SO NOW WHAT?
Wendy could keep looking for clues that proved Dan and Haley were involved in some kind of consensual, albeit wrong, relationship, but what was the point? The police now had that theory. They would run with it. She needed to attack from another angle.
The five Princeton roommates.
Four out of five had been felled by scandals in the past year. The fifth, well, maybe he had too, but it just wasn't online. So she headed back to the Starbucks in Englewood to continue her investigation. When she entered, even before she spotted the Fathers Club, the sound of Ten-A-Fly's rapping blew forth from the overhead speakers.
Charisma Carpenter, I love you
You ain't no carpenter's dream, you ain't flat as board,
And you ain't easy to screw...
It was Ten-A-Fly. She stopped. "Hi."
Ten-A-Fly was decked out in a Grass Roots zip-up blue hoodie. On his head he wore the hood over a red baseball cap with a brim so big a trucker in 1978 would have been embarrassed to wear it while on the CB. Behind him Wendy could see the guy with the tennis whites. He was typing madly on a laptop. The younger father with the baby sling was walking back and forth and making cooing noises.
Ten-A-Fly jiggled a bling bracelet that looked like a Halloween prop. "Saw you at my gig last night."
Wendy nodded. "It was, uh, phat, dawg."
That pleased him. He held up his fist for a knuckle pound. She obliged. "You're a TV reporter, right?"
"So are you here to do a story on me?"
Tennis Whites on the laptop added, "You should." He pointed to the screen. "We're getting a lot of action here."
Wendy circled around and looked at the laptop. "You're on eBay?"
"It's how I make a living now," Tennis Whites said. "Since I got laid off-"
"Doug here was at Lehman Brothers," Ten-A-Fly interrupted. "He saw the bad coming, but nobody would listen to him."
"Whatever," Doug said, waving a hand with modesty. "Anyway, I stay solvent with eBay. First, I sold pretty much everything I owned. Then I started going to garage sales, buying things, fixing them up, reselling them."
"And you can make a living at that?"
He shrugged. "No, not really. It's something to do."
"Oh, I don't play."
She just looked at him.
"My wife does. Second wife actually. Some would call her a trophy wife. She kept whining about how she gave up this wonderful career to watch the kids, but really, she plays tennis all day. When I lost my job, I suggested that she go back to work. She told me that it was too late now. So she still plays tennis every day. And she hates me now. She can barely look at me. So I wear the tennis whites too."
"I don't know. A protest, I guess. I dumped a good woman-hurt her horribly-for a hottie. Now the good woman has moved on and doesn't even have the good sense to be mad at me anymore. I guess I got what I deserved, right?"
Wendy had no interest in going there. She looked at the screen. "What are you selling now?"
"Ten-A-Fly souvenirs. I mean, we're selling his CD, of course."
There were copies on the table. Ten-A-Fly dressed like Snoop Dogg on a bender making gangsta hand signs that made one think not so much of intimidation as an unusual state of palsy. The CD was titled Unsprung in Suburbia.
"Unsprung?" Wendy asked.
"Ghetto slang," Doug of the Tennis Whites explained.
"You don't want to know. Anyway, we're selling those CDs, T-shirts, caps, key chains, posters. But now I'm putting up one-of-a-kind items. Like, see here, that's the actual bandana Ten-A-Fly wore onstage last night."
Wendy looked and couldn't believe the bidding. "It's up to six hundred dollars?"
"Six-twenty now. Like I said, a lot of action. The panties a fan threw up onstage are also a hot item."
Wendy looked back at Fly. "Wasn't the fan your wife?"
Good question. "Absolutely none. Is Phil here?"
As she asked the question, Wendy spotted him behind the counter talking to the barista. He was smiling when he turned and saw her. The smile anvil-dropped off his face. Phil hurried toward her. Wendy met him halfway.
"What are you doing here?"
"We need to talk."
"We already talked."
"We need to talk more."
"I don't know anything."
She took a step closer to him. "Do you not get that there is still a girl missing?"
Phil closed his eyes. "Yeah, I get it," he said. "It's just... I don't know anything."
"Five minutes. For Haley's sake."
Phil nodded. They moved over to a table in the corner. It was rectangular and had a handicap logo with the words "Please offer this table to our disabled customers."
"During your freshman year at Princeton," Wendy said, "who else did you and Dan room with in college?"
Phil frowned. "What could that possibly matter?"
"Just answer, okay?"
"There were five of us. Besides Dan and me, there was Farley Parks, Kelvin Tilfer, and Steve Miciano."
"Did you guys room together other years?"
"Are you serious?"
"Yeah. Well, sophomore year-or maybe junior-Steve did a semester in Spain. Barcelona or Madrid. And junior year, I think, Farley lived in a frat house."
