkly – huge and still round with fright.

  At the sight of my reflection I start shaking all over again, and then, in a desperate burst of movement, I rip off my clothes and step into the shower. I grab the soap and a flannel and start scrubbing my skin, scouring every inch of my body until all the blood is gone, and then I wash my hair, my fingers digging into my scalp as though trying to rip it free from my skull. Finally, I crouch in the shower and let the water flood over me.

  Eventually the hot water runs cold, so I climb out and wrap a towel around myself before heading on shaky feet into the bedroom.

  Agent Corbell is sitting on the edge of my bed. Goz has his head tucked on her lap and she is stroking him absent-mindedly while looking at the photograph of my mother on the night stand. She smiles when she sees me and gets to her feet. ‘Is that your mom?’ she asks, nodding at the photograph.

  ‘Yeah,’ I say.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ she says quietly, then, after a pause. ‘I followed the case.’

  That’s no surprise. The whole world followed the Cooper case. When a woman and a teenager get murdered in their Beverly Hills home, the media tends to pay attention. I nod, avoiding her eye, and turn towards the wardrobe.

  ‘Is the case still open?’ she asks.

  I draw in a breath, pain spearing me between the ribs. I shake my head once. They caught the guys who did it – Robert Miles and Casey McCrory. They both stood trial for double homicide and attempted robbery, and they were both found not guilty. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t do it. Even the police are convinced of their guilt, which is why the case remains unofficially closed even though no one was ever convicted of the murders.

  A thought worms a path through the deeper levels of my consciousness, trying to break the surface. It’s a thought I’ve been trying to suppress. What if it was the same men, who broke into our house in LA two years ago and killed my mum and stepsister, who broke into my house tonight?

  It isn’t possible, I tell myself, firmly. Why would they wait two years? Besides, the last report from the firm I pay to keep tabs on the two of them showed Miles was living in a Veterans Association home in Arkansas and McCrory was working on the rigs up in Alaska.

  I head to my wardrobe, wondering if I should ask Agent Corbell what she thinks, but the question gets stuck in my throat. It must have something to do with Miles and McCrory. Wh
y else would the FBI be here?

  Now that the shock is wearing off I’ve started shivering and my limbs are stiffening up. I grab a pair of black jeans, a camisole top and a thick hooded sweater. I need to keep busy, keep moving, keep my mind from wandering too far into dark places, dredging up memories I’ve worked hard to bury.

  Taylor’s screams still echo in my head like nails scraping down a blackboard, making me grit my teeth. The flashbacks are starting up too. I thought I’d got past that, that I’d found a way to control the panic attacks, but now it feels as if I’m right back at square one.

  Agent Corbell turns around while I pull on my clothes and pretends to interest herself in my book collection. It’s only then I remember my iPad. There are a dozen security cameras installed at different points in the building. My iPad connects remotely, via encrypted wireless, to a security company’s server which uploads all the video and the keycard entries for the day.

  ‘The cameras,’ I say. ‘My iPad. Everything should be on that. Call the security company. There should be footage from the cameras!’

  Agent Corbell is already at the bedroom door. ‘Where’s the iPad?’ she asks.

  ‘I’ll get it.’ I try to push past her, but she bars the doorway.

  ‘Sorry,’ she says, giving me a weak smile. ‘We’re trying not to contaminate the crime scene. Tell me where it is and I’ll go get it.’

  Glancing over her shoulder I see that my apartment is now a hive of activity, with crime scene officers combing every inch of space. One is on his knees behind the sofa, searching for evidence that may have fallen between the floorboards. Two more are taking fingerprints from the door and windows. A man in white coveralls is snapping photographs of the oil-spill of blood by the door. Hugo. I swallow hard as I notice the baseball bat has rolled across the floor, painting a crimson streak across the floorboards.

  ‘Where is it?’

  I turn back to Agent Corbell. ‘Um, it’s over there,’ I say, pointing. ‘In my bag. On the sofa.’

  She walks past the guy on his hands and knees and past a woman fingerprinting the door and alarm pad. I stare at the green blinking light. How did they get in? The alarm was on. I take a step towards the keypad but a guy in a mask and white coveralls holds up his hand and warns me back.

  I can’t even walk in my own home. But it’s not my home any more, is it? All those efforts I made to feel safe, to create a place that was all mine, where nothing bad could happen, were for nothing. Nowhere is safe.

  My lungs feel like they’ve caught fire. I can’t catch a breath and my mind is whirring a thousand miles an hour. I can’t stop thinking about Hugo, worrying if he’s OK. Someone needs to call the security company and find out what happened. The panic alarm too. Why didn’t they respond to it? The armed response team was supposed to be here within three minutes. They never arrived.

  Agent Corbell walks back over just then. ‘I couldn’t find it,’ she tells me.

  ‘How did they get in?’ I say. ‘The alarms were all set. I know they were.’ After the LA incident I was diagnosed with OCD. I’m obsessive about setting the alarms and locking the doors. ‘How did they get in?’ I repeat, anger masking the more plaintive note of despair in my voice. I want her to give me an answer.

  But Agent Corbell just shakes her head at me in confusion. ‘We’ll look into it.’

  I look around, taking in the cracked television screen and the open door of the refrigerator, which is still being swabbed for prints. ‘What did they want?’ I ask.

  ‘You tell me,’ Agent Corbell answers.

  I frown at her. Isn’t it her job to find out?

  ‘Do you have a safe here?’ she asks. ‘Does it look like they might have taken anything?’

  I shake my head, scanning my living room and kitchen. ‘Just my bag,’ I say. ‘It had my wallet and iPad in it.’

