WENDY BLINKED AS SHE STEPPED OUT of the darkness of that kitchen and onto the lawn of the dean's house. She watched the students in the sunshine. They walked past this house every day, probably having no idea how thin the line was between them and the scarred woman in that house. Wendy stood there for another moment. She tilted her face up to the sun. She kept her eyes open, let them water from the rays. It felt damn good.
Christa Stockwell had forgiven those who hurt her.
She had made it sound so easy. Wendy pushed away the larger philosophical underpinnings-the obvious link to her own situation with Ariana Nasbro-to concentrate on the matter at hand: If the person most wronged had forgiven and moved on, who hadn't?
She checked her cell phone. More messages from reporters. She ignored them. There was a hang-up from Pops. She called him back. Pops answered on the first ring. "A bunch of reporters keep stopping by," he said.
"Now you know why I'm against gun control."
For the first time in what seemed like forever, Wendy laughed.
"So what do they want?" he asked.
"Someone is spreading bad rumors about me."
"Like I'm sleeping with my boss. Stuff like that."
"And reporters give a crap about that stuff?"
"Any of them true?"
"Yeah. Could you do me a favor?"
"Rhetorical question," Pops said.
"I'm in a pretty bad mess here. Some people may be after me."
"And I'm heavily armed."
"No need for that," she said, hoping it wasn't true. "But I want you to take Charlie somewhere for the next couple of days."
"You think he's in danger?"
"I don't know. Either way these rumors will start rippling through town. The kids in school may give him a hard time."
"So what? Charlie can take a little razzing. He's a strong kid."
"I don't want him to be strong right now."
"Yeah, okay, I'll take care of it. We'll stay at a motel, okay?"
"Someplace decent, Pops. Nothing with hourly rates or mirrored ceilings."
"Got it, no worries. If you need my help-"
"Goes without saying," Wendy said.
"Okay, take care. I love you."
"I love you too."
When they hung up, she called Vic again. Still no answer. Bastard was starting to piss her off. So where to now? Well, now she knew the secret of the Princeton Five, but she still didn't have a clue why it had come back after twenty years. There was, of course, one person to ask.
She tried his phone again. Waste of time. So she drove straight to his house. Sherry answered the door. "He's not here."
"Did you know?" Wendy asked.
Sherry said nothing.
"About Princeton. Did you know what happened there?"
"Not for a long time."
Wendy was going to ask a follow-up, but she stopped herself. It didn't matter when or what Sherry knew. She needed to talk to Phil. "Where is he?"
"With the Fathers Club."
"Don't warn him I'm coming, okay?" Carrot and stick time again. Well, stick time anyway. "If you do, it will just mean I'll have to come back to your house. And the next time I'll be angry. I will bring cameras and other reporters and make enough noise to attract your neighbors and even your kids. Do you get my meaning?"
"You're not exactly being obtuse," Sherry said.
Wendy didn't relish threatening this woman, but enough with the lies and getting jerked around.
"Don't worry," Sherry said. "I won't call him."
Wendy turned to leave.
"One thing," Sherry said.
"He's fragile. Be careful, okay?"
Wendy wanted to add something about Christa Stockwell, how fragile her flesh had been, but it wasn't her place. She drove over to the Starbucks and pulled into a spot that required "Quarters Only" for the meter. She didn't have any. Too bad. Again she'd live life on the edge.
She felt on the verge of tears again. She stopped at the door of Starbucks and gathered herself.
They were all there. Norm, aka Ten-A-Fly, was in full rap-wannabe gear. Doug had on his tennis whites. Owen had the baby. Phil was in the suit and tie. Even now. Even at this hour. They were all huddled over a round table, leaning in and whispering. Their body language, Wendy could see, was all wrong.
When Phil spotted her, his face fell. His eyes closed. She didn't care. She made her way to the table and glared down at him. He seemed to deflate in front of her eyes.
"I just talked to Christa Stockwell," she said.
The rest of the guys just watched in silence. Wendy met Norm's eye. He shook his head, asking her to stop. She didn't.
"They're going after me now too," Wendy said to him.
"We know," Norm said. "We've been following the cyber-rumors online. We've managed to get rid of a lot of the viral sites but not all of them."
"So it's my battle too now."
"It doesn't have to be." Phil still had his head down. "I warned you. I begged you to stay out of it."
"And I didn't listen. My bad. Now tell me what's going on."
Phil rose to his feet. He started for the door. Wendy blocked his path.
"Get out of my way," he said.
"You talked to Christa Stockwell?"
"What did she tell you?"
Wendy hesitated. Hadn't she promised Christa not to say anything? Phil used the moment to scoot around Wendy. He headed for the door. Wendy started for him, but Norm stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. She turned angrily toward him.
"What are you going to do, Wendy? Tackle him on the street?"
"You don't have a clue what I learned."
"He got expelled from Princeton," Norm said. "He never graduated. We know. He told us."
"Did he tell you what he did?"
"Do you think it matters?"
That stopped her. She thought about what Christa said, about forgiving them, about them just being kids on a scavenger hunt.
"Did he tell you who is after them?" she asked.
