SHE TRIED TO PRESS PHIL for more information, but he just shut down. She ended up giving him a ride home. When she arrived back at her house, Pops and Charlie were watching TV.
"Time for bed," she said.
Pops groaned. "Aww, can't I just stay up till the end?"
Pops shrugged. "Not my best work, but it's late."
He kept his eyes on the screen. "I thought it was pretty funny."
Great, she thought. A comedy team. "Bed."
"Do you know what movie this is?"
She looked. "It looks like the wildly inappropriate Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle."
"Exactly," Pops said. "And in our family, we don't stop in the middle of Harold and Kumar. It's disrespectful."
He had a point, and she did love this movie. So she sat with them and laughed and for a little while she tried to forget about dead girls and possible pedophiles and Princeton roommates and threats to her son. The last one, selfish as it sounded, would not leave. Phil Turnball did not hit her as an alarmist, yet he had been willing to-again to quote the teenage vernacular-"go there."
Maybe Phil had a point. Her story had been on Dan Mercer and maybe Haley McWaid. That part of the story was indeed over. She had her job back. She had come out of the whole thing rather well, in fact-the reporter who had exposed not only a pedophile but a murderer. Follow up on that angle maybe. Work with the police to see if there were other victims.
She looked at Charlie lounging on the couch. He laughed at something Neil Patrick Harris playing Neil Patrick Harris said. She loved the sound of his laugh. What parent doesn't? She stared at him for a few more moments and thought about Ted and Marcia McWaid and how they would never hear Haley laugh again and then her mind made her stop.
When the alarm went off in the morning-seemingly after eight minutes of sleep-Wendy dragged herself out of bed. She called for Charlie. No answer. She called again. Nothing.
She hopped out of bed. "Charlie!"
Still no answer.
Panic gripped her, made it hard to breathe. "Charlie!" She ran down the corridor, her heart beating wildly against her rib cage. She turned the corner, opening the door without knocking.
He was there, of course, still in bed, the covers pulled over his head.
He groaned. "Go away."
"Can't I sleep in?"
"I warned you last night. Now get up."
"First period is health class. Can't I skip it? Please?"
"Get. Up. Now."
"Health class," he said again. "They teach sex stuff to us impressionable youngsters. It makes us more promiscuous. Really, I think for my moral well-being you should let me stay in bed."
She tried not to smile. "Get. The. F. Up."
"Five more minutes? Please?"
She sighed. "Okay, five more minutes. No more."
An hour and a half later, as health class ended, she drove him to school. What the heck. Senior year and he'd already been accepted to college. It was okay to coast a little, she reasoned.
When she got back home, she checked her e-mail. There was a message from Lawrence Cherston, the administrator of the Princeton class Web site. He would be "delighted" to meet with her at her "earliest convenience." His address: Princeton, New Jersey. She called him back and asked him whether they could meet today at three PM. Lawrence Cherston again said that he'd be "delighted."
After hanging up, Wendy decided to check her fake Facebook profile, Sharon Hait. Of course, whatever had spooked Phil had nothing to do with the Kirby Sennett side of the case. Then again what did this have to do with anything?
Still, no harm in checking Facebook. She signed in and was pleased to see that Kirby Sennett had friended her. Okay, good. Now what? Kirby had also sent her an invitation to a Red Bull party. She clicked the link. There was a photograph of a smiling Kirby holding up a big can of Red Bull.
There was an address and a time and a brief note from ol' Kirby. "Hi, Sharon, would love you to come!"
So much for mourning. She wondered what a Red Bull party was. Probably just that-a party that served the "energy drink" Red Bull, though maybe spiked with something stronger-but she would ask Charlie.
So now what? Should she start up a relationship, see if she could get him to open up? No. Too creepy. It was one thing to pretend you're a young girl to trap a depraved pervert. It was another for the mother of a teenage boy to pretend to be a teenager to get one of his classmates to talk.
So what was the point here?
Her phone rang. She checked the caller ID and saw it was coming from the NTC Network office.
"Ms. Wendy Tynes?" The voice was pinched and female.
"I'm calling from human resources and legal. We'd like you to come in today at twelve sharp."
"What's this regarding?"
"We are located on the sixth floor. Mr. Frederick Montague's office. Twelve sharp. Please don't be tardy."
Wendy frowned. "Did you just say 'tardy'?"
What on earth could this be about? And who uses the term "tardy" outside of high school? She sat back. Probably not a big deal. Probably needed to fill out some paperwork now that she'd been rehired. Still, why does HR always have to be so damn officious?
She considered her next move. Last night she had learned that Jenna Wheeler had moved into a nearby Marriott. Time to put on her reporter hat and figure out where. She checked online. The three closest Marriott Courtyards were in Secaucus, Paramus, and Mahwah. She called the Secaucus one first.
"Could you patch me through to a guest named Wheeler, please?"
She figured that they wouldn't think to check in under a pseudonym.
The operator asked for a spelling. Wendy gave it.
"We have no guest by that name."
