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Caught

Chapter 8

   


WENDY WAS SURPRISED to see Pops's Harley-Davidson in her driveway. Exhausted from the long questioning-not to mention confronting her husband's killer earlier in the day and watching a man being murdered-she trudged past Pops's old Hog blanketed in fading decals: the American flag, the NRA member, the VFW logo. A small smile came to her face.
She opened the front door. "Pops?"
He lumbered out of the kitchen. "No beer in the fridge," he said.
"No one here drinks beer."
"Yeah, but you never know who might visit."
She smiled at him... what do you call the father of your late husband?... her former father-in-law. "Truer words."
Pops crossed the room and hugged her deep and hard. The faint smells of leather and road and cigarettes and, yep, beer wafted up. Her father-in-law-screw the "former"-had that hairy, big-bear, Vietnam-vet thing going. He was a big man, probably two-sixty, wheezed when he breathed, had a gray handlebar mustache stained yellow from tobacco.
"Heard you lost your job," he said.
"How?"
Pops shrugged. Wendy thought about it. Only one answer: Charlie.
"Is that why you're here?" she asked.
"Just passing through and needed a place to crash. Where's my grandson?"
"At a friend's house. He should be home any minute."
Pops studied her. "You look like the fifth ring of hell."
"Sweet talker."
"Want to tell me about it?"
She did. Pops mixed them up a couple of cocktails. They sat on the couch, and as she told him about the shooting, Wendy realized, hard as it was to admit, how much she missed having a man around.
"A murdered baby raper," Pops said. "Wow, I'll be mourning for weeks."
"That's a little cavalier, don't you think?"
Pops shrugged. "You cross certain lines, you can't go back. By the way, you dating at all?"
"Nice segue."
"Don't duck the question."
"No, I'm not dating."
Pops shook his head.
"What?"
"Humans need sex."
"I'll write that down."
"I'm serious. You still got it all going on, girl. Get out there and get some."
"I thought you right-wing NRA guys were against premarital sex."
"No, no, we just preach that so we can clear the playing fields for ourselves."
She smiled at that. "Ingenious."
Pops looked up at her. "What else is wrong?"
Wendy had debated not saying anything about it, but the words tumbled out anyway.
"I got a couple of letters from Ariana Nasbro," Wendy said.
Silence.
John had been Pops's only child. Hard as it was for Wendy to lose a husband, no parent wants to speculate what it might be like to lose a child. The pain in Pops's face was a living, breathing thing. It never left.
"So what did dear, sweet Ariana want?" he asked.
"She's doing the Twelve Steps."
"Ah. And you're one of those steps?"
Wendy nodded. "Step Eight or Nine, I forget which."
The front door burst open, stopping the conversation. They heard Charlie rush in-he had clearly spotted the Harley in the driveway. "Pops is here?"
"We're in the den, kiddo."
Charlie sprinted into the room, his smile wide. "Pops!"
Pops was Charlie's only surviving grandparent-Wendy's parents had both died before Charlie was even born, and John's mom, Rose, had passed away two years ago from cancer. The two men-Charlie was still a boy, sure, but he was now taller than his grandfather-embraced with everything they had. They both squeezed their eyes shut. That was how Pops always hugged. Nothing was held back. Wendy watched them and again felt the pang of missing a man in their lives.
When they stopped, Wendy aimed for normalcy. "How was school?"
"Lame."
Pops threw his arm around his grandson's neck. "Mind if me and Charlie go for a ride?"
She was about to protest, but Charlie's expectant face made her stop. Gone was the sulky teenager. He was a kid again.
"You have an extra helmet?" she asked Pops.
"Always." Pops arched an eyebrow at Charlie. "You never know when you may run into a safety-conscious biker chick."
"Don't be out late," Wendy said. "Oh, and before you go, maybe we should send out a warning."
"A warning?"
"To lock up the ladies," Wendy said. "The two of you on the prowl and all."
Pops and Charlie shared a knuckle bump. "Oooh yeah."
Men.
