SO NOW SHE KNEW.
Wendy called Phil's cell phone. Once again there was no answer. She tried his home. Nothing. On the way back from Win's office, she stopped at his home in Englewood. No one was there. She tried the Starbucks. The Fathers Club was gone.
She debated calling Walker or maybe, more likely, Frank Tremont. He was the one who handled the case of Haley McWaid. There was a good chance that Dan Mercer had not killed Haley. She thought that maybe she now knew who did, but it was still speculation.
After Ridley Barry left his office, Wendy had run it all by Win. There were two reasons for this. One, she wanted an intelligent outside ear and opinion. Win could provide that. But, two, she wanted someone else to know what she knew as, well, backup-to protect both the information and herself.
When she finished, Win opened his bottom drawer. He pulled out several handguns and offered her one. She declined.
Charlie and Pops were still gone. The house was silent. She thought about next year, Charlie gone to college, the house always this still. She didn't like it-the thought of being alone in a house like that. Might be time to downsize.
Her throat was parched. She downed a full glass of water and refilled the glass. She headed upstairs, sat down, and flipped on the computer. Might as well start testing out her theory. She did the Google searches in reverse-Princeton-scandal order: Steve Miciano, Farley Parks, Dan Mercer, Phil Turnball.
It made sense to her now.
She then Googled herself, read the reports on her "sexually inappropriate" behavior, and shook her head. She wanted to cry, not for herself, but for all of them.
Had this all really started with a college scavenger hunt?
She should have been scared, but she wasn't. It just reconfirmed what she already knew. She turned around. Phil Turnball stood in her doorway.
"Other people know," she said.
Phil smiled. His face had that shine from too much drink. "You think I mean to hurt you?"
"Haven't you already?"
"I guess that's true. But that's not why I'm here."
"How did you get in?"
"The garage was open."
Charlie and that damn bike. She wasn't sure what the right move was here. She could try to be subtle, hit her cell phone, dial 9-1-1 or something. She could try to send an e-mail, an electronic SOS of some kind.
"Don't be afraid," he said.
"Do you mind if I call a friend then?"
"I'd rather you didn't."
"And if I insist?"
Phil took out a gun. "I have no intention of hurting you."
Wendy froze. When a gun comes out, it becomes the only thing you see. She swallowed, tried to stay strong. "Hey, Phil?"
"Nothing says you have no intention of hurting someone better than whipping out a handgun."
"We need to talk," Phil said. "But I'm just not sure where to start."
"How about how you kicked that mirror shard into Christa Stockwell's eye?"
"You really have done your homework, haven't you, Wendy?"
She said nothing.
"You're right too. That is where it began." He sighed. The gun hung down by his thigh. "You know what happened though, don't you? I was hiding and then Christa Stockwell screamed. I ran for the door, but she tripped me and grabbed my leg. I never meant to hurt her. I was just trying to get away, and I panicked."
"You were in the dean's house because of a scavenger hunt?"
"We all were."
"Yet you took the fall alone."
For a moment Phil looked off, lost. She considered making a run for it. He wasn't pointing the gun at her. It might be her best chance. But Wendy didn't move. She just sat there until he finally said, "Yes, that's true."
"It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. You see, I came into that school with every advantage. Wealth, family name, a prep school education. The others struggled and scraped. I was drawn to that. They were my friends. Besides, I was going to get in trouble anyway-why drag them into it?"
"Admirable," Wendy said.
"Of course, I didn't know the extent of the trouble I was in. It was dark in the house. I thought Christa was just screaming out of fear. I had no idea when I confessed that she'd been hurt that badly." He cocked his head to the right. "I like to think that I still would have done the same thing. Taken the hit for my friends, that is. But I don't know."
She tried to glance at the computer, tried to see if there was something she could click to get help. "So what happened then?"
"You know already, don't you?"
"You were expelled."
"And your parents paid Christa Stockwell for her silence."
"My parents were aghast. But maybe, I don't know, maybe I knew they would be. They paid my debt and then told me to go away. They gave the family business to my brother. I was out. But again maybe that was a good thing."
"You felt free," Wendy said.
"You were now like your roommates. The guys you admired."
