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    Synopsis

    A field trip gone awry. A student gone missing.Haunted by a teacher's worst nightmare for more than a decade, Elaine finally stumbles onto a vital clue--and discovers someone will do anything to keep the truth buried. When her life is threatened, she allows the one person she trusts to whisk her away to safety in Texas. But assuming a false identity and hiding among the quirky residents of a retirement home is not what she had in mind. Now Elaine must solve the mystery from afar, as soon as she figures out if her friend is keeping her from danger...or keeping her from the truth.

    Chapter 1

    The squealing brakes of the arriving school bus formed an odd harmony with a distant siren. I bent over to pick up the newspaper on my driveway while the bus came to a stop, its warning lights blinking yellow to red. Seven children lined up at the door, the older ones hunched under the weight of their backpacks. Off to one side, mothers formed a tight circle, no doubt discussing the latest in school gossip—who wasn’t speaking to whom, which teacher was giving unreasonable homework, why so-and-so wasn’t invited to a birthday party.

    At least I no longer had to deal with those issues. Emma, my ten-year-old neighbor, shouted to her mother and waved good-bye, but Lauren failed to respond, apparently too engrossed in conversation to notice.

    “Have a good day, Emma!” I called. The girl turned my way, smiled and waved back.

    I slapped the newspaper against my palm, contemplating the possibilities of what I might do if someone attempted to snatch one of the children. The potential harm inflicted by a fifty-eight-year-old woman beating someone with a rolled-up newspaper was laughable, but it might buy some time, create enough of a distraction for the child to escape. Roy always warned me about the personal danger of injecting myself into such a situation, but saving a child would be worth the cost. I’d become certain of that truth over the past twelve years.

    The last student climbed the bus steps. The driver closed the door, then waved in my direction before the bus roared on to the next stop, leaving behind a pungent cloud of diesel exhaust. Across the street, Amanda Fisher tossed her purse and backpack into the car then climbed into the driver’s seat. At twenty, she looked more and more like her mother, Nicole. Had it already been five years since that beautiful woman died of breast cancer? Amanda tapped the horn and waved to me as she left for class at the community college.

    I brushed grains of sand and dirt from the newspaper’s wrapper before pulling my sweater tight against the morning chill and retracing my steps to the front door. Weeds had sprouted overnight in the flowerbed, and I stooped to tear at them. May was starting out warmer than usual this year despite the winds that give Chicago its nickname. My flowerbeds needed immediate attention if they were to be ready for the summer growing season. I could plant the vegetable garden this week—tomatoes, cukes, and muskmelons—and still have time to play with my ideas for the flower gardens. That “Yard of the Month” sign always looked so nice surrounded by colorful beauties.

    Lauren called my name as I reached my front door. Now that the mommy committee had dispersed, she hurried along the sidewalk waving an envelope in the air.

    “I meant to run this over to you yesterday, but I didn’t get a chance. The mail carrier left it in our box by mistake. Might be just junk, but I thought it looked like a real letter.” She handed me the envelope. I didn’t recognize the return address, but I thanked her and pushed the door open.

    “Oh, before you go¾” Lauren held out her hand, then drew her finger to her mouth and nipped at her fingernail. “Didn’t you say you used to teach math?”

    “Yes.” I transferred the letter to the same hand as the newspaper, and tried to think how I might dodge the request that was sure to come.

    “I wondered, would you be willing to tutor Emma? She really struggles with math, and I’m not very patient when it comes to helping her. She has a little friend who needs help, too, if you’d be willing to work with them both one or two nights a week after school. Of course, we’d pay you the going rate for tutors.” She rushed to get it all in before I could respond.

    “I’m sorry, but I haven’t done any teaching in over a decade.” Twelve years, one month and some odd days, to be exact. “I doubt I’d be competent.”

    “I thought Roy said you won Teacher of the Year once.”

    “That was a long time ago, my dear. Teaching has changed a lot since then, especially methods for teaching math, from what I hear. Check with your school. I’m sure they can recommend a more capable tutor than me. But thank you for bringing this over.” I held up the envelope and stepped inside.

    “Okay, well¼” Clearly disappointed, Lauren gave a small wave and turned toward her house. “Have a nice day, Elaine.”

    I closed and locked the door then examined the envelope as I made my way to the kitchen. The neat cursive style of the handwritten address suggested a personal note. The Chicago return address in the upper left corner was also handwritten.

    In the kitchen, I found Roy pouring himself a cup of coffee. He lifted the pot in my direction and raised one graying eyebrow. “Want some?”

