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Calculated Revenge

By Jill Elizabeth Nelson

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Chapter One

The grimy backpack rested abandoned against the playground fence. Laney Thompson’s eyes riveted on the schoolbag, but her feet stuck to the gravel near the swings. What was the matter with her? The students had rushed less than a minute ago into the elementary school building after noon recess. One of them must have forgotten the bag. Simple explanation. Then why did her skin pebble as if she stood on this Minnesota playground in mid-January, rather than the balmy end of May?

A warm breeze puffed a curtain of light brown hair in front of her face, and she blinked, breaking the hold of the strange paralysis. Laney brushed the hair aside and moved forward. Standing in front of the pack, her hands curled into fists. Come on, pick it up. But her arms balked at the command to reach for the pack’s frayed top strap.

Dread pummeled her.

She studied the object. Mildew stains spattered the canvas, and the original color was barely discernable as green, except for a few strips across the front where the fabric betrayed the vibrant shade of lime that the pack had once been. Whoever owned this schoolbag had been mighty careless with it or was too poor to afford a new one. Several students who fit either description passed through her mind.

All she needed to do was check inside for papers identifying the owner. By the plumpness of the pack, there ought to be plenty of clues inside. She reached for the strap then froze, breath sawing in her lungs. Blackness trimmed her vision.
Laney Thompson, this is no time for a panic attack. You left those behind. Remember?

Yes, she remembered the years of counseling. Vividly. Then the determined struggle to put the past behind her and get a college education—an effort prolonged and complicated by a mistake of a marriage and the birth of a beautiful daughter. But at twenty-eight she now had her teaching degree. She was what she had always dreamed of being—a protector and guide to the young. Perhaps to atone for . . .

Laney swallowed and rubbed damp palms against her tan slacks. She snatched up the pack. A ripping sound accompanied the action as a side-seam gave way, and the corner of a notebook stuck out. The bag was in worse shape than she had realized. Laney squatted and set the pack on new spring grass. A smell like rancid musk emanated from the canvas. Her heart rattled against her ribs. Trembling fingers worked the zipper and another seam parted. Ignoring the damage, she yanked the notebook out.

She had to know who owned this schoolbag.

Laney flipped open a yellowed page, and found a first name printed in ragged block letters in the top right corner. For breathless seconds, her mind denied what she saw. Then the horror—and the guilt—deluged her, as suffocating as the day of Laney’s tenth birthday. The day the nightmare began.
Grace Thompson. The name mocked her from the page.

This backpack had belonged to her eight-year-old sister. At least, that’s how old Gracie had been the day she disappeared on her way home from school. Alone.
That terrible smell now held no mystery. Decay. She gagged. The pack had come from the unknown tomb where Gracie’s abductor had stashed her body. Her killer had put the bag here on purpose. He wanted Laney to find it. To know he was nearby.

She scooted backward, wails ripping through her mind, but bottled in her chest. She tumbled onto her side and gripped her legs in a fetal position. The screams burst free.

A sliver of her mind continued to churn questions. Was he watching? Enjoying her breakdown? Why now? What did he want? Or who?


A vision of her daughter’s face sobered her like a plunge in a glacial lake. She sat up stiff. How could this mean anything else? Briana was newly eight years old. Just like Gracie.

Excited voices that had been there, but unregistered, reached her ears. The aide from the music department stuck his face in hers. “Are you all right?”
She surged to her feet, strong-arming him aside. “My daughter. I have to go!”
Astonished faces melted away before her as she charged between approaching people. She barely registered the feel of her feet slapping sidewalk. Why couldn’t she move faster than the speed of sludge? Laney yanked open the door and raced up a hallway floored in wax-coated linoleum and walls covered with bulletin boards and glass display cases. Familiar scents pumped through her nostrils—white board markers, sweaty gym shoes stored in lockers. She rounded a corner and dodged around a line of kindergarteners and their teacher heading for the restrooms. Squeaks of surprise followed her into the first classroom on the left.

Briana’s teacher and Laney’s best friend, Ellen Kline, stood at the head of the third grade classroom. She stopped mid-sentence and stared at Laney. “What’s going on?”

“Mommy!” A little girl’s voice drew Laney’s attention.

“Sweetie, you’re okay!” She ran to her daughter at her desk and hugged her tight. At the smell of strawberry shampoo in soft, brown pig tails, she exhaled a thankful prayer.

“Mommy . . . I can . . . hardly breathe.”

Laney loosened her grip and eased away from her daughter. Briana’s sea-blue eyes, mirrors of her own, brimmed with puzzlement. The classroom was dead silent. They must all think she’d gone insane. She needed to find a quick excuse for the interruption without alarming her daughter, or anyone else, further.

