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Conspiracy girl, p.24
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       Conspiracy Girl, p.24

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  I shake my head. I’m getting way ahead of myself. We’re still just getting to know each other. And, first things first, I need to go and find Nic and tell her that phase two is complete, that from here on in she’s safe. Then I want to take her for dinner to celebrate. Not to my favourite steak house though. I might have to find a new one of those unless I want my steak to come with spit sauce.

  Just as I’m pulling open the door, the buzzer sounds. It’s Maggie. I let her in. She runs up the stairs and when she sees me she throws herself into my arms. ‘Thank God you’re OK,’ she says. She pulls back, keeping hold of me by the arms. ‘Tell me everything,’ she says. ‘In detail. What happened?’

  I slip the latch on the door so Nic can get back in and turn to face her. The bruise on Maggie’s face from where she hit herself with the gun has turned an ugly yellowy-purple colour and the stitches look gruesome. ‘Where do you want me to start?’ I ask.

  ‘Where’s Nic?’ she asks.

  ‘She’s taking the dog for a walk.’

  Maggie glances at the bed, the covers strewn across it, the feathers scattered across the loft floor. She arches an eyebrow at me, smirking. ‘You totally fell for her, didn’t you?’

  I shrug. I don’t want to have to explain myself. Maggie arches an eyebrow and smiles smugly but thankfully doesn’t push for more details. ‘Where’s Wise?’ she asks, changing tack. ‘And the other guy?’

  I rub a hand across the bridge of my nose. ‘They’re both dead,’ I tell her.

  Maggie’s expression doesn’t change but her shoulders stiffen. ‘Where are the bodies?’ she asks.

  ‘It’s dealt with,’ I say, hoping she doesn’t ask for details. I don’t want to bring Aiden into this, or ‘Dan’ the man. I want everything as simple as possible, which is why I then say: ‘We’re not going to the FBI with this, Maggie. We can’t.’

  Her head cocks to one side. ‘Why not?’

  ‘Because the FBI won’t be able to do anything. There’s nothing concrete to pin on Vorster. It’s all circumstantial. And you’ll get in trouble for what you did, leaving Nic with me. Nic can tell them she ran away and met up with Aiden. We’ll figure something out.’ Mostly I don’t want the FBI investigating me and what I’m doing, because it isn’t exactly legal and also I don’t want Nic having to go through any kind of investigation into the deaths.

  Maggie presses her toe against the side of the cube. Her shoulders are hunched and she’s thinking hard. I’m asking her a lot to cover this all up. It means keeping the secret about Wise, as well as lying about his connection to Vorster. She’ll probably miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime promotion.

  She looks up and nods, and I feel a weight slide off my shoulders.

  ‘What are you doing about Vorster?’ she asks.

  I shrug, unable to keep a smile at bay. ‘Blackmailing them.’

  ‘You took their site down.’

  ‘Yeah,’ I say, surprised she checked.

  ‘What else have you done?’ Maggie asks, strolling the length of the loft. ‘Their shares have already taken a tumble.’

  I grin widely. That’s exactly what I was hoping for. ‘They’ll nosedive even more by tomorrow when the Washington Post article comes out about their use of blood diamonds and their epic tax evasion.’

  A furrow appears between Maggie’s eyes. ‘But how do you know that they won’t retaliate?’

  ‘Because I have the CEO, Henrick Grobler, over a barrel,’ I say.

  ‘What kind of a barrel?’ Maggie asks.

  ‘I got a Latvian friend I know to dig for some dirt on him.’

  Immediately, Maggie’s eyes light up with curiosity. ‘Oh yeah, what did he find?’

  ‘The mother lode. We found photographs on his home server that he definitely won’t want leaked.’ I laugh under my breath. ‘They were encrypted but my friend, Ivars, found them.’

  Maggie’s head snaps up. ‘Ivars?’

  ‘I met him online. He’s a hacker, little bit of a criminal mastermind. Nice guy, you’d like him. We formed a group together a couple years back. We police areas of the internet which get a certain type of traffic. You know the types of places.’

