"Wireless Girl - by Emma Bull and Stephen Shipman
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Houston, TX, December 10, 2010
"Do you figure I'm most likely to establish a rapport?" Daphne Worth had asked her boss as she was leaving their makeshift command post. She was proud of her tone: absolutely neutral. Brady couldn't have done better.
Reyes could, though. "If you have your doubts, I can send Falkner."
Reyes one, Ms. Smartass zero. Today was clearly not the day she was going to get one past Reyes's guard.
She remembered the exchange as she sat across from Leigh Wilson and Robert Marotta in the living room of the condo Wilson and Gina Marotta shared. Wilson sat upright in a Poang-chair knockoff, hands folded on her skirt-draped knees, feet flat on the rug. It was Marotta who leaned toward Daphne, shaved head pushed forward on his skinny neck, hands and arms starting big, confident gestures that collapsed in mid-sweep.
Marotta looked desperate. Wilson looked angry.
So after Daphne had verified the facts in their statements to the police and gone over the events leading up to Josh's disappearance, she took a chance. "We think something happened to Gina the day Josh went missing. And we don't think she's the first woman it happened to."
"What...what does that mean?" Marotta asked.
"Three other boys in counties around Houston went missing, and their mothers couldn't remember them."
"Where are they now?" Wilson's voice was sharp, her face stern. But Daphne thought she heard a wobble in the last word. "The boys, and their mothers."
"The boys haven't been found." Daphne saw Marotta collapse into his own spine at least an inch. "The women live in towns around--"
"I don't mean where do they live. I mean where are they, what are they doing? Did they get locked up? Were they charged with something? What do they say happened?"
Daphne scooted forward on her couch cushion. "Ms. Wilson, we don't believe Gina has committed a crime. We believe one has been committed against her. Against this family."
Wilson swallowed visibly. "Then why can't she come home?"
"Because the hospital may be able to find some evidence of what was done to her."
Wilson's fingers rose to her mouth, and her eyes closed. "What was done to her" was a phrase every emergency responder and social services worker knew. Wilson worked in Family Services for the county. Daphne had a good idea what she was feeling.
"You think she was drugged or something?" Marotta asked. "Gina didn't... Unless she didn't know."
"We can't tell yet how it was done. That's why we want to keep her under observation a little longer. I'm sorry." Daphne said the last words directly to Wilson.
The woman's breath came out in a shudder. "You hear stories. I know it's not the bad old days, but you hear... Like that woman in Florida, dying in the hospital, and her wife not allowed in. People trying to get their grandkids away from their daughter because she moves in with a woman. Some people still say it's mental illness."
Wilson's hands dropped to her lap again, but her fierce composure was gone. She'd said aloud the thing that frightened her. Marotta reached across the end table and touched her arm lightly, and Wilson clutched his fingers.
Unfit. Unstable. Wilson was right: straight conservatives might point a finger at Gina Marotta for raising a child while living with a woman. Radical lesbians might consider her bisexuality and call it sexual opportunism. Abnormal. Unsafe. No way to raise a son.
Daphne realized her fingers had dug into fabric over her thighs. She let go, of the cloth and her anger. She was careful to use present tense when she asked, "How is Josh doing in school?"
"Really well," Wilson replied, eagerness and pride edging past her reserve. Beside her, Robert Marotta nodded vigorously. "He lost it, kind of, when Gina and Bobby divorced."
"He was just scared," Marotta offered.
Wilson snorted. "So were we. He was like a different kid, sometimes. But he's pretty happy now." The twitch that crossed her face was like the shadow of a hunting hawk across open ground. Was he happy now?
"Did he mention any problems at school, particularly with adults? Or did he mention seeing or being approached by a stranger?"
They both thought hard, but at last they shook their heads.
"Had he joined any new clubs or groups in the last few months? Scouting or athletics? Or have the adult advisers changed in any of his old groups?"
"No," said Wilson, and Marotta shook his head to this, too.
