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Big Cloud, Wyoming
Emma Lane whispered a prayer for her baby son, Tyler, cooing in his car seat behind her.
Over the past few days, he'd been pale and had run a fever.
"Just a little cold. Give it another twenty-four hours," the doctor had told Emma, who had succumbed to the anxieties of being a new mother until Tyler's illness had passed.
Now, with her worries eased, Emma smiled and reached back to adjust her son's straps as their SUV cut across Wyoming's rolling plains.
"Everything good?" her husband, Joe, asked as he drove.
"Everything's good." Emma caressed Joe's firm shoulder, then kissed his cheek.
"What's that for?"
"For putting up with me."
"Do I have a choice?" He chuckled.
They gazed at the Rockies before them, a majestic reminder that some things stood forever, while others lasted no longer than a shooting star. And after what they had gone through to have Tyler, Emma took nothing for granted. Life did not come with guarantees. It was as indifferent to you as those mountains out there.
Emma thought it was funny how the things she'd dreamed of had come to her in ways she never expected. She was thankful for the blessings she could touch, hold and love forever: her son and her husband.
Today, they were headed to a pretty spot north of town, for a picnic beside the Grizzly Tooth River. This would be a break for Joe, who had been putting in twelve-hour days for the past three weeks straight, building houses in Big Cloud's new subdivision.
Lord knows they needed the overtime cash, but fretting over Joe's long hours and Tyler had kept Emma on edge lately.
On Monday, her two-week break ended and she would return to Rocky Ridge Elementary School where she taught children in the first and second grades. They were little sweethearts and Emma loved teaching, but she hated being apart from Tyler.
Joe guided the SUV along the empty highway, a meandering back route few people took. With the exception of a couple of cars that had passed them earlier, the road belonged to them. It was soothing. As the wheels hummed, Emma thought of other matters, like the spate of wrong number calls to their house over the past month. They had come at all hours—in the afternoon, when Emma was home alone with Tyler, and in the middle of the night. The callers never said anything. They were quick hang-ups and the number was always blocked.
Like someone was checking in on them, she thought.
But Joe shrugged it off. "Just people who can't dial," he assured her.
Eventually, Emma stopped worrying about it, too. Until the episode with the mystery car.
One day last week, after she had finished shopping downtown and was leaving her parking spot, she noticed a white sedan that had arrived at the same time she had.
It was a few cars back and it seemed to be following her.
When she pulled in to the mall, it was still a few spots behind her. After Emma parked and got Tyler into his carriage, she saw it again, parked off in a far corner. It was still there when she returned to her car and left the mall's parking lot. Emma was not certain if the sedan left when she did because she had lost sight of it in the drive-home traffic.
A day later when she took Tyler out for a stroll to the park, Emma saw the same white sedan at the end of their street.
"Do you think maybe you're being a little paranoid?" Joe had said when she told him about it later. "It's the mama grizzly syndrome kicking in."
When she didn't smile at his teasing, he got up from the kitchen table, left his receipts and job estimates, and put his arms around her.
"Em," Joe said, "Big Cloud has nine thousand people. We bump into most of them every other day. You're likely seeing someone new."
She pressed her cheek to his hard chest and nodded.
"Besides," he added, "you're one of the most fearless people I know. Woe to anyone or anything that comes between you and Tyler. If it was a mama griz, I would fear for the bear."
Emma smiled at the memory and turned to her husband. He was her rock, her protector, her hero because of what he'd gone through for her.
Tyler did not come to them the usual way.
Joe was a proud man and what he did for her was not easy. But he had put her happiness before his own and, no matter what happened, Emma would always love him for that.
She studied Joe's strong jaw stubbled just the way she liked. She looked at the tiny lines at the corners of his eyes that crinkled when he laughed, or searched the horizon as he did now.
Emma was about to tell him that she loved him but the words never left her mouth. A sharp blast of their horn jolted her. Joe's expression switched to one of surprise. An oncoming car had veered onto their side of the road, leaving them no escape from a head-on crash.
"Hang on, Em!"
Joe twisted the wheel, swerving to miss the collision.
