GOAL ONE FOR INVESTIGATOR Frank Tremont and Sheriff Mickey Walker: Find a connection between molester Dan Mercer and missing girl Haley McWaid.

Haley's phone had so far provided few clues-no new texts, e-mails, or calls-though Tom Stanton, a young Sussex County cop with some techno background, was still going through it. Still, with the help of a teary Ted and steely Marcia, it didn't take long to come up with a link between Haley and Dan Mercer. Haley McWaid had been a senior at Kasselton High School. One of her classmates was a girl named Amanda Wheeler, stepdaughter of Jenna Wheeler, Dan's ex. Dan Mercer was friendly with his ex-wife and purportedly spent a great deal of time at their house.

Connection.

Jenna and Noel Wheeler sat on a couch across from him in their classic split-level home. Jenna's eyes were puffy from recent tears. She was a small woman, tight body like she worked out, probably striking when her face wasn't bloated from crying. The husband, Noel, was, Tremont had learned, head of cardiac surgery at Valley Medical Center. His hair was dark, unruly, a little too long-almost like what you'd expect in a concert pianist.

Another plush couch, Frank thought, in another lovely suburban home. Like with the McWaids. Both couches were nice, probably pretty expensive. This one was bright yellow with blue flowers. Springlike. Frank pictured it, the two of them, Noel and Jenna Wheeler (or Ted and Marcia McWaid), going to some highway furniture store, probably on Route 4, testing out a bunch of couches, trying to figure out which one would go in their lovely suburban home, match both the decor and lifestyle, combine comfort and durability, how it would blend in with the designer wallpaper and Oriental carpet and the knickknacks from that trip to Europe. They had it delivered and moved it from spot to spot until it was just right, collapsed into it, called the kids to try it out, maybe even sneaked down late one night to break it in.

Sussex County sheriff Mickey Walker loomed behind him like a solar eclipse. Now that the two cases were overlapping, there would be full cooperation-no county jurisdiction bickering when you're trying to find a missing girl. They agreed that Frank would lead this line of questioning.

Frank Tremont coughed into his fist. "Thank you for agreeing to talk with us."

"Have you found something new about Dan?" Jenna asked.

"I wanted to ask you both about your relationship with Dan Mercer."

Jenna looked puzzled. Noel Wheeler did not move. He leaned slightly forward, his forearms rested on his thighs, his fingers laced between his knees.

"What about our relationship?" Jenna asked.

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"You were close?"

"Yes."

Frank looked at Noel. "All of you? I mean, he is your wife's ex."

Again it was Jenna who answered. "All of us. Dan is... was... the godfather of our daughter Kari."

"How old is Kari?"

"What does that have to do with anything?"

Frank put a little steel in his voice. "Please just answer the question, Mrs. Wheeler."

"She's six."

"Did she spend time alone with Dan Mercer?"

"If you're insinuating-"

"I'm asking a question," Frank said, cutting her off. "Did your six-year-old daughter spend time alone with Dan Mercer?"

"She did," Jenna said, head high. "And she loved him dearly. She called him Uncle Dan."

"You have another child, don't you?"

Noel took that one. "I have a daughter from a previous marriage, yes. Her name is Amanda."

"Is she home right now?"

Frank had already checked on this and knew the answer.

"Yes, she's upstairs."

Jenna looked toward the silent Walker. "I don't see what any of this has to do with Ed Grayson killing Dan."

Walker just stared back at her, arms folded.

Frank said, "How often did Dan come to this house?"

"What difference does that make?"

"Mrs. Wheeler, do you have something to hide?"

Jenna's mouth dropped open. "Excuse me?"

"Why do you keep giving me a hard time?"

"I'm not giving you anything. I just want to know-"

"Why? What's the difference why I'm asking?"

Noel Wheeler put a calming hand on his wife's knee. "He visited frequently. Maybe once a week or so before"-he paused here-"before that story on him aired."

"And since then?"

"Rarely. Maybe once or twice."

Frank zeroed in on Noel. "Why less? Did you believe the charges?"

Noel Wheeler took his time. Jenna stared at him, her body suddenly stiff. Finally he said, "I did not believe the charges, no."

"But?"

Noel Wheeler stayed silent. He did not look at his wife.

"But better safe than sorry, is that it?"

Jenna said, "Dan felt it was best not to come around. So the neighbors wouldn't gossip."

Noel kept his eyes on the carpet.

"And," she continued, "I would still like to know what this has to do with anything."

"We would like to talk with your daughter Amanda," Frank said.

That got their attention. Jenna jumped first, but something made her stop. She looked toward Noel. Tremont wondered why. Step-mother syndrome, he figured. Noel Wheeler was, after all, the real parent here.

Noel said, "Detective... Tremont, is it?"

Frank nodded, not bothering to correct the terminology-it was investigator, not detective, but half the time, hell, he mixed them up.

