Excerpt: 'Dying for Mercy' by Mary Jane Clark

"But Valentina and Innis would want me to come," insisted Janie, hands on hips. "They like me. When we went to their house that time, they said I could come again anytime I want."

Eliza turned back to the mirror and picked up a tube of mascara. "I know they did. And we will go there again. Remember I told you about the little house we've rented near the Wheelocks'? Our lease starts next week. I'm sure we'll be able to visit Valentina and Innis when we go up there on weekends."

Janie's expression brightened. "Can we go in the birdhouse?"

"It's called an aviary, Janie, and I think that can be arranged."

"You know, they have a bird in there that talks," said Janie.

"A parrot?"

"Uh-huh. Innis showed me. And it can tell you what it likes."

"Really?" asked Eliza as she put gloss on her lips.

"Yep. It says 'sun' and 'air' and 'grapes.' It likes to eat grapes."

"You'll have to show it to me," said Eliza.

Mollified, Janie followed her mother as she walked into the bedroom, went to the closet, and took the jewelry case from the wall safe.

"Which ones should I wear?" Eliza asked as they sat side by side on the bed. "The pearls or the garnets?"

Janie considered carefully before answering. "The dark red ones," she said decisively. "They're the color of your dress."

"Good choice," said Eliza, fastening the stones to her ears. She stood, slipped on her heels, and took a last look in the full-length mirror.

"What kind of party is it, Mom?" asked Janie as they left the bedroom and went down the stairs. "A birthday party?"

"Not exactly," Eliza answered. "It's a party to celebrate the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi."

"Are you bringing him a present?"

Eliza laughed. "No, sweetheart, he won't be there. St. Francis died a long time ago."

"Then why are they having a party for him?"

"Valentina and Innis want to celebrate his spirit. St. Francis was a very good and holy man who did many things to help many people and animals in his lifetime. He's the patron saint of Italy, and when Valentina and Innis lived there, they became very devoted to him."

"Did people give him parties when he was still alive?" asked Janie.

"I don't think so," said Eliza. "He taught repentance. Parties weren't on his agenda."

"That's too bad," said the child.

"I doubt that St. Francis thought so, Janie. He loved nature and animals and wanted the people who followed him to live simply and take care of other people. I suppose St. Francis would consider a party like this frivolous."

Janie cocked her head to the side. "What does 'frivolous' mean?" she asked.

"Silly, not really important."

Janie considered this. "I don't think my birthday party is silly. I think it's very important."

"Of course it is," said Eliza, "but as you get older, a birthday party, believe it or not, isn't always something you want. Besides, I bet St. Francis would rather see the money spent on his party go to feeding the poor."

While Janie thought about this, Eliza looked out the living-room window and saw yet another car driving slowly past her house. The place where they lived had become a tourist attraction since the kidnapping.

Sightseers strained for a glimpse of the famous mother and the daughter who'd been the subject of a nationwide search.

Eliza hated the loss of privacy. Ordering tall evergreens to be planted along the front of the property might help shield them from prying eyes, but she knew the drive-bys would continue.

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