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Conspiracy girl, p.23
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       Conspiracy Girl, p.23

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  Travis and I go way back. I’ve been buying computer hardware from him for over a decade. He’s in his late thirties, has a thick beard, thicker glasses and even thicker skin. I’ve never in a decade seen him wear anything other than ripped jeans, scuffed Vans and a Star Wars T-shirt.

  ‘Who’s the chick?’ Travis whispers.

  ‘None of your business,’ I answer.

  ‘Woah,’ Travis says, his eyes widening as he takes in the damage to my cube.

  ‘I know,’ I say.

  ‘Holy shit,’ he mutters, ‘who’d you piss off this time? The Latvians? Or that crazy chick at the steak house?’

  I glare at him but Nic is busy rubbing noses with Goz and didn’t hear.

  ‘You don’t want to know,’ I tell Travis.

  He makes me sign some paperwork and I thank him for the early-morning call, handing him one of Martha’s boxes by the door as a little extra payment.

  ‘No problem, man,’ he says heading to the door. ‘You know I sleep all day, work all night.’

  He leaves and I contemplate the boxes.

  ‘Why don’t you take a shower and grab some sleep?’ I tell Nic. ‘I need to start setting all this up.’

  ‘OK,’ she says. She gets up and our eyes lock for a long moment.

  It takes all my willpower not to cross the few metres between us. I want to wrap her up and hold her. I want to erase that image in my mind of her bent over the sofa with that guy on top of her. I want her to know that I will stay by her side until she is safe.

  Seven hours later I’ve set up the computers, installed all the programs I need and rolled out phase one of my Vorster attack. Their site is down. I’ve also managed to find a hole in their firewall and have downloaded all their filed tax returns, which tell a very different story to their actual financial records. It looks like they owe tens of millions of dollars in back taxes. I’ve gathered information on the locations of all their mines, several of which are in known conflict areas including Liberia, the Congo and the Ivory Coast. I sent it all to a journalist I know at the Washington Post. If all goes to plan, I imagine the IRS will be investigating them first thing in the morning.

  The second phase involves me putting on my grey hat. I enter the chat room where FBI1 and FBI2 were hanging out last and find Ivarstheblack. He’s very, very interested in what I have to tell him and promises to get back to me in under twelve hours.

  I log out and stand up to stretch. About an hour ago, Goz got up from the bed where he was sleeping beside Nic and wandered over to hang out with me. He likes sticking his head in my lap. I’m starting to wonder about the dog’s proclivities. I notice he never follows Nic into the bathroom, though he follows her everywhere else.

  I glance over at Nic. There’s that tug again, as though I’m on a leash that she isn’t even aware she’s holding. I walk over to her and stand there, watching her sleep. She’s breathing steadily and I notice with something of a smile that she’s no longer curled on the edge of the bed in a foetal position, but is lying straight down the centre, under the covers, in a position which suggests ease and abandon. She’s wearing a camisole top and leggings. We freshly bandaged her shoulder after she took a shower but it was a weird moment, neither of us saying anything as I applied gauze and tape, my fingers aching to linger. She did the same to my wrist where the handcuffs had cut almost to the bone, but she didn’t once look me in the face and as soon as it was done she walked away.

  Ignoring my better judgment I lie down on the bed facing her, careful not to wake her. My hands twitch. I want to reach out and brush her hair aside so I can study her face, but something holds me back. She has a dimple in her chin and lips that would give Scarlett Johansson a run for her money. And just as I’m remembering what it was like to kiss her, what it was like when she kissed me, her eyes flash open.

  ‘Hi,’ I say. Awkward much?

  She gives me a fleeting, forced smile, gone before I’m even sure it was there. ‘You sleep OK?’ I ask.

  She nods. ‘Did you?’ she asks. Her hands are bunched under her chin.

  ‘Not yet,’ I tell her, unable to stop staring at her lips.

  She’s a witness! Maggie’s voice is loud as thunder in my head.

  But she’s not any more, I realise. She’s safe. It’s over.

  I screwed up with Eleanor. But I didn’t this time.

  ‘Come here,’ I whisper, pulling Nic towards me across the bed.

  She resists, tugging her hand free.

  Shit. I read it wrong. I sit up, feeling a numbness taking me over. I got it all wrong.

