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Conspiracy girl, p.6
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       Conspiracy Girl, p.6

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  His alibi for the Cooper massacre was watertight. He was at a business dinner. There were three hundred witnesses, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not involved. I know he’s on Maggie’s shortlist too. She’s at FBI headquarters right now, organising the search for him. He seems to have vanished off the face of the earth since his little visit to Nic’s the other night.

  The FBI can’t get access to his emails and files without a subpoena and they’re not yet willing to do that without any evidence. I’m not so constrained by the law, though – part of the reason Maggie came to me in the first place. But digging into a business the size of Firenze Inc, when I’m not even sure what it is I’m looking for, is going to take a while.

  It was decided that the people who broke into the Cooper residence in LA were trying to steal from Aiden Cooper’s safe. He had close to three million dollars’ worth of diamonds and other jewels in it. But what if that wasn’t what they were after? What if it was something else entirely? The people behind this are more than just thieves. The level of organisation, the assassination-style kill shots straight to the head, the money required to pay a hacker to disable the security systems – it’s all pointing to something more than just a burglary. But above all, what makes me think there’s something much darker going on, something with much higher stakes, is the fact that whoever is behind this went to a great deal of trouble to set up McCrory and Miles to take the rap. Whatever this conspiracy is, I’m going to get to the bottom of it.

  I stare at the picture of Aiden Cooper on my screen, gazing lovingly at his now-dead wife.

  On the surface he seems clean. Thing is, when on the surface things seem clean, that’s when they’re usually dirtier than a shit-stained rag.

  NIC

  I wake slowly, unwillingly, as though swimming through wet concrete. Gradually I become aware that I fell asleep again. I’m relieved that I didn’t have another nightmare and wake screaming.

  I’m curled on my side and a lingering scent fills my head, something warm and inviting and, more than anything, comforting. It makes me close my eyes and breathe in deeply. For a moment I resist waking, wanting to burrow deeper under the blanket and then I realise with horror that it’s the smell of him – of Finn. I sit up, throwing off the blanket he must have draped over me while I slept.

  I blink in the glare of sunlight, streaming through the wall of windows that stretches all along the east side of the loft. We’re somewhere in the West Village I think, though I barely remember the chaotic race from the safe house to here.

  My focus shifts to the table in the corner that’s bowing under the weight of computers. Finn is sitting at a swivel chair in front of them. One hand taps commands on a keyboard, while the other is sticking a spoon into a jar of something that sits wedged between his thighs. With a sharp pang of betrayal I see Goz is lying at his feet. Finn holds out the spoon laden with what looks like peanut butter and Goz snarfs it down.

  Anger propels me to my feet. Just the sight of Finn feeding my dog makes me want to hurl something at him. I march towards them.

  Finn looks up and smiles. ‘Morning,’ he says, before reaching to pat Goz on the head.

  I glare at my dog, who ignores me, too busy trying to lick the spoon clean of every trace of Skippy.

  ‘You’re feeding him peanut butter?’ I ask.

  Finn looks at the jar and then at the spoon, which Goz is in danger of swallowing whole. He shrugs. ‘Yeah, he likes it.’ He holds the jar out to me. ‘Want some?’ he asks.

  Is he joking? I don’t want anything he’s offering. I shake my head, still scowling.

  Finn sets the peanut butter down and gets up. He starts stretching, pulling his arms over his head and rolling his neck back and forth. I get a brief glimpse of his stomach – that jagged, low-running scar – before his T-shirt drops back down. He hikes up his sweatpants – he’s changed out of his shorts – and pads over to the kitchen with Goz following him, apparently having decided he has a new master.

  ‘Goz,’ I hiss in my Russian Olympic coach voice – the one the dog trainer taught me – and Goz halts and throws his head back at me, his eyes guilty and pleading at the same time. I’m incensed. Peanut butter? He’ll toss me aside for peanut butter? Goddamn.

  Finn starts pressing buttons on the coffee machine, pouring beans into a grinder. He glances over his shoulder. ‘Coffee?’ he asks me.

