RONALD TILFER HAD no clue what "scar face" meant or what hunt his brother might have been talking about. "He's said that stuff before-about hunts and scar face. Like he does with Himmler. I don't think it means anything."
Wendy headed home, wondering what to do with this quasi-information, feeling more lost than when the day began. Charlie was watching television on the couch.
"Hi," she said.
"What's for dinner?"
"I'm fine, thanks. How about you?"
Charlie sighed. "Aren't we past fake niceties?"
"And general human courtesy, so it seems."
Charlie didn't move.
"You okay?" she asked him, her voice registering more concern than maybe she intended.
"Me? I'm fine, why?"
"Haley McWaid was a classmate."
"Yeah, but I didn't really know her."
"Lots of your classmates and friends were at the funeral."
"I saw Clark and James there."
"So why didn't you want to go?"
"Because I didn't know her."
"Clark and James did?"
"No," Charlie said. He sat up. "Look, I feel terrible. It's a tragedy. But people, even my good friends, get off on being involved, that's all. They didn't show up to pay their respects. They showed up because they thought it'd be cool. They wanted to be part of something. It's all about them, you know what I mean?"
Wendy nodded. "I do."
"Most of the time, that's fine," Charlie said. "But when it comes to a dead girl, sorry, I'm not into that." Charlie put his head back on the pillow and went back to watching television. She stared at him for a moment.
Without so much as glancing in her direction, he sighed again and said, "What?"
"You sounded like your father there."
He said nothing.
"I love you," Wendy said.
"Do I sound like my father when I ask yet again: What's for dinner?"
She laughed. "I'll check the fridge," she said, but she knew that there'd be nothing there and so she'd order. Japanese rolls tonight-brown rice so as to make them healthier. "Oh, one more thing. Do you know Kirby Sennett?"
"Not really. Just in passing."
"Is he a nice guy?"
"No, he's a total tool."
She smiled at that. "I hear he's a small-time drug dealer."
"He's a big-time douche bag." Charlie sat up. "What's with all the questions?"
"I'm just covering another angle on Haley McWaid. There's a rumor the two of them were an item."
"Could you ask around?"
He just looked at her in horror. "You mean like I'm your undercover cub reporter?"
"Bad idea, huh?"
He didn't bother answering-and then Wendy was struck with another idea that on the face of it seemed like a pretty good one. She headed upstairs and signed on to the computer. She did a quick image search and found the perfect picture. The girl in the photograph looked about eighteen, Eurasian, librarian glasses, low-cut blouse, smoking body.
Yep, she'd do.
Wendy quickly created a Facebook page using the girl's picture. She made up a name by combining her two best friends from college-Sharon Hait. Okay, good. Now she needed to friend Kirby.
"What are you doing?"
It was Charlie.
"I'm making up a fake profile."
Charlie frowned. "For what?"
"I'm hoping to lure Kirby into friending me. Then maybe I can start up a conversation with him."
"What, you don't think it'll work?"
"Not with that picture."
"Too hot. She looks like a spam advertising bot."
He sighed. "Companies use photographs like this to spam people. Look, just find a girl who is good-looking but real. You know what I mean?"
"I think so."
"And then make her from, say, Glen Rock. If she's from Kasselton, he'd know her."
"What, you know every girl in this town?"
"Every hot girl? Pretty much. Or I'd have heard of her, at least. So try a town close but not too close. Then say you heard about him from a friend or saw him at the Garden State Plaza mall or something. Oh, maybe give her a real name of a girl in that town, just in case he asks someone or looks up her number or something. Make sure no other picture of her shows up on a Google image search though. Say you just signed up for Facebook and are starting to friend people or he'll wonder why you have no other friends yet. Put in a couple of details under info. Give her a few favorite movies, favorite rock groups."
"Like someone less than a hundred years old." He listed some bands she'd never heard of. Wendy wrote them down.
"Think it will work?" she asked.
