THREE MONTHS LATER
"DO YOU PROMISE to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"
Wendy Tynes said that she did, took the stand, looked out. She felt as though she were onstage, something she was somewhat used to, what with being a television news reporter and all, but this time it made her squirm. She looked out and saw the parents of Dan Mercer's victims. Four sets of them. They were there every day. At first they'd brought photographs of their children, the innocent ones of course, holding them up, but the judge had made them stop. Now they sat silently, watching, and somehow that was even more intimidating.
The seat was uncomfortable. Wendy adjusted her position, crossed then uncrossed her legs, and waited.
Flair Hickory, celebrity counsel for the defense, stood, and not for the first time, Wendy wondered how Dan Mercer had the money to afford him. Flair wore his customary gray suit with thick pink stripes, pink shirt, pink tie. He crossed the room in a way that might be modestly described as "theatrical," but it was more like something Liberace might have done if Liberace had the courage to be really flamboyant.
"Ms. Tynes," he began with a welcoming smile. This was part of Flair's style. He was gay, yes, but he played it up in court like Harvey Fierstein in leather chaps doing Liza jazz hands. "My name is Flair Hickory. Good morning to you."
"Good morning," she said.
"You work for a lurid tabloid TV program called Caught in the Act, is that correct?"
The prosecuting attorney, a man named Lee Portnoi, said, "Objection. It's a TV program. There has been no testimony to support the allegation that the program is either lurid or tabloid."
Flair smiled. "Would you like me to present evidence, Mr. Portnoi?"
"That won't be necessary," Judge Lori Howard said in a voice that already sounded weary. She turned to Wendy. "Please answer the question."
"I don't work for the show anymore," Wendy said.
Flair pretended to be surprised by this. "No? But you did?"
"So what happened?"
"The show was taken off the air."
"For low ratings?"
"Really? Why then?"
Portnoi said, "Your Honor, we all know the whys."
Lori Howard nodded. "Move along, Mr. Hickory."
"You know my client, Dan Mercer?"
"And you broke into his house, didn't you?"
Wendy tried to hold his gaze, tried not to look guilty, whatever the heck that meant. "That's not really accurate, no."
"It's not? Well, my dear, I want to make sure that we are as accurate as humanly possible, so let's back up, shall we?" He strolled across the courtroom as though it were a catwalk in Milan. He even had the audacity to smile at the families of the victims. Most made a point of not looking at Flair, but one of the fathers, Ed Grayson, stared daggers. Flair seemed unfazed.
"How did you first encounter my client?"
"He came on to me in a chat room."
Flair's eyebrows went skyward. "Really?" Like it was the most fascinating thing anyone had ever said. "What sort of chat room?"
"A chat room frequented by children."
"And you were in this chat room?"
"You're not a child, Ms. Tynes. I mean, you may not be to my taste, but even I can see that you are a rather luscious female adult."
Judge Howard sighed. "Mr. Hickory?"
Flair smiled, waved his apology. This was the kind of thing only Flair could get away with. "Now, Ms. Tynes, when you were in this chat room, you were pretending to be an underage girl, isn't that correct?"
"You then engaged in conversations designed to entice men into wanting sex with you, isn't that also correct?"
"I always let them make the first move."
Flair shook his head and made a tsk-tsk noise. "If I had a dollar for every time I said that..."
A smattering of laughter rippled through the courtroom.
The judge said, "We have the transcripts, Mr. Hickory. We can read them and decide for ourselves."
"Excellent point, Your Honor, thank you."
Wendy wondered why Dan Mercer wasn't here, but that was probably obvious. This was an evidentiary hearing, ergo, there was no requirement to attend. Flair Hickory was hoping to persuade the judge to throw out the horrible, sickening, stomach-turning material the police had found on Mercer's computer and hidden throughout his house. If he could pull this off-everyone agreed it was a long shot-the case against Dan Mercer would probably vanish and a sick predator would be out on the streets.
"By the way"-Flair spun back toward Wendy-"how did you know it was my client on the other end of these online conversations?"
"I didn't at first."
"Oh? With whom did you think you were conversing?"
