"WE SHOULDN'T HUNT no more..."
That was what Kelvin Tilfer had told her.
Now, maybe, that made some sense. She asked Lawrence Cherston some more about it, about scar face and all the rest, but there was nothing more to learn here. Phil Turnball had been caught where he wasn't supposed to be during a scavenger hunt. He had been expelled for it. The end.
When Wendy got back to her car, she took out her phone to call Phil.
There were sixteen messages.
Her first thought made her heart slam into her throat: Something happened to Charlie.
She quickly pressed down on the V to get her voice mail. As soon as she heard the first message, the grip of fear slackened. A different sort of sick feeling washed over her. It wasn't Charlie. But it wasn't good either.
"Hi, Wendy, this is Bill Giuliano from ABC News. We would like to talk to you about accusations of inappropriate behavior on your part..." BEEP.
"We're writing a story about your affair with your boss and we'd love to hear your side of the story..." BEEP.
"One of the alleged pedophiles you exposed on your show is using the recent reports on your sexually aggressive behavior to ask for a new trial. He now claims you were a scorned lover and set him up..." BEEP.
She hit the cancel button and stared at her phone. Damn. She wanted to rise above it, dismiss the whole thing.
But oh man. She was so screwed.
Maybe she should have listened to Phil and stayed out of it. Now there was no way-no matter what she did-that she'd escape these allegations unscathed. No friggin' way. She could catch the asswipe who posted all this crap, have him (or her) admit during live coverage of the Super Bowl that it was all a pack of lies, and it still wouldn't scrub her clean. Unfair or not, the stink would linger, probably forever.
So no use crying over spilled milk, right?
Another thought hit her: Couldn't the same be said about the men she nailed on her show?
Even if these guys were ultimately proven innocent, would the stink of being a televised predator ever wash off them? Maybe this was all some kind of cosmic payback. Maybe this was karma being a total bitch.
No time to worry about it now. Or maybe it was all one and the same. Somehow it all seemed connected-what she'd done, what happened to the men she exposed, what happened to these guys at Princeton. Solve one and the rest would fall into place.
Like it or not, her life was enmeshed in this mess. She couldn't walk away.
Phil Turnball had been expelled for participating in a scavenger hunt.
That meant, at best, he lied to her when she told him about Kelvin ranting about the hunt. At worst... well, she wasn't sure yet what the worst was. She dialed Phil's mobile. No answer. She dialed the house. No answer. She called Phil's cell again, this time leaving a message:
"I know about the scavenger hunt. Call me."
Five minutes later, she pounded on the dean's door. No answer. She pounded some more. Still no answer. Oh no. No way. She circled the house, peering in windows. The lights were out. She pressed her face to the window, trying to get a better look. If campus police came by, she'd try not to quake in fear.
No reply. She looked again. Nothing. She knocked on the window. No one came to it. She went back to the front door, started pounding again. From behind her a man said, "May I help you?"
She turned toward the voice. When she saw who had spoken, the first word that came to mind was "fop." The man's wavy hair was a tad too long. He wore a tweed jacket with patched sleeves and a bow tie-a look that could only thrive or even exist in the rarified air of upscale educational institutions.
"I'm looking for the dean," Wendy said.
"I'm Dean Lewis," he said. "What can I do for you?"
No time for games or subtlety, she thought. "Do you know Dan Mercer?"
He hesitated as though thinking about it. "The name rings a bell," the dean said. "But..." He spread his hands and shrugged. "Should I?"
"I would think so," Wendy said. "For the past twenty years, he's visited your house every other Saturday."
"Ah." He smiled. "I've only lived here for four years. My predecessor Dean Pashaian was here before then. But I think I know who you mean."
"Why did he visit you?"
"He didn't. I mean, yes, he came to this house. But it wasn't to see me. Or Dean Pashaian for that matter."
He stepped past her and unlocked the door with the key. He pushed the door open. It actually creaked. He leaned his head in. "Christa?"
The house was dark. He waved for her to follow him inside. She did so. She stood in the foyer.
A woman's voice called out, "Dean?"
Footsteps started toward them. Wendy turned toward the dean. He gave her a look that offered up something akin to a warning.
"I'm in the foyer," he said.
More footsteps. Then the female voice-Christa's?-again: "Your four o'clock canceled. You also need-"
Christa entered from their left via the dining room. She stopped. "Oh, I didn't know you had company."
"She's not here to see me," Dean Lewis said.
"I think she's here to see you."
