Wired Strong – Toby Neal

PİM WAT STARED at her reflection in the mirror. She was supposed to be meditating. The Master wanted her to learn to manage her emotions, her mind, her body. And technically, she was meditating—on the ruin of her once beautiful face. One eye was higher than the other, because a broken cheekbone hadn’t been set. The other eye wouldn’t open all the way—the lid had been torn and had healed crookedly, giving her the look of a drunkard. Scar tissue twisted across her face like a snake, and her jaw had been broken and reset poorly, causing a droop to her mouth. The dandelion fluff covering her skull, gone white from suffering, she could grow out and dye. But her face? Pim Wat was a gargoyle now, a travesty. She had no intention of reining in her emotions about that. She picked up the heavy, expensive bottle of perfume resting on her vanity, and hurled it at the mirror. The flask broke with a satisfying crash that flung shards of crystal and glass all over the luxurious chamber, filling her hair and peppering her skin with “shrapnel” that reeked of jasmine and roses. She smiled through the pain, letting the shards impale her where they would. Pim Wat welcomed the searing of a thousand tiny cuts. Pain was a friend.

That sensation woke her up; it was a spur in her side, driving her to greatness. She was done being a malleable doll that the Master could mold into someone loving, forgiving, passive. She’d never been those things. This outward ugliness didn’t suit her, either. The Master called her “my beautiful one,” and “my deadly viper.” Pim Wat wasn’t those things now, but she would be again. She’d rise from these ashes like a phoenix to strike terror into her enemies; she’d rain death on those who’d stolen years of her life—beginning with that disloyal whore who’d handed her over to the torturers. She’d enjoyed the masquerade of asking Sophie’s forgiveness. Now her daughter wouldn’t see vengeance coming. A knock at the door.

“Mistress? Are you all right?” The quavering voice of Pim Wat’s attendant was muffled by the heavy wooden portal. The woman was a peasant, the wife of Number One’s houseman, Nam. The couple had recently been brought to the Yām Khûmkạn compound as refugees, hiding from the raid that the U.S. Department of Justice had made on their home. Kupa should be grateful to be allowed to serve Pim Wat, but the woman continually needed discipline. “Bring a feather duster, broom, and pan, Kupa,” Pim Wat said. “There’s been an accident.” “Right away, Mistress.” The maid’s footsteps hurried away.

Pim Wat finally shut her eyes. She could meditate now, sitting in outward stillness, and plan what came next. CHAPTER TWO Marcella Day 1, four weeks after Wired Ghost SPECİAL AGENT MARCELLA SCOTT shut the door of the office at the Fight Club gym in downtown Honolulu, and turned to face her friend. “Did you wand the room for surveillance?” Sophie Smithson rose from the chair behind the battered metal desk. “I did.” The chair was a relic from a time when the prosperous gym had been small and struggling; they’d both been working out here since then. Sophie held a device in her hand and approached Marcella. “I need to check you, too.” Marcella rolled her eyes. “Really? There’s no room in this outfit for anything but my tits.

” But she extended her arms and allowed Sophie to sweep the palm-sized device over the exercise bra and tight workout shorts she wore. “I can’t believe we’ve come to this.” “I don’t think you’d intentionally try to entrap me.” Sophie switched off the handheld detector and set it on the desk. She, too, wore workout clothing: yoga pants, and a spandex racerback top that displayed well-defined lats, deltoids, and abs. “But there are agents in your office who’d do anything to be able to take me down.” “Special Agent Pillman of Internal Affairs, you mean.” Marcella made a rude Italian hand gesture. “The man’s a menace, and that’s on a good day.” Sophie gestured to the leather couch against the wall.

“Let’s get comfortable. It’s been too long since we caught up, and we have a lot to cover.” “I know. I’m the one who asked you to meet me, remember? I’m sorry that I haven’t seen you since Jake’s memorial.” Marcella ran an eyeball over her friend. Sophie wasn’t looking half bad, considering she’d lost her fiancé in a volcano-related tragedy only three months before. Prone to depression, Sophie had been known to take to her bed without eating for days at a time. Marcella had feared that Jake’s death, coupled with the departure of Sophie’s daughter and nanny to Kaua`i for their custody month with the child’s father, might have brought on such an episode. Instead, Sophie’s tawny skin glowed, and though there were bags under her eyes, an unfamiliar roundness filled out her cheeks, breasts, and hips. Her hair, usually short, was nearly touching her shoulders in a riot of thick brown ringlets.