The SUV was airborne with the world churning, glass breaking, metal crunching, sparks flying, as it rolled and rolled before everything went black.
When Emma came to, she was outside their vehicle, facedown on the ground. Her vision was blurred. Something was ringing in her ears. Their horn was blaring.
Tyler was screaming somewhere, but Emma couldn't see him.
She saw Joe.
He'd gone halfway through the windshield. Emma crawled to him, reached for him and took his hand.
"Stay with me, Joe. Don't leave me."
Emma passed out, came to, then did it again and again.
She could smell gas, burning rubber. Something was hissing, she heard car doors, people running, someone shouting. Someone was checking the wreckage. Everything was hazy.
Emma's heartbeat thundered in her ears.
"Hurry!" she screamed.
An engine raced.
"Find my baby!"
Emma felt Joe's pulse stop as people carried her away.
"Get my husband out! Find my baby!"
The air around them spasmed as if hammered by an invisible fist that delivered the heat flash and fireball as the SUV ignited.
Someone rescued Tyler. Emma saw them carry him to safety.
Or she thought she did. Where was her baby?
Oh, God! Tyler had to be safe. He had to be, because he wasn't screaming anymore. Emma was.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The next day, Gabriela Rosa, a reporter at the Rio Bureau of the World Press Alliance, reached across her desk to answer her phone.
"Alo, Gabriela Rosa, WPA."
"Eu tenho que falar a—" The female caller's voice was overtaken by street noise. She was likely using a pay phone.
"Please speak louder."
"I have to talk to a reporter with your news agency about a big story."
"I am a reporter," Rosa said. "What's the story?"
"Not over the phone, we have to meet."
"Give me your name, please?"
"Perhaps you could come to our office?"
"No. I want to meet you somewhere public. I have documents. This has to get out as soon as possible."
The woman's voice betrayed fear and desperation, as if she'd had trouble summoning the courage to make this call, forcing Rosa to make a quick decision. She had nearly finished a feature on crime on the metro. Then she'd planned to visit a detective, but she could skip it.
A good reporter never turned a tipster away.
Rosa would meet the caller but she would be careful.
"Fine," Rosa said. "We are in the Centro on Rua do Riachuelo near O Dia's offices. Do you know it?"
"Five blocks west of us on Rua do Riachuelo there is the Café Amaldo. Meet me there at 2:00 p.m. sharp. My name is Gabriela Rosa. I have brown hair. I'll be wearing sunglasses, a pink shirt and white slacks. I'll be reading Jornal do Brasil and I'll have my white bag on the table. I will be alone. Are you coming alone?"
"Give me your name."
"No name. I'll find you."
"Fine, meet me at two sharp. I'll give you my cellphone number in case you must cancel. Do you want to give me a number?"
"No. I will be there at two."
"Can you give me some sense of what this story is?"
"I will tell you when we meet."
Afterward, as Rosa finished her feature, she took stock of the empty office. The bureau chief was out of town. The stringer and photographer were on assignments. The news assistant was off. Rosa was alone as she pondered her tip and WPA's rules for staff called out to meet unknown sources: "Tell people where you are going, who you are meeting and never go alone."
Rio was one of the world's most beautiful cities. It was also one of the most violent. Much of its major crime arose from drug dealing and gang wars afflicting the favelas, the crowded shanty towns that blanketed the hillsides overlooking the metropolis.
Rosa, like other news reporters in Rio, was mindful of the risks. Criminals had kidnapped and murdered journalists who threatened to expose their networks. She would not meet her source alone. She called a cell-phone number.
"Alo, Verde," a man answered.
"Marcelo, it's Gabriela. Are you getting back soon? I need you for a job."
"I'm leaving Santa Teresa now. Got some very nice pictures New York will love. I have to get lunch."
"No. Meet me on the street in front of Café Amaldo. I'll buy you lunch."
"That's a deal. What's the job?"
"I'm meeting a source and you're my backup. Be there at one-thirty. Don't be late. Call me if you are delayed."
