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Conspiracy girl, p.20
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       Conspiracy Girl, p.20

           Sarah Alderson
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  Then blue and white lights appear in the distance. Shit. My insides contract as though someone is tying them into knots. They’re getting closer. I hold my breath. Why are we just sitting here? I put my hand on the door but Finn reaches for my arm and holds me back, never taking his eyes off the mirror.

  The police car goes screaming past, siren blazing. We watch it disappear over a rise on the highway and I finally let out the breath I’d been holding.

  Finn turns quickly to me. He pulls my hat down low, tucking my hair inside it. ‘I need you to go inside the store,’ he says, thrusting some money at me, ‘and buy some things.’

  ‘Buy what?’ I ask, my heart still hammering wildly.

  ‘Whatever. Just make sure no one comes out of the store for five minutes.’

  ‘Why?’ I ask.

  ‘Because I need to swap plates,’ he tells me, already moving to get out of the truck.

  ‘Swap plates?’

  He nods at the truck in the parking spot beside us and I realise he means to unscrew its plates and swap them with ours. I take a deep breath and without another word get out of the truck and head inside the store.

  ‘Can I help you at all?’ the middle-aged woman behind the counter asks.

  I shake my head and scan the store. There’s a man in a fur-lined cap and a padded jacket standing over by the chiller cabinet. I head over there too and grab some bottles of water before pausing in front of the rows of Snapple. Grudgingly, I choose the pinkest one I can find for Finn then quickly add some bags of chips, peanut butter cups and some dried fruit to the pile, realising with a sense of detachment that I haven’t eaten in almost a day. My stomach feels as if its tied in knots, though, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to force anything down, even though I know I can’t keep running on adrenaline.

  The man in the cap is now paying and I keep my eye on him as he chats with the lady behind the counter. I’ll need to stop him if he makes for the door, but before I can figure out how, my attention is snagged by a picture on the front page of the newspapers I’m walking past.

  I swallow the strangled cry that tries to make its way up my throat. It feels as if I’ve just fallen off a glacier and am plunging down an ice-capped mountain side, a rush of freezing cold air sucks the breath from my lungs. The front pages are all covered in pictures of me. There are also pictures of my apartment building and a photograph of Hugo. He’s smiling in it, the Brooklyn Bridge rising into shot behind him.

  A solid lump rises up my throat and my eyes start to smart. I can’t believe he’s dead. It doesn’t feel real. None of this does.

  I scan the headlines, my name and the word Conspiracy! jumping out at me. According to the papers I’m officially missing, believed kidnapped. A nationwide search is underway. Oh God. Sweat snakes its way down my spine. Why didn’t I realise this would happen? Of course the press have found out.

  With a shaking hand I set down all the food and drink in my arms and pull out a copy of the New York Times. The details are sparing. There are a lot of ‘no comments’ and a lot of conjecture too. At the bottom I notice they’ve managed to get a quote from Marcus, my so called ‘boyfriend’: ‘She was safety-conscious, to the point of paranoia.’ I grit my teeth. So much for trusting him not to speak to the press. Angrily I shove the paper back into the rack. I can’t read any more.

  Glancing up, I realise that the guy in the cap is no longer at the counter. He’s nowhere in sight. Shit. In a panic I race to the counter, tossing the food and water down.

  ‘You in a hurry, darling?’ the woman asks me.

  I nod, keeping my head bowed, trying not to make eye contact.

  ‘That’ll be fifteen-eighty.’

  I thrust a twenty her way and, as I do, I glance up and notice that the TV behind her is playing CNN. My face flashes on to the screen, with a background image of our old house in Bel Air. Nichola Preston missing, believed kidnapped scrolls across the bottom.

  ‘You take care out there.’

  ‘Huh?’ I say, tearing my eyes off the screen and looking at her.

  ‘The roads are icy,’ the woman says, handing me my change.

  ‘Oh right, yeah,’ I mumble, shoving the coins in my pocket. What if the trucker caught Finn changing the plates?

  The woman’s smile falters. Her brow furrows as though she’s trying to place me and her head tips to one side. I scrabble to pick up all the food and bottles and then run out of the store, half expecting her to call out.