"You didn't join a fraternity?"
"No. Oh, and I was gone first semester senior year. Did a program in London. Happy?"
"Do you guys stay in touch?"
"How about Kelvin Tilfer?"
"I haven't heard from him since graduation."
"Do you know where he lives?"
Phil shook his head. A barista brought over a cup of coffee and placed it in front of Phil. Phil looked toward Wendy, seeing if she wanted one, but she shook him off. "Kelvin was from the Bronx. Maybe he's back there, I don't know."
"How about the others? You ever talk to them?"
"I hear from Farley, though it's been a while. Sherry and I held a fund-raiser for him last year. He was running for Congress, but it didn't work out."
"Well, Phil, that's the thing."
"It didn't work out for any of you."
He put his hand on the cup but didn't lift it. "I'm not following."
She took the printouts from a manila envelope and laid them on the desk.
"What's this?" he asked.
"Let's start with you."
"What about me?
"A year ago, you go down for embezzling over two million dollars."
His eyes widened. "How do you know that number?"
"I have my sources."
"The charges are total crap. I didn't do it."
"I'm not saying you did. Just bear with me, okay? First, you go down for embezzling." She opened another folder. "Two months later, Farley gets ruined by a political scandal involving a prostitute." The next file. "A month or so after that, Dan Mercer gets nailed on my TV show. And then, skip ahead another two months, Dr. Steve Miciano gets arrested for illegally possessing prescription drugs."
The files with various online printouts sat on the table. Phil stared at them, his hands down as though afraid to touch them.
"Don't you think it's a hell of a coincidence?" she asked.
"What about Kelvin?"
"I don't have anything on him yet."
"You found this all out in one day?"
"It didn't take much. I just did a simple Web search."
From behind her, Ten-A-Fly said, "May I see those?"
She turned. They were all there-the rest of the Fathers Club. "You were eavesdropping?"
"Don't take offense," Doug said. "People come in here and talk about the most personal things in the loudest of voices. It's like they think someone lowered a cone of silence around them. You just get used to listening in. Phil, this trumped-up embezzling charge-is that the reason they fired you?"
"No. That was the excuse. I was laid off like the rest of you."
Ten-A-Fly reached out and picked up the sheets. He slipped on a pair of reading glasses and started studying them.
Phil said, "I still can't see what any of this has to do with that missing girl."
"Maybe nothing," Wendy said. "But take it step by step. You get caught up in a scandal. You claim you're innocent."
"I am innocent. Why do you think I'm free right now? If my firm had any real proof, I'd be in jail. They know the charges were trumped-up."
"But don't you see? That kind of adds up. Take Dan. He ended up getting off. And to the best of my knowledge, neither Steve Miciano nor Farley Parks is in jail. None of the charges against you guys have been proven-yet the accusations alone were ruinous."
Doug said, "Are you kidding, Phil?"
Wendy nodded. "Four guys, all in the same Princeton class, lived together in college, all involved in scandals within a year of each other."
Phil thought about it. "But not Kelvin."
"We don't know that yet," Wendy said. "We need to find him to know for sure."
Owen, still with baby in tow, said, "Maybe this Kelvin is the one who set this all up."
"Set what up?" Phil said. He looked at Wendy. "You're joking, right? Why would Kelvin want to hurt us?"
"Whoa," Doug said. "I saw a movie like this once. Like, Phil, were you guys in the Skull and Bones or some secret society?"
"Maybe you guys killed a girl and buried her body and now she's getting revenge on you. I think that's what happened in the movie."
"Stop it, Doug."
"But they have a point," Wendy said. "I mean, forgetting all the melodrama, could something have happened back at Princeton?"
"Like something that would make someone come after you years later."
He said it too fast. Ten-A-Fly was looking down his half-moon reading glasses-a bizarre look on a rapper-still studying her printouts. "Owen," Fly said.
The guy with the baby sling came over. Fly ripped off a piece of paper. "This is a video blog. Look it up online, see what you can come up with."
Owen said, "Sure."
"What are you thinking?" Wendy asked him.
But Ten-A-Fly was still going through the pages. She looked back at Phil. His eyes were on the floor.
"There was nothing."
"Did you guys have any enemies?"
Phil frowned. "We were just a bunch of college kids."
"Still. Maybe you guys got into a fight. Maybe one of you stole someone's girlfriend."
"You can't think of anything?"
"There isn't anything. I'm telling you. You're barking up the wrong tree."
"How about Kelvin Tilfer?"
"What about him?"
"Did he ever feel slighted by you guys?"
"He was the only black guy in the group."
"I'm just taking stabs in the dark here," Wendy said. "Did something happen to him maybe?"
"At school? No. Kelvin was weird, a math genius, but we all liked him."