The woman turned her head to the side, almost like a dog does when trying to contemplate a new sound. "Are you Wendy Tynes?" she asked.
Christa nodded as though she'd been expecting Wendy for a very long time. She took another step forward. Now there was some light on her face. Not much. But enough. When Wendy saw her face, she nearly gasped out loud-not because of the sight, though that would have been enough under normal circumstances. No, Wendy nearly gasped because another piece of the puzzle had just fallen into place.
Christa wore sunglasses, even though she was inside. But that wasn't the first thing you noticed.
The first thing you noticed about Christa-the one thing you couldn't help but notice, really-were the thick, red scars that crisscrossed her face.
She introduced herself as Christa Stockwell.
She looked about forty, but it was hard to get an age on her. She was slender, maybe five-eight, with delicate hands and a strong bearing. They sat at the kitchen table.
"Do you mind if I keep the lights low?" Christa asked.
"Not at all."
"It's not why you think. I know people will stare. It's natural actually. I don't mind it. It's better than those people who try too hard to pretend they don't see the scars. My face becomes the elephant in the room, you know what I mean?"
"I guess so."
"Since the incident, my eyes are sensitive to light. It's more comfortable for me in the dark. How apropos, right? The philosophy and psych majors at this school would have a field day with that one." She stood. "I'm going to have some tea. Would you like some?"
"Sure. Can I help?"
"No, I'm fine. Peppermint or English Breakfast?"
Christa smiled. "Good choice."
She flicked on the electric kettle, got out two mugs, put the tea bags in them. Wendy noticed that she kept tilting her head to the right as she went about the task. When she sat back down, Christa just stood still for a moment as if giving Wendy the chance to examine the damage. Her face was, quite simply, horrific. The scars blanketed her from forehead to neck. Ugly, angry lines, purple and red, tore across her skin, raised up as though on a relief map. In the few spots with no lines there were instead splotches of deep red, badly abraded, as if someone had taken steel wool to the skin.
"I'm contractually obligated to never discuss what happened," Christa Stockwell said.
"Dan Mercer is dead."
"I know. But that doesn't change the contract."
"Whatever you say to me will be held in the strictest confidence."
"You're a reporter, aren't you?"
"Yes. But you have my word."
She shook her head. "I can't see why it matters now."
"Dan is dead. Phil Turnball has been fired from his job, accused of stealing. Kelvin Tilfer is in an asylum. Farley Parks has had recent troubles too."
"Am I supposed to feel sorry for them?"
"What did they do to you?"
"Isn't the evidence clear enough? Or should I turn up the lights a little?"
Wendy leaned across the table. She put her hand on the other woman's. "Please tell me what happened."
"I can't see what good it will do."
The kitchen clock above the sink ticked. Wendy could look out the window and see the undergrads walking to class, all animated, young, with the cliched rest of their lives waiting around the corner. Next year, Charlie would be one of them. You could tell these kids that it will go faster than they think, that they will blink and college will be gone and then ten years and another ten, but they won't listen, can't listen, and maybe that's a good thing.
"I think whatever happened here-whatever those guys did to you-started this all."
"I don't know. But somehow I think it could all be traced back to it. Somehow, whatever it was took on a life of its own. It is still claiming victims. And I'm caught up in it now. I'm the one who nailed Dan Mercer-rightly or wrongly. So now I'm part of it."
Christa Stockwell blew on the tea. Her face looked as though someone had turned it inside out, like the veins and cartilage had all been dragged to the surface. "It was their senior year," she said. "I'd graduated the year before and was getting my master's in comparative literature. I'd been a financial hardship case. Like Dan actually. We both had jobs while going to school. He worked doing laundry in the men's phys ed department. I worked here, in this house, for Dean Slotnick. I babysat his children, did some household chores, filing, that kind of thing. He was divorced, and I got along great with his kids. So while I got my master's, I was actually living here, in a room in the back. As a matter of fact, I still live there."
Outside the window two students walked by and one laughed. The sound crossed the room, melodic and rich and so out of place.
"Anyway, it was March. Dean Slotnick was out of town for a speaking engagement. The children were staying with their mother in New York City. I'd gone out to dinner that night with my fiance. Marc was in med school, second year. He had a big test in chemistry the next day, otherwise, well, there are so many what-ifs, aren't there? If he hadn't had that test, we would have gone back to his place or maybe, with the house empty, he would have stayed here. But no. Marc had taken enough time off for dinner. So anyway he dropped me off and went to the med library. I had some school-work to do myself. So I brought my notebook right here-I mean, I placed it right on this kitchen table."
