BY: LAURA ELVEBAK

When two young runaways break into a wealthy man’s home, with horrific consequences, ex-cop and teen shelter counselor, Niki Alexander, comes to their defense. She soon discovers their motive had been to uncover a crime more heinous than two children could handle alone, and she is determined to finish what they started…

TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In A Matter of Revenge by Laura Elvebak, Niki Alexander is a former cop and teen counselor who’s determined to help a couple of runaway pre-teens. Niki gets involved when the mother of a missing girl calls Niki from prison and begs her to find her daughter. The girl was last seen with another runaway, a twelve-year-old boy, and both have been missing for some time. Fearing the worst, Niki starts investigating, but what she discovers is almost more than she can handle. Learning that the two missing kids have broken into a wealthy man’s home, Niki assumes they were looking for valuables to steal for money to survive. She soon finds out that she was wrong. The kids didn’t break into the house for valuables, but for evidence of a much worse crime than burglary.

The story is well written, fast-paced, and touching, giving you a glimpse into the harsh, difficult, and often tragic life of young runaways and the people who try to protect them from others who would prey on them. I strongly recommend it.

REGAN MURPHY SAYS: A Matter of Revenge by Laura Elvebak is the story of two young runaways and a woman who will go to the mat to protect them. Our heroine, Niki Alexander, was a detective with the Houston Police Department, but she left to become a teen counselor. She now runs a teen shelter called Open Palms, working with troubled teens. Niki gets a call from someone she knew when she was cop. The woman is calling from prison because she just found out that her eleven-year-old daughter has been missing for a month. Niki agrees to try and find the girl, though she has her doubts that she’ll find the daughter alive after all this time. As she attempts to find her, Niki discovers that the girl was an accomplice to a break in of a wealthy man’s home in Houston. The girl’s partner in crime is a thirteen-year-old boy who is still missing and who engineered the break in, telling the girl that he was there to get evidence of a crime. But the evidence he supposedly took is also missing. Niki needs to find it if she is going to help the two troubled kids, but the girl isn’t forthcoming, as she doesn’t trust adults. And with good reason.

A Matter of Revenge tells a chilling story of abuse, greed, and revenge, opening a window on the world of runaway teens that we don’t normally see. It’s not a pretty picture, but Elvebak handles the subject with compassion and sensitivity. Filled with realistic and well-developed characters, as well as an intriguing mystery, it’s a book that all teens and parents should read.

CHAPTER 1

In the evening haze under a full moon, the pink house in River Oaks, Houston’s wealthiest neighborhood, loomed like a castle among the massive oaks. Bushes shaped like gargoyles lined the stairs leading to the burgundy double doors. Eleven-year-old Jayme Rockland had once seen gargoyles in a scary movie. She was sure the monsters were snarling at her as she inched forward. Better not to look at them. Curtis Ray might read her fear and send her away.

He gave a nervous cough, and then covered it by scowling at the house. She knew him well enough to know he’d rather die than show fear. He told everyone he was thirteen, but she knew better. He’d been only one grade ahead of her, not two, when his folks died and he got sent away. But she let him say whatever. Friends stuck together no matter what.

“This be the right place,” he announced in a low tone.

She glanced at him, catching the slight tremor in his voice. Who was he trying to convince? For the first time since they’d left the streets of Montrose, doubt crept in like the ugly cockroaches in Granny’s house. Her mom once said fear was as contagious as the flu. Now she knew what that meant. What if they were on the wrong street? What if someone waited for them on the other side of the door?

“Why you whispering?” Her voice quivered. “You said nobody would be home.” To hide the itch of fear crawling on her skin, she laughed. Didn’t help. She stared at the house and sucked in air. “You sure he’s gone?”

“He’s supposed to be out of town.” He didn’t sound so sure.

“Yeah, well, you know supposing don’t mean nothing.” She picked up a stone from the ground and tossed it into the grass.

“Owner’s ain’t here,” he said in a firm voice. “Nobody’s here. What’s the matter? You scared?”

