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Conspiracy girl, p.4
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       Conspiracy Girl, p.4

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  ‘I know you!’ she says through clenched teeth. The dog she’s holding on to lowers its head almost to its paws and starts growling. It has more muscle definition than Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Conan heyday. Does she feed it steroids? For a split second I wonder how much fire power it would take to stop it if it leaped at me, and worry that my bullets are too small a calibre.

  I look from the dog to the girl. Her eyes are flashing with venom. She looks like a painting I saw once of the Furies – like she could spit fire. The two of them make a fearsome combination.

  ‘You’re the guy who testified for the defence in my mother’s trial,’ she says. ‘You’re the reason her killers walked free.’

  I sigh under my breath. This is just great. ‘Guilty,’ I say, immediately regretting my choice of word. I head to the fridge. I need a Snapple. And maybe a shot of tequila. This is going to be a long night.

  NIC

  He just turns and walks away. I watch him open-mouthed, seething with a mass of emotions, as he pulls open the fridge, which appears to be full of Snapple bottles, and grabs one. He sets his gun down on the counter and twists off the lid, then tips his head back and downs the whole bottle in one go.

  I can’t stop glaring at him, my fingers itching to let Goz off his leash, the word ‘attack’ on the tip of my tongue.

  I rip my eyes off of him and turn to look at Agent Corbell. Or should I start calling her Maggie now we’re all on first-name terms? ‘I know him,’ I tell her, trying to sound calm though my voice is shaking.

  ‘I know.’

  ‘Because of him the people who killed my mum and my stepsister walked free.’ What I want to say is that his testimony beat mine. My eye-witness testimony didn’t count for anything because he breezed in, flirted with the jury and convinced everyone there were holes in the prosecution’s case. I still remember the look he gave me as he stood up and exited the witness box. A kind of half-apologetic shrug like a winner gives a loser. Hate wells up inside me so quick and fast I have to press a hand to my side in an effort to contain it because it feels like it might just come tornadoing out and cause some damage.

  Corbell – Maggie – says nothing but I hear the sound of glass chinking and spin around to see Finn has tossed his empty Snapple bottle into the recycling and is now watching me with his arms crossed over his chest.

  ‘What are we doing here?’ I ask, amazed at how angry I feel and how completely disorientated too.

  ‘Finn’s a friend,’ Maggie says.

  I give her a look which makes her snap her mouth shut and pause for a moment. She seems to rethink her approach.

  ‘Look,’ she steps closer and drops her voice, ‘he’s the best of the best. We need his help.’

  What is she talking about? ‘The best at what?’ I ask, glaring in Finn’s direction. ‘The best at talking computer jargon and spewing nonsense conspiracy theories, and convincing a jury two killers are in fact innocent?’

  He holds my gaze with an impassive look on his face, leaning against the counter, his arms crossed. He hasn’t even put on a T-shirt for Chrissake!

  ‘It wasn’t a nonsense conspiracy theory,’ Finn says in quiet voice.

  ‘Finn works in internet security,’ Maggie cuts in.

  I blink at Maggie. ‘I know. So what? What help is that going to be against whoever is coming after us? Is he going to password protect us?’ I almost laugh out loud but then I realise they’re not coming after her. They’re coming after me and I have no goddamn idea why and it takes every ounce of willpower in my body not to slam my fists into the wall, because when will this nightmare ever end?

  ‘And he also has FBI experience.’

  That pulls me up short. I dart another look at Finn. FBI? How is that even possible? He’s got to be twenty-two at the most. Do they recruit them straight out of kindergarten or something?

  ‘He’s an FBI agent?’ I ask.

  Finn frowns at my tone. ‘No,’ he mutters, shooting a dark look Maggie’s way.

  ‘Just trust me on this,’ Maggie sighs.

  ‘I still don’t get why we’re here,’ I say. I can’t even look at Finn any more.

  ‘Whoever hit the safe house must have been an FBI insider. They knew where you were.’

  I swallow, my pulse spiking hard as I remember Agent Ziv and Hugo. Two people shot in the space of one night. One person dead, another hanging to life by just a thread. The image of my mother lying on the bedroom floor bursts briefly on to the back of my eyelids. It’s followed by the memory of Taylor being dragged down the stairs by a man in a black ski mask, her screams drowning out the sound of my own whimpering as I cowered behind the bathroom door.