“Are you ready for some sparring? You look like you’re getting a little soft.” “Not today.” Sophie sat on the couch and patted the open area beside her. “Now that we’ve made sure the area is secure, you need to tell me what is going on with this multiagency FBI investigation into the Ghost—my friend, Connor.” “Okay. I’ll tell you what I can, but it isn’t much.” Marcella flopped onto the old leather couch, smoothing back her sleek ponytail. “They won’t let me anywhere near the case. But I’ve heard whispers around the office indicating that there’s a faction that wants to take you into custody in order to capture Connor.” “How?” Sophie raised her elegant brows.

“By using you as a combination of hostage and bait. I had to listen at Waxman’s door to get this—and thankfully, he wasn’t in favor. I don’t think I could forgive him if he were.” They’d shared Waxman as a Special Agent in Charge during Sophie’s five years at the Bureau; in that time Marcella had found him to be a hard boss, but someone with basic integrity. “Who was in the meeting you listened in on?” Sophie’s honey-brown eyes were intent. “Pillman and Gundersohn.” Pillman was with Internal Affairs and had a cruel streak; Gundersohn, a slow-moving Swede with a procedural mindset, had been known to get stubborn once he had an idea. “With Interpol, the Secret Service, and the CIA on that task force too, Pillman argued that they could let those guys do the dirty work of picking you up and storing you at Guantánamo or something, and pretend not to be involved.” Marcella laid a hand on Sophie’s arm, squeezing it to impress Sophie of her worry. “I’m not sure even the ambassador’s influence is going to be enough to keep you safe from them right now.

You have to go somewhere. Hide.” Sophie frowned. “No. I’ve ‘lawyered up’ instead. And so far, Bennie Fernandez is worth every penny I’m paying him.” “That awful little man!” Marcella tossed her head and laughed, picturing the defense lawyer’s cherubic, Santa Claus appearance and wicked legal aptitude. “Never thought we’d be on the same side. He’s kicked our asses in court half a dozen times. I’m a little less worried about you now.

” “Ever since Connor came out of hiding in Thailand to rescue Jake and me from the volcano, that task force has been relentless. We’ve been through two full searches of the Security Solutions building. Subpoenas of our records and computers. They’re trying to squeeze Connor by seizing his property and any assets they can find; but he saw that coming a long time ago, and transferred ownership to me. Now I’m the one dealing with all the pressure.” Sophie shook her head. “I wish they’d give it up. He’s untouchable at the Yām Khûmkạn compound in Thailand, and he doesn’t care about any of this anymore.” “I’ll be honest, Sophie.” Marcella leaned forward and made eye contact.

“I don’t trust that man, whatever name he’s currently going by, as far as I can throw him. The more time that passes, and the longer he’s involved with that weird-ass Thai organization, the less I think he has your best interests at heart.” “You’ve believed that for a while, and I understand why.” Sophie rubbed the back of her arm. “I know you mean well, Marcella, but Connor and I have a bond. I owe him my life. He’d never betray me or let them take me.” Marcella bit her lip to keep from responding. She didn’t believe that for a minute. The man who called himself Connor had many names, and various other loyalties.

He always had—or he’d have protected Sophie better than just dumping everything, including his dog, on her and leaving her to deal with it. “I felt duty-bound, because of our friendship, to warn you about what I heard. What if the CIA just grabs you, lawyers be damned, and whisks you off somewhere? Threatens to torture you, and forces you to communicate with him so he comes to get you?” Sophie was still rubbing the back of her arm, an odd habit. “I’ve thought of that. I do need to do something to deal with that possibility. But hiding isn’t the answer—these organizations work in the shadows. No, I need to stay in the light to be safe, even though it goes against my natural inclinations—especially now.” Marcella stood up in agitation. She stalked over to the water cooler and filled a plastic cup with filtered water for each of them. She handed one to Sophie, eyeing the lovely antique diamond engagement ring her friend wore in memory of her fiancé.

