Mystery, Thriller & Suspense

Wired In

Toby Neal

Special Agent Sophie Ang's emotions are battered by a child kidnapping case that goes badly wrong. In tracking the criminal ring, her rogue data analysis program D.A.V.I.D. identifies an anomaly that leads her into a cat-and-mouse game online with a deadly enemy whose motives are unclear. The chase lures her through dark corridors of cyberspace into a confrontation with the violence from her past that sent her fleeing to the United States. She'll need every skill she's learned to defeat her worst nightmare-and the stakes couldn't be higher.

Age Rating: 18+

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Mystery, Thriller & Suspense

Wired In

Toby Neal

Special Agent Sophie Ang's emotions are battered by a child kidnapping case that goes badly wrong. In tracking the criminal ring, her rogue data analysis program D.A.V.I.D. identifies an anomaly that leads her into a cat-and-mouse game online with a deadly enemy whose motives are unclear. The chase lures her through dark corridors of cyberspace into a confrontation with the violence from her past that sent her fleeing to the United States. She'll need every skill she's learned to defeat her worst nightmare-and the stakes couldn't be higher.

Age Rating: 18+

1: Chapter One

The child had curled her body around an old stuffed rabbit as if protecting it. She lay on a bare mattress in a walk-in closet whose gloom was held back by a night-light, her thumb in her mouth. Blond hair gleamed silver in the grainy video feed.

Special Agent Sophie Ang swiveled the tiny video cam snaked through a hole bored in the drywall of the ceiling. She checked all four corners of the small space, and there was nothing to see but empty shelves. She brought the camera back to rest on the tiny figure in the daisy-sprigged nightgown she’d been wearing when they took her.

“Primary feed established,” Sophie whispered into the comm unit.

She took one more look at the child, visible in a window on the monitor, before crawling along the floor of the apartment above, pushing the floor schematic ahead of her.

Sophie drilled her second hole right near where the living room light fixture should be. She leaned all her body weight onto the silent, battery-operated pneumatic drill. The dust and wood of the subfloor and ceiling material of the unit below blew past her on a jet of warm air, making her nose tickle with an incipient sneeze. She turned her head hard, pressing her nose against her shoulder and holding her breath until the urge passed.

Sophie felt a sudden give as the drill punched through and instantly let up on the pressure, holding the drill in place so it could suck the last bits of ceiling material out of the hole. She fed in the camera on its stiff, flexible cable, looking to see what was happening in the room below on the monitor.

Directly beneath the eye of the camera two men lounged on couches set at right angles facing a flat screen TV. Sophie rotated the cable slowly, watching in the monitor. The camera scanned the room, taking in guns set carelessly on the coffee table beside empty pizza boxes and a pyramid of beer cans.

“Secondary cam installed and operational. Two unsubs in exterior room, armed,” Sophie whispered.

“Roger that. Return to base when camera secure.”

Sophie opened the black tool backpack she’d carried in for the operation. Inside were a battery-operated cutting saw, pliers, and the camera equipment’s plastic case. She stowed the drill in the backpack and glanced at the two open windows of the video feed, now streaming wirelessly to the surveillance van parked outside the apartment building.

The little girl rolled over, looking at the ceiling, the rabbit clutched in her arms.

“Mama,” she whispered. “Mama.” Her eyes were black holes in the low-resolution image. Tears shone on her cheeks. Sophie felt something painful tug at her as she read the girl’s lips. She endured a flash of unwanted memory.

Something was happening in the other video feed.

Both men had picked up their phones and were reading what looked like a text message. Sophie saw them look up at each other, and through the floor beneath her, voices rumbled to accompany her lip reading.

“The FBI is onto us. You ratted us out!”

One of the men leapt to his feet.

“No, you did!” the other one yelled. “You even got the payoff!”

Sophie whirled and grabbed the saw out of the tool backpack. She ran back to the hole directly above the child even as her earbud crackled with orders for the rescue team. “Move, move, move!”

Sophie flipped on the saw, set at top speed, yanked off the vacuum piece that suctioned out the dust. She brought the chainsaw-like tool down, whining like a dentist’s drill. The saw bit into the wood, tearing though it like an electric bread knife through dinner rolls. She hauled the saw up out of the hole, threw it out at another angle, and drew it toward the end of the last cut.

The girl only had moments.

Sophie made the third cut of a triangle as the room below echoed with yelling, then the deafening bam-bam-bam of the kidnappers firing on each other.