"I'd like to look at his room. Would that be all right?" She could insist, or assume. But she knew better than to do it. Daphne wanted Wilson and Marotta comfortable enough to think out loud.
Josh Marotta's bedroom had glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. "They're in constellations," Wilson said proudly from the doorway, as Daphne stood at the foot of the twin bed and stared upward. "He did them himself."
Behind her, Robert Marotta gazed at the ceiling as if it really were the heavens, and he was praying for something.
The top of the bookshelf was covered with Star Wars action figures and models of the space shuttle, a lunar landing module, and a Saturn V rocket in entertaining and not-to-scale juxtaposition. On a table under the window, a messy project involving notebook paper, glue sticks, rubber bands, and the cardboard tubes from paper towels was under way. "Did he have a backpack?" Daphne asked.
"It was... He had--he takes it to school with him."
Of course. "Does he have a cell phone?"
Wilson shook her head. "He bugged us to get him one. We said maybe when he was twelve. He said..." She smiled, and the smile slipped a little at the corners. "He said we were so old school."
Something missing. On the desk... "He doesn't have a computer?"
"He uses the one in the living room. We're careful about him being online."
Marotta said, "When he stays with me, he uses mine. But he only gets it for an hour every evening."
Wilson nodded. "We keep track of how he--"
Daphne all but heard Wilson's throat close up. So careful. But someone still got him.
Marotta laughed awkwardly, covering the silence. "Gina used to say, 'You need a real social life! Not like your mother!'"
"She met me online," Wilson said. "So I can't complain."
"Was that before or after the divorce?" Daphne asked, then could have bitten her tongue for the baldness of it.
But neither Marotta nor Wilson were offended. "After," Marotta answered. "Gina and I are best friends. We're just not supposed to be married." He shrugged, embarrassed.
Social networking, Daphne mused. Imaginary Internet friends. And friends share information like an exchange of hostages. Makes a bond. She turned to Marotta and Wilson, and found them staring. "Sorry. I was just-- Does Gina have her own computer?"
"Laptop in the bedroom," said Wilson.
"I want to see it," Daphne said, forgetting all her careful diplomacy.
Gina Marotta had a pleasant, tiny room, full of December sun. The bed had side rails at the head end, like one in a nursing home, but wasn't the high, threatening hospital sort. The bedspread was chenille the color of cold butter.
The chair had wooden arms and pinkish-brownish vinyl upholstery. There was only one, so Chaz sat in it. Marotta sat on the end of the bed.
She wore elastic-waist sweatpants and a blue oversize T-shirt. Nothing in the room was breakable or sharp-edged.
"I told the police everything I can remember," she said, her voice dull. She was so short her feet swung a little above the scrubbed linoleum unless she put her toes down to stop them. She looked up, wide-eyed, into Chaz's face. "But that's the problem, isn't it?"
He had to nod. "Ms. Marotta, I'd like you to think about the day...the day you came home and Ms. Wilson told you about Josh."
She shrugged. "It was just a day. I went to work." Her face puckered hard. "Oh, Jesus. I bet I don't have a job. Crazy lady who can't remember if she has a kid--yeah, that's who you want looking up court records for you."
Any other time her skin would be amber-tan, Chaz decided, and her cheeks would probably be flushed. Now she was oddly pale and damp-looking, like a plant sprouting under old boards. Her brown hair seemed to grow sideways out of her scalp, dragged down by gravity.
"It's okay," Chaz said, though of course it wasn't. "I want you to slow down and go through that day. It was a Wednesday, right? Start from when you left your house. You drove to work?"
"Yeah. I sat at my desk--"
"Wait. Where did you park?"
Gina squinted at him; it was the first time she'd focused on him properly since he'd come in and introduced himself as FBI-just-want-to-ask-a-few-questions. "Parking garage under the building."
"Was there anyone nearby when you got out of the car?"
The squint became a frown. "No."
"Did you take the stairs up, or the elevator?"
"The elevator. Look, what is this? Why do you want to know?"