  ‘Sorry,’ I say, making to stand up.

  ‘I heard you on the phone to Maggie,’ Nic mumbles to my back.

  ‘What? When?’ I say, turning around to face her. What is she talking about?

  ‘Back at the house by the lake.’ She takes a deep breath. ‘You told her you weren’t interested in me.’ She’s staring up at the ceiling, refusing to look my way, her cheeks flushing red.

  That’s it? That’s why she’s acting so cold? Relief makes me light-headed, like I just took a toke of something potent. ‘I lied to her,’ I say, reaching again for her hand. ‘Because I didn’t want Maggie on my back. I knew what she’d say. You were a witness. I wasn’t supposed to get involved.’

  She frowns. Though she’s letting me hold her hand and isn’t pulling away, she’s still not convinced.

  ‘Why? Have you done it before?’ she asks. ‘Got involved with a witness?’

  I nod. I’m not going to lie to her.

  ‘I made a mistake. A girl called Eleanor Ricci. It cost more than my job. It cost her her life. I was meant to be protecting her. I failed. She got away. The man who she was going to testify against found her and killed her.’ My voice cracks but I don’t look away. I need her to see what I am, who I am; the mistakes I’ve made. If she chooses to walk away she can. I wouldn’t blame her. But if there’s going to be anything between us it has to be based on truth and trust.

  For a long moment Nic says nothing. Finally she looks up.

  ‘It wasn’t your fault,’ she says. ‘She chose to run.’

  I’ve never stopped blaming myself for Eleanor and hearing someone actually tell me it wasn’t my fault feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders that I didn’t even know was there.

  ‘You can’t save everybody, Finn,’ Nic says quietly, squeezing my hand.

  It is possible to save some people though. I saved her. That has to count for something.

  ‘And now?’ she asks sadly.

  I shake my head, confused.

  ‘Am I still out of bounds?’

  I lift my free hand and stroke it down her cheek. Immediately blood rushes to the surface of her skin, her lips part and I feel a quickening of my own pulse, a stirring in my gut.

  ‘I tried to stay away from you,’ I murmur, my eyes drawn to her lips. ‘I tried to follow the rules. I guess though,’ I admit with a small shrug, ‘I’m not very good at following rules. So I give up. I want to be with you, Nic. I want to be the one who takes down all those walls you’ve put up against the world,’ I say. ‘Will you let me do that?’

  NIC

  ‘Will you let me do that?’ Finn asks, and slowly the meaning of his words sinks in.

  I stare at him. At the pent-up frustration in his fisted hands, at the lines of tension in his knotted shoulders. He’s looking at me, waiting for me to speak, but I’m frozen. It’s what he said about walls. He’s right. Being with Finn means letting him in, means tearing down all the defences I put up after my mum died and, more than that, it means keeping them down. It means inviting in chaos and uncertainty and all the things I’ve worked so hard to avoid. It means learning how to live with risk. And I’m not sure I know how.

  But with all that, I tell myself, comes love and craziness and excitement and the type of feelings that let you know you’re alive and make you feel grateful for every breath you get to take. If I choose to, I can open myself up to all of it. The only
thing is, I don’t know if I can make myself that vulnerable. I’ve lived so long on my own, keeping people out, hiding behind locked doors with just a dog for company, that I think I might have forgotten how to live like a normal person. I can’t imagine living without locks on the door, without always glancing backwards over my shoulder scouring the shadows, without walking down the street with one hand buried in my bag clutching a Taser.

  ‘I don’t know if I can,’ I say to Finn in response to his questioning look, and my voice breaks as I say it. ‘I don’t know how to take them down.’

  His free hand comes up and strokes a strand of hair back behind my ear. ‘I do. That’s my job, remember,’ he says.

  And then he kisses me and, as he pulls me into his arms, I feel the walls – all the firewalls I’ve erected out of fear and steel and the jagged, broken shards of memories – start to crumble to dust as if Finn is sweeping them aside.

  As hard as he pulls me to him, I press myself against him. In his arms I’ve finally found the place I’ve been looking for, where fear can’t touch me, where memories can’t reach, where the past is forgotten and the present is enough. Where the present is, in fact, all that matters.

