"WELL," Wendy said to Portnoi in the corridor, "that sucked."

"The judge won't throw it out."

Wendy was not convinced.

"It's a good thing in a way," he went on.

"How do you figure?"

"The case is too high-profile for the evidence to get tossed out," Portnoi said, gesturing toward opposing counsel. "All Flair did in there was show us his trial strategy."

Up ahead of them, Jenna Wheeler, Dan Mercer's ex-wife, was taking questions from a rival TV reporter. Even as the evidence mounted against Dan, Jenna had remained a staunch supporter of her ex, claiming that the charges against him had to be bogus. This position, both admirable and naive in Wendy's view, had made Jenna something of a pariah in town.

Still farther ahead, Flair Hickory held court with several reporters. They loved him, of course-so had Wendy when she'd been covering his trials. He took flamboyant and brought it to a whole new level. But now, on the other side of those questions, she could truly see how flamboyance could be close bedfellows with ruthlessness.

Wendy frowned. "Flair Hickory doesn't hit me as being anyone's fool."

Flair got a laugh from the fawning press, slapped a few backs, and started to walk away. When Flair was finally alone, Wendy was surprised to see Ed Grayson approach him.

"Uh-oh," she said.

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"What?"

Wendy gestured with her chin. Portnoi followed with his eyes. Grayson, a big man with close-cropped gray hair, stood close to Flair Hickory. The two men stared each other down. Grayson kept inching closer, moving into Flair's space. But Flair held his ground.

Portnoi took a few steps toward them. "Mr. Grayson?"

Their faces were inches apart. Grayson swiveled his head in the direction of the voice. He stared at Portnoi.

"Is everything okay?" Portnoi asked.

"Fine," Grayson said.

"Mr. Hickory?"

"We're peachy, Counselor. Just having a friendly chat."

Grayson's eyes locked on Wendy's, and again she didn't like what she saw. Hickory said, "Well, if we're done here, Mr. Grayson..."

Grayson said nothing. Hickory turned and left. Grayson came toward Portnoi and Wendy.

"Is there anything I can do for you?" Portnoi asked.

"No."

"May I ask what you were talking to Mr. Hickory about?"

"You can ask." Grayson looked at Wendy. "Do you think the judge bought your story, Ms. Tynes?"

"It wasn't a story," she said.

"But it wasn't exactly the truth either, was it?"

Ed Grayson turned and walked away.

Wendy said, "What the hell was that?"

"Got no idea," Portnoi said. "But don't worry about him. Or Flair either. He's good, but he won't win this round. Go home, have a drink, it'll be fine."

Wendy did not go home. She headed to her TV news studio in Secaucus, New Jersey, overlooking the Meadowlands Sports Complex. The view was never soothing. It was a marsh, swampland, groaning under the weight of constant construction. She checked her e-mail and saw a message from her boss, executive producer Vic Garrett. The message, maybe the longest Vic had ever sent by e-mail, read: "SEE ME NOW."

It was three thirty PM. Her son, Charlie, a senior at Kasselton High School, should have been home by now. She called his cell because he never picked up the home phone. Charlie answered on the fourth ring with his customary greeting: "What?"

"Are you home?" she asked her son.

"Yeah."

"What are you doing?"

"Nothing."

"Do you have homework?"

"A little."

"Did you do it yet?"

"I will."

"Why not do it now?"

"It's just a little. It'll take me ten minutes tops."

"That's my point. If it's only a little, just do it and get it over with."

"I'll do it later."

"But what are you doing now?"

"Nothing."

"So why wait? Why not just do your homework now?"

New day, same conversation. Charlie finally said that he would get to it "in a minute," which was shorthand for "If I say in a minute, maybe you'll stop nagging me."

"I'll probably be home about seven," Wendy said. "You want me to pick up Chinese?"

"Bamboo House," he said.

"Okay. Feed Jersey at four."

Jersey was their dog.

"Okay."

"Don't forget."

"Uh-huh."

"And do your homework?"

"Bye."

Click.

