FUNERAL SERVICES are always pretty much the same. The same prayers, the customary biblical readings, the words of supposed comfort that, especially in situations like this, sound to an outsider's ear like either the most ridiculous rationalizations or obscene justifications. What occurs on the pulpit is pretty much a constant; only the reaction of the mourners alters the mood.
The funeral of Haley McWaid had been a dark, leaden blanket thrown over the entire community. Grief weighed you down, made your limbs heavy, put glass shards in your lungs so that even breathing was agony. Everyone in the community hurt right now, but Wendy knew that would not last. She had seen it with John's premature death. Grief is devastating, all-consuming. But grief merely visits friends, even the closest. It stays much longer, probably forever, with the family, but that was probably how it should be.
Wendy had stood in the back of the church. She came in late and left early. She never looked at Marcia or Ted. Her mind would not let her-would not "go there" as Charlie, who was alive and breathing, liked to say. It was a defense mechanism, pure and simple. That was okay too.
The sun shone bright. It always seemed to be that way on funeral days. Her mind again wanted to go to John, to the closed casket, but again she fought it off. She walked down the street. She stopped at the corner, closed her eyes, and tilted her face toward the sun. Her watch read eleven AM. It was time to meet Sheriff Walker at the medical examiner's office.
Located on a depressing stretch of Norfolk Street in Newark, the medical examiner's office handled Essex, Hudson, Passaic, and Somerset counties. Newark had indeed enjoyed some revitalization of late, but that was a few blocks east of here. Then again, what would be the point of putting an ME office in a trendy spot? Sheriff Walker met her on the street. He always looked a little uneasy with his size, slouching his big shoulders. She half expected him to crouch down and speak to her, the way you would to put a small child at ease, and this somehow made him more endearing.
"Been a busy few days for us both, I guess," Walker said.
The death of Haley McWaid had exonerated Wendy and then some. Vic rehired her and promoted her to the weekend anchor spot. Other news agencies wanted to interview her, to talk about Dan Mercer and how she, the heroic reporter, had brought down not only a pedophile but a killer.
"Where is Investigator Tremont?" she asked.
"He's not finishing up the case?"
"What's there to finish up? Haley McWaid was murdered by Dan Mercer. Mercer is dead. That pretty much ends the case, don't you think? We will continue to look for Mercer's body, but I have other cases too-and who wants to try Ed Grayson for stamping out that scumbag anyway?"
"You're certain Dan Mercer did it?"
Walker frowned. "You're not?"
"I'm just asking."
"First off, it's not my case. It's Frank Tremont's. He seems pretty sure. But it's not totally over. We're digging into Dan Mercer's life. We're looking at any other missing-girl cases. I mean, if it wasn't for Haley's phone found in the room, we'd probably have never tied her to Dan. He could have been doing it for years, with many girls. Maybe other missing kids crossed his path, we just don't know. Still, I'm a county sheriff-and the crimes weren't even committed in my jurisdiction. The feds are on this."
They entered the rather pedestrian office of Tara O'Neill, the medical examiner. Wendy was grateful that they were in a room that looked more like a vice principal's office than anything having to do with human corpses. The two women had met before when Wendy covered local murders. Tara O'Neill was dressed in a sleek black dress-much better than scrubs-but what always surprised her about Tara was that she was shockingly gorgeous, albeit with a Morticia Addams vibe. Tara was tall with long, straight, too-black hair and a pale, calm, luminous face-a look that could be described as sort of ethereal goth.
She reached from behind her desk to shake hands. Her grip was stiff and formal.
"I'm not exactly sure why we need to talk privately like this," Tara said.
"Consider it a favor," Walker said.
"But, Sheriff, you don't even have jurisdiction here."
Walker spread his hands. "Do I really need to go through those channels?"
"No," Tara said. She sat down and invited them to do likewise. "What can I do for you?"
The chair was wood and designed for anything other than comfort. Tara sat with her back straight and waited, ever the consummate professional with a bedside manner that clearly worked best on the dead. The room could use a paint job, but as the old joke goes, Tara's patients never complained.
"Like I said on the phone," Walker said. "We want to hear all you have on Haley McWaid."
"Of course." Tara looked at Wendy. "Should we start with the identification process?"
"That would be great," Wendy said.