“Not.” She imagined the castle’s ghosts peering at her from the windows. “Just saying.”

“Come on, we’re going around back. Hurry.”

She skipped to catch up. “You sure you know what you’re doing?”

“Yeah, now stop asking stupid questions.”

She followed him around the side of the house and through an unlocked iron gate. Her eyes widened when a gigantic pool came into sight. Holy crap! And a tennis court? Their home town could fit in this man’s backyard. She reached into her pocket and took out the cell phone Curtis Ray had given her and pressed the camera app. Pointed, focused and clicked.

He jerked his head toward the sound, yanked her hand down, and snapped her out of her stardust moment. “Not yet,” he whispered.

He led her to a small tool shed by the main house and opened the door. She peered in and recoiled at the darkness, the smell of gasoline and pesticides. Dirt scattered the floor. She imagined creatures, hidden in the corner, waiting to pounce. Rats, maybe. Spiders or snakes, even. She wanted to stay outside, but if he could pretend to be unafraid, so could she.

He took a pen light from his pocket and shined the light around the room. He aimed at a flower pot in the corner. Kneeling next to it, he put his hand inside. He closed his eyes.

What was he doing? She listened for sounds, the scratching of animals or the buzz of insects, but all remained quiet. She turned her attention back to Curtis Ray and watched him pull his hand out of the pot. Empty. He dipped into a second pot next to it. This time he came up with a piece of paper wrapped around a key. He tucked it in his pocket, stood, and turned off the pen light. He motioned to the door and they stepped out under the dwindling light of a darkening blue-gray sky.

He acted like she wasn’t there. She had to quicken her steps to keep up with him. To her surprise, they arrived at the back door. The key fit into the lock and the door opened.

She couldn’t keep silent. “How did ya know?”

He ignored her and entered. To his immediate left, a pad with numbered buttons flashed red. He flattened the piece of paper against the wall next to the pad and, while squinting at it, pushed a series of buttons. The red light turned green. He turned to her and grinned and then gave her a wink. She clapped her hands and he pounded his fist against his puffed out chest.

“Okay, Superman, you never done this before, I bet,” she said with a giggle.

To her disappointment his moment of triumph deflated like a balloon. He scanned the room behind them. “Quiet,” he warned.

She followed his gaze and her jaw went slack. Soft overhead lights set into the ceiling came on automatically when they stepped under the archway. The kitchen didn’t resemble any other she’d seen, except in Granny’s magazines. Steel and chrome so polished she could see her reflection. She ran her hand over black granite countertops, expecting to feel grit, but instead found a cold, smooth surface. The light glinted off the copper bottoms of pans hanging from the ceiling. The air smelled of garlic that hung in wire baskets and yellow roses that sprang from glass vases. She dug out the cell phone and clicked away with feverish urgency.

Curtis Ray noticed and covered the phone with his hand. “Not yet. Come on. His office is upstairs.”

She ran to keep up with him. Her worn tennis shoes sank in white carpet as she passed through rooms, catching sight of the rich wood of a dining table, overstuffed chairs, and a sofa in the living room, and a theater screen in the den. She wanted to stay there, try out the food, sit in the chairs, and maybe lay in the beds upstairs. Like Goldilocks.

They were halfway up the stairs when she thought she heard a noise. “Did you hear that?”

He stopped, cocked his head. “I don’t hear anything.”

“I did, I think. What if he’s here now?”

“Won’t be home for hours,” he said. “If he shows, we go out the window.”

Out the window? She tried to swallow but her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. A hammering hit behind her eyes. Or was that her heart?

“Hurry, Curtis Ray,” she whispered. She imagined ghost eyes following her, evil spirits. Her skin tingled. She felt as if she were balancing on a bouncing tightrope. A burst of nervous laughter broke from her lips.

He whirled on her, the whites of his eyes streaked in red. “What’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing,” she said, not quite able to smother another giggle. If nobody was home, why did they need to be quiet?

