WENDY WOKE UP in the morning and flipped on the panini maker, which was a fancy way of saying "toasted sandwich maker" or "George Foreman Grill." It had quickly become the most important machine in the house, and she and Charlie pretty much lived on paninis. She put some bacon and cheese between slices of nice whole wheat bread from Trader Joe's and lowered the heated top.
As he did every morning, Charlie thudded down the stairs as if he were an overweight racing horse wearing anvil shoes. He collapsed more than sat at the kitchen table and inhaled the sandwich.
"When you going to work?" Charlie asked her.
"I lost my job yesterday."
The selfishness of teenagers. Sometimes, like right at that moment, it can be endearing.
"Can you give me a ride to school?" Charlie asked.
The morning drop-off traffic by Kasselton High was ridiculously congested. Some days it drove her mad, but other days, the morning commute was the one time she and her son might talk and maybe he'd share his thoughts, not in an open gush, but if you listened, you could pick up enough. Today, though, Charlie had his head down and texted. He didn't say a word the whole ride, his fingers a blur on the tiny handheld.
When she stopped, Charlie rolled out of the passenger door, still texting.
Wendy called out to him: "Thanks, Mom!"
As Wendy pulled back into her own driveway, she spotted the car parked in front of her house. She slowed, pulled in to park, kept her cell phone nearby. She didn't expect trouble, but you never know. She punched in 9-1-1, kept her finger near the send button, and she slid out of the car.
He was now squatting by her back bumper.
"Tire's low," he said to her.
"Can I help you, Mr. Grayson?"
Ed Grayson, the father of one of the victims, stood, wiped his hands, squinted into the sunshine. "I went to your TV studio today. Someone told me you were fired."
She said nothing.
"I assume it's because of the judge's decision."
"Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Grayson?"
"I want to apologize for what I said to you after court yesterday."
"I appreciate that," she said.
"And if you have a minute," Ed Grayson continued, "I really think we need to talk."
AFTER THEY WERE BOTH INSIDE and Ed Grayson turned down her offer of a drink, Wendy sat at her kitchen table and waited. Grayson paced a few more moments, then suddenly pulled the kitchen chair right up to her, so that he was sitting less than a yard away.
"First," he said, "I want to apologize again."
"No need. I get how you feel."
She said nothing.
"My son's name is E. J. Ed Junior, of course. He was a happy kid. Loved sports. His favorite was hockey. Me, I don't know the first thing about the game. I was a basketball guy growing up. But my wife, Maggie, was born in Quebec. Her whole family plays. It's in their blood. So I learned to love it too. For my boy. But now, well, now E. J. has no interest in the sport. If I bring him near a hockey rink, he freaks out. He just wants to stay home."
He stopped, looked off. Wendy said, "I'm sorry."
Wendy tried to shift gears. "What were you talking to Flair Hickory about?"
"His client hasn't been seen in over two weeks," he said.
"So I was trying to find out where he might be. But Mr. Hickory wouldn't tell me."
"That surprise you?"
"Not really, no."
"So what can I do for you, Mr. Grayson?"
Grayson started playing with his watch, a Timex with one of those twist-a-flex bands. Wendy's father had one way back when. It always left a red mark on his wrist when he took it off. Funny, all these years after his death, what you remember.
"Your TV show," Grayson said. "You spent a year hunting down pedophiles. Why?"
"What's the difference?"
He tried to smile, but it didn't quite hold. "Humor me," he said.
"Good ratings, I guess."
"Sure, I can see that. But there's more, isn't there?"
"Ed," he said.
"Let's stay with Mr. Grayson. I would like you to get to the point."
"I know what happened to your husband."
Just like that. Wendy felt the slow burn, said nothing.
"She's out, you know. Ariana Nasbro."
Hearing the name said out loud made her wince. "I know."
"Think she's all cured now?"
Wendy thought about the letters, about how they turned her stomach.
"She could be," Grayson said. "I've known people who've kicked it at this stage. But that doesn't really matter much to you, does it, Wendy?"
"This is none of your business."
"That's true. But Dan Mercer is. You have a son, don't you?"
"Also none of your business."
"Guys like Dan," he went on. "One thing we know for certain. They don't get cured." He moved a little closer, tilted his head. "Isn't that part of it, Wendy?"
"Part of what?"
"Why you liked going after pedophiles. Alcoholics, well, they can quit. Pedophiles are simpler-there really is no chance for redemption and thus forgiveness."
"Do me a favor, Mr. Grayson. Don't psychoanalyze me. You don't know a damn thing about me."
He nodded. "Fair point."
"So get to yours."
"It's pretty simple. If Dan Mercer isn't stopped, he will hurt another child. That's a fact. We both know it."