  ‘Yes, thanks.’ I’m unable to take the grudge out of my voice.

  Finn rubs his eyes and I notice the circles under them, and the five o’clock shadow across his jaw.

  ‘How long have you been up?’ I ask, wondering where he slept.

  ‘I haven’t been to bed.’ He pours the ground beans into the machine.

  ‘What time is it?’ I ask, looking around for a clock.

  ‘Eleven-thirty. You were out for the count.’

  I look away. That’s what he thinks. Why would he think otherwise? How would he know about the nightmares?

  ‘It’s a comfy bed,’ Finn adds, smiling to himself in a way that makes me cringe. What exactly does he mean by that? Then I realise with embarrassment that maybe the reason he hasn’t yet slept is because I was in his bed.

  ‘Sorry,’ I blurt, then frown at myself.

  Finn shakes his head. ‘Don’t apologise.’

  I wrap my arms around myself again. I’m groggy and confused, and his nearness and the comment about the bed and the lingering scent of him from the sheets are all combining to unsettle me. I don’t want to be beholden to him for anything. Him of all people.

  ‘Did you find anything out?’ I ask, praying he has, because I want out of here.

  ‘Hugo’s still in intensive care. And there’s no sign of your stepfather.’

  I take that in. Where could Aiden be? Cursing myself for being so slow, I pull my phone out of my back pocket. Maybe he’s sent me a message.

  ‘What the hell?’

  I glance up sharply. Finn snatches the phone from my hand. ‘Has this been on the whole time?’ he asks.

  I nod. ‘Why?’

  ‘It’s traceable, damn it,’ he says, glaring at me.

  How was I supposed to know? I feel like yelling, but I don’t. Adrenaline scores new pathways through me. I glance at the door, expecting someone to come storming through it any second. My nerves are shot to pieces and I automatically reach for Goz to steady myself. He’s right there, by my side, and I grab hold of his collar.

  Finn has switched off the phone and taken out the SIM card. He hands the phone back to me, still scowling and shaking his head.

  ‘Is it going to be OK?’ I ask tentatively.

  ‘Yeah,’ he says, glancing at me briefly. ‘Should be. I’ve got jammers on the roof.’

  I don’t want to ask him what a jammer is but I’m assuming it’s something that blocks signals.

  ‘Milk?’ Finn asks now, turning to the fridge which, with its steel-faced double doors, looks like it belongs in a mortuary.

  ‘Yes, thanks,’ I say frowning, and realising something that’s been staring me in the face but which I hadn’t fully registered until now. ‘Where’s Maggie?’ I ask, looking around in alarm.

  ‘She’s gone,’ Finn says as he pours milk into a jug and starts frothing it.

  ‘Gone?’ Dread inches up my limbs like cold anaesthetic.

  ‘Yeah.’

  ‘Gone where?’

  ‘We made a plan while you were sleeping,’ Finn says, handing me a mug of coffee and brushing past me.

  I narrow my eyes at his back as he strides towards his desk.

  ‘We figured it made more sense for her to report back and say she lost you.’

  ‘Lost me?’ I ask, my voice hiking several notches. Goz whines as my grip on him tightens.

  ‘She’s going to tell them that the safe house was hit, Ziv was shot and she was knocked unconscious while giving chase. When she came to, she found you were missing.’

  I stare at him in a state of total disbelief, a hundred ques
tions erupting in my head, the one that makes it out first being: ‘But . . . why?’

  Finn flops down into his swivel chair and Goz immediately wriggles from my grip and takes up residence at his feet. He reaches out a hand and pats him. ‘Because it’ll help having her working on the inside. And it will mean no one will suspect anything.’

  ‘But . . . won’t they look for me?’

  ‘Sure, but how are they going to find you?’

  He takes a sip of his coffee, staring at me over the rim. I try to look away but he’s fixing me with a look that seems curious, analytical and confrontational all at once. Like he wants me to argue with him, or question him.

  ‘But I thought you could figure out who was behind it?’ I say, not rising to his bait. ‘I thought that’s why we came here. Isn’t it? So why did Agent Corb— I mean Maggie, have to go back?’