She hung up and tried Paramus next. Again she asked for a guest named Wheeler. Three seconds later, the operator said, "Please hold while I connect you."
The phone was picked up on the third ring. Jenna Wheeler said, "Hello?"
Wendy hung up and headed to her car. The Marriott Courtyard in Paramus was only ten minutes away. Better to do this in person. When Wendy was only two minutes away she called the room again.
Jenna's voice was more tentative this time. "Hello?"
"It's Wendy Tynes."
"What do you want?"
"I don't want to meet."
"I'm not looking to hurt you or your family, Jenna."
"Then leave us alone."
Wendy pulled the car into the Courtyard's parking lot. "No can do."
"I've got nothing to say to you."
She found a spot, pulled in, turned off the engine. "Too bad. Come down. I'm in the lobby. I'm not leaving until you do."
Wendy hung up. The Paramus Marriott Courtyard was scenically located on both Route 17 and the Garden State Parkway. Room views featured either a P. C. Richard electronics store or a window-less warehouse store called Syms, with a quasi-bragging sign that read: AN EDUCATED CONSUMER IS OUR BEST CUSTOMER.
A vacation spot this was not.
Wendy entered the hotel. She waited in a lobby of beige-a sea of beige walls really, countered by a dull forest green carpet, a room enmeshed in the blandest of bland colors, hues so plain they screamed that the hotel was competent and fine, but expect absolutely no frills. Issues of USA Today were scattered about the coffee table. Wendy glanced at the headline and checked out a reader survey.
Jenna appeared five minutes later. She wore an oversize sweat-shirt. Her hair was pulled back in a severe ponytail, making her already-high cheekbones look sharp enough to slice.
"Did you come here to gloat?" Jenna asked.
"Yes, Jenna, that's exactly why I came here. I was sitting at home this morning, thinking about a dead girl found in the woods, and I said to myself, 'You know what would be great right now? The icing on the cake? A little gloating.' So that's why I'm here. Oh, and after this I'm going to go to the pound to kick a puppy."
Jenna sat down. "I'm sorry. That was uncalled for."
Wendy thought about last night, about something as inane as Project Graduation, and how Jenna and Noel Wheeler should have been there, how much they probably wished now that they could have attended. "I'm sorry too. I imagine this has all been hard on you."
Jenna shrugged. "Every time I want to feel sorry for myself, I think about Ted and Marcia. You know what I mean?"
"I heard you're moving," Wendy said.
"Who did you hear that from?"
"It's a small town."
Jenna smiled without a trace of joy. "Aren't they all? Yes, we're moving. Noel is going to be chief of cardiac surgery at Cincinnati Memorial Hospital."
"That was quick."
"He's very much in demand. But the truth is, we started planning this months ago."
"When you first started defending Dan?"
Again she tried to smile. "Let's just say that didn't help our standing in the community," she said. "We hoped to stay until the end of the school year-so Amanda could graduate with her class. But I guess that's not meant to be."
"Again, Ted and Marcia. This isn't that big of a deal."
Wendy guessed not.
"So why are you here, Wendy?"
"You defended Dan."
"I mean, from start to end. When the show first aired. You seemed so sure that he was innocent. And last time we talked you said that I destroyed an innocent man."
"So what do you want me to say-my bad? I was wrong, you were right?"
"Was I what?"
"Were you wrong?"
Jenna just stared at her. "What are you talking about?"
"Do you think Dan killed Haley?"
The lobby fell silent. Jenna looked as though she was about to respond but she shook her head instead.
"I don't understand. You think he's innocent?"
Wendy wasn't sure how to reply to that one. "I think there are still some pieces missing."
"That's what I'm here to find out."
Jenna looked at her as though expecting more. Now it was Wendy who looked away. Jenna deserved a better answer. So far, Wendy had handled this whole case as a reporter. But maybe she was more than that here. Maybe it was time to come clean, admit the truth, say it out loud.
"I'm going to confess something to you, okay?"
Jenna nodded, waited.
"I work with facts, not intuition. Intuition usually just screws me up. Do you know what I mean?"
"More than you can imagine."
There were tears in Jenna's eyes now. Wendy imagined that they were in hers too.
"Factually I knew that I had Dan nailed. He tried to seduce my imaginary thirteen-year-old girl online. He showed up at the house. There was all that stuff in his house and on his computer. Even his job-I can't tell you how many of these creeps work with teenagers, supposedly helping them. It all added up. And yet my intuition kept screaming that something was wrong."
"You sounded pretty certain when we spoke."
"Almost too certain, don't you think?"
Jenna considered that and a small smile came to her face. "Like me, when you think about it-both of us so sure. Of course, one of us had to be wrong. But now I think the truth is, you can never be certain about another person. Obvious, but I think I needed a reminder. Do you remember how I said that Dan was secretive?"
"Maybe you were right about why. He kept something from me. I knew that. We all do that, don't we? No one knows us entirely. In the end, it's kind of a cliche, but maybe you never really know a person."
"So you were wrong this whole time?"