"You should probably be telling this to the judge."
"She can't do me any good now."
"And I can?"
"You're a reporter. A good one."
"A fired one."
"More reason to do this."
Ed Grayson leaned forward. "Help me find him, Wendy."
"So you can kill him?"
"He won't stop."
"So you said."
"But I don't want to be part of your plans for revenge."
"You think that's what it's about?"
"It's not a question of vengeance," Grayson said, his voice low. "Just the opposite, in fact."
"I'm not following."
"This decision is calculated. It's practical. It's about taking no chances. I want to make sure that Dan Mercer never hurts anyone ever again."
"By killing him?"
"Do you know another way? This isn't about bloodlust or violence either. We are all human beings, but if you do something like this-if your own genetics or pathetic life are so messed up that you need to harm a child-well, the most humane thing you can do is put a man down."
"Must be nice to be judge and jury."
Ed Grayson looked almost amused by that. "Did Judge Howard make the right call?"
"So who better than us-the ones in the know?"
She thought about that. "Yesterday, after court. Why did you say I lied?"
"Because you did. You weren't worried about Mercer killing himself. You went inside because you were afraid he might destroy the evidence."
Ed Grayson stood, crossed the kitchen, stopped at the sink. "Do you mind if I take some water?"
"Help yourself. The glasses are on the left."
He took one down from the cabinet and turned on the faucet. "I have a friend," Grayson began, watching the water fill the glass. "Nice guy, works as a lawyer, very successful. So a few years ago, he told me that he was a big supporter of the Iraq war. Gave me all the reasons and how the Iraqis deserve a chance at freedom. I said to him, 'You have a son, right?' He says, yes, he's going to Wake Forest. I say, 'Be honest, would you sacrifice his life for this war?' I asked him to really dig deep. Pretend God comes down and says, 'Okay, here's the deal. The USA wins the war in Iraq, whatever that means, but in return, your son gets shot in the head and dies. Just him. No one else. Everyone else goes home safe, but your son dies.' So I ask my friend: Do you make that trade?"
Ed Grayson turned and took a deep sip.
"What did he say?" she asked.
"What would you say, Wendy?"
"I'm not your lawyer friend who backed the war."
"What a cop-out answer." Grayson smiled. "In truth, in those honest moments in the dark, none of us would make that trade, would we? None of us would sacrifice our own child."
"People send their children to war every day."
"Sure, right, you might be willing to send them to war, but not to death. There's a difference, albeit one that includes a strong dose of self-denial. You may be willing to roll the dice, to play the odds because you don't really believe your child will be the one to die. That's different. That's not a choice, like I'm talking about."
He looked at her.
"Are you waiting for applause?" she asked.
"You don't agree?"
"Your hypothetical belittles sacrifice," Wendy said. "And it's nonsense."
"Well, yes, perhaps it is unfair, I grant you that. But for us, Wendy, right now, there is an element of it that is very real. Dan isn't going to hurt my child again, and your son is too old for him. Are you going to let it go because your child is safe? Does that give you or me the right to wash our hands of this-because it's not our child?"
She said nothing.
Ed Grayson rose. "You can't wish this away, Wendy."
"I'm not big on vigilantism, Mr. Grayson."
"That's not what this is."
"Sounds like it."
"Think about this then." Grayson stared at her, made sure she was looking at him and giving him her full attention. "If you could go back in time and find Ariana Nasbro-"
"Stop," she said.
"If you could go back to her first DUI or her second or even her third-"
"You need to shut the hell up right now."
Ed Grayson nodded, satisfied, it seemed, that he'd drawn blood. "I think it's time I left." He moved out of the kitchen and toward the front door. "Think about it, okay? That's all I ask. You and I are on the same side here, Wendy. I think you know that."
After Grayson left, Wendy kept trying to forget that damn letter sitting in her waste bin.
She snapped on her iPod for a while, closed her eyes, tried to let the music calm her down. She put on her calm sound track, the one with Thriving Ivory singing "Angels on the Moon" and William Fitzsimmons doing "Please Forgive Me" and David Berkeley playing "High Heels and All." It didn't help, all these songs about forgiveness. She went the other route, changed into workout clothes, cranked up everything from childhood songs like "Shout" by Tears for Fears to The Hold Steady doing "First Night" to Eminem's "Lose Yourself."
It wasn't working. Ed Grayson's words kept chasing her...
"If you could go back in time and find Ariana Nasbro..."
She would do it. No questions asked. Wendy would go back in time and hunt the bitch down and cut off her head and dance around Nasbro's still-twitching torso.
Nice thought, but there you are.
