WENDY CALLED VIC, but Mavis wouldn't put her through. Fine. It would be like that. Princeton was about a ninety-minute ride. She spent the drive time both fuming and thinking about what this all meant. It was easy to scoff at ridiculous and unsubstantiated gossip, but she knew that, whatever happened now, these rumors would throw a dark and probably permanent shadow over her career. There had been whispered innuendos before-pretty much a given when even a semi-attractive female rose to prominence in this industry-but now, because some moron had posted them on a blog, they suddenly took on more credence. Welcome to the computer age.
As she neared her destination, Wendy started thinking about the case again, about the continuing links to Princeton, about the fact that four men-Phil Turnball, Dan Mercer, Steve Miciano, Farley Parks-had all been set up within the past year.
One question was, how?
The bigger question was, who?
Wendy figured that she might as well start with Phil Turnball because she had something of an in there. She jammed the hands-free phone cord into her ear and dialed Win's private line.
Once again Win answered in a voice too haughty for this one word: "Articulate."
"Can I ask another favor?"
"May I ask another favor? Yes, Wendy, you may."
"I can't tell you how much I needed that grammar lesson right about now."
"Do you remember I asked you about Phil Turnball, the guy who got fired for embezzling two million dollars?"
"I recall, yes."
"Let's say Phil was set up and didn't really take the money."
"How would someone go about setting him up?"
"I have no idea. Why do you ask?"
"I'm pretty sure he didn't steal the money."
"I see. And, pray tell, what makes you 'pretty sure'?"
"He told me he's innocent."
"Oh, well, that settles it."
"There's more to it than that."
"Well, why, if Phil stole two million dollars, isn't he in jail or even asked to pay the money back? I don't want to go into details right now, but there are other guys-his college roommates, actually-who've been involved in bizarre scandals recently too. In one case, I may have been a patsy."
Win said nothing.
"Yes, I heard you. I love the word 'patsy,' don't you? It denotes or at least suggests giving feminine characteristics to the act of being duped."
"Yeah, it's great."
Even his sigh was haughty. "What would you like me to do to help?"
"Could you look into it a little? I need to know who set Phil Turnball up."
The abruptness didn't surprise her quite as much this time, though she wished there'd been time for a follow-up, a crack about quick endings being his specialty, but alas, there was no one on the other line. She held the phone in her hand for another second, half expecting him to call right back. But that didn't happen this time.
Lawrence Cherston's home was washed stone and white shutters. There was a circular rose garden surrounding a flagpole. A black pennant with a large orange P hung from it. Oh, boy. Cherston greeted her at the door with a two-hand shake. He had one of those fleshy, ruddy faces that make you think of fat cats and smoke-filled back rooms. He wore a blue blazer with a Princeton logo on the lapel and the same Princeton tie he'd had in his profile pictures. His khakis were freshly pressed, his tasseled loafers shined, and of course he wore no socks. He looked as though he'd started for school chapel this morning and aged twenty years on the walk. Stepping inside, Wendy pictured a closet with a dozen more matching blazers and khaki pants and absolutely nothing else.
"Welcome to my humble abode," he said. He offered her a drink. She passed. He had laid out finger sandwiches. Wendy took one just to be polite. The finger sandwich was awful enough to make her wonder whether the moniker was also an ingredient list. Cherston was already jabbering on about his classmates.
"We have two Pulitzer Prize winners," he said. Then leaning forward, he added, "And one's a woman."
"A woman." Wendy froze a smile and blinked. "Wow."
"We also have a world-famous photographer, several CEOs of course, oh, and one Academy Award nominee. Well, okay, it was for best sound and he didn't win. But still. Several of our classmates work for the current administration. One was drafted by the Cleveland Browns."
Wendy nodded like an idiot, wondering how long she could keep the smile on her face. Cherston broke out scrapbooks and photo books and the graduation program and even the freshman face book. He was talking about himself now, his total commitment to his alma mater, as though this might surprise her.
She needed to move this along.
Wendy picked up a photograph album and starting paging through it, hoping to spot any of her Princeton Five. No such luck. Cherston droned on. Okay, time to make something happen. She took hold of the freshman face book and flipped through it, heading straight for the Ms.
"Oh, look," she said, interrupting him. She pointed to the picture of Steven Miciano. "That's Dr. Miciano, right?"
"Why, yes, it is."
"He treated my mother."
Cherston may have squirmed a bit. "That's nice."
"Maybe I should talk to him too."
"Maybe," Cherston said. "But I don't have a current address on him."
Wendy went back to the face book, summoning up another fake gasp of surprise. "Well, well, look at this. Dr. Miciano roomed with Farley Parks. Isn't he the one who was running for Congress?"
Lawrence Cherston smiled at her.
"Call me Lawrence."
"Okay. Isn't Farley Parks the one who was running for Congress?"
"May I call you Wendy?"
"You may." Shades of Win.
"Thank you. Wendy, perhaps we could both stop playing this game?"
He shook his head, as though disappointed in a favorite student. "Search engines work both ways. Did you really think I wouldn't, at least out of curiosity, Google the name of a reporter who wanted to interview me?"
She said nothing.