Fastening a smile to her lips, Laney rose. “I’m sorry—I . . . Well, I just needed to check on my daughter. One of those mother’s intuition things. I’m glad I was wrong.” She nodded toward Ellen, whose puckered brow said she wasn’t buying the lame explanation. “Forgive the interruption.” She backed toward the door, and a soft buzz of student voices followed her out into the hall. So did Ellen.

Her friend stepped in front of her, hands planted on generous hips. “Are you okay?”

Laney’s fingers dug into the soft flesh of Ellen’s upper arms. “Don’t take your eyes off Briana. Don’t let her go anywhere alone, not even to the bathroom. I’ve got to see Principal Ryder, and then I’m going to call the police.”

“The po—”

“I’ll explain later.” Laney hustled off, leaving her friend with her mouth open.
Seconds later, Laney burst through the door of the main office.

Miss Aggie, the receptionist, fixed her with an eagle’s stare. “If you were a student, you’d risk a warning for running in the halls.”

“Is he in?” Laney’s breath came in little puffs like she’d run a marathon.

“Who? Mr. Ryder?” Miss Aggie stood, her lined face beginning to mirror the alarm Laney radiated from her whole body.

“What’s up?” The man himself stepped out of the office situated to the left of the reception desk.

Lean and medium tall, the strength of Principal Ryder’s steady green gaze left no one in doubt of his authority. In the school year that he and Laney had served the district together, he’d shown himself to be a man as protective of his students as he was a firm, but understanding disciplinarian. He was also as honorable as he was good-looking, a combination that amazed Laney, based on past life experience.

A wave of warm comfort swept over her. She’d found a safe haven. Noah wouldn’t let anything bad happen to Briana. Hot tears spilled down her face and a sob surged from her throat.


Laney Thompson’s shattered expression shot a deep burn through Noah’s gut. In his thirty-six years, he’d had reason to learn the difference between a minor emergency and a critical situation. This savored of the latter. He motioned her into his office. As she stumbled past the reception desk, Miss Aggie stuffed a tissue into her hand. Noah nodded appreciation to the woman who really ran the show around here, and then closed his office door.

“Have a seat,” he told the attractive special education teacher who’d dogged his thoughts since he interviewed her for the position last summer.

She melted into a cloth-covered chair in front his desk, wiping at pale cheeks with the tissue. Her fine-boned chin quivered. He perched on the edge of his desk. If she keeled over, he’d just as soon catch her before she hit the floor.

“What’s this all about?”

“Briana,” she croaked. “My daughter. I think she’s in danger.”

“How so?” Barbed wire snaked up his spine.

Her fingers white-knuckled the wooden arms of her chair. “I don’t have time to go into detail, but I just found a backpack left on our playground that belonged to my sister Grace.” Her slender neck contracted around a deep swallow. “Gracie was abducted and murdered eighteen years ago. Briana’s the same age as my sister was when she disappeared. I just . . . I can’t . . .” She gasped a breath. “Nothing can happen to my daughter!” Her haunted blue gaze sifted him, searching for a promise of safety.

He’d seen that look too often not to be wary of its demand. He leaned back and crossed his arms. “Where is your daughter right now?”

“In her classroom. Ellen is watching out for her, but she doesn’t know why.”

“And where’s the backpack?”

“Still on the playground. It was more important to make you aware that a maniac may be nearby, and then to call the police.”

“You’re doing everything right, Laney. Make your call.” He patted the instrument on his desk. “I’ll go to the playground and secure the evidence, while Miss Aggie puts the staff on alert.”

“Thank you. I’m so glad you’re in charge of this school.”

The husky gratitude sandpapered through Noah as he went into the reception area. He was nobody’s savior. He’d proven that in spades six years ago.

Agatha Nederleitner speared him with a stare. “Anyone can see that woman’s in trouble. How are you going to help her?”

“We’re going to help her,” Noah answered then briefed her on what Laney had told him.

The woman grasped the situation quickly, and Noah was grateful once again for this gem in the rough. The steel-haired brick of the office never soft-pedaled her opinion, but her sternness hid a marshmallow heart. She refused to plague the children with her last name, so she was the beloved Miss Aggie who packed an ounce of sugar into her scolds and stood firm as a rock while everyone’s problems crashed against her. Today, she would need all her fortitude.

“Announce ‘orange’ over the intercom,” Noah finished. “Then give Laney any assistance she needs. I’ll wait for the authorities on the playground. Send someone to get me if you need me.”

“Will do.” Miss Aggie’s blazing brown eyes telegraphed that Satan himself would have a hard time getting past her to do anyone harm in her school.

