Seven Minutes in Heaven

Page 10


Mrs. Mercer gave a strangled groan and buried her face in her hands. Mr. Mercer looked torn between comforting his wife and going to his daughter. But before he could move, Laurel spoke.
“In case you haven’t noticed,” she said curtly, “we’re grieving.”
A rush of gratitude for my sister filled me.
Quinlan pursed his lips slightly, jotting something down in his notebook, then flipped back a few pages to look something up. “All right,” he said. “Miss Paxton’s time of death is estimated to be between August thirtieth and September first. Were you in Sabino Canyon between those dates?”
Laurel gave a little jump, and Emma knew what she was thinking. The thirty-first was the night Thayer and Sutton had been out in the canyon on a date; when Thayer was hit by someone driving Sutton’s car, and Laurel had to come take him to the hospital. But it was Mr. Mercer who answered.
“Sutton and I were both at Sabino Canyon on August thirty-first.” He glanced at Mrs. Mercer. “We met Becky there. It was a pretty emotional night. Sutton didn’t know about Becky until then.”
Quinlan turned his steely gaze back on Emma. “Was this before or after you’d found Emma on Facebook?”
“Just before,” she said. “Becky told me about Emma, and a few hours later I got the message from Emma herself.”
Quinlan’s hairy eyebrows arched high on his forehead. “That’s quite the coincidence.”
Emma shrugged, though a thin sheen of sweat had broken out at her temples. “I assumed Becky had gotten in touch with Emma right before she came to see me. After all, Emma is the twin that Becky raised. I’m the one she gave away. The one she didn’t want.” She let her voice waver, then hoped she wasn’t overdoing it. “If she wanted us to finally meet after all these years, it stands to reason that she would go to Emma first.”
A long and awkward silence followed this speech. Mrs. Mercer was still hiding her face in her hands, weeping silently. Laurel seemed to be examining the brown mosaic tile on the floor. Emma swallowed hard.
“Okay,” Quinlan said, drawing out the second syllable skeptically. “So can you explain why you walked into the station two days later calling yourself Emma Paxton?”
The question dropped like a bomb. Mrs. Mercer’s hand flew away from her face as she whipped around to stare at Emma. Next to her, Laurel went rigid. Mr. Mercer blinked at Quinlan.
“She did what?” he asked, his face sheet-white.
“Yup. First day of school, Sutton came into the station insisting that she wasn’t Sutton but Emma, and that something terrible had happened to her twin. I blew it off as another prank. Now, though . . .” He shook his head. “Now I’m not so sure.”
Emma’s collar suddenly felt like it was choking her. She swallowed hard, forcing herself to hold Quinlan’s gaze.
“Well, yeah,” she said softly. “It was a prank. I’d just found out I had a twin. It wasn’t like I knew anything had happened to her. Like I said, she didn’t show up when we were supposed to meet.” She held his gaze, trying to channel a little of Sutton’s attitude, trying to imagine how Sutton would handle being interrogated when her long-lost sister had just died. “I was mad. Mad at my parents, mad at Becky, mad at Emma for standing me up. I was hoping you’d call me on it. That you’d tell my parents, and then I’d find out if Emma was even real.”
She looked away from Quinlan to her grandparents. Mrs. Mercer stared miserably at her, her eyes glassy with tears. Mr. Mercer looked stern for a moment, like he might chastise her, but then he looked away as though ashamed.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Mercer said, blowing air heavily out through his mouth. “You’re right, Sutton. We should have told you the truth much sooner.”
Not bad, I thought, oddly proud of Emma’s performance. She did a good angry Sutton Mercer. I must have been rubbing off on her after all.
A stab of shame shot through Emma’s chest. Now Mr. Mercer thought he was in the wrong, when none of this was his fault. I hope someday you can forgive me, she thought. But all she said was, “It’s not important anymore.”
Quinlan sat very still in the chair, watching her evenly. He let the silence stretch out a heartbeat too long before speaking again. “I have one more question, and then I’ll get out of your hair for the evening. Sutton, we’ve been looking at Nisha Banerjee’s phone records to try to figure out what may have happened in the hours leading up to her death. It looks like she called you and texted you . . .”—he glanced at his notes—“. . . eight times all together.”
Emma nodded. She’d been expecting this ever since the funeral. “I was busy and didn’t answer. I tried to call her back later, after tennis, but by the time I called her . . .” She trailed off helplessly.
The detective raised an eyebrow. “So you have no idea what she was messaging you about?”
“No. I wish I did.” Emma’s voice broke. “Maybe I could have helped her.” Laurel gave Emma a stricken look and squeezed her arm. “I asked Dr. Banerjee about it, but he didn’t know either.”
“What does that have to do with Sutton?” Mr. Mercer asked, frowning at Quinlan. The detective shook his head.
