MARCIA MCWAID SAT ON THE COUCH next to Ted. Across from them was Frank Tremont, an Essex County investigator there to deliver their weekly briefing on the case of her missing daughter. Marcia already knew what he would say.
Frank Tremont wore a suit of chipmunk brown and a threadbare tie that looked like it had spent the past four months crinkled in a tight ball. He was in his sixties, near retirement, and had that seen-it-all, world-weary aura that you find in anyone who has been at the same job too long. When Marcia had first asked around, she'd heard rumors that Frank might be past his prime, might be coasting through his last few months on the job.
But Marcia never saw any of that, and at least Tremont was still here, still visiting them, still in touch. There used to be others with him, federal agents and experts in missing persons and assorted members of law enforcement. Their numbers had dwindled over the last ninety-four days until it was just this lone, aging cop with the horrible suit.
In the early days, Marcia had tried to busy herself by offering the various officers coffee and cookies. There was no such pretense anymore. Frank Tremont sat across from them, these clearly suffering parents, in their lovely suburban home, and wondered, she knew, how to tell them, yet again, that there was nothing new to report on their missing daughter.
"I'm sorry," Frank Tremont said.
As expected. Almost on cue.
Marcia watched Ted lean back. He tilted his face up, his eyes blinking back tears. She knew that Ted was a good man, a wonderful man, a great husband and father and provider. But he was, she had learned, not a particularly strong man.
Marcia kept her eyes on Tremont. "So what next?" she asked.
"We keep on looking," he said.
"How?" Marcia asked. "I mean, what else can be done?"
Tremont opened his mouth, stopped, closed it. "I don't know, Marcia."
Ted McWaid let the tears flow. "I don't get it," he said, as he had many times before. "How can you guys not have anything?"
Tremont just waited.
"With all the technology, all the advancements and the Internet..."
Ted's voice trailed off. He shook his head. He didn't get it. Still. Marcia did. It didn't work that way. Before Haley, they'd been a typically naive American family whose knowledge of (and thus faith in) law enforcement was derived from a lifetime of watching TV shows in which all cases get solved. The well-groomed actors find a hair or a footprint or a skin flake, they put it under a microscope, and presto, the answer comes to light before the hour mark. But that wasn't reality. Reality, Marcia now knew, was better found on the news. The cops in Colorado, for example, still hadn't found the killer of that little beauty queen, JonBenet Ramsey. Marcia remembered the headlines when Elizabeth Smart, a pretty fourteen-year-old girl, had been abducted from her bedroom late one night. The media had been all over that kidnapping, the whole world transfixed, all eyes watching as the police and FBI agents and all those crime scene "experts" combed through Elizabeth's Salt Lake City home in search of the truth-and yet for more than nine months, no one thought to check out a crazy homeless man with a God complex who'd worked in the house, even though Elizabeth's sister had seen him that night? If you'd put that on CSI or Law & Order the viewer would toss the remote across the room, claiming it was "unrealistic." But sugarcoat it as you might, that was the kind of thing that happened all the time.
The reality, Marcia now knew, was that even idiots get away with major crimes.
The reality was, none of us are safe.
"Do you have anything new to tell me?" Tremont tried. "Anything at all?"
"We've told you everything," Ted said.
Tremont nodded, his expression extra hangdog today. "We've seen other cases like this, where a missing teenage girl just shows up. She needed to blow off steam or maybe had a secret boyfriend."
He had tried selling this before. Frank Tremont, like everyone else, including Ted and Marcia, wanted this to be a runaway.
"There was another teenage girl from Connecticut," Tremont continued. "Got caught up with the wrong guy and ran away. Three weeks later, she just came back home."
Ted nodded and turned to Marcia to have his hope bolstered. Marcia tried to muster a rosier facade, but there was simply no way. Teddy turned away as though scalded and excused himself.
It was odd, Marcia thought, that she of all people could see clearest. Of course, no parent wants to think that they are so clueless as to miss the signs of a teenager so desperately unhappy or unhinged that she'd run away for three months. The police had magnified every disappointment in her young life: Yes, Haley hadn't gotten into the University of Virginia, her first choice. Yes, she hadn't won the class essay contest or made the AHLISA honors program. And yes, she may have broken up with a boy recently. But so what? Every teen had stuff like that.