"I didn't have a name. That's part of it. I just knew at that stage that it was some guy who was trolling for sex with underage girls."
"How did you know that?"
Flair made quote marks with his fingers. " ' Trolling for sex with underage girls,' as you put it. How did you know that was what the person on the other end of the conversation was doing?"
"Like the judge said, Mr. Hickory. Read the transcripts."
"Oh, I have. And do you know what I concluded?"
That got Lee Portnoi up. "Objection. We don't care what Mr. Hickory concluded. He isn't giving testimony here."
Flair moved back to his desk and started checking through notes. Wendy looked over at the gallery. It helped her resolve. Those people out there had suffered greatly. Wendy was helping them find justice. Much as you could pretend to be jaded or claim that it was just her job, it meant a great deal to her-the good she had done. But when she met Ed Grayson's eyes, she saw something there that she didn't like. Something angry in his stare. Challenging maybe.
Flair put the papers down. "Well, let me put it to you this way, Ms. Tynes: If a reasonable person were to read those transcripts, would they definitely, without a doubt, conclude that one of the participants was a luscious, thirty-six-year-old, female news reporter-"
"-or might they conclude that it had been written by a thirteen-year-old girl?"
Wendy opened her mouth, closed it, waited. Judge Howard said, "You can answer."
"I was pretending to be a thirteen-year-old girl."
"Ah," Flair said, "who hasn't?"
"Mr. Hickory," the judge warned.
"Sorry, Your Honor, couldn't resist. Well, Ms. Tynes, if I were just reading those messages, I wouldn't know that you were pretending, would I? I would think you were indeed a thirteen-year-old girl."
Lee Portnoi threw up his hands. "Is there a question in there?"
"Here it comes, sweetie, so listen up: Were those messages written by a thirteen-year-old girl?"
"Asked and answered, Your Honor."
Flair said, "It's a simple yes or no. Was the author of those messages a thirteen-year-old girl?"
Judge Howard nodded that she could answer.
"No," Wendy said.
"In fact, as you said, you were pretending to be a thirteen-year-old girl, correct?"
"And for all you know, the person on the other end was pretending to be an adult male seeking underage sex. For all you knew, you were talking to an albino nun with herpes, correct?"
Wendy met Flair's eyes. "An albino nun with herpes didn't show up looking for sex at the child's house."
But Flair would have none of it. "What house would that be, Ms. Tynes? The house where you set up your cameras? Tell me, did an underage girl live there?"
Wendy said nothing.
"Please answer the question," the judge said.
"But you were there, correct? Perhaps whoever was on the other side of your online communications-and we really don't know who that was at this point-but perhaps that person had seen your news"-Flair said it as though the word "news" itself tasted bad in his mouth-"program and decided to play along so he could meet a luscious thirty-six-year-old TV star. Isn't that possible?"
Portnoi was up. "Objection, Your Honor. These are matters for the jury."
"True enough," Flair said. "We can argue the obvious case of false entrapment there." He turned back to Wendy. "Let's stay on the night of January seventeenth, shall we? What happened after you confronted my client at your sting house?"
Wendy waited for the DA to object to the word "sting," but he'd probably figured that he'd done enough. "Your client ran away."
"After you leapt out with your cameras and lights and microphones, correct?"
She again waited for an objection before answering, "Yes."
"Tell me, Ms. Tynes. Is that the way the majority of men who come to your sting house react?"
"No. Most of the time they stick around and try to explain."
"And are most of those men guilty?"
"Yet my client acted differently. Interesting."
Portnoi was up again. "To Mr. Hickory, it might be interesting. To the rest of us, his shenanigans-"
"Yes, fine, withdrawn," Flair said as though he couldn't be bothered. "Relax, Counselor, there's no jury here. Don't you trust our judge to see through my 'shenanigans' without your guidance?" He fixed a cuff link. "So, Ms. Tynes, you turned on the cameras and lights and came jumping out with your microphone and Dan Mercer ran away, is that your testimony?"
"What did you do then?"
"I told my producers to follow him."
Flair again feigned shock. "Are your producers police officers, Ms. Tynes?"