“Out of control,” she’d heard Mom say to Grams, over and over. “Girl’s plumb out of control.” That was funny, coming from Mom. Out of control landed Mom in prison.

She listened again, and when she heard nothing, she caught up with Curtis Ray at the top of the staircase and followed him to the room across from the stairs. He flipped a switch on the wall and two lamps glowed with light.

A big wooden desk, polished and neat, filled the center of the room. File cabinets hugged the wall on her left. Paintings and certificates plastered the wall and framed pictures decorated the desk. One showed a pretty blonde woman in a red suit smiling at the camera. Did she live here, too? Curtis Ray had never mentioned her. The next frame showed a man with his arm around the pretty woman, on the beach. Didn’t look like Galveston where Mom took her once. The scene reminded her of magazine pictures, though if someone asked her, she couldn’t explain why. Maybe, on account of their phony smiles, each figure looked like a model. She concentrated on the man’s face. He looked straight ahead, eyes cold, lips thin. Something about him made her shiver. She hoped she never had to meet him.

Her shoulder brushed against a world globe mounted on a stand near the window. The movement caused the globe to sway, and she caught it before the stand fell sideways.

“Don’t touch anything,” Curtis Ray said, glaring at her. He turned to the desk and opened the drawers one at a time. He riffled through each of them. Finally, in an act of desperation, he threw half the contents on the floor.

She stuck her tongue out at him and wandered to the window. The glass still held the heat from the day. Below she saw the pool, shimmering under the moonlight. A long drop if they had to escape. Her stomach growled and she glanced at Curtis Ray. He didn’t seem to notice.

She moved to the doorway and glanced at the closed doors lining the hall. Something about them raised Goosebumps on her arms. She’d never live in a house like this. The idea made her want to laugh. A chance to fly to the moon would be more likely. After a moment she tiptoed to the stairs and listened, but still heard nothing. Even the silence gave her the creeps.

She rubbed her arms hard and went back to the study. A bottom drawer swallowed Curtis Ray’s arm to his elbow. Concentration deepened the lines around his eyes and mouth. Slowly he pulled out his hand, clasped around a set of gold keys.

“What’re they for?” she whispered.

Instead of answering, he went out into the hall. She followed and stopped to watch him try the first closed door. He spread out the keys and stuck one in the lock. Didn’t turn, but the next one he tried opened the door with little effort. He disappeared inside the room and came out a few minutes later, shaking his head. He repeated this routine with all the doors. She wanted to ask him why they were locked and how he knew, but he seemed far away like he’d forgotten she was there.

She turned her attention to the camera phone in her hand. Curiosity nagged at her, begging to be satisfied. She glanced down the hall to make sure he was too busy to notice her. With quickened breath, she opened the gallery of photos Curtis Ray had briefly shared with her earlier. He said his friend, Markey, had borrowed the camera, from someone–he didn’t know who–to take the pictures, but afterward, got scared and gave the phone to Curtis Ray to hide. Curtis Ray suspected the worst when Markey disappeared.

Nothing had changed since the first time she saw the photos. Her eyes had burned when Curtis Ray let her see the room with its single cot and the large round light focused on it. She wanted to ask him why the room was important to him, but his expression stopped her. His voice turned flat and detached when he told her to turn it off and not to look at it again. Whatever happened in that room, she didn’t want to know. She only hoped never to see him look that way again.

She turned off the phone and shoved it in her pocket seconds before Curtis Ray came out of the last room. She could smell his sweat and frustration. He muttered under his breath, “Fuck! Where is it?”

“Were you looking for the room? The one in the camera?” He turned away from her. His back arched. She tried again. “Maybe this is the wrong house.” She secretly hoped that was the case.

He didn’t pay her any mind. She could have been speaking to herself. Instead, he stared at the keys. He turned toward the far end of the hallway, squinting in concentration. His expression hardened and he broke out into a run. She caught his grim smile as he turned the corner.

She followed him to the end of a short corridor that didn’t go anywhere. At least that’s what she thought until she saw Curtis Ray reach for a rope in the ceiling. When he pulled, a ladder clattered to the floor. She looked up to see a black hole.

