Tess Monaghan was sitting outside a bar in the Baltimore suburbs. It was early spring, the mating season, and this bland but busy franchise was proof that birds do it, bees do it, even Baltimore County yuppies in golf pants and Top-Siders do it.
"Kind of a benign hangout for a child molester," Tess said to Whitney Talbot, her oldest friend, her college roomie, her literal partner in crime on a few occasions. "Although it is convenient to several area high schools, as well as Towson University and Goucher."
"Possible child molester," Whitney corrected from the driver's seat of the Suburban. Whitney's vehicles only seemed to get bigger over the years, no matter what the price of gas was doing. "We don't have proof that he knew how young Mercy was when this started. Besides, she's sixteen, Tess. You were having sex at sixteen."
"Yeah, with other sixteen-year-olds. But if he came after your cousin -- "
"Second cousin, once removed."
"My guess is he's done it before. And will do it again. Your family solved the Mercy problem. But how do we keep him from becoming some other family's problem? Not everyone can pack their daughters off to expensive boarding schools, you know."
"They can't?" But Whitney's raised eyebrow made it clear that she was mocking her family and its money.
The two friends stared morosely through the windshield, stumped by the stubborn deviancy of men. They had saved one girl from this pervert's clutches. But the world had such a large supply of girls, and an even larger supply of perverts. The least they could do was reduce the pervert population by one. But how? If Tess knew anything of compulsive behavior -- and she knew quite a bit -- it was that most people didn't stop, short of a cataclysmic intervention. A heart attack for a smoker, the end of a marriage for a drinker.
Their Internet buddy was in serious need of an intervention.
"You don't have to go in there," Whitney said.
"Yeah, I do."
"And then what?"
"You tell me. This was your plan."
"To tell you the truth, I didn't think it would get this far."
It had been six weeks since Whitney had first come to Tess with this little family drama, the saga of her cousin and what she had been doing on the Internet late at night. Correction: second cousin, once removed. The quality of Mercy was definitely strained, weakened by intermarriage and a few too many falls in the riding ring.
And perhaps Mercy would have been a trimester into the unplanned pregnancy she had been bucking for, if it weren't for a late-night hunger pang. Mercy was foraging for provisions in the kitchen when her computer-illiterate mother had entered her bedroom just in time to hear the sparkly thrush of music that accompanies an IM and seen this succinct question: "Are you wearing panties?" Within days, Mercy's hard drive had been dissected, revealing a voluminous correspondence between her and a man who claimed to be a twenty-five-year-old stockbroker. Mercy's parents had pulled the plug, literally and figuratively, on her burgeoning romance.
But by Whitney's calculation, that left one miscreant free to roam, continuing his panty census.
It had been Tess's idea to search for Music Loverr in his world. With the help of a computer-savvy friend, they created a dummy account for a mythical creature known as Varsity Grrl and began exploring the crevices of the Internet, looking for those places where borderline pedophiles were most likely to stalk their prey.
Whitney and Tess had both taken turns at the keyboard, but it was Tess who lured Music Loverr, now rechristened GoToGuy, into the open. She had finally found him in a chat room devoted to girls' lacrosse. They had retreated to a private room at his invitation -- an invitation that followed her more or less truthful description of herself, down to and including her thirty-six-inch inseam. Then she had watched, in almost grudging admiration, as this virtual man began the long patient campaign necessary to seduce a high school girl. As she waited for his messages to pop up -- he was a much slower typist than she -- Tess thought of the movie Bedazzled, the original one, where Peter Cook, a most devilish devil, tells sad-sack Dudley Moore that a man can have any woman in the world if he'll just stay up listening to her until ten past four in the morning. Tess figured a teenage girl could be had by midnight.
The foregoing is excerpted from The Last Place by Laura Lippman. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
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