"Do you think private citizens should engage in chasing down suspects without the aid of police officers?"
"There was a police officer with us."
"Oh, please." Hickory looked skeptical. "Your show is pure sensationalism. Tripe tabloid at its worst-"
Wendy interrupted him. "We've met before, Mr. Hickory."
That slowed him down. "Have we?"
"When I was an assistant producer on A Current Affair. I booked you as an expert on the Robert Blake murder trial."
He turned to the spectators and bowed deeply. "So, ladies and gentlemen, we've established the fact that I'm a media whore. Touche." Another smattering of laughter. "Still, Ms. Tynes, are you trying to tell the court that law enforcement was in favor of your journalistic twaddle to the point of cooperation?"
"I'll allow it."
"But, Your Honor-"
"Overruled. Sit down, Mr. Portnoi."
Wendy said, "We had a relationship with the police and the DA's office. It was important for us to stay on the correct side of the law."
"I see. You were working together with law enforcement then, weren't you?"
"Not really, no."
"Well, which is it, Ms. Tynes? Did you work this entire sting on your own without the knowledge and cooperation of law enforcement?"
"Okay, fine. Did you contact the police department and DA's office before the night of January seventeenth in regard to my client?"
"We contacted the prosecutor's office, yes."
"Wonderful, thank you. Now, you said that you had your producers start chasing my client, is that correct?"
"That's not how she worded it," Portnoi said. "She said ' follow.' "
Flair looked at Portnoi as though he had never seen a more annoying gnat. "Yes, fine, whatever-chase, follow, we can discuss the difference another time. When my client ran, Ms. Tynes, where did you go?"
"To his residence."
"I figured that at some point, Dan Mercer might show up there."
"So you waited for him there, at his residence?"
"Did you stay outside his residence while waiting?"
Wendy squirmed. They were coming to it now. She looked out over the faces, locked on the eyes of Ed Grayson, whose nine-year-old son was an early victim of Dan Mercer. She could feel the weight of his stare as she said, "I saw a light on."
"In Dan Mercer's house?"
"How odd," Flair said, his voice set on full sarcasm. "I never, not once ever, heard of anyone ever leaving a light on when they weren't home."
Judge Howard sighed. "Mr. Hickory."
Flair kept his eyes on Wendy. "So what did you do, Ms. Tynes?"
"I knocked on the door."
"Did my client answer?"
"Did anyone answer?"
"So what did you do next, Ms. Tynes?"
Wendy tried to stay very still when she said the next part. "I thought I might have seen movement through the window."
"You thought you might have seen movement," Flair repeated. "My, my, could you make your wording any more vague?"
"Withdrawn. So what did you do then?"
"I tried the knob. The door was unlocked. I opened it."
"Really? Why would you do that?"
"I was concerned."
"Concerned about what?"
"There have been cases in which pedophiles have done themselves harm after being caught."
"Is that a fact? So you were worried that your entrapment might cause my client to attempt suicide?"
"Something like that, yes."
Flair put his hand to his chest. "I'm touched."
"Your Honor!" Portnoi shouted.
Flair waved him off again. "So you wanted to save my client?"
"If that was the case, yes, I wanted to stop him."
"On the air, you've used words like 'pervert,' 'sicko,' 'depraved,' 'monstrous,' and 'scum' to describe those you entrap, is that correct?"
"Yet your testimony today is that you were willing to break into his house-in truth, break the law-to save my client's life?"
"I guess you could say that."
His voice not only dripped sarcasm but seemed to have spent days marinated in it: "How noble."
"I wasn't being noble," Wendy said. "I prefer to see these men brought to justice, to give the families closure. Suicide is an easy way out."
"I see. So what happened when you broke into my client's home?"
"Objection," Portnoi said. "Ms. Tynes said the door was unlocked-"
"Yes, fine, entered, broke in, whatever pleases Mr. Man over there," Flair said, fists on his hips. "Just stop interrupting. What happened, Ms. Tynes, after you entered"-again stressing the word beyond all measure-"my client's home?"
"My client wasn't trying to harm himself?"
"What was he doing?"
"He wasn't there."
"Was anybody, in fact, inside?"
