Shadow Unit


"Wireless Girl - by Emma Bull and Stephen Shipman

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other. -- Stewart Brand

"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.

Part 1

They're like flowers.

So trite, that notion. Such a cliché. But it's trite because it's true.

They always come to mind at the sight of gardens and florists. Fresh, bright blossoms swaying on strong stems, until they grow tall enough to be cut. Why? So that someone might admire and want them.

But once their stems are cut, their brightness is a lie. Their freshness is only a last strangled breath in the process of dying. If they're wanted, it's only until the rot browns and curls their petal margins.

That's not love. Flowers should be treasured for their life, not for their death.

Houston, TX, December 1, 2010

Gina Marotta poked the garage door button above the windshield of the Highlander and waited as the door lumbered screeching upward. She tried to remember if the garage was public or private space; should she e-mail the condo's maintenance office to have the thing lubed, or figure out what sort of business would specialize in that and start Googling?

Bobby would know who to call. Which meant she could call Bobby. But always knowing who to call, or thinking he did, was one of the traits that had resulted in him being her ex-husband. She'd spent the past year proving to herself that she knew a few things, too, and could get along without him, at least from day to day.

She'd phone the maintenance office and ask them. Old school. You've got resources, girl. Gina let the SUV roll forward into its space above the stain left by the previous occupant's oil leak.

Leigh's Civic was already parked on the left, its engine ticking irregularly as it cooled down. With a guilty start, Gina remembered she'd been supposed to stop at the bakery to pick up an order on her way home from work. The what escaped her, but the bakery would have known. All she'd had to do was show up. She started planning her apology as her key turned in the kitchen door lock.

She found Leigh in the kitchen, still in her business-casual clothes, stopped as if in mid-step between the fridge and the island.

"I'm sorry, Leak, I totally spaced the bakery until just now. Give me a hug and I'll go right back out--" Gina stopped, because Leigh's frown was deeper, her face more puzzled, than it had been when Gina came through the door.

"Where's Josh?" Leigh asked.


"I thought it was your turn to get him from school. This isn't Space Club day, is it?"

"I'm sorry, what?"

It seemed to be Leigh's turn to stammer and stop and stare blankly.

Gina took a long breath and started over. "I was supposed to pick something up at the bakery, right? I forget what."

"Cupcakes. For Josh's party. Damn, Gina, he's probably moping around the playground wondering if one or the other of us drove off the road or something."

It was as if she and Leigh were in two different movies; their dialogue didn't match. "What the heck are you talking about?"

"Honey. Your son's birthday party."

Gina stared into Leigh's face--her brown eyes level, her brows drawn down, one zigzag black curl sprung loose to dangle on her cheek--and felt fear bite at her guts. Leigh didn't look crazy, or even sound crazy. This must be a joke, the kind that turned out way too complicated and annoying and not funny.

Because if it wasn't, Leigh had gone nuts. And if that was true, Gina's world was ending.

Gina laughed, knowing it sounded forced and fake. "Leak, is this some kind of creepy estrogen wish-fulfillment psychosis?"

She saw her own confusion and fear mirrored on Leigh's dark features. "Gina, where is Joshua?"

"Cut it out, damn it! There's no Joshua. There's no kid. Period."

Leigh lunged forward and grabbed Gina's arm. A squeak of alarm got out of Gina's throat. It's Leigh. Even if she's crazy, she won't hurt me. But she was still too scared to form words.

Leigh pulled her into the kitchen, grabbed her by the shoulders, and spun her around to face the refrigerator. "Then where the hell did those come from?"

On the refrigerator door, held up with her garden-bugs-of-the-world magnets, were drawings done on typing paper with markers. A robot on wheels, with big pincer hands and eyes on stalks that were obviously based on the goose-neck of her desk lamp. A rocket ship, a door open in its base, and four figures about to enter. One was female, dark with curling black hair. The other female figure was pink-skinned and brown-haired. Leigh and me. A man, cartoon-skinny, his brown head round and hairless--that was Bobby.

And a small, smiling male figure with dark hair. She couldn't imagine who it could be.

The drawings were signed "JOSH MAROTTA."

Leigh shook her, just a little, not in a scary way. "Where is he, Gina?"

I don't have a son, she tried to say. But she couldn't speak through the fog thickening around her.

