Authors: Harlan Coben
When that happened, and only when that happened, would the rest of them have a chance to survive.
But the sad truth was, it wasn't as though Marcia spent all day looking for Haley. She tried, but a horrible exhaustion kept creeping in. Marcia wanted to stay in bed in the morning. Her limbs felt heavy. Even now, making this odd pilgrimage down the corridor was difficult for her.
Up ahead Marcia could start making out Haley's locker. A few days after the disappearance, some friends started decorating the metallic front like one of those curbside shrines you see when someone dies in a car crash. There were photos and wilting flowers and crosses and notes. "Come home, Haley!" "We miss you!" "We will wait for you." "We love you!"
Marcia stopped and stared. She reached out and touched the combination lock, thinking about how many times Haley must have done the same thing, getting her books out, dumping her backpack onto the bottom, hanging up her coat, chatting with a friend, discussing lacrosse or maybe what boy she had a crush on.
A noise came from down the corridor. She turned and saw the principal's office door open. Pete Zecher, the high school principal, stepped out with what Marcia assumed was a set of parents. She didn't know either of them. No one spoke. Pete Zecher stuck out his hand, but neither parent took it. They turned and moved quickly toward the stairs. Pete Zecher watched them disappear, shook his head, and turned toward the locker.
He spotted her. "Marcia?"
Pete Zecher was a good principal, wonderfully accessible and willing to break the rules or piss off a teacher if it was best for the kid. Pete had grown up here in Kasselton, gone to this very high school, and his lifelong dream had been achieved when he landed the principal's job here.
He started toward her. "Am I intruding?"
"Not at all." Marcia forced up a smile. "I just wanted to escape the stares for a bit."
"I saw the dress rehearsal," Pete said. "Patricia is really great."
"That's nice to hear."
He nodded. They both looked at the locker. Marcia saw a decal with the words "Kasselton Lacrosse" and two crossed sticks. She had one on her car's back window.
"So what was up with those two parents?" she asked.
Pete gave her a small smile. "Confidential."
"But I could tell you a hypothetical."
"When you were in high school, did you ever drink alcohol?" he asked.
"I was kind of a good girl," Marcia said, almost adding, "like Haley." "But yes, we used to sneak beers."
"How did you get them?"
"The beers? My neighbor had an uncle who owned a liquor store. How about you?"
"I had a mature-looking friend named Michael Wind," Pete said. "You know the type--shaving when he was in sixth grade. He'd buy the booze. That wouldn't work now. Everyone gets carded."
"So what does that have to do with our hypothetical couple?"
"People think that the way kids get alcohol nowadays is with fake IDs. There are some examples of that, but in my years I've confiscated less than five. And yet drinking is a bigger problem now than ever."
"So how do the kids get it?"
Pete looked toward where the couple had just been standing. "From the parents."
"Kids sneaking into their liquor cabinet?"
"I wish. The couple I was just talking to--hypothetically--were the Milners. Nice people. He sells insurance in the city. She has a boutique in Glen Rock. They have four kids, two in the high school. Their oldest is on the baseball team."
"So on Friday night these two nice, caring parents bought a keg and held a party for the baseball team in their basement. Two of the boys got drunk and egged another kid's house. One got so wasted he almost had to have his stomach pumped."
"Wait. The parents bought the keg?"
"And that was what you were meeting about?"
"What did they say in their defense?"
"They offered up the most common excuse I get: Hey, kids are going to drink anyway--might as well be sure they do it in a safe environment. The Milners don't want the kids going into New York City or someplace else unsafe, maybe driving after they drink, whatever. So they let the team get bombed in their basement, contained, where they can't get in too much trouble."
"It makes sense on some level."
"Would you do it?" he asked.
Marcia thought about it. "No. But last year we took Haley and a friend of hers to Tuscany. We let them have wine at the vineyards. Was that wrong?"
"It's not against the law in Italy."
"That seems a fine line, Pete."
"So you don't think what these parents did was wrong?"
"I think they were dead wrong," Marcia said. "And their excuse also rings a little hollow--buying kids booze? That's about more than keeping their children safe. That's about wanting to be the cool, hip parents. Wanting to be the kid's friend first and parent second."
"But then again," Marcia said, turning back to the locker, "who am I to be giving parenting advice?"
"What's the gossip?"
"I'm not sure I know what you mean."
"Yeah, you do. When you guys talk about it--teachers, students, whatever--do they think Haley was abducted or do they think she ran away?"
More silence. She could see he was thinking.
"No filter, Pete. And please don't humor me."
"I have nothing but my gut to go on."
Posters were up in the corridors now. The prom wasn't far away. Graduation too. Pete Zecher's eyes traveled back to Haley's locker. Marcia followed his gaze and spotted a photograph that made her stop. Her whole family minus her--Ted, Haley, Patricia, and Ryan--stood with Mickey Mouse at Disney World. Marcia had taken the photo with Haley's iPhone in its pink case with the purple flower decal. The vacation had taken place three weeks before Haley vanished. The police had given the trip a cursory glance, wondering whether somehow someone she had met on that trip could have followed Haley home, but that thread had gone nowhere. But Marcia remembered how happy Haley was down there, no pressure, every person just a happy kid for a few days. The picture had been a spontaneous thing. The line for Mickey was usually half an hour long, little kids queuing up with "autograph" books for Mickey to stamp, but Haley noticed that there was no line for this particular Mickey in Epcot Center. Her face split into a smile and Haley grabbed her siblings and said, "Come on! Let's do a quick pic!" Marcia insisted on being the photographer, and she remembered the roar of emotion she felt as her entire family, her whole world, gathered around Mickey in happy harmony. She looked at the picture now, remembered that small perfect moment, and stared at Haley's heart-splitting smile.
"You think you know a kid," Pete Zecher said. "But they all have secrets."
Pete spread his hands. "Look down that row of lockers. I know this sounds obvious, but every one belongs to a kid with dreams and expectations, going through a hard, crazy time. Adolescence is a war, filled with pressures both imagined and real. Social, academic, athletic--and all the while you're changing and your hormones are out of whack. All those lockers, all those troubled individuals trapped for seven hours a day in this place. My background is science and whenever I'm here, I imagine those particles from the lab trapped under intense heat. How they need to escape."
"So," Marcia said, "you think Haley ran away?"
Pete Zecher kept his eyes on the photograph from Disney World. He too seemed to focus on that heart-splitting smile. Then he turned away and she saw tears in his eyes.
"No, Marcia, I don't think she ran away. I think something happened to her. Something bad."
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."