THAT NIGHT, when it was all done, Wendy sat alone on the porch of her house. Charlie was upstairs on the computer. Pops came out and stood by her chair. They both stared up at the stars. Wendy drank white wine. Pops had a bottle of beer.
"I'm ready to go," he said.
"Not if you have a beer."
"Just having this one."
He sat. "We need to have a little talk first anyway."
She took another sip of the wine. Odd. Alcohol had killed her husband. Alcohol had killed Haley McWaid. Yet here they both were, sitting on a cool, clear spring evening drinking. Some other time, maybe when she was stone-cold sober, Wendy would search for the deeper meaning in that.
"What's up?" she asked.
"I didn't come back to New Jersey just to visit you and Charlie."
She turned to him. "Why then?"
"I came," he said, "because I got a letter from Ariana Nasbro."
Wendy just stared at him.
"I met with her this week. More than once."
"And I'm forgiving her, Wendy. I don't want to hold on to it anymore. I don't think John would want me to. If we don't have compassion, what have we got?"
She said nothing. She thought back to Christa Stockwell, how she had forgiven the college boys who had done her wrong. She said that if you hold on to hate, you lose your grip on so much more. Phil Turnball had learned that lesson the hard way, hadn't he? Revenge, hate-if you hold on to them too tightly, you could lose the important stuff.
On the other hand, Ariana Nasbro wasn't a college kid playing a harmless prank. She had been a drunk driver, a repeat offender, who had killed her husband. Still, Wendy couldn't help but wonder: If Dan Mercer were alive, would he forgive? Were the situations comparable? Did it matter if they were?
"I'm sorry, Pops," she said. "I can't forgive her."
"I'm not asking you to. I respect that. And I want you to respect what I'm doing. Can you do that?"
She thought about it. "Yeah, I think I can."
They sat in comfortable silence.
"I'm waiting," Wendy said.
"For you to tell me about Charlie."
"What about him?"
"Did you tell him why you came back?"
"Not my place," Pops said. He rose and finished packing. An hour later, Pops left. Wendy and Charlie flipped on the television. Wendy sat there for a moment, the images flickering before her. Then she rose and went into the kitchen. When she came back, the envelope was in her hand. She handed it to Charlie.
"What's this?" he asked.
"It's a letter to you from Ariana Nasbro. Read it. If you want to talk about it, I'll be upstairs."
Wendy got ready for bed and left her door open. She waited. Eventually she heard Charlie making his way up the stairs. She braced herself. He poked his head in the doorway and said, "I'm heading to bed."
"Fine. I don't want to talk about it right now, okay? I just want to think a little on my own."
"Good night, Mom."
"Good night, Charlie."
TWO DAYS LATER, right before Kasselton High School girls played Ridgewood for the county championship in lacrosse, a memorial service was held at midfield. A big sign that read HALEY MCWAID'S PARK was hoisted up on the scoreboard during a moment of silence.
Wendy was there. She watched at a distance. Ted and Marcia were there, of course. Their remaining children, Patricia and Ryan, stood with them. Wendy looked at them and felt her heart break all over again. Another sign was hoisted below Haley's name. This one said NOT IN OUR HOUSE, and reminded parents not to host drinking parties. Marcia McWaid looked away as the sign went up. She scanned the crowd then, and her eyes landed on Wendy. She gave Wendy a small nod. Wendy nodded back. That was all.
When the game began, Wendy turned and walked away. Now-retired county investigator Frank Tremont was there too, way in the back, wearing the same rumpled suit he'd worn to the funeral. It had helped for him to know that Haley McWaid was dead before he ever got the case. But right now, it didn't seem to help a lot.
Walker wore his full sheriff uniform for the ceremony, complete with gun and holster. He stood on the blacktop talking to Michele Feisler. Michele was covering the event for NTC. She moved away when she saw Wendy approach, leaving the two of them alone. Walker started shifting his feet nervously.
Walker said, "You okay?"
"I'm fine. Dan Mercer was innocent, you know."
"So that means Ed Grayson murdered an innocent man."
"You can't just let him get away with that. He needs to be brought to justice too."
"Even if he thought Mercer was a pedophile?"
Walker said nothing.
"Did you hear what I said?"
"I did," Walker said. "And I will do my best."
He didn't add "but." He didn't have to. Wendy was doing all she could to rehabilitate Dan's name, but nobody much cared. Dead is dead, after all. Wendy turned toward Michele Feisler. Michele had that pad out again, watching the crowd, jotting down notes like the last time they'd been together.
That reminded her of something.
"Hey," Wendy said to her. "What was that thing about the timeline again?"
"You got the order wrong," Michele said.
"Oh, right. Ed Grayson shot his brother-in-law Lemaine before Mercer."
"Yes. I don't think that changes anything, does it?"
Wendy thought about it, ran it through her head now that she had time.
Actually it changed everything.