  ‘So you’re a vigilante now?’ Maggie asks, and I notice a trace of scorn in her voice which makes me do a double take. Maggie worked cyber crimes – she knows just as well as I do how dark that world can get and how it needs every single last person it can get to police it.

  ‘Why’d you bring in this guy, Ivars?’ she asks.

  ‘He’s good, and I’m not fully in the game yet,’ I say pointing at the cube. ‘I’m limited. And Ivars developed a software package that can remove pixellation from images, meaning we can identify people from photographs where their faces have been blurred out.’

  ‘What kind of photographs did you find?’ Maggie asks.

  ‘Not the kind you’d want decorating your mantelpiece. Think Fifty Shades, with a whole lot more rubber and no one as good-looking as Christian Grey.’

  Maggie frowns at me.

  ‘That’s our collateral,’ I tell her. ‘He calls off his dogs, or we go public and destroy him.’ I pause. ‘Though maybe he’d be able to relaunch a career in niche adult films.’

  The simplicity of the plan pleases me. The stupidity of people pleases me more. I watch Maggie pacing the loft. There’s something off. And then, as she turns back around to face me I figure it out. It feels like I’ve just walked off a cliff and plunged straight down into ice water. How did it take me this long to figure it out? She asked me about Wise and the other guy.

  But I never told her about the other guy.

  And it’s been nagging at me all this time how they managed to find us in Boston. But of course, I told Maggie where we were heading to and somehow she must have managed to track us to Aiden’s – how?

  My heart slows to a stop as I glance at the gun Maggie has drawn from her hip holster and is now pointing at my chest.

  ‘It was you,’ I say, under my breath, my heart now rebooting and starting to smash into my ribs.

  ‘For a genius, you took a while to figure it out.’

  The world spins in a tight, fast loop. Maggie? ‘You were working with Wise. The whole time? For Vorster?’

  She shrugs, her face blank. It’s as if someone is impersonating the person I called my best friend. How did I not see it? How stupid have I been? ‘You sent them after us? To kill us?’

  A fleeting trace of emotion – guilt, or possibly shame – crosses Maggie’s face before it vanishes completely. She tosses her head back. ‘It wasn’t personal,’ she says. ‘I needed you to lead us to Aiden and the blueprints. I’ve been tracking you the whole time.’

  ‘How?’ I ask, stunned.

  ‘I put a tracker in your wallet the night I brought Nic here.’

  I stare at her, feeling like my brain is a computer that’s under cyberattack and every time I try to process I’m just getting an error message.

  ‘Why’d you break in here?’ I finally ask. ‘Why’d you smash up my cube?’

  ‘To up the ante. You always did work best under pressure. And also I wondered if you’d found something and not told me about it. I didn’t realise it was rigged to explode.’

  Her words ring in my ears. They knew where we were every step of the way. Of course they did. Everything makes way more sense now. All those niggling thoughts I had that I pushed aside in my hurry to get Nic safe.

  Maggie gives me a one-shouldered shrug, smiling smugly. My blood runs cold. She steps nearer, cocking her gun and I look around, calculating my options. I need to keep her talking, distract her.

  ‘And Hugo?’ I ask. ‘Who shot him? You or Wise?

  Her brow puckers. ‘That was unfortunate. He got in the way.’

  ‘Did you finish the job while he was in the hospital?’

  She gives me yet another shrug, one that means yes.

  ‘And you shot your own partner?’

  ‘No,’ she says, ‘that was Wise.’

  ‘What
a team,’ I say drily. ‘Who else is involved?’ I ask. ‘Who hacked the security systems at Nic’s?’

  She looks at me scornfully. ‘I did. And the Cooper house too. That was easy. Nic’s apartment was a little harder.’

  She’s smiling, showing off. I shake my head, still not believing Maggie could have done that, could have been involved from the beginning.

  ‘Why do you look so surprised, Finn? You think you’re the only computer genius in the room?’

  ‘But . . . ’ I start to argue. ‘There’s no way—’

  ‘I learned a lot from you,’ she says. ‘And I also knew not to show off like you. It’s way better when people underestimate you. People do that a lot with women, I find.’

