Noelle Briggs signed out a G-ride from the garage, then raced through lower Manhattan toward Brooklyn, violating half a dozen traffic laws before hitting the Manhattan Bridge. There were some benefits to working at the Bureau.
A phone call from her son’s school had pulled her away from the buzzing hive of the Counterterrorism Division and pushed her toward the ever-increasing troubles at home. This was the third time in six weeks that she had gotten the call.
The secretary was as respectful as always respectful, but Noelle felt her judgmental bitchiness through the phone. Teachers, principal, staff—all looked at her with disdain and disappointment whenever she set foot on campus. They blamed her for Derek’s bad behavior because she hadn’t jumped into another marriage the second the last shovelful of dirt hit Derek’s dad’s casket. Fuck them.
She rushed through the front door ignoring the beep of the metal detector.
“Hold it right there, ma’am.”
“Oh, not this again.”
“We have to search you.”
“No. You don’t.” She flashed her badge. “We go through this every time. I know you guys work on rotation, but Christ almighty, can’t someone make a notation somewhere.”
“Sorry, Ms. Briggs. It’s the rules.”
“Yeah, yeah. Zero tolerance,” Noelle grumbled. None of the words she had for public school policy could be shared in polite company. School Safety Officers were NYPD like she used to be, so she cut them a little slack. Just a little.
Instead, she opened her purse, showing her service weapon, and let the security guard swipe her with the sensory wand. After getting the all-clear, she headed to the principal’s office.
At least she looked every bit the Fed today. Black pant suit. Crisp white shirt. Power heels. Better to look like a woman in total control of herself even if it wasn’t exactly true. Her footsteps echoed down the short hallway to the principal’s office. Her hand grasped the doorknob to enter when someone called her name.
Noelle turned toward the voice, inner cop on alert. African American male, little over six feet, early to mid-thirties. Brownish-red hair in a neat, but stylish afro. Long sleeved black T-shirt. Dark blue jeans. Black Converse.
“Warren Franklin.” He reached her in two long strides. Up close she noticed his hazel eyes. Not bad looking. He offered his hand for her to shake. Strong grip, a little rough, like a working man’s.
“I’m busy, Mr. Franklin. What do you want?”
“I’d like to talk about Derek.”
“I’m about to see—”
“Don’t bother with the principal. He’s a—never mind. Can we talk somewhere else?”
“Who are you, Mr. Franklin?”
“Call me Warren. Ms. Barnes thought we should meet.”
Noelle nodded internally. Barnes taught Chemistry, the only class Derek was passing. She liked how the hard-nosed older woman pushed the boy to challenge himself.
“You new here? You’re not on the faculty list.”
“No, I’m not part of the school system. Ms. Barnes and I go way back. I was a bit of a troublemaker as a kid,” he said flashing a toothy grin. “She put me on the straight and narrow and I help her out when she finds a kid that reminds her of me.”
Interesting friendship. Noelle made a mental note to investigate further. She couldn’t remember the names of any of her high school teachers, couldn’t imagine staying in contact with them. Paying it forward was admirable, but something about him made her spidey-sense tingle.
“You’re not affiliated with the school, so why should I trust you?” She reached for the door again. He stopped her with a gentle touch on the elbow. The warmth of his hand burned through the fabric of her suit jacket as if it was invisible and he touched her bare skin. This close, he smelled of the deep woods, reminding her of endless childhood summers spent at her grandparents in rural Georgia.
“Hear me out. I know what they’re going to tell you in there. They’re going to blame you for being a single mother. Tell you Derek’s acting out because he doesn’t have a father figure. All the same bullshit you’ve heard before.”
Dude had a point. Any time Derek got into trouble they blamed it on the same thing. Even when his father was alive, the school always called her. As if it was her faulty genes that made Derek act out.
“I’ve been to that dance before. You offering something different?”
He smiled with a hint of mischief. Even though her senses were on high alert, her knees went a little weak. What kind of fuckery was this?
“With your permission of course, I’d like to talk to Derek. One on one. Ask him some questions. See if there’s anything going on he doesn’t feel he can share with the people he knows.”
“He has people to talk to.”
“I’m sure he does. Some things are easier to talk about with a stranger.”
“Uh-huh. And what do you think that is?”
“Derek’s not getting bullied. He takes shit from no one.”
“I think he might be the bully. He might be suffering from anxiety and picks other kids to make himself feel better.”
“Oh, no. Not the shrink talk. We went to one. She thought D needed meds.” That was a mistake. Why in the hell was she yammering on about old shit? This guy was a stranger. He wasn’t even a teacher or guidance counselor. He was just some guy that knew D’s chemistry teacher. Yet she sensed truth in him when all the others spouted lies and accusations.
“Listen, I’m sure you’re a nice person and want to help, but I don’t feel comfortable with—”
“A complete stranger wanting to talk to your son alone. I get it.” He handed her a beige business card. Decent quality. His name in a simple, yet classy font. 917 area code. Cell phone could be disposable.
“I’m going to do a background check.”
“I would expect no less from a woman with your intelligence and connections.” Well, damn. Didn’t he just have her all figured out. “I’m not kidding. I work for the government.”
“I know. You’ll find everything in order.”
Not too much order, she hoped. Regular people had messy lives, full of stops and starts. Anyone with too neat a background set off warning bells. With some much needed days off coming up, she was going to call in some favors and find out how messy this Franklin character was.
Noelle took a deep breath and stepped into the principal’s office. Before the door closed, she turned back. The wannabe counselor gave her the thumbs up and a smile that made her heart flip. Normally she’d think a guy like this was creepy and a bit of a himbo, but he didn’t come across as either. Interesting. She pushed thoughts of the handsome man to the side, put on a stern face, and her strictest no nonsense attitude. Time to do battle with the idiot brigade.