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Do you know what really happened to your mother?
Ben Nash stared at the words on the computer screen. Blood rushed to his ears, obliterating the background noise in the Pittsburgh Tribune newsroom. It felt as though a vise gripped his heart, stopping his blood from circulating.
His mother had died nineteen years ago in a fall from a cliff in a Pocono Mountain town called Indigo Springs when Ben was twelve years old. He'd always been told it was an accident.
The return address on the e-mail was firstname.lastname@example.org. His mother had never used her married surname of Nash, preferring to be known as Allison Blaine.
He clicked the e-mail closed with a trembling hand and scanned his in-box, identifying a second message from the same sender. The subject header was identical: Your Mother. He sucked in a breath and pressed the button on his mouse.
Why wasn't Dr. Ryan Whitmore investigated?
The Whitmore name was unfamiliar, as were most things associated with Indigo Springs aside from pain and loss. Ben's maternal grandparents had retired to the town just months before the ill-fated accident to help friends start up a restaurant. After the tragedy they'd fled Indigo Springs, unable to deal with daily reminders of what had happened.
For Ben, though, the memories were ever present. An image of his mother, with her brown eyes warm with love and her lips curving into a tender smile, was imprinted on his mind as indelibly as an etching.
He checked the date and time at the top right-hand corner of the e-mail. Friday, 9:15 a.m. The second contact had been sent just minutes after the first. A scant hour ago. He hit Reply and typed a message of his own: Who are you?
Within moments, the e-mail popped back into his in-box with a Failure Notice heading. He scrolled through it, picking out the words undeliverable and user doesn't have a yahoo.com account.
"Damn it," he snapped.
"Something wrong, Nash?" Joe Geraldi, the managing editor of the Tribune, stood beside Ben's desk.
With a trim build and a full head of prematurely white hair, Joe radiated a brisk energy, the force of which he directed at Ben. It snapped Ben out of his trance. "Where's the IT department?"
Joe screwed up his lean, expressive face. "Geez, Ben. You've worked here for two years and don't know where IT is?"
"I know IT's extension." Technical help was a phone call away, a godsend for a reporter habitually in a rush. This matter, however, needed to be dealt with in person.
"Will you tell me where they are or should I ask someone else?"
"Thanks." Ben rolled back his chair, got to his feet and strode toward the elevator past cubicles where other reporters talked on phones and typed on computer keyboards.
"Hold up." Joe's raised voice trailed him. "I need to talk to you."
"Sorry. This can't wait." Ben didn't break stride, which wouldn't sit well with Joe. The two of them sometimes grabbed a meal together after working late, but Joe was, above all, his boss. Ben called back over his shoulder, "I'll explain later."
He nearly plowed into the diminutive editor of the business section, muttered a hurried apology and kept going. Bypassing the elevator, he ran lightly down two floors of stairs and emerged on the second floor. It was a neater version of the newsroom, with the piles of paper and files reporters typically kept on their desks largely absent. Flimsy walls separated the workspaces into cubicles. He stopped at the first one, where a young man wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans hunched over his keyboard.
"Could you help me trace an e-mail?" Ben asked.
The man looked up over his wire-rimmed glasses and leaned back in his chair. He had a shock of dark hair and an unlined, earnest face that communicated amusement. His jaw worked on a piece of gum and Ben got a whiff of spearmint. "First you'll have to tell me who you are."
"Sorry." Ben rubbed the back of his neck, encountering cords of tension. He was often abrupt, but seldom rude. "Ben Nash. I work upstairs."
"Oh, yeah. You wrote the series that ran in Sunday's paper about corruption in the police department. That's bound to shake things up."
The story had consumed Ben for two months, during which he might have averaged six hours of sleep a night, yet at the moment it seemed unimportant. "That's why I wrote it."
"I'm Keith Snyder. We've talked on the phone."
"I recognize the voice." Ben didn't have the patience for any more small talk. "Well, can you do it? Can you trace that e-mail?"
"That's like asking Superman if he can fly." Keith flexed his fingers. "Let me at it."
In a surprisingly short time, most of which Keith spent dispensing insider information about IP addresses and computer networks, Ben had an answer. The e-mail originated from a computer inside the Indigo Springs public library. The air-conditioning suddenly felt as though it had been lowered a few notches.
"Can you narrow it to a specific computer?" Ben asked.
"Afraid not," Keith said. "Could have come from anywhere inside the building, and most libraries have a bank of public access computers."
"How about the e-mail address itself? Any way to check whose account it is?"
"You mean whose account it was. I use Yahoo! mail, too." Keith gestured to the mountaindweller-blaine part of the e-mail open on his computer screen. "That dash indicates a disposable address. Seems like it might have been created for one purpose."
"To send to me," Ben said thoughtfully.
"You got it."
"Thanks. I owe you one." Ben clapped him on the shoulder. "I'll buy you a beer after work sometime." That was about the extent of his social activity lately.
"I'll take a rain check." Keith nodded to a photo on his desk of an attractive woman holding a baby dressed entirely in pink, from her shoes to her bonnet. "My wife's on maternity leave. She can't wait for me to get home so I can give her a break."