She stared at the tabletop as though the notebook might still be there.
"I made myself tea. Just like today. I sat here and was about to start my essay when I heard a noise coming from upstairs. Like I said, I knew no one was home. I should have been scared, right? I remember one time I heard this English professor asking the class what the world's scariest noise is. Is it a man crying out in pain? A woman's scream of terror? A gunshot? A baby crying? And the professor shakes his head and says, 'No, the scariest noise is, you're all alone in your dark house, you know you're all alone, you know that there is no chance anyone else is home or within miles-and then, suddenly, from upstairs, you hear the toilet flush.' "
Christa smiled at Wendy. Wendy tried to smile back.
"Anyway, I wasn't scared. Maybe I should have been. Another what-if. What if I had just called the campus police? Well, it would have changed everything, wouldn't it have? I would be living an entirely different life. On that night, I was engaged to the most wonderful, handsome man. Now he's married to someone else. They have three kids. They're very happy. That'd be me, I guess."
She took a sip of tea, holding the cup in both hands, letting that what-if roll over. "So anyway, I heard the noise and headed toward it. I could hear whispers now, giggles even. Well, now I knew, didn't I? Students. If there had been any fear, it was gone now. It was just some mischief makers, playing a prank on the dean. Something like that. So I went up the stairs. It was silent now. Earlier the voices had sounded like they were coming from the dean's bedroom. So I headed that way. I entered the bedroom and looked around. I couldn't see anyone. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the dark. Then I thought, What are you doing? Just turn on the lights. So I reached for the light switch."
Something caught in her voice. Christa Stockwell stopped talking. The scars on her face, the red ones, they seemed to darken. Wendy reached out again, but something in the way Christa stiffened made her pull up short.
"I don't even know what happened next. At least, I didn't then. I do now. But then, right then, well, simply put, I heard a loud crash and then my face exploded. That's what it felt like. Like a bomb had gone off on my face. I put my hands to my cheeks, and I could feel the jagged edge of glass there. I actually cut my hands. Blood was streaming down, going in my nose and mouth, choking me. I couldn't breathe. For a second, maybe two, there was no pain. And then it came in like a rush, like my face had been stripped raw. I screamed again and fell to the ground."
Wendy felt her own pulse quicken. She wanted to ask questions, have her back up and offer up details, but she kept still, letting Christa tell the story in her own way.
"So I'm on the ground, screaming, and I hear someone run past. I reached out blindly and tripped him. He fell hard and cursed. I grabbed his leg. I'm not sure why. I was working by instinct more than anything else. And that was when he kicked out to get free." Her voice dropped to a near whisper. "See, I didn't realize it at the time but there were shards of glass-a shattered mirror-all in my face. So when he kicked to get free, his heel shoved the shards farther into my skin, slicing right down to the bone." She swallowed. "But the biggest shard was near my right eye. I might have lost the eye anyway, but that kick plunged the shard like a knife..."
Mercifully she stopped right there.
"That's the last thing I remember. I passed out then. I didn't wake up for three days and when I did, well, I spent the next few weeks in and out of consciousness. There were constant surgeries. The pain was intolerable. I was pretty drugged up. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me go back a little. Campus police heard me scream that night. They caught Phil Turnball in the dean's front yard. My blood was all over his shoes. We all knew that other students were there too. See, there was a scavenger hunt. The dean's boxer shorts were a big prize. Sixty points. That's what Phil Turnball had been after-a pair of boxers. Like I said, a prank. Nothing more."
"You said you heard others. Whispers and giggles."
"Right, but Phil claimed that he'd been alone. His friends, of course, backed up that story. I was in no condition to counter what he said, and really, what did I know?"
"Phil took full blame?" Wendy asked.
"I don't know."
"I still don't understand. What did he do to you exactly? I mean, what caused all the cuts?"
"When I came in the room, Phil hid behind the bed. When he saw me reaching for the light switch, well, I guess the idea was to try to draw my attention away. A big glass ashtray got thrown near me. It was supposed to make noise so I'd turn and then Phil could run, I guess. But there was an antique mirror there. It shattered right into my face. Freak injury, right?"
Wendy said nothing.
"I spent three months in the hospital. I lost an eye. My other one was also severely damaged-the retina got severed. For a while I was totally blind. My sight came back gradually in the one eye. I'm still legally blind, but I can make out enough. Everything is blurry and I have tremendous trouble with any sort of bright light-especially sunlight. Again, apropos, don't you think? According to the doctors, my face had literally been sliced off, piece by piece. I've seen early pictures. If you think this is bad... it looked like raw ground chuck. That's the only way I can describe it. Like a lion had eaten my face away."