"First off, there is no doubt that the body found in Ringwood State Park belonged to the missing girl Haley McWaid. There was serious decay, but the skeleton was intact, as was the hair. In short, she looked very much like herself but with the skin gone. Would you like to see a photograph of the remains?"
Wendy flicked a glance at Walker. Walker looked like he might be sick.
"Yes," Wendy said.
Tara slid the photographs across her desk as if they were dinner menus. Wendy braced herself. She did not have a strong stomach when it came to gore. Even R-rated movies made her queasy. She risked one quick glance and turned away, but even in that second, horrible as it was, she could still see Haley McWaid's features in the horror of decay.
"Both parents, Ted and Marcia McWaid, insisted on seeing their daughter's body," O'Neill continued in a perfect monotone. "They both recognized their daughter and gave us positive identifications. We took it several steps further. The height and size of the skeleton matched. Haley McWaid had broken her hand when she was twelve-the metacarpal bone below what we commonly call the ring finger. The injury had healed but we could still see signs of it on an X-ray. And of course, we ran a DNA test from a sample provided by her sister, Patricia. The match was made. In short, there is no doubt about identification."
"How about a cause of death?"
Tara O'Neill folded her hands and put them on her desk. "Undetermined at this juncture."
"When do you think you'll know?"
Tara O'Neill reached across the desk and took back the photographs. "In truth," she said, "probably never."
She carefully slid the pictures back into the folder, closed it, put it to her right.
"Wait, you don't think that you'll ever determine a cause of death?"
"Isn't that unusual?"
Tara O'Neill finally smiled. It was radiant and sobering at the same time. "Not really, no. Our society unfortunately is being raised on television shows where a medical examiner can work miracles. They look through a microscope and find all the answers. Sadly, that's not reality. For example, let's ask the question, was Haley McWaid shot? First-and this comes more from the crime scene technicians-no bullets were found at the scene. No bullets were found in the body either. I also ran X-rays and visuals to see if there were any unusual nicks or marks on the bones that might indicate a bullet wound. There were none. If that isn't complicated enough, I still can't definitely rule out a shooting. The bullet might not have struck bone. Since most of the body had decomposed, we wouldn't necessarily see any sign if it just passed through tissue. So the most I can say is that there is no evidence of a shooting and that a shooting is unlikely. Are you following me?"
"Good. I would also conclude the same about a knife stabbing, but we just don't know for sure. If, for example, the perpetrator pierced an artery-"
"Yeah, I think I get that.
"And of course there are many more possibilities. The victim may have been suffocated-the classic pillow over the face. Even in cases where the body is found after a few days rather than a few months it can be hard to determine suffocation for certain. But in this case, after spending most likely three months buried, it is virtually impossible. I am also running some specific drug tests to see if there is anything in her system, but when a body breaks down like this, the blood enzymes get released. It throws many tests out of whack. In lay terms, the body almost turns into something like alcohol as it breaks down. So even those drug tests on remaining tissue may prove unreliable. Haley's vitreous humor-that's the gel between the retina and the lens of the eye-had disintegrated, so we couldn't use that to look for drug traces either."
"So you can't even say for sure it's a murder?"
"I, as medical examiner, can't, no."
Wendy looked at Walker. He nodded. "We can. I mean, think about it. We don't even have a body on Dan Mercer. I've seen cases go to court where no body was found, and like Tara said, this is hardly uncommon with bodies found after this much time."
O'Neill rose, clearly indicating their dismissal. "Anything else?"
"Was she sexually assaulted?"
"Same answer: We just don't know."
Wendy stood. "I appreciate your time, Tara."
After another stiff, formal handshake, Wendy found herself back on Norfolk Street with Sheriff Walker.
"Did any of that help?" Walker asked her.
"I told you there was nothing here."
"So that's it? It's over?"
"Officially for this sheriff? Yeah."
Wendy looked down the street. "I keep hearing Newark is coming back."
"Just not here," Walker said.
"How about you, Wendy?"
"What about me?"
"Is this case over for you?"
She shook her head. "Not quite yet."
"You want to tell me about it?"
She shook her head again. "Not quite yet."
"Fair enough." The big man shuffled his feet, his eyes on the pavement. "Can I ask you something else?"