Nobody was waiting for Ben. He'd gotten the investigative reporting job at the Tribune after establishing his name at a series of smaller papers throughout the state. He'd never worked a set schedule or taken the standard weekend days off. The long hours came with the job, as did a burning curiosity. Keith had focused on the technical aspects of the e-mail, completely ignoring the content, a feat that would have been impossible for Ben.
His boss would ask questions, something Ben anticipated when he returned to the newsroom and rapped on the frame of the open door to the managing editor's corner office.
"If you hadn't just broken a story, I'd fire your ass," Joe said from behind his desk. Through the window behind him, gray clouds hovered above the city buildings and the visible part of the Monongahela River, emitting a misty drizzle that made it difficult to tell it was spring.
"Never happen," Ben said. "I'm your most valuable asset."
"My most valuable asset is gonna find himself covering the dog show down at the convention center if he doesn't watch his back."
"Can't do it," Ben said. "I need some time off."
A deep furrow appeared between Joe's brows. "Impossible. I just got a tip about a group home for the mentally ill that's kicking out residents left and right. Something's not right at this place. That's what I wanted to talk to you about."
"Normally, I'm your guy, Joe. But not this time. I really need that time off."
Ben hesitated. "It's personal."
Joe crossed his arms over his chest, dislodging one side of his blue dress shirt. It came untucked by the end of almost every workday. "Then let me personally assure you that you're not getting squat unless you start talking."
Sighing heavily, Ben walked to the door and pulled it shut. "You can be a real jerk, did you know that?"
"That's what my ex-wife always says but she doesn't work for me. You do."
Ben leaned with his back against the closed door, pretending a calm he didn't feel. "It's my mother. I just got some e-mails about her."
"I thought your mother died a long time ago."
Ben swallowed. "She did."
While Ben divulged the content of the e-mails and IT's findings, Joe got out of his chair and circled the desk. He perched on the edge of the piece of heavy furniture, all his intensity focused on Ben. "You never told me what happened to her."
"It was an accident, or so I was told. She took me and my two brothers to visit her parents in this little town in the Poconos. One night she went to one of those lookouts with the scenic views and she fell."
"One night? Why would she go to a lookout at night?"
Ben had never received a satisfactory answer to that question or the numerous others he'd asked his father over the years. Even though Ben had always felt there was more to his mother's death than he'd been told, his father wasn't the best source. He hadn't even been present in Indigo Springs when his wife died.
"I don't think it was fully dark yet. She had a camera with her so supposedly she was there to take photos," Ben said, although that theory had never seemed quite right. His mother had kept photo albums, but they were dominated by snapshots of family members smiling into the camera, not scenery. "It's time I found out the whole story. At the very least I want to know who sent those e-mails and why they waited twenty years."
Joe remained silent for a long time. Outside the weather had worsened, and Ben could hear the patter of rain on the windowpanes. Indigo Springs was in the Pocono Mountains on the other side of the state, a drive of five to six hours. If he went directly home and packed a bag, he could be there by mid- to late-afternoon.
"If you want the time off, you got it," Joe finally said. "Let me run something by you first. It's okay if you don't want to do it."
"Do what?" Ben asked warily.
"Write a story from the angle of an investigative reporter uncovering the mystery of his mother's death. On the clock, of course."
Ben felt his muscles bunch. "Why would I do that?"
"Because I know you, Ben. Writing's cathartic. It'd be a way for you to deal with the past once and for all." He hesitated, as though unsure whether to continue. Finally, he did. "Not to mention it'd make a really good story."
Joe's argument had merit. Ben totally engrossed himself in a story until it came out in print. Only then could he let it go. Maybe Joe was right. Maybe writing the story would exorcise his demons.
"What about that tip?" Ben realized he'd just agreed to his boss's proposition.
"I'll have Larry Timmons look in to it." Joe named an ambitious reporter who had assisted Ben on a few occasions, a young guy hungry to get ahead—Larry reminded Ben of himself. "He's been hounding me for a chance to take the lead on a big story."
It went against Ben's makeup to put anyone else in the driver's seat, let alone somebody who would fight not to give up the wheel. "Maybe what I need to do won't take long."
Joe snorted softly. "With a rottweiler, it usually doesn't."
"Rottweiler," Joe repeated. "That's what the other reporters call you."
Ben hadn't been aware he had a nickname. "Do I want to know why?"
"Once you sink your teeth in a story, you don't let go." Joe seemed to relish in the telling. "That Dr. Whitmore doesn't stand a chance."
Dr. Sierra Whitmore turned away from her reflection in the gift-shop window too late to avoid the image of the long, caramel-brown hair she'd been too chicken to part with.
"Just a trim, please," she muttered to herself.
That's what she'd requested when the hip, young stylist who was the new hire at her hair salon asked if she was feeling adventurous. Her intention to have her hair cut boy-short never made it past her lips.
Sierra fished a tie out of her purse and hastily pulled her hair into a loose twist, the way she usually wore it, silently berating herself all the while for her stunning lack of courage.
"Hello, Dr. Whitmore."
The greeting pulled Sierra out of her daze. The woman passing her on the sidewalk in the heart of the picturesque downtown of Indigo Springs was a patient at the practice where Sierra worked in partnership with her brother.
"Good day, Mrs. Jorgenson."
The woman gave her a tepid smile and kept walking.