He smiled. "Exactly. And so, like them, I struggled and scraped. I refused any help. I got a job with Barry Brothers. I put together a client list, worked hard to keep everyone happy. I married Sherry, a spectacular woman in every way. We made a family. Beautiful kids, nice house. All on my own. No nepotism, no help..."
His voice drifted off. He smiled.
"What about me?"
"Here we are, the two of us. I have a gun. I'm telling you all about my nefarious deeds. You're asking questions to stall me, hoping for the police to arrive just in the nick of time."
She said nothing.
"But I'm not here for me, Wendy. I'm here for you."
She looked at his face, and suddenly, despite the gun and the situation, the fear left her. "How so?" she asked.
"You want the answers, don't you?"
"So where was I?"
"Married, job, no nepotism."
"Right, thank you. You said you met Ridley Barry?"
"Nice old man, right? Very charming. He comes across as honest. And he is. I was too." He looked down at the gun in his hand as though it had just materialized out of thin air. "You don't start off as a thief. I bet even Bernie Madoff didn't. You're doing the best you can for your clients. But it's a cutthroat world. You make a bad trade. You lose some money. But you know you'll get it back. So you move some other money into that account. Just for a day, maybe a week. When the next trade comes in, you'll make it up and then some. It isn't stealing. In the end, your clients will be better off. You just start small like that, a little crossing of the line-but then what can you do about it? If you admit what you've done, you're ruined. You'll get fired or go to jail. So what other choice do you have? You have to keep borrowing from Peter to pay Paul and hope that something will click, some Hail Mary pass will work, so you can get out from under."
"Bottom line," Wendy said, "you stole from your clients?"
"Gave yourself a decent salary?"
"It was part of keeping up appearances."
"Right," Wendy said. "I see."
Phil smiled. "You're right, of course. I'm just trying to give you the mind frame, justified or not. Did Ridley tell you why they first started looking at me?"
She nodded. "You lied on your resume."
"Right. That night in the dean's house-it came back to haunt me again. All of a sudden, because of what happened all those years ago, my whole world began to disintegrate. Can you imagine how I felt? I took the fall for those guys, even though I wasn't really to blame, and now, well, after all these years, I was still suffering."
"What do you mean, you weren't to blame?"
"Just what I said."
"You were there. You kicked Christa Stockwell in the face."
"That's not what started it. Did she tell you about the ashtray?"
"Yes. You threw it."
"Did she tell you that?"
Wendy thought about it. She had assumed, but had Christa Stockwell actually said it was Phil?
"It wasn't me," he said. "Someone else threw an ashtray at her. That's what shattered the mirror."
"You didn't know who?"
He shook his head. "The other guys who were there that night all denied it was them. That's what I meant about not being to blame. And now I had nothing again. When my parents heard about my firing, well, that was the final blow. They disowned me entirely. Sherry and my kids-they started looking at me differently. I was lost. I was at rock bottom-all because of that damned scavenger hunt. So I went to my old roommates for help. Farley and Steve, they were grateful to me for taking the fall, they said, but what could they do about it now? I started thinking, I shouldn't have taken that hit alone. If all five of us had come forward, we could have shared the load. I wouldn't be alone in this. The school would have gone easier on me. And I'm looking at them, my old friends who won't help, and they're all doing great now, all well-off and successful..."
"So," Wendy said, "you decided to take them down a peg."
"Do you blame me? I'm the only one who paid a price for what happened, and now it was like I was finished in their eyes. Done. Like I wasn't worth saving. My family was rich, they said. Ask them for help."
Phil couldn't escape his family, Wendy thought-their wealth, their position. He could want to be like his struggling friends, but he was never really one of them in their eyes-because when push came to shove, he simply didn't belong with the poor any more than they belonged with the rich.
"You learned about viral marketing from the Fathers Club," she said.
"That should have tipped me off. I just looked again. Farley was trashed. Steve was trashed. I was trashed. And there was already enough about Dan online. But you, Phil. There isn't a word about your embezzling crimes online. Why? If someone was out to get all of you, why didn't he blog about your stealing from the company? In fact, nobody knew about it. You told the Fathers Club that you were laid off. It wasn't until my friend Win informed me that you'd actually been fired for stealing two million dollars that you suddenly opened up about it. And when you knew I was down at Princeton, you even got in front of that one too-telling the guys you got expelled."