  I find Finn sitting in the truck, the engine running.

  He frowns at me as I slam the door and toss all the food on to the floor.

  ‘Sorry,’ I say, as he guns the truck out of the bay and back on to the highway.

  ‘Did you manage to swap the plates?’

  Finn nods. ‘Just.’

  I turn to stare out the window, checking the mirrors.

  ‘Where are we going?’ I ask Finn, wondering where on earth we can hide now my face is plastered all over the TV.

  ‘Boston,’ Finn answers.

  I turn to look at him. ‘Boston?’

  ‘That’s where Aiden is,’ Finn tells me, without taking his eyes off the road.

  ‘How do you know?’ I ask, sitting up straighter.

  ‘I did some digging while you were asleep. He and your mom set up a company a while ago. Someone tried to erase a document from the server of the non-profit and I retrieved it. The lawyer who set the company up recently bought land just outside of Boston.’

  ‘Land?’ I ask. What is he talking about? What company?

  Finn glances over at me and I notice he’s finding it hard to look me in the eye. ‘Yeah, land. I think your mom and Aiden were planning on building a lab.’

  ‘A lab?’

  ‘To grow diamonds.’

  I stare at him. I have no idea what he’s talking about.

  ‘It’s happening. Man-made diamonds have been around for decades, but they’ve never been able to grow them big enough or flawless enough for the kinds of applications that would make it really worthwhile. Until now.’

  I shake my head. ‘I still don’t understand. Has this got something to do with why my mum was killed?’

  He darts a glance my way. ‘Yes. I think so. Maggie’s digging into it a bit more but I think this company called Vorster is behind it.’

  ‘Vorster?’ I gasp. ‘But I know them,’ I say. I mean, they’re huge, everyone knows them. They must be one of the most famous brands in the world.

  ‘Yeah. I’m guessing they’re not too happy about the idea of synthetic diamonds flooding the market place.’

  ‘It would put them out of business,’ I half whisper to myself, staring out the window before turning back to Finn. ‘How did you figure this out? Are you sure?’ I ask. It all sounds so absurd and unbelievable.

  Finn nods at me. ‘Yes. The guys coming after us, they’re South African. I ID’d the one I killed. He’s a member of a neo-Nazi group that has known links to Vorster.’

  ‘Oh my God,’ I murmur. It feels as if a curtain has been lifted. I have an answer finally to the question I’ve been asking for years now. And it’s nothing I could ever have imagined.

  ‘So,’ I say, my head spinning, ‘they killed my mum and Taylor to make Aiden stop what he was doing? Building this lab?’

  Finn nods.

  ‘But now he’s what? Started rebuilding? Why? Why would he do that? And why didn’t he just tell someone what was going on at the time?’

  ‘I’m guessing they probably threatened him,’ Finn says. ‘He must have ignored the warnings. Maybe he thought they were bluffing.’

  I can’t stop shaking my head. Why would Aiden ignore the warnings? Why would he start the business again knowing the risk?

  ‘I’m not sure why he’s starting the business again,’ Finn says as though he’s reading my mind. ‘I’m assuming from how well he’s hidden his tracks he thought he was keeping it a secret. Or maybe he thought after all this time they’d given up.’

  I g
rind my teeth, my jaw pulsing. How could Aiden do this?

  Finn sighs, intuiting my silent question again. ‘When we find him we can ask him.’

  For several minutes I stare into the middle distance, trying to wrap my head around what Finn just told me. It doesn’t make sense. And yet . . . it does.

  I bury my face in my hands. Across the back of my eyelids I see a parade of faces. My mum. Taylor. Hugo. Goz. Agent Ziv. I see the look on Finn’s face when he pushed me off him. Embarrassment is nothing to the grief, to the guilt. It’s a teaspoon of salt on a wound already doused in acid. All those people dead. For what? For diamonds? For money? For greed?

  Suddenly I feel Finn’s hand on my thigh. I look down. He moves his hand quickly away. Why is he still with me? I wonder silently. The danger is too much. We’re basically strangers and he’s putting his life on the line for me. I shouldn’t have let him. I’m being a coward again. I’m hiding behind him the same way I hid behind the door and watched them take Taylor.