"Doubtful, but you never know. At the least he'll friend you."
"And what will that do for me?"
Another sigh. "We already discussed this. Like with that Princeton page. Once he friends you, you can see his entire page. You can see his online pics, his wall postings, his friends, his posts, what games he plays, whatever."
The Princeton page reminded her of something else. She clicked on it, found the "Admin" link, and hit the button to e-mail him. The administrator's name was Lawrence Cherston, "our former class president," according to his little write-up. He wore his Princeton orange-and-black tie in his profile pic. Oy. Wendy typed out a simple message:
Hi, I'm a television reporter doing a story on your class at Princeton and would very much like to meet. Please contact me at any of the below at your convenience.
As she hit send, her cell phone buzzed. She checked and saw an incoming text. It was from Phil Turnball: WE NEED TO TALK.
She typed a reply: SURE, CALL NOW.
There was a delay. Then: NOT ON THE PHONE.
Wendy wasn't sure what to make of that, so she typed: WHY NOT?
MEET IN 30 MIN AT ZEBRA BAR?
Wendy wondered why he'd avoided the question. WHY CAN'T WE TALK ON PHONE?
Longer delay. DON'T TRUST PHONES RIGHT NOW.
She frowned. That seemed a little cloak-and-dagger, but to be fair, Phil Turnball hadn't hit her as the type to overreact. No sense in trying to guess. She'd see him soon enough. She typed in "OK" and then looked back at Charlie.
"What?" he said.
"I have to run to a meeting. Can you order yourself dinner?"
"Tonight is Project Graduation orientation, remember?"
She nearly smacked herself on the forehead. "Damn, I totally forgot."
"At the high school in, oh"-Charlie looked at his wrist though he wore no watch-"less than thirty minutes. And you're on the snack committee or something."
She had, in fact, been put in charge of bringing both sugar/artificial sweetener and milk/nondairy alternatives for the coffee, though modesty prevented her from bragging about it.
Blowing it off was a possibility, but the school took this Project Graduation thing pretty seriously, and she had been, at best, neglectful of her son lately. She picked up the cell phone and texted Phil Turnball:
CAN WE MAKE IT @ 10P?
No immediate reply. She headed into her bedroom and changed into a pair of jeans and a green blouse. She took off her contact lenses and slipped on a pair of glasses, threw her hair back in a ponytail. The casual woman.
Her phone buzzed. Phil Turnball's reply: OK.
She headed downstairs. Pops was in the den. He had a red bandana on his head. Bandanas-or mandanas, as they were sometimes called when men wore them-were a look that worked on very few men. Pops got away with it, but just barely.
Pops shook his head when he saw her approach. "You're wearing old-lady glasses?"
"You're never going to land a man that way."
Like she wanted to at high school orientation. "Not that it is any of your business, but it just so happens I got asked out today."
"After the funeral?"
Pops nodded. "I'm not surprised."
"I had the best sex of my life after a funeral. Total mindblower in the back of a limo."
"Wow, later will you fill me in on all the details?"
"Are you being sarcastic?"
She kissed his cheek, asked him to make sure Charlie ate, and made her way to the car. She stopped at the supermarket to pick up the coffee accoutrements. By the time she arrived at the high school, the lot was full. She managed to find a spot on Beverly Road. The spot technically may have been within fifty feet of the stop sign, but she didn't feel like breaking out a measuring tape. Tonight Wendy Tynes would live dangerously.
The parents were already milling around the accoutrement-free coffee urn when Wendy entered. She rushed over, making her apologies as she put out the various coffee-companion products. Millie Hanover, the HSA president, the mother who always had the perfect after-school arts and crafts activity on well-scheduled playdates, quietly scowled her disapproval. In contrast, the fathers were extra-forgiving of Wendy's tardiness. A little too forgiving, in fact. This was part of the reason Wendy wore the blouse buttoned high, the jeans not too tight, the not-too-flattering glasses on, the hair up. She never engaged the married men in extended conversations. Nev. Ah. Let them call her stuck-up or a bitch, but that was, in her view, better than a flirt, harlot, or worse. The wives in this town treated her with enough suspicion, thank you very much. On nights like this, she was tempted to don a T-shirt that read, "Really, I Have No Interest in Stealing Your Husband."