Houston, Texas, December 9, 2010

Supervisory Special Agent Stephen Reyes led his away team through the glass doors into the first-floor lobby of Houston Police Department headquarters. It looks like a bank, he thought. A bank with more security guards than customers.

The man who hurried forward to meet them might have been one of the latter, if not for the way his dark blue suit jacket hung crooked over his service weapon. "Agent Reyes?" he said, and thrust out his hand. "I'm Captain Rory Thiele. Thanks for coming."

Reyes read Thiele's sunburned face and blocky form, knowing his team was doing the same. A ranking officer going out on a limb for one of his reports, and nervous about it. Thiele wasn't convinced about this inquiry, not enough to be certain he wouldn't wind up with departmental egg on his face. But one of his detectives was sure. On the strength of that, he'd called the BAU. Reyes approved of him for it.

He half-turned and introduced Thiele to Esther Falkner, Daphne Worth, and Chaz Villette. Falkner tall, straight as a sword, her pulled-back dark hair so smooth it might be painted on. Worth with her square shoulders and sturdy frame, and her gray-eyed gaze that seemed to search at a molecular level. And Villette, with his untidy hair, long nose, and scarecrow body that looked awkward until he moved.

Reyes tried to see them as Thiele would, but he couldn't, quite. It was like trying to see his own face in a mirror without bias. Thiele shook all the available hands firmly, and seemed not to notice when Chaz's managed, in its usual mysterious fashion, not to be one of them.

"Let's go upstairs," Thiele said. "Detective Jackson's waiting--he's the one who spotted the pattern and recommended we consult you. Elevator's this way."

However bank-like the lobby was, the elevator car was comfortably shabby. Thiele thumbed a button. When the door closed the five of them in, he shifted just enough to be not quite facing forward. The universal elevator prohibition, Reyes reflected, amused.

"Jackson's old pals with the chief of detectives in Beaumont," Thiele said, his tone confiding. "He heard about your manhunt a couple years ago over in Tyler County. Ugly business--one of your agents got pretty mauled up, sounds like."

It was Thiele's turn to read Reyes, or try to. Maybe he was noticing Reyes's scars. "Mmm," Reyes replied helpfully.

He was proud of his team. Falkner might never have seen an act of violence in her life. Worth's face had its shutters up, but politely. And Chaz's perfect stone-faced Fed could have won him an Oscar.

"Doesn't lose you any credit around here. My people know you're not desk-chair detectives."

"I'm glad to hear it," Reyes said, slightly drier than silica gel. These down-South good-old-boy gossips made him feel relentlessly, unapologetically Chicago and academic. Ironic, since he'd given up both. He missed Brady and Lau; either would have sussed out Thiele and known just how to talk to him. He set Reyes's god-damned implanted teeth on edge.

"Captain Thiele?" Chaz said, his slightly windy tenor even and confident. "Has your department made it public that you're looking into possible connections between this case and earlier ones?"

Ah. Of course, Reyes was defensive on Chaz's behalf. And Chaz was reminding him he could take care of himself. Stand down, Stephen.

"No. Seemed like, if there is some link, we'd be smart not to tip off the responsible parties. But Marotta's behavior is mighty hard to explain as anything but a psychotic break." Thiele gave Chaz his full attention for the first time since they arrived. Reyes could tell by the blink of surprise that said, clear as speech, That's not what I thought an FBI agent looked like.

He rallied admirably, however. "You folks know better than I do, but repeated behavior can show up in unconnected mental cases--like tinfoil hats to keep out the voices. You'd think sometimes there was a handbook got passed out."

"We can't rule out a similar psychosis," Falkner agreed. "But we may be able to apply some new data to the cases Detective Jackson's spotted."

"I hope so. I hate to think tying this to a cold case might slow down the investigation on Marotta. Murders in Houston are way ahead of our clearance rate, even though we're working like bastards." Thiele's eyes flicked to Falkner, and Reyes half expected him to mutter, "Begging your pardon, ma'am." But Thiele was made of slightly sterner stuff, apparently.

"Maybe it'll help with your cold cases, instead," Reyes said, in what he hoped was a soothing voice.

