BY THE TIME WENDY TURNED THE CAR around and drove back to the trailer, three Sussex County squad cars were on the scene. There was an officer covering the perimeter.
"Are you the lady who called this in?" the officer asked.
"Are you okay, ma'am?"
"Do you require any medical assistance?"
"No, I'm fine."
"You said on the phone that the perpetrator was armed?"
"And that he was alone?"
"Please come with me."
He led her to a squad car and opened the back door. She hesitated.
"For your safety, ma'am. You're not under arrest or anything."
She slid into the back. The officer closed the door and took the driver's seat. He kept the engine turned off and continued peppering her with questions. Every once in a while he would hold up his hand to stop her and radio some of what she'd said to, Wendy assumed, another officer. She told him everything she knew, including her suspicion that the perpetrator was Ed Grayson.
More than half an hour passed when another officer, this one huge, three-hundred-plus pounds, and African American, approached the vehicle. He wore an untucked Hawaiian shirt that on a normal-size person could double as a muumuu. He opened the back door.
"Ms. Tynes, I'm Sheriff Mickey Walker of the Sussex County Police Department. Would you mind stepping out of the vehicle?"
"Did you catch him?"
Walker did not reply. He waddled toward the entrance to the trailer park. Wendy hurried behind him. She saw another officer questioning a man in a wife-beater T and boxers.
He did not slow down. "You said you believe the man wearing a ski mask was named Ed Grayson?"
"And that he arrived after you did?"
"Do you know what kind of car he was driving?"
She thought about it. "I didn't see, no."
Walker nodded as though this was the answer he'd been expecting. They arrived at the trailer. Walker pushed on the screen door and bent down to squeeze inside. Wendy trailed. Two other uniformed officers were already there. Wendy looked across the trailer where Dan had fallen.
She turned to Walker. "You already removed the body?" But she knew the answer. No ambulance or crime scene vans or hearses had driven past her.
"There was no body," he answered.
"I don't understand."
"No Ed Grayson or anyone else either. The trailer is exactly as it was when we entered."
Wendy pointed to the far corner. "He was lying there. Dan Mercer. I'm not making it up."
She stared at where the body had been, thinking, Oh no, this couldn't be. She flashed to that movie/TV scene you've seen a million times, the dead body gone, the pleading woman saying, "But you must believe me!" and nobody does. Wendy's eyes moved back toward the big cop to see his reaction. She expected skepticism, but Walker surprised her.
"I know you're not making it up," he said.
She had been ready to launch into a prolonged argument, but now there was no need. She waited.
"Take a deep breath," Walker said. "Smell anything?"
She did. "Gunpowder?"
"Yep. Fairly recent, I'd guess. More than that, there's a bullet hole in the wall over there. Went clean through. We found the slug outside in a cinder block. Looks like a thirty-eight, but we'll know more later. Now I want you to look around the room and tell me if you notice anything different from when you ran out." He paused, gestured awkwardly. "Except, you know, for the no dead body and all."
Wendy spotted it right away. "The carpet is gone."
Again Walker nodded as though he'd already known what she'd say. "What sort of carpet?"
"Orange shag. That's where Mercer fell after he was shot."
"And that carpet was in the corner? Where you pointed before?"
"Let me show you something."
Walker took up a lot of room in the tiny trailer. They crossed the room, and Walker pointed a beefy finger at the wall. Wendy could see the bullet hole, neat and small. Walker wheezed as he bent down to where the body had fallen.
"Do you see this?"
Small curls of orange shag, like thin Cheetos, littered the floor. That was great-evidence she'd been telling the truth-but that wasn't what Walker wanted to show her. She followed his finger.
Not a lot. Certainly not all that had poured out when Dan Mercer had been shot. But enough. More of the orange shag remnants were caught up in the sticky liquid.
"Must have bled through the carpet," Wendy said.
Walker nodded. "We have a witness outside who spotted a man putting a rolled-up carpet in the back of his vehicle-a black Acura MDX, New Jersey plates. We already called DMV on Edward Grayson of Fair Lawn, New Jersey. He owns a black Acura MDX."
FIRST THEY CUED up the theme music. Very dramatic. Bah-dahduuumm...
Wearing a black robe, Hester Crimstein opened the door and strode lionlike toward the judge's seat. The drumbeat picked up as she grew closer. The famous voice-over, the same one who did all the "In a world" movies before he passed away, said, "All rise and rise now, Judge Hester Crimstein presiding."
Smash to title: CRIMSTEIN'S COURT.
Hester took her seat. "I've reached a verdict."
The female chorus, the same ones who sing the quick radio call letters like, "One oh two point seven... New Yoooorkkkk," sang, "It's verdict time!"
Hester tried not to sigh. She had been taping her new TV show for three months now, leaving the cable-news confines of Crimstein on Crime, her show that dealt with "real cases"-real cases being a euphemism for celebrity wrongdoings, missing white teens, politicians' adultery.
