WENDY CALLED WALKER from the car. The call got routed three different ways before Walker picked up.
"Where are you?" she asked.
"In the woods."
"You got five minutes for me?"
"I'm on my way back to the manor now. There's a guy named Frank Tremont. He's in charge of the Haley McWaid case."
The name rang a bell. She had covered a few cases he'd handled in the past. The guy was a lifer, fairly smart, overly cynical. "I know him."
"Cool. We can meet you there."
She hung up. She drove back to Ringwood, parked with the other reporters, and approached the cop guarding the crime scene entrance. Sam grabbed the camera and started to follow. Wendy stopped him with a head shake. Sam pulled up, puzzled. Wendy gave the cop her name and was waved through. The other reporters didn't like that. They hurried over and started demanding access. Wendy never turned around.
When she got to the tent, another officer said, "Sheriff Walker and Investigator Tremont said you should wait here."
She nodded and sat on a foldout canvas chair, the same kind parents used on the sidelines at soccer games. There were dozens of law enforcement cars-some marked, some not-parked every which way. There were uniformed cops, cops in street clothes, and several officers sporting nifty FBI windbreakers. Many were on laptops. In the distance, Wendy could hear the clacking whir of a helicopter.
Standing by herself on the edge of the woods was a young girl Wendy recognized as Patricia McWaid, Haley's younger sister. Wendy debated whether this was the right time or not-but the debate didn't last long. Opportunity knocking and all that. She started toward the girl, telling herself that this was not about nailing a big story but about finding out what really happened to Haley and Dan.
A new theory had wormed its way into her brain. Patricia McWaid might have information that could prove or disprove it.
"Hi," Wendy said to the young girl.
The girl gave a little startled jump. She turned and faced Wendy. "Hello."
"My name is Wendy Tynes."
"I know," Patricia said. "You live in town. You're on TV."
"You also did a story on the man who had Haley's phone."
"Do you think he hurt her?"
Wendy was surprised by the girl's directness. "I don't know."
"Pretend you had to guess-do you think he hurt her?"
Wendy thought about it. "I don't think he hurt her, no."
"Just a thought. I have no reason for believing that. Like I said, I really don't know."
Patricia nodded. "Fair enough."
Wendy debated how to approach this. Start with something small like, "Were you and your sister close?" Normally that was the way to go with any interview. Open with some softball questions. Get them relaxed, develop a rapport, get them in the rhythm. But even without the time constraint-Tremont and Walker could pop up any second-that felt like the wrong track. This girl had been direct with her. She might as well try the same.
"Did your sister ever mention Dan Mercer?"
"The police asked me that."
"No. Haley never mentioned him."
"Did Haley have a boyfriend?"
"The police asked me that too," Patricia said. "First day she vanished. Investigator Tremont must have asked me that a million times since. Like I was hiding something."
"So did she have a boyfriend?"
"I think so, yeah. But I don't know. It was like a secret or something. Haley could be private with stuff like that."
Wendy felt her pulse pick up a bit. "Private how?"
"She'd sneak out and meet up with him sometimes."
"How did you know about it?"
"She told me. To, you know, cover if our parents asked."
"How often did she do this?"
"Maybe two, three times."
"Did she ask you to cover for her the night she vanished?"
"No. The last time was like a week before that."
Wendy considered this. "And you told the police all this?"
"Sure. Day one."
"Did they ever find the boyfriend?"
"I think so. I mean, they said they found him."
"Can you tell me who it was?"
"Kirby Sennett. A guy in our school."
"Do you think it was Kirby?"
"You mean, was he her boyfriend?"
Patricia shrugged. "I guess so, yeah."
"You don't sound certain."
"Like I said, she never told me. I was just supposed to cover for her."
The helicopter flew overhead. Patricia cupped a hand over her eyes and looked up. She swallowed deep and hard. "It still doesn't feel real. Like she's just away on a trip and one morning she'll be back home."
She lowered her gaze.
"Do you think Haley ran away?"
Just like that.
"You seem pretty certain."
"Why would she run away? Sure, maybe she liked to sneak a drink every once in a while, stuff like that. But Haley was happy, you know? She liked school. She liked lacrosse. She liked her friends. And she loved us. Why would she run away?"
Wendy considered that.
"Ms. Tynes?" Patricia said.
"What are you thinking?"
She didn't want to lie to this girl. She also didn't want to tell her. Looking off, Wendy hesitated just long enough.
"What's going on here?" They both turned. County Investigator Frank Tremont stood with Sheriff Walker. He did not look happy. He cut a glance at Walker. Walker nodded and said, "Patricia, why don't you come with me?"
Walker and Patricia headed toward the police tent, leaving Tremont alone with Wendy. He frowned at her. "Man, I hope this wasn't a ploy to talk to the family."
