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Conspiracy girl, p.3
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       Conspiracy Girl, p.3

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  Our story made headlines. Everyone knows about the Cooper murders. My stepdad Aiden was famous for owning the biggest jewellery store in the world. Then there was the fact that Taylor, my stepsister, was a regular in the gossip columns of Star and People, forever being papped at premieres and in the front row of fashion shows. She loved being in the public eye. I often wonder how she’d feel about it now.

  They made a trashy daytime TV movie about the murders called Conspiracy Girl, in which some Z-list actress with fake boobs played Taylor and a girl who used to star on The Mickey Mouse Club played me. Except she couldn’t do a British accent so she sounded like Britney Spears doing an impression of Queen Victoria. The whole premise was that there was some kind of conspiracy behind the break-in and murders and that the two men who stood trial were merely scapegoats. Like all conspiracy theories, it was based on crackpot ideas with no basis in reality. But the defence team created a case around a similar theory, the jury lapped it up, and the media went wild for it.

  ‘You dating anyone?’ Agent Ziv asks.

  I shake my head. There’s this one guy, Marcus, who I met in line at Starbucks a few weeks back. We’ve been for coffee a few times and he’s invited me to the movies, but I wouldn’t exactly say we were dating. He’s nice I guess, and polite, and the first person in ages who hasn’t looked at me pityingly. He doesn’t ask questions about my past either, though unless he’s been living on Mars for the last five years he must know who I am, and I don’t sense he’s the type of guy who’d sell his story to the papers. But who knows? I would never have guessed Davis would either. Davis said he loved me, we dated for a year, even lost our virginity to each other, but that didn’t stop him from cashing the cheque and telling the world every intimate detail of our relationship.

  Marcus hasn’t tried to kiss me yet either. We haven’t even held hands. He seems to realise I like my own space, or it could be he’s scared of Goz. Either way I’m grateful. When I told Dr Phipps he suggested that’s probably why I chose to go out with him and why I insist on bringing Goz on dates. No chemistry means I don’t have to worry about getting close. Psychologists suck sometimes.

  Agent Corbell interrupts my thoughts. ‘And then you went to the gym?’ She’s reading from the statement I gave the cops earlier.

  ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I go every day. Or try to. I was there from two until about five.’

  Corbell’s eyebrows raise but I ignore the look. I have an intense exercise schedule. It’s one of the ways I hold on to my sanity. I used to do ballet but after the break-in I stopped. Now I just hit the gym. If I don’t, things tend to spiral out of control.

  Agent Corbell glances down at the notebook in her hand. ‘And you said in your earlier statement that your stepfather, Aiden Cooper, paid a visit yesterday out of the blue?’

  I nod.

  Corbell cocks her head to one side. ‘I thought he lived in LA?’

  ‘He does,’ I answer. ‘He had a meeting in New York. He stopped by on the off chance.’ It’s only then that another realisation hits me with hurricane force. ‘Oh my God,’ I say, rising from my seat. ‘You need to find him! You need to call him. Do you think . . .’ I break off, not sure exactly what I’m asking. I was so wrapped up in Hugo and worrying about him that I didn’t stop to think of Aiden. But what if his visit and the break-in aren’t coincidental?

  ‘We’re working on it.’ Agent Corbell gestures for me to sit back down while giving me a smile that I can see is intended to allay my fears. Grudgingly I sit back down, though my foot starts up tapping again and my eyes dart to the door.

  Aiden and my mother were only married for a year before she died, but going through what we went through – the aftermath of the murders, the police interviews, the funerals, the press harassment, the court case – left an indelible mark on both of us, and we’re closer now than we would probably ever have been if things had been different. I lost my mum and he lost his only daughter – Taylor. She was eighteen at the time. I survived. She didn’t. And yes, I feel a crushing guilt about that, every day. For a while I was completely buried beneath it. Now I just heft it around wherever I go, stumbling a lot, but trying to move forwards, knowing that’s what my mother would want.

  I am very much aware that I can’t and don’t want to fill the space left by Taylor, but I’m all Aiden has left now in the way of family. And vice versa. I have no siblings and my father died when I was three.

  ‘How was he acting when he came by?’ Agent Ziv asks. ‘Anything strange about his behaviour?’