Her "bailiff" was named Waco. He was a retired stand-up comic. Yes, for real. This was a TV set, not a courtroom, though it looked like one. While not exactly a trial, Hester did preside over a legal proceeding of a certain kind. The two parties sign a contract for arbitration. The producers pay the settlement, and both the plaintiff and the defendant are paid a hundred dollars a day. It's win-win.
Reality shows have a bad rap and deserve them, but what most ably demonstrated, especially the ones involving either courtship or courts, was that this remains a man's world. Take the defendant, Reginald Pepe. Please. Big Reg, as he liked to be called, had allegedly borrowed two grand from the defendant, Miley Badonis, his girlfriend at the time. Big Reg claimed it was a gift, telling the court, "Chicks like to give me stuff-what can I say?" Big Reg was fifty years old, weighed a paunchy two-fifty, and wore a mesh shirt that gave his chest hairs enough room to curl through. He wasn't wearing a bra but should have been. His hair was gelled into a spike that made him look like the latest anime cartoon villain, and there were gold chains around his neck, dozens of them. Big Reg's wide face, emphasized by the sad fact that Hester's show now filmed in high def, contained enough craters to make one search for a lunar rover on his right cheek.
Miley Badonis, the plaintiff, was at least two decades younger, and while nobody would be speed-dialing the Elite modeling agency upon gazing at her, she was, well, fine. But she had been so anxious to get a man, any man, that she gave Big Reg money with nary a question.
Big Reg was twice divorced, separated from his third wife, and had two other women with him today. Both women wore navel-revealing tube tops, and neither had the figure for it. The tube tops appeared so tight they squeezed all flesh south, giving both women a gourdlike shape.
"You." Hester pointed at the tube top on the right.
Somehow, despite the word being one syllable, she had managed to crack gum mid-word.
"Yes. Step forward. What are you doing here?"
"Why are you here with Mr. Pepe?"
Waco, her hilarious bailiff, started singing, "If I only had a brain..." from The Wizard of Oz. Hester shot him a look. "Timely reference, Waco."
Waco went silent.
The tube top on the left stepped forward. "If it pleases the court, Your Honor, we're here as friends of Big Reg."
Hester glanced at Big Reg. "Friends?"
Big Reg arched an eyebrow as if to say, Right, sure, friends.
Hester leaned forward. "I'm going to give both of you ladies some advice. If this man here works hard to educate and better himself, he may one day rise to the level of total loser."
Big Reg said, "Hey, Judge!"
"Quiet, Mr. Pepe." She kept her eyes on both girls. "I don't know what your deal is, ladies, but this I do know: This isn't the way to get revenge on Daddy. Do you two know what a skank is?"
Both girls looked confused.
"Let me help you," Hester said. "You two are skanks."
Miley Badonis shouted, "Tell them, Judge!"
Hester cut her eyes toward the voice. "Ms. Badonis, do you know anything about throwing stones and glass houses?"
"Then shut up and listen." Hester turned back to the tube tops. "Do you two know the definition of a skank?"
"It's like a slut," the tube top on the left said.
"Yes. And no. A slut is a promiscuous girl. A skank, which in my mind is far worse, is any girl who would touch a man like Reginald Pepe. In short, Ms. Badonis is proudly on her way to not being a skank. Both of you have the same opportunity. I'm begging you to take it."
They wouldn't. Hester had seen it all before. She turned to the defendant.
"I would tell you what my grandmother used to say to me: You can't ride two horses with one behind-"
"You can if you do it right, Judge, heh heh heh."
"I would tell you," Hester continued, "but you're beyond hope. I would call you pond scum, Mr. Pepe, but really, is that fair to scum? Scum really doesn't hurt anybody while you, being a miserable excuse for a human being, will leave nothing but a lifetime of waste and destruction in your path. Oh, and skanks."
"Hey," Big Reg said, spreading his hands and smiling, "you're hurting my feelings."
Yep, Hester thought. A man's world. She turned back to the plaintiff. "Unfortunately, Ms. Badonis, there is no crime in being a miserable excuse for a human being. You gave him the money. There is no evidence it was a loan. If the roles were reversed-if you were a butt-ugly man who gave money to a somewhat attractive albeit naive younger woman-this wouldn't even be a case. In short, I find for the defendant. And I find him disgusting. Court adjourned."
Big Reg whooped with delight. "Hey, Judge, if you're not busy-"
The theme music started up again, but Hester wasn't paying attention to that. Her cell phone rang. When she saw the incoming number, she hurried offstage and picked it up.
"Where are you?" she asked.
"I'm just pulling up to my house," Ed Grayson said. "And from the looks of it, I'm about to get arrested."
"You went where I suggested?" Hester asked.
"Okay, good. Invoke your right to counsel and shut up. I'm on my way."