THE MOVING TRUCK was parked in front of the Wheeler home.
There was a little ramp running up to the open front door. Two men wearing dark gloves and leather weightlifter belts rolled a credenza down it, one repeating the words, "Steady, steady," as though it were a mantra. The FOR SALE sign was still in the yard. There was no UNDER CONTRACT or anything else hung beneath it.
Wendy let the credenza pass and then she headed up the ramp, leaned her head in the doorway, and said, "Anyone home?"
Jenna came from the den. She too wore dark gloves. She had on blue jeans. A bulky flannel shirt hung over her white T. The sleeves of the flannel were rolled up to her wrists, but she practically swam in the fabric. Her husband's, Wendy thought. As a kid, you might use your dad's old dress shirts as smocks. As an adult, you use your husband's for household errands or sometimes, just to feel close to him. Wendy had done the same, loving the smell of her man on it.
"Did you find a buyer?" Wendy asked.
"Not yet." Jenna's hair was tied back, but some strands had come loose. She tucked it back behind her ear. "Noel starts in Cincinnati next week though."
"Noel must have started looking for that job right away."
Jenna hesitated this time. "I guess so."
"Because of the stigma of defending a pedophile?"
"That's right." Jenna put her hands on her hips. "What's going on, Wendy?"
"Have you ever been to Freddy's Deluxe Luxury Suites in Newark?"
"It's a no-tell motel in the middle of Newark. Have you been?"
"No, of course not."
"Funny. I showed the front desk manager your picture. He said he saw you there the day Dan was killed. In fact, he said you asked for a key to his room."
This was, Wendy knew, a semi-bluff. The front desk manager had recognized Jenna Wheeler and said she'd been there within the past two weeks, but he couldn't say exactly when. He also remembered giving her a key without asking questions-when nice-looking suburban women show up at Freddy's, you never ask for ID-but he didn't remember what room.
"He was mistaken," Jenna said.
"I don't think so. More important, when I tell the police, the police won't think so."
The two women stood there, toe-to-toe, staring each other down.
"You see, that was what Phil Turnball missed," Wendy said. "You heard about his suicide, I assume?"
"He thought Dan killed Haley because, in his mind, there were no other suspects. Dan was in hiding at the motel. No one knew where he was, ergo nobody could have planted Haley's iPhone. He forgot about you, Jenna. So did I."
Jenna took off the leather gloves. "That doesn't mean anything."
"How about this then?"
Wendy handed her the photograph of Kirby Sennett. The bright yellow couch with blue flowers was behind them, wrapped in plastic, ready to be loaded for Cincinnati. Jenna looked at the photograph a little too long.
"Has your daughter told you what Red Bulling is?"
Jenna handed it back to her. "This still proves nothing."
"Sure it does. Because now we know the truth, don't we? Once I give this information to the police, they'll go after the kids harder. They'll get the untouched photographs. I know Kirby was here. He and Haley had a big fight and broke up. When I got him alone, he told me that there'd been a drinking party here, in your house, the night Haley vanished. He said only four kids showed. The police will pressure them now. They'll talk."
Again this was not exactly true. Walker and Tremont had gotten Kirby alone in a room. They threatened everything under the sun to get him to talk. It wasn't until his lawyer got a waiver of confidentiality, not just no prosecution, that he told them about the party.
Jenna crossed her arms. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Do you know what amazed me? None of the kids came forward after Haley went missing. But again there were only a few kids here. Kirby said he asked your stepdaughter, Amanda, about it. Amanda told him that Haley had left here fine right after he did. What with Principal Zecher's zero-tolerance policy, no one wanted to admit to drinking if they didn't have to. Kirby was worried about being thrown off the baseball team. He said another girl was on the wait-list to Boston College and she'd never get in once Zecher told them. So they kept quiet about it, the way kids can do. And really, it was no big deal since Amanda told them Haley had been fine when she left the party. Why would they have doubted that?"
"I think you should leave now."
"I plan to. I also plan to head straight to the police. You know they'll be able to reconstruct that night now. They'll give the other kids at the party immunity. They'll find out you were at the motel, maybe go through the nearby surveillance tapes. They'll realize you planted the phone. The medical examiner will take another look at Haley's corpse. Your web of lies will fall apart with ease."
Wendy turned to leave.
"Wait." Jenna swallowed. "What do you want?"
"Are you wearing a wire?"
"A wire? You watch too much TV."
"Are you wearing a wire?" she asked again.
"No." Wendy spread her arms. "Do you want to-what's the correct terminology?-pat me down?"