Sophie leapt to her feet, threw aside the saw, and, hoping like hell the child had the sense to get out from under the hole appearing in her ceiling, she leapt with both feet and all her weight onto the rough triangle she’d made.

The fall was short and hard and she landed facing the closet door as she’d planned, knees bent to absorb the landing, the mattress taking some of the shock.

She hadn’t landed on the child. That was all she cared about as a tumult of wood, drywall and dust followed her down. She drew her weapon, and the closet door opened.

Sophie fired at the dark silhouette in the doorway. She fired until the shape fell backward out of sight, and then she spun to find the girl.

Anna Marie Addams had folded herself into the corner of the closet and her rabbit was tight against her chest. She lifted her head, eyes huge. Sophie squatted down, touched Anna’s hair and whispered softly, “Don’t look. You’re safe now. But don’t look. And put your fingers in your ears.”

Anna obeyed, putting her head down over the rabbit and her hands over her ears. Sophie turned and faced the door, blocking the girl with her body.

“Package is secure,” she said into the comm.

Her earbud crackled. “Roger that. Breaching the apartment.”

Sophie felt Anna shudder with terror, pressed against the back of her legs, as the door cannon boomed in the exterior of the apartment.

This time the doorway filled with nothing but a man’s arm, firing into the closet. Sophie fired back, but her breath was stolen by a blow to the chest that knocked her back against the child and the wall.

Sophie felt Anna squirming beneath her. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe, and an endless long moment passed as black spots filled her vision and her hands scrabbled for the Velcro closures of the vest. Then hands lifted her off of the child, dragged her over the bodies in the doorway, and ripped open her Kevlar vest.

Sophie’s diaphragm finally started working and she dragged in a breath. Her squad commander, Agent Gundersohn, leaned down into her face. “You’re okay, Agent Ang. The vest caught the round.”

Demon spawn of a pox-ridden sailor,” she cursed in Thai, her voice a thin wheeze.

“What?” Gundersohn cupped his ear.

In the closet, Anna was screaming.

Sophie hauled herself to her feet. Her ears rang from the gunshots in the enclosed space. Her ankle buckled when she stood and it hurt like hell to breathe—but Anna was screaming. She stumbled back into the closet, pushed her way through the two team members trying to calm the girl, and dropped to her knees in front of the child.

Anna’s head was down and her hands were still over her ears. A high-pitched cry ululated from her tiny body. Sophie put her hand on the child’s head and leaned close, into the screaming.

“Hush, you’re safe now. They’re gone.”

A second later the shrieking stopped. The rigid little body uncurled. The small white arms reached out. Sophie stood up with the child in her arms.

“Don’t look,” Sophie whispered.

Anna pressed her wet face into Sophie’s neck and shut her eyes, clinging like a baby monkey with her arms and legs. Sophie carried the child past the two sprawled bodies in the doorway, past the pizza containers and fallen beer cans and the man with his throat ripped open by bullets, leaving arterial spray across the couch. Past the black-clad Hostage Rescue Team members in their FBI-emblazoned Kevlar. Down the hall and a flight of stairs, through the push-handled exit, across the foyer of the building, out the glass front door, onto the sidewalk, and into the sunshine.

***

The Information Technology Lab was cool and quiet, the light dim, the carpet sound canceling. The hiss of air conditioning and the low hum of computers at work were welcome relief after the chaos of the afternoon. Sophie opened the tool backpack and took out each item, wiping it down, replacing it carefully. She wrapped the cords, stowing each device in its compartment, clean and tidy.

Hours earlier, Sophie had ridden in an ambulance with Anna to be checked out at the hospital and have her own injuries treated. The child would not let go of her. The trip had been emotionally harrowing, as was the scene when the girl’s parents burst into the cubicle in the emergency room.

The girl’s mother swept Anna off Sophie’s lap and into her arms. Tears flowed as the father joined their hug, but when Sophie tried to get up and quietly leave, Anna reached out and grabbed her arm. “No. Don’t go.”

“I have to. Your mama and daddy are here now.” Sophie gently peeled the little fingers off.

“Here. You need Bun-Bun to take care of you.” Anna thrust the stuffed rabbit, damp with snot and tears, into Sophie’s arms.

The woman raised brimming eyes to Sophie. “Thank you for saving our daughter’s life.”