Wendy checked her e-mail. True to his word, Dan Mercer had sent her the meeting place for two PM: an address in Wykertown, New Jersey. Never heard of it. She got directions from Google. It would take an hour. Fine. She had almost four.
She showered and got dressed. The letter. That damn letter. She ran downstairs, dug through the garbage, and found the plain white envelope. Her eyes studied the penmanship, as though that might offer up some clue. It didn't. A knife from the kitchen block worked just fine as a letter opener. Wendy pulled out two sheets of lined notebook paper, plain white, the same kind she'd used in school as a kid.
Still standing, Wendy read Ariana Nasbro's letter right there-every damn horrible word-at the kitchen sink. There were no surprises, no real insight, nothing but the all-about-me crap we are spoon-fed from day one. Every cliche, every namby-pamby sentiment, every hackneyed excuse... they were all present and accounted for. Each word felt like a blade ripping into her flesh. Ariana Nasbro talked about the "seeds of my own self-image," about "making amends," about "searching for meaning" and "hitting rock bottom." Pathetic. She even had the nerve to talk about "the abuse in my life and how I've learned to forgive" and "the wonders of that-forgiveness" and how she wanted to grant that "wonder to others like you and Charlie."
Seeing this woman write her son's name filled Wendy with rage like nothing else ever could.
"I will always be an alcoholic," Ariana Nasbro said toward the end of her diatribe. Another I. I will, I am, I want. The letter was full of them.
I, I, I.
I know now that I am an imperfect being worthy of forgiveness.
Wendy wanted to puke.
And then the last line of the letter.
This is my third letter to you. Please let me hear from you, so that the healing may begin. May God bless you.
Oh, man, Wendy thought, you'll hear from me. Right friggin' now.
She grabbed her keys and stormed to her car. Wendy plugged the return address into her GPS and headed toward the halfway house where Ariana Nasbro currently resided.
The halfway house was in New Brunswick, normally an hour away but with her foot pushing the pedal, Wendy made it in less than forty-five minutes. She threw the car into park and stormed through the front door. She told the woman at the desk her name and said she would like to see Ariana Nasbro. The woman at the desk asked her to take a seat. Wendy said that she would stand, thanks anyway.
A few moments later, Ariana Nasbro appeared. Wendy had not seen her in seven years, since the trial for vehicular manslaughter. Ariana had looked scared then, pitiful, her shoulders hunched, her hair a wild mousy brown, her eyes blinking as though she expected to be smacked unawares.
This woman, the postprison Ariana Nasbro, was different. Her hair was short and white. She stood straight and still and met Wendy's eye. She stuck out her hand and said, "Thank you for coming, Wendy."
Wendy ignored the outstretched hand. "I didn't come for you."
Ariana tried a smile. "Would you like to take a walk?"
"No, Ariana, I don't want to take a walk. In your letters-the first two I ignored but I guess you can't take a hint-you asked me how you could make amends."
"So I'm here to tell you: Don't send me your self-involved AA nonsense. I don't care. I don't want to forgive you so you can heal or recover or whatever the hell you call it. I have no interest in your getting better. This isn't the first time you've tried AA, is it?"
"No," Ariana Nasbro said, her head held high, "it's not."
"You tried it twice before you murdered my husband, isn't that right?"
"That's correct," she said in too calm a voice.
"Have you reached Step Eight before?"
"I have. But this time it's different because-"
Wendy stopped her with a raised hand. "I don't care. The fact that this time it might be different means nothing to me. I don't care about you or your recovery or about Step Eight, but if you truly want to make amends, I suggest you walk outside, wait by the curb, and throw yourself under the first passing bus. I know that sounds harsh, but if you had done that the last time you reached Step Eight-if whatever wronged person you sent this same me-me-me crap to had told you to do that instead of forgiving you-maybe, just maybe, you would have listened and you'd be dead and my John would be alive. I would have a husband and Charlie would have a father. That's what matters. Not you. Not your six-months-sober party at AA. Not your spiritual journey to sobriety. So if you truly want to make amends, Ariana, stop putting yourself first for once. Are you cured-totally cured, absolutely one hundred percent positive you'll never drink again?"
"You're never cured," Ariana said.
"Right, more of that AA nonsense. We really don't know about tomorrow, do we? So that's how you should make amends. Stop writing letters, stop talking about yourself in group, stop taking it a day at a time. Instead, do the one thing that will guarantee you'll never murder another child's father: Wait for that bus and step right in front of it. Other than that, leave me and my son the hell alone. We will never forgive you. Not ever. And how selfish and monstrous of you to think we should so you, of all people, can heal."
With that, Wendy turned around, headed back to her car, and started it up.
She was done with Ariana Nasbro. Now it was time to see Dan Mercer.