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Caught

Chapter 10

   



BUT WALKER was tragically wrong about that.
Wendy wouldn't learn about the horrible discovery until the next day when it became "breaking news" on all the media outlets. With Pops and Charlie both sleeping in and Jenna's comment about Princeton ringing in her head, Wendy had decided to start her own investigation. First stop: Phil Turnball, Dan Mercer's college roommate. It was time, she thought, to dig seriously into Dan's past. There seemed no place better to start.
But at the exact same time that Wendy entered a Starbucks in Englewood, New Jersey, two law enforcement officials, Sussex County sheriff Walker and his rookie deputy, Tom Stanton, were twenty-five miles away, in Newark, searching room 204 at the dubiously dubbed Freddy's Deluxe Luxury Suites. Total fleabag. Freddy must have had some sense of humor, Walker thought, insomuch as the no-tell managed to be none of the three things-deluxe, luxury, or suites-listed in the moniker.
Walker had worked diligently trying to track down the last two weeks in the life of Dan Mercer. The clues were few. Using his cell phone, Dan Mercer had called only three people: his lawyer, Flair Hickory; his ex-wife, Jenna Wheeler; and yesterday, the reporter Wendy Tynes. Flair had never asked his client where he was staying-the less he knew, the better. Jenna didn't know. Wendy, well, she wasn't in contact with him until yesterday.
Still the trail wasn't hard to follow. Dan Mercer had been hiding, yes, but according to both his lawyer and his ex, it was from threats from overly "concerned" citizens and quasi-vigilantes, not law enforcement. No one wanted a predator in the neighborhood. So he moved from hotel to hotel, usually paying with cash he had picked up from a nearby ATM. Because of the impending trial, Mercer couldn't leave the state.
Sixteen days ago, he had checked into a Motel 6 in Wildwood. From there, he had stayed three days at the Court Manor Inn in Fort Lee followed by the Fair Motel in Ramsey, and as of yesterday, Mercer had been at Freddy's Deluxe Luxury Suites in downtown Newark, room 204.
The window looked out over a shelter nicknamed the Resort (as in Last Resort) where Dan Mercer had worked. Interesting place to end up. The manager hadn't seen Mercer in two days, but then, as the manager explained, clients didn't come here to be noticed.
"Let's see what we can find," Walker said.
Stanton nodded. "Okay."
Walker said, "Mind if I ask you something?"
"Nope."
"No other cop wanted to work with me on this one. They figure, good riddance to a scumbag."
Stanton nodded. "Yet I volunteered."
"Right."
"And you want to know why."
"Right."
Stanton closed the top drawer, opened the second one. "Maybe I'm new, maybe I'll get more jaded. But the law cleared this guy. Period, the end. If you don't like that, change the law. We in law enforcement need to be impartial referees. If the speed limit is fifty-five miles per hour, then you ticket a guy going fifty-six. If you think, nah, don't ticket until he's going sixty-five, then change the law to sixty-five. And it works the other way too. Following the rules, the judge freed Dan Mercer. If you don't like that, change the law. Don't bend the rules. Legally change them."
Walker smiled. "You are new."
Stanton shrugged, still searching through the clothes. "I guess there's a bit more to it."
"I thought there might be. Go ahead, I'm listening."
"I have an older brother named Pete. Great guy, terrific athlete. He was on the Buffalo Bills practice squad for two years out of school. Tight end."
"Okay."
"So Pete's up at camp at the start of his third season. This is his year, he thinks. He's been lifting and working out like a madman, and he has a real shot of getting on the roster. He's twenty-six years old and he's up in Buffalo. He goes out one night and meets this girl at a Bennigan's. You know. The chain restaurant?"
"I know it."
"Okay, so Pete orders wings, and this smoldering chick saunters over and asks if she can have one. He says sure. She makes a spectacle of herself eating it. You know what I mean? Using lots of tongue and she's wearing this scoop top that's begging for an ogling. I mean, she's a total hottie. They start flirting. She sits down. One thing leads to another-and Pete takes her back to his place and gives her what for."
Stanton made a sideways fist and gently pounds it-demonstrating what "what for" meant, in case it wasn't clear.
"Turns out the girl is fifteen. A high school sophomore, but man, she doesn't look it. You know how high school girls dress nowadays. She's decked out like she's serving up drinks at Hooters-or just serving 'em up, if you know what I mean."
Stanton looked at Walker and waited. To keep the conversation moving, Walker said, "I know what you mean."
"Right, so anyway, the girl's dad finds out. He goes nuts, says Pete seduced his little girl-even though she was probably banging my brother to get back at her old man. So Pete gets charged with statutory rape. Gets caught up in the system. The system I love. I get it. It's the law. He is now labeled a sex offender, a pedophile, the whole works. And that's a joke. My brother is a solid citizen, a good guy, and now no team will touch him with a ten-foot pole. Maybe this guy, this Dan Mercer, well, it was a form of entrapment, wasn't it? Maybe he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he's innocent until proven guilty."
Walker turned away because he didn't want to admit that maybe Stanton had a point. You make so many calls in life that you don't want to make-and you want those calls to be easy. You want to put people in neat categories, make them monsters or angels, but it almost never works that way. You work in the gray and frankly that kinda sucks. The extremes are so much easier.
As Tom Stanton bent down to look under the bed, Walker tried to refocus. Right now, maybe it was best to keep this black and white and stay away from the moral relativism. A man was missing, probably dead. Find him. That was all. Doesn't matter who he is or what he did. Just find him.
Walker moved into the bathroom, checked the vanity. Toothpaste, toothbrush, razor, shaving cream, deodorant. Fascinating stuff.
From the other room Stanton said, "Bingo."
"What?"
"Under the bed. I found his mobile phone."
Walker was about to yell, "Great," but he stopped short.
Knowing Mercer's cell phone number and using cell tower triangulation, Walker had already learned that the last phone call from Mercer's mobile had been somewhere on Route 15 not long before the murder, approximately three miles from the trailer park and at least an hour's drive from this room.
So why would his mobile phone be in the room?
He didn't have much time to think about it. From the other room, he heard Stanton's low voice, almost a pained whisper: "Oh no..."
The tone sent a chill straight up the spine. "What?"
"Oh my God..."
Walker hustled back into the bedroom. "What is it? What's wrong?"
Stanton held the phone in his hand. All color was gone from his face. He stared down at the image on the screen. Walker could see the phone with the bright pink case.
It was an iPhone. He had the same model.
"What is it?"
The screen on the iPhone went dark. Stanton didn't say anything. He raised the phone, pressed the button. The screen lit up. Walker took a step closer and took a look.
His heart sank.
The lit-up iPhone's welcome screen was a family photograph. A classic vacation group shot. Four people-three kids, one adult-smiling and laughing. In the center of the photograph was Mickey Mouse. And on Mickey's right, flashing maybe the biggest smile of them all, stood a missing girl named Haley McWaid.