Sophie had walked out with the rabbit tucked under her arm, battered but feeling good. Done cleaning and stowing her equipment and debriefing completed, Sophie got into the pearl-colored Lexus SUV her father had given her upon graduation from the FBI and went home, protocol after an injurious shooting incident.

The penthouse apartment she lived in belonged to her ambassador father, who was threatening his long-planned Hawaii retirement any day now. She entered her elegant building’s elevators from the parking lot, and as the doors shut, she realized she was tired. She was both physically and emotionally sore, worse even than after one of her mixed martial arts fights.

Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that Special Agent in Charge Waxman had sent her home. She’d hooked the kidnappers’ phones up to a write blocker extraction device that copied their contents for easy review on another computer, and the results would be available for her to work on tonight at her home computer lab, a clone of her FBI workspace.

She heard the patter of Ginger’s toenails inside the red lacquered door as she unlocked it. The lab bounded into the hall the minute the door was opened. In spite of two rounds of obedience school, Ginger continued to be impulsive and embarrassingly affectionate. As much trouble as the dog was, the Lab’s joyful enthusiasm was a balm to her soul.

Sophie grabbed Ginger’s leash off a hook by the door as the big dog lashed her legs with a happy tail. Sophie had a pet service walk the dog every day around noon, but Ginger still acted like they’d been parted for years anytime Sophie returned.

They walked down the cooling sidewalk in the rich blue of evening in Honolulu. The moist, plumeria-scented air touched Sophie like a gentle hand, and vivid orange clouds massed in the darkening sky of sunset between the high-rises. She felt the swing of her stride loosening tight, hurt muscles. Exercise had always been the way out of pain for her.

Fellow pedestrians smiled at Ginger or petted the dog as they passed. Being a dog owner had changed Sophie’s life. She felt like a real part of her neighborhood. She’d hardly noticed the colorful section of Honolulu she’d lived in before she’d adopted Ginger from the Humane Society. Now she knew every fire hydrant and strip of grass for blocks around her building, and all the people who liked dogs: old Mr. Arakawa at the corner store who wanted to pet Ginger daily, Missy Kaina who ran the coffee shop and saved bones for Ginger, and the twin Vietnamese toddlers who belonged to the woman who ran the nail salon and pasted their identical faces against the glass door in rapture as Ginger passed by.

Back at her apartment, Sophie fed the dog and freshened the water bowl before stripping off her clothes and dropping them straight into the washer along with the filthy stuffed rabbit. She padded naked across the burnished teak floors of the immaculate space, enjoying the view through massive seamless windows. The moon gleamed a silver path over the burnished black sea, gilding the iconic silhouette of Diamond Head in the distance.

After her shower, wrapped in a dragon-embroidered silk robe that her aunt had sent her from Thailand, she sat down at her home office station, a networked duplicate of her FBI work bay, ringed in three monitors.

Sophie’s computer friends were waiting. The one she’d named Amara was currently sifting through the copied hard drive of a laptop that had been brought in for evidence, Janjai was running a write-blocker from another computer, and Ying, with the most powerful processor, was secretly running an off-the-books copy of her Data Analysis Victim Information Database, DAVID.

DAVID was supposed to be locked up in the Bureau vault under technical review, awaiting approval to be used. She’d built the program herself here in her home lab, used it on a few cases and, when she’d had to disclose it, the Bureau confiscated the program.

But not before she made her own copy.

DAVID was just too good to be mothballed forever due to concerns about consent and confidentiality that were unlikely to be resolved. Built off the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, DAVID went one better than ViCAP. The program was able to burrow through mountains of online data and local law enforcement firewalls to look for commonalities and keywords, detecting crime patterns nationwide. Using a confidence algorithm, DAVID developed probability ratios, an invaluable tool assisting Sophie in narrowing down variables on a case.

Sophie turned on the three computers that matched her rigs at work in exact configuration with an electronic key fob she’d developed. As the rigs hummed into life, she reflected on the barren months she’d spent trying to comply with SAC Waxman’s dictum that she not work on FBI business anywhere but in the office due to security concerns.

That dry period had led to her getting Ginger, a decision she couldn’t regret even as the dog padded in, belched, and swiped Sophie’s leg with a raspy tongue before flopping at her feet under the desk. She’d also discovered her love of hike-running the gorgeous trails of Oahu, and she couldn’t regret that either. But in the end she’d caved in to her compulsion to be online working cases at any hour of the day or night.