"All true," Phil said.
"So let's get to your setups. First, you got some girl to play Chynna, Dan's teenage girl, and Farley's hooker."
"Where did you find her?"
"She's just a hooker I hired to play two roles. It wasn't all that complicated. As for Steve Miciano, well, how hard is it to plant drugs in a man's trunk and tell the police to take a look? And Dan..."
"You used me," Wendy said.
"It was nothing personal. One night I saw your TV show and figured, wow, what better way to get back at someone?"
"How did you do it?"
"What was so complicated about it, Wendy? I wrote that first e-mail from Ashlee, the thirteen-year-old girl in the SocialTeen room. Then I posed as Dan in the room. I hid the photographs and the laptop in his house when I visited him. My hooker pretended to be a troubled teen named Chynna. When you told me in my online persona as 'pedophile Dan'"-he made quote marks with his fingers-"to show up at a particular time and place, Chynna simply asked Dan to meet her at the same time and place. Dan showed up, your cameras were rolling..." He shrugged.
"Wow," she said.
"I'm sorry you got involved. And I'm even sorrier I started all those rumors about you. I went too far there. That was a mistake. I feel terrible about that. That's why I'm here now. To make it up to you."
He kept saying that-that part about being here for her. It was maddening. "So you did all that," she said, "you went after all these guys, just for revenge?"
He lowered his head. His answer surprised her. "No."
"Don't be easy on yourself, Phil. You lost everything, so you decided to take down the innocent with you."
"The innocent?" For the first time, anger crept into his voice.
"They weren't innocent."
"You mean because of what they did that night at the dean's house."
"No, that's not what I mean. I mean, because they were guilty."
Wendy made a face. "Guilty of what?"
"Don't you get it? Farley did sleep with hookers. He was a horrible womanizer. Everyone knew. And Steve did use his standing as a medical doctor to illegally sell and dispense prescription drugs. Ask the cops. They couldn't nail him for it. But they knew. See, I didn't set them up. I exposed them."
There was silence now, a deep hum, and Wendy felt her body shake. They were coming to it now. He waited, knowing that she would prompt him.
"And what about Dan?" Wendy asked.
His breathing got a little funny. He tried to get himself under control, but the past was coming at him fast now. "That's why I'm here, Wendy."
"I don't understand. You just said Farley was a womanizer and that Steve was a drug pusher."
"So I'm asking the obvious question-was Dan Mercer really a pedophile?"
"Do you want the truth?"
"No, Phil, after all this I want you to lie to me. Did you set him up so he could be brought to justice?"
"With Dan," he said slowly, "I guess nothing went as planned."
"Please stop with the semantics. Was he a pedophile, yes or no?"
He looked to the left and summoned up something inside him. "I don't know."
That was not the answer she'd been expecting. "How can that be?"
"When I set him up, I didn't think he was. But now, I'm not so sure."
The answer made her head spin. "What the hell does that mean?" "I told you I went to Farley and Steve," he said. "And that they weren't interested in helping me."
"Then I went to Dan." Phil lifted the gun, switched it to his other hand.
"How did he react?"
"We sat in his crappy house. I mean, I didn't even know why I bothered. What could he do? He had absolutely no money. He worked with the poor. So Dan asked me if I wanted a beer. I took one. Then I told him what had happened to me. He listened with a sympathetic ear. When I finished Dan looked me in the eye and said he was so glad I came by. Why, I asked him. He told me how he'd visited Christa Stockwell all these years. I was shocked. And then he told me the final truth."
Wendy saw it now-what Christa Stockwell had kept from her.
"What did Dan tell you when he first came?"
"That's between us."
Wendy looked up at him. "Dan threw the ashtray."
Phil nodded. "He saw me duck down behind the bed. The other guys-Farley, Steve, and Kelvin-they had started sneaking out already. They were halfway down the stairs by the time Christa Stockwell started reaching for that light switch. Dan just wanted to distract her. Give me a chance to run. So he threw the ashtray."
