Pursued by the Past

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chapter-1

drop-cap-aCCESS DENIED.

“DAMMIT!” VANNA slapped the desk in frustration. She had put her password in twice and she knew that if she got up to three or four, it would lock the email account up. It wasn’t like she didn’t know her password. The first time, she assumed that she had just slipped and hit an extra key, or typed the password for another account without thinking. The second time, she had typed the password in carefully. But it had been rejected again. There was no point in typing the same password in again. She would just get locked out of the account, and getting a password reset would be a pain in the neck that she didn’t need today. The work was piling up and she had planned to get right onto the Munro file so that she could get the work out the door, virtually speaking.

She checked her caps lock key. It wasn’t turned on. She opened the word processor window and swiftly typed the password in to make sure that none of the keys were sticking and the keyboard hadn’t been changed to Spanish. Or some other oddity that might make the email account reject her password. Her password was displayed on the screen. No problems. So why was the email program rejecting it?

Vanna opened up her internet browser and typed in a search to see if the email server was offline or experiencing some other technical difficulty. But the status line was green. Operating normally. At least, no one else had reported a problem yet.

Vanna returned to her email tab and pecked in the password one character at a time.

ACCESS DENIED.

She swore again. Worse this time. One of those words that she wouldn’t have let her mother catch her using. Even damn would have raised Erica White-Austin’s carefully penciled eyebrows. Vanna would get one of those trademark Erica White-Austin disapproving looks. Disapproving and disappointed. But her mother wasn’t there and Vanna pounded the desk with her fist and cursed the email providers out thoroughly.

She hated to have to waste the time with a password reset, but it was easy enough. Click password reset. Send the reset code to her phone. Type it in. Type the new password. Type it again. In two minutes, she would be back into her email with a new password. It was just annoying when she knew she had entered her password correctly.

Maybe the site had been hacked. Vanna clicked the password reset link. That was probably it. Someone had hacked the email server, so they had automatically reset all passwords and all clients had to pick new passwords. That kind of thing had happened before with other accounts. Vanna fidgeted with her ring while waiting for the unlock code to be sent to her cell phone. The antique gold looked good against her slightly dark skin. Lydia always said she envied Vanna her complexion. She said Vanna always looked like she had just come back from a sunny island or tanning salon. Even when everyone else in the area was pasty white from the one hundred sixty-eight days of rain per year and many more which were overcast. Vanna’s skin had always been darker than her mother’s and sister’s milky, china doll complexions.

Her phone didn’t buzz. She looked at it to see if the code had come through without her realizing it. No messages. She looked at the computer screen and clicked on the password reset link again. She would probably mess things up, getting two codes at once and not knowing which one of them to use. But she was impatient to get into her account and access the work that Munro’s executive assistant had sent.

“Come on, come on…”

Still nothing. Vanna looked for some other link or button that might help. She looked at the number on the screen showing where the reset code had been sent. All of the middle numbers had been masked by asterisks, with only the area code and the last two digits showing. But it wasn’t her cell phone number. The area code was right, but the last two digits, bizarrely, were not the last two digits of her phone number. Vanna stared at them. She looked back at her email address to make sure that she had entered it correctly and wasn’t trying to send a password reset to someone else’s account. It was her email address. There were no other buttons to press. She would have to talk to a real person.

Vanna groaned and swiped her finger across the screen of the phone to call up the phone app. She had to click a few more links and by-pass the knowledge-base articles on how to reset a password before it would finally give her a phone number to call. Vanna looked at the clock and sighed, waiting for the call to be answered after navigating through the menu system and being placed in the queue. A recorded voice apologized for the longer-than-average wait time. Vanna wondered again if they had been hacked and now half the email provider’s users were sitting in the queue ahead of her, waiting for their password resets. She tapped her nail on the desk, waiting for the call to be answered.

The minutes crept by. The recorded voice continued to keep her updated, advising that the call would be recorded, that she could have them call her back instead of waiting, and apologizing again for the longer than usual wait time.

“This is Chris, thank you for waiting.”

Vanna was so surprised she just about dropped the phone when the man’s voice overrode the robot.

“Oh. Hi, this is Vanna.”

She explained the problem in as much detail as she could and waited for Chris to reset the password.

“What is your PIN number?” Chris questioned.

“My PIN number?” Vanna tried to recall. “I thought you had confirmation questions.”

“We also have PIN numbers.”

“You have both?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said patiently.

“Oh.” She closed her eyes. “Four three two one?”

“Thank you ma’am…” he tapped it into his computer. “No, I’m sorry, that’s not it.”

“One two three four?”

“You’re not allowed to use that.”

“I don’t know. Can you just ask me the security questions?”

