FIVE DAYS LATER

THE POLICE CLEANED UP the mess.

Both Walker and Tremont came by to check up on her and hear the story. She tried to be as detailed as possible. The media, too, took a pretty big interest. Farley Parks released a statement condemning those who had "rushed to judgment" but did not reenter the race. Dr. Steve Miciano refused any interviews and announced that he was stepping down from practicing medicine to "pursue other interests."

Phil Turnball had been right about them.

Life returned to quasi-normal in quick order. Wendy was cleared by NTC of any sort of sexual misconduct, but work had become an impossible place. Vic Garrett couldn't look her in the eye. He gave all his assignments to her via his personal assistant, Mavis. So far, the assignments had been crap. If that didn't change, she would take a more aggressive stand.

But not quite yet.

Pops announced that he would be hitting the road by the weekend. He had stayed on to make sure Wendy and Charlie were okay, but as Pops noted, he was "a ramblin' man, a rolling stone." Staying in one place didn't suit him. Wendy understood, but God, she'd miss him.

Amazingly, while her workplace had accepted that the rumors online about her were not true, many of her fellow Kasseltonians did not. She was ignored in the supermarket. The mothers kept away from her during school pickup. On day five, two hours before Wendy was to head out to her PR committee meeting for Project Graduation, Millie Hanover called: "For the sake of the children, I suggest you step down from serving on any committee."

"For the sake of the children," Wendy replied, "I suggest you suck eggs."

She slammed the phone down. From behind her she heard clapping. It was Charlie. "All right, Mom."

"That woman is so narrow-minded."

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Charlie laughed. "Remember I told you how I wanted to skip health class because it promotes promiscuity?"

"Yes."

"Cassie Hanover gets excused because her mother's afraid it might corrupt her morals. Funny thing is, her nickname is 'Hand Job' Hanover. I mean, the girl's a total slut."

Wendy turned and watched her lanky son approach the computer. He sat down and started typing, keeping his eyes on the screen.

"Speaking of total sluts," Wendy began.

He looked up at her. "Huh?"

"There are some rumors going around about me. They were put in blogs online."

"Mom?"

"Yes?"

"Do you think I live in a cave?"

"You've seen them?"

"Of course."

"Why didn't you say anything?"

Charlie shrugged, went back to typing.

"I want you to know they aren't true."

"You mean you don't sleep around to get ahead?"

"Don't be a wiseass."

He sighed. "I know it's not true, Mom. Okay? You don't have to tell me that."

She was trying very hard not to cry. "Are your friends giving you a hard time about it?"

"No," he said. Then: "Well, okay, Clark and James want to know if you dig younger men."

She frowned.

"Kidding," he said.

"Good one."

"Lighten up." He started typing.

She started to head out of the room, give him his privacy. If she had done that, it would all have been over now. They had the answers. Phil set up his friends. Dan had snapped and killed Haley. The fact that they couldn't find a motive was irksome but life works that way sometimes.

But she didn't leave the room. She was feeling teary and alone and so she asked her son, "What are you doing?"

"Going through my Facebook."

That reminded her of her fake profile, the Sharon Hait one, the one she'd used to "friend" Kirby Sennett.

"What's a Red Bull party?" she asked.

Charlie stopped typing. "Where did you hear that term?"

Wendy reminded him of how she'd used the fake profile to get in touch with Kirby Sennett. "Kirby invited 'Sharon' to a Red Bull party."

"Show me," he said.

Charlie logged out and stepped away from the computer. Wendy sat down, signed in as "Sharon Hait." It took her a second to remember the password ("Charlie") before she got in. She brought up the invitation and showed it to him.

"Lame," Charlie said.

"What?"

"Okay, you know how the school has these strict zero-tolerance rules, right?"

"Right."

"And Principal Zecher is like a Nazi on this stuff. I mean, if a kid is seen drinking, he can't play for any sports teams, can't be in the New Players shows, he reports it to the college admissions people, the whole works."

"Yes, I know."

"And you know how teens are idiots and always posting pictures of themselves drinking on stuff like, well, Facebook?"

"Yes."

"So anyway, someone came up with the idea of Red Bulling the photos."

"Red Bulling?"

"Yeah. So let's say you go to a party and you're drinking a can of Bud and because you're a loser with self-esteem issues, you think, wow, I'm so cool, I want everyone to see how cool I am. You ask someone to take your picture drinking this Bud so you can put it online so you can show off to your lame-o friends. Thing is, suppose Principal Zecher or his Third Reich minions stumble across it? You're screwed. So what you do is, you photoshop a Red Bull over your beer can."

"You're kidding."

"I kid not. Makes sense when you think about it. Here."

He leaned over her and clicked the mouse. A bunch of photos of Kirby Sennett popped up. He started clicking through them. "See? Look how many times he, his pals, and their various skanks drink Red Bull."

"Don't call them skanks."

"Whatever."

Wendy started clicking through them. "Charlie?"

"Yeah."

"Have you ever been to a Red Bull party?"

"Destination: Loserville."

"Does that mean no?"

"It means no."

She looked at him. "Have you ever been to a party where people drank alcohol?"

Charlie rubbed his chin. "Yes."

"Did you drink?"

"Once."

She turned back to the computer, kept clicking, kept watching Kirby Sennett and his red-faced companions with the Red Bulls. In some of the pictures, you could see the photoshopping. The can of Red Bull was too big or too small or over the fingers or slightly askew.

"When?" she asked.

"Mom, it's okay. It was once. Sophomore year."

She was debating how far to take the conversation when she saw the photograph that changed everything. Kirby Sennett sat front and center. There were two girls behind him, both with their backs to the cameras. Kirby had a wide smile. He held the Red Bull in his right hand. He wore a New York Knicks T-shirt and a black baseball cap. But what drew her eyes, what made her stop and take another look, was the couch he sat on.

It was bright yellow with blue flowers.

Wendy had seen that couch before.

Alone-just the photograph-it would have meant nothing to her. But now she remembered Phil Turnball's last words, about how he was offering her a "gift," that she wouldn't have to blame herself for setting up an innocent man. Phil Turnball believed it-and Wendy had wanted to believe it too. That was the thing. It left her off the hook. Dan had been a killer. She hadn't set up an innocent man. She had, in fact, brought down a murderer.

So how come she still wasn't totally buying it?

The early intuition, the one that said she'd somehow wronged Dan Mercer, the one that had been nibbling at her subconscious from the moment he first opened that red door and walked into the sting house-she had let it go dormant over the past few days.

But it had never gone away.