  Stars dance in front of my eyes. A trickle of sweat slides down my back. It’s the beginning of a panic attack. The walls start to beat like they have a pulse, squeezing in on me. But then what Maggie’s just said permeates through the fog in my brain. An inside job? Within the FBI? Then it can’t be the same people – can it? Miles and McCrory were ex-military, but they weren’t FBI. I ponder that for a few seconds. But if it’s not them, then who the hell is it? And what do they want from me?

  The room starts suddenly to swirl like a mad teacup ride. I need air. Where are the exits? I start to stagger half blind towards the door.

  ‘Are you OK?’

  Maggie’s voice sounds like it’s coming at me from a million miles away. I turn dizzily. The floor rockets up to meet me. My legs are ramrod straight one moment and then my knees buckle. An arm appears out of nowhere, comes around my waist and holds me upright, and I process in the same second that it’s Finn who has caught me, who has his arm around me. I force my legs to go rigid and push his arm away. I don’t want him touching me. I don’t want anyone touching me.

  ‘You OK?’ he asks, his voice low in my ear.

  I blink, trying to focus – his face is just inches away – his eyes, which up close are a vivid blue colour, are staring into mine as though looking for clues. His hand hovers by my waist as though he thinks I’m about to faint or fall over. I forbid myself to faint in front of him.

  ‘I’m just tired,’ I mumble, stepping away from him.

  ‘Come and sit down,’ Maggie says.

  I let her lead me over to the bed, which appears to be the only item of furniture in the room except for some beanbags and a giant white cube that sits in the centre of the room, humming like an alien egg. ‘You’re in shock,’ Maggie says, dropping down on her haunches in front of me.

  ‘Here.’

  I look up. Finn is standing over her holding something out to me – it looks like a chocolate truffle. I take it without looking at him.

  The two of them back away as I start nibbling on the truffle. Finn is gripping Maggie by the elbow, pulling her towards the cube. My dizzy spell passes and I glance around at the loft space, automatically registering where the exits are and that there are few hiding places. It’s quite clearly a bachelor pad. There’s only one door besides the one we came through, which I guess leads to the bathroom. In the corner there’s a pile of weights and a bench press.

  A stack of boxes sits by the door and there’s a desk by the window that’s piled with computers and screens – two of which are scrolling green code and a third which is sleeping. It looks like this is his office as well as his crash pad.

  I return my attention to Finn and Maggie. They’re talking in low murmurs but I can’t hear what they’re saying. Finn seems to be listening hard and in mounting disbelief. At one point he rubs a hand through his hair, which is dark and cropped short now – one of the reasons I didn’t recognise him at first. That and the fact he was the last person on earth I expected to meet tonight.

  He’s stuck the gun down the back of his shorts – which are just a pair of cut-off sweatpants. He still hasn’t put on a T-shirt and, though I hate myself for looking, I can’t stop my gaze from falling to his chest. He’s seriously ripped. Not overdone like some of the muscle-heads at the gym, but he has a very defined six-pack and his bi
ceps and shoulders are solid muscle. My eyes are drawn briefly to his waist where a jagged white scar follows the shadow line of his hip, disappearing beneath the waistband of his shorts.

  He has his hand on Maggie’s shoulder and I wonder at their history. Are they dating? She said they were friends. They look like they know each other well, and clearly she trusts him.

  Goz comes up over, nudging his head into my lap. I scratch his ears, glad that he’s here with me. A shadow falls over us and I look up. Finn is reaching past me for a T-shirt that’s lying on the bed. I edge away from him but even so my eyes remain level with the jagged white scar just above his hip. I drag my eyes away as Maggie kneels down in front of me.

  ‘Look, we’re going to stay here for the night,’ she says. ‘Finn’s going to help me figure something out.’

  ‘Figure what out?’ I ask, tightening my hands around Goz’s collar.

  ‘Who might have hacked into your security system. Your system was disabled. If Finn can get into the security company’s servers—’

  ‘If?’ Finn says, pausing as he pulls his T-shirt on over his head to shoot her a sardonic smile.

  ‘. . . it might help us figure out who’s behind this,’ Maggie says, ignoring him.