There was silence for a minute, and then he sighed. “Of course, ma’am.” Another pause, while he waited for his computer to bring the questions up on the monitor or took a sip of his coffee. “The name of your first pet.”

“I… I have never had a pet. That’s not one of my security questions.”

“I’m sorry, but that’s what’s showing up on my computer.”

“Are you sure you entered my email address correctly?” Vanna asked. She spelled it out for him again.

“Yes, ma’am. That’s the account that I have. I’m sorry, but if you can’t provide the PIN number, or answer the security questions, there is nothing that I can do to help you.”

“Well, all I want is a password reset. If you send a password reset to my phone, I can take it from there. But I didn’t get one from the automatic system.”

“What is your phone number?”

Vanna recited it for him.

“I’m sorry, that’s not the phone number we have on file.”

“That’s the only phone number I have. Did a couple of digits get reversed? Can you tell if it’s close? I’m kind of dyslexic. I do that sometimes.”

“No.”

“You can’t tell me?”

“It isn’t close.”

“There is something wrong with your system! Am I the first one to complain? This must be happening to other people too.”

“There is no known system problem.”

Vanna closed her eyes. “Come on, there has to be something that you can do to help me. I need to be able to access my email. I have work to get done.”

“Are you sure you didn’t change your password? Does anyone else have access to your computer or your passwords?”

“No, of course not.”

“Do you use the same password for multiple accounts?” His voice was overly-patient, like she was a child demanding chocolate at bedtime. “Have you had any problems with viruses lately?”

Vanna remembered that she had let her anti-virus subscription run out, but she pushed the thought aside. She still had an anti-virus. It would find any of the big viruses. Surely no one could have hacked her system.

She felt nauseated. “No, no problems.”

“And there is no one else who has access to your email account? Or who knows the password that you use on this account? Maybe just because you’ve used it for something that you share? Maybe a child or a boyfriend…?”

“No, I—” Vanna stopped. Tino, of course. She might not have told him her password, but he’d shoulder-surfed enough times while she was typing it in to have picked it up. He knew her hobbies and tastes and could probably guess at it in a few tries even without seeing her type it in. “No, I’ve never told it to anyone. But if someone has hacked my account, how can I get access back? What’s the phone number that is on file? If I know the number, I’ll know who hacked it…”

“I’m sorry, we can’t give out confidential information like that—”

“When was the password and phone number and everything changed last? I was just in my email last night. It’s not like I forgot them.”

There was a pause while the man examined her account. “You accessed it last this morning,” Chris corrected, “a couple of hours ago.”

“A couple of hours ago I was out at breakfast with my mother.” There was a tightening in Vanna’s throat. She swallowed and tried to keep her voice steady. “Is that when everything was changed?”

More waiting and tapping. “Yes,” Chris agreed. “Your phone number, password, and security questions were all changed at that time.”

“You can change them all at the same time? Doesn’t that just play right into a hacker’s hands?”

Chris sighed. “I am going to escalate your call to a level two. I’ll freeze access to your email account at this time. Until you are able to prove your identity and re-secure the account.”

“How do I do that?”

“The level two tech will explain the procedure to you. We will require identification and the verification by a third party.”

“A third party?” Vanna repeated. What was she supposed to do, have her mother call in for her? It was turning into a nightmare. She had so much work that she needed to do on the Munro file, and on her other files, and the simple task of getting access to her email account had already turned into an hour-long job.

“Such as a police officer, lawyer, or banker,” Chris said. “An authority who will examine your ID, compare your face to your picture ID, verify your address, and so on. The level two will explain it all to you.”

“What? I don’t have time—”

There was a click and Chris was gone. The phone rang a few times and was picked up by another robotic voice apologizing for the delay. Gritting her teeth, Vanna put the phone on speaker and started to compose a text to Mr. Munro’s executive assistant to explain that there might be a delay in getting her work in.

By the time Vanna got off the phone, she was both furious and drained. She couldn’t decide whether she wanted to throw the computer across the room, or lie down on her bed and go to sleep.

But there was too much to be done. Now she had a bunch of running around to do to try to get her email account unlocked again so that she could get to work. The hours were slipping rapidly away from her.

In spite of the fact that she had already been on the phone for an extended amount of time, Vanna dialed the number that she knew from heart. She had already removed him from her favorites list, but she knew it anyway. It wasn’t actually the first time she’d removed him from her favorites list. She tapped a fingernail on the desk impatiently, waiting for him to pick up. Vanna noticed that her fingernails were grimy. Again. Her mother always criticized her nails. ‘I have no idea how you can get them so dirty so quickly. They always look like an auto-mechanic’s. You need a manicure.’ Vanna hoped that they hadn’t been that bad when she had breakfasted with Erica a few hours ago. But she hadn’t really done anything messy since then, so they must have been. Her mother’s nails were always perfectly clean and manicured, with flawless French tips. She despaired of a daughter who couldn’t even keep her nails clean.