"We've been willing to cooperate," Noel went on. "I will answer any and every question you have. But now you're involving my daughter. Do you have a child, Detective?"

With his peripheral vision, Frank Tremont could see Mickey Walker shifting his feet uneasily. Walker knew, though Tremont had never told him. Tremont never talked about Kasey.

"No, I don't."

"If you want to talk to Amanda, I really need to know what's going on."

"Fair enough." Tremont took his time, let the silence make them squirm a bit. When he thought the timing was right, he said, "Do you know who Haley McWaid is?"

"Yes, of course," Jenna said.

"We think your ex-husband did something to her."

Silence.

Jenna said, "When you say 'did something-' "

"Kidnapped, molested, abducted, murdered," Frank snapped. "Is that specific enough for you, Mrs. Wheeler?"

"I just want to know-"

"And I don't care what you want to know. I also don't give a rat's ass about Dan Mercer or his reputation or even who killed him. I only care about him insomuch as he relates to Haley McWaid."

"Dan wouldn't hurt anyone."

Frank felt the vein in his forehead throb. "Oh, why didn't you say so? I might as well just take your word for it and go home then, right? Forget the mountain of evidence that he snatched your daughter, Mr. and Mrs. McWaid-his ex-wife says he wouldn't hurt anyone."

"There's no reason to get snippy," Noel said, in that doctor voice he probably used on patients.

"Actually, Dr. Wheeler, there is every reason to get snippy. As you pointed out so clearly earlier, you're a father, aren't you?"

"Yes, of course."

"Well, imagine that your Amanda had been missing for three months-and the McWaids were jerking me around like this. How would you react?"

Jenna said, "We're just trying to understand-"

But again her husband silenced her with a hand on her knee. Noel shook his head at her and shouted, "Amanda!"

Jenna Wheeler sat back as a sullen teen voice from upstairs called back, "Coming!"

They waited. Jenna looked at Noel. Noel looked at the carpet.

"Question for both of you," Frank Tremont said. "To your knowledge, did Dan know or ever encounter Haley McWaid?"

Jenna said, "No."

"Dr. Wheeler?"

He shook his head with the unruly hair as his daughter appeared. Amanda was tall, skinny; her body and head seemed elongated, as though giant hands had squeezed the clay on either side. It may be a cruel word to bandy about, but the one that came to mind here was "gawky." She stood with her big hands in front of her, as though she were naked and being inspected and wanted to cover up. Her eyes were everywhere other than on someone else's eyes.

Her father rose and crossed the room. He put a protective arm around her and led her to the couch. He placed his daughter between Jenna and himself. Jenna too put her arm around her stepdaughter. Frank waited a few moments, letting them coo words of comfort.

"Amanda, I'm Investigator Tremont. This is Sheriff Walker. We need to ask you a few questions. You're not in any trouble, so please relax. We just need you to answer the questions as honestly and directly as you can, okay?"

Amanda did a quick nod. Her eyes darted about like two scared birds seeking a safe perch. Her parents huddled in closer, leaned a little forward, wanting to take the hit for her.

"Do you know Haley McWaid?" Frank asked.

The teen seemed to shrink right before his eyes. "Yeah."

"How?"

"School."

"Would you say that you two are friends?"

Amanda gave him the teenage shrug. "We were lab partners in AP chemistry."

"Was that this year?"

"Yeah."

"How did that come about?"

Amanda seemed confused by the question.

"Did you two choose each other?"

"No. Mrs. Walsh assigns it."

"I see. Did you two get along?"

"Yeah, sure. Haley's real nice."

"Has she ever been to your house?"

Amanda hesitated here. "Yeah."

"Lots of times?"

"No, just once."

Frank Tremont sat back, gave it a second. "Could you tell me when?"

The girl looked to her father. He nodded. "It's okay."

Amanda turned back to Tremont. "Thanksgiving."

Frank watched Jenna Wheeler. She gave away nothing, but he could see it was an effort. "Why was Haley here?"

Another teenage shrug. "Just hanging out," Amanda said.

"But on Thanksgiving? She wasn't with her family?"

Jenna Wheeler explained. "It was after. The girls all had Thanksgiving dinner with their families and came over here late. There was no school the next day."

Jenna's voice seemed to come from far away now. Flat, lifeless. Frank kept his eyes on Amanda. "What time would that have been?"

Amanda thought about it. "I don't know. She got here about ten."

"How many girls were there?"

"Four. Bree and Jody were here too. We hung out in the basement."

"After Thanksgiving?"

"Yeah."

Frank waited. When no one volunteered, he asked the obvious question: "Was Uncle Dan here for Thanksgiving?"

Amanda didn't answer. Jenna sat very still.

"Was he here?" Tremont asked again.

Noel Wheeler leaned forward, lowered his hands into his face. "Yes," he said. "Dan was here on Thanksgiving."