  ‘How’s he going to do that?’ I ask, simultaneously wondering how Finn manages to fit his ego inside an apartment this size.

  A sly smile slides across Maggie’s face. ‘Finn’s a master hacker. Probably the most famous one in the world.’

  My jaw drops open and I clamp it shut, trying to keep my expression blank.

  ‘Not that anyone knows his true identity.’

  ‘Well, now they do,’ Finn says, flashing her a look of pure, hard-boiled irritation.

  Maggie rolls her eyes, though Finn is standing behind her and can’t see. ‘Get some rest,’ she says, smiling.

  I glance at the bed, the sheets all rumpled, then back at her. ‘I need to call people. I need to find out how Hugo is and call my stepdad. I need—’

  ‘You can’t contact anyone,’ Maggie says, shaking her head. ‘No one can know you’re here.’

  I stare at her, unblinking. She squeezes my hand in reply before getting up and walking over to Finn, who is now standing by his computer station, fingers flying over a keyboard. He stops for a moment and turns to look at me over his shoulder. Our eyes catch for a second and he quickly looks away.

  Goz drops a heavy paw into my lap and looks up at me mournfully, as though asking what’s going on.

  I press my face into his neck again. ‘I don’t know what’s happening,’ I whisper.

  FINN

  ‘Hit me.’

  I stare at Maggie. ‘What?’

  ‘It’s gotta look authentic.’

  ‘I’m not going to hit you,’ I tell her straight.

  Maggie slits her eyes at me. She looks like an angry little leprechaun. I shrug at her. I don’t hit women. I try not to hit men. Unless they’re trying to kill me. Or are mistreating a woman or child. In which case it’s no holds barred and they better have good health insurance.

  Maggie huffs. ‘Fine,’ she says and takes out her gun.

  I hold my hands up, palms outwards. ‘What are you doing?!’

  She takes a deep breath, grips the gun by the barrel, and smashes it into her temple.

  I catch her as she falls to her knees. Blood gushes down her cheek. ‘What the hell, Maggie?’

  ‘They have to believe me, Finn,’ she says, grimacing and grinning at the same time.

  ‘You’re insane,’ I tell her, snatching a T-shirt off the bench and pressing it to her head.

  She smiles at me, wincing. ‘You big baby.’ She gets to her feet, hissing through her teeth. She’s probably given herself a concussion. She pushes her gun back into her shoulder holster with her free hand.

  ‘You sure you’re OK with this?’ she asks me, glancing over my shoulder.

  I turn. Nic’s lying on the edge of my bed. She’s finally fallen asleep after spending twenty minutes pacing the loft and an hour sitting on the edge of the bed with her arms around her knees, glaring at us and gripping her dog as tightly as a Titanic survivor clutching a piece of wreckage. I have a sudden urge to cross to the bed, pick her up and place her in the centre of the bed – she looks like she’s going to fall off the edge. But I don’t. I think if I ever lay a finger on Nic Preston I’ll end up with that dog’s jaws around a part of my anatomy I really don’t want to lose.

  I look back at Maggie. ‘Yeah, sure. That’s what friends are for, right?’

  Maggie holds the T-shirt out to me. The cut on her temple is still oozing with blood, dripping down on to her shirt.

  ‘Keep it,’ I tell her. It’s not like that stain’s coming out.

  ‘No. It’s OK,’ she says, tossing it to me. She whacks me with her shoulder as she walks past.

  ‘I owe you. Carter,’ she says, heading to the door.

  ‘You always say that. You never pay up,’ I call after her.

  ‘One day I will,’ she says, opening the door. ‘I’ll call you later,’ she adds, her expression serious once more. We hold each other’s gaze, something unspoken passing between us. Maggie was my mentor when I went through the FBI intern programme, during my senior year at college. Even when I got thrown out before graduating, screwing my chances of making it into the FBI training academy, our friendship stayed strong. I’ve helped her on cases a few times, and she’s thrown clients my way, turning a blind eye to my shadier internet dealings.

  ‘Take care,’ I tell her.

  She gives me a lopsided smile. ‘Always.’ Then she’s gone.