  I close my eyes and try to think. I had just got in the door. I wasn’t expecting anyone so when the buzzer went both Goz and I jumped. The last person I expected to see on my doorstep was Aiden.

  ‘Nic?’

  Ziv’s voice startles me and I realise I’ve zoned out. ‘He seemed on edge,’ I say. ‘But it’s a hard time of year.’ I tail off. Christmas and then the anniversary of the incident. I look up and finally ask the question I’ve been avoiding. ‘Was it them? Do you think it was the same people who killed my mother and Taylor?’

  They shoot each other a quick, furtive glance. ‘We’re looking into it,’ Agent Ziv tells me.

  I sit back in my seat. The knowledge that they have already considered this makes my blood run cold. I wrap my arms around myself and squeeze my eyes shut. The memory of Miles and McCrory’s jubilant expressions when they walked free from court flashes into my mind. Was it them in my apartment?

  The other possibility is that it’s a simple break-and-enter, a totally unrelated, opportunistic crime – but even as I come up with the theory, my gut rejects it outright. An opportunistic thief doesn’t choose a third-floor apartment with keypad entry and video cameras in the stairwells. An opportunistic thief doesn’t choose the apartment with the Hound of the Baskervilles guarding it. Plus, there’s the fact that the alarm systems seem to have been tampered with. Just like last time.

  Once they’re finished taking my statement, the two of them leave me alone and walk out into the hallway, closing the door behind them. I sit on the sofa and press my knuckles into my eyes. I keep seeing my mother, the last image I have of her – her body lying in the middle of the bedroom floor. They’d shot her through the head and the bullet had left a dime-sized hole in her forehead, just beneath her hairline. Her eyes were wide open, staring blankly up at the ceiling, and a little worm of blood had snaked a trail between her eyes. I’ve worked hard to erase that image from my memory but now it’s back. I push my knuckles harder into my eyes but it doesn’t help. Damn it.

  With a burst of energy I get up and stride to the door, thinking I’ll have them call the hospital and find out what’s happening with Hugo, but then I remember I still have my phone on me. I pull it out of my pocket and am just searching for the number when Ziv walks back in and notices the phone in my hand.

  ‘No calls I’m afraid,’ he says. ‘And you need to switch that thing off.’

  You’ve got to be kidding, I think, staring at him and then at the phone. I have so many people to contact. Aiden and the hospital for a start. But Agent Ziv just shrugs at me. I start to protest but then a loud crack makes me jump.

  Agent Ziv’s hand falls to his waist. He stares at me in surprise, his mouth falling open, and I shake my head at him confused, not understanding. Then he moves his hand aside, and I see a crimson flower blossoming brightly through his shirt, petals unfurling fast.

  I take a step backwards, still uncomprehending, as he stumbles forwards. He grabs me by the top of my arms and together we crumple to the ground.

  Goz leaps forwards, snarling, butting Agent Ziv off me and I scamper backwards, staring at the growing red stain on his shirt, finally understanding. It was a gunshot. I look over at the window where the curtain has started to billow. Someone fired through the glass.

  My eyes fly back to Agent Ziv, who’s now lying unmoving, his arm flung out and his gun discarded on the floor by the Playstation. I throw myself behind the sofa, calling to Goz, then wrap m
y arm around him as though he’s a life raft. The adrenaline from earlier on is back, this time in torrents, ripping through me. Agent Ziv’s gun is lying a few inches from my foot. I stare at it for a few seconds then make a grab for it, trying not to notice the pool of blood spreading towards me.

  The gun is heavy and cold and I feel panic descending like a blackout curtain as I turn it over in my palm. I don’t know how to use a gun. I never learned, despite Aiden’s pleas. I hate guns. But right now I wish to God I had taken him up on the offer of lessons. There’s a catch on the side which I guess is the safety. I ease it off and then slide my finger over the trigger. I shove my phone in my pocket and get to my knees, but I’m trembling and the gun is shaking so hard I can barely hold it steady. I point it at the window, then at the door. What is going on? What do I do?

  The door bursts open. I swing the gun up, my finger pressing down on the trigger.

  Agent Corbell lets out a yell. ‘Don’t shoot!’ She is holding her own gun up at shoulder height.

