FOR A MOMENT, Wendy said nothing.
"I need to see you," Dan Mercer said again.
"Aren'tIalittle mature for you, Dan? I mean, I'm old enough to have a menstrual cycle and breasts."
She thought that she could hear a sigh.
"You're very cynical, Wendy."
"What do you want?"
"There are things you need to know," he said.
"Like nothing here is as it seems."
"You're a sick, twisted, depraved perv who has a genius for a lawyer. That's how it seems."
But even as she said it, there was just the slightest hesitation in her voice. Was it enough to warrant reasonable doubt? She didn't think so. Evidence doesn't lie. She had learned that often enough both personally and professionally. The truth was, her so-called woman's intuition was usually crap.
She said nothing.
"I was set up."
"Uh-huh. That's a new one, Dan. Let me jot that down and grab my producer, have him put one of those news scrolls on the bottom of the screen. 'Newsflash: Sicko Says He Was Set Up.' "
Silence. For a moment she feared that she'd lost him, that he had hung up. Stupid to get all emotional. Stay calm. Talk to him. Make friends. Be nice. Get information. Trap him maybe.
"This was a mistake."
"I'm listening. You said something about being set up?"
"I better go."
She wanted to protest, scold herself for going too far with the sarcasm, but something about this felt like classic manipulation. She had danced his tangos before, several times, in fact, starting with the first time she tried to interview him last year for a piece about his work at the shelter, almost a year before he'd been caught on camera. She didn't want to cave, but she didn't want to let him go either.
"You were the one who called me," she said.
"So I'm willing to listen."
"Meet me. Alone."
"I'm not crazy about that idea."
"Then forget it."
"Fine, Dan, have it your way. See you in court."
His voice was a whisper that chilled her. "You don't have a clue, do you, Wendy?"
"A clue about what?"
She heard a noise that might have been a sob, might have been a laugh. Hard to say over the phone. She gripped the receiver tighter and waited.
"If you want to meet me," he said, "I'll e-mail you the directions. Two PM tomorrow. Come alone. If you choose not to show, well, it was nice knowing you."
And then he hung up.
VIC'S OFFICE DOOR WAS OPEN. She took a quick peek and saw him on the phone. He held up a finger to give him a second, said a gruff good-bye to whomever was on the phone, and hung up.
"I just heard from Dan Mercer," she said.
"He called you?"
Vic leaned back, put his hands on his paunch. "So he told you?"
"He said he was set up and wanted to meet." She saw the look on his face. "Why? What else is there?"
Vic sighed. "Sit down."
"Uh-oh," Wendy said.
"The judge handed down her ruling. All evidence found in the home is thrown out, and because of the prejudicial nature of the press and our TV airing, she threw out all charges."
Wendy felt her heart sink. "Please tell me you're joking."
Vic said nothing. Wendy closed her eyes, felt the world closing in around her. She got it now, how Dan had known that she'd definitely show up at the meet.
"So now what?" she asked.
Vic just looked at her.
"Just like that?"
"Pretty much, yeah. Bad economy. The suits upstairs are laying people off anyway." He shrugged. "Who better to ax?"
"I can think of many."
"Me too, but they're not damaged goods. Sorry, sweetie, that's just the way it is. HR will handle severance. You need to pack your stuff today. They don't want you back in the building."
Wendy felt numb. She teetered to a standing position. "Did you at least fight for me?"
"I only fight when I have a chance to win. Otherwise what's the point?"
Wendy waited. Vic looked down and pretended to be busy.
Without looking up, Vic said, "You expecting a tender moment here?"
"No," Wendy said. Then: "Maybe."
"Are you going to meet with Mercer?" Vic asked.
She turned back toward him. "Yes."
"You'll take precautions?"
She forced up a smile. "Man, I just had a flashback to something my mom said when I was starting college."
"And from what I know, you didn't listen."
"Officially, of course, you don't work here and have no standing. I should advise you to keep a safe distance from Dan Mercer."
"If you could figure a way to nail him, well, heroes are easier to rehire than goats."
THE HOUSE WAS SILENT when Wendy got home, but that meant nothing. In her youth, her parents would know she was home because her music would be blaring from the ghetto box in her room. Nowadays kids used headphones or earbuds or whatever they called them 24/7. She was fairly confident that was where Charlie was right now, on the computer, earbuds firmly in place. The house could catch fire, and he would have no idea.
Despite this, Wendy shouted at the top of her lungs, "Charlie!" There was no answer. There hadn't been an answer in at least three years.
Wendy poured herself a drink-pomegranate vodka with a splash of lime-and collapsed onto the worn club chair. The chair had been John's favorite, and yeah, that was probably creepy, keeping the chair here and collapsing in it with a drink at the end of the day, but she found it comforting, so tough.
How the hell, Wendy had wondered before today, would she pay for Charlie's tuition on her current salary? Now that wasn't a concern because there was simply no way. She took another sip, glanced out the window, pondered where she would go from here. Nobody was hiring and as Vic had so delicately pointed out, she was damaged goods. She thought about what other kind of job she could do but realized that she had no other marketable skills. She was sloppy, disorganized, ornery, not a team player. If she took home a work report card, it would read, "Does not play well with others." That worked as a reporter going after a story. It worked almost nowhere else.
She checked the mail and saw the third letter from Ariana Nasbro and felt a sharp pang in her gut. Her hands began to shake. No need to open the letter. She had read the first one two months ago and nearly vomited. With two fingers, she held the envelope as though it had a stench, which it did when you thought about it, walked into the kitchen, and stuck it into the bottom of the wastebasket.
Thank God, Charlie never checked the mail. He knew who Ariana Nasbro was, of course. Twelve years ago, Ariana Nasbro had murdered Charlie's father.
She headed up the stairs and knocked on Charlie's door. Naturally there was no reply so she opened it.
He looked up, annoyed, pulled off the headphones. "What?"
"Did you do your homework?"
"Just about to."
He could see that she was put out, so he flashed the smile, so like his father's that it stabbed every single time. She was about to launch into him again, about how she'd asked him to do homework first, but really, who cared? It was pointless to get caught up in all that minutiae when her time with him was flying by so fast and soon he'd be gone.
"Did you feed Jersey?" she asked.
She rolled her eyes. "Never mind, I'll do it."
"Did you pick up the food at Bamboo House?"
Dinner. She had forgotten.
Charlie rolled his eyes, mimicking her.
"Don't be a smart-ass." She had decided earlier not to tell him her bad news yet, to wait for the right time, but she still found herself saying, "I got fired today."
Charlie just looked at her.
"Did you hear me?"
"Yeah," he said. "Sucks."
"You want me to pick up dinner?"
"Uh, you still pay for it, right?"
"For now, yeah. I think I can handle that."