Biloxi native Amber Marie Holliman, 39, was loving life in Atlanta.
The single mom just saw her daughter, Payton, graduate from high school. Payton also had started work with her mom at The Rusty Nail in the city, a family restaurant and bar that bills itself as "the neighborhood of the South."
Holliman, say the bartender's friends at The Rusty Nail, was planning to leave her longtime boyfriend, Patrick Joseph "P.J." Nolan. He was a recovering alcoholic who had brought her to Atlanta in the first place. But Nolan was drinking again, say The Rusty Nail's proprietors, and Holliman was ready to move on.
She never got the chance. Police in Sandy Springs, Georgia, say Nolan killed Holliman on Saturday, shooting her in the head, then setting their bedroom on fire.
Police are searching for Nolan, who is considered armed and dangerous, to arrest him on charges of murder, arson and aggravated assault with intent to commit murder.
They say he could be in Mississippi. He also has ties to Alabama, New York and Colorado.
“None of us, and our close-knit family and friends, had any inkling P.J. would do this," said Nick Cardellino, The Rusty Nail's owner. "If we had had any inkling this would have happened, we would have taken care of it ourselves — gone and gotten her.”
Holliman, who tended bar at The Rusty Nail, graduated in 1996 from Mercy Cross High School in a class of only 56 students.
“She was a very sweet girl in school, very kind, very smart, " classmate Kerry Atkinson said.
Holliman was working as manager of The Quarter in Gulfport when Nolan convinced her about seven years ago to move with him to Atlanta, said her mother, Patti Holliman.
Pattie Holliman and husband, Eulean "Junior" Holliman, are in Atlanta this week, checking on the investigation and helping Payton plan her mother's funeral.
Holliman will be cremated, with a service planned on the Coast, her mother said, possibly Saturday.
“She had a lot of friends up here,” said Patti Holliman, who visited The Rusty Nail on Tuesday. "She was a beautiful person inside and out. She could just light up a room when she walked in.
"We'll be OK. It's just unbearable right now for us."
Patti Holliman's utmost concern is seeing Nolan caught. Anyone with information on his whereabouts is asked to call Detective J.T. Williams at 404-456-9343.
The folks at The Rusty Nail knew Nolan, who had recently been hired to wait tables at a high-end steakhouse in Atlanta.
The bar was much like "Cheers" from the long-running situation comedy, where everyone knew your name, Cardellino said.
Holliman was the maid of honor four years ago when Nick and Jessica Cardellino married. Holliman and Jessica Cardellino had worked at a restaurant together before Holliman went to work about six years ago at The Rusty Nail.
“She was my rock," Jessica Cardellino said. "If I ever had an issue, I could call her and she would talk me off the ledge.”
Payton, 18, was her mom's mini-me, the Cardellinos said. She had recently started waiting tables at The Rusty Nail, where mother and daughter both worked the Thursday night shift.
On Mondays, a contingent from the nearby Brookhaven, Georgia, Police Department always came in to have lunch while Amber Holliman was working.
The officers said that Holliman always managed to get their week off to a good start, Nick Cardellino said. Even when Holliman was troubled, she showed up at work with a smile and was, he said, "a bundle of energy."
The Cardellinos will be looking out for Payton. Jessica Cardellino said she promised Amber Holliman that if anything happened to her, they would take care of her daughter.
Nick Cardellino used to enjoy firing Holliman as a joke.
"She just told me the other day," he said, " 'I'm never leaving, I'm never leaving.' And now she's gone.”