Seven Minutes in Heaven

Page 4


Dr. Banerjee shook his head. “She didn’t have any enemies. None that I knew of.” His hands came free from each other and flew to cover his face. “I don’t know who would want to do something like this to my little girl,” he groaned, his back shuddering.
Behind the monument, a surge of guilt welled up in Emma. Should she tell them about the calls and frantic text from Nisha? Her stomach tightened with anxiety. Quinlan’s suspicions were always quick to rise when Sutton Mercer was involved. At best, he’d probably dismiss it as another attention-seeking prank. At worst, Emma would end up on a list of suspects, and her own story would crumble easily on inspection.
“I need a drink of water,” Dr. Banerjee finally said. His voice sounded tense, as if he was fighting for calm. His face had composed itself, except for his eyes. They were bloodshot and wild.
Quinlan nodded. “Come on, Sanjay.” With surprising gentleness he helped Dr. Banerjee to his feet, and the two men walked to the banquet table set up in the shade of a cedar.
Emma slumped against the tombstone, her heart hammering. So Nisha’s room had been ransacked. But what had the killer been looking for? And did they find it, or was it still there in Nisha’s bedroom?
Emma stared at Nisha’s coffin for a long moment, the deep brown wood shining in the sun. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. Her gaze fell on the grave she’d been hiding behind. JESMINDER BANERJEE, it read. BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER. Nisha’s mom. She hadn’t even thought of that—of course they’d bury Nisha by her mother.
Emma pushed herself up and walked across the green. The crowd was starting to thin. In the distant parking lot she could hear cars starting and doors slamming.
She passed a cluster of Hollier students who were standing close together near a weather-beaten mausoleum with an urn of wilting lilies in front of it. Garrett Austin stood between his younger sister, Louisa, and Celeste, his current girlfriend. Garrett had been Sutton’s “official” boyfriend at the time of her death, although she’d been seeing Thayer secretly at the same time. When Emma had taken her place, he’d offered up his virginity to her as a birthday gift, and after she bolted in a panic, they’d broken up.
Garrett looked devastated. His eyes were red, his blond hair lusterless and unwashed. He’d dated Nisha for a few weeks, and even though they’d broken up, he was obviously not taking her death well. He glanced up and noticed Emma, staring at her blankly, as though he didn’t quite recognize her.
Caught, Emma took a tentative step toward him.
“How are you holding up?” Emma asked awkwardly, touching his shoulder.
Garrett blinked, and then all at once his face darkened into a scowl. He jerked away from her hand, his arms taut with anger. She instinctively took a step back. He looked for a moment like he wanted to take a swing at her.
“What do you care? You barely even knew her,” he hissed.
Behind him, Emma could see that Celeste looked shocked by his anger. Louisa glanced from Emma to Garrett, confused.
Emma felt frozen in place. Barely knew her? Sure, Emma had only known Nisha for a few months. But Sutton had grown up with Nisha.
“Garrett, I know you’re upset . . .” Celeste started, laying her hand on his arm. He whipped around violently so that his nose was inches from hers. Emma’s entire body tensed at the wild expression on his face. A nasty sneer twisted his lips.
“You don’t know anything,” he snarled. “Would you just shut up for five minutes? I’m starting to think Nisha was right about you.”
Emma’s jaw fell open. Celeste’s expression darkened. “Is that so?” she snapped, the airy quality gone from her voice. “When did you have this cozy little chat about me?”
“It’s none of your business,” he shouted. By now most of the other students they’d been standing with had slunk away awkwardly. Louisa watched her brother with anxious, darting eyes.
Laurel materialized at Emma’s side and grabbed her by the arm, steering her past them, toward the parking lot. “Come on,” she whispered, even as Celeste’s voice rose up angrily behind them. “Arguing at a funeral? How tacky.”
“I can’t believe he’d yell at his girlfriend like that,” Emma said, feeling a little dazed. She let Laurel lead her past the rows upon rows of headstones.
Laurel stopped for a moment, raising her eyebrow. “Excuse me? You two used to go at it all the time.”
Emma stared at Sutton’s sister.
Laurel shrugged. “Come on, Sutton, he used to freak out about everything. You not calling him back quick enough, you wearing too short a skirt, you not making one of his games. He’s not exactly even-keeled.”
“Yeah,” Emma stammered, trying to cover her confusion. “I know. Come on, let’s go.”
They started walking again. Across the graveyard, Celeste and Garrett’s voices were still audible, cutting tensely back and forth. Emma’s head spun. Why had he said that she barely knew Nisha?
I didn’t know either. But something told me Emma had better figure it out quickly. Garrett obviously had a short fuse, and Emma didn’t want to be caught in the blast zone if he went off.
The next afternoon, Emma and Ethan walked up a bare, hilly trail at Tucson Mountain Park. Emma tightened a gray cashmere scarf around her neck, shivering at the cool wintry air. The rocks glowed reddish gold in the late-day sun, and Emma and Ethan clasped hands as they walked, their fingers interlacing.