The two moving men came back into the house. One said, "It okay if we clear out the teenager's bedroom next, Mrs. Wheeler?"
"Fine," Jenna said. She looked back at Wendy. There were tears in her eyes. "Let's talk out back."
Jenna Wheeler led the way. She slid open the glass door. There was a pool in the back. A blue float drifted alone on the water. Jenna stared at it for a moment. She lifted her eyes and let them travel around the yard, as though she were the prospective buyer.
"It was an accident," Jenna said. "When you hear what happened, I'm hoping you'll understand. You're a mother too."
Wendy felt her heart sink.
"Amanda isn't a popular kid. Sometimes that's okay. You find other interests or you make friends with other unpopular kids. You know how it is. But Amanda wasn't like that. She got picked on a lot. No one ever invited her to parties. It became worse for her after I defended Dan, but really, I'm not sure that was much of a factor. Amanda was the type who cared too much. She sat up in her room and cried all the time. Noel and I didn't know what to do."
"So you decided to throw a party," Wendy said.
"Yes. I won't go into all the details, but it seemed the smart move for all involved. Did you know that all that week, the seniors had been driving to the Bronx because they found someplace that served underage teens? Ask Charlie, he'll tell you."
"Leave my son out of this."
Jenna put up both hands in mock surrender. "Fine, whatever. But that's the truth. They'd all go to this club and get wasted and then they'd drive home. So Noel and I figured we could host something in the house. We would stay upstairs, out of the way, and, well, we would just leave a cooler of beer out. It wasn't like we would push it on them, but come on, you were in high school once. Kids drink. We figured at least we could channel it toward the safest possible environment."
Wendy flashed on that Project Graduation booth with the "Not in Our House" campaign, the one against parents hosting parties. "Safety overkill," that father had called it, and maybe, on one level, she had agreed.
"I assume that Haley McWaid was there?" Wendy said.
Jenna nodded. "She didn't really like Amanda. She'd only been to the house once before. She was just using her for the alcohol, I guess. I mean, only a handful of kids showed up. And Haley McWaid was upset. She was heartbroken about not getting into the University of Virginia. She had a big fight with Kirby. That's why he left early."
Her voice faded away. Jenna looked at the pool water again.
"So what happened?" Wendy asked.
She said it just like that.
The moving men clunked down the stairs. One cursed. Wendy stood there with Jenna Wheeler. The sun beat down upon them. The yard was hushed, holding its breath.
"She drank too much," Jenna said. "Alcohol overdose. Haley was a small girl. She found an unopened bottle of whiskey in the cabinet. She drank it all. Amanda thought she had just passed out."
"You didn't call nine-one-one?"
She shook her head. "Noel is a doctor. He tried everything to revive that poor girl. But it was too late." Jenna finally turned away from the pool. She looked at Wendy with imploring eyes. "I need you to put yourself in our position for a moment, okay? The girl was dead. Nothing could bring her back."
"Dead is dead," Wendy said, echoing what Jenna had said about her ex-husband during their last meeting.
"You're being sarcastic, but yes, dead is dead. Haley was gone. It was a terrible accident, but there was no bringing her back. So we stood over her body. Noel kept trying to do CPR, but it was useless. Think about it. You're a reporter. You've covered stories on these parties, haven't you?"
"You know that parents have ended up going to jail, right?"
"Right. It's called manslaughter."
"But it was an accident. Don't you see? She drank too much. It happens."
"Four thousand times a year," Wendy said, remembering Safety Officer Pecora stating that statistic.
"So Haley is lying there. She's dead. And we don't know what to do. If we call the police, we go to prison. An open-and-shut case. Our lives would be ruined."
"Better than being dead," Wendy said.
"But what good would that do? Don't you get that? Haley was already dead. Destroying our lives wouldn't bring her back. We were terrified. Don't get me wrong. We felt horrible about Haley. But there is nothing to do for the dead. We were scared-you get that, right?"
Wendy nodded. "I do."
"I mean, put yourself in our shoes. Your whole family is about to be destroyed. What would you have done?"
"Me? I probably would have buried her body in a state park."
"That's not funny," Jenna said.
"But that's what you did, isn't it?"
"Imagine it's your home. Imagine that Charlie came up to you in your bedroom and brought you downstairs and one of his friends was lying dead. You didn't make the kid drink. You didn't force the alcohol down his throat. And now you might go to jail for this. Or Charlie might. What would you have done to protect your family?"
This time, Wendy said nothing.
