Four o'clock came way too quickly. Abigail watched the last of her students leave the classroom as she slowly packed papers and projects that needed marking.
Doesn't matter. Won't be marking them anyway.
In less than a few hours she planned to cross the Tennessee State Line, heading north to Kentucky. Running as far and as fast as she could.
She hated how quickly the thought of running popped into her head. Four years she'd spent here. Four years perfecting her life, finally living the way she'd dreamed since she was a child. And now some government flunkies show up and snatch everything away.
Opening her wallet, she took all the cash she had, plus a credit card with a fake name hidden behind her actual card, and shoved them in her pocket.
Anger bubbled up inside her, and she flung her bag over her shoulder, slammed the desk drawer, and stomped out of the classroom, pivoting left toward the staffroom.
Hunt's voice startled her and her inner paranoia fired up. Spinning, she tossed her bag and swung out with her fist.
Hunt let out a cry of surprise, but blocked her blow, hitting his wrist against hers. As she threw her other fist at him, she realized who she was fighting and she slowed her punch, but not before her knuckles caught his mouth.
He let out another cry and stumbled sideways, hands flying to his face. Abigail moved away from him, grabbing her bag, and waited for him to straighten.
“Jesus Christ,” he breathed. Glaring, he wiped the trickle of blood running down his chin with the back of his hand, then fixed his vest.
Abigail shrugged. “You should know better than to sneak up on a criminal.”
“I'll take that as an apology.”
“You shouldn't,” she said. “Because it wasn't.”
Hunt hooked his thumb in his jeans pocket, his hand close to the gun still hidden under his vest. “Let's go. I'll brief you on the way.”
“I have to go to the staff room first,” she said, turning and walking down the hall. “I have to say goodbye, make up a cover story.”
“Sullivan!” Hunt jogged to catch up. “We don't have time. Your cousins could be-”
“I guarantee that whatever my cousins are doing, they are half a dozen steps ahead of you. Me taking five minutes to say good-bye won't impede the investigation at all.”
They reached the staff room as Hunt went to protest again. Abigail turned to face him and held up her hand.
“Five minutes,” she said. “I promise. Stay out here.” She wiggled the bag off her shoulder and handed it to him. “You can even hold my stuff.”
That seemed to sway him. He took the bag and nodded at the staffroom. “You got three minutes. Go.”
She smiled and pushed open the door.
Stupid government. Expecting me to care enough about a bag of stuff to actually come back.
As soon as she stepped into the room, a dozen staff members greeted her cheerfully, all of them gathered to celebrate the contract she'd sign to make her a permanent member of the faculty. Joan, the big secretary with Dolly Parton hair sashayed up to her.
“I made some Orange Blossom cake, Hun,” she said. “My best one yet. I'll give you the recipe. Also, when I was at the salon yesterday...”
Abigail tuned out Joan's voice, her thoughts on escaping from the FBI agent waiting for her.
Was she really running again?
Of course she was. She didn't want to be under the thumb of the government, didn't want to hunt her family. Wanted nothing to do with them.
She'd built up four year’s worth of life here. She couldn't just leave. If she helped Hunt, then she'd be back here, no problem. How hard would catching her cousins be anyway? She knew exactly how each one of them thought, how they would pull off whatever stunts they were doing. She could catch them and return to her normal life.
Just make up some story about a sick grandma and tell them you'll be back in a couple of weeks.
She watched Joan's lips move, words drifting right past her.
What if Hunt wasn't good on his word? Once she was in government hands, they had her. They could lock her up right now if they wanted to. At least if she ran, she could come back here in a few years, or find another small town to settle in.
Screw you, Hunt.
“Now, that recipe,” Joan said.
Abigail grinned and touched Joan's arm. “I just have to hit the ladies room first.”
As she wove through the staff, hints of conversation filled her ears. Two coaches in a heated argument about this year’s football teams, Joan telling Pamela her salon story, and a few teachers talking about the need for rain in this small town.
Gritting her teeth, she left the conversations behind and slipped into the small hallway leading to the back exit. Pushing the door open, she squinted against the late afternoon sun.
Pressing flat against the building, she moved down the wall toward the staff parking lot. No sign of Hunt's men anywhere. Her Jeep was parked around front because she'd brought cupcakes in for Toby's birthday. Hunt's men were probably guarding it, not caring about a bunch of other cars in the back.
