Emma stared at him, but no words came out.
“I didn’t think so,” Mr. Mercer said. He placed his hands on Emma’s shoulders, pressing her into the seat. “Keep playing along. Everything will be okay.”
Emma was too afraid to even breathe. His words mirrored the ones used in the first note the killer left her: Sutton’s dead. Tell no one. Keep playing along, or you’re next.
He’d confirmed everything she suspected to be true. Rage suddenly flowed through her. He’d done this to Sutton—to her. He’d brought her here to cover up his heinous crime. Then he’d threatened her, again and again, to keep quiet. And all for…what? Some woman? Keeping up family appearances?
My shock and sadness and horror turned to fury, too. My own father had killed me. There was no question, and there was no good reason. Parents were supposed to love, not kill. They were supposed to protect their children, not throw them away like they were a pair of last year’s boot-cut jeans. I wasn’t dispensable. I wasn’t nothing.
Emma whipped around and grabbed the handle again. Mercifully, the door wasn’t locked, and she was too quick for Mr. Mercer. All at once, she was on the curb and running across the parking lot.
“Sutton!” Mr. Mercer roared. But Emma kept going.
She never felt so relieved to see the girls’ locker room; Mr. Mercer couldn’t follow her in there. She went straight into the bathroom and locked the stall door behind her.
“Oh my God,” she whispered into her hands. What was she supposed to do now? How was she going to outsmart Mr. Mercer and get the evidence she needed without him killing her? How much time did she have left?
I didn’t know the answers either. And for me, I was still stuck on what my dad had just said. His words played over and over in my mind like a broken record. Keep playing along. Like this was a game.
I rested my fingers around Emma’s as I’d only done once before—the night she was trapped in the cave with Lili and we both thought everything was over. That time, I was comforting her. But this time was different.
This time, I was the one who needed my sister.
THE RATTLESNAKE IN THE ROOM
Tuesday after practice, Emma pulled into the parking lot of La Encantada, the luxe shopping mall in the Tucson hills. She threw the car into park just as her phone buzzed in her lap.
ANY LUCK GOOGLING MR. MERCER? Ethan asked.
NO, NOTHING. HIS NAME IS TOO COMMON, Emma typed back.
HMM. I’LL TRY LOOKING, TOO, Ethan said.
THX. YOU ARE THE BEST, Emma responded.
Emma had been a wreck after her conversation with Mr. Mercer, but luckily he hadn’t come home from the hospital until almost midnight. In addition to googling him and Mrs. Mercer, she’d checked the home study to see if there was anything there about their past. But aside from some old tax forms, she hadn’t seen any evidence of their life in California.
“Uh, hello?” Laurel’s face appeared in the window. She’d driven herself, but Emma had followed her into the parking lot. “What are you doing, zombie?”
Emma jumped, slid Sutton’s phone into her purse, and pulled the keys from the ignition. By the time she climbed out, Laurel was already walking impatiently toward the shops. “It’s past six,” Laurel called over her shoulder. “What do you want to bet Gabby and Lili found all the best dresses already?”
“They can’t wear every single amazing dress to the party,” Emma pointed out. The plan was to hit Anthropologie, BCBG, J. Crew, and a bunch of other boutiques in the shopping plaza.
Laurel stepped onto the escalator and gripped the handrail hard.
“So are you excited for the party?” Emma asked.
“Uh-huh,” Laurel said stiffly.
“Looking forward to really sticking it to the Devious Four?”
Laurel grunted and glanced away.
Emma sighed loudly. She had enough on her plate without Laurel’s mercurial moods. “Okay, Laurel. What did I do this time?”
Laurel swung around and rode the escalator up backward, resting her hands on the arm rails. “Fine,” she spat. “Dad said you were snooping in my room. Again.”
Emma blinked, barely remembering searching Laurel’s room. Now that Laurel wasn’t a suspect, it was like her mind had erased all of the Laurel-themed sleuthing.
Laurel set her mouth in a line. “Were you looking for love letters between Thayer and me? Well, I have a surprise for you, Sutton. Something that will make you very happy.” She brushed a honey-blond lock behind her shoulder. “Thayer’s not into me that way.” Her voice trembled a tiny bit.
“Oh, Laurel, I’m sorry,” Emma said softly, stepping off the escalators. She reached out for Laurel’s arm, but Laurel pulled away.
“He told me last night that he’s still into you,” Laurel said, her voice low, like it pained her to say the words. “I just don’t get it. If you guys are still into each other, why did you break up?”
Emma blinked. Two sets of shoppers passed before she could speak again. “I’m not into him, Laurel. I swear.”
Laurel rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right. I heard about you two having a secret powwow the night of Dad’s party.”
A muscle in Emma’s jaw tensed. “Did Charlotte tell you?”
Laurel’s eyes widened. “So it is true?”
Emma sighed. The meaty smell of the steak house down at the end of the esplanade was beginning to give her a headache. “It’s true, but it’s not what you think. We were just talking. There’s nothing between us anymore. I really, really like Ethan.” Emma placed her hand on Laurel’s arm. “Look, I’m sorry about Thayer. And I’m sorry about going into your room without asking,” she said. “I promise I won’t do it again. I was just looking for those red leather sandals you borrowed for Homecoming. I was thinking of wearing them to Dad’s party.”
