Chapter 1

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Author's Note:

If you want to check out the beginning of DarkWeb to see if it's the kind of story you might like, I'm leaving the first three chapters up. ****THIS IS ONLY AN EXCERPT/TEASER, NOT THE COMPLETE STORY.****  DarkWeb is available for sale now, links on my profile page.


--T

*****



She studied me from her perch on the pole fence as I trained a young horse. It wasn't unusual for bystanders to gather when I gave lessons. The rhythmic thud of hooves on ground, the flex of muscle under hide, became hypnotic.

It did for me, anyway. In the ring, I felt right. Calm and in control, surrounded by the scent of earth, manure, and horse sweat. With my riding boots and lunge whip, I became myself again.

No reason for the woman to stand out. She blended with the countless other Bay Area residents who frequented the stables— petite, well-kept and trim, with perfectly bobbed, ashy blonde hair. But there was something different about her. Dark eyes, vigilant as a field mouse. At first, I assumed she was scoping me out as a trainer. But as her gaze lingered, I suspected she had other plans in mind. The weekday horsey set was a strange combination of too much money, power, and boredom. I'd been propositioned a time or two before.

People saw thick brown hair, slender frame, good teeth, and symmetrical features. They assumed I was that Classic Society Girl.

I used to be.

I let people believe I was still her, because it made life easier. But when I put the lunge line down, I'd go back to being broken.

I refocused on the horse's gait, the world outside became a blur.

Later, as I brushed down the horse, the woman sidled up next to me. She was even more petite up close, half a head shorter than my five-foot-seven, and narrow through the shoulders. "Wren Bower?"

"Yes?" I straightened. A strand of hair came loose from my braid, tickling my cheek.

She said nothing for an uncomfortable beat of time, only assessed the curves and lines of my face with those glossy, knowing eyes. Not here for riding lessons, I decided. She nodded, as if making a decision. "Tribecca Jones. I have an opportunity for you."

I waited her out. It was interesting to watch them fumble their way into discussing romance, whether it be by the hour or the more traditional set up. Interesting like a science experiment. Physical relationships weren't my thing.

"I can get Jason's time reduced," she offered in a quiet tone.

The brush flipped in my hand and I fumbled to catch it, my face flushing. Before my grandmother's death, her most passionate hobby had been telling everyone she knew about my brother's travels in Europe, interspersed with his Peace Corps missions to South America, that sweet boy. Jason was doing fifteen years at California Men's Prison for armed robbery.

Now, he was my only living relative.

"How?" My throat went dry. A riding class let out, and half a dozen girls flooded the stables, chattering, their mothers and nannies following after.

She handed me a card that read TRIBECCA JONES, with two phone numbers, and an address in San Francisco. "Let's meet at my office. Tomorrow, 11:00 a.m.? We can discuss it then." She reached out and brushed her perfectly manicured fingers through my errant twist of hair. "You'll have to change your color."

I stepped away, uncomfortable to be touched.

"No need to be standoffish." She smirked. "It's just a job you happen to be exactly the right person for. And if you can handle it, the pay is time off your brother's sentence."

"Who are you? What work?" I whispered, mindful of the girls walking by.

"Don't imagine the worst." She laughed, as if we were good friends. "I'm with the FBI." She tapped the address on the card. "Tomorrow. Tah!" she called over her shoulder.

#

It had to be a trick.

That evening, I let myself into my thin walled one-room apartment, built over the carriage house of an old mansion. In the dark, I moved through the small familiar space, not bothering with the lights.

The owners lived in Switzerland full time. Officially, I was the groundskeeper. Before she died, my grandmother finagled the position so I would "have a proper address" in the "right neighborhood." Jason would laugh at my million dollar zip code and broom closet apartment. If he ever saw it.

I did prison math in my head. One year off the top of his sentence might translate into two or three years when it came to the parole board, plus good behavior.

I'd been thirteen when my parents died in a car accident; Jase, nineteen, about to start his sophomore year of college. I'd begged Jason to petition the courts to be my guardian, and in the chaos following the funerals, he'd agreed. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Because back then, I could only think of my own needs, never seeing how my brother struggled, how taking responsibility for me meant he couldn't take care of himself.

Sometimes I wondered if prison offered him a chance to escape.

Tribecca Jones from the FBI. I lay in bed, tossing covers off by one turn, and pulling them close by another. She'd rattled off the meeting time as if she'd known I'd have no other obligations. How much did the FBI know about me already? I should have been worried about what they'd ask me to do. But losing everyone I'd loved had left me numb to the core.

Or maybe it was worse than that. Maybe I hoped the job hurt me, if only so I would feel something again.




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