Keeping low, she hurried across the small open lawn to the row of cars, squeezing between two SUV's. She moved from one car to another, eyes constantly searching. Only two cars from her target, movement came from her left. One of the math teachers sauntered around the school toward the parking lot. He'd go to the sedan on the far end, so she stayed put, back against the tire of a truck. She waited until she heard the car door shut, then scurried to her target.
Clint's dirty, old, Ram pick-up.
Heart beating, thigh muscles straining from crouching and running so long, she paused at the driver's door to catch her breath. It'd been so long since she'd crept anywhere, she wasn't prepared for her body to be this out of shape.
Anger threatened to rear inside her again at Hunt for making her sneak out of her own school and steal her boyfriend's truck. No time for feelings now. She needed to concentrate and get out of here.
She slowly pulled open the driver's door, thanking God that small town Southerners trusted everyone enough to leave their cars unlocked. Pausing a minute to let the math teacher drive away, she climbed into the driver’s seat and shut the door.
She grabbed a giant flannel coat Clint had in the cab and yanked it on. Swiping his baseball hat off the headrest, she tucked her hair up and stuck the hat on. Reaching across the passenger side, she popped open the glove box and grabbed the spare set of car keys.
She started the truck, and as the engine roared to life, she twisted behind her and wrenched Clint's shotgun from under the back seat. She pumped it, heard the shell click into the chamber, and laid it across the seat beside her.
Pulling the collar of Clint's coat up, and the baseball cap down a little lower, she put the truck in Drive and headed for the back road off school property.
As she drove away, she glanced in the rear-view. A black Lincoln Town Car slowly circled the school, while a few guys jogged through the cars, searching.
Nice try, boys. Better luck next time.
She bounced the truck through a few trees and onto the main road. She didn't speed, didn't look around like her inner paranoid criminal wanted, she just drove, one hand on the wheel, trying to look like just another man coming home from work.
She'd just started to relax when a black Town Car turned on the road in front of her. She reached for the gun, wrapped her hand around the handle, just in case this guy figured her disguise out. He slowed ever so slightly when they passed, looking at Abigail. Her fingers tightened on the shotgun, but she kept her eyes forward, hunching her shoulders, trying to make herself look as big and manly as possible. The Townie passed and sped up, flying toward the school.
Hunt had obviously figured out she'd ran. Which meant she had very limited time to get back to her house, grab only what she needed, and get the hell out of Tennessee.
After fifteen more minutes of driving, and no sign of any other Townies, she pulled into Clint's small farm about five miles down the road from her house. Parking his truck next to the horse corral, she cut the engine, whipped off the hat and coat, and tucked the shotgun under the back seat.
Abigail's boots crunched on the gravel and dirt, and she breathed in the scent of the farm. Hay, manure, dirt, horses, dogs, wild grass, and pine trees. The comforting smell that wrapped her in a warm hug and begged her not to go away.
If I didn't have to, I wouldn't
She tore into the barn, grabbing a saddle and reins on her way to the stalls. Bo snorted and tossed his head as she approached. He was a large champagne Quarter Horse she had bought last fall in preparation for the small barn she would eventually build on her property.
As she saddled him, he stomped his foot, sensing her urgency.
“It's alright, Bo,” she soothed. “Just got to get out of the state, then we're free.”
She led Bo out of the barn and swung up in the saddle. Turning him toward the trail leading away from the farm, she clucked.
Trotting Bo down the trail, she waited until she was out of sight of the farm and kicked him, urging him into a lope toward her house.
She rode over the ridge, Bo's hooves thudding, wind whipping her hair in her face. She kicked Bo again, lowering the reins and giving him full control. He snorted and moved into a full gallop, stretching out his powerful legs.
She wished she could keep going. Let Bo take her wherever he wanted to run. But she had a few special things at home to get before she could go anywhere. Steering him toward the pine woods circling her three acre property, she slowed the horse to a trot, then a walk. He snorted and gave his head a small toss.
“I know, buddy,” she said, breathless. “Give me a few minutes at the house, then you can go again.”
She whoa'd him inside the tree line and climbed down, wrapping his reins around a low branch. That anger ignited inside her again. She'd worked so hard to have something of her own and now she was forced to give it up.
All because her cousins had stirred shit up in a city ten hours away.
The debate that took over her in school threatened her again. She could go with Hunt. There was a slim chance that he would be good on his word and let her back here. She'd just have to put her arms up and walk right in the middle of the group of men patrolling her house.
Then Hunt, not trusting her, would cuff her and that would be the end. For the rest of the assignment they'd be on her like flies on a cow pattie.