  I’m starting to panic. How could she do this to me? My stomach is rolling around as though we’re at sea and my throat is squeezing shut. No one knows where I am. I don’t even know where I am. And someone, or some people, are after me and are killing any person who stands in the way. My eyes fly back to Finn. Does he realise how much danger he’s in? Oh hell. I turn around looking for somewhere to set the coffee because I’m afraid I might drop it. I make a move to set it down on the desk but Finn reaches out and blocks my way.

  ‘Woah woah, not there,’ he says, nodding at the bank of computers and clutter of hard drives. ‘Not near the equipment.’

  ‘Sorry,’ I mutter.

  ‘Here, let me take it.’ He grabs it and our fingers brush. I jerk back, spilling hot coffee over his hand. He hisses and sets the coffee on the floor.

  My breath starts coming in gasps.

  ‘You OK?’ Finn asks.

  I glance upwards. Finn is on his feet. He towers over me – he’s at least six foot, maybe taller. I come up to his chin.

  Ignoring him, I bend over at the waist and try to suck in a breath. Suddenly I feel his hand on my lower back. It burns through my sweater like a branding iron and I shoot upright and jerk away from him. His hand falls awkwardly to his side.

  ‘Why is this happening again?’ I wheeze.

  FINN

  I can’t answer her, so I don’t. Scowling, she starts pacing the loft. Her hands are fisted at her sides and her eyes skitter over the space, to the windows then to the doors and to the cube, as though she’s trying to find either a place to hide or a way out – I can’t figure which.

  She pauses by the cube and puts her hands on her hips, breathing as though her lungs are full of water. Tension ripples off her in almost visible currents.

  She reminds me of a half-wild cat that I found one summer when I was kid. It was trapped in the barn, going crazy. It was so starved its ribs showed through its fur. It was nursing a crippled back leg, but when I came close it pounced at me, hissing, fur raising on end. I wanted to capture it and take it into the house, feed it and nurse it back to health. I had an idea I’d turn it into a pet – maybe make it a wheelie robot leg to run around on – but my grandma told me that an animal that had suffered as badly as that cat likely had would never make a good pet. It would never learn to trust. She told me it would only scratch me and then she’d have to take me for a rabies shot which she would pay for with my piggy bank savings. Then she told me to stop being such a soft-hearted sap.

  I set it free and never saw it again.

  I shouldn’t have touched her just then. Clearly the girl has issues about people being in her personal space. Seeing her glance around the loft I get an idea. ‘Come on,’ I say, grabbing my keys.

  She stops circling and narrows her eyes at me. ‘Where?’

  ‘Let’s get some air.’

  She trails me to the loft door, suspicious as the cat was when I tried to free it. ‘It’s safe,’ I reassure her.

  She makes a sound in the back of her throat and I kick myself mentally, wondering what that word means to her. Does she ever feel safe? Did she before last night? Judging from the security systems she had installed in her apartment and the salivating beast at her side, I am guessing not. And even if they did offer her some modicum of reassurance, that’s now been taken from her.

  From the corner of my eye I see her slip her arm around Goz’s neck to grip his collar. She has another nervous tic too, her hand often sliding down her thigh as though she’s slipping it into an invisible bag. Possibly a habit she has of holding her Taser when she’s walking down a street. Interesting that she doesn’t carry a gun, but maybe not so surprising.

  ‘Bring the Skippy-loving beast,’ I tell her as I open the door to my apartment and hold it for her, taking care to give her enough space that she doesn’t have to touch me on the way out.

  She slips her Converse on then stares at my bare feet. ‘Aren’t you putting on shoes?’

  ‘Nah,’ I say.

  She gives me a weird look.

  ‘Come on,’ I tell her, letting the door fall closed behind her and then jogging up the stairwell.

  At the top I unlock the door to the roof and push it open. I hold it for her and watch with a small smile as she steps out and then pulls up short. She looks surprised for all of half a second, then her expression hardens again. The beast, however, is straight off. He races across the grass and lifts his leg against my blueberry bush.

