“Who wants to come up and point to Abraham Lincoln for me?” Abigail Stevenson looked over the sea of hands that shot up at the question. Her eyes flitted from one eager child to another, all wanting to answer and make their teacher proud. One little boy caught her attention. He was practically out of his seat, waving his hand, big blue eyes blinking up at her.
“All right, Davis,” she said. “Come on.”
He jumped from his seat and flew past her desk, knocking over her name plate. He pointed to the black and white picture of Lincoln.
“Very good.” She smiled down at him and he grinned back, then returned to his seat. “We're done a little early today.” She plucked the pictures from the chalkboard. “Why don't you pack up and talk quietly to your neighbor until the bell rings.”
As her students shoved their books into their bags, Abigail flopped in her chair and sifted through the pile of papers to be marked. A bright blue card fluttered out from the pile and she picked it up, a smile tugging her lips. The card was from Clint, the science teacher, congratulating her on her fourth year teaching at Big Pigeon Primary.
Four years, and a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get there. She still couldn't believe she'd completely changed her life and managed to have a decent job. A job she actually liked.
The bell rang and her students scrambled out the door for lunch. She tucked the card into the top drawer of her desk and stood, smoothing her dress shirt. As she turned to wipe down the chalkboard, a figure in the doorway caught her eye.
“Hey, Clint,” she said. “How are you?”
“Doin' alright, ma'am.” He tipped an imaginary hat at her and stepped into the classroom.
She set the chalk brush on the ledge and clapped her hands together, dust puffing in her face. “I told you, Clint, I'm no ma'am.”
“You will be soon, Abby,” he drawled. “We still good for Friday?”
“Of course. So long as you don't leave me alone with those horses.”
He chuckled, then stepped forward and kissed her cheek. “See you later, Abby.”
She watched him leave. Not only did she have a job, but she had a boyfriend. A cute, sandy-haired, brown-eyed cowboy, who owned a handful of horses and was teaching her how to ride. She'd never reveal that she could ride circles around him, because according to her back story, she'd grown up just outside of Toronto with a mom, dad, sister, and Golden Retriever.
She grabbed the chalk brush and clenched her fist. Sometimes it got to her though, tugged her heartstrings. She'd built a relationship with Clint based on lies and deceit. But, what other choice did she have?
Someone else appeared at the door. She was never going to get this chalkboard cleaned off by the end of lunch. From her peripherals the guy looked like Schneider, the gym teacher. He could wait.
“Gimme a sec.” She looked at him, then back at the chalk board, squeezing the brush tighter.
She didn't recognize the man at her door.
As she brushed, her brain catalogued the mystery man. Early thirties, six foot one. Wavy, dark hair slicked back, posture straight as an arrow, dark sunglasses covering his eyes. Blue button-down shirt, black vest, dark snug jeans. Well-built.
Not one of her students' dads, she knew all of them. This guy was too clean cut, anyway.
“Take your time,” he said. American accent. One of the northern states. Michigan, Pennsylvania, maybe. And, if she didn't know what to look for, she wouldn't have caught the slight bulge beneath his vest, on his right hip. A gun. Small, concealed revolver, maybe.
She moved to the left and swished the brush over the far corner of the chalkboard, taking a glance out the window, to the visitor's parking. A blue Escape, top of the line, sat in the lot. Sure enough, a black sedan idled on the side of the road, probably housing two guys with radio buds in their ears.
Had to be.
She'd attended as many local barbeques as she could to make friends with most of the Sheriffs in the surrounding counties. And she'd hacked into the both the Nashville and Knoxville police records, made sure that no local law knew anything of her real history, real identity. This guy, with his black sedans on back farm road, wasn't Tennessee law.
Her heart beat an extra thud as she set the brush down. Not possible. They couldn't have caught up to her already. She'd been so careful. Her hands shook as she turned to her desk, so she slapped her thighs, getting rid of the chalk dust, grateful today was dress down day and she was wearing jeans. She sat in her chair to be closer to the small pocket knife in her bottom drawer. No match for a gun, but she knew how to use it better than this guy would think.
Slow breaths, steady hands.
“Can I help you?” she asked the man.
“That depends,” he said. “Can I come in?”
She motioned to the seat in front of her. “Of course. Please sit.”
Would he take the command, or stand to keep his height advantage over her? He strolled to the chair, removed his sunglasses and tucked them into his vest pocket. She quickly analyzed his oval face. Clean shaven, strong jawline, and piercing blue eyes that she didn't trust for a second. He sat, back straight, and looked right at her.
“What can I do for you Mr...”