The doors opened on a room more in keeping with the elevator car than the lobby's architecture. Detectives had worked these desks for a long time; not even polished stone and metal could hold its own against sixty-hour work weeks of bad coffee, fast food, and the constant awareness that someone, somewhere, was getting killed while you sat on your ass.

Almost everyone in the room found a way to glance casually toward the elevator. Special FBI unit, child disappearance case, prime suspect a crazy mom--every one of the cops here, and most of the support staff, would have chewed the facts and spit out a theory. But only one person rose from his desk chair and stared openly at their little group. Thiele led them straight to him.

"Detective Jim Jackson, Supervisory Special Agent Stephen Reyes. Let's go look over your command center, agents."

Jackson was about Reyes's height, but about a Reyes-and-a-half wide. The flush in his pink skin and the sparkle of sweat along the edge of his receding dust-colored hair suggested he had standing issues with hypertension. His eyes were blue and bloodshot and looked too small behind his wire-framed glasses. As they crossed the room, he seemed to look everywhere except at the FBI agents.

But Reyes was certain he was paying attention.

For each case, each new location, Reyes, Falkner, or Lau would send the list ahead of what they required to do their job. The list was as much public relations as anything. No embattled law enforcement organization wanted to hear that the only thing the hotshot Fed troubleshooters really needed was a room with a door that would shut.

Houston PD had provided one, as well as the table and chairs, the white board, the coffee maker, the fast data line, and the high-rez monitor. No couch this time; the Courtyard Inn was across the street.

Jackson stopped just inside the door, hands in his trouser pockets. Falkner, Worth, and Villette each took in the room with an eye-flick and with a shift of weight or a turn of the chin spoke to Reyes. He passed it on. "Thank you, Captain Thiele. Looks like everything's in order."

Thiele nodded, too relieved to hide it. "I'll let Jackson brief you, then. Anything I can do, you holler, hear?"

Reyes smiled, and Thiele was gone, back to his office where Fibbies didn't show up to ask questions about cases nobody wanted reopened.

Falkner's body language softened. The difference between ramrod and flexible in Falkner could speak as clearly as her tone of voice. Unlike tone of voice, fewer people noticed they were being affected by it. "Do you mind if I sit?" she asked Detective Jackson, warm and a little embarrassed.

"Guess you should." Jackson's voice was pitched deep and rusty. "All of you, and we can get down to it."

Villette and Worth sorted themselves out skillfully to give Reyes the end chair farthest from the door. Jackson scooped a pile of stuffed manila folders off a metal shelf unit and plopped them on the table, as if they were a small and ugly dog and Reyes's team were notorious for kicking.

"We have the files you sent us," Reyes offered mildly.

"There's more."

"A new disappearance?" Worth's professional face folded into a scowl Reyes was familiar with: this does not compute.

"Old ones."

The job didn't take away one's humanity. It only shifted it; the human in the back of his head flinched in horror, while the hunter, sitting for now in the forward seat, took in the fact, weighed it, and nodded. "Tell us what you've got."

Jackson stood mute and blank, as if he hadn't heard. Or had heard what he hadn't expected, and needed to shift gears. "Nobody else here buys that there's a connection."

Villette twitched one shoulder upward, impatient. Reyes resisted the impulse to give that impatience voice. "We'll worry about that later," he said instead.

Falkner scooped Jackson's pile of new case folders to her place at the table, and dealt them out to Worth, Villette, and Reyes.

Jackson sat down abruptly, making the brown metal folding chair squawk. "I caught the Marotta case," he declared, like a confession. "You see it in the news, you'd think Gina Marotta flipped out, killed her nine-year-old kid, and is so psycho she's insisting she never had one. Except she's not psycho, at least not to talk to. No drug use, no history of psych problems. Her girlfriend, Leigh Wilson, says she's not a nutjob, and more to the point, so does Marotta's ex-husband, Robert."

"Why's that more to the point?" Worth asked, and only someone who knew her well would hear the edge in the question.

"Because exes'll talk trash about each other even when there's nothing to talk about. Bobby Marotta says Gina's a good person. And a good mom. He says if anything happened to Joshua, Gina didn't do it."

"You've already looked at Robert Marotta." Falkner took all hint of question out of it. Because in a child abduction, the other parent was the first suspect considered.

Jackson answered her anyway. "He was in San Diego talking to engineers all week. His financials are squeaky clean--no hired kidnapping."