She had to leave, give herself a fighting chance. Then, if they caught her, at least she tried. But they wouldn't catch her, not this time.
Hunt had said it'd taken him only a couple years to find her, and she knew why. She'd gotten lazy, she felt safe, and she'd settled down. She hadn't worried about anyone finding her, and that was the problem.
Not again. She'd get away and they'd never hear from her.
“I'll be right back,” she told Bo. “Then we'll saddle up and get the hell out of here. I just have to get Keefer.”
The horse perked at Keefer's name.
She turned toward her house, bouncing a couple times on her feet, like a boxer before a fight. A feeling cropped up inside her that she hadn't felt for good couple years. Adrenaline. Excitement. That stupid near death feeling, like a high or a buzz.
Now to break into my own house. Piece of cake.
The sun started to set, casting long shadows through the trees. She stalked through the pines, picking her way through leaves and twigs, leaving as little trail as possible. Just like she'd been taught. Memories of her and her cousins playing Hide and Seek, and War as kids flooded her mind. Uncle Simon would watch them from the large patio of his mansion, and call her over every now and then to give her tips on how to outsmart her cousins. Move slow, know your surroundings, keep your eyes and ears open, watch for weaknesses.
She won almost every time.
As she reached the tree line at the back of her house, she froze.
Voices mumbled to her front left. She slipped behind a large oak and peered out from behind the trunk. Two of Hunt's men stood just outside the trees. One of them touched his ear.
“All clear,” he sounded tired, like he'd rather be doing anything else. She tip-toed to the right, away from the men.
After about ten minutes of sneaking, she arrived at the other side of her house. She pressed her back against the large oak tree, steadying the rope swing tied to the branch beside her spare bedroom window. This was almost too easy. Then, footsteps on twigs. A man behind her. She ducked around the oak tree, out in the open.
The FBI agent trudged by the tree, probably heading for the pair of guys behind her house. She crept around the large trunk, but he didn't look back. She tugged her ponytail tighter and grabbed the rope swing.
It'd been years since she'd climbed up rope, but she suppressed her grunts, bit back the sting from her hands and the burn in her biceps, and made it up to the branch. Slumping and breathing heavy, she looked around but couldn't see any of Hunt's men.
She shimmied toward the window and slid it open. The branch shook and she grabbed the one above, tensing to keep herself upright. Leaning forward, she grasped the window ledge and released her legs from the branch, swinging quietly against the brick. Swallowing another grunt, she swung her body and flopped into the house, head just missing the desk.
She rolled to all fours and stood, working her arms. She probably should've stretched her muscles first. Easing the window shut, she jumped, startled as two sharp, loud barks came from downstairs. Claws scrabbled on the hardwood and paws slapped the stairs.
“Keefer,” she hissed. “Quiet. It's me.”
The large male Rottweiler slid into the bedroom, ears perked, confused look in his amber eyes. The look was gone in an instant and he let out an excited yelp, his stump tail wagging.
She scratched him on the nose then snapped her fingers. “Keefer, follow.”
As she crept across the hall to her bedroom, she thought there might be someone in her house as well, but, as Keefer bumped the back of her knee, she thought again. Not even the FBI would mess with a 120 pound guard dog.
She left all the lights off as she changed into a plain black t-shirt and an old pair of jeans. She stepped out in the hall again and peered out the back window. She could just make out the two guys standing in the trees. She wasn't one hundred percent sure they couldn't see her, so she dropped to her hands and knees and crawled to the bathroom.
Despite herself, she kind of missed this. Sneaking around as if she'd broken into some poor sucker's house and was looking for his safe, or getting ready to jump him when he came home because he hadn't paid Uncle Simon yet. She pictured one of her cousins, Claude probably, waiting across the hall, ready with his pair of brass knuckles, to beat someone because the bastard was doing drug deals in their neighborhood without clearing it with Uncle Simon.
She stopped and shook her head. It had been years since she pictured doing anything with her cousins.
A thought slipped into her head that made her sit a bit straighter.
What if she went to New York on her own and found her cousins? Joined them in whatever the hell they were doing? Did she really want to get back into her old life?
After a few seconds she shook her head.
“No freakin' way,” she hissed.
Keefer sat beside her and whined.
“It's okay, buddy,” she whispered. “Abby's just a little crazy today.”
She slowly stood, avoiding the window, and splashed water on her face and brushed out her hair, leaves and twigs from the oak tree falling to the floor. She tied a pony tail, looking around the room, deciding if she needed anything from here.