As he strode up the hall, the woman’s platinum tones issued the orange alert, the internal code for intruder watch. In the tiny town of Cottonwood Grove, Minnesota, people routinely left their cars running during the winter while they ran into the grocery store for milk, so his code system had seemed extreme to some. When he implemented it, he’d hoped never to use some of the alerts—especially this one. At least it wasn’t amber, the national code for a missing child.

Noah strode onto the playground. A small group of staff members hovered near the fence only a foot or so from an entrance gap. In the center of the huddle stood the custodian, Richard Hodge. The man cradled a bulky object in his arm while he rifled through it.

“All right, people.” Noah smacked his palms together, and heads swiveled toward him. The custodian froze with his hand in the bag. “Thanks for coming out to help. Richard, please leave the pack on the ground. I’ll take it from here.”
With murmurs and shrugs, the group dispersed.

The custodian plunked the bag on the grass and backed away from it. “Just tryin’ to see whose it was. Didn’t recognize the name.”

“Thank you, but it’s not your worry now. Head on inside, but be aware that we are on orange alert.”

Richard’s prematurely lined face settled into a deeper scowl than normal. “Figured we couldn’t end the school year without some kind of trouble.” He clomped away.

Noah watched him go. For a thirty-something guy with most of his life ahead of him, a steady job and good benefits, the custodian had the dimmest outlook of anyone he knew. What was his story anyway?

Shaking his head, Noah turned and studied the bag that rested on its side on the ground. The backpack used to be green. Small chunks of something inorganic had lain across it during the passage of time in order to preserve swatches of the original color. He squatted down and took in the shabby condition and decaying seams. A few sheets of yellowed paper stuck out of the torn edges—aged but not pulped by exposure to the elements. Interesting. When the police arrived, he’d have to inform them Richard Hodge had handled the bag, so they could get his fingerprints for elimination. Laney’s too.

Noah let out a soft growl and rose. Even after all this time, his thoughts fell into investigator mode. This situation was a trap for him in more ways than one.
“The authorities are on their way.” Laney’s mellow voice reminded him of one of those traps.

He turned to find her approaching. Her complexion had a more color than when she all but collapsed in his office. Everything about her appealed to him, from the glossy brown hair bouncing against slender shoulders to her big blue eyes and gentle way with her special needs students. But he’d vowed never again to mix his professional life with his personal life.

She stopped beside him, the top of her head coming to his chin, which made her a petite 5’, 2” or so. “I think we’re going to see both the sheriff and the city boys,” she said, her gaze fixed on the backpack. She shuddered and hugged herself.

Noah bunched his fists and denied the impulse to hold her. The temptation would have been harder to squash if he didn’t know so many eyes were on them. He’d seen noses pressed against the windows. Even without the orange alert, people in this small school could smell something was up.

“Tell me about it, Laney.” He stepped close.

Noah mentally smacked himself for a fool. The fresh rain scent of her understated cologne reached his nostrils, and as usual, those enormous eyes did terrible, wonderful things to his insides. Good thing for him she’d always appeared oblivious to the attraction.

“Grace was autistic,” she said. “It wouldn’t have been hard for someone to take advantage of her.”

“She was eight.” He grimaced. “It’s pretty easy for an adult to take advantage of any child that young.”

“I know but . . . how do I explain?” She rubbed the side of her slender neck. “My sister didn’t see the world in the same way as a child without that particular perspective. Gracie could fixate on something and not notice one other thing around her. The monster who took her must have lured her with something that fascinated her. Otherwise she was leery of strangers, and could get vocal and combative if someone unfamiliar invaded her space.”

Noah frowned. “Lured her? You’re sure it was a stranger abduction?”

“The FBI came to that conclusion after extensive investigation.”

“Did the predator have to get her away from a public place? If he found her in a remote or private location, he wouldn’t have cared if there was a chase or a struggle.”

Laney’s sable brows lifted. “You talk like someone familiar with these situations.”

Noah rippled his shoulders. “A school principal needs to be these days.”

She looked away, and a breath stuttered between her teeth. “The world has gotten so scary. You surmised correctly. Grace was walking home from school and disappeared from our home block. People were in their yards, but no one saw a thing.”

“I take it she was never found.”

“Not her body, just evidence that she didn’t survive the abduction. The last trace of her was discovered in the bottom of a ravine near Grand Valley. That’s the town in southeastern Minnesota where we lived at the time.” She shook her head. “I blame myself to this day.”

Noah narrowed his gaze at her. Why did she feel responsible? She couldn’t have been much older than her sister. Just a kid.