  I drop my gun with a half-strangled sob.

  Seeing Agent Ziv lying on the floor, Corbell drops straight to her knees beside him. She feels for a pulse, then jumps to her feet and dives behind the sofa with me. ‘What happened?’ she asks.

  ‘The window,’ I manage to croak out.

  She moves out from behind the sofa, crossing to the window and flattening herself against the wall. Then she carefully peels the curtain back an inch.

  In the next moment she rushes towards me, grabs me by the elbow and hauls me to my feet. ‘Come on,’ she says, dragging me to the door.

  I glance over my shoulder at Agent Ziv, lying on the floor, with blood seeping all around him.

  ‘He’s dead,’ Corbell says flatly and pushes me out into the hallway.

  FINN

  I do three sets of fifty press-ups and then bench press until my arms ache. Then I lie sweating on the bench, staring at the ceiling, thinking of Cassie and wondering whether I should just call her. But the truth is I’m not interested in a booty call. Too many of those and after a time you start to feel a little jaded. Besides, bringing a girl home leads to inevitable questions about the cube.

  It’s hard to avoid the giant box in the room, or ignore the aircraft engine hum of the air-conditioning units. Which inevitably leads to enquiries about what’s inside. One girl freaked out and left, thinking I was some kind of serial killer and that it was a refrigeration unit where I was storing dismembered bodies. She’d obviously been watching too much Dexter. Another girl asked, with a little too much eagerness, if it was my red room of pain. She’d obviously been reading too much Fifty Shades.

  I traipse to the fridge and grab a Snapple then lean against the counter to drink it, counting the boxes stacked by the door. I really need to sort that stuff out. But it’s late. It can wait one more day.

  I head back to the bench, figuring I’ll do a few more bench presses and see if I can work out the pent-up energy in my system, but before I take two steps, my doorbell buzzes.

  Without even thinking I move instantly to the bedside table, yank out the drawer, and pull out my gun. Crossing to the door, I check there’s a bullet in the chamber before pressing myself flat against the wall and glancing at the video monitor. The image on the screen stops me in my tracks. I drop the gun to my side and hit the intercom. ‘Maggie?’

  ‘Finn? Let me in,’ she answers.

  Over her shoulder I catch a glimpse of someone lurking in the shadows and I pause with my finger hovering over the buzzer, wondering if this is some kind of trick. Is it a fed raid? But Maggie stares up into the camera – her eyes huge – and mouths something that makes me dismiss the idea instantly.

  Please.

  Maggie never says please. And the expression on her face has me worried. I decide to keep the gun to hand but hold it behind my back, while with the other hand I slip the chain on the door. A little caution never hurt.

  Footsteps pound up the stairwell. I stand behind the door chewing my lip, glancing down at my bare feet, then over at the cube. I wouldn’t put it past the feds to use Maggie to get to me but everything sensitive is inside the cube, which is bulletproof and tamper-proof, designed to self-destruct if anyone who isn’t me tries to enter. And what am I thinking? There’s only a handful of people I trust in the world and Maggie’s one of them. If she’s here then she’s in trouble and if she’s in trouble then I’m going to help her. Goes without saying.

  I pull the chain off and inch the door open just as she arrives, breathless, at the top of the stairs. Any greeting is cut off by the sight of the slobbering beast that appears behind her, trailing a girl in a black hooded sweater.

  Maggie steps in front of them. ‘Can we come in?’ she asks. She sounds calm but the fear in her eyes makes me step immediately backwards, throwing open the door to let them in.

  I bolt the door behind them, checking the camera quickly as I do. The street is empty. It’s after one in the morning. When I turn around Maggie is standing over by the windows, staring out. The other girl is standing with her back to me and the dog-horse is facing me, hunched down, looking like it wants to rip my face off.

  My fingers flex on the gun.

  ‘Goz,’ the girl says, tugging on his leash. ‘Heel.’

  I catch a glimpse of her face then and almost stagger backwards. Somehow I manage not to react. I turn my head to Maggie, trying to think rapidly. My hair is shorter, I’ve bulked up in the last two years. Maybe she won’t recognise me. I dart a glance at her.