The main topic of conversation was college; more specifically, whose child had gotten and not gotten into what schools. Some parents bragged, some joked, and, Wendy's personal favorite, some performed "spin" like postdebate politicians, suddenly singing the praises of the "safety" school as though it were better than their original first choice. Or maybe she was being uncharitable. Maybe they were just trying to make the best out of their disappointment.
The bell mercifully sounded, jarring Wendy back to her own school days, and everyone headed into the campus center. One booth invited parents to post speed-limit signs that read, PLEASE DRIVE SLOWLY-WE OUR CHILDREN, which, she guessed, was effective, though the implication seemed to be that you, the driver, don't really love yours. Another handed out window decals letting neighbors know that this house was indeed "Drug-Free," which was nice, if not superfluous, in a "Baby on Board" obvious way. There was a booth run by the International Institute for Alcohol Awareness and its campaign against parents hosting drinking parties called "Not in Our House." Still another booth passed out drinking-pledge contracts. The teen pledges never to drive drunk or get in a car with someone who's been drinking. The parent, in turn, agrees that the teen can call at any hour to be picked up.
Wendy found a seat toward the back. An overly friendly father with a sucked-in gut and game-show-host smile sat next to her. He gestured toward the booths. "Safety overkill," he said. "We're so overprotective, don't you think?"
Wendy said nothing. The man's frowning wife took the seat next to him. Wendy made sure to say hello to the frowning wife, introducing herself and saying that she was Charlie's mother, studiously avoiding eye contact with the antisafety Guy Smiley.
Principal Pete Zecher took the podium and thanked everyone for coming during this "very difficult week." There was a moment of silence for Haley McWaid. Some had wondered why tonight hadn't been postponed, but the school activity calendar was so overwhelmingly crowded there were simply no other free dates. Besides, how long do you wait? Another day? Another week?
So, after another awkward moment or two had passed, Pete Zecher introduced Millie Hanover, who excitedly announced that this year's Project Graduation theme would be "Superheroes." In short, Millie explained in long, they would decorate the middle school gymnasium to look like various comic-book places. The Bat-cave. Superman's Fortress of Solitude. The X-Men's X-Mansion or whatever it was called. The Justice League of America's headquarters. Past years had seen the school decorated in Harry Potter theme, in the mode of the TV show Survivor (maybe that was more than a few years ago, Wendy thought now), even the Little Mermaid.
The idea behind Project Graduation was to give graduates a safe place to party after both the prom and commencement activities. Buses brought the students in, and all chaperones stayed outside. No drinking or drugs, of course, though in past years, some teens had sneaked them in. Still, with the chaperones on hand and buses providing transportation, Project Graduation seemed a great alternative to old-fashioned partying.
"I would love to recognize my hardworking committee chairs," Millie Hanover said. "When I call your name, please stand." She introduced her decorating chair, her beverage chair, her food chair, her transportation chair, her publicity chair, each standing to a smattering of applause. "For the rest of you, please volunteer. We can't do this without you, and it's a wonderful way to help make your child's graduation experience a positive one. Let's remember that this is for your children and you shouldn't rely on others." Millie's voice could have been more patronizing, but it was hard to imagine how. "Thank you for listening. The sheets are out for sign-up."