"And that 'movement' you maybe saw?"
"I don't know."
Flair nodded, strolled away. "You've testified that you drove to my client's house almost immediately after he ran out with your producer chasing him. Did you really think he'd have time to go back home and set up a suicide?"
"He would know the fastest route and he had a head start. Yes, I thought there was time."
"I see. But you were wrong, weren't you?"
"My client didn't go straight home, did he?"
"He did not, that's correct."
"But you did go into Mr. Mercer's home-before he or the police arrived, correct?"
"Just for a brief moment."
"How long is a brief moment?"
"I'm not sure."
"Well, you had to check every room, right? To make sure he wasn't swinging from a beam by his belt or something, correct?"
"I only checked the room with the light on. The kitchen."
"Which meant you had to, at the very least, cross through the living room. Tell me, Ms. Tynes, what did you do after you discovered that my client wasn't at home?"
"I went back outside and waited."
"Waited for what?"
"The police to show."
"And they had a warrant to search my client's home, correct?"
"And while I realize that your intentions were noble in breaking into my client's home, wasn't there a small part of you that worried about how your entrapment case would hold up?"
"Since that January seventeenth show, you've done an extensive investigation into my client's past. Other than what was found at his home that night by the police, have you found any other solid evidence of illegal activity?"
"I will take that as a no," Flair said. "In short, without the evidence found during the search by the police, you'd have nothing tying my client to anything illegal, isn't that correct?"
"He showed up at the house that night."
"The sting house where no underage girl resided. So really, Ms. Tynes, the case-and your, uh, reputation-is all about the materials found in my client's home. Without it, you have nothing. In short, you had the means and a compelling reason for planting that evidence, did you not?"
Lee Portnoi was up on that one. "Your Honor, this is ridiculous. This argument is for a jury to decide."
"Ms. Tynes admitted entering the house illegally without a warrant," Flair said.
"Fine," Portnoi said, "then charge her with the crime of breaking and entering, if you think you can prove it. And if Mr. Hickory wants to present absurd theories about albino nuns or planted evidence, that is his right too-during the trial. To a jury in a court of law. And then I can present evidence to show how absurd his theories are. That's why we have courtrooms and trials. Ms. Tynes is a private citizen-and a private citizen is not held to the same standard as an officer of the court. You can't throw the computer and pictures out, Your Honor. They were found during a legal search with a signed warrant. Some of the sickening photographs were hidden in the garage and behind a bookshelf-and there was no way Ms. Tynes would have planted those in the brief moments or even minutes she may have entered the dwelling."
Flair shook his head. "Wendy Tynes broke into the home for, at best, specious reasons. A light on? Movement? Please. She also had a compelling motive for planting evidence and the means-and she had knowledge that Dan Mercer's house would be searched soon. It is worse than the fruits from a poisonous tree. Any evidence found in the house has to be thrown out."
"Wendy Tynes is a private citizen."
"That doesn't give her carte blanche here. She could have easily planted that laptop and those photographs."
"Which is an argument you can make to the jury."
"Your Honor, the material found is absurdly prejudicial. By her own testimony Ms. Tynes is clearly more than a private citizen here. I asked her several times about her relationship with the prosecutor's office. By her own admission, she was their agent."
Lee Portnoi turned red on that one. "That's ridiculous, Your Honor. Is every reporter working on a crime story now considered an agent of the law?"
"By her own admission, Wendy Tynes worked with and in close proximity to your office, Mr. Portnoi. I can have the stenographer read it back, the part about having an officer on the scene and being in touch with the prosecutor's office."
"That doesn't make her an officer."
"That's just semantics, and Mr. Portnoi knows it. His office would have had no case against my client without Wendy Tynes. Their entire case-all the crimes my client is now accused of-stems from Ms. Tynes's attempt at entrapment. Without her involvement, no warrant would have been issued at all."
Portnoi crossed the room. "Your Honor, Ms. Tynes may have originally presented the case to our office, but by those standards, every witness or complaining party who comes forward would be considered an agent-"
"I've heard enough," Judge Howard said. She slammed her gavel and rose. "You'll have my ruling by the morning."