    “Yes, please.” I dropped the newspaper on the table before using a paring knife to open the envelope.

    “Kind of early for the mail, isn’t it?” Roy set my cup on the table.

    “Lauren brought it over, said it was left in her box yesterday.” I slid the card out and checked the signature at the end of the handwritten message. “It’s from a former student. I didn’t recognize her married name.” I read the note silently.

    Dear Mrs. Sutterfeld,

    I’ve heard that one can’t fully understand what parenting is like until you become a parent yourself. I believe the same is true of teaching. I wanted you to know how often I’ve thought of you over the years that I’ve been teaching special ed. I’ll be forever grateful to you for getting me help with my dyslexia. So many years, I thought I was too stupid to learn to read and do math. But your encouragement and patience made all the difference, and I know other kids felt the same way. Each day, I try my best to do for my students as you did for me. Thank you. A thousand thank yous! Forester Junior High School lost its best teacher when they let you go.

    “What does she say?” Roy sat down at the table and sipped his coffee.

    “Not much. It’s just an update on what she’s doing.” I slipped the notecard back into the envelope and tossed it into the bottom drawer of my desk, along with other notes from students and my Teacher of the Year award—all ancient history.

    “Did I hear Lauren ask you about tutoring Emma?” Roy slid the newspaper from its protective sleeve, keeping the first section and the sports for himself. I nodded in answer to his question. “Why not try it? You enjoy little Emma so much, it might be good for you.”

    “I’m neither a tutor nor a teacher.”

    “Lainey¾”

    “Roy, we’ve been over this before. I’m not a teacher. Teachers don’t lose their students.”

    Roy sighed the way he always did when we had this conversation. I didn’t appreciate him bringing it up again, but the way he blinked and turned his eyes in a slow arc from me to the floor and back to his newspaper softened my anger. He was my protector, my encourager. I offered a truce, planting a kiss beneath his white mustache. Since he’d turned sixty, the hair was thicker above his lip than atop his head. It made for a slightly scratchy kiss.

    Roy reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew two tickets, holding them out to me. Squinting through my glasses, I read the tiny print on the strips of heavy stock paper.

    “The symphony?” I threw my arms around his neck and kissed both of his cheeks. His mustache twitched the way it did when he was trying not to smile.

    “Happy birthday, Lainey. I thought you’d like that.” He snapped the newspaper to attention then took another sip of his coffee. “It still feels odd not giving you a real present though, the kind you unwrap. Isn’t there anything else you’d like?”

    I grabbed up the plastic wrapper from the paper and stashed it in the recycling. Washing my hands at the sink, I mused. “I’ve been thinking I could use a new purse.” Then realizing what I’d said, I quickly added, “But I need to do that myself. A symphony concert is perfect. It’s all I need or want.”

    Unlike most men, Roy never forgot a birthday or anniversary. His knack for remembering details like a suspect’s brand of cigarettes had made him a successful police detective, and, more recently a private investigator. But his talent didn’t extend to choosing tasteful gifts. I still cringed at the ugly gifts he’d presented me over the years, especially that yellow and black sweater that made me look like a “Caution” sign in a road construction zone. Last year, I started to request outings instead of physical gifts. Best idea ever. And oh, how I loved the symphony. A tingle of excitement ran through me as I dried my hands. Funny how the same music that stirs and inspires me has Roy snoring well before the intermission.

    I took my usual seat across from him, and he slid the rest of the paper over to me. I’d get to the crossword puzzle after I paged through the state and local news, though sometimes I wondered why I bothered. Today’s news was the usual depressing fare—a fire in an apartment building that left several families homeless, a young teen shot outside his home, another politician indicted on charges of some illegal nonsense.

    Halfway down the third page, a picture caught my eye. A young girl held a certificate of accomplishment from the city’s anti-gang initiative, a program started by one of Roy’s boyhood friends. Judge Ted Owens had done well for himself, rising from the public defender’s office to become a powerful force in the city’s political scene. After he won a seat on the county bench, the number of teens coming through his courtroom on gang-related charges prompted him to establish a citywide program aimed at keeping kids out of gangs.

    I studied the picture of the dark-skinned teenage girl. She looked about thirteen, the same age as Jenny when she disappeared. But something in this girl’s expression struck a dissonant note as surely as a violin out of tune. I raised the coffee cup to my lips, my gaze drifting down to the girl’s necklace. A pendant hung on a cord, an asymmetrical heart with a teardrop appearance. I could barely make out the design in the center, but it looked like someone’s initials.