"So I know you already signed up for the Princeton class page. And more to the point, I know you covered the stories on Dan Mercer. Some might even say you created them."
He looked at her.
"These finger sandwiches are awesome," she said.
"My wife made them and they're dreadful. Anyway, I assume the purpose of this ruse was to gather some background information."
"If you knew that, why did you agree to see me?"
"Why not?" he countered. "You're doing a story involving a Princeton graduate. I wanted to be sure that your information is correct, so as not to create innuendo where none belongs."
"Well, thank you for seeing me then."
"You're welcome. So what can I do for you?"
"Did you know Dan Mercer?"
He picked up a finger sandwich and took the smallest bite. "I did, yes, but not well."
"What was your impression?"
"Do you mean, did he seem like a pedophile and murderer?"
"That might be a good place to start."
"No, Wendy. He didn't seem like the kind. But I confess that I'm rather naive. I see the best in everyone."
"What can you tell me about him?"
"Dan was a serious student-bright, hardworking. He was a poor kid. I'm the son of alumni-fourth generation at Princeton, in fact. It put us in different circles. I love this school. I'm hardly subtle about that. But Dan seemed awed by it."
Wendy nodded as though this offered her some great insight. It didn't. "Who were his close friends?"
"You mentioned two already, so I assume you already know that answer."
"Do you know them all?"
"In passing perhaps. Phil Turnball and I were in glee club together freshman year. It is interesting. As you probably know, freshman roommates are assigned by the school. That could lead to disaster, of course. My freshman roommate was an idiot savant who smoked dope all day. I moved out within the month. But these five all got along for years."
"Is there anything you can tell me about their time here?"
"Were they weird? Were they outcasts? Did they have any enemies? Were they involved in any strange activities?"
Lawrence Cherston put down the sandwich. "Why would you ask something like that?"
Wendy aimed for vague. "It's part of the story."
"I can't see how. I understand why you'd inquire about Dan Mercer. But if your goal here is to somehow link his college roommates with whatever demons plagued him-"
"That's not my goal."
"Then what is?"
She didn't really want to say much more. To stall for time she picked up the graduation program, started paging through it. She felt his eyes upon her. She flipped more pages and found a photograph of Dan with Kelvin and Farley. Dan stood between them. All three had big smiles on their faces. Graduation. They had made it.
Lawrence Cherston was still looking at her. What's the harm, she thought.
"All of them-his roommates-have had trouble recently."
He said nothing.
"Farley Parks had to drop out of his congressional race," she said.
"I am aware of that."
"Steve Miciano was arrested on drug charges. Phil Turnball lost his job. And you know about Dan."
"You don't find that odd?"
"Not particularly." He loosened his tie as though it had suddenly become a noose. "So is that the angle you're taking on this story? Roommates from Princeton all having troubles?"
She didn't really want to answer that one, so she shifted gears. "Dan Mercer used to come down here a lot. To Princeton, I mean."
"I know. I used to see him in town."
"Do you know why?"
"He would visit the dean's house."
"I had no idea."
It was then, glancing at the program, at the list of students, that Wendy noticed something odd. She had gotten used to searching for the five names-or maybe that picture had set her off. The list was in alphabetical order. And under the Ts, the last name on the list was Francis Tottendam.
"Where's Phil Turnball?" she asked.
"Phil Turnball's name isn't on this list."
"Phil didn't graduate with our class."
Wendy felt a strange tick in her veins. "He took a semester off?"
"Uh, no. He was forced to leave school early."
"Wait. Are you saying that Phil Turnball didn't graduate?"
"To the best of my knowledge, well, yes, that's exactly what I'm saying."
Wendy felt her mouth go dry. "Why not?"
"I don't know for sure. There were rumors, of course. The whole deal was kept hush-hush."
She stayed very still, very calm. "Could you tell me about it?"
"I'm not sure that's a good idea."
"It could be very important."
"How? It was years ago-and really, I think the school probably overreacted."
"I won't report it. This is off the record."
"I don't know."
This was no time for subtlety. She had offered the carrot. Time to bring out the stick. "Look, I already said it's off the record, but if you don't come clean, I will go back on it. And I will dig. I will dig up every skeleton I can find to learn the truth. And then it will all be on the record."
"I hate being threatened."
"And I hate being stalled."
He sighed. "Like I said, it wasn't a big deal. And I don't really know for sure."
"But, okay, it sounds worse than it is, but the rumor is Phil got caught off-hours in a building where he didn't belong. In short, a campus breaking-and-entering."
"He was stealing?"
"Heavens no," he said, as if that was the most ridiculous thing he ever heard. "It was for fun."
"You guys break into buildings for fun?"
"I have a friend who went to Hampshire College. Do you know it? Anyway, he got fifty points for stealing a campus bus. Some professors wanted to expel him, but like with Phil, it was all part of a game. He just got a two-week suspension. I confess that I participated too. My team spray-painted a professor's car. Thirty points. A friend of mine stole a pen off the desk of a visiting poet laureate. The game ran campus-wide. I mean, all the dorms competed."
"Competed in what?" she asked.
Lawrence Cherston smiled. "The hunt, of course," he said. "The scavenger hunt."