She took a deep breath. Charlie was seventeen now, a senior and a total pain in the ass. They had ended the hunt for college, a suburban activity parents engage in with a ruthlessness that would make a third-world despot blush, with an acceptance to Franklin & Marshall in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Like all teenagers, Charlie was scared and nervous about this huge change in his life, but not nearly so much as his mother. Charlie, her beautiful, moody, pain-in-the-ass of a son, was all she had. It had been the two of them alone for twelve years now, single mom and only child rattling around in the great white suburbs. The years flew by, of course, as they always do with children. Wendy didn't want to let Charlie go. She looked at him every night and saw pain-in-the-ass perfection and, as she had since he was four, wished, Please just let me freeze him here, this age, not one day older or younger, let me freeze my beautiful son here and now and keep him with me just a few days longer.

Because soon she'd be alone.

Another e-mail popped up on her computer screen. Again it was from her boss, Vic Garrett: "WHAT PART OF 'SEE ME NOW' DID I LEAVE OPEN TO INTERPRETATION?"

She hit reply and typed: "Coming."

Since Vic's office was across the hall, this whole communication seemed rather pointless and irritating, but such is the world we live in. She and Charlie often texted each other within their own home. Too tired to shout, she'd text: "Time for bed" or "Let Jersey out" or the always popular "Enough on the computer, read a book."

Wendy had been a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Tufts University when she got pregnant. She had gone to a campus party and after having too much to drink, she hooked up with John Morrow, a jock of all things, starting quarterback, and if you looked him up in the Wendy Tynes dictionary, the pure definition of "not her type." Wendy saw herself as a campus liberal, an underground journalist, wearing tourniquet-tight black, listening exclusively to alt rock, frequenting slam poetry readings and Cindy Sherman exhibits. But the heart doesn't know from alt rock and slam poetry and exhibits. She ended up actually liking the gorgeous jock. Go figure. It was no big deal at first. They had indeed hooked up and then just started hanging out together, not really dating, not really not dating. This had been going on for maybe a month when Wendy realized that she was pregnant.

Being a thoroughly modern woman, what happened now, Wendy had been told her entire life, would be her decision and her decision alone. With two and a half years of college left and a budding career in journalism on the way, the timing, of course, could not have been worse, but that made the answer all the more clear. She called John on the phone and said, "We need to talk." He came over to her cramped room and she asked him to sit down. John took the beanbag chair, which looked so comical, this six-foot-five-inch hunk trying to get, if not comfortable, at least balanced. Knowing from her tone that this was something serious, John tried to keep his face solemn while holding himself steady, making him look like a little boy playing grown-up.

"I'm pregnant," Wendy told him, beginning the speech she'd been rehearsing in her head for the past two days. "What happens now will be my decision, and I hope you will honor that."

Wendy continued, pacing the small room, not looking at him, keeping her voice as matter-of-fact as possible. She even closed her prepared statement by thanking him for coming today and wishing him well. Then she finally risked a glance in his direction.

John Morrow just looked up at her with tears in the bluest eyes she had ever seen and said, "But I love you, Wendy."

She had wanted to laugh and instead she started to cry and John slid off that damned beanbag chair and onto his knees and proposed, right there and then, with Wendy laughing and crying, and despite pretty much everyone's misgivings, they got married. No one gave them a chance, but the next nine years had been bliss. John Morrow was sweet and caring and loving and gorgeous and funny and smart and attentive. He was her soul mate with all that entailed. Charlie was born during their junior year at Tufts. Two years later, John and Wendy scraped up enough money to put a down payment on a small starter house on a busy road in Kasselton. Wendy got a job at a local television station. John worked toward his Ph.D. in psychology. They were on their way.

And then, in what seemed like a finger snap, John died. Now the small starter house held just Wendy and Charlie and a great big hole to match the one in her heart.

She knocked on Vic's door and leaned her head in. "You rang?"

"Heard you got your ass reamed in court," her boss said.

"Support," Wendy said. "That's why I work here. The support I get."

"You want support," Vic said, "buy a bra."

Wendy frowned. "You realize that made no sense."