"So what have you got?"
"Dan Mercer liked younger girls."
Tremont gave her flat eyes. "Wow, that's helpful."
"Something about the whole Dan Mercer case has rubbed me wrong from day one," she went on. "No reason to go into details right now, but I've just never been able to buy him as a purely evil predator. I just spoke to an old classmate of his from Princeton. He can't believe Dan would abduct anyone."
"Wow, that's also helpful."
"But he did confirm that Dan liked younger girls. I'm not saying the guy wasn't a scum bucket. Sounds like he was. But my point is, he seemed to do it on a more consensual, less, I don't know, violent basis."
Tremont did not look impressed. "So?"
"So Patricia says Haley had a secret boyfriend."
"Not so secret. It's a local punk-wannabe named Kirby Sennett."
"Are you sure?"
"Sure about what?" Tremont paused. "Wait, what are you saying?"
"According to Patricia, Haley sneaked out a few times-the last time a week before she vanished. She said that Haley asked her to cover for her."
"And you guys figure she met up with this Kirby kid?"
"Did Kirby confirm it?"
"Not fully, no. Look, there's evidence they were an item. Some texts, e-mails, stuff like that. Seems like Haley liked the idea of keeping it a secret, probably because the kid was a punk. No big deal. The kid lawyered up. Not unusual, even if you're innocent. Rich parents, spoiled brat of a kid, you know the deal."
"And this was Haley's boyfriend?"
"Seems so, yeah. But Kirby told us that he and Haley broke up about a week before she vanished. That matches when she last sneaked out."
"And you obviously looked at Kirby?"
"Sure, but the kid is a small-time asshat. Don't get me wrong. We looked at Kirby hard and long. But he was in Kentucky when she disappeared. His alibi is completely solid. We checked him out six ways to Sunday. There's no way he had anything to do with it, if that's where you're going with this."
"That's not where I'm going at all," Wendy said.
Tremont hoisted his pants by the buckle. "You want to share with the class then?"
"Dan Mercer dates younger girls. Haley McWaid leaves her house-no signs of violence, a break-in, nothing. What I'm saying is that maybe the mysterious boyfriend wasn't Kirby Sennett. Maybe it was Dan Mercer."
Tremont took his time with that one. He chewed at something in his mouth, something that apparently tasted bad. "So you think, what, Haley ran away with this perv on her own accord?"
"I'm not willing to go that far yet."
"Good," Tremont said, and there was steel in his voice. "Because this is a good kid. A really good kid. I don't want her parents hearing crap like this. They don't deserve that."
"I'm not casting any aspersions here."
"Okay. Just so we're clear."
"But for the sake of argument," Wendy said, "let's say Haley did run away with Mercer. It would explain why there was no evidence of foul play. And maybe it also explains the iPhone in the motel room."
"Haley runs away with Dan Mercer. He ends up getting killed. So she hurries out of the motel room-never looks back. I mean, think about it. If Dan Mercer had grabbed and killed her, why would he hold on to her iPhone?"
"As a trophy?"
Wendy frowned. "Do you really buy that?"
Tremont said nothing.
"You found this state park on her Google Earth, right?"
"Pretend you're Haley. You wouldn't look up the place a kidnapper was going to hold you or bury you or whatever."
"But," Tremont finished for her, "you might look up a place where you were going to meet up with your boyfriend to run away."
Tremont sighed. "She's a good kid."
"We're not making a moral judgment here."
Wendy let that go.
"So let's say you're right," Tremont said. "Where would Haley be now?"
"I don't know."
"And why would she leave her phone in the motel?"
"Maybe she had to rush out. Maybe she couldn't go back to the room for some reason. Maybe she's scared because Dan was killed and she's hiding."
"So she had to rush out," Tremont repeated, cocking his head. "And so she, what, left her iPhone under the bed?"
Wendy thought about that. No answer came to her.
"Let's take it step by step," Tremont said. "First, I'll send some guys down to the motel-to all the crap holes where Dan stayed-and see if anyone remembers him being with a teenage girl."
"Good," Wendy said. Then: "One other thing."
"When I saw Dan before he was shot, someone had beaten him pretty good."
Tremont saw where she was going with this. "So you figure that maybe Haley McWaid, if she was with him, might have seen that beating." He nodded. "Maybe that's why she ran."
But now that he said it out loud, that didn't sound right to Wendy. There was a false note here. She tried to think it through. There was still more-like how did the scandals involving Stearns 109 fit in? She was about to present that angle to Tremont, but right now it still seemed too far out there. She needed to look into it more. That meant going back to Phil and Sherry Turnball, maybe calling Farley Parks and Steven Miciano, trying to find Kelvin Tilfer.
"So maybe you should look into who assaulted Dan Mercer," she said.
