After the disastrous press conference, Gilpin pulls Nick aside to tell him that there have been vagrants living in the Dunnes’ neighborhood—Nick is unsurprised, as the whole town is “overrun with pissed-off, unemployed people” let go from their jobs at a recently closed mall. To himself, Nick laments the strange and tough times he has found himself living in, and thinks about how between the recession, the inundation of media and advertising, and his increasing cynicism about the world, he has stopped feeling, over the last few years, like “a real person.” He would do anything, he thinks, to “feel real again.”
Nick’s strange language in this passage is meant to deliberately confuse readers—and make them distrust him. His desire to “feel real” positions him as someone desperate for catharsis—a kind of emotional release that he could have perhaps achieved through murder. Readers will learn, however, that while Nick is not a murderer, he has done some shady things in the name of “feel[ing] real.”
Gilpin brings Nick back to the interrogation room he’d been in the night before to show him, lying on the table, the silvery gift box from Amy. Inside, nestled in tissue paper, is an envelope bearing the words “FIRST CLUE.” Gilpin laughs, remarking how strange it was for them to open a box containing a “clue” before they realized it was a part of Nick and Amy’s anniversary treasure hunt. Gilpin allows Nick to open the envelope and read the clue. The clever rhyming poem contained within makes reference to a sexy game of student and teacher which Amy envisions. Nick tells Gilpin the clue must be leading him to his office at the nearby junior college, where he’s an adjunct professor of journalism. Gilpin and Nick decide to go over to his office together to find the next clue.
The strange circumstances of Amy’s disappearance are heightened by the sing-song-y treasure hunt “clues” she has left behind. The police want to solve the treasure hunt in order to track Amy’s recent whereabouts—and the uncanny coincidence of being led through a series of “clues” in the wake of a disappearance is too uncanny to pass up.
As Nick opens his office door, he sees two envelopes sitting on his desk. He is nervous about what they contain, but when he opens the envelope marked with a heart, he sees that it contains a gushing letter from Amy describing how “brilliant” Nick is. Nick finishes reading the note, confused and flattered, but continues staring at it—Gilpin, meanwhile, uses the tip of his pencil to pick up a pair of lacy red underwear that are hanging off a knob on the AC unit. Gilpin laughs at the “randy professor and naughty student” game Amy and Nick have apparently had going for quite some time. Nick reads the second clue, and so does Gilpin. Gilpin asks Nick what it means—Nick, lying, says he has “no idea.”
Nick wants to solve his wife’s treasure hunt—but doesn’t necessarily want the police to come along with him. He’s clearly afraid of what he’ll find, and surprised by the warm tone of Amy’s note—suggesting that Nick knows just how unhappy his wife has been in their marriage.
After separating from Gilpin, Nick drives aimlessly up and down the highway, trying to make a call on a disposable cell phone. When he fails to get the person on the other end to pick up, he drives to meet the Elliotts at the local Days Inn. He goes up to the Elliotts’ room and Marybeth lets him in; together, they watch the five o’clock news from St. Louis. Amy’s disappearance is the lead story. Rand asks Nick how he’s holding up, and they all commiserate over how sick and useless they feel.
Nick’s disposable cell phone is a major red herring throughout the first quarter of the novel. Nick purposely conceals who he’s using the phone to contact—and why—but dangles its presence as a clue to what he’s really up to. Secrets, lies, and half-truths are woven into the very fiber of this narrative.
Rand asks Nick if he’s given the police lists of his employees at The Bar, and then admits he’s given them lists of his own Amazing Amy employees. The books—which featured lessons for children and a quiz at the end of each chapter—are immensely popular throughout the country, and Rand admits that there are some people who’ve worked for him and Marybeth over the years who might be suspicious.
Rand and Marybeth—puppet masters of Amy’s childhood—seem to realize that their enterprise has perhaps done their daughter more harm than good, and put her in the way of danger.
Nick asks Rand and Marybeth what the police have asked them about him—they console Nick and promise him that they know he’d never hurt Amy, and have told the police as much. Rand and Marybeth tell Nick that they love him like a son. Nick’s phone vibrates, but he silences the call, insisting it’s a number he recognizes as his college’s alumni fund. Marybeth tells Nick that “an Amy obsessive” could have kidnapped Amy—there have, over the years, been stalkers and strange fans, including one of Amy’s own high school classmates, Hilary Handy, who threatened to kill Amy and take her place as Rand and Marybeth’s daughter.
Some of the clues to Amy’s past begin to emerge. The fact that she’s had a number of “obsessive[s]” interested in becoming or harming her over the years is yet another red herring meant to complicate the mystery at the heart of the narrative.
Another of Amy’s stalkers was her boarding-school boyfriend Desi Collings, a wealthy classmate who approached his relationship with Amy with too much intensity, and then tried to kill himself in her bed when she broke things off. Nick has heard a lot about Desi over the years—despite the macabre end to his relationship with Amy, Desi has continued phoning and writing letters over the years; he lives, now, in St. Louis, just forty minutes from Carthage. Despite the unsettling coincidence, Nick can’t imagine Desi, whom he pictures as a “slender dandy,” forcibly kidnapping Amy. However, when Nick mentions to the Elliotts that Desi is living in St. Louis, they insist on informing the police. Marybeth states that the authorities think the case is “close to home,” and “shiver[s]” as she looks at Nick for just a “beat too long.”
This passage makes it clear that while Rand and Marybeth are worried about a whole host of threats from Amy’s past, there’s also a part of them that hasn’t entirely ruled out Nick’s guilt. The “shiver” Marybeth gets when she relays that the police are looking “close to home” for the answers to Amy’s disappearance shows that she, perhaps, is loath to believe Nick has something to do with it—but can’t shake the doubt in the back of her mind.