Marcia knew the truth, had known it from that first day. To echo the words of Principal Zecher, something had happened to her daughter. Something bad.
Tremont sat there, not sure what to do.
"Frank?" Marcia said.
He looked at her.
"I want to show you something."
Marcia took out the Mickey Mouse photograph she'd found at her daughter's locker and handed it to him. Tremont took his time. He held the picture in his hand. The room was still. She could hear his wheezing breath.
"That picture was taken three weeks before Haley vanished."
Tremont studied the photograph as though it might hold a clue to Haley's disappearance. "I remember. Your family trip to Disney World."
"Look at her face, Frank."
He obeyed, his eyes resting there.
"Do you think that girl, with that smile, just decided to run away and not tell anyone? Do you really think that girl took off on her own and was savvy enough to never use her iPhone or ATM or credit cards?"
"No," Frank Tremont said, "I don't."
"Please keep looking, Frank."
"I will, Marcia. I promise."
WHEN PEOPLE THINK OF NEW JERSEY'S highways, they think of either the Garden State Parkway with its mix of shattered warehouses, unkempt graveyards, and worn two-family dwellings, or they think of the New Jersey Turnpike with its factories and smoke-stacks and mammoth industrial complexes that resemble the nightmarish future in Terminator movies. They don't think of Route 15 in Sussex County, the farmland, the old lake communities, the antique barns, the 4-H Fairgrounds, the old minor league baseball stadium.
Following Dan Mercer's directions, Wendy took Route 15 until it became 206, turned right on a gravel road, drove past the U-Store-It units, and arrived at the trailer park in Wykertown. The park was silent and small and had the kind of ghostly look where you half expect to see a rusted child's swing swaying in the wind. The lots were divided up in a grid. Row D, Column 7 was in the far corner, not far from the chain-link fence.
She got out of the car and was amazed by the quiet. Not a sound. No tumbleweeds blew across the dirt, but maybe they should have. The whole park looked like one of those postapocalyptic towns-the bomb dropped and the residents had evaporated. There were clothes-lines, but nothing on them. Foldout chairs with torn seats littered the grounds. Charcoal barbecues and beach toys looked as though they'd been abandoned in mid-play.
Wendy checked her phone service. No bars. Terrific. She climbed the two cinder-block steps and stopped in front of the trailer door. Part of her-the rational part that knew that she was a mother, not a superhero-told her that she should back up and not be an idiot. She would have pondered that decision further, except suddenly the screen door opened and Dan Mercer was there.
When she saw his face, she took a step back.
"What happened to you?"
"Come on in," Dan Mercer mumbled through a swollen jaw. His nose was flattened. Bruises covered his face, but that wasn't the worst of it. The worst were the clusters of burn circles on his arm and face. One looked as though it had gone all the way through his cheek.
She pointed to one of the circles. "They do that with a cigarette?"
He managed a shrug. "I told them my trailer was a no-smoking zone. It made them angry."
"That was a joke. The no-smoking zone."
"Yeah, I got that. Who assaulted you?"
Dan Mercer shook it off. "Why don't you come in?"
"Why don't we stay out here?"
"Gee, Wendy, don't you feel safe with me? As you so bluntly pointed out, you're hardly my type."
"Still," she said.
"I really don't relish going outside right now," he said.
"Oh, but I insist."
"Then good-bye. Sorry to make you drive all this way for nothing."
Dan let the door close as he disappeared inside. Wendy waited a second, trying to call his bluff. It didn't work. Forgetting the earlier warning bells-he didn't look as though he could do much damage in his current condition anyway-she opened the door and stepped inside. Dan was on the other side of the trailer.
"Your hair," she said.
"What about it?"
Dan's once wavy brown hair was now a horrible shade of yellow some might call blond.
"You dye it yourself?"
"No, I went to Dionne, my favorite colorist in the city."
