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She clung to the banister near the bottom of the staircase.
Blood. There was so much blood. Pain stole her ability to think as it racked her body. No, her brain screamed. This couldn't be happening. Her grasp grew slippery on the rail of wood that kept her from falling completely to the floor.
Blood. There was too much blood. She tried desperately to hold back her scream of pain but it escaped from her, first a low moan and then a scream loud enough to wake the dead.
Marlene Marcoli shot up, her heart thundering frantically as she came out of the dream the all-too-familiar nightmare. Sunshine streamed through the window in her small bedroom and a glance at the clock let her know it was just after eight.
After eight! She was halfway out of bed before she remembered it was no longer her job to get up in the early-morning hours, drive to her aunt Liz's empty house, and use her kitchen to bake cakes and pies, cinnamon rolls and whatever else her sister Roxy might need for the day in her popular restaurant.
She fell back against her pillow and stared up at the ceiling, hoping for another couple of hours of sleep before she had to work the late afternoon and evening hours at the Roadside Stop, a business that she owned and managed with her younger sister, Sheri.
While she liked owning a business, her true love was baking. Realizing that any more sleep would probably not be forthcoming, she got out of bed and headed to the bathroom for a shower to slough off any lingering sleepiness.
As she stood beneath the hot spray, she decided to use the extra hours this morning to make a couple of batches of brownies. She could take some into the Roadside Stop later and take a platter to Minnie Anderson, her landlord, who owned the Treasure Trove, an antiques store below Marlene's small walk-up apartment.
With her morning planned, she dressed in a pair of worn jeans, pulled on an old, faded red T-shirt and pulled her long, blond hair into a messy ponytail.
A few minutes later with coffee brewing and filling the tiny kitchen with its fragrance, she gathered the ingredients she'd need to make her own special double-chocolate brownies.
One of her very first memories was of standing on a step stool next to her aunt Liz and watching while the older woman baked a pie. Aunt Liz loved to bake, and that love had been passed on to Marlene.
She poured herself a cup of coffee and moved to the window where the bright May sun shimmered over Main Street in Wolf Creek, Pennsylvania.
A chill danced up her spine despite the view of the sun as she thought of her aunt Liz, who had been missing for the past five weeks. She'd simply disappeared from her kitchen on a Friday morning with her car in the driveway and her purse on the counter. Nobody had seen or heard from her since.
It was an open investigation that the three detectives who worked for the Wolf Creek Police Department were actively pursuing. A small smile curved her lips. Apparently Detective Steve Kincaid had not only been pursuing information in Aunt Liz's case but had also been pursuing Marlene's older sister, Roxy.
He'd chased until he'd finally caught her, and the two of them, along with Steve's seven-year-old son, Tommy, were slowly beginning to build a life together.
Marlene shoved away all thoughts of her sisters, her missing aunt and the lingering jitters from the recurrent nightmare as she got busy doing what she loved bestbaking.
By noon she had finished the brownies and changed from her jeans and T-shirt into a pair of black slacks and a short-sleeved blue-and-black-patterned blouse. Her makeup was perfect and her blond hair fell just below her shoulders in soft waves. She eyed her reflection in the mirror and mentally pronounced herself ready to leave her little sanctuary and go out in public.
Although there was a door to a staircase that would lead directly into the shop downstairs, that door was kept locked and never used. Instead Marlene always used the outside wooden stairs to come and go from her second-floor apartment.
As she left for the day, she carried with her a large plastic container of brownies to take into the store and a smaller platter to give to her landlord.
She stored the large container in her car and then walked around to the front of Minnie's shop with the plate of brownies in hand.
A bell tinkled melodically as she opened the door to a mishmash of merchandise and the happy greeting of the stoop-shouldered white-haired woman who owned the store. She stood behind a counter that sported an old-fashioned cash register and an array of costume jewelry that often caught Marlene's attention.
As Marlene placed the platter of chocolate goodies next to the register, Minnie clapped her wrinkled hands over her chest and smiled. "I smelled these this morning when you were baking them and I was hoping you wouldn't forget a little nibble for me," Minnie said.
"How could I ever forget one of my favorite people?" Marlene replied.