"And no body," Villette said.

Jackson paused just long enough for a sharp inhale. "No. Working off the theory that Gina Marotta killed her son and disposed of the body, we've been searching any place we could connect her to. Nothing. No body, no murder, no murder investigation, no arrest, no charge. What we've got is a missing kid, and a mother who says he doesn't exist."

"But this has happened before?" Reyes said. Leading the witness--away from an unproductive attack of frustration, in this case.

"Three years ago, in 2007. Not our case--this was up in Conroe. I remembered reading the bulletin, because it seemed so damn weird, but it didn't get anything like the press on Marotta. Another nine-year-old boy, Burell Wilkins, went missing on his way home from school. His mom, Lekeesha Burke, was at work in the hospital kitchen. When Burell didn't come to class the next day, the school called Burke. Who said she didn't have children."

"It took that long for someone to notice?"

"Burell was a latchkey kid." Jackson shrugged. "Against the law, him only being nine, but she had to work, and she didn't have a sitter. It was just her and the boy. The dad, Shelton Wilkins, got sent to Ellis the year before, for auto theft."

"What happened to the boy?"

"Never found."

"And Burke?"

"Sentenced to six months for child endangerment, which was suspended while she was in state hospital. Tested her for schizophrenia, brain tumor, all kinds of crap. Didn't find a thing. But she swore she couldn't remember having a son."

"Do you believe her?"

Jackson scratched the side of his nose. "Before Marotta I didn't. So I figured maybe there was a connection. I started digging back. And I found two more cases." He shuffled folders in front of him, stalling for courage, maybe. "Both nine-year-old boys. Both only children of single moms. Both moms swore they didn't have kids."

Worth and Villette were both turning pages. But it was Villette, of course, who said, "There's three years between each abduction. Not to the day, though." He looked up from the files. "So the trigger probably isn't a date."

"That's a long cooling-off period," Worth said doubtfully.

Falkner shook her head. "He's not cooling off. For three years, he has what he wants. Then, suddenly, he doesn't, and he seeks out another child. What happens to a nine-year-old about three years later?"

"Puberty," Worth replied.

Falkner, with her teenage daughter. Their private lives came to the job with them, always. It hurt, but it made them that much better at it. "The good news is, he intends to keep Josh Marotta alive for several years, at least."

No one at the table needed to point out that it was the bad news as well.

Chaz lifted his head from the open folders before him and gave Reyes a look: short, but direct. Then back to the case files. Ah.

"Detective Jackson, we'd like to take an hour or so to look over the new material. But my tentative assessment is, yes, these are serial crimes. If you hadn't followed up on these previous cases..." Reyes let the sentence trail off. Because knowing wasn't the same as solving.

Jackson flushed and thumbed his glasses hard against his browbone. "Most days I wade through shit up to my knees. If I'm lucky, I find a penny. That puts me one cent closer to answering a ten-thousand-dollar question." His scowl said he also knew the difference between knowing and solving. He rose, tugged his wallet from his back trouser pocket, slid a card out, and pushed it toward the middle of the table. "My cell number's on that, if I'm not at my desk."

"Thank you," Reyes said, but to Jackson's back as he went out the door. Reyes wondered if he wished he could leave the case behind, too. Probably. But he followed facts, whether they made sense or not.

When the door closed, he said to Villette, "What are you seeing?"

"The three older cases are low-profile. Working-class mothers basically parenting alone, with backgrounds that make law enforcement and the courts less likely to believe their statements." Villette laid two pages side-by-side in front of him, as if to double-check the information on them. In fact, he was reading it off the record of his memory. It's a habit, Reyes thought. He doesn't want to make the onlookers nervous.

Villette tapped the one on the right. "2004, Shawn Cover was last seen getting off the school bus. Mother Shawna had joint custody with her ex-husband in Missouri, but she moved to Pearland, Texas in defiance of a court order. Two past convictions for shoplifting, misdemeanor simple assault. She's in jail now on an unrelated charge.

"In 2001, William Schutts was abducted; he usually walked home from school with friends, but that day he was kept after school for fighting. His mother Tara was in a court-ordered Narcotics Anonymous program." Villette bit his lower lip. "She committed suicide in 2005."