The security issue was a real one, so Sophie had turned her skills to developing an encryption for her rigs with so many layers to it that she was almost ready to submit it to one of the hacker festivals as a challenge—but like her mixed martial arts fighting, as long as she was with the FBI she couldn’t draw attention to herself with public displays.

She pulled up the kidnappers’ phones’ content list and ran a simple comparison program that isolated the phone numbers the phones had in common on their contacts list. Following that, she input the text messages’ content and crosschecked senders.

The fatal text message the kidnappers had received had originated at the same number. Someone had set them up against each other. She now had a number for that unknown caller. She put on her headphones, logged into her own virtual private network to mask her location and IP address, input the number, and dialed.

The phone rang and rang. No voicemail. She ran a location algorithm but it came back User Unknown. “Probably a burner,” she muttered.

It was time to put DAVID to work. She switched to Ying and checked in with DAVID’s monitoring subprogram, looking for trends. Months ago, she’d input a variety of law enforcement and news agencies and set them to be monitored with keywords. These were running constantly in the background via DAVID. When a statistical probability trend was tripped, the information landed in an ‘attention cache’ for her review, DAVID’s terminology for collection of query data.

She checked the cache now, scanning through a series of probability ratios on crimes that DAVID had matched to perpetrators with known modi operandi from the ViCAP database. She routed these to appropriate agents in their respective states. Her FBI colleagues across the U.S. had come to count on this data sifting from Sophie, which she had explained as a simple subroutine that operated off keywords.

DAVID was never mentioned, and if some suspected Sophie was still using the rogue program, no one checked too closely. Her intel was too valuable to be dismissed.

A red alert icon pulsed next to a probability ratio in the cache box set to Honolulu, keyword “simultaneous.”

She frowned, and clicked on the alert. Her kidnapping bust was listed already. The bare bones of her case as her SAC had entered it popped up, but DAVID was able to compare and analyze only information that had been inputted, and hers was too fresh for much to be available. However, a second case was listed in the cache. DAVID had discovered another trend: rival gang leaders in Hawaii were murdering each other at a statistically unlikely rate.

“What does that mean?” Sophie leaned forward as she pulled up the threads of the news items that had tripped the alert. She scanned the articles.

Two rival gang leaders, one from the Tong Triad and one from the Boyz, had shot each other alone in an alley in Waikiki. No witnesses, and no other gang members involved. Similar occurrences had happened on the Big Island, in Kona and Hilo. A total of six gang members had canceled each other out.

Sophie sat back, giving her eyes a rest by focusing them on the view of the city’s sparkling lights seen through the nearby window.

The gangs would be scrambling to reorganize themselves. This provided an opportunity for both law enforcement and rivals to pick off the groups that weren’t able to replace their leaders.

Her phone rang. FRANCIS SMITHSON appeared in the ID window.

“Hello, Dad.”

“Sophie.” Her father had a resonant, Morgan Freeman-like voice. The sound of him saying her name summoned him immediately in her mind’s eye: his strong-featured brown face, a little creased with age but still handsome, silver wings developing over his ears in black hair cropped as short as hers.

“Nice to hear your voice. What’s new in your world, Dad?” He’d always wanted her to call him the American name for father even when her mother had objected early on. Remembering the constant frosty atmosphere of her parents’ silent warfare growing up, she was glad they’d finally divorced when she was at boarding school in her teens.

“I’m coming for a visit next month. Hope you can fit me into the apartment.”

Sophie smiled. “That would be wonderful! And of course, your bedroom always awaits. This is your place, not mine.”

“Well.” He harrumphed. It was an old argument. She still sent him a monthly rent check, which he then stuck in a pile, un-cashed, and returned to her on his visits. “I’ve put my retirement papers in. So we are going to be roommates, one way or another.”

“I look forward to it, but I’ll believe it when I see it.” He’d been threatening to retire for years, but kept getting sucked in by the latest drama of his ambassador job. Currently he was stationed in what he called “that hotbed of iniquity,” Washington, D.C.

“How’s the hound?” Her father had been surprised when Sophie brought Ginger home from the Humane Society, but had fallen in love with the Lab when he’d met her on his last visit.

Sophie looked down. Ginger looked up, eyes liquid with adoration, tongue hanging. “She’s fine. It’ll be great for you to take her out during the day when you’re here. She’ll love that.”

“So. I have news about your mother.”