Minnie laughed. "You just say that so I won't raise your rent." She reached beneath the plastic wrap and grabbed one of the brownies. She took a bite and rolled her eyes with pleasure. "Of course I can't raise your rent as long as you're bringing magic to my mouth."
Marlene smiled. "Don't you know this is my idea of rent control?"
Minnie laughed again, this time her false teeth displaying a thin layer of chocolate. "Go on, get out with you. I know you're on your way to work."
"I'll see you tomorrow, Minnie," Marlene replied and then headed back out the door.
Marlene got into her car and drove down the three blocks of Main Street. The business she and her sister owned was about ten miles out of the small town of Wolf Creek, Pennsylvania, along a stretch of highway near a relatively small Amish settlement.
Most of what Marlene and Sheri sold in their store came from the Amish. Beautiful handcrafted furniture, apple and peach butter, corn relish and pickles, along with the cheeses and breads, were only a sampling of what the Roadside Stop sold.
The shop had always been her sister Sheri's dream, while Marlene had wanted to eventually open her own bakery. But a bad marriage and divorce and two years away from home had limited Marlene's options when she'd returned a year ago. She'd been grateful when Sheri had offered her a piece of the shop so she could at least make a living.
The dream of owning and operating a bakery on Main Street had died along with her marriage and any thoughts of happily ever after. She unclenched her hands from the steering wheel, trying to fight against the anxiety, the sense of panic that always stirred at thoughts of her marriage.
"It's all in the past," she said aloud as she pulled into one of the parking spaces behind the Roadside Stop building. The lot in front was filled with cars, a positive sign for business.
Marlene wasn't particularly good with people, not like Sheri, who despite her youth had a maternal aura about her. Marlene much preferred to work in the back storage room than deal with the customers, but today it didn't look as though she'd have a choice. The shop was surprisingly busy.
Sheri cast her a grateful smile as she walked in. "I am so glad to see you," she said as Marlene set the container of brownies on the counter and opened the lid so that customers could help themselves. "We've been swamped all day and Abe called in sick, so it's just been me and Jennifer holding down the fort."
The shop was large with a special area on the end specifically for the furniture they sold. Besides the Amish goods, there was also a section devoted to Wolf Creek souvenirs and another for travelers' needs.
"Want me to work the register?" Marlene asked hopefully, knowing that Jennifer and Sheri were far better working with the customers on the floor.
"That will be perfect," Sheri agreed easily. She stepped out from behind the counter and Marlene took her place. She was most comfortable here, with the wide counter between her and anyone else.
As she watched Sheri flit from customer to customer, drawing warm smiles as she interacted with everyone, Marlene marveled at how different she and her sisters were from one another. While they all had the same mother, who had dumped them at their aunt Liz's for her to raise them, none of them knew their fathers.
Marlene's older sister, Roxy, was a dark-haired firecracker who ran a successful restaurant and took no guff from anyone. Sheri was like a petite, brown-haired, amber-eyed earth mother, stirred to rage only if anyone threatened the herd of animals that populated the woods around her cottage.
And Marlene knew that most people whispered behind her own back that she was the ice princess perceived as cool, not particularly friendly and slightly arrogant.
Nothing could be further from the truth, but people's perceptions worked to her advantage, especially since she'd come back here after her broken marriage. She didn't want to get close to anyone. She had her sisters and she hoped Aunt Liz would eventually be found, and they were more than enough for Marlene at this particular time in her life.
The afternoon flew by as business stayed brisk. It was just after four when the store had a lull with no customers in the place.
"Have you heard from Michael today?" Marlene asked as Sheri leaned a slender hip against the counter and grabbed one of Marlene's brownies.
"I wouldn't expect to see him today since you fired him last night," Sheri replied. She shook her head ruefully. "I was a fool to give him a second chance."
Marlene shook her head as she thought of the twenty-two-year-old who'd only been hired three days before. Michael Arello had worked a couple of days in Roxy's restaurant, the Dollhouse, and had been fired for stealing food.
"I couldn't believe it when I saw him sneaking out the back door with a box full of goodies." Marlene grabbed one of the last of her brownies and frowned thoughtfully. "I wonder if his family is having money problems or something? He got fired for stealing food from Roxy's place and the box he was trying to get out to his car last night was filled with bread and cheese and a couple of jars of apple butter and pickles."