She walked them to the door, shared more hugs, realized that part of what she missed was simply the physical presence of a man, the hugging and embracing and the comfort there is in that. She watched them roar off on Pops's Hog, and as she turned to head back inside, a car pulled up and parked in front of the house.
The car was unfamiliar. Wendy waited. The driver's-side door opened, and a woman stormed out. Her eyes were red, her cheeks wet from tears. Wendy recognized her right away-Jenna Wheeler, Dan Mercer's ex-wife.
Wendy had first met Jenna the morning after Dan's episode aired. She went to the Wheeler house and sat on Jenna's bright yellow couch with bright blue flowers and listened as Jenna had defended her ex-publicly and loudly-and it had cost her. People in this town-Jenna lived less than two miles from Wendy, her daughter even went to the same high school as Charlie-were, of course, shocked. Dan Mercer had spent time in the Wheeler household. He had even babysat Jenna's children from her second marriage. How, neighbors wondered, could a caring mother do that, let that monster into their community, and how could she defend him now that the truth was so obvious?
"You know," Wendy said.
Jenna nodded. "I'm listed as his next of kin."
The two women stood there on the stoop.
"I don't know what to say, Jenna."
"You were there?"
"Yes."
"Did you set Dan up?"
"What?"
"You heard me."
"No, Jenna, I didn't set him up."
"Why were you there, then?"
"Dan called me. He said he wanted to meet."
Jenna looked skeptical. "With you?"
"He said he had new evidence he was innocent."
"But the judge had already thrown out the case."
"I know."
"So why-?" Jenna stopped. "What was the new evidence?"
Wendy shrugged, as if that said it all, and maybe it did. The sun had set. The night was warm but a breeze was blowing through.
"I have more questions," Jenna said.
"Why don't you come in, then?"
Wendy's reasons for inviting Jenna in were not entirely altruistic. Now that the shock of witnessing horrific violence had passed, the reporter in her was coming to the forefront.
"Can I get you some tea or something?"
Jenna shook her off. "I still don't understand what happened." So Wendy told her. She started with Dan's phone call and ended with her returning to the trailer with Sheriff Walker. She didn't go into Ed Grayson's visit to her house the day before. She had told Walker about that, but there was no reason to fan the flames here.
Jenna listened with moist eyes. When Wendy finished Jenna said, "He just shot Dan?"
"Yes."
"He didn't say anything first?"
"No, nothing."
"He just-" Jenna looked around the room, as though for help. "How does a person do that to another?"
Wendy had an answer, but she said nothing.
"You saw him, right? Ed Grayson? You can give the police a positive ID?"
"He wore a mask. But, yeah, I think it was Grayson."
"Think?"
"Mask, Jenna. He wore a mask."
"You never saw his face?"
"I never saw his face."
"So how did you know it was him?"
"By his watch. His height, his build. The way he carried himself."
Jenna frowned. "Do you think that will hold up in court?"
"I don't know."
"The police have him in custody, you know."
Wendy didn't know, but again she kept her mouth shut. Jenna began to cry again. Wendy had no idea what to do here. Offering words of comfort would be at best superfluous. So she waited.
"How about Dan?" Jenna asked. "Did you see his face?"
"Pardon?"
"When you got there, did you see what they did to his face?"
"You mean the bruises? Yeah, I saw them."
"They kicked the crap out of him."
"Who?"
"Dan tried so hard to escape. Wherever he went, the neighbors found out and hounded him. There were phone calls and threats and graffiti and, yes, beatings. It was horrible. He would move and someone would always find him."
"Who beat him this time?" Wendy asked.
Jenna raised her eyes, met Wendy's. "His life was a living hell."
"Are you trying to put that on me?"
"You think you're blameless?"
"I never wanted him beaten."
"No, you just wanted him put in jail."
"Are you expecting me to apologize for that?"
"You're a reporter, Wendy. You don't get to be judge and jury. But once you aired that story, well, you think it mattered that the judge dismissed the charges? Did you think Dan would just be able to go back to his life-to any life?"
"I just reported what happened."