“What do you mean, ‘especially now’?” “Instead of hiding, I need to be even more visible. Involved with the workings of Security Solutions as its CEO. Surrounded by a security team at home and at the office, twenty-four hours a day. Going to society and government events on my father’s arm as his plus-one; playing the role of United States Ambassador’s daughter. I need to be seen —even in my current condition.” Sophie smoothed her left hand, decorated with that sparkler of a diamond, over her waist. “You’re right that I’m going soft, Marcella. I’m twelve weeks pregnant with Jake’s baby.” Marcella’s eyes flew open. “What? No—seriously? Again?” She immediately clapped a hand over her mouth, wishing she could take back the words.

“I didn’t mean that the way it came out. I only meant—how hard it is for you already, as a single mom to Momi. Jake’s baby, too—oh my gosh, you—you must be . ” Sophie’s full lips tightened into a flat line and her brows drew down. “I expect that kind of response from a lot of people, Marcella, but I didn’t expect it from you.” “Gah. I’m sorry, darling. If you’re happy, I’m happy.” Marcella lifted her hands in a “surrender” gesture. “Jake’s baby.

Wow! His family must be ecstatic.” “They don’t know. No one knows but Dr. Wilson. And now you.” Sophie’s hand still rested protectively over her abdomen. “This baby is all I have of Jake. All I’ll ever have.” Her eyes filled. “And I can’t help but believe that it’s meant to be, because of that.

No matter how challenging the situation is.” “I can’t imagine.” Even more, Marcella didn’t want to imagine Sophie’s situation. She was happily married to the love of her life, Honolulu Police Department Detective Marcus Kamuela. Someday they hoped to be parents, but she’d never want to have to deal with pregnancy and a child—alone. Jake Dunn’s death seemed even more tragic now. “I’m so sorry.” Marcella reached out to hug her friend. Sophie pushed Marcella away and stood up. “I think you’d better go.

I told Alika I’d check out the bookkeeping here at his office.” Sophie’s gaze went to the computer resting on the desk. “I’ve got at least an hour’s worth of work here.” Sophie’s ex-boyfriend, Alika, owned the gym. Sophie and Alika seemed to be solid friends as they co-parented their two-and-a-half-year-old with the help of Armita, Momi’s dedicated nanny. “Let me know if you hear anything new at the FBI.” “Hey. I’m sorry I didn’t respond the way you wanted about your news, Soph, but I’m here for you. I’ll help however I can.” Marcella made a tossing gesture.

“Maybe you’ve got spaghetti cravings? I make a mean pasta primavera.” “That won’t be necessary. Everything’s handled.” Sophie walked around behind the desk and sat down, turning on the computer. “Have a good workout.” Marcella stood still for a long moment, but Sophie didn’t look up. She busied herself behind the monitor as if Marcella had already gone. Marcella’s shoulders sagged in defeat. She walked to the office’s door, and shut it gently behind her as she went out into the main area of the gym. She wanted to leave—to run away from this echoing, smelly gym with all its memories, and meet her husband at home.

She’d get a hug from Marcus—maybe even make love—and reassure herself that they were alive and together. Her whole being lit up at the thought of being in Marcus’s arms. Safe. Treasured. Passionately desired. Sophie’s tragedy wasn’t hers. But what kind of friend did that make her? Marcella’d given Sophie an uncensored, negative response when she was the first person other than Sophie’s therapist entrusted with the news of her pregnancy. Sheer selfishness to run to her husband for comfort when Sophie had no one. Marcella wasn’t perfect, but she was a better friend than that. She’d stay at the gym, do her workout, and see if Sophie wanted to talk after she was done in the office.

Marcella went over to one of the exercise bikes, got on, and set it for a rigorous mountain climb, keeping one eye on the door. Then weights, still watching for Sophie. Ninety minutes passed. Eventually, Marcella’s Catholic guilt was assuaged by the sweaty workout—but when she finally went to the office and tried the door, it was locked. The blinds were closed. No light showed in the crack under the portal. Sophie had found a way to leave, alone. CHAPTER THREE Connor Day 1, four weeks after Wired Ghost CONNOR WAS VERY aware of the men encircling them as he and the Master sparred at the Yām Khûmkạn compound in Thailand. Around the circle that defined the practice area, ninja trainees stood five deep in the courtyard. Gray stone walls encrusted with lichen and moss surrounded; the humid jungle air smelled of flowers and sweat.