    Inhaling a sharp breath, I sucked hot coffee into my windpipe. It burned down my throat and into my chest, sending me into a fit of coughing. The cup in my hand hit the table, bobbling and splashing dark brown spots onto the newsprint. I clamped one steadying hand over it while a coughing spasm threatening to expel my insides. Roy eyed me as I covered my mouth with both hands, my cough deep and wrenching.

    “Are you all right?”

    Unable to speak, I shook my head and pointed to the picture, swiveling the page toward Roy. His gaze dropped to the image, then rose back to me.

    “Tiana Brown? Am I supposed to know her?”

    I jabbed my finger at the girl’s chest, croaking between coughs. “The…pendant.”

    Roy picked up the paper and examined the picture up close. “I don’t get it. What about the pendant?” His eyebrows crowded together. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

    Each breath I inhaled prompted another round of coughing, but I managed to choke out two words. “Jenny. Ortiz.”

    Roy shook out the paper, stood, and moved into the morning light streaming through the window over the sink. “You’re sure it’s not one of those mass-produced junky things they sell at the mall?”

    I whipped my head from side to side and whispered, “Custom.” Inhaling long and slow, I waited for another cough, then tried speaking in my normal voice. It sounded raspy and uncertain even to me. “It was a gift from her father for her thirteenth birthday. His hobby was woodcarving, and he carved it for Jenny. Those initials are hers.”

    Roy looked skeptical, but studied the photo again. “And you remember that after how many years?”

    I cleared my throat several times and inhaled deeply. “I know that pendant is Jenny’s. She was so proud of it. And, Roy,”—I waited until his gaze locked with mine—“she was wearing it the day she disappeared.”

    Roy chewed the tips of his mustache along his upper lip and gazed back at the picture. “So someone out there knows what happened to her, maybe even knows where she is.”

    I pulled in a breath, then slowly released it. “Is it possible? After twelve years, will we finally know what happened to that poor child?”

    “Don’t set your hopes too high. It might not be anything.” Roy folded the page of newsprint, swallowed the last of his coffee, and hurried from the kitchen to his office. “Anthony’ll be coming over when he finishes his shift,” he called over his shoulder. “We were supposed to go out for breakfast. You’ll have to let him know I’ve been called out.”

    I followed him, stopping in the doorway of his office. “What are you going to do?”

    “First, I want to meet with Jenny’s dad to verify the pendant is hers.” Roy pulled open a drawer, then banged it shut. He shuffled through a stack of papers in a file folder.

    “It’s been years since you’ve had contact with Gary Ortiz.” My legs wobbled like gelatin and I leaned against the doorframe. “What if he’s moved?”

    “If he’s still alive, I can find him. And last time I saw him, he was very much alive.” Roy pulled a manila envelope from his file cabinet, opened the flap, and shook it upside down. A small, gray memory card dropped onto his desk. He fitted it into his laptop, waited for the screen to change then scrolled through the pages that popped up. A dozen clicks later he grabbed a pen and scribbled on a notepad.

    “Got it.” He dropped the pen onto the desk. “Same address as ten years ago.” He ejected the card, dropped it back into the envelope, returned that to the file cabinet, then shoved the drawer closed. I moved to stand at the corner of his desk.

    “I”m coming with you.”

    “No, Elaine.” He pulled on his jacket, slid a notepad into his pocket, and snatched the newsprint page from his desk.

    “But she was my student.” I blocked the door to keep him from going out.

    “I understand that, but it’s very likely I’ll be going into dangerous parts of town. I wouldn’t dare take you anywhere near them.” He adjusted the back of his jacket collar and angled his way between me and the doorframe. “I want you here where I know you’re safe.”

    “How long will you be gone?”

    “Depends on who’s willing to talk. I’ll try to check in if it gets late.”

    “What am I supposed to do while you’re out? I can’t just sit here twiddling my thumbs.”

    Roy clamped his papers under his arm and put his hands on my shoulders. “You can pray. I have a hunch we’re going to need all the help we can get.” He bent to kiss me, then hurried out the door. I listened until the sound of his car faded as he backed out of the garage and the overhead door closed.

    Pray? I’d given that up years ago, almost as long ago as teaching. What’s the use when there’s never an answer? When you beg and plead and cry and nothing changes?

    Still, we finally had a solid clue, the first one since Roy was on the police force. An icy chill blanketed my shoulders and without even thinking, my hands clasped together beneath my chin. Prayer might not help, but it couldn’t hurt. I only hoped God still recognized my voice after all this time.