Principal Zecher next introduced Kasselton police officer Dave Pecora, the town safety commissioner, who proceeded to give the lowdown on the dangers associated with postprom, postgraduation parties. He talked about how heroin was making a comeback. He talked about pharm parties, where kids steal prescription drugs from their homes, put them in a big bowl, and partake in experimentation. Wendy had wanted to do a story about those last year, but she couldn't find any real-world examples, just anecdotal evidence. One DEA official told her that pharm parties were more likely urban myth than reality. Officer Pecora continued to warn against the dangers of underage drinking: "Four thousand kids per year die of alcohol overdose," though he didn't say whether that was worldwide or just the USA or what age those kids might be. He also reiterated the fact that "no parent is doing his kid a favor" by hosting a drinking party. With a stern look, he cited specific cases in which hosting adults were convicted of manslaughter and served jail time. He actually started describing the prison experience in some detail-like the parental version of Scared Straight.
Wendy surreptitiously checked the clock, again like when she was actually in school. Nine thirty. Three thoughts kept running through her head. One, she wanted to get out of here and see what was up with the suddenly cryptic Phil Turnball. Two, she should probably sign up for some committee or another. Even though she was dubious about this whole Project Graduation-part of it seeming like yet another way we cater to our child's every whim, part of it seeming more about the parents than the kids-it would be unfair, per Millie's condescending comment, to make others do all the work for something in which Charlie would partake.
And third, maybe most, she couldn't help but think about Ariana Nasbro and how alcohol and driving killed John. She couldn't help but wonder if perhaps Ariana Nasbro's parents should have attended one of these over-the-top orientations, if maybe all of this apparent safety overkill would indeed save a life during the next few weeks, so that some other family wouldn't have to deal with what she and Charlie had.
Zecher was back at the podium, finishing up with a thank-you-for-coming-out-tonight before breaking up the meeting. Wendy glanced around, looking for some familiar faces, disappointed in herself that she knew so few of her son's classmates' parents. Naturally the McWaids weren't there. Neither were Jenna or Noel Wheeler. Defending her scandalized ex-husband had cost Jenna Wheeler's family greatly in the suburban standings-but the murder of Haley McWaid must have made life here fairly untenable.
Parents started heading to the designated committee sign-in spots. Wendy remembered that Brenda Traynor, the publicity committee chair, was both friendly with Jenna Wheeler and a total gossip-a winning suburban combination. Wendy headed that way.
"It's nice to see you, Wendy. Are you here to volunteer?"
"Uh, sure. I was thinking that I could help with publicity."
"Oh, that would be great. I mean, who better than a renowned TV reporter?"
"Well, I wouldn't say renowned."
"Oh, I would."
Wendy forced up a smile. "So where do I sign in?"
Brenda showed her the sheet. "We have committee meetings every Tuesday and Thursday. Would you be up for hosting one?"
She signed her name, keeping her head low. "So," Wendy said, aiming for the subtle and not getting anywhere close, "do you think Jenna Wheeler would make a good member of the publicity team?"
"You're joking, of course."
"I think she has a background in journalism," Wendy said, totally making that up.
"Who cares? After what she did, letting that monster into our community-I mean, that family is gone."
Brenda nodded, leaned forward. "There's a For Sale on their house."
"Amanda isn't even coming to graduation. I feel bad for her-it's not her fault, I guess-but really, it's the right decision. It would spoil it for everyone."
"So where are they going?"
"Well, I heard that Noel got a job at some hospital in Ohio. Columbus or Canton or maybe Cleveland. All those Cs in Ohio, it's confusing. Come to think of it, I think it's Cincinnati. Another C. A soft C they call it, right?"
"Right. Have the Wheelers moved out there already?"
"No, I don't think so. Okay, Talia told me-do you know Talia Norwich? Nice woman? Daughter's name is Allie? A little overweight? Anyway, Talia said that she heard that they were staying at a Marriott Courtyard until they could relocate."
Wendy thought about what Jenna had said, about Dan, about the part of him she could never reach-but mostly, how had she put it? Something had happened to him in college. Maybe it was time to have another chat with Jenna Wheeler.
She said her good-byes, mingled on her way to the exit, and headed toward her meeting with Phil Turnball.