“Oh?” Sophie frowned, her eyes on Ying’s screen. She had DAVID open and working now, burrowing into the actual case files on the gang murders—hence the confidentiality concerns of the Bureau and other law enforcement agencies. Her screen filled with gory crime scene photos from the Honolulu murder.

The Triad leader had fallen in the gutter, his bloody head propped up by the curb at a strange angle. The Boyz leader, in a characteristic black shirt with a red bandanna, had fallen face down. A blood pool spread beneath him.

“She’s not feeling well.”

“Not feeling well” was code for Sophie’s mother’s depression, sometimes so bad she wouldn’t get out of bed for days at a time.

“She’s often not feeling well. And I didn’t know you two were talking.” Pim Wat Smithson was an elfin beauty. To see Sophie’s tall, muscular black father beside her petite, exquisite Thai mother was to see two completely different examples of humanity, not just in looks, but in temperament. Sophie knew she was their combined DNA in every way: similar in build and intelligence to her father, but with her mother’s facial features, golden skin, and tendency to depression.

“She’s worse than usual. They have her in a place.” ‘They’ was Dad-speak for Pim Wat’s powerful Thai family.

“What kind of place?”

“They’re calling it a spa, but I think it’s the other kind of place.”

“A psychiatric facility, you mean.” Silence met this. Sophie shut her eyes, rubbing a bruise on her chin she didn’t remember getting. “That’s a good thing, Dad. Maybe they’ll get her on some medications that work.”

“She tried to kill herself this time. Said no one loved her.”

“Ridiculous.” Sophie opened her eyes. The gruesome crime scene photos were still there from the Honolulu gang killings, distracting her. She minimized them. “She’s a drama queen.” That American phrase described her mother well.

“Your Aunt Malee called me. She asked me to let you know.”

Sophie was silent, sorting through complex feelings about her mother. She’d tried to make Pim Wat smile for most of her childhood, turning herself inside out to be perfect. Sometime in early adolescence, she’d begun to realize making her happy was impossible. Something was broken in her mother, and nothing Sophie did could fix it.

Sophie shook herself back into the here-and-now, looking down at the tattoos in calligraphic Thai on the insides of her arms to re-orient herself. One arm reminded her, hope and respect. The other, power and truth. On the exterior of one thigh, freedom. On the other, courage. Circling her navel in tiny writing, where no one saw them but herself, were love, joy and bliss.

“You should be worrying about yourself, Dad. Your high blood pressure. Following through with actually retiring.”

He sighed. “I know. Co-dependent, and we’ve been divorced ten years. She does that to me.”

“She does that to everyone. It’s how she survives.”

“That’s harsh, my dear.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t do any better than that.”

“You’re angry at your mother because of the marriage to Assan Ang. I never thought it was a good idea, as you know, but no one knew what he was like.”

“It happened. It’s not going away.”

“Well. I have a source that keeps me informed on him, and he’s married again. We tried to warn the young girl’s family.”

“No!” Sophie stood up in agitation and felt her stomach knot as a surge of rage and horror hit her bloodstream.

“Yes, I’m sorry to say. His new bride is seventeen. Her family wouldn’t listen. Your mother tried to kill herself after she heard. She took a whole bottle of sleeping pills.”

“Oh, God.” Sophie tried to calm herself, one hand gently rubbing her bruised sternum. Ginger, sensing her agitation, whined.

Assan had another bride.

It was untenable, unbelievable, and had already happened.

“Pim Wat blames herself for pushing you into that marriage.”

“Well, she did push me into it. But I’m out of it now.” Sophie felt herself going alternately hot and cold with flashes of memory. “Someone should help that girl.”

“We’ve done all we can. He’s taken her to Hong Kong.”

Sophie remembered that palatial downtown apartment all too well.

“It’s not right.” The realization broke over Sophie that it wasn’t enough to have escaped Assan herself. He was still free, and he was still doing whatever he wanted to whomever he wanted. She wondered how she’d blocked that out of her mind for so long. “What can I do?”

“I don’t know, dear. But I wanted you to be aware.”

Sophie blew out a breath. “Upsetting as this is, I’m glad you let me know.”

“Your mother—she can’t help how she is. She has a sickness of the soul.”

That was a new way to look at it. “Yes, it is that. Thanks for calling, Dad.”

Sophie hung up, her mind going back to the apartment in Hong Kong. Acres of marble floor, black lacquered furniture with white leather, stylized Asian art, and a shiny stainless steel kitchen, everything top-of-the-line. All of it concealed the darkness that lived inside. She knew too well the ways Assan could torture and conceal.