Connor spun and lashed out with his foot in an attempt to catch the Master under the chin. But, as usual, the man seemed to float just out of reach. The Master was so light on his feet that it was as if he barely touched the ground, while Connor’s breath labored in his lungs, and his body felt as heavy as if wearing a suit of armor. The Master hit him in the chest with a blow from a closed fist, shooting Connor back three paces and stealing his breath. Connor longed to pause, to center himself, to have room to go inside where time and space became elastic, and he could anticipate the Master’s moves. But the man gave him no time. No space. And not even room to breathe. Instead, the Master was a tornado, a storm moving in to batter at Connor from every direction. Connor rolled, ducked, and fled before his power.

The Master’s “Number One” was about to be humiliated in front of the entire courtyard filled with trainees. The more self-consciousness tightened Connor’s chest and shortened his breath, the more the Master’s blows and kicks registered as pain. He was a human punching bag and unable to stop it. The Master paused suddenly, settling into stillness, his immaculate white gi falling into place. His long black hair, unbraided today, flowed down his back in a silver-streaked river; his tawny skin gleamed like polished wood. Compelling dark purple eyes met Connor’s sea-blue ones. “Let’s take a break.” “Yes, Master.” Thank God! He was getting freakin’ killed by the bastard! Connor folded his hands and inclined his head, mirroring the Master’s respectful stance. His body throbbed and screamed and twitched; he worked to control his ragged breathing.

He couldn’t worry about the humiliation of being defeated in front of the men. He couldn’t worry about how he appeared to others. If Connor could manage his body, if he could tap into that internal energy source that allowed him to transcend time, he could make a comeback. “Shut your eyes,” the Master said. “Don’t open them. Come at me when you’re ready, with your eyes closed.” The men murmured among themselves at this direction. Connor felt the crackle of their anticipation to see his humiliation, their lust to see his defeat. They were young and easily excited by such things; they still loved the smell of blood. That’s what had drawn them to the Yām Khûmkạn, to train to be spies, operatives, ninja assassins.

The Master knew that, but he had much more for them—mysteries that Connor was coming to know. Connor shut his eyes. Self-consciousness fell away. That quiet place, that deep stillness inside him, rose up and enveloped him. He was pure energy, a column of bright aqua blue with a white-hot core. Connor could see the Master behind his closed eyes—a lustrous, deep violet energy form. He perceived the color signatures of the men watching and witnessing around them; the light of their presences created a pulsing container in which he and the Master would pit themselves against each other—not in a fight, but a dance. Connor moved forward, coming in from the side, slowing time so that his movement cut through space like a scythe severing silk. The Master matched him, blow for blow and kick for kick. They wound around each other in an intricate choreography, never quite connecting, their patterns bouncing and reflecting, variations on a theme.

Around and around they went, atoms in a molecule, ever spinning and perfectly balanced: a lightning storm of energy discharges that hurt no one. Connor opened his eyes—he wanted to see this! The two of them were about twelve inches off of the ground, whirling like dervishes. The second his brain processed the realization that he was aloft, floating in the air, Connor crashed to the ground—and it hurt like a mofo. The Master drifted down to land on the stones beside Connor. The gasps and murmurs of the men were silenced as he turned to face them. “Now you see the ultimate of what we train for. Once the martial arts forms of your training are memorized, and once you have mastered your bodies, you can transcend physical limitations. All is ease and flow; matter is just energy moving through space. If you are willing to make the sacrifices necessary, if you are willing to surrender your beliefs about what defines us—you too, can dance on the air.” The Master caught Connor’s hand, hefting him to his feet.

He held Connor’s fist up into the air. “Behold, my Number One! Give him your respect.” Hundreds of trainees fell to their knees and bowed, touching their foreheads to the ground. They rose and cried in one voice, “Number One! Number One!” Connor shut his eyes, overwhelmed, and let their energy swirl around him, lifting him off the ground once more.

.

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