    ***

    After cleaning the coffee pot and cups in the kitchen, I moved to the bedroom and made the bed, wiped down the bathroom and straightened my shoes in the closet. Minutes later, I found myself staring out the window as if expecting to see Roy’s car coming up the street. Chiding myself for thinking I could piddle the day away until he came home, I turned away from the window and changed into a pair of grubby jeans and a faded long-sleeved shirt. After slipping my cell phone into my jacket pocket, I grabbed my sun hat and some tools from the garage and planted myself beside the front beds.

    Last fall’s mulch had melded together in the winter’s cold and snow, forming a tough layer that required jabbing and pulling and raking to break it up. I stabbed the garden rake into the hardened mulch, the perfect remedy for releasing the tension in my back and shoulders. Trading the rake for a trowel, I dug down beneath the mulch to the soil, turning it over and mixing it all together to form a nice loose bed in which to plant some impatiens. Once they were in, I’d cover the ground with another layer of mulch.

    A large shadow fell across the bed, and I jumped at the sight of Amanda’s father standing almost at my elbow.

    “Anthony!” I put a hand to my chest and sat back on my ankles, catching my breath. “What are you doing sneaking up on me like that? You’ll give me a heart attack.”

    A laugh rumbled up from deep in Anthony’s chest. “Sorry, Ms. Elaine. Wasn’t trying to sneak up on you.” Born and raised in Texas, Anthony Fisher still held to that endearing habit of putting a title in front of a lady’s first name. “I called you twice, but you’re working so hard you didn’t even hear me. You must be concentrating on winning Yard of the Month again.”

    I reached behind me, feeling for my garden stool, and Anthony helped me onto it. My knees thanked me.

    “I needed to dig in the dirt today,” I said, brushing the soil from my gloves and drawing them off my hands.

    “Therapy, huh?”

    “Dirt therapy—the best kind.” I pushed back my floppy straw hat to better see him. Nearly six feet with a solid build, Anthony presented a formidable sight, especially in his police uniform. The blue looked striking against his dark skin. He gave me a hand and helped me to my feet.

    “Is Roy inside?”

    “No, he said to tell you he’s sorry, but he got called out on a case.” I swished my gloves against my knees to dislodge the dirt clinging to my pant legs.

    Anthony inclined his head toward the patch of dirt I’d been working. “Does that case have anything to do with this dirt therapy session?”

    My joints were starting to make me feel like the Tin Man without his oil can. Mentally railing against the aging process, I moved over to the sunny garden bench and sank onto it. I slapped my gloves together, debating how much to tell him. Anthony was like a son to both Roy and me. No reason to hide anything from him.

    “In my younger days when I taught junior high school, I lost a student on a field trip.” The memory never failed to choke me up. I clenched my teeth, hoping Anthony didn’t notice my quivering chin. He sat beside me, laying his hand on my shoulder.

    “You don’t need to say any more. Roy told me all about it, how one of your students disappeared and was never found.”

    I pulled a crumpled tissue from my pants pocket. “How long have you known?”

    Anthony tipped his head back, gazing into the oak tree that shaded half the front yard. “Around the time we found out about Nicole’s cancer. We were talking—Roy and me—trying to think about anything besides the cancer. I asked how he got into private investigations, and he told me about getting fired from the department. Said he always suspected someone didn’t want the girl’s disappearance solved.” He rubbed the sole of his shoe back and forth on the spring green grass. “He’d been over the files so many times, he pretty much had them memorized by the time they fired him. Said every now and then, he’d look over his notes hoping to find that one missing piece of the puzzle.” He shifted and turned to face me. “Has he found it?”

    “We think so.” I blew my nose and stuffed the tissue back in my pocket. “This morning’s Tribune carried a picture of a girl about the same age as my student. She was wearing the exact pendant Jenny was wearing the day she disappeared.”

    “A necklace? You still remember that?”

    “It was unique. Her dad was a hobbyist woodcarver. He entered shows and had won a few awards. He carved it especially for her, and she treasured it.”

    Anthony leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “So Roy’s out investigating?”

    “He was going to Jenny’s dad first to make sure it’s the same pendant.”

    Anthony’s jaw worked side to side, then jutted forward. “If he can track down the girl in the picture, find out how she got hold of it, and trace it back to your student”¾Anthony whistled¾“he could be stirring up a snake pit if there really was a cover-up.” He straightened, ran his arm along the back of the bench and touched my shoulder. “What about you? How are you doing?”

    I slid my hands into my gloves and pushed off the bench. “Like I said, dirt therapy. It’s cheaper than a psychiatrist.” Easing down onto my hands and knees again, I picked up the trowel and jabbed it into the ground.