"What do you mean, weird?"
"Weird-different, funky, out there. He kept strange hours. He liked taking late-night walks. He talked out loud when he worked on math problems. Weird-mad genius weird. That plays well at Princeton."
"So you can't think of any incident at school?"
"That would make him do something like this? No, nothing."
"How about something more recent?"
"I haven't spoken to Kelvin since graduation. I told you."
Phil answered the question by asking one of his own. "Where did you go to college, Wendy?"
"Do you still talk to everyone you graduated with?"
"Neither do I. We were friends. We lost touch. Like ninety-nine percent of college friends."
"Did he ever come to reunions or homecoming or anything like that?"
Wendy mulled that one over. She would try to contact Princeton's alumni office. Maybe they'd have something.
Ten-A-Fly said, "I found something."
Wendy turned to him. Yes, the outfit was still ridiculous, what with the baggy jeans, the cap with the bill the size of a manhole cover, the Ed Hardy shirt, but it was amazing how much of a persona is indeed the attitude. Ten-A-Fly was gone now. Norm was back. "What?"
"Before I got laid off, I was a marketing guy for several start-ups. Our main task was to get our company noticed in a positive way. Create buzz, especially online. So we got heavily into viral marketing. Do you know anything about it?"
"No," she said.
"It is getting big to the point of irrelevancy-meaning everyone is doing it so no one will be heard over the din. But for now it still works. We even do some of it with my rap persona. Let's say a movie comes out. Right away, you'll see great reviews or positive comments posted on the YouTube trailers, bulletin boards, blogs about how great the movie is, all that. Most of the early comments aren't real. They are done by a marketing group hired by the movie studio."
"Okay, so how does that fit with this?"
"In short, someone did that here in reverse-with this Miciano guy and Farley Parks, for sure. They set up blogs and Tweets. They paid search engines so that when you perform a search on these guys, your viral feeds get seen first and foremost-right at the top of the page. This is like viral marketing-but designed to destroy rather than build up."
"So," Wendy said, "if I were, for example, to want to know about Dr. Steve Miciano and looked him up online..."
"You'd be flooded with negativity," Ten-A-Fly finished for her. "Pages and pages of it. Not to mention Tweets, social networking posts, anonymous e-mail-"
"We had something like that when I was at Lehman," Doug said. "Some guys would go on boards and say positive stuff about an IPO-anonymously or with a fake name, but it was always someone who had a vested interest. And the opposite, of course. You'd post rumors about a strong competitor going bankrupt. Oh, and I remember once there was an online financial columnist who posted that Lehman was going down, and guess what? Suddenly the blogosphere was filled with fake accusations about him."
"So these charges are all made up?" Wendy asked. "Miciano never got arrested?"
"No," Fly said, "that one is real. From a legit newspaper on a legit site. But the rest on him, I mean, look at this blog about the drug dealer. And now look at this blog from the prostitute involved with Farley Parks. Both plain pages from Blogger-and the author didn't write any other blog entries, just the ones condemning these guys."
"These are just smear jobs," Wendy said.
Ten-A-Fly shrugged. "I'm not saying that they didn't do it. They all might be guilty-not you, Phil, we know better. But what I am saying is that someone wanted the world to know about the scandals."
Which, Wendy knew, played into her scandal-to-ruin conspiracy theory.
Ten-A-Fly looked behind him. "You got anything, Owen?"
Without glancing away from the laptop, he said, "Soon maybe."
Ten-A-Fly continued to study the printouts. A barista shouted out a complicated order involving ventis and half-cafs and one percent and soy. Another barista jotted notes on a cup. The espresso machine sounded like a train whistle, drowning out the Unsprung sound track.
"What about the pedophile you caught?" Ten-A-Fly asked.
"What about him?"
"Did someone viral-market him?"
"I never thought to check."
"Owen?" Ten-A-Fly said.
"On it. Dan Mercer, right?" Wendy nodded. Owen clicked a few keys. "Not much, maybe a few posts on Dan Mercer, but no need. The dude was all over the news."
"Good point," Ten-A-Fly said. "Wendy, how did you find out about Mercer?"
Wendy was already going there in her own mind-and she wasn't crazy about the path her mind was taking. "I got an anonymous e-mail."
Phil shook his head slowly. The rest of the guys just stared for a moment.
"What did it say?" Ten-A-Fly asked.
She took out her BlackBerry. The e-mail was still in the saved file. She found it, brought it up, and handed it to Ten-A-Fly:
Hi. I've seen your show before. I think you should know about this creepy guy I met online. I'm thirteen and I was in the SocialTeen chat room. He acted like he was my age, but it turned out he was way older. I think he's like forty. He is the same height as my dad so that's six feet and has green eyes and curly hair. He seemed so nice so I met him at a movie and he made me go back to his house. It was horrible. I'm scared he's done this to other kids too because he works with kids. Please help so he doesn't hurt more kids.