Jenna chewed on her lip for a moment. "I look back now. I think about his secretiveness. I thought it had something to do with being an orphan, you know? The obvious trust issues. I thought that's what ultimately drove us apart. But now I wonder."
A tear rolled down her cheek. "I wonder if it was more, if something bad happened to him. I wonder if there was a darkness there, inside of him."
Jenna stood and crossed the room. There was a coffee urn. She grabbed a Styrofoam cup and filled it. Wendy rose and followed her. She got some coffee too. When they returned to their seats, it was as though the moment had passed. Wendy was okay with that. She had dealt with the intuition part. It was time to return to the facts.
"When we met last time, you said something about Princeton. That something happened to him when he was there."
"So I'd like to look into that."
Jenna looked confused. "You think Princeton has something to do with all this?"
Wendy really didn't want to get into it. "I'm just following up."
"I don't understand. What could his college years have to do with anything?"
"It's just an aspect of the case I need to know about."
"Can you just trust me on this one, Jenna? You were the one who raised it last time we talked. You said something happened to him in college. I want to know what."
She didn't answer for a few moments. Then: "I don't know. That was part of the secretiveness-maybe the biggest part, now that I think about it. That's why I mentioned it to you."
"And you have no idea what it was?"
"Not really. I mean, it ended up not making much sense."
"Could you at least tell me about it?"
"I don't see the point."
"Humor me, okay?"
Jenna brought the coffee up to her mouth, blew on it, took a small sip. "Okay, when we first started going out, he'd disappear every other Saturday. I don't want to make it sound as cryptic as all that. But he'd just take off and not say where he was going."
"I assume you asked?"
"I did. He explained to me early in the relationship that this was something he did and that it was his private time. He said it was nothing to worry about, but he wanted me to understand he needed to do it."
She stopped talking.
"What did you make of that?"
"I was in love," Jenna said simply. "So at first, I rationalized it. Some guys play golf, I told myself. Some guys bowl or meet the boys in a bar or whatever. Dan was entitled to his time. He was so attentive in every other way. So I simply let it go."
The lobby door opened. A family of five staggered in and approached the front desk. The man gave their name and handed the receptionist his credit card.
"You said 'at first,' " Wendy said.
"Yes. Well, more than simply at first. I think we'd been married a year when I pushed him on it. Dan said not to worry, it was no big deal. But now it was, of course. The curiosity was eating me up. So one Saturday, I followed him."
Her voice drifted off and a small smile came to her face.
"I've never told anyone this. Not even Dan."
Wendy sat back, gave her room. She took a sip of her coffee and tried to make herself look as nonthreatening as possible.
"Anyway there isn't that much more to the story. I followed him for about an hour, hour and a half. He got off at the exit for Princeton. He parked in town. He went into a coffee shop. I felt so silly following him. He sat by himself for maybe ten minutes. I kept waiting for the other woman to show up. I imagined she was some sexy college professor, you know, with glasses and dark black hair. But nobody showed up. Dan finished his coffee and got up. He started walking down the block. It was so weird, following him like that. I mean, I loved this man. You have no idea how much. And yet, like I said, there was something about him I couldn't reach and now I'm skulking around, trying to keep out of sight, and I'm feeling like now, finally, I'm close to learning the truth. And it's terrifying me."
Again Jenna lifted the cup to her lips.
"So where did he go?"
"Two blocks away, there was a lovely old Victorian home. It was in the heart of faculty housing. He knocked on the door and entered. He stayed an hour and left. He walked back to town, got in his car, and drove back."
The hotel receptionist told the family that check-in wasn't until four PM. The father pleaded for an earlier time. The receptionist remained firm.
"So whose house was it?"
"That's the funny thing. It belonged to the dean of students. A man named Stephen Slotnick. He was divorced at the time. He lived there with his two kids."
"So why would he visit him?"
"I have no idea. I never asked. That was it. I never raised it with him. He wasn't having an affair. It was his secret. If he wanted to tell me, he would."
"And he never did?"
They drank coffee, both lost in their own thoughts.
"You have nothing to feel guilty about," Jenna said.
"Dan is dead. One thing we had in common, neither of us believed in an afterlife. Dead is dead. He wouldn't care about being rehabilitated now."
"I'm not trying to do that either."
"Then what are you trying to do?"
"Damned if I know. I guess I need answers."
"Sometimes the most obvious answer is the right one. Maybe Dan is everything people think he is."
"Maybe, but that doesn't answer one key question."
"Why was he visiting the dean of students at his alma mater?"
"I have no idea."
"Aren't you curious?"
Jenna thought about it. "You plan on finding out?"
"It might have destroyed our marriage."
"Or it might have nothing to do with anything."
"More likely," Wendy agreed.
"I think Dan killed that girl."
Wendy did not reply to that. She waited for Jenna to say more, but she didn't. Admitting that had sucked the energy out of her. She sat back, seemingly unable to move.
After some time had passed, Wendy said, "You're probably right."
"But you still want to know about the dean?"
Jenna nodded. "If you find out what it was, will you let me know?"