A half-smile crossed Tremont's face. "Hester Crimstein had an interesting theory on that."
"Hester Crimstein, the TV judge?"
"Right. She's also Ed Grayson's attorney. According to her hypothetical, her client gave Dan Mercer that beating."
"How does she figure?"
"See, we found Dan Mercer's blood in Grayson's car. We said that, along with your testimony, was clear evidence Grayson murdered Mercer."
"But Crimstein-God, she's good-she says, well, your witness, you, said Mercer had been beaten. So, she says, maybe Grayson and Mercer got into a fight a day or two earlier. And maybe that's how the blood ended up in the car."
"You buy that?"
Tremont shrugged. "Not really, no, but that's not the point."
"It's pretty brilliant on her part," Wendy said.
"Yep. Crimstein and Grayson pretty much figured a way to negate all the evidence. We have blood DNA-but a fight gives that a plausible explanation. Yes, Grayson had gun residue on his hand, but the owner of the Gun-O-Rama shooting range confirmed that he was there an hour after you saw him shoot Mercer. The owner says Grayson is one of the best shots he's ever seen, so he remembers him well. You witnessed him killing Dan Mercer-but there's no body, no gun, and he wore a mask."
Something was niggling the back of Wendy's brain. It was there, just out of sight, but she couldn't quite get to it.
Tremont said, "You know what I'm going to ask of you now, right?"
"I think so."
"The McWaids have been through hell. I don't want to put them through more. You can't report this yet."
Wendy said nothing.
"We have nothing, anyway, but a few whacked-out theories," he went on. "I promise to let you have anything we learn first. But for the sake of the investigation-for the sake of Haley's parents-you can't say anything yet. Deal?"
The niggling was still there. Tremont was waiting. "Deal," she said.
BACK BEHIND THE CRIME SCENE TAPE, Wendy was only mildly surprised to see Ed Grayson leaning against her car. He tried to look casual, but he wasn't pulling it off. His finger toyed with a cigarette. He put it in his mouth and sucked on it as though he were deep underwater and it was a breathing tube.
"Sticking another GPS on my back bumper?" she asked.
"I have no idea what you mean."
"Sure. You were just checking for a flat, right?"
Grayson took another deep drag. His face hadn't seen a razor, but that was true of more than half the men who'd gotten up here at such an early hour. His eyes were bloodshot. He looked a lot worse than the man who had just yesterday confidently explained to her his theories on vigilantism. She thought about that, about his visit to her house.
"Did you really think I'd help you kill him?" she asked.
"That'd be nice, yeah."
"You might've agreed with what I said in theory. You maybe even started to waver a little when I raised Ariana Nasbro. But no, I never thought you'd help."
"So you were just giving it a shot?"
He didn't reply.
"Or was your visit all an excuse to put that GPS on my car?"
Ed Grayson slowly shook his head.
"What?" she asked.
"You don't have a clue, do you, Wendy?"
She stepped closer to the driver's door. "Why are you here, Ed?"
He looked off toward the woods. "I wanted to help with the search."
"They wouldn't let you?"
"What do you think?"
"Sounds like you feel guilty."
He took another drag. "Do me a favor, Wendy. Skip the analysis."
"So what do you want with me?"
He pinched the cigarette between his fingertips and studied it as though it held an answer. "Do you think Dan killed her?"
She wondered how to answer that. "What did you do with his body?"
"You talk first. Did Dan kill Haley McWaid?"
"I don't know. Maybe he just locked her up, and right now, because of what you did, she's starving to death."
"Nice try." He scratched at his cheek. "But the cops laid that guilt trip on me already."
"Are you going to tell me what you did with the body?"
"My. My." He spoke in pure monotone. "I. Have. No. Idea. What. You're. Talking. About."
This was getting her nowhere-and she had places to go. The niggling had something to do with her research on the Princeton group. Dan and Haley running away together-okay, maybe. But what about all those scandals involving his old roommates? Could be nothing. Probably was. But she was missing something huge here.
"So what do you want from me?" she asked.
"I'm trying to figure out whether Dan really kidnapped this girl."
"Trying to help the investigation, I guess."
"So you can sleep better at night?"
"So what answer will make you sleep better?" she asked.
"I don't follow."
"Well, if Dan killed Haley, would you feel better about what you did? Like you said before, he was bound to do it again. You stopped him-albeit a little late. And if Dan did not kill her, well, you're still convinced he would have hurt someone else, right? So either way, killing him was the only way to stop him. Seems the only way you lose sleep is if Haley is alive somewhere and you put her in further danger."
Ed Grayson shook his head. "Just forget it." He started to walk away.
"Am I missing something?" she asked.
"Like I said before." Grayson tossed the cigarette and never broke stride. "You don't have a clue."