  My gun is stuck down the back of my waist but I can’t reach for it. I know Maggie’s here to kill me. It’s the only way to keep this silent. And while my head still can’t quite believe it, my instinct is telling me otherwise. There’s too much at stake and she’s killed everyone else involved who could have identified her. I have to stop my eyes from flying to the door. At any moment Nic could walk in. I start edging back towards the cube. That will keep Maggie’s back to the door.

  ‘Why did you involve me?’ I ask. ‘You didn’t need to bring me into this.’

  Maggie gives a faint smile. ‘Vorster wanted to know where Aiden was building the lab and they wanted to get their hands on his blueprints. I couldn’t find the information. But I knew you could. I knew you had an obsession with the Cooper case. You and your hero complex, Finn. I knew I could rely on you to figure it out. That’s your weakness. You make things personal.’ She smiles. ‘So where are they? Where are the blueprints?’

  She’s standing right in front of the ballet shoes.

  ‘If I tell you, you’ll kill me,’ I say, still trying to wrap my head around the fact this whole thing has been masterminded right up until this moment by someone I trusted with my life. I was just a pawn in a game I didn’t even know was in play.

  Maggie shrugs. ‘If you don’t, I’ll kill you anyway. And if you do, I might not kill Nic.’

  My gut tightens at the mention of Nic’s name. ‘If you kill me, Ivars knows to release the information on Henrick into the public domain.’

  Maggie scowls at me.

  ‘Why else do you think I did it?’ I tell her. ‘It’s our safety net. Think about that. How’s Grobel going to pay you anyway? Once the story breaks and the company goes under he’s going to be in prison, his assets will be frozen.’

  I see Maggie pause, but I know by the look in her eye when she tips back her head that it’s too late. She’s going to kill me anyway. ‘I guess I’ll deal with that problem next,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry, Finn, you know too much.’

  ‘I don’t know everything,’ I say, watching her finger slide to the trigger. ‘I don’t know why.’

  She smiles at me. ‘Turns out diamonds really are a girl’s best friend.’

  I raise my hands even though I know that’s not going to do anything against a bullet. Shit. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe this is how it’s going to end.

  NIC

  I’d recognise that voice anywhere – it’s Maggie – but something about her tone makes me freeze just as I’m pushing open the door.

  I lift a finger to my lips and Goz raises his big eyes to me and seems to understand what I’m telling him as he stops beside me, his fur bristling. The door is slightly ajar and I lean forwards to peer through the crack.

  Instantly my stomach lurches and I feel as though the ground has given way beneath my feet. Maggie is pointing a gun at Finn’s face. His hands are raised.

  I freeze, heart pounding, throat constricting. Why is Maggie pointing a gun at Finn? But even as I wonder I know the answer. She was the one on the inside. All along it was her. My blood is a roaring tidal wave. Screams start to echo in my head, lights dance at the edges of my vision.

  But in the next second I snap out of it; my vision clears, the screams fade away and the only thing that remains is the fire in my blood, a fury that punches through my indecision. I am not going to let this happen again.

  I push open the door. Maggie’s back is turned but Finn is facing me and even though he doesn’t look my way I know he knows I’m there by his body language. His hands come up higher, as though he’s trying to push me back, as if he’s trying to signal to me to leave, to run, to hide.

  But I’m done with running, done with hiding.

  Against my thigh I feel Goz tensed to spring, waiting on my word.

  Time slows. Maggie senses something. She swings around.

  ‘Attack!’ I yell and Goz leaps forward, hurling himself on top of Maggie, his jaws clamping with a snapping sound around her forearm. She lets out a scream, half bellow half sob. All is motion. Goz hangs on to her wrist, snarling and growling, shaking her arm like it’s a stuffed toy he’s trying to rip to pieces.

  The gun clatters to the ground. Goz doesn’t let her go. He drags her to her knees. Finn is standing over her with his gun pointed at her head.

  ‘Call him off,’ Finn yells at me.

  I hesitate for a few seconds before I do, reaching first to pick up the discarded gun.

  ‘Goz, heel!’ I say.

  Goz releases Maggie and backs away, limping, fresh blood showing through his bandages. He paces in front of me like a sentry and I reach my free hand down and pat him, not taking my eyes off Maggie, who is clutching her bleeding arm to her chest and looking up at Finn with a coolly malevolent expression despite the fact her teeth are gritted against the pain.