  ‘Yo,’ I yell, striding over to him. ‘Go piss elsewhere.’ The animal keeps up a stready stream. Guess I should have thought about letting him out sooner but it hadn’t actually crossed my mind. Oh well. It needed watering. I’ve been neglectful of my plants of late. Thank God the grass is AstroTurf.

  ‘Goz!’

  I turn back round to see Nic calling off the dog and look round my little roof-garden-come-stargazing-hangout. There’s a grill in one corner, covered by an ivy-coated awning, two sun beds and a telescope set on the edge, which is currently covered in a tarp. My antennae and jammers are cunningly disguised by a thicket of twenty-foot-high bamboo. I just hope to God they’ve worked in blocking the signal from Nic’s phone. I’m pretty sure they will have. I paid a hell of a lot of money for them. And if they haven’t . . . well, I guess we’ll find out soon enough. No need to worry Nic about it though.

  I wince as I watch Goz sniff around the sun beds. The last time I was up here was with a girl I met in some bar a few weeks back. I was planning on showing her Orion’s Belt but we never got that far.

  I stride over to one of the loungers, checking no evidence remains of our little get together, and sit down, ignoring the chill and the dampness in the cushions. It’s freezing out and I regret not putting on shoes because my feet are slowly losing all feeling, but the sky is that particular neon blue you sometimes get in winter, as though it’s been dyed with food colouring, and it’s good to be outside and staring at something other than a computer screen. I breathe in a lungful of toxic car-exhaust, pretzel and hot dog. Ahhh, New York.

  I watch Nic slowly start exploring the roof, staying as far away from me as she can without leaping off the edge. The tension between us is so thick you could wade through it. I don’t know whether to just broach the subject of the trial but I figure I’ll wait and let her take the lead.

  She’s walking back and forth restlessly, stretching out her shoulders and arm muscles. I take the opportunity to study her through half-closed lids.

  During the trial it was her vulnerability that made Nic such a focus for the media. In the same way Marilyn Monroe projected a fragile beauty – that sense of something broken beneath the surface – so did Nic Preston, though without any artifice or design. She was only sixteen at the time of the trial but she spoke in a clear cut voice and held herself with the dignity and poise of someone twice that. But even so, behind her eyes, you could see she was being hollowed out by pain as clearly as if someone was digging into her soul with a knife and cutting it out piece by piece. And as if dealing with the murders and the trial wasn’t enough, the media were like starving piranhas thrown a pound of flesh. There wasn’
t a single aspect of Nic’s life that wasn’t analysed, even her love life and school grades made the headlines. There were whole columns devoted to what she wore each day in court. I can’t imagine what that must have felt like on top of everything else. It made me wish for a special place in hell to be created just for paparazzi and tabloid journalists.

  The thing that strikes me most about Nic now, as I watch her pace, is the same thing that struck me back then; her eyes. They’re still hollowed out with pain, though now they have a guarded look to them, as though she trusts no one. She looks at everyone and everything as though it’s about to attack her – and who can blame her? Despite that though, and despite how hard she tries to mask it, her vulnerability still shines through. She purses her lips a lot, holds her head high, stares at you like she’s trying to stare through you, but the tough act, is just that: an act. The fear is masked but still there. It’s something she seems to wrestle with, a beast that’s bruising her from the inside out. If she doesn’t find a way to let it out then one day it’s going to destroy her. I should know. I’m an expert on these things.

  She strides over to me then, her arms crossed over her chest. ‘I need to make some calls.’

  I sit up and face her. ‘Who do you need to call?’ I ask, rubbing a hand over my eyes. The coffee is buzzing through my system but I haven’t slept in over twenty-four hours so it’s not making much of a dent.

  ‘I need to let my teachers know.’

  ‘I already let school know you’ll be out for a few weeks.’

  ‘What?’ she hisses angrily.

  I shrug at her. ‘I told them it was a family emergency.’

  She stares down at her feet and her face contorts. After a few seconds she looks up, throwing back her shoulders. ‘How long am I going to have to stay here?’ she asks.

 
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