“Curtis Ray, don’t go up there,” she warned. Her stomach tightened as if expecting a blow.

Of course he didn’t listen to her. Probably didn’t even hear her with his mind so closed up to anything but his mission. That’s what he called this. A secret mission, like when they used to pretend to be spies. She held her breath when he disappeared into the darkness. The voice in her head whispered monsters might be hiding up there to swallow up her friend. Waging war with the voice, her curiosity won out again. What was hidden up there? She strained to listen for signs that the man had come home.

A light went on, and Curtis Ray’s face appeared. He waved her up the ladder. “I think I found them,” he said when she poked her head inside the attic.

She glanced around the tiny room. Bare wooden planks with pink cotton stuffing sticking out, which Curtis Ray explained was insulation. Along the walls were more file cabinets and lockers. In one corner, cots were piled on top of each other.

Curtis Ray held a stack of DVDs. “These got to be them,” he said, before handing them over to her.

“How do you know?” she asked, staring at the case covers with dates as titles.

“They got to be,” he answered, his face so tight his features appeared etched in acid on dark metal. His lips stretched thin as a straight line.

“You all right?” she asked, feeling her mouth sucked dry.

He nodded stiffly.

“Let’s go. Now,” she urged, wanting them both out of there before they were discovered.

She backed down the ladder with one hand guiding her along the rungs. Her other hand clutched the DVDs next to her chest. When he reached her side, he pushed the trap door up. It rose and closed with a loud bang. His eyes grew round and for a moment he froze. Her stomach hurt as his fear transferred to her. Seconds passed as they stared at each other, listening through the silence that followed. Then he took the DVDs from her and jerked his head toward the hallway.

They raced down the stairs. Curtis Ray led her toward the front door. He skidded to a stop next a small table holding a stack of unopened mail. Two high-back cushioned chairs were pushed against the wall on either side of the table. She heard what stopped him: footsteps coming from outside. Her knees shook like jelly.

“It’s him,” she said in a hoarse whisper. Her arm jerked out, reflexive, and hit Curtis Ray on the shoulder.

The blow startled him and the DVDs clattered to the floor. He swore and fell to his knees, gathering them up as fast as he could. At the sound of the doorknob turning, he shoved one of the DVDs in her pocket. He steered her behind one of the chairs and crouched next to her.

The door flung open and a man’s baritone rang out. “Who’s there? Whoever you are, you better come out now.” He switched on the entryway light. “You can’t hide.”

Jayme barely breathed. Tears came to her eyes. She squeezed next to Curtis Ray and felt his body tense. His shoulders bunched to his neck. She jerked when his arm brushed against her and she saw the set of gold keys fly into the air.

The man turned toward the sound of the keys hitting the shiny tile floor, sliding until they crashed against the opposite wall. When the man bent to pick them up, Curtis Ray yanked her to her feet and they raced out the door. Shouts and curses followed them as they fled toward the gargoyle bushes.

Curtis Ray pulled her behind the first bush. He dropped to the ground, taking her with him. Both of them gasped for breath, but she couldn’t understand why he had stopped. They both could run for miles. What was he waiting for? The stairs to the street were two feet away.

“Go. Run,” he ordered in a hoarse whisper.

“With you,” she cried. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Not the stairs,” he cautioned, pulling her to the other side of the bushes. “Use the grass.”

The man’s footsteps sounded close now. Spurred by a rush of panic and terror, and Curtis Ray’s hand slapping her back, she leaped on the grass and flew down the hill, gliding and tumbling down the slick carpet of green.

The ear-shattering shot came as she slid painfully onto the concrete sidewalk. Only then did she realize Curtis Ray wasn’t with her.

An awful knowledge gathered in the depths of her stomach. Her knees hammered together and didn’t want to hold her up. She grabbed hold of a tree trunk to help her stand. Her breath rasped in and out too fast. Way too fast. Where’s Curtis Ray? She sneaked a look. A strangled sob broke from her at the sight of Curtis Ray on the ground. The man hovered over him, something shiny in his hand. A gun. She saw red spread over her friend’s caramel skin.