Laurel glanced at her. “With that green dress you had on? Are you kidding?”
“I thought it would make a statement.” Emma grinned.
“Yeah, you would have looked like a Christmas tree,” Laurel said with a laugh, and just like that, the tension lifted.
As they started toward BCBG, where the girls were meeting first, Emma realized she needed to clear something up. She looked at Laurel. “So what was up with that disgusting tennis racket under your chair?”
Laurel blinked, looking like she didn’t know what Emma was talking about. Then, a light appeared in her eyes. “Oh my God. I totally forgot about that. I used it to kill a rattlesnake in the backyard last week. It was awful.”
“Ew!” Emma said, relieved to have Laurel off her suspect list for good.
Then Laurel sighed. “And actually, it was sort of awful of Dad to tell on you.”
Emma swallowed hard. It was dangerous to involve Laurel at all, but she knew Mr. Mercer better than anyone. Perhaps she’d noticed something. “Yeah. He’s been acting kind of strange recently, don’t you think?” she said.
“Maybe a little,” Laurel said with a frown. “But I think he just doesn’t like Thayer.”
Before Emma could press for more, Laurel’s phone blasted a Rihanna song, scaring some of the nearby shoppers. She fumbled for her phone inside her crocodile-embossed handbag, then pressed the speaker button. “Hey, Dad,” she singsonged.
“Hi, darling,” Mr. Mercer said. His voice echoed off the hard surfaces in the mall. The hair on Emma’s arms stood on end.
“Sutton and I are both here,” Laurel said. “What’s up?”
“Sutton’s there, too?” Suddenly, Mr. Mercer sounded guarded. “Oh.”
Emma curled her toes inside Sutton’s four-inch wedges.
“Uh, what time are you girls coming home tonight?” Mr. Mercer asked.
Laurel glanced at Emma and shrugged. “We’re shopping right now. I guess I’ll be home after that. I don’t know about Sutton, though.”
Emma’s throat felt like it was closing. “Actually I’m not coming home,” she said, making a snap decision. “I’m sleeping at Charlotte’s. Please let Mom know.” Charlotte would definitely go for it, and the only way Emma was going to feel safe was if she was anywhere but Sutton’s house.
“Fine.” Mr. Mercer’s voice was stern. “Tell Mr. Chamberlain I said hello. And remember our conversation, all right, Sutton?”
Laurel shot Emma a questioning look, but Emma leaned over, plucked Laurel’s phone from her hands, and hit the END button before any more could be said. Then she composed her features, trying to act like this was just another one of Sutton Mercer’s bitchy little moods. Laurel just stared, slack-jawed.
“Whoa,” Laurel finally said. “What did you do this time to get on Dad’s bad side?”
You have no idea, I thought.
“And what conversation was he talking about? Did he catch you with Thayer at the party, too?”
“No,” Emma said tightly as BCBG came into sight.
Luckily, the Twitter Twins were standing in front of the store display, picking on the mannequins. “Who would accessorize with those hideous belts?” Gabby was saying of the one on the right.
Lili wrinkled her nose at the other mannequin, which was holding an oversized quilted bag. “And why do they have to make the models so freakishly thin?”
“Ladies,” Laurel said.
The Twitter Twins spun around and gave Laurel and Emma big smiles. “Three more days ’til the secret dance!” Gabby trilled.
“Wait till Mads tells you what happened,” Lili said, chomping on her gum.
As if on cue, Madeline and Charlotte appeared at the escalators. The girls strode over, and everyone air-kissed.
Gabby nudged Madeline. “Come on. Tell them about your run-in with the Devious Four.”
Madeline rolled her eyes. “I wish you wouldn’t call them that. It gives them too much credit. Anyway, those stupid girls cornered me after school today and begged me to invite them to the party.” She tucked a strand of inky black hair behind her ear and crossed her arms over her chest.
“And?” Laurel looked excited. “You said no, right?”
“Of course I said no,” Madeline said. “But you should have seen them. They practically got on their knees and begged.”
“Good. That means they’ll definitely try to crash,” Charlotte said decisively. “And once Ethan gets that footage, they’ll be the stars of their very own little movie.”
“I can’t wait to see their faces,” Gabby said. “The footage was such a great idea, Sutton.”
Emma smiled. For once, she was proud of a Lying Game idea. It wasn’t particularly mean, just fair. And she liked that it involved Ethan, too.
“No one messes with us. Right?” Lili said. She nudged Emma.
“Right,” Emma said, forcing a smile.
But we both knew that wasn’t true. Someone had done a lot worse than mess with us. Someone had killed me, and my friends had no idea.
MANO A MANO
The lunch bell rang on Wednesday, and Emma opened Sutton’s locker and stared at its contents. Since she’d taken over Sutton’s life, she’d made some rearrangements, taking down the little locker-sized mirror and replacing it with a picture of Johnny Depp, her longtime crush, and removing the snarky magnet that said I’M THE QUEEN OF THE WORLD, AND YOU’RE MY BITCHES and swapping it with a magnet of Stewie from Family Guy. It was one thing for Sutton to be a queen bee; she didn’t need to announce it to the whole school via her locker.