"And it smashed the mirror into her face."
She imagined the moment. She imagined Dan confessing and Christa merely accepting it. They were college kids on a scavenger hunt, after all. Was it all that easy to forgive? For Christa, maybe it was.
"And all these years," Wendy said, "you never knew."
"I never knew. Dan lied about it. He tried to explain why. He was a poor kid, he said. He was on scholarship and scared. It wouldn't help me anyway. It would just destroy him-and for what?"
"So he kept quiet."
"Like the others, he figured I had money. I had family and connections. I could pay off Christa Stockwell. So he never said a word. He just let me take the fall for what he'd done. So you see, Wendy, Dan wasn't so innocent. In fact, in many ways, he was the guiltiest of all."
She thought about it, about the rage Phil must have felt when he learned that he had paid for the crime committed by Dan.
"But he wasn't a child molester, was he?"
Phil thought about that one. "I didn't think so, no. At least, I didn't at first."
She tried to sort through it, tried to make sense of it. And then she remembered Haley McWaid.
"My God, Phil. What did you do?"
"Those guys are right. I'm done. Whatever else was left of me- whatever good was there-it's gone now too. That's what revenge does to you. It eats away at your soul. I should have never opened that door."
Wendy didn't know what door he meant anymore-the one to the dean's house all those years ago or the one to the hatred that made him seek revenge. Wendy remembered what Christa Stockwell had said about hatred, how holding on to it makes you let go of everything else.
But they still weren't done. There was still the matter of Haley McWaid.
"So when Dan got off," Wendy began, "I mean, when the judge let him go..."
The smile on his face chilled her. "Go on, Wendy."
But she couldn't. She tried to follow it, but suddenly none of it made sense.
"You're wondering about Haley McWaid, aren't you? You're wondering how she fits in."
Wendy couldn't speak.
"Go on, Wendy. Say what you were going to say."
But she saw it now. It made no sense.
His expression was calmer now, almost serene. "I hurt them, yes. Did I break the law? I'm not even sure. I hired a girl to lie about Farley and play a part with Dan. Is that a crime? A misdemeanor maybe. I pretended I was someone else in a chat room-but isn't that what you do? You said that the judge let Dan go. That's true, but so what? I wasn't necessarily trying to send them to jail. I just wanted them to suffer. And they did, didn't they?"
He waited for an answer. Wendy managed a nod.
"So why then would I set him up for murder?"
"I don't know," she managed.
Phil leaned forward and whispered, "I didn't."
Wendy couldn't breathe. She tried to slow it down, think it through, take a step back somehow. Haley McWaid had been murdered three months before she was found. Why? Did Wendy think, what, that Phil had killed her just in case Dan got off so Phil could pin it on him?
Did that make sense?
"Wendy, I'm a father. I couldn't kill a teenage girl. I couldn't kill anyone."
It was, she realized, a huge leap between viral trashing and murder, between getting back at some old classmates and killing a teenage girl.
The truth started to sink in, numbing her.
"You couldn't have planted the iPhone in his room," Wendy said slowly. "You didn't know where he was." Her head wouldn't stop spinning. She tried to focus, tried to make sense of this, but the answer was now so obvious. "It couldn't have been you."
"That's right, Wendy." He smiled, and the look of peace returned to his face. "That's why I'm here. Remember? I told you that I came here for you, not me. That's my final gift to you."
"What gift? I don't understand. How did that iPhone get in Dan's room?"
"You know the answer, Wendy. You're worried you ruined an innocent man. But you didn't. There's only one explanation why that phone was in his hotel room: Dan had it the whole time."
She just looked at him. "Dan killed Haley?"
"Of course," he said.
She couldn't move, couldn't breathe.
"And now you know everything, Wendy. You're free. I'm sorry for it all. I don't know whether it makes up for what I did to you, but it will have to do. Like I said in the beginning, that's why I came here-to help you."
Phil Turnball lifted his gun then. He closed his eyes and looked almost peaceful. "Tell Sherry I'm sorry," he said. Wendy raised her hands, shouted at him to stop, started toward him.
But she was too far away.
He placed the muzzle under his chin, aimed up, and pulled the trigger.