Emma liked the barren landscape. She’d felt as if someone had been following her since the moment she arrived in Tucson, but there wasn’t much cover on this wide expanse of trail. Sutton’s killer would have a hard time sneaking up on her here.
As they walked she told Ethan about the Mercers’ family meeting. He listened carefully, his eyes ahead on the path. “They’re going to look for me, Ethan, and it’s not like I covered my tracks.” She thought about every CSI episode she’d ever seen. It was ridiculously easy to trace peoples’ whereabouts, if you had an Internet connection and a witness or two. “I don’t know how long I have before they figure it out. And if they do, I’ll be the number-one suspect. The killer has made sure of that.”
They reached a promontory with a covered picnic area looking over the park. A fat raccoon glanced nonchalantly up from a McDonald’s wrapper as they approached, then waddled off into the underbrush. Emma sat on the top of the picnic table, rummaging in her backpack for a bottle of water. She took a long sip, then handed it to Ethan.
“All of us are in danger.” She looked up at him miserably. “You, me, my family. We have to solve this, and fast.”
He slid an arm around her and pulled her against his side protectively. She rested against his shoulder, breathing in the clean-laundry smell of his flannel shirt.
“Okay, so we’ve ruled out Laurel, Thayer, Madeline, Charlotte, Mr. Mercer, Becky, and the Twitter Twins,” he said, ticking Sutton’s friends and family off one by one. “Are we totally sure it’s not, like . . . a random crime? I mean, maybe it was a drifter or something?”
Emma shook her head. “The killer knows too much about Sutton for it to be random. Where she lives, what her schedule is, the importance of her locket . . . the killer took it right off her neck and left it for me, knowing that I wouldn’t be a realistic stand-in unless I was wearing it.” She shivered. “This murder was personal.”
Ethan nodded. “I guess you’re right.”
“You know who we haven’t looked into?” Emma said quietly. “Garrett.” She filled Ethan in on Garrett’s comment that she “barely knew” Nisha, and Laurel’s revelation that Garrett had a temper with Sutton.
“Wow.” Ethan rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “I don’t really know much about Garrett. We had AP History together last year, but we don’t really move in the same circles. I know he was out a lot for some kind of family emergency in the spring, but I never found out what the story was.”
Emma chewed on her thumbnail. On the one real date she’d had with him, Garrett had mentioned something about his sister. Charlotte was there for me during everything that happened with Louisa, he’d said. At the time she hadn’t been able to come up with a subtle way to ask what he was talking about. “What about Louisa? Do you know her?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Not that well. She kind of keeps to herself.”
“I’ve seen her with Celeste. I guess they’ve hit it off.” Emma took another sip of water and sighed. “Garrett doesn’t strike me as the mastermind type, though. Whoever did this has had to orchestrate a pretty complicated alibi—hiding Sutton’s body and her car, getting me to come to Tucson, watching me to make sure I was playing along. But Garrett couldn’t even pick a restaurant when we went out. He let me decide everything.” She twisted a lock of hair around her index finger so tightly it cut off the circulation. “Then again, maybe he’s just a really good actor. Isn’t that the thing with psychopaths? They’re manipulative, really good at putting up a front.”
Ethan raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t know my girlfriend was an expert on criminal psychology.”
Her lips twisted into a wry smirk. “If I wasn’t before, I will be by the time this is over.” Another thought popped into her head then, one that made her sit up straight. “You know, I haven’t been able to figure out how the killer got into Charlotte’s house that night he strangled me. But if it was Garrett . . .” She looked at Ethan significantly.
His mouth fell open. “He dated her before he dated Sutton.”
“He might have had the alarm codes,” Emma agreed, then paused. “And then he dated Nisha.”
They looked at each other uncertainly. And then Nisha died, too. The unspoken phrase hovered between them.
Ethan licked his lips. “If it was Garrett, that makes sense. Maybe she saw something while they were dating, and only figured it out two weeks ago.”
Emma sighed. “It’s all speculation, though, isn’t it? We don’t have any evidence putting him at the scene.”
“Yeah, but we definitely have enough reasons to suspect him,” Ethan argued. “In murder cases the cops almost always look at husbands or boyfriends first.”
Emma thought back to homecoming, when Garrett had cornered her in a broom closet to yell at her about their breakup. He’d been drunk, almost violent, twisting her wrist to hold her there against her will. And now she remembered something else—he’d mentioned Thayer. Everyone saw that fight between you guys just before he left. He loved you.
“What if he found out about Sutton and Thayer?” Her throat went dry at the thought. “He could have followed her to the canyon that night and caught them together.”
“That would be a real motive,” Ethan said.
She nodded, the hairs on the back of her neck spiking up. Suddenly the memories of her brief “relationship” with Garrett looked a lot creepier. He’d acted like he really thought she was Sutton, but maybe he’d been testing her, training her so that no one would figure out Sutton was dead. The image of Sutton’s bed, covered in rose petals, floated back to her, and she shuddered. What if he’d been trying to turn her into the Sutton he’d wanted all along?