  Finn stares back at her. Across his face emotions unspool in quick succession like storm clouds against a hurricane sky: betrayal, anger, hurt, pain, disbelief.

  I join him in this last one. I can’t get my head around the fact it was Maggie all along. That she’s the one working for Vorster. What does that mean? And then it dawns on me, sudden and soul-jarring as a lightning strike. She’s the one who killed Hugo and Agent Ziv.

  Another strike; this one even more savage – forked lightning tearing through me, spearing me to the floor, leaving me feeling as though I’ve been cleaved clean in two. Was she also involved in the break-in in LA? Was it her all along?

  ‘Was it you? Were you involved back then too?’ I ask, my voice barely a whisper.

  She doesn’t say anything, just stares at me warily, biting her lip against the pain. It’s answer enough.

  Molten hot fury flows through my veins. I want to leap at her, fists flying, and tear her to pieces. I taste blood, smell her fear. My ears ring with the sound of screams. I’ve never in my life wanted to kill anyone as much as I do right now. Consequences are meaningless. Nothing registers outside of Maggie and me, nothing except the weight of the gun in my hand.

  I want to obliterate this woman. I want to stamp her out. That’s my only thought. I want to make her suffer as much as she has made me and countless others suffer. Maggie turns her head away from Finn and looks at me. The malevolent expression falters as she sees the gun I have pointed straight at her. One look at my face and she shrinks backwards, her gaze flitting in wild panic to Finn.

  But he hasn’t lowered his gun either. Like trapped prey that’s finally recognised there’s no way out, no surrender, no escape, Maggie lowers her arms to her sides and rests back on her haunches. She bows her head.

  Finn looks at me.

  I nod.

  EPILOGUE

  eighteen months later

  I pull the drapes aside and stare out at the view, hearing Finn sigh and roll off the bed behind me. Reflected in the glass, I watch him walk towards me wearing just a towel and I draw in a breath that catches somewhere in my throat. My heart feels like it’s going to burst. I can’t get enough of just looking at him, of being looked at by him.

  When he reaches me, he pulls me around to face him and then rests his hands against the wall on either side of my head, staring down at me, a dangerous-looking smile on his face. I breathe him in, amazed that his scent sti
ll has the ability to make me lose my train of thought. The last year has been a non-stop roller-coaster ride of FBI interviews, preliminary court hearings and media harassment. But Finn’s been with me every step of the way.

  We went to the FBI. We took Maggie with us. Alive.

  That moment when I teetered over the edge and almost fell stays marked on my memory. I could have killed her. But the fact is I didn’t. Sometimes we can save other people. Sometimes, as Finn said, it’s all we can do to save ourselves. And occasionally we get to save others, and in doing so we unexpectedly save ourselves.

  Finn saved me, and in doing so he managed to heal the wounds of his own past. And in choosing to save Maggie, in trusting to the justice system, I also took a step back into the light. I took back the power that had been taken from me two years before, and from that point on my life became mine again. I was no longer scared to live it.

  Maggie admitted her connection to Vorster and her role in both break-ins in exchange for a shorter sentence – though what’s twenty years off of a sentence of two hundred and twelve? Her testimony cleared Miles and McCrory once and for all, though neither of them were alive to hear it. Both were murdered: two more counts of homicide that were laid at Vorster’s door.

  Vorster is no more. Even without the blood-diamond story and the tax evasion, when it was proved they were behind all the murders, the company stock took a nosedive and they’re now being investigated by all sorts of international bodies. Henrick Grobler, the CEO, was extradited and is standing trial soon.

  Finn was investigated too, but with Aiden’s help, my testimony and ‘Dan’ the man’s contacts, he was able to avoid charges for a long list of things including impersonating an FBI agent, assaulting a police officer, car theft, breaking and entering, assault with a deadly weapon (the guy at the logging camp), two counts of homicide (both self-defence) and reckless endangerment. He’s still running his internet security business but never rebuilt the cube. He says he’s hung up his grey hat and is going straight, but I have my doubts that he’ll stay that way for long.

 
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