Later, as Rosa prepared to leave the bureau, she called John Esper, her husband, who was also the bureau chief and who, by her estimation, would now be on a return flight from São Paulo, where he'd helped cover news of the upcoming visit by the U.S. vice president. Rosa left Esper a voice mail on his cell phone advising him she would be meeting an anonymous source at the Café Amaldo but would be with Marcelo.
Rosa walked to her meeting, absorbing the bustle of downtown Rio with its beautiful colonial buildings juxtaposed with highrises, shops and corporate towers. Some days, she could feel the city's excitement mounting in the lead up to the World Cup and the Summer Olympics. But today, as she neared the café, she thought only about the call she had received.
Sure, it could be something but these things never amounted to much. Usually, they had more to do with a personal matter of a malcontent who wanted a reporter to publicly embarrass their adversary. If that happened today, it wouldn't be a total waste. She would at least have lunch at Café Amaldo and a tale to tell Esper.
Marcelo met her near the restaurant. He was one of Brazil's best news photographers, an ex-beach bum from Copacabana who was also a bodybuilder.
"My source is meeting me here in thirty minutes. A woman," Rosa said. "You know the drill. Can you set up over there?" She nodded to the cantina across the busy street.
"Sure." He had his hand out. "But you promised me lunch."
Shaking her head, Rosa put a few bills in his palm.
"I want a receipt and the change, buddy."
Marcelo winked then left Rosa, who found an outdoor café table with a clear line of sight for Marcelo. She put her bag on the table, adjusted her sunglasses and read her newspaper.
Twenty minutes later, a taxi stopped near the café, cuing a chorus of horns. As the female passenger paid the driver, a motorcycle with two people aboard growled around it. After scanning the crowded café, the taxi's passenger approached Rosa's table and stood before her.
"May I help you?" Rosa asked.
"I am the woman who called."
She had a tight grip on the strap of her bag, running her thumb over her knuckles as she took quick stock of the busy restaurant. Rosa set her newspaper aside.
"Sit down, please."
The two women filled Marcelo's lens. As he prepared to take his first shot from his table across and down the street, a large truck making a delivery blocked his view. Marcelo cursed under his breath, left money for his drink, grabbed his bag and trotted toward the Café Amaldo, passing by the mouth of a dark alley.
He did not notice that the same motorcycle, which earlier had sped by the cab, was now in the alley, sitting back from the street. Two men stood next to it, their attention fixed on the café. The driver talked in low tones on his cell phone. His passenger, dressed in a suit like a downtown banker, checked his hair in the side mirror. He slid on dark glasses, then he unfastened a tan leather briefcase that was strapped to the motorcycle's backrest.
At the café, Marcelo found a table inside, next to the large open-air window that looked out over the alfresco area. He liked the Amaldo and had used it many times like this with reporters. It had Wi-Fi wireless access. And with his camera's Eye-Fi card preconfigured, he was good to go.
Marcelo ordered a soda and sandwich then worked ever so casually, so that anyone watching would conclude he was merely cleaning his lens, when in fact he was shooting photos.
Rosa tapped her pen on her notebook while waiting for the woman to tell her story. The woman was in her twenties. She had a good figure and was pretty. She seemed educated and poised but her hand shook and she spilled some of the cream meant for her coffee.
"Forgive me, please. I'm nervous."
"What are you nervous about?"
"They could be watching me."
"Give me a moment. I want to do this. But I need to go to the lavatory."
Rosa was a veteran reporter, not easily frightened or fooled. She sensed something genuine about this woman and was relieved when a few minutes later she returned.
"You know," Gabriela said, "you should tell me what's going on."
"No one will believe it. It goes beyond Brazil. It's why I chose your news agency. You must tell the world." The woman extracted a brown envelope from her bag. "You have to investigate, it has to be exposed."
"What has to be exposed?"
"Some of it is in these documents."
At that moment, a man in a suit, wearing dark glasses, navigated his way among the tables of the crowded café. He reached inside his jacket for his wallet but dropped it.
As he bent over to retrieve it amid the din, no one saw him place his tan briefcase under a chair occupied only by shopping bags. The chair was being saved for someone who had not yet arrived at the crowded table.