Page 1 of 83 - Exploited (Zero Day #1)
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Chapter 1


I wanted to look good.

Normally I didn’t care about things like that. I was confident in my appearance without being conceited.

I wasn’t what you would call “conventionally pretty.” I had been told before that my face was “unique.” I had never failed to get a man’s attention—when I desired it. I didn’t bother with overexamination of my looks. I didn’t spend hours staring at my reflection in the mirror, bemoaning the shape of my nose or the set of my eyes. I had other things to worry about. Other things to be concerned with. Whether a man found me attractive certainly wasn’t one of them.

Until today.

With wispy dark hair and wide blue eyes, I was content with what I saw in the mirror. However, I had made it my mission over the years to not be someone people noticed when I walked into a room.

Vanity had taken a backseat to survival.

I ran the brush through my hair for the hundredth time. My scalp burned from the abuse. It was unusual for me to wear my hair down, but today I would.

Because today was different.

I coated my lips with an extra layer of the gloss that I had bought at the drugstore the night before. I didn’t wear makeup. I had never really needed it, nor had I ever been interested in learning how to apply it. I gooped it on my mouth and hoped it didn’t look as if I had been playing makeover with a five-year-old.

I ran my finger along my lips, rubbing off the excess. Not bad. The gloss was a nice touch. Maybe I’d have to start wearing it every day.

I straightened the collar of my modest pale yellow blouse.

I pursed my lips in the mirror and narrowed my eyes at my reflection. Maybe the yellow wasn’t a good choice. It made me look sallow. I didn’t want to look ill.

My phone rang and I let it go to voicemail. It was my mother. She called every Monday morning. Had since I’d left for college eleven years ago.

Have a great week, Han! You can tackle any problem! You’re smart. Capable—

“And gosh darn it, everybody likes me,” I muttered, rolling my eyes.

I knew Mom’s weekly affirmations were more about her than they had ever been for me. A reminder that she wasn’t completely failing as a parent.

I hesitated, contemplating calling her back. Sure, I silently mocked her Suzy Sunshine fakeness, but I also could use the pep talk.

I was strangely nervous. I didn’t do anxiety. I had learned to compartmentalize it a long time ago.

But this morning was about pushing myself. I wasn’t a people person. I didn’t socialize. This was going to take some effort.

I grabbed my phone and dialed my mother’s number.

“Han! I’m so glad you called me back! I’ve gotten so used to talking to your voicemail, we’ve become old friends,” my mother said with a chuckle, and I swallowed my groan at her comment.

“I’m just on my way out the door,” I said, not giving her the apology I knew she wanted.

The balance between a healthy relationship and full-blown dysfunction was a fine line for my mother and me. We had never been particularly close. I could admit my dad had been my favorite. But we had tried to bridge the gap in the years since the man we both loved had passed away. We were awkward together, still floundering with our roles in each other’s lives, even after twenty-seven years.

You’d think we wouldn’t suck so badly at being a family by now.

“I just wanted to tell you to have a good week. And to remember that you’re important,” my mother remarked in her chipper tone.

“Thanks, Mom,” I said, grabbing a sweater from the back of my closet and trying to find the ballet flats I had bought only a month ago and hadn’t worn yet.

“Charlotte was asking about you last night. It’s been awhile since you’ve been by to see her.”

Then I felt it. The guilt. I knew she’d hit me with it sooner or later.

“I called her over the weekend,” I mumbled, knowing it wasn’t good enough.

Never good enough…

“It’s not the same, Han, you know that. She had a rough couple of days. Her seizures were particularly bad—”

“I’ll go by after work this week. Tell her that I promise.” My stomach clenched and I felt sick at the thought of seeing her.

My Char…

I could hear my mother’s heavy, burdened sigh in my ear. Noisy and full of silent condemnation. “Okay. I’ll tell her.”

“I’ve got to go, Mom.” I slipped on my shoes and turned off the light in the closet. Talking about Char was the reminder I needed. Even if I didn’t want to face it.

“Okay. Just remember—”

“Smile and the world smiles with you. Yeah, I’ve read that one before.”

“Don’t make fun, Hannah.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“I love you.” I wished I could soften at her words. I wished I could say them back the way I was supposed to.

I wasn’t programmed that way. Not anymore.

“Bye, Mom.”

I hung up the phone, not feeling any more confident or assured than I had before the call. I should have known better.

I walked into the hallway and out to the living room. Past bland walls. Undecorative white trim. Builder basic. Nothing fancy.

Nondescript furniture. No extraneous knickknacks or crazy throw pillows.

One lone framed print on the wall. A photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset. It wasn’t there because it held some sort of special significance but because it had looked pretty on the shelf at Target.

There was nothing in my house that screamed “Hannah Whelan.”

Who was she?

You wouldn’t be able to tell anything from the boring gray carpet and battered oak end tables.

I had a thing against personalizing.

There was most likely some kind of psychological meaning behind my inability to truly inhabit the space I lived in. It probably wouldn’t even take a therapist to figure out what my issues were.

It was hard to make a space uniquely your own when you wore so many different hats.

I went into the tiny galley-style kitchen. It was bright, at least. The sun shone through the grimy windows, unimpeded by the threadbare sheer hanging over the glass. It was the happiest room in the house. Which wasn’t saying much. I grabbed a Pop-Tart and broke it in half, shoving a piece in my mouth.

Without thinking, I opened my laptop and wiggled my finger over the mouse.

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