She almost smiled at that. "Really blends you in."
"I know. I look like I just walked out of an eighties glam-rock video."
Dan moved farther away from the door, toward the back corner of the trailer, almost as if he wanted to hide the bruises. Wendy let go of the door. It slammed shut. The light was dim. Sun streaks slashed across the room. The floor near her was worn linoleum, but a poorly cut rug of orange shag, like something the Brady Bunch would have considered too garish, covered the far quarter of the room.
Dan looked small in the corner, hunched over and broken. What was bizarre, what had angered her so, was that she had tried to do a story on Dan Mercer and his "good works" about a year before her sting showed his true predilections. Before that, Dan had seemed to be that rarest of beasts-the honest-to-God do-gooder, a man who truly wanted to make a difference and, most shockingly, a man who didn't couple that desire with self-aggrandizement.
She had-dare she admit this?-fallen for it. Dan was a handsome man with that unruly brown hair and dark blue eyes, and he had that ability to look at you as though you were the only person in the world. He had focus and charm and a self-deprecating sense of humor, and she could see how these miserable kids must have loved that.
But how had she, a pathologically skeptical reporter, not seen through him?
She had even-again, dare she admit it, even to herself?-hoped that he would ask her out. There had been that great, early attraction when he looked at her, that thunderbolt, and she'd felt sure that she'd sent a bit of a lightning storm his way too.
Beyond creepy to think about that now.
From his spot in the corner, Dan tried to stare at her with that same focus, but it wasn't happening. The seemingly beautiful clarity she'd been fooled by before had been shattered. What was left in its place was pitiful, and even now, even after all she knew, Wendy's instincts told her that he simply could not be the monster that he so obviously was.
But, alas, that was crap. She'd been had by a con man-simple as that. His modesty had been a way to cover up his true self. Call it instinct or women's intuition or going with your gut-whenever Wendy had done that, she had been wrong.
"I didn't do it, Wendy."
More I. Some day she was having.
"Yeah, you told me that on the phone," she said. "Care to elaborate?"
He looked lost, not sure how to continue. "Since my arrest, you've been investigating me, right?"
"You talked to the kids I worked with at the community center, right? How many?"
"What's the difference?"
"How many, Wendy?"
She had a pretty good idea of where he was going with this. "Forty-seven," she said.
"How many of them claimed that I abused them?"
"Zero. Publicly. But there were some anonymous tips."
"Anonymous tips," Dan repeated. "You mean those anonymous blogs that could have been written by anyone, including you."
"Or a scared kid."
"You didn't even believe those blogs enough to air them."
"That's hardly evidence you're innocent, Dan."
"I thought it worked the other way around. Innocent until proven guilty."
She tried not to roll her eyes. This was not a game she wanted to play. Time to turn the tide a bit. "You know what else I found when I was investigating you?"
Dan Mercer seemed to move farther away, almost all the way into the corner. "What?"
"Nothing. No friends, no family, no real connections. Other than your ex-wife, Jenna Wheeler, and the community center, you seem to be pretty much a ghost."
"My parents died when I was young."
"Yes, I know. You grew up in an orphanage in Oregon."
"So there are a lot of holes in your resume."
"I'm being set up, Wendy."
"Right. And yet you showed up at the sting house right on time, correct?"
"I thought I was visiting a kid in trouble."
"My hero. And you just walked right in?"
"Chynna called out to me."
"Her name was Deborah, not Chynna. She's an intern for the station. What a coincidence she sounds like your mystery girl."
"It was from a distance," he said. "That's your setup, isn't it? Like she just came out of the shower?"
"I see. You thought it was a girl named Chynna from your community center, right?"
"Of course, I looked for this Chynna, Dan. Your mystery girl. Just to cross my t's and dot my i's. We had you sit down with our sketch artist."
"I know this."
"And you know that I showed that sketch to everyone in the area-not to mention every employee and resident at your community center. No one knows her, no one saw her, nothing."
"I told you. She came to me in confidence."
"Convenient. And someone also used your laptop from your house to send those horrible messages?"
He said nothing.