“Vanna!” Tino greeted. She was sure that he was delighted to hear from her. After their last fight, she had vowed never to speak to him again. Now she was stoking his ego, making him think that she couldn’t live without him.

“You think that you can hack my email account?” Vanna demanded. “That’s the most childish play for attention that I’ve ever seen! You’ve messed up my entire work day, thank you very much!”

She was greeted by silence. Apparently, Tino had been shocked into speechlessness by her sally. She felt good about that. Vanna liked the feeling of putting him in his place. Telling him how she really felt.

“What are you talking about?” Tino finally asked.

“Don’t play dumb with me. You know exactly what I’m talking about. You hacked my email account, changed all of my security information so that I couldn’t get back into it. Really mature, Tino.”

“I didn’t do that. I’m not a hacker.”

“You don’t need any technical skills to break into my email. Watching over my shoulder, or guessing what my password is. You really messed up my day. And now I’m going to have to go through all of my other accounts and change all of my passwords.”

Vanna bit her lip after saying it, realizing that she had just given him a heads-up that she used the same password on other accounts as well. She was going to have to secure her auction account right away. And her vendor accounts. And of course, the accounts that she used for her Virtual Assistant work and cloud storage. She started to make a list in her head of everything that had to be changed immediately. All of the accounts that Tino would know or guess about. She knew she shouldn’t have used the same password on everything. But trying to remember or keep track of a different password on every account was impossible.

“Vanny,” Tino reproached, “I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do anything that would threaten your work. What kind of guy do you think I am?”

“Hmm, maybe the same kind of guy who tows cars that are legally parked so that their owners have to pay their hard-earned money to get them back?” Vanna suggested. “That kind of guy?”

“That’s different,” Tino snickered. She could picture his dark, square face, just a little too blocky to be considered handsome. She could picture the way that his eyes would dance, thinking about how he had pulled one over on so many wealthy car owners over the last year or two. It was different. He figured that they owed him a living, just by virtue of the fact that they had so much more money than he did. He knew that Vanna wasn’t wealthy in spite of the Austin family wealth. She was trying to support herself without reliance on her family’s money. She wanted to be her own person and not owe anyone for her living. “But honey, I promise, I didn’t touch your email account. Are you having computer trouble? I could call Jimmy to look at it.”

“No, I don’t want you to call anyone. I didn’t call you because I need help. I called you to tell you that you’re not getting away with this. And that I know it was you.”

“It wasn’t me,” he lied. His voice was low and smooth but held a note of amusement that just made Vanna that much more sure that he was guilty. “I wouldn’t do that to my girl.”

“I’m not your girl. We’re finished. So from now on, you just stay out of my business,” Vanna snapped. “Got it?”

“Why don’t I come over to take a look at it for you?” he suggested. “Maybe there’s something I can do. You sound really upset.”

“Of course I’m upset! You’ve ruined my day. Maybe made me lose the Munro file! And all for what? So that you could prove that I need you? That I can’t survive without a man in my life? Well, news flash, I can survive just fine. Just stay out of my stuff.”

“Call me when you change your mind.”

Vanna poked the end button angrily.

Lydia called while Vanna was sitting in the guest chairs at the bank wondering how much longer it was going to be before she could get in to see the manager to confirm her identity and get her email account opened up again. Lydia was like a younger version of Erica. Blonder, fewer wrinkles, and nicer. But she had the same knock-out face and figure that set all the men at the country club on fire and made them drool over the Austin women like they were royalty. The Austin women other than Vanna, anyway.

“I know you’re working,” Lydia started out, “but I wanted to know how breakfast went with Mom…”

“I’m not working,” Vanna said. “My email account got hacked and I have to prove my identity to get it unlocked and get access again. I’m sitting around at the bank, waiting for the manager to look at my ID and everything.”

“Oh. Well, can’t you just do a password reset? You just have them send it to your phone…”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that. He changed my mobile number too, so I can’t send a reset to my phone. And he changed the security questions.”

“St. Valentine?” Lydia questioned.

“Tino. Yeah. Who else would do that to me? It’s not just some random stranger.”

“I can’t believe that he would do that,” Lydia said. “That sucks. Did you call the police?”

“No, I figured it was easier to get in at the bank. But with how long I have to wait…”

“Why would you report hacking to a bank? I thought you said it was your email account?”

Vanna’s thoughts jumped to her bank account. That was another account that she was going to have to change the password on. If Tino got access to her bank account, he could really mess things up for her. Maybe she could change it while she met with the bank manager.

“No, I just had to come to the bank to verify my identity.”

“And you aren’t going to report Tino to the police?”