"I'm sorry," Wendy said, because she didn't know what else to say.
"My fiance, Marc, he was great. He stuck by me. I mean, he was heroic when you think about it. I had been beautiful. I can say that now. It doesn't sound immodest anymore. But I was. And he was so damn handsome. So Marc stuck by me. But he also kept diverting his gaze. It wasn't his fault. He hadn't signed up for this."
"So what happened?"
"I made him go. You think you know love, right? But that's the day I learned what love really was. Even though it cut me deeper than any shard ever could, I loved Marc enough to make him go."
She stopped again, took a sip of tea.
"You can probably guess the rest. Phil's family paid me to keep silent. A generous sum, I guess you'd say. It's in trust, paid out to me every week. If I speak about what happened, the payments stop."
"I won't say anything."
"Do you think that worries me?"
"I don't know."
"It doesn't. I have pretty modest needs. I still live here. I kept working for Dean Slotnick, though not with his children. My face scared them. So I became his assistant. When he died, Dean Pashaian was kind enough to keep me on. Now it's Dean Lewis. I mostly donate the money to various charities."
"So how does Dan fit into this?" Wendy asked.
"How do you think?"
"I assume he was in the house that night?"
"Yes. They all were. All five. I found out later."
"Dan told me."
"And Phil took the fall for all of them?"
"Any idea why?"
"He was a stand-up guy, I guess. But there might have been more. He was wealthy. The others weren't. Maybe he figured, what good would it do him to tell on his friends?"
That made sense, Wendy thought.
"So Dan visited you?"
"To offer comfort. We talked. He felt horrible about that night. About running out. That was how it started. I was furious when he first came by. But we became friends. We talked for hours at this very table."
"You said you were furious?"
"You have to understand. I lost everything that night."
"Right, so you were justifiably angry."
Christa smiled. "Oh, I see."
"Let me guess. I was angry. I was furious. I hated them all. So I plotted my revenge. I, what, bided my time for twenty years and then I struck. Is that what you're thinking?"
Wendy shrugged. "It is as though someone is paying them all back."
"And I'm the most likely suspect? The scarred chick with the ax to grind?"
"Don't you think so?"
"Sounds like a bad horror movie, but I guess..." She tilted her head again. "Are you buying me as the bad guy, Wendy?"
Wendy shook her head. "Not really, no."
"And there is one other thing."
Christa spread her hands. She still had the sunglasses on, but a tear escaped from the one eye she had left. "I forgave them."
"They were just college kids on a scavenger hunt. They never meant to hurt me."
And there it was. There is such wisdom in the simple-a truth you can hear in the tone, unmistakable for anything else.
"You live in this world, you collide with others. That's the way it is. We collide and sometimes someone gets hurt. They just wanted to steal a silly pair of boxers. It went wrong. For a short time, I hated them. But when you think about it, what good does that do? It takes so much to hold on to hate-you lose your grip on what's important, you know?"
Wendy felt tears push into her eyes now. She picked up the tea and sipped it. The peppermint felt good sliding down her throat. Let the hate go. She couldn't reply to that.
"Maybe they hurt someone else that night," Wendy said.
"I doubt it."
"Or maybe someone else wants revenge for you."
"My mother is dead," Christa said. "Marc is happily married to another woman. There is no one else."
Dead end. "What did Dan tell you when he first came?"
She smiled. "That's between us."
"There has to be a reason why they're all being ruined."
"Is that the main reason why you're here, Wendy? To help them get their lives back?"
Wendy said nothing.
"Or," Christa continued, "are you here because you're worried that you inadvertently set up an innocent man?"
"Both, I guess."
"You're hoping for absolution?"
"I'm hoping for answers."
"Do you want my take on it?" Christa asked.
"I got to know Dan pretty well."
"Sounds like it."
"We talked about everything at this table. He told me about his work, about meeting his first wife, Jenna, about how it was his fault the marriage didn't work, about how they remained close, about his loneliness. It was something we both shared."
Wendy waited. Christa adjusted her sunglasses. For a moment Wendy thought that she was going to take them off, but she didn't. She adjusted them and it seemed as though she was trying somehow to look Wendy in the eye.
"I don't think Dan Mercer was a pedophile. And I don't think he killed anyone. So, yes, Wendy, I think you set up an innocent man."