Three days ago she’d approached this house in trepidation, nervous about seeing a sister she hadn’t spoken with in fifteen years. Now she was racked with fear for her sister’s life. Royce and Eddie had arrived at the home moments before and were talking with her parents. Eddie had an arm around her mother.

Her mother’s hair was shot with gray, but she still wore most of it pulled back in a single wide barrette at the back of her head. Nostalgia stabbed Mercy in the heart as she recognized her mother’s ancient sweatshirt, and she had an overwhelming need to be the one with an arm around her. Her father’s shoulders were stooped, but his head was up in an intractable pose she knew too well.

She met Eddie’s gaze, which was full of sympathy and concern, as everyone turned to see who approached.

Mercy’s steps slowed and she held her breath, her gaze skimming from face to face.

Will they shut me out?

I can’t take the rejection right now.

Her mother’s mouth dropped open, and she stepped out from under Eddie’s arm. Mercy’s vision tunneled on her mother’s green eyes, and she walked straight into her open arms.

Acceptance.

Everything was familiar. Same shape, same smell, same embrace. Mercy closed her eyes, pushing aside all thoughts.

“We’ll find her, Mom.”

Her mother pulled back from their embrace and placed her hands on Mercy’s cheeks as tears streamed down her own. Her face had aged. More wrinkles, more folds, a new softness. “I’m so glad to see you, Mercy.”

Words Mercy would never forget.

She touched her forehead to her mother’s, remembering how her mother had done it each morning before she left for school. Her mother hugged her again.

Truman looked pleased and raised one eyebrow at her.

She nodded at him. All was good. At this split second in time all was good.

Rose.

She moved back, gripping her mother’s shoulders. “What happened, Mom?”

Her mother sucked in a deep, wavering breath, but her father answered first. “We just got home. The front door was open, and I can tell there was a struggle in the kitchen.”

“There’s blood on the kitchen floor,” her mother whispered. “Broken glass, a mess everywhere.” Her face crumpled. “She’s gone. Her phone’s on the kitchen counter. She’d never go anywhere without her phone.”

Mercy looked at her father. He hadn’t made a move toward her, and she stood just as still.

“Dad.”

He nodded. “Mercy.” His eyebrows were low, his eyes ice cold.

Is that it?

Strengthened by her mother’s embrace, Mercy felt her father’s rejection roll off her shoulders. I can handle him.

“We’d like to take a look in the house,” Truman said, breaking the silence.

“Who’s been inside?” Mercy asked her mother.

“Just us. We didn’t touch anything. As soon as we saw the open door, we knew something was wrong. And when we went in . . .”

“Did you see any vehicles leaving as you arrived? Anything unusual left behind?” Royce asked.

Her mother’s hands wouldn’t hold still. She touched her bag, her belt, and her sleeves as she looked to her husband, who shook his head. “We didn’t notice anything.”

“Let’s take a look.” Truman handed booties and gloves to everyone. As she slipped them on, Mercy studied the heavy door and its multiple locks. Nothing was busted or bent. Rose must have left the door unlocked even though she was home alone. Mercy knew a lot of rural home owners didn’t lock their doors, but her father had insisted they keep it locked. Especially after the murders of Jennifer and Gwen.

Mistake number one.

Or did you open it to someone you knew?

The house appeared pristine except for the kitchen. Russet potatoes were strewn about the floor. Some peeled, some not. A glass bowl lay in shatters among the potatoes. Mercy glanced in the sink, where peelings covered the bottom. A vegetable peeler was abandoned in the brown mess.

How many times did I peel potatoes in this kitchen?

She glanced at her parents, who’d stayed out of the way of the officers, and was pleased to see her father holding her mother’s hand.

Some good things haven’t changed.

Taking care where she stepped, she walked the tile floor. Smears of blood showed where a struggle had occurred. She squatted to get a closer look and spotted a small paring knife on the floor nearly under the stove. She pointed and Royce nodded, aiming his camera at the knife. The officer had been taking photos since they entered, and Mercy couldn’t find fault with his thoroughness.

The blood smears led toward the front of the house, but quickly vanished, giving no clue where the bleeder had gone. Mercy wandered down the hall, using her small flashlight to study the floor and walls, searching for more blood. She shone her light in the powder room near the front door and froze as her heart fell through the floor. “Mom?”

Her mother appeared with Truman, Eddie, and her father right behind her.

“Was the bathroom mirror already broken?”

Her mother automatically reached to flip on the switch, but Mercy grabbed her hand. “Don’t touch.” Mercy stepped back so her mother could see clearly into the room and aimed her flashlight. A small empty frame hung over a sink filled with mirror shards.

“Noooo. Rose!”

Mercy grabbed her mother’s arm as her knees buckled. Her father pushed his way into the small powder room, took his wife in his arms, and clenched his jaw as he silently stared at the mess in the sink.

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