Keefer followed her as she crept around her house gathering what little she needed. She dropped to the ground in her bedroom and reached under her bed, prying open three floorboards and yanking out the small black box. Popping it open, she grabbed a few different drivers’ licenses, a few passports, a couple thousand dollars cash, and a Glock with a long silencer screwed on, shoving them in her bag. Grabbing her small switchblade from her desk, she shoved it down the side of her shoe.
Out of her bedside table, she retrieved her knife and strapped it to her ankle under her jeans. Beneath the bible in the drawer was her engraved Smith and Wesson 9mm pistol in a custom leather holster. She stuck the gun to her waist and started downstairs.
The sun was almost down, but she knew her house back to front, so lack of light wasn't a huge issue. She got a couple of maps, as many water bottles, granola bars, beef jerky, and cans of beans she thought the two saddle bags on Bo could hold, and shoved them into a backpack. Dumping a laundry basket full of clean clothes, she swiped an extra pair of jeans and a few shirts and shoved them next to the beans. Then, she quietly hooked Keefer to his leash, got a small bag of dog food, in case they couldn't find an animal to hunt, and shoved that next to the water bottles.
She pulled on the backpack, hung the other bag across her shoulder, looped Keefer's leash through her wrist and headed to the back door. As she passed her back closet, she grabbed her own plain blue baseball cap and tugged it on.
As she went for the door, the same feeling as in her school stopped her. Instinct and years of training screamed at her to just keep walking, get the hell out of the house while the FBI was still distracted, searching for her around the school, but she couldn't. Tears filled her eyes, and she blinked them back. Four years had gone into this house. And now she was leaving. She'd always been taught not to become attached to any person or thing, for exactly this reason. Logic told her it was just a house, that it would still be here if she came back, and if she didn't, she'd find a new house. But her heart couldn't let her leave without feeling something for a set of walls, floors, and furniture.
Uncle Simon's voice filled her head.
Oh, Caralee. Remember what I've taught you. Pack up, move on. It feels nothing for you, so feel nothing for it.
You never understood, she snapped at his voice. You never had to uproot your entire life and leave.
She cringed, heard him reprimand her in her mind, chastising her for talking back.
Stay focused, Abigail. Pull it together.
Why hadn't she thought of it earlier? She looked out her back door, saw two of Hunt's men milling about, right in her path. She told Keefer to stay, and she rifled through her bag, grabbing the silenced Glock. Sneaking through her house, she went to the main floor bathroom and slid the window open just enough for the muzzle of the Glock to fit. Flicking the safety off, she aimed at the large black van parking in her driveway, illuminated by the full moon.
She pulled the trigger.
She didn't wait for the aftermath, just heard the bullet hit the tire of the van, and FBI agents scrambling to find the shooter.
She ran, a little clumsily, back through the house, grabbed Keefer's leash, and took a quick look out the back door.
The two agents were gone, running for the front of the house.
Throwing open the door, she and Keefer scrambled off the back porch toward the woods. The backpack weighed her down, and the other bag bounced against her still sore thighs, but she managed to the woods, looking back once.
Still all clear.
She paused just inside the trees to catch her breath, then she and Keefer started through the woods. The moonlight barely reached the forest floor, so she bent to Keefer and whispered.
“Keefer, find Bo,” she said. “Find Bo.”
The dog inhaled a few long breaths, then snuffled along, leading Abigail through the woods. They were almost to the other side, when Keefer stopped and growled, low and angry. Abigail looked, eyes almost fully adjusted to the dark. She saw the outline of Bo, head low, ears forward.
“It's Bo,” she said. “Shush.”
She kept walking, but Keefer didn't budge, he kept growling. Abigail sighed and rubbed her face, the day catching up to her. She had no idea what the dog was growling at, but they needed to leave. She dropped his leash, but, because she did trust that there might be something out there, she got her Smith and Wesson from the holster, racked the slide quietly, and moved slowly toward Bo.
Keefer whined, then growled again. Abigail made her way around the big pine between her and her horse, gun aimed, hoping it was just a curious deer or raccoon come to check out Bo. The horse flared his nostrils, ears still forward.
“Freeze.” Hunt's voice came from behind her.
Touching her finger to the trigger, Abigail smirked. Stupid government.
“What're you gonna do, shoot me?”
She glanced at Keefer. He'd turned around, snarling at Hunt, waiting for her command.
“Naw,” Hunt said. “I'll take the dog out first.”