"And-help me here, Dan-someone downloaded those photos onto it too, right? Oh, and someone-me perhaps, if we believe your lawyer-hid disgusting pictures of children in your garage."
Dan Mercer closed his eyes, defeated.
"You know what you should do, Dan? Now that you're free, now that the law can't touch you, you should get help. See a therapist."
Dan shook his head and managed a smile.
He looked up at her. "You've been catching pedophiles for two years, Wendy. Don't you know?"
His voice from the corner was a whisper. "You can't cure pedophiles."
Wendy felt the chill. And that was when the trailer door burst open.
She jumped back, the screen nearly slamming into her. A man with a ski mask slid inside. There was a pistol in his right hand.
Dan raised his hands, took another step back. "Don't..."
The man in the ski mask pointed the gun at him. Wendy scrambled back, out of sight, and then, just like that, the man in the ski mask fired.
There had been no warning, no telling Dan not to move or to put his hands in the air, nothing like that. Just the hissing, short boom of gunfire.
Dan spun and went down face-first.
Wendy screamed. She dropped flat behind the old couch, as though that could provide protection. From underneath she could see Dan lying on the floor. No movement. A puddle of blood spread around his head, staining the carpet. The executioner crossed the room. No rush. Casual. Taking a stroll through the park. He stopped where Dan lay. He aimed the gun down toward Dan's head.
And that was when Wendy noticed the watch.
It was a Timex with one of those twist-a-flex bands. Just like her own dad wore. Everything slowed down for a few seconds. The height, Wendy saw now, was right. So too the weight. Then you add in the watch.
It was Ed Grayson.
He fired twice more into Dan's head, a noise like cut-off thuds. Dan's body bucked from the impact. Panic grabbed hold of her. She fought through it. Clear thinking. That was what she needed now.
Two options here.
Option one, talk it out with Grayson. Convince him she was on his side.
Option two, flee. Make for the door, run to her car, get out of here.
There were problems with both options. Option one, for example: Would Grayson believe her? She had turned him away just hours ago, had in fact lied to him, and here she was, secretly meeting with Dan Mercer, a man she'd just seen shot down in cold blood...
Option one wasn't sounding so good, which left...
She scrambled for the open door.
Keeping herself low, she stumbled more than ran out the door.
Not a chance, she thought. She rolled into the sunlight. Keep moving, she thought. Don't slow down.
"Help!" she screamed.
No response. The park was still abandoned.
Ed Grayson came bounding out the door behind her. The gun was in his hand. Wendy kept running. The other trailers were too far in the distance.
The only place to duck and hide was behind her car. Wendy ran for it. Another burst of gunfire. She dived behind the car, using it as a shield. She had left the door unlocked.
What choice did she have? Stay here and let him walk around and shoot her?
She fished into her pocket and got her car remote. She unlocked the door. Even better, when Charlie had gotten his driver's permit, her son had insisted that they get one of the start remotes because on those winter mornings they could let the car warm up from the kitchen. She had bemoaned this indulgence, of course, her pampered son too soft to stand the cold for a few minutes. Now she wanted to kiss him for it.
The car turned on.
Wendy opened the driver's-side door and, head down, got inside. She glanced out the window. The gun was aimed right at the car. She ducked down.
She waited for the sound of shattering glass. Nothing. No time to worry about that now. Lying on her side, she shifted into drive. The car began to move. Using her left hand, she pressed on the gas pedal and drove blindly. She hoped like hell that she wouldn't hit anything.
Ten seconds passed. How far had she driven?
Enough, she figured.
Wendy sat up and slid into the seat. The masked Grayson was in her rearview mirror, running toward her, gun raised.
She slammed on the gas pedal, her head snapping back, and drove until there was no one in the rearview mirror. She grabbed her cell phone. Still no bars. She dialed 9-1-1, hit send anyway, and got the CALL FAILED beep for her trouble. She drove a full mile away. Still no bars. She headed back toward Route 206 and tried again. Nothing.
Three miles later, the call went through.
"What's the nature of your emergency?" a voice said.
"I need to report a shooting."