The story so far:
My heart stopped in my throat. I was used to kids saying strange things, usually because they misunderstood something they'd overheard. But this was different. Specific. Jake had actually overheard something.
I walked over and sat down beside him, mostly to give myself time to regain my composure. "Jake, where did you hear something like that?" I asked. It took all my concentration to keep my voice from shaking.
A few more tears slipped down Jake's cheeks as he stared at his cocoa again. One of the tears plopped in the middle of the brown surface, forming even more bubbles. Just when I thought I was going to have to ask again, his little mouth slowly opened.
Chimes rang in a cheery succession. I silently cursed the doorbell as Jake's mouth snapped shut, his eyes fixed wide on the door. I gave him a quick smile. "I'll be right back, okay?"
Please don't be Jake's dad, I prayed frantically as I crossed the room to the door. Be a salesman. Be a Mormon, for the love of Pete. Just don't be Jake's dad.
"Evening, Ms. B," Tom Peterson, Jake's dad, said as I opened the door. "I was just wondering if..." He stopped and grinned at Jake, who was peeking out behind me. "Hey, buddy! Sorry I'm late. You ready to go home?"
I turned to ask Jake to stay just a minute longer, but he was already throwing his arms around me in a waist-high hug, then darting out the door. "Jake..." I called, but he was already gone.
"Thanks again, Ms. B," Tom said with a sheepish smile, oblivious to my distress. "I came as soon as I could, but I know it gets awful cold out these days. Appreciate you letting him come in for a bit."
"Yes, of course," I said, still trying to get my wits together. "Anytime."
"Well, have a good evening!" he said, turning and heading back down the walkway.
I almost called after him, desperate for some clue, but caught myself just in time. I closed the door and, after a moment's thought, locked the knob, threw the bolt, and slid the chain in place. Tom had worked in the mayor's office until the mayor had been disgracefully removed in an embezzling scandal. My doing, of course. Jake might very well have heard the threat from his dad.
My legs felt unnaturally heavy as I stumbled back to the couch and sat down, pressing my hands against my face. I stared between my fingers at Jake's abandoned cup of cocoa, watching the bubbles form and vanish much as Jake had only moments before. Would Tom really be plotting to kill me? But that was impossible. There was no way he could've traced the leak back to me.
So who could it be, then? Had Mr. Jamison discovered I was the one who told the authorities about his 'other' business, the one out of the back of his barbershop? Or maybe Ms. Rettenberg had traced that tax audit back to me. But how? And what did Monday have to do with anything? I racked my mind, but couldn't think of anything significant going on that day.
I shook my head. None of it made any sense. I'd been just as careful in this town as in any of the others. Standing, I picked up both mugs. Maybe I'd just been in the town too long. There was only one thing to do, whether I liked it or not. I set the mugs in the sink and walked up the stairs.
Of course, I realized as I passed my bedroom, he didn't say I'd die on Monday. He said I'd be dead by Monday. It could be Sunday. Or Saturday. In fact, someone could be coming to kill me right now. The thought gave my heart an extra jolt as I pulled the cord that dropped the rickety ladder from the ceiling.
After climbing up into the attic, I pulled the ladder back up and slid the latch into place. I usually didn't latch it when I was in the attic, but I was too spooked to take any chances. It took a few minutes to get the decoy boxes out of the way, but the crawl space was finally clear. I wiggled through and slid the door shut, locking that one as well.
My head brushed the ceiling as I stood. I'd always felt a bit claustrophobic in this room, but today my mind was on more important matters. I sat down on the little folding stool and banged my knee on the side table, which was the only other furniture in the room. The phone on the table had no buttons. It didn't need any.
I picked up the phone and waited until the silence turned into a faint hum. "One-three-five-nine-six-three-three-two," I said, then waited another few moments.
A faint click indicated that my contact had picked up. "I need out of here," I blurted out before he could say a word.
"Report," Agent Harman said.
I clenched my teeth. I hated the way he always spoke, as if he couldn't care less what was happening to me. "You want a report? I just got a death threat, and I need out of here - now!"
He was silent for a moment. "A serious threat?"
"I've been informed that I'll be dead by Monday. Is that serious enough for you?"
"Who threatened you?"
Crap. I knew he'd ask that one. "I'm not sure. It was passed to me, um, second-hand."
"Tell me who, Richelle."
"One of my former students." I rushed on before he could say anything. "He must have heard someone say something, Harman. He was scared. He genuinely believed that I'd be dead by Monday. I'm sure there's a real threat here, I just don't know who it's from. And there's no way I'll figure it out before Monday. You have to get me out of here."
Agent Harman sighed. "You're telling me that a kid said you're going to die."
"I know how it sounds, but it's real." Desperation was creeping into my tone. "You have to believe me."
"Calm down. We'll look into it."
"No! I need out of here, now!"
"You're in a very strategic position right now, Richelle. We can't have you losing your head because some little kid said you're going to die. You just sit tight, and we'll look into it. I'm sure you don't have anything to worry about."
My fingers tightened painfully on the edge of the table. "What strategic position? This town is no different than any of the others you've planted me in! They all have the exact same garbage going on behind the scenes. So send me to one of the others - I don't care which. Just get me out of here!" I took a deep breath. "If you won't get me out, I will."
"Don't do anything rash!" he snapped, startling me. I didn't think I'd ever heard him so much as raise his voice before. "We put you there for a reason, Richelle. I'm not going to sit back and let you ruin this just because of some crazy story a little kid came up with!"
"Ruin what? What are you talking about?"
There was a long silence. "Like I said, we will look into it. But you have nothing to worry about. Stay put, and I'll be in contact." With that, the line went dead.
I stared at the wall for a moment, too stunned to realize what had just happened. Then a cold, fierce rage took over. I slammed the phone down, yanked the door open, and plowed out of the attic without bothering to stack the boxes back in front of the entrance. My suitcase hit my bedspread with a vengeance. It took me three tries to get the crooked zipper to cooperate, which only increased my fury.
How dare he treat me like that! I knew the threat would be hard for him to believe, but to dismiss it entirely? To talk to me like I was some dumb kid, overreacting? I emptied my underwear drawer into the suitcase. And he'd made it clear enough there were some specific reasons I was being kept here. He didn't even have the decency to tell me the real reason they'd sent me to this town!
Seething, I crammed a stack of sweaters beside the pile of underthings. Harman knew good and well I was trustworthy. And he knew that I'm no chicken. I know a real threat when I hear one, whether it's from a child or an adult!
I would miss the kids, though. The thought tempered my rage a bit. I'd gotten rather attached to many of them. Jake, with his sweet, quiet ways. And Hannah, in my class this year, always coming in early to see if she could help me. And Amy, innocent Amy...
Amy. My hands stilled on top of the jeans I'd just shoved into the suitcase. I was supposed to have lunch with her tomorrow. Suddenly torn, I sat down on my bed beside the open luggage. I needed to get out of town as soon as possible, but I couldn't just abandon my plans with her. She'd faced so much disappointment and heartache already in her short life. I just couldn't bring myself to add to that.
My eyes settled on the suitcase again. Logically, if Jake had heard someone talking about killing me on Saturday, wouldn't he have said I'd be dead by Sunday? Saturday should be safe. I could wait until my lunch with Amy, then leave immediately afterwards. Yeah, that should work.
And maybe that would give me enough time to figure out who wanted to kill me.