"As far as I know, the Arello family is doing just fine," Sheri replied. "Mr. Arello still works at the bank and Mrs. Arello works at the grocery store."
"Maybe Michael is just a kleptomaniac," Marlene said as she popped the last of the brownie in her mouth. "Maybe if he was working at Vick's garage he'd be putting hubcaps in his pockets."
Sheri laughed and glanced at her watch. "I think I'm going to head on home. Will you be okay here until close? Jennifer is supposed to get off at seven. If you want to shut the place down then, that's fine with me. Business is usually fairly nonexistent between seven and nine on a Tuesday night anyway."
Normally the store was open six days a week until nine, but it was still a bit too early in the year for the heavy summer traffic and tourist season. "Maybe I'll do that. Without Abe here I really don't like closing up all alone, especially once it gets dark."
Sheri nodded. "That's why I suggested it. I don't like to be open at night with just myself here, either." Sheri grabbed her oversize brown purse from beneath the counter. "I'm off to my enchanted cottage and I'll see you tomorrow afternoon."
Marlene smiled as Sheri left. Her sister's house in the woods did look like an enchanted cottage, but that was where the fairy tale ended.
Marlene didn't believe in fairy tales anymore. She knew firsthand that handsome princes weren't always what they advertised.
At seven, as Jennifer grabbed her purse, Marlene decided to go ahead and close up shop. She really wasn't comfortable working alone. They'd been lucky in that they'd never been robbed since opening, but Marlene had only worked the store alone once one evening and had been uncomfortable the whole time.
Minutes later she was in her car and headed back to the tiny apartment she called home. When she'd returned from Pittsburgh broke and broken, she'd jumped at the chance to rent the small furnished apartment above the Treasure Trove.
Although the furnishings were Minnie style: a used sofa in a puke-green color and a matching chair, all of them sporting crocheted lacy doilies on the armrests. The kitchen area was along one walla stovetop oven, a sink and a fridge that was also green.
The only thing Marlene had brought brand-new into the place was a bed and her bedding. There was no way she wanted to sleep on somebody else's discarded mattress.
And her bed with its bright pink bedspread was where she spent most of her time. Her television was in the bedroom, and she often ate in there on a bed tray, worked on her computer and thought about the days when she'd felt so safe, so secure as a young girl growing up in her aunt Liz's house.
She and Sheri had shared a room with twin beds covered in bright pink bedspreads, and it didn't take a brain scientist to understand why Marlene had chosen a pink spread after her traumatic marriage.
She was thinking about snuggling into that pink material as she walked up the wooden staircase to the second-floor apartment. When she reached the landing, she knew something was wrong.
Her heart crashed against her ribs as she saw the damage to her door and that it hung slightly open on its hinges. Afraid to go inside, unsure who might still be there, she turned and hurried back down the staircase to the street where her car was parked.
She got inside, locked the doors and then called the police. As she waited for help to arrive, she tried to halt the shivers that trembled through her.
Who had been inside her apartment? Why would anyone break in? She had nothing of any real value to steal. Surely he hadn't come here for her. Or had he?
"Got a call of a potential break-in at the apartment over Minnie's store," Erin Taylor, the dispatcher, called out.
"I'll take it," Detective Frank Delaney said, his car keys in hand. He'd just been about to head to his car and call it a night, but he knew who lived above Minnie's place.
Of the three Marcoli sisters, Frank had found Marlene the most distant, the most standoffish, while working the investigation into her aunt's disappearance. He had no doubt that she had fully cooperated with the investigation so far, but she'd appeared far more tightly controlled than her two sisters.
As he headed down the street toward Minnie's Treasure Trove shop he wondered who in the hell would want to break into the tiny apartment above the junk store?
It was less than a three-block drive from the Wolf Creek Police Station to Minnie's shop, and he saw Marlene's old Chevy parked at the curb with her inside behind the steering wheel.
Frank pulled in just behind her, and as he got out of his car, she got out of hers. He couldn't help the slight edge of pleasurable tension that roiled through his gut at the sight of her.