“Hunt.” He didn't extend his hand, just gave her a small nod.
“Mr. Hunt,” she repeated. She'd relaxed a little, now that he'd sat down. But she still hooked her toe on the bottom desk drawer, slowly slid it open an inch.
“Miss Stevenson, I assume?” He gave her a smirk that looked really good on him.
“Yes,” she said, sounding exasperated on purpose. “I keep telling them to take down that congratulations banner in the hall. That picture of me is not flattering.”
He smirked again, then his eyes changed and he got the look of a hunter who just spotted his prey. She slid the drawer all the way open.
Mr. Hunt leaned forward an inch or so. “Shouldn't the banner read 'Congratulations Miss Sullivan', then?”
Ice wove through her body. He shouldn't know her name. No one knew her name. No one was supposed to know her name. In a flash of panic, she thought about swiping her knife and slicing this guy's throat, packing up and moving again. But she quickly bashed that down. She wasn't running anywhere.
So, she tilted her head and blinked at him and became as Southern Belle as she could get without the accent or big dress.
“Nope,” she said. “Pretty sure my last name's Stevenson. Says so on my name plate.”
She set the name plate back in the holder, tapping it with her finger. Her heart started up again and she took a breath through her nose. She was a teacher. Act like a teacher.
“The name does sound familiar, though.” She tilted her head the other way, looked up to the right, and feigned thinking, chewing on her lip. “There's a Mrs. Sullivan over at Little Pigeon Primary. Maybe that's who you're thinking of?”
Mr. Hunt shook his head and she caught the little aggravated sigh that escaped his lips.
Just keep playing teacher and maybe she'd get out of this. Mr. Hunt, or whatever his real name was, tried to play this like a cop from the movies or something. Trying to shock her into telling him who she was. Lucky for her, she'd seen all those movies.
He leaned another inch closer. “Not unless that Mrs. Sullivan had an Uncle Simon who ran one of the largest crime organizations in Eastern Canada.”
Shit. This guy was good. And he wasn't a cop or detective. He'd need a higher clearance level to know about Uncle Simon. Which meant FBI or CIA.
Keep cool. There may still be a chance to get out of this. A small, barely there chance. But she'd take it.
She laughed, loud and long, and gave him a look like he had two heads. “Like, the mob? Gangsters? I'm not sure she's the type, but you can ask her. Do you want the number for the school?”
Mr. Hunt's cheeks turned pink. Good. She was getting to him. He stared at her another minute, then stood up. She resisted the urge to stand as well. As he walked to the door, she swiped her knife, closing her fist around the blade. He shut the door and turned back to face her.
“I'm going to be frank with you.” He slowly walked back to the desk.
“Well, that's good,” she said. “Because I've got a half hour of my lunch left, then a Spanish test to give.”
That seemed to irk him. He nudged the chair away with his foot and folded his arms across his chest.
“My name is Agent Bradley Hunt,” he said. “I work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We've been searching for you for about a year and a half, Miss Sullivan. We know about your involvement with your uncle's organization. And we've been tracking you. I don't know what you took out of that drawer, but you need to slowly put it on the front of the desk.”
She took a deep breath and tried to figure a way out. She'd been so careful in the past years. Dying her hair, wigs, pregnant suits, fat suits, countless personalities. When she finally settled here, she'd let her hair grow into its natural deep brown color, and she'd finally got the chance to almost be herself. She should have known this was coming. She was getting too settled.
Turning the knife over in her hand, she ran her thumb over the carved wood bison standing on a hill. Uncle Simon's knife. He'd given it to her when she was five.
“Slowly.” Hunt unfolded his arms, his right hand poised to grab his concealed gun.
She dropped the knife on the desk and gritted her teeth as he picked up her knife and stuck it in his pocket.
“ID,” she said.
“Identification.” She held out her hand, palm up. “Let's see it.”
He pulled out his badge and flipped it open to her. Before he could react, she swiped the badge, turning her body, and holding the ID up to the light. She tilted it flat, looked for the glistening logo hidden under his name.
“Give that back.” He reached out, but she blocked him. She didn't need to be polite to him anymore.
She dropped the badge on the table. “What do you want, Agent Hunt?”
“You are Abigail Sullivan, then?” He tucked his ID back in his vest. “We couldn't figure out your first name, but we did get your last name-”
“What do you want?”
“Actually,” he said. “We need your help.”
“In exchange for...”
“Intel,” he said.
She shook her head. “I quit a long time ago. My uncle died and the family broke apart.”
“Here's the thing.” He flipped the chair backwards and straddled it. “Your cousins didn't quit. They laid low, then started this family up again.”