A sheriff’s SUV and a Cottonwood Grove police cruiser pulled up to the curb outside the playground fence, bubbles flashing but no sirens. Sheriff Hank Lindoll and one of his deputies climbed out of the SUV, and a pair of city officers out of the car. The convocation strode toward them in v-formation, with Lindoll flying point.

“Noah.” The tall, rawboned sheriff greeted him and sent a long glance toward Laney.

“Hank.” Noah nodded to the county official who’d be lead investigator in this case. A good man. He should feel relieved. Instead, he tamped down an irrational spike of resentment.

“What’ve we got here?” The sheriff glared at the tattered pack.

“Laney says it belonged to her sister who was abducted as a child. I’ll let her fill you in.”

Noah forced himself to back away as the sheriff started the interview process and assigned his deputy and the other officers to cordoning off the area for examination. Eyes would really be glued to school windows now that the yellow tape was going up.

He looked at his watch. The second grade was due out here for gym class this very minute. He trotted toward the doors and intercepted the thundering herd of shouting, giggling children as they burst into the open air. They quieted as soon as they saw him.

Faces turned glum when he sentenced them to indoor gym on this beautiful day only a week shy of summer vacation, but grins returned when he told their teacher to go ahead and set up the obstacle course in the gymnasium. It took a little effort to drag the stuff out of storage and get the course ready, but the over, under, in, out was a favorite with the kids. They happily followed the phy-ed teacher back indoors.

When Noah returned to the edge of the crime scene tape, the sheriff was on the phone.

Laney sidled up to him. “He’s calling the FBI. The Minneapolis field office investigated Gracie’s disappearance years ago. They’ve got the case file from back then.”

He nodded. “They’ll probably want to come out here.”

She wrinkled her nose. “I hope they don’t send the same people as before. One in particular.”

Sheriff Lindoll smacked his phone shut. “A team of agents and Evidence Recovery Technicians are on their way from Minneapolis. The agent in charge said for us to hold the scene but not do anything until they arrive.”

Noah nodded. “I can buy that for letting their techs get first shot at the school bag, but we need to contain the people-factor.” He canted his head toward the school building. “I want to meet with teaching staff first and give them every detail we can. Then I’d like to hold a general assembly and explain things in simple terms that even the kids can grasp. We’ll need to send them home with letters for their parents. Every family should be on the alert if there’s a child predator in the area.”

Laney gasped. “But won’t that frighten everybody, especially the kids?”
Noah met her concerned gaze. “People will be afraid, but not panicked. I believe they’ll react with steady heads, even the children, if the information is presented the right way.”

“And you’re the guy to do that for sure,” Sheriff Lindoll spoke up.

“And you’re the guy to organize students and staff into interview groups while everyone is assembled,” Noah shot back. “We need to speak to people while memories are fresh, before they’ve had time to go home and debrief with friends and family. Every class was on the playground in shifts over noon hour before Laney found the pack. We need to find out if anyone saw someone leave it, or if and when people first started noticing the pack was there. That should help establish a timeline to narrow the investigation.”

The sheriff pursed his lips. “That’ll lean a little on FBI toes, but I think you’ve got a winner of a plan. Not surprising, with your background.” He smacked Noah on the shoulder and tromped off to consult with his deputy.
With your background. Noah gritted his teeth. Hank had to mention that in front of Laney. But in this situation, wasn’t it only a matter of time before his secret was out?

“I’ll have Miss Aggie call the teachers together.” Noah studied the vacant basketball court to avoid Laney’s questioning gaze. “I’d like you to be in that meeting and share the facts. Then you might want to pull your daughter aside and give her a heads-up on what’s going on. You can stay with her in my private office until we call the assembly. Then I’ll have you sit back stage so you can hear but not be seen. I don’t want Briana subjected to staring eyes.”

She touched his arm, and his gaze returned to hers. His pulse rate quickened. How could she not feel this powerful connection between them? Please, don’t let her feel it.

“Thank you,” she said. “You’ve been terrific. I knew you would be.”

A smile quivered up at him, slipping a sharp pang of longing beneath the armor his head had erected around his heart. As far as he knew, there was no man in her life. Her ex-husband was out of the picture. She was available, but out of his reach. Not only was theirs a work relationship, but she was now the nexus of a missing person’s investigation. Pure poison for him.

Noah answered her smile with an effort then strode toward the school doors.

There was no way he could risk involvement with Laney, or this case, beyond his duties as school principal. But, a small voice niggled, if there’s a predator lurking near the students, shouldn’t that include catching the slime? He slowed his pace. He had the skills, and this incident involved him directly, but to save his sanity he had to let law enforcement handle this. After what happened six years ago, nothing could drag him back into the business.

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