She wanted to run back to him, even started to scramble back up the slope, but, at that moment, the man looked down, right at her. He raised his gun. He was going to shoot her, too.

She stumbled backward and crawled behind the tree. A car turned the corner, coming toward her. It slowed as the driver craned his head out the window. She waved frantically for him to stop. He turned and faced straight ahead. His car picked up speed and disappeared. Ducking down, she raced across the street and rounded the corner.

She ran until she couldn’t run any longer. The big River Oaks mansions loomed huge on either side of her and seemed scarier than the shooter’s. Across the street a man walked his dog. He frowned when he saw her. His expression made her keenly aware of her dirty secondhand clothes and the certainty that she didn’t belong on this street. Where could she hide until it was late enough and dark enough to get back to the streets of Montrose?

She saw very few cars parked in driveways, but there was one down the block. A shiny black Mercedes Benz, a car she would never find in Granny’s neighborhood, but she knew what they looked like from Curtis Ray’s tattered car magazines. She felt Curtis Ray’s cell phone and the DVD case when she dug in her pocket. Whatever Curtis Ray risked his life for, she must protect with her own. But first she had to get help to him. She hurried down the street of money to the big black car and crouched behind it. Her hands shook as she fumbled with the phone, her fingers barely able to press the nine-one-one keys. When the operator came on, her words stuttered.

“Hurry. A boy’s been shot. Please, you gotta hurry.”

Address? She didn’t know it. Concentrating, she recited the street names. Her name?

She sucked in her breath. When the operator repeated the request, she clicked off. Sobbing, she slumped against the car, barely aware of the pain from her skinned and grass-stained knees.

The fresh horror of seeing him on the ground, that murderer standing over him, brought a flashflood of tears. She choked out a sob, remembering how the shooter had looked at her. She was a witness. He would kill her if he found her.

She struggled painfully to her feet. No lights shone in the windows of the big house. That was good, she thought. She limped up the driveway to the side of the house, kept her back against the rough surface until she came to a wooden gate. A push didn’t budge it. She strained to listen for footsteps.

As she had done a million times before with similar gates, she fit one foot against the wood and, with both hands gripping the top, she swung herself over and landed on a brick walkway. Her legs buckled and she fell forward on her knees. Pain registered, paralyzing her for a moment. She stifled a cry and concentrated on her new surroundings. She was inside a large backyard. No sign of tennis courts here. More like the Japanese gardens she’d seen once in the park.

She crawled between two bushes, medium-sized and shapeless. She felt the urge to giggle for no reason. The smell of roses made her sneeze and she muffled the noise with her shirt. Thorns scraped her skin with every move.

After what seemed like hours, sirens wailed. So many, all sounding different. Help was on the way. She hugged her knees and rocked. She kept her head down, barely feeling the bushes claw at her skin. She was so terrified for Curtis Ray. Was he alive? Couldn’t think. So tired.

The next time she lifted her head, a pale blue-gray light in the sky glimmered. No sirens, no sound of cars on the road, no sound at all but the wind in the trees. She must have slept through the night.

She crawled out of her hiding place. Lights were still off in the house next to her. Now if her luck would only hold as she faced another hurdle. How to get home? The gate she had jumped over now opened without a creak. Had someone unlocked it while she slept? The car that had been in the driveway was gone. Had the driver seen her? No, they would have done something.

She had to tell a cop what had happened, but what could she say? That they broke into the man’s house and tried to steal his DVDs? She had no idea what kind of movies were on them or why they were important to Curtis Ray. She only knew that somehow they were connected to the photos on the camera phone. Her hand touched the DVD in her pocket. Curtis Ray had been willing to get killed to find it. Why?

Her head hurt too much to try to figure it all out. She had more immediate problems.

If I go to the police, will they arrest me?

Damn you, Curtis Ray. Are you alive or dead?

© 2017 by Laura Elvebak