  My hands knit into Finn’s hair as his slide up my back. I tilt my head back after a few minutes to catch my breath, my head swimming, and he leans down and runs kisses up my throat until it feels like I’m breathing in fire. My skin is coated in goosebumps and I’m not sure I could stand it if he let me go. But that’s OK, because I think we just agreed that he’s not going to.

  Just when I think I might burst, Finn stops kissing my neck and takes my face in his hands. He looks at me, a dark glimmer in his eye that sends a shiver right through me. Keeping my gaze fixed on his, my pulse spiking, I slide my hands slowly down his chest and take hold of the bottom of his T-shirt. My fingers graze the warm skin at his waist and I watch him draw a breath and then swallow, his jaw tightening.

  He lets go of me for just a moment, so I can ease his T-shirt off over his head, and then he does the same to me, and soon we’re sitting on the bed, facing each other with nothing between us, literally and figuratively.

  He waits for me to make the first move and I do, tracing my hands tentatively over his bare shoulders, down the defined ridges of his stomach. My fingertips graze the scar by his hip and rest there. His chest stops rising and his stomach muscles contract as though he’s holding his breath.

  ‘What’s this from?’ I ask him.

  A dark look passes over his face and his grip on my waist loosens. Oh God, I’ve said something wrong. I touch his face, bringing him back to me. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to go there,’ I tell him. ‘You don’t have to tell me.’

  ‘It’s OK,’ he says, before taking a deep breath. He lies down, staring up at the ceiling, and my gut ties itself into a knot. My body craves his touch but I sit motionless beside him, waiting for him to continue.

  ‘My mom had a boyfriend for a time,’ he says after a moment. ‘He was abusing Rob. I didn’t know. No one did.’

  ‘Abusing how?’ I ask, fearful of the answer.

  Finn pulls a face and I don’t need any other words to know what he means.

  ‘Oh God,’ I whisper. ‘I’m sorry, that’s terrible.’ Instantly I regret ever asking him. I don’t mean to open up the past.

  Finn turns his head to look at me. Seeing my expression, his own softens. He reaches for me and pulls me down so I’m lying beside him, my head resting on his shoulder. His hand strokes down my arm and his voice becomes a low rumble in my ear as he keeps talking.

  ‘One day, when I was about seven and Rob was twelve, the boyfriend decided that he’d had enough of Rob – he wanted someone younger, someone who couldn’t fight back.’

  My stomach draws back against my spine and my own hand, resting on Finn’s chest, freezes.

  I feel Finn’s heart thumping hard beneath my palm, feel his rib cage rise as he takes a deep breath in.

  ‘Rob walked in, saw what was happening, and threw himself at him. They started to fight.’ Finn stops suddenly.

  ‘What happened?’ I say, propping myself up on an elbow and looking down at him.

  ‘There was a knife,’ Finn says, staring off into the middle distance. His voice is toneless. ‘Just a kitchen knife, lying on the table. Next thing I know, Rob’s got it in his hand.’ He pauses. ‘He stabbed him in the stomach with it.’

  His gaze flicks to mine. In it I see a slight trace of fear – like he’s worried about my reaction. But considering that only a few hours ago I stuck a knife in a man like he was a piñata, I’m not one to act horrified by what he’s just told me. Finn seems to realise this, because he lifts his hand and strokes it down my cheek.

  ‘What happened next?’ I ask.

  ‘The guy pulled the knife out of his stomach. He was pouring blood but he didn’t even seem to notice. He was so angry and he came at Rob with the knife in his hand and . . . ’ Another deep breath. ‘I stepped in the way and he stabbed me instead.’

  I take Finn’s hand in my own and squeeze, tears stinging my eyes. ‘Finn, I’m so sorry,’ I stammer, the words sticking in my throat.

  Finn gives me a weak smile. ‘It’s OK. The guy wound up in prison for attempted murder.’

  ‘Good,’ I say.

  ‘But because of prison overcrowding,’ Finn continues, ‘he was given an early release date. He served just five months.’

  I make a grunt of disapproval. What kind of justice system do we have? Finn is right, I think angrily. Justice isn’t usually blind, but it is often blindly stupid.