Vanna thought about it. He would be angry if she made police trouble for him. Really angry. A little bit of mischief messing around with her email account was one thing. She didn’t need to really upset things by reporting him to the police.

“Umm, no. I’m just going to get it straightened out. I don’t think that I need to get the police involved.”

“You should! You should have reported him to the police a long time ago. You just give him license to do whatever he wants.”

Lydia really didn’t know the extent that Tino had hurt Vanna in the past. But Vanna had broken things off with Tino and that wasn’t going to happen again.

“I just want him out of my life,” Vanna told her big sister. “If I report him to the police, then we’re still connected. He’ll be trying to talk me out of it and… I just can’t have him in my life anymore. In any form.”

“Okay,” Lydia agreed reluctantly. She trailed off and was quiet for a few seconds. “So… how about Mom? How did breakfast go?”

Vanna tried to readjust her thinking. To put aside the email fiasco and any thoughts of Tino, and to review her meal with Erica.

“It was about how you’d expect,” she said. “The same as usual. She thinks I’m wasting my life. Why don’t I get a real job? Do something worthwhile. Become a socialite, like her.”

“She wouldn’t say that,” Lydia protested.

“No. Not in so many words. Except for the real job part. But you can see it in her eyes. The way that she asks me what I’m doing. Tries to persuade me to move back home so she can take care of me.”

“She just worries about you.”

“Because she thinks I’m a failure.”

“She doesn’t think you’re a failure. Just that you’re not… grown up yet. You’re her baby.”

Vanna snorted. Yes, she was the baby and her mother still thought that she was a little girl or a rebellious teen. Not that she was a grown woman who was capable of running her own life the way that she wanted to.

“She’s going to have to learn that I am.”

“I know. Give her time. She will.”

Vanna tried to scrape some of the dirt out from under her nails with her keys. “How long was it before she started treating you like a real person? A grown up?”

“I don’t know. I got married and had the kids so quickly, she pretty much had to accept that I had left the nest. You leaving home, but not going to school or getting married… that’s harder for her to swallow.”

“So I should just settle down with Tino and have a couple of kids and then Mom will leave me alone?”

Lydia giggled. “Don’t you dare! I’d kill you. Just don’t let Mom get to you. It’s okay to just be who you really are. You’re a cool person just the way you are.”

“You’ve been watching too much Sesame Street.”

“Maybe you should watch it now and then. It’s very educational.”

A paunchy man in a wrinkled white shirt approached Vanna, his eyebrows raised.

“I have to go,” Vanna told Lydia. “Looks like the bank guy is ready for me now.”

“Okay. Take care. Hope you get this all straightened out. And think about… talking to the police about Tino.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Vanna hung up and stood, extending her hand to the bank employee, whose name tag said ‘Phil.’ “Hi, I’m Vanna Austin.”

It had been a long day. Hours had been wasted in the effort to get access to her email account again. Once Vanna could actually log in, she spent some time looking through her folders, worried about what data she might have lost. She figured she would open up her inbox and it would be filled with hundreds of spam messages. But even though it was pretty full, it was mostly messages from her clients and friends, along with some newsletters and sales letters, and very few messages that were obviously spam.

She couldn’t find anything out of place in any of her folders; everything seemed to still be there and in the right place. It was a big relief, but a bit disconcerting. Like coming home to find that your house had been broken into and the thieves gone, but nothing taken or broken. She expected some kind of damage. Some kind of evidence that someone had been going through her stuff.

Vanna had shaken off the eerie feeling the best that she could and jumped into her work. Munro’s press release and mailing directly to various editors and news outlets had to get out before the markets closed, so she had to work quickly to disseminate it. There was a bunch of follow-up that still had to be done after the markets closed and she worked long into the evening to get caught back up again.

Eventually, her brain was too exhausted to deal with any more work and Vanna closed her files and shut off the computer. She didn’t have a lot of time left before bed, but she could at least spend an hour on her latest creative project. She had found a really cool project online, making old bottles into pendant lights. There were a number of different interpretations that other people had done. Some of them were really stunning. Maybe not the kind of thing that Erica would put in her dining room, but they were going to look great in Vanna’s kitchen. And she might make a proposal to some of the nearby diners and bars to see if any of them wanted to contract for a few. They were unique and had a great ambiance. A real conversational piece.

As she carefully cut the bottoms off of the antique wine bottles that Sandal had helped her to find, she thought about other variations on the pendant light theme. Olive oil bottles in an Italian restaurant. Whisky bottles in varying colors. Different sizes and shapes of glasses. There were a lot of different things she could try.

Her eyes were starting to burn by the time that she put her supplies away. She yawned and rubbed them. She would have a lot of work to do in the morning to try to get caught up on the other clients that had been neglected while she dealt with the hacked email account.

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Pursued by the Past

By P.D. Workman

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