“Impossible. We all ran, swore to never speak to each other.”
“Well, they've been speaking. A lot.”
She sat back in the chair. Her stomach did a painful, nauseous flip. Whatever came next, and whatever Hunt asked her to do, she couldn't. She wasn't going back into that world. Never again.
“What are they doing?” she asked cautiously.
Hunt blew out a breath. “They're going after high profile banks in Manhattan.”
He nodded. “Armed robberies, using grenades and machine guns.”
She leaned forward on the desk. “How do you know it's them?”
“One of our liaisons with the Organized Crime Unit in Ottawa contacted us after a number of images of your cousins were flagged from traffic cams.”
“Why banks?” she asked.
He shrugged. “We were hoping you could tell us. A few low level members of three of the Five Families have shown up dead, too. Beaten, marks like they've been tortured. Any ideas?”
Abigail didn't answer, just bowed her head. That didn't make sense. Why would her cousins get back together? And why banks? She had eight male cousins, and all but two of them loved shooting people, blowing things up, causing fear and chaos. Killing Italians was more their style, but why torture them? What were they looking for?
A pang of hurt struck her heart. Why hadn't they contacted her? They could find her, just as fast, if not faster than the FBI did. She snapped her head up, ridding her mind of that thought. She didn't want to go back to that life, no matter how left out she felt.
“I can't help you, Mr. Hunt,” she said, honestly. “I haven't spoken to any of them in eight years.”
“That's what we figured,” Hunt said. “But, we tapped your phone, and I've had surveillance on you the past week. You're pretty low key. Phone calls to student's parents, and that science teacher, Clint.”
She shrugged. “We done, then?”
He chuckled. “Hardly. You're coming with us to New York, help us figure out what's going on inside these guy's heads. You grew up with them; you know them better than a psych profile ever will.”
“What if I refuse?” She looked into his stunningly blue eyes and waited.
“I arrest you.”
“For what?” She folded her arms. “I was a minor when I was with my uncle.”
He looked around the classroom. “Impersonating a professional, for starters.”
“I have a teaching certificate-”
“Bullshit.” He stood and flipped the chair the right way. She stood as well and glared at him. She had to agree with him, make it look like she'd go with him, whether she would or not.
“How long will I be gone?”
“Until we catch these guys.”
“What do I tell the other teachers?”
“Tell them whatever you want.”
She looked at her desk, at her student's papers, at the picture of her and her friends from her birthday party for her fake birthday. She didn't want to leave this behind, didn't want to go to New York. She had the skills and intelligence to catch her cousins, but then what?
“If I help you,” she said. “What happens when we're done?”
“That will be negotiated at a later-”
“When we catch them,” she interrupted. “I want to come back here.”
“Here?” He looked around and curled his lip. “Why would you want to come back-?”
“Do we have a deal, Agent Hunt?” She stepped around the table and stood in front of him, smelled a touch of expensive cologne, saw a muscle in his jaw twitch. “I help you, you put me back here and leave me.”
“Again, I can't-”
“I'm the only chance you have of finding my cousins,” she snapped and swore she saw him flinch. “Either I come back here when we're finished, or you throw me in jail right now.”
He arched an eyebrow. “You'd really rather go to jail, than not get to come back to, I don't even know where we are-”
“Pigeon Forge,” she said. “And yes I would.”
He thought for a minute then relaxed his shoulders. “Deal.”
She shook his hand and almost looked down. His hands were soft, but his fingertips were rough. The opposite of what she would expect a FBI Field Agent's hands to feel like. The opposite of what her hands felt like. Handling guns, roughing people up, just doing general field work had toughened her hands. This guy almost felt delicate.
She shook anyway, a plan of escape already forming in her mind. If this guy thought she would go with him that easily, he was off his rocker. But, she'd play the good little criminal until she saw her escape route, then she'd be gone so fast, leaving poor Hunt standing in a cloud of dust like poor Wile E. Coyote.
“Good,” Hunt said. “We leave when your workday is finished.”
“Tomorrow.” She poked the pile of papers on her desk. “I have to get all these marked.”
“Tonight, Miss Sullivan,” he said.
She wanted to argue, get as much time out of him as possible, but she didn't want him suspicious. Any hint that she might run, and he'd set his men on her like a pack of guard dogs.
“Fine,” she said. “Can I get back to work?”
“Of course,” he said. “I'll see you at four o'clock.”
The bell rang and the door opened, a few students drifting in.
“Thank you for your co-operation, Miss...” Hunt looked around at the students gawking at him. “Stevenson.”
He slid his sunglasses on and left the classroom.