She turned toward Walker and saw the gun in his holster. For a moment she just stared at it.
Walker saw what she was doing. "What's wrong?"
"How many slugs did you find at the trailer park?"
"Your crime-tech guys went through the park where Dan Mercer was shot, right?"
"How many slugs did they find?"
"Just the one in that cinder block."
"The one that made the hole in the trailer?"
Wendy started for her car.
Walker said, "Wait, what's going on?"
She didn't reply. She walked back to her car and looked it over. Nothing. Not a mark, not a scratch. Her hand fluttered up toward her mouth. She bit back the scream.
Wendy got in her car and drove to Ed Grayson's house. She found him out back, pulling weeds. He was startled by her sudden approach.
"Whoever killed Dan," she said, "shot at my car."
"You're an expert shot. Everyone says so. I saw you aim at my car and fire several rounds. Yet there isn't a mark on it. In fact, the only slug found in the whole park was the one that went through the wall-the first shot you took. The most obvious place."
Ed Grayson looked up from the dirt. "What are you talking about?"
"How could an expert marksman miss Dan from such close range? How could he miss my car? How could he miss the damn ground? Answer: He couldn't. It was all a ruse."
"Let it go."
They just looked at each other for a moment.
"No way. Dan's death is still on me."
He said nothing.
"And it's ironic when you think about it. When I first got to the trailer, Dan was all bruised from a beating. The cops thought Hester Crimstein had been so clever. She used my testimony to claim that you beat him up-that's how the blood got in your car. What the cops didn't realize was, she was telling the truth. You found Dan. You beat him up because you wanted him to confess. But he didn't, did he?"
"No," Ed Grayson said. "He didn't."
"In fact, you started believing him. You realized that maybe he was innocent."
"So help me here. You came home. What then-did you push E. J. for the truth?"
"Leave it alone, Wendy."
"Come on. You know I can't. Did E. J. come clean and tell you it was his uncle who took the pictures?"
"My wife, okay? She saw me covered in blood. She told me that I had to stop. She told me what happened, that it was her brother who took those pictures. She begged me to let it go. E. J. was moving past it, she said. Her brother was getting help."
"But you weren't going to let it slide."
"No, I wasn't. But I wasn't going to make E. J. testify against his own uncle."
"So you shot him in the kneecaps."
"I'm not dumb enough to answer that one."
"Doesn't matter. We both know you did. And then, what, you called Dan to apologize? Something like that?"
He didn't reply.
"It didn't matter that the judge had thrown the case out," she continued. "My show had destroyed Dan's life. Even now-even after I've come forward and publicly exonerated him-people still think he's a pedophile. Where there's smoke, there's fire, right? He had no chance right then. His life was over. You probably blamed yourself some too, the way you hounded him. So you wanted to make things right."
"Let it go, Wendy."
"And even better, you were a federal marshal. Those are the guys who handle the witness protection program, don't they? You know how to make people disappear."
He did not reply.
"So the solution was pretty simple now. You had to fake his death. You couldn't really find another body or make up a fake police report like you could with your federal subjects. And without a body, you needed a reliable witness-someone who would never side with Dan Mercer. Me. You left enough evidence so the police would believe my story-the one round, his blood, the witness who saw you carry out a carpet, your car at the scene, putting the GPS on my car, even going to the shooting range-but not enough evidence so you could be convicted. You had one real bullet in the gun. That's the first one you shot into the wall. The rest were blanks. Dan probably gave you a blood sample or just intentionally cut himself-that explains the blood left behind. Oh, and even smarter-you found a trailer park where you knew there would be no cell phone service. Your witness would have to drive off. That would give you enough time to sneak Dan out. And when they found that iPhone in his motel room, well, you freaked out for a moment, didn't you? That's why you came up to the park. That's why you wanted information. You were afraid, just for a moment, that maybe you had helped a real killer run away."
She waited for him to say anything. For a moment he just studied her face.
"That's a whale of a tale, Wendy."
"Now, I can't prove any of this-"
"I know," he said. "Because it's nonsense." He almost smiled now. "Or are you hoping to get me on your wire too?"
"I don't have a wire."
He shook his head and started toward his house. She followed him.
"Don't you see? I don't want to prove any of it."
"So why are you here then?"
Tears filled her eyes. "Because I'm responsible for what happened to him. I'm the one who set him up on that television show. I'm the reason the world thinks he's a pedophile."
"I guess that's true."
"And if you killed him, that's on me. Forever. I don't get a do-over. It's my fault. But if you helped him escape, maybe, just maybe, he's okay now. Maybe he'd even understand and..."
She stopped. They were inside the house.
She had trouble getting the words out of her mouth. The tears were coming faster now.
"And what, Wendy?"
"And maybe," she said, "he'd even forgive me."
Ed Grayson lifted the phone then. He dialed a long telephone number. He said some kind of code into the line. He listened for a click. Then he handed the phone to her.