  If I stay hidden, stay on the run with Finn, he’s going to end up dead. I know it. Just like every other person who makes the mistake of getting involved in my life.

  I wait until we pass through the next town and then I turn to Finn. ‘You’ve done enough,’ I say in a rush. ‘Drop me here. I’ll catch a Greyhound and find some place to hide until this is over. Now we know who’s behind it, Maggie can do something. They can make it stop. They’re the FBI.’ I glance at him. ‘You should walk away now.’ While you still can, I want to add.

  Finn takes his foot off the gas and looks over at me. ‘The FBI are involved somehow,’ he says through a clenched jaw. ‘And even if they weren’t, what could they do? There’s no evidence. It’s just a theory. They can’t arrest anyone. Look at the trouble Vorster have gone to to set Miles and McCrory up.’

  I swallow because if what he is saying is true, what hope do we have of getting out of this alive?

  Finn is still looking over at me, his expression fiercer than I’ve ever seen it and his eyes blazing. ‘And don’t tell me to walk away,’ he says. ‘I’m not leaving you. Not until this is over.’

  I’m scared that he’s not watching where he’s driving, he won’t take his eyes off mine, so finally I just nod and it’s only then that he turns his attention back to the road and steps on the gas.


  Why the hell would she think I’m going to leave her, after everything we’ve been through? Is it about the kiss? About walking out mid-whatever it was we were about to do? How am I supposed to tell her why it has to be this way? I don’t want her to know about Eleanor.

  I keep my eyes on the road and the mirrors, checking we’re not being followed, but my mind is switching gears frantically. Finding Aiden will confirm what I know and might shed some more light on things, but it isn’t going to change how screwed we are. Vorster are not going to stop coming after us. Ever.

  I let my mind start doing the work, following thoughts quicker than I can verbalise them, hypothesising and assessing and judging every possible outcome until I have what I think could be a workable plan. It’s the most outrageous, possibly insane, morally dubious, yet potentially brilliant plan I’ve ever come up with. It’s not legal. But then again legal won’t keep Nic alive. Legal won’t give her justice. Legal, in my mind, is for people without imagination and who don’t see the system is corrupted beyond hope.

  I find the place by following the map in my head. I have a near-photographic memory, which is a useful skill, especially when the truck you steal doesn’t come with GPS.

  About an hour and a half west of Boston we come to an area of thickly wooded hills and mountains. Several thousand acres are designated national forest. There’s a ski town nearby and the road up the mountain is busy with people heading up the slopes.

  My assumption is that Aiden is here on site, overseeing the build. I’m not sure how he managed to evade the FBI for so long, but my guess is he’s been planning this for a while and has probably had professional help – a security company no doubt protecting him around the clock. I’m not sure why he didn’t offer the same protection to his stepdaughter, but maybe he thought she was safe.

  I slow as we get near to the area of land that he’s bought. It’s pristine woodland, nothing on it. About halfway along the road on the right-hand side I spot a well-trafficked track, the ground rutted with tyre tracks that have been gouged deep into the earth.

  I pull in and draw to a stop, letting the engine idle as I glance up into the trees that are pressing in on both sides. I see it then: a camera rigged up high in the branches, camouflaged well but still visible if you look close enough. I get a huge surge of adrenaline. Everything was just a supposition until now, but the sight of a camera proves that there’s something going on here.

  Nic turns to me for the first time in two hours. ‘Why have you pulled over?’ she asks and the way she asks it you’d think I was a serial killer looking for a place to deposit a body.

  ‘This is it,’ I say nodding at the woods around us.

  She glances out the window. ‘But there’s nothing here.’

  ‘It’s underground,’ I tell her, grinning despite myself at Aiden’s balls. I had guessed this was how he’d build it. It’s how other synthetic diamond labs are built.

  Nic’s eyes widen as she scans the area around us once more.

  I laugh under my breath. It’s genius actually. They’re borrowing military practices, building it bunker-style, but I guess they need to.

  ‘How do you know?’ Nic asks, sceptically.