"No. But he asked us to stay out of it. We're his friends, Wendy. Our loyalty is to him, not you. And I think he's suffered enough, don't you?"
"I don't know, Norm. I don't know who is after him and his old roommates-and now me. And more than that, I don't even know whether Dan Mercer killed Haley McWaid. Maybe her killer is still out there. Do you get what I'm saying?"
"And our friend asked us to stay out of it. It's not our fight anymore."
Fuming, she started for the door.
She turned back to him. He looked so ridiculous in that getup, the damn black cap over a red bandana, the white belt, the wrist-watch with a face the size of a satellite dish. Ten-A-Fly. For crying out loud. "What, Norm?"
"We do have that photograph."
"The still of the girl in the video. The hooker who accused Farley Parks of soliciting her. Owen was able to freeze the screen and enhance it around the shadow. It wasn't easy, but he got a pretty clear picture. We have it, if you want it."
She waited. Owen handed the eight-by-ten to Norm. Norm brought it to her. She looked down at the girl in the photograph.
Norm said, "She looks young, don't you think?"
Wendy's world, already wobbly, teetered off its axis.
Yes, the girl in the photograph did look young. Very young.
She also looked exactly like the artist sketch of Chynna, the girl Dan claimed that he was supposed to meet at the sting house.
SO NOW SHE KNEW. The photograph was the kicker. Someone had set them up.
But still no why or who.
When Wendy got home, there was only one news van still parked outside. She couldn't believe what station it belonged to. The damn nerve-it was from her own network. NTC. Sam, her cameraman, stood outside with-deep breaths-the balloon-headed Michele Feisler.
Michele was fixing her hair. The NTC microphone was jammed into the crook of her arm. Wendy was tempted to veer her car to the right and take her out, watch that big melon head splatter onto the curb. Instead she hit the automatic garage door and headed inside. The electric door slid closed behind her and she stepped out.
It was Michele. She knocked on the garage door.
"Get off my property, Michele."
"There's no camera or microphone. It's just me."
"My friend inside has a gun that he's dying to use."
"Just listen to me a second, okay?"
"You need to hear this. It's about Vic."
That made her pause. "What about Vic?"
"Open the door, Wendy."
"What about Vic?"
"He's selling you out."
Her stomach dropped. "What do you mean?"
"Open the door, Wendy. No cameras, no microphones, all off the record. I promise."
Damn. She debated what to do, but really, what was the harm? She wanted to know what Michele had to say. If it meant letting Blockhead into her house, so be it. She stepped over Charlie's bike-conveniently abandoned, as always, to block her access-and turned the knob. Unlocked. Charlie always forgot to lock it.
"Come around back."
She entered the kitchen. Pops was gone. He'd left a note that he'd picked up Charlie. Good. She opened the back door for Michele.
"Thanks for letting me in."
"So what's this about Vic?"
"The brass want blood. They came down hard on him."
"So Vic is being pressured big-time to say you hit on him-to imply that you're somewhat obsessed with him."
Wendy didn't move.
"The station released this statement."
Michele handed her a piece of a paper.
We at NTC have no comment on the matter of Wendy Tynes though we would like to make it very clear that our news manager Victor Garrett did nothing illegal or unethical and has refused any and all advances made in his direction by any person in his employ. Stalking is a serious problem in this country today, and there are many innocent victims made to suffer.
"Stalking?" Wendy looked up. "Is this for real?"
"Nicely done, don't you think? Couched in enough vagaries so that no one can sue."
"So what do you want, Michele? You don't really think I'm going to go on air, do you?"
Michele shook her head. "You're not that stupid."
"So why are you here?"
She took back the statement and held it up. "This isn't right. We aren't good friends. I know how you feel about me..." Michele pursed her over-glossed lips and closed her eyes, as though weighing her next sentence in her mind.
"Do you believe this statement?"
The eyes snapped open. "No! I mean, come on. You? Stalking Vic? Gag me with a soup ladle."
Right then, if Wendy hadn't been so stunned and emotionally raw, she might have hugged Michele.
"I know it's corny, but I became a reporter because I wanted to find truths. And this is crap. You're being set up. So I wanted to let you know what the deal was."
Wendy said, "Wow."
"Nothing. I'm surprised, I guess."
"I have always admired you, the way you handle yourself, the way you cover a story. I know how that sounds, but it's true."
Wendy just stood there. "I don't know what to say."
"Nothing to say. If you need any help, I'm here for you. That's all. I'm going now. We're covering that story I told you about-the perv Arthur Lemaine who had both knees shot."
"A new development?"
"Not really. The guy hopefully got what he deserved, but it's still pretty amazing-a convicted child pornographer coaching a kids' hockey team."
Wendy felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck.
She remembered now watching the story with Charlie and his friends. "Wait, he was shot in front of South Mountain Arena, right?"
"But I don't get it. I remembered reading that the arena does background checks on the coaches."
Michele nodded. "Yes. But in Lemaine's case, the convictions didn't show up."
"Because the background checks only turn up crimes committed on U.S. soil," Michele said. "But see, Lemaine is Canadian. From Quebec, I think."