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Ch. 1 -- Tribecca

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It was the third time I'd noticed her, watching me from the pole fence as I trained the riders.  Often, I get bystanders when giving lessons – the rhythmic thud of hooves on ground, the flex of muscle under hide.  It's hypnotic. 

It was for me, anyway.  In the ring, I feel right -- calm and in control, surrounded by the smells of earth and horse sweat.  In that ring, with my riding boots and crop, I'm myself.   People see thick brown hair, a slender frame, and even, white teeth.  They assume I'm That All American Society Girl. 

I used to be that girl. I let people believe I'm still her, because life is easier that way.  But when I put this crop down, I'll go back to being broken. 

There was no reason for the woman to stand out.  She was like countless others who frequented the stables –   petite, well-kept and trim, perfectly bobbed hair, her variant ashy blond.  But there was something different about her.  Dark eyes, vigilant as a field mouse.   I assumed she was scoping me out as a trainer.  Or possibly a lover.  The weekday horsey set is a strange combination of too much money, power and boredom.  I'd been propositioned a time or two before.  I refocused on the lesson, the pattern of the horse's strides.  Around we circled, until the world outside the ring became a blur. 

Later, as I brushed down the horse, the woman slipped 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?"  she asked.

"Yes?"  I straightened.  A strand of hair slipped 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 and said, "I'm Tribecca Jones.  I have an opportunity for you." 

I  quirked my eyebrow at Tribecca Mouse Eyes.  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 Jeremy's time reduced," she offered in a quiet tone. 

The brush flipped in my hand, and I fumbled to catch it, my face flushing.   In the three years leading up to my grandmother's death, Edith Smythe's 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.   Jeremy was doing 15 years at California Men's Prison for armed robbery. 

Now, he was my only living relative.   

"How?" I asked, my throat dry as sandpaper.  A riding group class let out, and half a dozen girls flooded the stables, chattering, their mothers and nannies following after. 

In the ruckus, the woman handed me a card that read TRIBECCA JONES and listed two phone numbers and an address in San Jose.  "Let's meet at my office.  Tomorrow, 9:00 am?  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," she added. 

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, in perfect imitation of every other horsey-set, upper-class woman in our company.    

#

It had to be a trick, I told myself as I drove home to my thin walled one-room apartment, built over the carriage house of an old mansion. 

The owners lived in Switzerland full time.  Officially, I was the groundskeeper. Before she died, my grandmother finagled me the position so I would "have a proper address" in the "right neighborhood."  Jeremy would laugh at my million dollar address 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 was thirteen when my parents died.  Jer was nineteen.  He was supposed to go back to college.  Our grandmother Edith was going to raise me.  

I begged my brother not to go  – I couldn't lose him, couldn't bear to be shipped off to live with our snooty, distant grandmother.   So Jeremy did what I asked and petitioned the courts to be my guardian. 

It had seemed like a good idea at the time.  Because back then, I could only think of myself – never seeing how my brother struggled, how taking responsibility for me meant he couldn't take care of himself.  

Sometimes I wonder if prison was just his second chance to escape. 

When Jeremy went away, our grandmother channeled all of her money and ambitions onto me.  I became a skilled horsewoman and a minor debutante in the greater Bay Area.  Jeremy learned how to be an electrician and scraped together funds to buy candy at commissary.  

Tribecca Jones from the FBI.  I lay in bed, tossing covers off by one turn and pulling them close by another. I knew I should have been worried about what I'd have to do.  But the truth was, 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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