"That's crap, and you know it. You created this story. You set him up."
"Dan Mercer started flirting with an underage girl..." Wendy stopped. No point in rehashing this. The two of them had been here before. This woman, naive as she might be, was in mourning. Let her do it in peace.
"Are we done?" Wendy asked.
"He didn't do it."
Wendy did not bother with a reply.
"I lived with him for four years. I was married to the man."
"And divorced him."
"So?"
Wendy shrugged. "Why?"
"Half the marriages in this country end in divorce."
"Why did yours?"
Jenna shook her head. "What? You think it's because I learned he was a pedophile?"
"Did you?"
"He's the godfather of my daughter. He babysits my kids. They call him Uncle Dan."
"Right. All very special. So why did you two get divorced?"
"It was mutual."
"Uh-huh. Did you fall out of love with him?"
Jenna took her time, mulling that one over. "Not really."
"So? Look, I know that you don't want to admit this, but maybe you sensed something was wrong with him."
"Not like that."
"Like how then?"
"There was a part of Dan I couldn't quite reach. And before you say the obvious, no, it wasn't that he was a sexual deviant. Dan had a tough childhood. He was an orphan, bounced around from foster home to foster home..."
Her voice trailed off. Wendy again skipped the obvious. Orphan. Foster homes. Abuse maybe. Scratch a pedophile's past, you always find something like this in the mix. She waited.
"I know what you're thinking. And you're wrong."
"Why? Because you knew the man so well?"
"Yes. But not just that."
"What then?"
"It was always like... I don't know how to put this. Something happened to him in college. You know he went to Princeton, right?"
"Right."
"Poor orphan, worked hard, managed to go to a big-time Ivy League school."
"Yeah, so?"
Jenna stopped, met her eye.
"What?"
"You owe him."
Wendy said nothing.
"Whatever you think," Jenna said, "whatever may or may not be the truth here, one thing is certain."
"And that is?"
"You got him killed."
Silence.
"Maybe you did more than that. His attorney embarrassed you in court. Dan was going to go free. That must have upset you."
"Don't go there, Jenna."
"Why not? You were angry. You feel the courts got it wrong. You meet with Dan and suddenly, by shocking coincidence, there's Ed Grayson. You have to be involved-an accomplice at the very least. Or maybe you're being set up."
She stopped. Wendy waited. Then: "You're not going to say, 'Just like Dan,' are you?"
Jenna shrugged. "Hell of a coincidence."
"I think it's time for you to leave, Jenna."
"I think you're probably right."
The two women walked to the door. Jenna said, "I have one more question."
"Go ahead."
"Dan told you where he was, right? I mean, that's how you ended up at the trailer park?"
"Right."
"Did you tell Ed Grayson about it?"
"No."
"So how did he end up there-at the exact same time?"
Wendy hesitated before answering. "I don't know. I guess he followed me."
"How would he have known to do that?"
Wendy had no answer. She remembered checking her rearview mirrors too, on those quiet roads. There had been no other cars.
How had Ed Grayson found Dan Mercer?
"See? The most logical answer is, you helped him."
"I didn't."
"Right. And it would suck," Jenna said, "if no one believed you."
She turned and walked away. Her question stayed in the air. Wendy watched her drive off. She started to turn around and head back inside when something made her pull up.
Her car tire. Low on air. Wasn't that what Ed Grayson said?
She ran out to the driveway. The tire was fine. She ducked down and felt alongside the back bumper. Fingerprints, she realized. In her haste, she had forgotten about them. She pulled her hand away, bent down on her haunches, took a look.
Nothing.
No choice really. She lay flat on her back like a classic grease monkey. She had installed motion-sensor lighting in the driveway. It provided enough illumination. She wiggled on the tar surface under the car. Not far. Just a little. And that was when she saw it. It was small, not much bigger than a book of matches. It was held on by a magnet, the same kind of thing people use to keep a spare set of keys hidden. But that's not what this was. It explained a lot.
Ed Grayson had not bent down to check her back tire. He had bent down to stick a magnetic GPS device under her bumper.