“Enough,” Sophie said aloud. “Enough. He’s taken up enough space in my head.” She looked down, rubbed her tattoos. They reminded her of her truth. Here. Now.

That poor girl was not her problem. Her family had even been warned. What more could anyone do?

Sophie refocused on the case files. She ran a few more programs, trying to track the sender of the tip-off email that had come to the FBI. She still couldn’t trace it. She wondered if the tipster was also the inciter of the kidnappers’ turning on each other, though there was no way to be sure at this point. At a dead end with the kidnapping case, she went back to DAVID’s gang murders.

She studied the crime scene photos and the evidence processed at the scenes.

Everything pointed to the rival gang leaders meeting at an appointed place and some sort of trigger setting them off against each other. What had happened? Some sort of double cross? And why had they met in the first place?

It reminded her of what had just happened with her kidnapping case.

She scanned the photos and spotted a phone on the ground, fallen out of one of the men’s pockets. Maybe there was something on that phone—a photo? A text message? She could verify that the phone had been logged into evidence, but other than a list of phone numbers from the chip that had been uploaded as part of the case file, the phone’s contents remained on the actual device in an evidence locker at the Honolulu Police Department.

“Foul stench of a three-day corpse,” she muttered in Thai. She had no justification to go poking around the HPD.

Her eyes were growing heavy. She slid into a silky sleep tee and as she did so, her fingers brushed the tattoos around her navel. She wondered if anyone would ever see them, would ever touch her besides Assan. That phone call had released memories that had no business surfacing. She shook her head to clear him away, but the ache in her soul remained.

If only her mixed martial arts coach Alika Wolcott would ask her out. She’d had a crush on him for years now. She brushed her teeth and revisited the painful memory of a few nights ago.

She’d just finished a bout in the ring with a heavyset Tongan girl nicknamed Jezebel, which had ended quickly and badly for the Tongan. Alika had stepped through the ropes, wearing his fight gear: split-fingered gloves, an open padded helmet, Lycra shorts, and nothing more. “Got energy for a couple of rounds with your coach?”

“Sure.” Sophie’s pulse went into overdrive as she circled him, trying not to fixate on how gorgeous he was. Warm brown eyes, intent on hers. His smile, with a dimple in the wall of his cheek, the way his dark hair waved off his brow, the grace of his movements as he swung a little from side to side, trying to tempt her into some foolish opening move. His skin was like caffe latte with butter in it, gleaming over world-class muscles.

There was a distracting shine of sweat on Alika’s shoulders as she charged, only to be brought up short by the breathless thud of him tossing her onto the mat. It infuriated her, even more so when he yelled, “Getting sloppy, Soph!”

She tried to punch him in spite of having the wind knocked out of her, and she’d have had him too if his rubber guard hadn’t protected his mouth. Then they were grappling in earnest, the twin fuels of anger and sexual frustration making Sophie even stronger than she knew she was.

She took down a man of six foot two, two hundred twenty pounds, and she made him eat the mat. But it felt like an empty victory when he thumped, and she let him up from the facedown reverse arm restraint that settled things. He sat up, dark eyes flared. Took his helmet off, shook his hair back, and glared at her.

“We’re done here,” he said.

She knew he meant he was done coaching her. Just like that, she’d graduated.

Done.

He’d never acted on the chemistry between them over the years or even acknowledged it, and she was too messed up to act on it either. Now she’d worked so hard under Alika that she’d defeated him for the final time. He wasn’t her coach any longer.

“Done. Okay.” She’d walked out of the ring like it didn’t matter.

Sophie slipped into the wide, empty bed. No, Alika had never asked her out and now she wasn’t sure he even wanted to be a friend. She pressed a button on the wall and the blackout drapes she needed to sleep swished closed. Ginger, seeing these activities, jumped up on the bed.

“No, Ginger. Down.” Sophie pointed. Ginger hunkered and flattened herself out like a big, tawny-yellow fur rug. “Down!” Sophie exclaimed, smacking the smooth jade-green coverlet. Ginger looked guilty and slithered off, the picture of reluctance. “You’ll wreck the material,” Sophie told the dog, dimming the lights. “You can lie right here next to me.”

This was a conversation they had every night. Ginger pressed her cool nose into Sophie’s hand as if agreeing—but Sophie knew she’d wake up to the dog lying across her feet in the morning.

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