“Probably nothing,” he said. “But it seemed unusual. Nisha didn’t make a habit of calling anyone that frantically. I’m just trying to make sure we have all the facts.” The detective stood up, closing his notebook and sliding it back into his breast pocket. “Sutton, I really need to see those Facebook messages. We’re trying to come up with a timeline of what happened to Emma, and they’ll help. Can you come by the station on Friday?”
Emma wanted to ask Quinlan some questions, too—about the state of the body, whether there was any evidence of murder or footprints nearby or anything—but he was already looking at her strangely, and she didn’t want to set off any more alarms in his head. Instead, she just nodded. “Sure. I’ll come after school.”
Quinlan paused where he stood, looking around at each of them. His gaze lingered longest on Emma. “I should warn you, this is going public tomorrow.”
“Public?” Emma asked, frowning.
“There’s a press conference scheduled for eight A.M. I’m guessing the media are going to have a field day with it. You should be prepared for that.”
Mrs. Mercer rose from her seat. “Can’t we keep this quiet?” she asked pleadingly. “We haven’t even had time to take this in.”
Quinlan looked sympathetic, but he shook his head. “There’s already a half dozen news helicopters circling over the spot where we found her. I’m afraid the story’s going to hit pretty hard.” He pulled his wallet from his back pocket and removed a business card. “I’ll leave this here. Give me a call if you remember anything else that you think might be of use.”
“Of course,” Mr. Mercer murmured. “I’ll see you out, Detective Quinlan.”
The detective followed Emma’s grandfather back to the front door. As they passed her, Quinlan flashed her a sharp look, his eyes glittering brightly. Then he was gone.
Emma braced herself against the kitchen island, the strength flooding out of her all at once. She’d managed to dodge the truth one more time. But she had a feeling Quinlan wasn’t done with her yet. How much longer would she be able to conceal her identity, now that the cops had found Sutton’s body?
Emma’s secrets—and mine—were unraveling faster than she could build new lies to cover them up. And I knew from experience what happens at the end of a Lying Game.
You get caught.
The last bit of evening light illuminated the cracked wood of Ethan’s front steps when Emma pulled up outside his house a few hours later. Ethan sat on the creaky porch swing, a can of root beer in one hand and his laptop propped on an enormous wooden spool used as a table. When he saw her, he jumped to his feet and walked quickly toward her, his face disappearing into the shadows as he left the porch’s warm glow.
“What’s going on?” he asked, before she could say anything. “Charlotte and Madeline said you’d been pulled out of class, and I couldn’t find you. Why didn’t you answer my texts?”
She stumbled forward into Ethan’s arms. “They found her,” she whispered, burying her face in his T-shirt. “Sutton’s body. In Sabino Canyon.”
She felt his body tense, then curl protectively around her. “That explains it.” She looked up at him quickly. He jerked his head toward the canyon in answer. “I sat out here watching the cops turn into the parking lot all afternoon. The place was crawling with reporters, too.”
A groan escaped her lungs. “There’s going to be a press conference, Ethan,” she said. “It’s all going to come out. And look.”
She handed him the crumpled ball of paper that had been left on her windshield that afternoon. He took his arms from around her to smooth the note flat against his thigh, then held it up to the light. A sob bubbled up from inside her while he silently stared at the note.
“The killer is threatening my family and my friends now!” she exclaimed. “Ethan, this person is watching me all the time to make sure I don’t mess up. I’m putting the Mercers in danger. I’m putting you in danger!” Tears ran down her cheeks. “I’ve been so selfish. I should never have told you the truth! I never should have let you help me with the case. And now it’s not just the murderer we have to worry about.” She wrenched out of his grasp, taking a few steps back. “The cops. The media. They’re going to figure it out. I don’t want to drag you down with me. I couldn’t bear it if something happened to you.” She looked wildly around, suddenly afraid the killer was here, watching her right now. The street was quiet now, but anyone could be out there in the darkness.
Ethan closed the distance between them and pulled her against his chest. She struggled for one panicked moment and then melted into his embrace.
“I’m not letting you go through this alone,” he said fiercely. “I don’t care what anyone thinks. No matter what, Emma, I’m here for you. With you. You can’t leave me now.”
“If they find out who I am, they’ll think I killed her. And you’ll look like my accomplice.” She pressed her face against his shoulder.
“I don’t care,” he said, his voice muffled, his face buried in her hair.
Her tears dampened the cotton of his shirt. “Ethan, I don’t want what happened to Nisha to happen to you, too.”
He took Emma by her shoulders and held her a little apart from him, forcing her to meet his gaze. Half of his face was in shadow, but his eyes shone with determination. “I’m not going to let that happen.”
She desperately wanted to believe him. The idea of going through the investigation without him felt like sending her heart through a shredder.