Ashlee (not my real name-sorry!)
PS Here is a link to the SocialTeen chat room. His screen name is DrumLover17.
They all read the e-mail in silence, one at a time. Wendy stood there stunned. When Ten-A-Fly handed her back the phone, he said, "I assume you tried to write her back?"
"No one replied. We tried to trace it down, but it got us nowhere. But I didn't rely just on this e-mail," Wendy added, trying not to sound too defensive. "I mean, that was just the start. We acted on it, but that's what we do. We go into chat rooms and pretend to be young girls and see what pervert comes out of the woodwork. So we went into this SocialTeen chat room like we always do. DrumLover-Seventeen was in there. He pretended to be, well, a seventeen-year-old drummer. We set up a meet. Dan Mercer showed up."
Ten-A-Fly nodded. "I remember reading about the case. Mercer claimed that he thought he was meeting some other girl, right?"
"Right. He worked for a homeless shelter. He claimed a girl he was helping had called him to the location of our sting house. But keep in mind we had solid evidence: DrumLoverSeventeen's chat logs and the sexually explicit e-mails to our fake thirteen-year-old girl all came from a laptop found in Dan Mercer's home."
No one responded to that. Doug took a swing with his air tennis racket. Phil looked like someone had whacked him with a two-by-four. Ten-A-Fly was keeping his wheels in motion. He looked back at Owen. "Done yet?"
"I'll need my desktop computer for a fuller analysis of the videos," Owen said.
Wendy was ready to move to a new subject. "What are you looking for?"
The baby against Owen's chest was asleep, head tilted in that way that always made her nervous. Wendy had another flash-to John carrying Charlie in a baby sling. She wondered again what John would make of his son now, nearly a man, and wanted to cry for all that he missed. That was what always got to her-at every birthday or back-to-school night or just hanging out watching TV together, whatever. Not just how much Ariana Nasbro had taken from her and Charlie, but how much she had taken from John. All she had made him miss.
"Owen worked as a tech specialist on a daytime TV show," Phil explained.
"Let me simplify this as much as I can," Owen said. "You know how your digital camera has a megapixels setting?"
"Okay, so let's say you take a picture and post it online. Let's say it's four by six. The more megapixels, the bigger the file. But for the most part, a, say, five-megapixel picture of the same size will be roughly the same size as another-especially if taken by the same camera."
"The same is true for digital videos uploaded like these. When I get home I can look for special effects and other telltale signs. Right here, I can only see file size and then I can divide up the time. Put simply, the same type of video recorder was used to make both of these videos. That in and of itself doesn't mean much. There are hundreds of thousands of video cameras sold that would fit the bill. But it's worth noting."
They were all there now, the Fathers Club-Norm, the Ten-A-Fly Rapper, Doug of the Tennis Whites, Owen of the Baby Sling, and Phil of the Power Suit.
Ten-A-Fly said, "We want to help."
"How?" Wendy asked.
"We want to prove Phil's innocent."
"Norm...," Phil said.
"You're our friend, Phil."
The others mumbled their agreement.
"Let us, okay? We got nothing else to do. We hang here and feel sorry for ourselves. I say enough with wallowing in failure. Let's do something constructive again-put our expertise to use."
"I can't ask you to do that," Phil said.
"You don't have to ask," Norm continued. "You know we want to. Heck, maybe we need this more than you do."
Phil said nothing.
"We can start by looking into this viral marketing, see if we can figure out where it came from. We can help you find that last roommate, Kelvin. We all have kids, Phil. If my daughter was out there, missing, I'd want any help I could get."
Phil nodded. "Okay." Then: "Thank you."
We all have talents. That was what Ten-A-Fly said. Put our expertise to use. Something about those phrases stuck with Wendy. Expertise. We have a tendency to gravitate to what we are good at, don't we? Wendy saw the scandals through the eyes of a reporter. Ten-A-Fly saw them through the eyes of a marketing guru, Owen through a camera lens...
A few minutes later, Ten-A-Fly walked Wendy to the door. "We'll stay in touch," he said.
"I wouldn't be so hard on yourself," she said.
"That failure talk." Wendy nodded toward the laptop. "A failure doesn't get someone to bid six hundred dollars on a used bandana."
Ten-A-Fly smiled. "That impressed you, eh?"
He leaned closer and whispered, "Do you want to know a little secret?"
"The bidder is my wife. In fact, she has two online personas and bids against herself to make it look good. She thinks I don't know."
Wendy nodded. "Proves my point," she said.
"A man whose wife loves him that much," Wendy said. "How can you call that guy a failure?"