  Her gaze is on my stomach and I remember I’m not wearing a T-shirt. In fact I’m wearing only a pair of shorts but maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe if she stays staring at my stomach and chest, she won’t look at my face.

  Damn, I think to myself. What is she doing here?

  ‘Finn, I’m so sorry.’

  I tear my eyes off the girl. Maggie is striding towards me across the loft. She’s wearing a shoulder holster and her shiny FBI badge sits on her waist.

  ‘This a social call?’ I ask, unable to stop my gaze from sliding back to the girl with the dog. She is staring at me with her head cocked and a furrow has appeared between her eyes. Shit. Yep, she’s figuring it out.

  ‘No,’ Maggie says. ‘I didn’t know where else to go.’

  ‘What’s happened?’ I ask, angling myself away from the girl, hoping to slow down the inevitable moment of recognition. I’m not sure I want to be in the room when it occurs. Especially with that dog in the equation.

  ‘Our safe house got compromised.’

  My head snaps up. ‘Safe house? What do you mean?’ I glance over at the girl. What was she doing in a safe house? What’s Maggie doing with her now? ‘Explain.’

  Maggie gives me a slight nod and slips into debrief mode. ‘There was a break-and-enter at twenty hundred hours. The victim barricaded herself in her bedroom.’

  She nods over my shoulder and I process the victim she’s talking about is the girl. But what the hell? Her house was broken into? And what the hell is she doing in New York anyway? Last time I saw her was in LA.

  ‘The downstairs neighbour was shot at point-blank range,’ Maggie continues. ‘We think he was coming to investigate the noise. He’s in a critical condition. As a result we moved the witness to a safe house.’ Maggie leans in closer. ‘It’s Nichola Preston,’ she says, her eyes bugging slightly with emphasis.

  I raise my eyebrows at her. Yeah, thanks for that, I had already figured it out. And besides, it’s not like I’m going to forget her face in a hurry.

  Maggie gives me another look. She knows all about my input into the Cooper case. Which makes me wonder again what in hell she’s doing here right now.

  ‘The safe house got hit. My partner was shot.’ Maggie’s voice breaks and she looks down at the ground.

  I reach out a hand and put it on her shoulder. She glances up at me, her eyes brimming with tears. ‘He’s dead, Finn.’

  I can see her bottom lip is starting to quiver and so I pull
her against my chest. Someone is dead. Not just someone. An FBI agent. This is serious. Maggie grips me tight around the waist, then quickly pulls back, looking at me curiously, staring at the gun I’m still holding in my hand.

  I shrug. ‘Can never be too careful.’

  She rolls her eyes, swiping at a black smear of mascara.

  ‘Did you call it in?’ I ask her, aware of a prickling sensation around the back of my neck. It’s her. It’s Nic. I don’t have eyes in the back of my head but I know she’s staring at me. She must have put the pieces together by now. At any moment I’m expecting a slew of expletives to hit me.

  Maggie shakes her head. ‘It was an inside job,’ she says. ‘It has to be. No one knew we were there.’

  ‘Could someone have followed you?’ I ask, lowering my voice.

  She shakes her head firmly. ‘No. We used a decoy car. We were so careful.’

  I roll my shoulders. Man. I stride to the windows and glance out, keeping well back into the shadows. The street below is empty.

  ‘Don’t worry, no one followed us. I made sure.’

  I glance at Maggie. I trust her. She knows how to throw off a tail.

  ‘OK,’ I say, but already I’m making calculations. If Maggie’s here it’s because she’s gone rogue. She thinks someone inside the FBI is behind the break-in at Nic’s apartment, that there’s some kind of conspiracy going on involving whoever is after Nic and someone on Maggie’s team, which means in order to keep Nic safe she needs to disappear off-grid. And for that she needs me. Well, I think, sighing to myself, I guess that’s what friends are for. But Nic Preston? Of all people? I look at Maggie, standing there with her hands on her hips, staring at me with desperation, and I find myself nodding. Her shoulders sag instantly with relief.

  ‘Thanks,’ Maggie whispers, but it’s drowned out by a gasp from behind. I wince.

  ‘You!’

  Bracing myself, I turn around.

  The girl has pulled back her hood. Her hair is tied in a loose ponytail, dark strands framing her face, and her eyes are locked on me.

 
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