  Finn pulls me down then, so I’m lying across his chest. He kisses the top of my head. ‘It’s OK. The day before they were going to let him out he was killed in a prison fight.’ He pauses for a second before adding: ‘Guess there’s karma after all.’

  We lie there for a few moments, wrapped in silence. I close my eyes, listening to the steady beat of Finn’s heart, thinking of all the things he’s lived through. I get now why he fights so hard for the underdog, why he doesn’t always believe in the justice system working. I get too why he does the job he does, why he works in cyber crimes despite the horrors he is forced to witness every day, why he always fights for the victim.

  Because he was once one himself. And, like me, he refuses to be one any more.

  I wriggle out of his arms and slide my way down Finn’s body until I’m level with his scar and then I press my lips to it, wishing I could erase it and all the hurt that goes with it. I know that’s impossible. Both Finn and I will always carry scars, inside and out. Showing each other those scars, admitting them, was the first step. Now with each other’s help, maybe they’ll start to fade.

  I feel Finn’s body tense beneath me, hear the groan as I slowly start exploring him, taking my time as I kiss every inch of his bare skin. Finally it gets too much for him and he reaches for me, flipping me off him with expert ease and laying me down on the bed.

  He leans over me, one hand on my hip, and stares down at me.

  ‘Come closer,’ I whisper, my hands looping around his neck.

  I pull him down, relishing the weight of him on top of me, wanting more.

  ‘How close?’ he whispers back, his lips just above mine.

  I tug him down until his lips brush mine. ‘Closer,’ I murmur.

  FINN

  We lie in each other’s arms not saying much, just content in the silence, in each other’s nearness. My heart is still beating furiously and I can feel Nic’s chest rising and falling fast as she catches her breath. A thin skein of sweat beads her skin and I can’t stop myself running my palm the length of her body. I’m not sure I’m ever going to be able to move again.

  Finally, though, Nic wriggles out of my arms and rolls off the bed. I groan and reach for her but she skips out of the way.

  ‘I have to walk Goz,’ she says, laughing. ‘Otherwise he’s going to drop some more bombs in the loft.’

  I sit up, rubbing my eyes. It’s late after
noon. We’ve been in bed for most of the day. I’d happily spend the rest of the day here too – actually make that the rest of the week – but my computer is blinking. I wonder if Ivars has messaged me. I totally managed to forget about Vorster for the last seven hours.

  ‘OK, but take him up on the roof,’ I tell Nic. ‘I don’t want you out on the street alone.’

  She gives me this look, kind of half amused and half annoyed. ‘I have Goz.’

  ‘He’s wounded,’ I tell her.

  ‘I can kick-box,’ she answers back.

  I stand up and walk towards her. I know she tries not to but her gaze falls to my chest, then lower, and I see the flush rise up her neck.

  I take her face in my hands and kiss her on the lips. Then, touching my forehead to hers, I whisper, ‘Humour me. This isn’t over yet. Go up to the roof. I’ll follow you. If you like, I’ll show you my telescope,’ I say kissing the tip of her nose.

  She shakes her head, laughing and dancing out of my arms, then grabs her sweater. ‘Come on, Goz,’ she calls over her shoulder.

  I pull on some sweatpants, also opting for commando, and drop down to the floor where I’ve set up the computers. There’s an email from Ivars and he’s put a smiley face in the subject line. Ivars is not the kind of hacking genius to use smiley-faced emoticons lightly.

  I click on the email and then follow through with a fist pump. It’s as I expected. I attach the document Ivars emailed me to a new email and send it to the personal account of the CEO of Vorster – a man called Henrick Grobler – with a message telling him that if he doesn’t back off Aiden and Nic, the information will be made public and the attacks on his company’s website will continue ad infinitum.

  Smiling, I stand up and stretch. That should most definitely do it, I think to myself. Aiden should be safe to get on with his business now. It was really that simple in the end. Aiden should have just come to me in the beginning. It would have saved a lot of trouble. And more than a few lives.

  Grabbing my shoes – no time for socks – I head to the door, glancing as I go at the cube and wondering whether we need to find a bigger apartment. I can picture Nic’s clothes lying all over the place, me cooking her dinner while she practices kick-boxing, wearing just my shirt. Maybe we need a place with a decent garden so Goz can run around. Maybe we can get rid of the security systems while we’re at it.

 
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