The place was busy. Young moms with toddlers in strollers competed for space with high school kids, glued to their phones, and a healthy smattering of cowboys, their hats cluttering up the tables as they waited in line for their morning brew. Jumping Beans was a classic small town joint. Everybody seemed to know everybody. Jeff found himself wondering whether Nick used to come here, and if any of the kids had been friends of his, when he saw her.
Karen Young, a nurse at the Yampa Valley Medical Center, was sitting at a table in the corner, hiding nervously behind her copy of the Steamboat Herald. She smiled at Jeff and he came over to join her.
“I didn’t know if you’d come,” Karen said, lowering her voice almost to a whisper.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Jeff smiled broadly. “I have a story to write after all. I said I’d be here, and here I am.”
Posing as an award-winning investigative journalist from New York City, Jeff had spent the last four days in Steamboat, researching a book on cowboy culture. He’d been asking a lot of questions around town about the late Blake Carter.
“The Carters were one of the oldest cowboy families in this part of the state, as I’m sure y’all are aware. Blake was the last of the line. The more y’all can tell me about him, the better.”
At first, Blake’s fellow hands up at the ranch had been happy to talk, as had his fishing buddies and the local Baptist minister. But as soon as Jeff’s questions began to focus on the accident—how thorough or otherwise the police report had been; whether a strange woman had been seen around town or up at Tracy Schmidt’s ranch in the days leading to the crash; which doctors had attended the scene—suspicions were raised. Doors began closing and locals stopped talking.
Which was why Nurse Young was so important. In a tight-knit community like this one, run on gossip but big on loyalty, Jeff knew it would be tough to find someone willing to help him. By now just about everybody at the Yampa Valley Medical Center knew better than to talk to the New York Times writer. So when Jeff caught Karen Young’s eye at Ruby’s, a local dive bar, last night, and learned she was a nurse, he’d turned up the charm to full throttle.
“I appreciate your trust in me, Karen.” Reaching under the table, Jeff squeezed her hand. “You know the very last thing on my mind is disrespecting Blake Carter’s memory. Or hurtin’ this community.”
“I know that.” Karen squeezed back.
For an older man, he really is terribly handsome, she thought.
Karen had been off older men ever since Neil—Dr. Sherridan—had broken off their affair and gone crawling back to his wife, like the snake that he was. But Jeff Stevens seemed different.
Interested only in the truth.
The fact that Neil might wind up in a whole heap of trouble, if it turned out Blake Carter or the boy could have been saved after all, and Jeff wrote an article about his negligence in the New York Times, shredding his reputation and destroying his career, would merely be an unavoidable by-product of the truth telling.
Karen Young was all about telling the truth.
“I’ll help you in any way I can, Jeff.” She fluttered her sky-blue eyes at Jeff. “We just have to be discreet is all.”
“Discretion is my middle name,” said Jeff, pressing his leg against Karen’s, and wondering why on earth she’d chosen to meet in a crowded coffee shop if she didn’t want people to see them together. The young lady clearly had the IQ of a bird dropping. “Of course, what would really help me . . .” He looked away suddenly, drawing back his leg and releasing her hand. “No. It’s too dangerous.”
“What?” Karen looked crestfallen. “What’s too dangerous?”
“No, no. Forget it. I couldn’t possibly ask you.”
Jeff took a big swig of his coffee and pushed his chair back, as if preparing to leave.
“Please. Just tell me!”
Jeff shook his head. “You could lose your job.”
“There are more important things than jobs,” Karen said earnestly, leaning forward to give Jeff an enhanced view of her ample cleavage. “If something bad happened to Mr. Carter or that poor boy and I stood by and did nothing, I’d never forgive myself.”
Jeff took her hands again and looked deep into her eyes.
“I don’t suppose you happen to know anyone who has access to the hospital’s CCTV archives?”
The girl’s face fell. “Gosh, I . . . I don’t. I’m real sorry but I don’t know anything about security. Is there anything else you need?”
THE REST OF THE day crawled by.
Frank Dorrien and Jamie MacIntosh had left him so many messages since he got to the States that in the end Jeff had disabled his phone and bought a disposable, pay-as-you-go handset. That, by contrast, never rang. Suddenly, it seemed, nobody at the ranch or the local garage remembered seeing a woman, unusual or otherwise. No one at the cop shop had access to the police report. All the staff at Yampa had been exemplary and none of Nicholas’s school friends or teachers could remember anything unusual in the days leading up to the crash. Or, indeed, any other days. If Jeff Stevens the New York journalist was looking for scandal, he could look elsewhere. Steamboat Springs had closed ranks like a threatened clam snapping shut its shell.
After his dinner with Tracy in Paris, Jeff knew he had to come here. He had to find out for himself what had really happened to his son. After all, it was Nicholas’s death that had dragged Tracy into all this in the first place. Group 99, Althea, Hunter Drexel, Cameron Crewe. None of those names would have touched Tracy if Blake Carter’s truck hadn’t plunged off the road that night, right here in Steamboat Springs.
And now Jeff, too, had been drawn in. This wasn’t their world, his or Tracy’s. They weren’t spies or counterterrorism experts, for God’s sake. And yet here they were, running around Europe fighting other people’s battles, solving other people’s riddles, like pawns in some giant game of chess. A game in which, increasingly, Jeff doubted there would ever be a real winner.
Meanwhile Tracy, his Tracy, was blaming herself. Tracy thought Althea had killed Nick. That Nick, and Blake, were dead because of her. And she was turning to another man to assuage her of that guilt, to comfort her in her grief.
But what was the truth, really? What had happened here?
Perhaps, Jeff thought, if I could answer that one question, I could stop the madness. I could save Tracy, spare her the torment.
I could save myself.
The problem was, he couldn’t answer it. Rumors swirled around him, taunting him like blowing leaves he could never quite catch. But he had no actual evidence of anything. As far as Jeff could tell, there was a woman at the diner that night, who may or may not have taken the same road Blake Carter did. But that was it. Maybe the police could have dug a little harder, or the ambulance crew driven a little faster, or the surgeons operated on Nick’s brain an hour earlier. But every accident had its “maybes,” every tragedy its “what ifs.” Jeff had seen nothing in Colorado to make him believe that Tracy’s crazy conspiracy theory about Althea was true. The whole thing was smoke and mirrors.
I’ll fly back to Europe tomorrow, Jeff thought. Nurse Karen Young had been his last hope, but even she had always been a long shot. Chances were there was nothing worth seeing on the CCTV footage anyway.
Jeff’s hotel was in town, a simple but cozy Victorian with a wraparound porch and a fire permanently lit in the parlor. Ski season was over and the tourists had poured out of Steamboat like water through a sieve, so there were plenty of parking spaces out front. Dusk was starting to fall when Jeff got back, tired and defeated. He’d spent most of the day roaming uselessly around Blake Carter’s old haunts, getting the cold shoulder from wary locals. But despite his bad mood, he took a moment to look up and appreciate the beauty of his surroundings. Mountains rose like giants from behind the hotel, their snowy tips blushing pink in the sunset. A rainbow of colors oozed into the blue sky like spilled paint, every shade of orange, red, purple and peach, shot through with flashes of turquoise.
No wonder Tracy was drawn to this place.
What a magical corner of the world for Nick to grow up in.
Walking up the porch steps, Jeff felt a stab of loss and longing, a visceral wrench of pain for all the years he’d missed. With Tracy. With their son. It struck him forcibly then that the whole idea of closure was ridiculous. Knowing what happened wouldn’t change anything. He couldn’t save Tracy from the agony of Nick’s death, any more than he could save himself.