“No, and that’s just the point. We don’t have nearly enough information about Austin. Take nothing for granted. It’s possible the person we’re looking for—male or female—is right here searching for something. We need to accomplish two things right off the bat. We need to fit in as if we’ve been here a long while, so as not to raise any suspicions. If Austin has been watching from a distance, maybe he won’t notice that some of the faces have changed. If we moved in here with an openly armed team, he’d see and we’d lose him for sure. Make friends, do your jobs and keep your eyes open.”
“Number two?” Dante prompted.
“There’s something here Austin wants. Something valuable. If he hasn’t already found what he came here for, then we need to find it first. We get started with the who. Who doesn’t belong here? Who’s not quite right? Murphy,” Flynn snapped, “you take McCabe.”
Murphy groaned, saying nothing until Cal nudged him with an elbow. Then he laughed and said, “She says I’m a metrosexual. I don’t know what that is, but even though it has “sexual” in it, I don’t think it’s a good thing,”
“It means you’ll let her give you a facial,” Dante said with a laugh.
Flynn turned to Dante. “You get Loomis.”
The laugh died quickly. “The math teacher?”
“She’s not blond, she’s flat-chested and I’m not a hundred percent certain she’s, you know, playing for the right team.”
“I caught her staring at your ass this afternoon when you were mopping the hallway so I don’t think you have to worry about what team she plays on.”
Dante grumbled, but not much.
“I’m not asking you to sleep with her,” Flynn said with a snort. “Just get friendly. Suck it up and do your job.” He turned to Cal while Dante mumbled. “You get Tess Stafford. I don’t have a lot of information on her yet. Dr. Barber apparently didn’t think to include her in the original list, since she lives in the main building and has no need to break in. Lucky is digging up what he can on her. She works in the cafeteria and—”
“No way,” Cal said, lifting his left hand to wag the ring finger and the attached gold band.
“This is work, Calhoun,” Flynn said sharply. “I’m not asking you to marry the woman. Just make friends. What’s the matter with you guys?” He looked from one agent to the next. It was bad enough that Lucky Santana had all but refused to participate in the undercover element of this operation. Not that Lucky would fit in here. He didn’t have the qualifications to be a substitute teacher, like Flynn and Murphy did, and he’d never pass for a janitor or a soccer coach. Besides, Lucky was still ticked off about losing his partner Sadie to marriage, and he was a bear to work with these days. He was at the home office in Alabama, handling research and moping.
This was a tough job for Flynn, for reasons he chose not to share with his employees, but from their standpoint this should be a walk in the park. “This is the easiest freakin’ job you’ve ever had and you’re whining like a bunch of pansies.”
“Okay,” Cal said in a calm voice. “You call Livvie and tell her what I’m doing on this job besides coaching soccer, and we’ll see how it goes.”
“I’m not afraid of your wife,” Flynn said darkly.
“What about her uncle, who seems determined that her every wish should be granted?”
True, Max Larkin could be trouble. “Fine,” Flynn growled. “You coach soccer and call your wife every night like a good boy, and I’ll take Stafford.”
Which wouldn’t exactly be a chore, as long as she didn’t turn out to be a cold-blooded killer.
Flynn smiled at Cal. “You can take Leon Toller.”
“The weirdo art teacher who likes to walk around talking to himself?”
“You prove Toller’s not Austin, and I’ll charm the cafeteria lady.”
Words he’d never thought to speak, or even to imagine.
“Yes, Major,” Cal said without emotion.
“I’m not a major anymore, Calhoun,” Flynn replied. Cal knew that. They all did. He’d been retired from the Marines for years.
This job was unlike any other he had ever participated in. He and his team usually went in with guns blazing. They didn’t pretend; they didn’t finesse. And yet here they were, undercover in a sea of little girls and academics, at Max Larkin’s request.
No doubt about it; he’d rather face a firefight any day.
Patience was not Dale’s strong suit, but that’s what this job called for. Patience. There was some pride in being adaptable to each situation, and that was soothing, in an odd sort of way.
At night this all-girl’s school possessed an unexpected serenity. The bustling of the day was over, the students and the teachers had retired for the evening and the grounds were silent. Warm light spilled through dormitory windows, while others remained dark. The thick Georgia air spread over the campus like a blanket. Even in the wintertime, it was humid here. The cold cut to the bone, some nights.
Fortunately these nighttime excursions were an infrequent requirement. Serenity aside, the cold was something jarring. Cancún was much nicer this time of year, and as soon as this job was finished that destination would call. This assignment paid nicely, enough to hide away quietly for a long time to come. Thinking of warm beaches almost took away the winter chill. Almost.
Weather was a small quandary, comparatively speaking. There had been a few strange faces on the campus today. After months of routine and monotony, strange was startling and unwelcomed. There was, perhaps, a logical explanation, but still, it was disturbing. Dale had never cared for being disturbed. Routine was much more soothing.
Eyes closed, Dale thought of Cancún and took a deep breath of the cold, humid air. In that cold air was a new scent, a touch of spring. And with the coming of spring came the end of this well-planned job. Not tonight, not tomorrow…but soon.
“That looks good,” Benning said, flashing one of those charming smiles men used when they thought they were being, well, charming. “Did you make it yourself?”
Tess shook her head. “No. Mary Jo made the meatloaf.” Mary Jo stood at the head of the line, passing out salad. She was a very nice, bone-thin grandmother who had a room next to Tess’s but was only there during the week. On the weekends, she stayed with her son and grandkids who lived in town, and came in to work for a few hours each day.
Mary Jo and Tess were the only full-time cafeteria employees, and the only ones who worked the supper shift. They were especially busy in the evenings, which meant that she did not have time to entertain the new guy, or anyone else.
“Oh.” The big man who had parked himself in front of her looked almost disappointed. “What did you make?”
“You’re holding up the line,” she snapped.
“So answer my question and I’ll move on.”
“I made the scalloped potatoes and the apple pie,” Tess said through clenched teeth.
“They both look great.” Benning did his best to lean over the counter. He was so darn big he could almost do just that. “So, why don’t you have a date for Valentine’s Day?”
His bold question startled her. It crossed the line between friendly and flirting, and to be honest she didn’t have time for either. Finally Tess answered, “What makes you think I don’t have a late date?”
With a wave of her hand, she shooed him down the line. “I’d like to get these girls fed, if you don’t mind.”
He grudgingly moved along, muttering something about her late date, and Tess turned her attention to the kids who were waiting in line for their supper. Not all the students lived on campus, but those who did were in this cafeteria for three meals a day. They were good girls, for the most part, and she liked her job more than she’d ever imagined she would. Some days it took her back to her own days in school. She’d been so naive, just like so many of these girls. But it had been a special time, one she remembered with fondness, for the most part.
Thirteen-year-old Laura came along just minutes behind Benning. She and her friend Bev were the last students in line, as usual, and for them Tess had a wide and real smile.
“Cute top,” Tess said, nodding to the striped sweater Laura wore.