  ‘Well,’ says Agent Corbell, ‘something doesn’t add up. I don’t think we’re looking at an ordinary break-and-enter.’

  Just then Agent Ziv appears behind her. ‘We good to go?’ he asks Agent Corbell.

  She looks at me. ‘Nic, do you want some help packing a bag?’

  ‘What? Why?’ I ask, looking between them both.

  ‘We’re taking you to a safe house,’ she answers.

  NIC

  A safe house. The words conjure up images of dilapidated cabins in the middle of dark woods. Or a house in the suburbs surrounded by other identikit houses. So when we arrive at an old tenement building close to the Bowery, I’m surprised.

  Agent Ziv ushers me out the car with his hand on my elbow and I flinch at his touch. The urgency and silence with which he and Agent Corbell scan the darkened street and rush me inside sends a shiver of fear up my spine, and I’m glad that I have Goz with me. He’s picking up on the tension too, straining at his leash and bounding up the stairs ahead of me, a rumbling growl emanating from his throat.

  Corbell stops in front of a door on the third floor and knocks twice. A tall man wearing a suit opens the door a crack then, seeing us, he lets it swing open.

  My eyes fall instantly to the gun in his hand. He gives me a curt smile and once again I feel Agent Ziv’s hand on my back, pushing me into the apartment. I step quickly inside with Goz, immediately scanning for exit points and hiding places.

  Agent Corbell starts doing a sweep of the rooms while Agent Ziv talks to the man with the gun. I’m guessing he’s another agent because he has an FBI badge attached to his belt. ‘This is Agent Wise,’ Agent Ziv says.

  Agent Wise holds out his hand. ‘Good to meet you.’

  I shake his hand but I can’t say likewise. Thankful as I am to have people looking out for me, I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be living this again.

  ‘Agent Wise will be back in the morning to take over from us,’ Agent Ziv says as Wise grabs his coat and heads to the door.

  ‘OK,’ Agent Corbell says, holstering her gun and glancing around. ‘We’re here for the night. May as well get comfortable.’

  It’s a small apartment. The living room is sparsely furnished with a tatty sofa, a stained carpet and an old TV. A Playstation sits on the floor alongside two empty containers of Chinese takeout that Goz immediately sticks his nose into. A window looks out over a small yard ringed by other apartment buildings. There’s a fire escape beneath. I note that the windows have only basic Chubb locks on them – how safe is this safe house?

  Agent Corbell and Agent Ziv have taken off their jackets and their shoulder-holsters are visible, but I don’t feel comforted. I feel terrified – the kind of terror that grips you with vice-like claws and refuses to let go. It’s going to take more than two armed guards to ever make me feel safe again and that realisation almost makes me sink to the floor. I suppress a sudden sob.

  Agent Ziv yanks the curtains shut and Corbell drops my bag to the floor by the door. ‘I know you’re tired,’ she says, ‘but if we could take your statement now while everything is still fresh in your memory, that would be great.’ She gestures towards the sofa and I drop slowly down on to it, though my instinct is to stay standing, keep moving. My foot starts tapping immediately and I have to push my hands on to my thigh to stop it.

  ‘How about we start with the basics?’ I hear the sympathy in her voice and sense she’s trying to make this as easy as possible. It’s just that every single question takes me back to LA, to the countless police interviews I had to sit through then. I’m not sure I can do all this again.

  ‘So, how long have you owned the apartment?’ she asks.

  I take a deep breath. I don’t have a choice but to do it all again. ’Eight months.’ I clear my throat. ‘I moved here in June.’

  ‘To go to college?’

  I nod. ‘I’m a freshman at NYU.’

  ‘Before that you were living with your stepfather, Aiden Cooper, in LA, is that right?’

  I nod. It took a lot of extra tutoring to get me through my SATs because I’d fallen so far behind with my schoolwork, but onc
e I’d set my mind on moving to New York and getting away from LA I was happy to put in the extra time. It gave me something to focus on besides the outcome of the trial.

  ‘So: yesterday. Walk us through your day,’ Agent Corbell says, leaning forwards and resting her elbows on her knees.

  ‘I had lectures from eight to twelve,’ I tell her.

  ‘What are you studying?’

  ‘I’m majoring in Psychology.’

  She nods and I sigh to myself. I know, it’s kind of obvious as majors go. The girl whose mother and stepsister were murdered in a home invasion by two drug addicts with mental health issues is now studying human behaviour. Go figure.

  ‘OK, so after lectures what did you do?’ she asks.

  I try to think back but already yesterday seems like a lifetime ago. ‘I went for lunch.’

  ‘On your own? With somebody?’ Corbell asks.

  ‘On my own.’

  Always on my own. I don’t make friends easily. It’s hard to let people get close. Davis, the boy I was dating at the time of the LA break-in, sold his story to People magazine for a six-figure sum. I have trust issues. Go figure again.

  Even if he hadn’t done that, there comes the point with every potential friend or love interest where they ask me about my family – or worse, Google me – and find out who I am before I have a chance to tell them. It’s like trying to start a friendship with someone while you’re both crossing a minefield.

  There’s only one person I’ve made friends with since moving to New York, a girl called Liva who I met on campus in my second week. She was involved in a big trial last year that the media went wild over – something to do with human trafficking – so she gets what it’s like to be thrust into the public eye. But we haven’t really hung out together outside of college.

  As I tell Dr Phipps in our weekly sessions: it’s more than it’s worth, dealing with the sympathy. People stare at me all Oprah-dewy-eyed, but I know that secretly all they care about is hearing the gruesome details first-hand so they can go and tell their friends that they met the sole survivor of the Cooper murders.

 
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