  ‘Trust me,’ I tell her, driving another fifty metres down the track and coming to a stop in the middle of a man-made clearing. The earth looks recently disturbed and some small saplings have been planted at random intervals.

  ‘What are we doing?’ Nic asks, frustration giving a rough edge to her words.

  ‘Waiting,’ I say, reaching for a bag of Fritos. I notice there’s a bottle of Snapple too and smile to myself.

  I down the juice and am wiping my mouth when something catches my eye in the mirror. ‘Game on,’ I murmur at the sight of the jeep gunning up the track.

  Nic jerks around.

  ‘Let’s go,’ I say, wiping my hands and jumping out of the truck. My gun presses against my spine comfortingly but I don’t think I’m going to need it.

  The man who steps out of the jeep that parks up opposite us is about forty, ex-special forces by the looks of him. He has crew-cut hair and shoulders as wide as a tank. He’s wearing wrap-around shades and under his jacket I’m guessing he’s packing some serious hardware. There’s another tell-tale bulge at his ankle.

  ‘Can I help you?’ the man says, marching towards us.

  ‘We’re looking for Aiden Cooper,’ I tell him.

  The man says nothing but shakes his head as though confused. Nice try.

  ‘Tell him his stepdaughter would like to speak to him.’

  The man opens his mouth but then spies Nic over my shoulder and closes it. He walks off a few feet and pulls out his phone, still keeping one eye on me. I don’t hear the conversation because I walk back over to Nic, who is still staring around in disbelief. She looks cold, huddled in a hat and the jacket we stole from the house. Her face is no longer pale, and the sunburn across her nose has mellowed into a band of freckles.

  I pull open the truck door so Nic can at least sit out of the cold. She turns away from me to face the windshield, literally giving me the cold shoulder. I frown. Every single minute that passes she’s withdrawing back into that defensive state, invisible porcupine quills bristling. Damn. She was letting go of all that and now it’s like she’s even further away than she was before. She’s putting up walls. What can I say to let her know that it’s nothing to do with her? That it’s me. That I want to keep her safe, and that means keeping her at a distance.

  I can’t stand the thought of losing her and, ironically, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. I turn away and stare off down the track.

A few minutes later a Range Rover with blacked-out windows makes the turn into the wood and speeds towards us. A shaken-looking Aiden emerges from the driver’s side.

  Nic tumbles from the truck and he runs towards her, gathering her in his arms in a way that makes my stomach clench tightly and my fists clench tighter. He’s the one who put her in this danger. What right does he have to her affection? And why is she hugging him? This is the same asshole whose activities have made her a target and killed her mother.

  Aiden pulls back, still clutching Nic by the top of her arms. ‘What are you doing here?’ he demands. ‘How did you find me?’

  Glancing around, he spies me and the blood drains from his face. He looks at his security guy, who through this whole thing has been facing me with his hand buried inside his jacket in a gesture so obvious I’ve chosen to ignore him.

  ‘What do you think we’re doing here?’ I ask loudly. ‘The same people who killed your wife and daughter are now trying to kill us, thanks to this little project you’ve got going on here.’

  ‘Who’s he?’ Aiden asks Nic. ‘What’s he talking about? What’s happened?’

  Nic follows his gaze and realises only now that the security guy is keeping me under armed guard. She darts in front of me. ‘This is Finn,’ she says. ‘Finn Carter.’

  Aiden almost goes cross-eyed with confusion and panic. I see the little splinter of recognition dart across his face. He can’t quite place me, though.

  I step forwards, making no sudden movements that will startle his security guy. I hold out my hand. Aiden shakes it warily. ‘You recognise me from the trial,’ I tell him.

  The confusion clears. His hand drops away. ‘You . . . You’re the kid . . . ‘ he says, his eyes flashing darkly.

  I sigh. Here we go. ‘Yeah, the kid who testified for the defence.’

  He looks between Nic and I as though trying to figure out what the hell we’re doing in each other’s company, but there’s not enough time to try to explain it all.

  ‘Someone broke into Nic’s apartment,’ I tell him. ‘They were looking for something. They’ve chased us across three states trying to find it.’

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