WENDY STOOD IN FRONT of the crime scene tape and spoke into the microphone with the NTC News logo near the mouthpiece. "And so we wait for some word," she said, trying to add gravitas to her voice without that TV-news melodrama. "From Ringwood State Park in northern New Jersey, this is Wendy Tynes, NTC News."
She lowered the microphone. Sam, her cameraman, said, "We should probably do that again."
"Your ponytail is loose."
"Come on, tighten the band. It'll take two minutes. Vic will want another take."
Sam rolled his eyes. "You're kidding, right?"
She said nothing.
"Hey, you're the one who gets all pissed when we air a take with a makeup smudge," he went on. "All of a sudden you got religion? Come on, let's do one more take."
Wendy handed him the microphone and walked away. Sam was right, of course. She was a television news reporter. Anyone who thinks looks don't matter in this industry is somewhere between naive and brain-dead. Of course looks matter-and Wendy had primped for the camera and done repeated takes in equally grim situations.
In short, add "hypocrite" to her growing list of failures.
"Where you going?" Sam asked.
"I have my cell. Call me if something happens."
She headed to her car. She had planned on calling Phil Turnball, but then she remembered that his wife, Sherry, had said that Phil spent every morning alone with the classifieds at the Suburban Diner on Route 17. It was only about twenty minutes from here.
The classic New Jersey diners of yore had these wonderful shiny aluminum walls. The newer ones-"newer" meaning circa 1968-had a faux stone facade that made Wendy long for, well, aluminum. The interiors had, however, changed very little. There were still small jukeboxes at every table; a counter with spin stools; doughnuts under Batphone-style glass covers; signed, sun-faded autographed photos of local celebrities you never heard of; a surly guy with hairy ears behind the cash register; and a waitress who called you "hon" and you loved her for it.
The jukebox played the eighties hit "True" by Spandau Ballet, a curious six AM song selection. Phil Turnball sat in a corner booth. He wore a gray pinstripe suit with a yellow tie they used to call a "power tie." He was not reading the paper. He stared down at his coffee as though it hid an answer.
Wendy approached and waited for him to look up. He didn't.
Still looking down: "How did you know I was here?" Phil asked.
"Your wife mentioned you hang out here."
He smiled but there was no joy in it. "Did she now?"
Wendy said nothing.
"Tell me, how did that conversation go exactly-oh, pathetic Phil goes to this diner every morning and feels sorry for himself?"
"Not at all," Wendy said.
This was not a subject worth mining. "Do you mind if I sit down?"
"I have nothing to say to you."
The newspaper was open to the story on Haley's iPhone being found in Dan Mercer's motel room. "You read about Dan?"
"Yep. You still here to defend him? Or was that a crock from the beginning?"
"I'm not following."
"Did you know about Dan abducting this girl before yesterday? Did you figure I wouldn't talk if you told me your real agenda, so you pretended you were going to restore his reputation?"
Wendy slid in across the table from him. "I never said I wanted to restore his reputation. I said I wanted to find out the truth."
"Very noble," he said.
"Why are you being so hostile?"
"I saw you talking to Sherry last night."
Phil Turnball took the coffee with both hands, one finger in the handle, the other for balance. "You wanted her to persuade me to cooperate."
"And again I say: Yeah, so?"
He took a sip, gently put the coffee back down. "I didn't know what to think. I mean, some of what you said about Dan being set up made sense. But now"-he pointed with his chin toward the article on Haley's iPhone-"what's the point?"
"Maybe you can help find a missing girl."
He shook his head and closed his eyes.
The waitress, what Wendy's father used to call a "floozy"-a big, badly bottled blonde with a pencil tucked behind her ear-said, "Get you anything?"
Damn, Wendy thought. She didn't call her "hon."
"Nothing, thanks," Wendy said.
She sauntered away. Phil still had his eyes closed.
"Off the record?" he said.
"I don't know how to put this without making it sound like something it's not."
Wendy waited, tried to give him space.
"Look, Dan and this sex stuff..."
His voice drifted off. Wendy was about to go after him. Sex stuff? Trying to meet up with an underage girl and maybe kidnapping another-that isn't something to dismiss as "sex stuff." But now was hardly the time for a morality play. So again she said nothing and waited.
"Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying Dan was a pedophile. It wasn't like that."
He stopped again and this time Wendy wasn't sure that he'd start up again without some prompting. "So what was it like?" she asked.
Phil started, stopped, shook his head. "Let's say that Dan didn't mind getting them when they were young, if you know what I mean."
Wendy's heart dropped.
"When you say getting them when they were young...?"
"There were times-now keep in mind this was more than twenty years ago, okay?-but there were times when Dan preferred the company of younger girls. Not like a pedophile or anything. Nothing sick. But he liked going to high school parties. He'd invite young girls to campus events, that kind of thing."
Wendy's mouth felt dry. "How young?"
"I don't know. It's not like I asked for ID."
"How young, Phil?"
"Like I said, I don't know." He squirmed. "Keep in mind we were freshmen in college. All of eighteen, nineteen years old ourselves. So maybe these girls were in high school. Not a big deal, right? I think Dan was maybe eighteen. So the girls were like two, maybe three or four years younger."
"Four? That would make a girl fourteen."
"I don't know. I'm just saying. And you know how it is too. Some fourteen-year-old girls look a lot older. The way they dress and stuff. It's like they want to appeal to older guys."
"Don't go there, Phil."
"You're right." He rubbed his face with both hands. "God, I have daughters that age. I'm not defending him. I'm trying to explain. Dan wasn't a pervert or a rapist, but still, okay, the idea that he could hit on a younger girl? That I could maybe get. But that he would kidnap one, that he'd grab and harm a young girl...? That, no, I can't see at all."
He stopped talking and leaned back. Wendy sat very still. She thought back to what she knew about Haley McWaid's disappearance: No break-in. No violence. No calls. No texts. No e-mails. No signs of abduction. Not even an unmade bed.
Maybe they had this all wrong.
A theory started forming in her head. It was incomplete, based on a lot of innuendo and assumptions, but she needed to follow up. Next step: Go back to the woods and find Sheriff Walker. "I have to go."
He looked up at her. "Do you think that Dan hurt that girl?"
"I don't have a clue anymore. I really don't."