"I feel like an ass. I mean, the timing and all."
"When this is over, when this all passes in a few weeks"-Walker tried to raise his eyes to meet hers-"do you mind if I call you?"
The road suddenly seemed even more deserted. "You weren't kidding about timing."
Walker jammed his hands in his pockets and shrugged. "I've never been the smoothest."
"Smooth enough," Wendy said, trying not to smile in spite of herself. This was life though, wasn't it? Death made you crave life. The world is nothing but a bunch of thin lines separating what we think are extremes. "No, I wouldn't mind you calling at all."
HESTER CRIMSTEIN'S LAW OFFICE, Burton and Crimstein, was in a midtown Manhattan high-rise and offered fantastic views of downtown and the Hudson River. She could see the military-carrier-ship-turned-museum the Intrepid and the enormous "fun" cruise ships packed with three thousand vacationers and figured that she'd rather give birth than actually go on one. The truth was, this view, like almost any view, just became a view. Visitors were stunned by it, but when you see it every day, much as you never wanted to admit it, the extraordinary becomes commonplace.
Ed Grayson was standing by the window now. He looked out but if he was enjoying the view, he was keeping it pretty hidden. "I don't know what to do here, Hester."
"I do," she said.
"Listen to my professional legal advice: Do nothing."
Still staring out the window, Grayson smiled. "No wonder you get the big bucks."
Hester spread her hands.
"So it's that simple?"
"In this case, yep."
"You know my wife left me. She wants to move back to Quebec with E. J."
"I'm sorry to hear it."
"This whole mess is my fault."
"Ed, don't take this the wrong way, but you know I'm bad at hand-holding or false platitudes, right?"
"So I'll make it clear for you: You messed up big-time."
"I never beat up someone before."
"And now you have."
"I never shot someone either."
"And now you have. Your point?"
They both went quiet. Ed Grayson was comfortable with silence. Hester Crimstein was not. She started rocking in her desk chair, played with a pen, sighed theatrically. Finally she got up and crossed the room.
Ed turned around. She was pointing at a statue of Lady Justice. "Yes."
"You know what it is?"
"Are you kidding?"
"Who is this?"
"Yes and no. She is known by many names. Lady Justice, Blind Justice, the Greek goddess Themis, the Roman goddess Justitia, the Egyptian goddess Ma'at-or even the daughters of Themis, Dike and Astraea."
"Uh, your point?"
"Have you ever taken a good look at the statue? Most people see the blindfold first and, well, that's an obvious reference to impartiality. It's also nonsense since everybody is partial. You can't help it. But take a look at her right hand. That's a sword. That's a kick-ass sword. That's supposed to represent swift and often brutal, even deadly punishment. But you see, only she-the system-can do that. The system, as messed up as it is, has the right to use that sword. You, my friend, do not."
"Are you telling me I shouldn't have taken the law into my own hands?" Grayson arched an eyebrow. "Wow, Hester, that's deep."
"Look at the scales, numb nuts. In her left hand. Some people think the scales are supposed to represent both sides of the argument-prosecution and defense. Others claim it is about fairness or impartiality. But think about it. Scales are really about balance, right? Look, I'm an attorney-and I know my rep. I know people think I subvert the law or use loopholes or bully or take advantage. That's all true. But I stay within the system."
"And that makes it okay?"
"Yep. Because that's the balance."
"And I, to keep within your metaphor, disturbed the balance?"
"Exactly. That's the beauty of our system. It can be tweaked and twisted-Lord knows I do it all the time-but when you keep within it, right or wrong, it somehow works. When you don't, when you lose balance even with the best of intentions, it leads to chaos and catastrophe."
"That," Ed Grayson said with a nod of his head, "sounds like an enormous load of self-rationalization."
She smiled at that. "Perhaps. But you also know I'm right. You wanted to right a wrong. But now the balance is gone."
"So maybe I should do something to set it right again."
"It doesn't work like that, Ed. You know that now. Let it be and the balance has a chance to return."
"Even if it means the bad guy goes free?"
She held out her hands and smiled at him. "Who's the bad guy now, Ed?"
He wasn't sure how to say it, so he dived right in. "The police don't have a clue about Haley McWaid."
Hester mulled that one over. "You don't know that," she said. "Maybe we're the ones without a clue."