"And Lekeesha Burke." Falkner nodded. "Woman of color, low-income unmarried mother, father of her child in prison. When she insists she doesn't have a child and obviously does, she gets no hearing at all."

"The world is unfair," said Reyes, "and sometimes, unjust." Once, long ago, there might have been a sense of community to support and protect kids like that. On Chicago's South Side in the '60s, a black child's mother might have spoken better Spanish than English, and his father might have come home from work at four in the morning smelling of cigarettes, stale beer, and reefer. But the neighbors could be counted on to look out for each other, except in the rare cases when they were hell-bent on murder, and that tended to be intimate and selective. These boys had had no one but their mothers.

Though even a village couldn't protect a child from everything.

Worth leaned forward on her elbows, a sharp line creased between her brows. "Then abducting Joshua Marotta may have been the gamma's first mistake."

"Assuming it's a gamma, of course." Reyes managed not to grin when she rolled her eyes at him. "Talk."

"Gina Marotta has credibility. Ten years in her job as a paralegal, an amicable divorce with joint custody, a stable relationship with a live-in partner. She has the support system the other women didn't have, and a bucketload of middle-class respectability besides."

"She's bi," Chaz offered, but not with any conviction.

"In Houston, that's a whole lot of no big deal. The mayor's out, for godsake."

Reyes slid his chair closer to the table; the feet on the chair legs made a rubbery stutter on the commercial carpeting. "All right. Victimology first--what are the commonalities?"

"Male, nine years old." Falkner coughed, and Reyes tried to remember how old her younger daughter Deborah was. "All in--" She snatched a look at the files. "--fourth grade. Marotta and Wilkins were good students. Cover may have had a learning disability; all his skills were below grade level. Schutts was average in everything except athletics."

"They don't have much in common," Worth admitted. "Not on the surface, anyway."

Reyes had to give her that. "Some nine-year-olds look older, some younger. What are the chances this kidnapper would happen to abduct four boys over the course of ten years, all nine years old? He isn't choosing his victims by opportunity alone. These kids were targeted."

"Speaking of opportunity," Falkner said, her voice dry and measured. "That's a pretty big elephant we're talking around."

"The manifestation." Reyes tucked his chin and stared around the table. His team stared fearlessly back. A senior seminar group confident of their research. But he said it anyway: "If there is one."

Falkner nearly duplicated Worth's eyeroll. "Captain Thiele may be desperate to equate this with recurring behavior in schizophrenics, but four women of varying degrees of sanity who forget their own children?"

"Just making sure," Reyes said, and leaned back in his chair.

Worth tugged at a wisp of light brown hair that had slipped out of her ponytail. "He has to have some contact with the mothers. I hope so, anyway. Wiping people's memories selectively at a distance is pretty far off the usual scale."

"But what does he get out of it?" Villette asked. Something about his slow shaping of the words made Reyes turn to him, waiting.

Worth heard it, too; he could tell by the way her shoulders shifted. Balanced, unconsciously ready to move. "It makes it easier for him to take the boys--to get them out of sight before anyone can report them missing."

"Yeah...but only a little. He grabs the kids on their way home from school. But not on a Friday, when he might get a whole weekend before the alarm is raised. He never wins more than eighteen hours head start because of the memory loss. If he were doing it for his advantage, he'd work it harder."

Reyes felt the shiver down his back that said, This is important. "It doesn't enable the abduction. It's part of his mythology."

Villette nodded, a little gray under his fading tan. "'Your mother doesn't love you. She doesn't want you. She's forgotten all about you.' It's every kid's nightmare."

Worth's mouth hung open for a moment before she said, "He could even prove it to them."

It silenced even Reyes. But he pulled himself back from staring into that particular nasty hole. "We'll start with Marotta and work backwards. Worth, I'd like you to interview Robert Marotta and Leigh Wilson. Together, if possible--the police won't have done that, and it might elicit some insights. Falkner, canvas for witnesses. The police will have looked for people who might have approached the boy, but not the mother.

"Villette, I want you to talk to Gina Marotta. We need to know if she genuinely doesn't remember her son."

There was a suggestion of the feral in Villette's half-sidelong look. "You want me to use the mirror."

"I want you to use your judgment," Reyes replied, and refused to feel guilty.

Part 2