  I lock the door behind her and turn around, tossing my T-shirt into the trash. I need to get to work. But my eyes are drawn back to the bed. To Nic, lying there on her side, curled in a fetal position. That damn horse-dog of hers is snoring on the ground by her feet. I wonder if she’s trained it to kill on command.

  I take the risk anyway, crossing quietly to the bed where I stand for a moment, looking down at her. The dog opens one eye and looks at me but doesn’t make a move to rip out my jugular. She called it Goz. I wonder where she got the name from.

  I contemplate the way Nic’s arms are wrapped around her body. She’s huddled in a ball as though shielding herself from a bomb blast and she’s lying horizontal across the bottom of the mattress as though she didn’t want to take up space or get under the covers.

  Her hair is fanned out on the sheets, half covering her face. I fight the urge to brush the strands off her cheek and out of her eyes and instead grab a blanket and lay it over her. She doesn’t wake but she mumbles something in her sleep and shifts slightly. Her cheeks are flushed and it looks like she’s frowning, her jaw clenched tight and her hands fisted beneath her chin. I want to rest my hand on her shoulder, reassure her that she’s safe, but Goz is still glaring at me with one eye open, looking like a Cyclops. And it has to be said that Nic emanates pure hostility, even in her sleep. If she was an animal she’d be a porcupine, spines permanently bristling. I edge away from her, shaking my head.

  How the hell did Nic Preston end up in my bed?

  And what the hell have I got myself into?

  Inside the cube I empty out Nic’s bag, checking for any electronics she might have in there – anything that might be giving off a signal that would allow someone to pinpoint her whereabouts. I’m assuming Maggie already checked but it’s good to be thorough.

  She packed in a hurry. There’s an assortment of clothes and underwear which I feel uncomfortable looking through, so I pile them neatly to one side. I find a Taser, which I put on top of the clothes. There’s no phone. Maggie said her bag was stolen, along with her iPad. I’m assuming her phone was taken too.

  I run a program to find a way through the firewalls of the security company’s server and simultaneously hack into the phone company’s server so I can check Nic’s messages. The majority of violent crimes are committed by people known to the victim. The chances are that whoever broke into Nic
’s apartment knew her, or had been at least tracking her for a while. That person might also be the same person who killed her mom and stepsister. But then again, it might not. Keep exploring all the options until you have a conviction – that’s one of the first things they teach you at the FBI.

  There are just a few messages on her phone, including some from a guy called Marcus Turner. I run a vehicle registration search on him. It turns out Marcus is a twenty-four-year-old postgraduate student of orthodontics. I wonder how they met. A quick flick through the notes Maggie left me tells me that Nic is studying at NYU, majoring in Psychology. Must have been there. I pause. An orthodontist? I mean, that’s got to be some kind of cover. No one our age actually chooses to become an orthodontist, do they?

  It takes me a few more minutes to hack into Nic’s emails. I run another program to make sure that no one else has hacked her account and while that’s processing I glance through her emails, feeling as uncomfortable as if I was going through her underwear drawer. There’s an email from a girl called Liva Harvey inviting her for dinner with her and her boyfriend Jay. Nic didn’t reply. There’s also a recent email from this guy Marcus asking her to go see a movie on Thursday night. Even though I know it’s wrong, I check her replies. She said yes.

  I frown at his driver’s licence photo as it pops up on to my screen. He has a shiny forehead, is already starting to lose his hair and has a nose you could slalom ski off. She’s dating this guy? He looks like the kind of dude who’d spray down the sheets with antiseptic before making love and bleach them straight afterwards. The kind of guy who wouldn’t know what to do with a woman if she lay down naked and offered herself to him with an instruction manual. I don’t know much about Nic but it surprises me that he’s her type. She’s beautiful. I’d bet half the guys at NYU are trying to get with her.

  I run some basic checks on Marcus, because now I’m plain suspicious. He has a subscription to the American Journal of Orthodontics (looks like a real thrilling read, that one) and follows a few conservative political blogs. He doesn’t subscribe to any porn but his internet history shows an unhealthy fascination with teeth and male waxing salons. He’s squeaky clean as far as I can tell, his background checking out so thoroughly I’d be surprised if it was an FBI or CIA cover. He’s boring as hell. Though it does look like he has some weird waxing predilection. Maybe I should find a way to let Nic know.

 
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