"Yeah, I know. I got your memo-check that, your many and repetitious memos-complaining about your assignments."

"What assignments? In the past two weeks, you've had me cover the opening of an herbal tea store and a fashion show featuring men's scarves. Just put me on something quasi-real again."

"Wait." Vic put a hand to his ear, as though straining to hear. He was a small man except for the enormous bowling-ball gut. His face might be called "ferretlike," if the ferret was really ugly.

"What?" she said.

"Is this the part where you rail against the injustice of being a hottie in a male-dominated profession and say that I treat you like nothing more than eye candy?"

"Will railing help me get better assignments?"

"No," he said. "But you know what might?"

"Showing more cleavage on air?"

"I like the way you're thinking, but no, not today. Today the answer is, Dan Mercer's conviction. You need to end up the hero who nailed a sick pedophile rather than the overreaching reporter who helped free him."

"Helped free him?"

Vic shrugged.

"The police wouldn't even know about Dan Mercer if it wasn't for me."

Vic lifted the air violin to his shoulder, closed his eyes, began to play.

"Don't be an ass," she said.

"Should I call in a few of your colleagues for a group hug? Maybe join hands for a rousing rendition of 'Kumbaya'?"

"Maybe later, after your circle jerk."

"Ouch."

"Does anybody know where Dan Mercer is hiding?" she asked.

"Nope. No one has seen him for two weeks."

Wendy wasn't sure what to make of that. She knew that Dan had moved away because of death threats, but it seemed out of character not to show in court today. She was about to ask a follow-up when Vic's intercom buzzed.

He held up a finger to quiet her and pressed the intercom: "What?"

The receptionist's voice was low. "Marcia McWaid is here to see you."

That silenced them. Marcia McWaid lived in Wendy's town, less than a mile from her. Three months ago her teenage daughter Haley-a schoolmate of Charlie's-had purportedly sneaked out of her bedroom window and never returned.

"Something new in her daughter's case?" Wendy asked.

Vic shook his head. "Just the opposite," he said, which, of course, was much worse. For two, maybe three weeks, Haley McWaid's disappearance had been a huge story-teenage abduction? runaway?-complete with NEWSFLASH and scrolls-across-the-screen and bottom-feeding "experts" reconstructing what might have happened to her. But no story, even the most sensational, can survive without new food. Lord knows the networks tried. They had touched on every rumor from white slavery to devil worship, but in this business "no news" was truly "bad news." It was pathetic, our short attention span, and you could blame the news media, but the audience dictated what stayed on the air. If people watch the story, it stays on. If they don't, the networks go searching for the new shiny toy to catch the public's fickle eye.

"Do you want me to talk to her?" Wendy asked.

"No, I'll do it. It's why I get the big bucks."

Vic shooed her away. Wendy headed down the end of the corridor. She turned in time to see Marcia McWaid in front of Vic's door. Wendy didn't know Marcia, but she'd seen her in town a few times, the way you do, at the Starbucks or school car-pickup lane or local video store. It would be a cliche to say the perky mom who always seemed to have a kid in tow now looked ten years older. Marcia didn't. She was still an attractive enough woman, still looked her age, but it was as though every movement had slowed down, as if even the muscles that controlled facial expression were coated in molasses. Marcia McWaid turned and met Wendy's eye. Wendy nodded, tried to give a half-smile. Marcia turned away and entered Vic's office.

Wendy went back to her desk and picked up her phone. She thought about Marcia McWaid, that ideal mother with the nice husband and beautiful family and how quickly and easily that had been snatched away, how quickly and easily any of it could be snatched away. She dialed Charlie's phone.

"What?"

The impatient tone actually comforted her. "Did you do your homework yet?"

"In a minute."

"Okay," Wendy said. "You still want Bamboo House tonight?"

"Didn't we already have this discussion?"

They hung up. Wendy sat back and threw her feet up on the desk. She craned her neck and checked out the butt-ugly view from her window. Her phone rang again.

"Hello?"

"Wendy Tynes?"

Her feet fell back to the floor when she heard the voice. "Yes?"

"This is Dan Mercer. I need to see you."