Ch. 1 -- Tribecca

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She studied me from her perch on the pole fence as I trained riders. It's not unusual for bystanders to gather when I give 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 felt right -- calm and in control, surrounded by the scent of earth, manure and horse sweat. With my riding boots and crop, I became myself again.

People see thick brown hair, slender frame, symmetrical features. They assumed I was That All American Society Girl.

I used to be.

I let people believe I'm still her, because life was easier that way. But when I put this crop down, I'd go back to being broken.

No reason for the woman at the pole fence to stand out. She looked like countless other Bay Area residents who frequented the stables – petite, well-kept and trim, with 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 was a strange combination of too much money, power and boredom. I'd been propositioned a time or two before. I refocused on the pattern of the horse's strides. Around we circled, until the world outside the ring became a blur.

Later, as I brushed down a boarded 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?"

"Yes?" I straightened. A strand of hair slipped from 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. "Tribecca Jones. I have an opportunity for you."

I waited her out, saying nothing. 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 Smyth'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?" My throat went dry. A riding class let out, and half a dozen girls flooded the stables, chattering, their mothers and nannies following after.

She handed me a card that read TRIBECCA JONES, listed two phone numbers and an address in San Francisco. "Let's meet at my office. Tomorrow, 11:00 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.

#

It had to be a trick. That evening, I let myself into my thin walled one-room apartment, built over the carriage house of an old mansion. In the dark, I moved through the small familiar space, not bothering with the lights.

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

Sitting in the funeral parlor, I'd 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. 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. He was a 19 year old kid who'd lost his parents too, and he bought the groceries and made dinner, paid the bills and managed the small savings our parents left. He stayed home nights so someone would be there when I woke up sobbing from the nightmares. Then he'd get up early to make sure I got to school. All this meant my life was stable while his was chained to responsibility. He gave up college and his dreams and his freedom for me.

Sometimes I wonder if prison was 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. She'd rattled off the meeting time as if I had no other obligations but her. And sure enough, when I'd checked my schedule, no conflicts. How much did the FBI know about me already? 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.

Ormaybe it was worse than that. Maybe Ihoped the job hurt me, if only so I would feel something again.




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