"We didn't know what to do, so, yes, we panicked. Noel and I put the body in the trunk of our car. I know how it sounds, but again, we saw another alternative. If we called the police, we were done-and the girl would still be dead. That's what I kept telling myself. I would have sacrificed my own life to bring her back-but that wasn't possible."
"So you buried her in the woods?"
"That wasn't the initial plan. We were going to drive to Irvington or some city, and just, well, we were going to leave her somewhere so she could be found right away-but then we realized that the autopsy would show alcohol poisoning. The police would be able to trace it back to us. So we knew that we had to hide her. I felt horrible about this-about Ted and Marcia not knowing. But I didn't really know what else to do. And then when people started assuming Haley had run away, well, wasn't that better than knowing for certain that your child is dead?"
Wendy did not reply.
"You said to put yourself in your shoes."
"Now I'm putting myself in Ted's and Marcia's shoes. Was it your hope that they'd never find out the truth? That one day their daughter was there and the next she vanished and so for the rest of their lives they'd rush to every doorbell and wonder about every phone call?"
"Is that worse than knowing your daughter is dead?"
Wendy did not bother giving an answer.
"And you have to understand," Jenna continued. "We were living in a sort of suspended hell too. Every time our doorbell or the phone rang, we wondered if it was the police."
"Wow," Wendy said, "I feel horrible for you."
"I'm not telling you that to gain your sympathy. I'm trying to explain what happened next."
"I think I know what happened," Wendy said. "You were Dan's next of kin. When the police came to you and told you he was dead, well, it was fortuitous, wasn't it?"
Jenna looked down. She pulled the large flannel shirt tighter against her, as though it might offer protection. She looked even smaller now. "I loved that man. I was devastated."
"But like you said, dead is dead. Dan had already been branded a pedophile, and well, you told me that Dan wouldn't care about being rehabilitated. He didn't believe in an afterlife."
"That's all true."
"The phone records showed the only people Dan called were you and his lawyer, Flair Hickory. You were the only one he trusted. You knew where he was. You still had Haley's iPhone. So why not? Pin it on a dead man."
"He couldn't be hurt anymore. Don't you see that?"
In a terrible way, this part made sense. You can't hurt a dead man.
"You plugged Ringwood State Park into Google Earth on Haley's iPhone. That was another clue. Why, if Dan killed her and buried her there, would she have looked up that park? There'd be no reason. The only conclusion I could draw was that Haley's killer wanted her body found."
"Not her killer," Jenna said. "It was an accident."
"I'm really not up for a semantics lesson here, Jenna. But why did you put Ringwood State Park into Google Earth?"
"Because despite what you think, I'm not a monster. I saw Ted and Marcia-the torment they were going through. I saw what the not knowing was doing to them."
"You did it for them?"
Jenna turned to her. "I wanted to give them some measure of peace. I wanted their daughter to have a true burial."
"Nice of you."
"Your sarcasm," Jenna said.
"What about it?"
"It's a cover. What we did was bad. It was wrong. But you also understand it on some level. You're a mother. We do what we have to do to protect our children."
"We don't bury dead girls in the woods."
"No? So you wouldn't, no matter what? Suppose Charlie's life was at stake. I know you lost your husband. Suppose he was there, on his way to jail for an accident. What would you have done?"
"I wouldn't have buried a girl in the woods."
"Well, what would you have done? I want to know."
Wendy did not answer. For a moment she let herself imagine it. John still alive. Charlie coming upstairs. The girl dead on the floor. She didn't have to wonder what she would have done. There was no reason to take it that far.
"Her death was an accident," Jenna said again, her voice soft.
Wendy nodded. "I know."
"Do you understand why we did what we did? I'm not saying you have to agree. But do you understand?"
"I guess on some level I do."
Jenna looked at her with a tearstained face. "So what are you going to do now?"
"What would you do if you were me?"
"I would let it be." Jenna reached out and took Wendy's hand. "Please. I beg you. Just let it be."
Wendy thought about that. She had come here feeling one way. Had her opinion shifted? Again she pictured John alive. She pictured Charlie coming up the stairs. She pictured the girl dead on the floor.
"I'm not up for being judge and jury," she said, flashing now on Ed Grayson, on what he'd done. "It's not my place to punish you. But it's not my place to absolve you either."
"What does that mean?"
"I'm sorry, Jenna."
Jenna stepped back. "You can't prove any of this. I'll deny this whole conversation took place."
"You could try, but I don't think that will help you."
"It will be your word against mine."
"No, it won't," Wendy said. She gestured toward the gate. Frank Tremont and two other police detectives came around the corner.
"I lied before," Wendy said, opening up her shirt. "I am wired."