Oh, that was Gina Marotta, or at least a bit of her--not that faded, passive woman who'd sat there until now. "We think someone did something to you during that day that made you forget. It would have to be someone who got close to you. Maybe someone you might not have recognized."
Gina stared, and her head shifted slightly, side to side. "That's just... That can't be possible. I mean, I remember everything except having--except my son. How do you cut out a little piece of memory like goddamn mold on cheese?"
She didn't remember. She worked hard to say "my son," because everyone she trusted told her she had one. But they were just words. She had no one to attach them to.
"Just help me out, okay? Was there anyone else in the elevator?"
She shook her head once more, but she didn't quite subside into misery again. "Um. I think so? There usually is. I think someone--two people, in suits. Oh! And Luisa, the receptionist for the title company on three."
Chaz walked her through the day, backing her up whenever he had to. She'd taken her midday coffee in the law office break room with two other paralegals. She'd gone out to lunch at a taco shop two blocks down the street, one she often went to. On the way back she got a bottled water and a lottery ticket from a newsstand, and browsed the magazines. She took delivery of legal files from three different messengers. In the afternoon she rode the elevator downstairs to the garage.
"Was there anyone on the elevator then?"
"No. It was four p.m. The offices weren't out yet, mostly."
"But you left early."
A line appeared between Gina's brows. It deepened. "I did."
"Why did you leave before the workday was over?"
"I... It was Wednesday. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, I leave..." Her voice slid down to an almost-whisper. "I leave early. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday."
"Why is that?"
"I don't-- Oh, Jesus. Oh, sweet Jesus. It's true, isn't it? I must have left early to pick up--to pick up him." Gina shoved the knuckle of her right index finger between her teeth.
"Did you know that was why you were leaving early?" Maybe, if she'd left at four, it meant she still knew about Josh. If so, her contact with the gamma took place in that tiny window between leaving the office and reaching her car.
"I'm not sure. I always leave on Wednesday at four, so...I don't know if I even thought about it. How can I not fucking remember?"
"Ms. Marotta, it's not your fault."
She turned on him, fury in her face. "How do you know? I have a kid I don't remember. How does that make me anything but a shitty mother? And it's like I never had a chance to be a good one. I don't know if I was ever a mother at all." She pressed the heels of her hands to her temples so hard Chaz could see the skin whiten. "Whoever he is, he's just not in here!" Her fingers curled, and her short nails dug into her scalp.
Chaz crossed to the bed in a single long stride and caught her wrists. She was strong, but not stronger than he was. Tears leaked down her puckered face.
"You're a good mother," he told her. "Your ex-husband says so. Leigh Wilson says so. They both say there's no way you'd let anything happen to Josh. That you love him." He felt the fight slowly drain out of her muscles. "You aren't responsible for this."
She sat slumped, her breathing uneven and hoarse. Chaz held onto her wrists, but his fingers only circled them now. Just contact, and maybe security.
He was stiff from standing bent over her when she said at last, "They wanted to give me pills. Something for anxiety at first. Then an antidepressant. I wouldn't take anything. I thought, maybe this is some weird drug interaction or brain chemistry thing. How do I know it wouldn't be worse if I take medication?"
Chaz released her hands and crouched beside the bed. "I understand that."
"They're afraid I'll try to kill myself." Gina looked down at him, her head a little tilted, her mouth wry. "If I had a son and I'd lost him, maybe I would. That's how they see it, though."
Chaz nodded and swallowed against the iron-hard lump in his throat. "They don't get it."
"If I were them, I wouldn't, either. How can you imagine something like this?" She puffed air out her nostrils. "It's not normal."
Chaz wished he could deny it. He straightened up and brushed his fingers over her shoulder instead.
The sign over the low red-and-white building read, "Prissys Kitchen." In smaller letters underneath, it added, "Breakfast All Day." Reyes wondered if an apostrophe came and went in the restaurant's printed material and advertising, and if it did so in any pattern. Whatever the answer, the customers appeared to be unmoved. Midway between lunch and dinner, the little parking lot was still half full.
He pushed open the glass door and stepped into the smell of Farmer Brothers' coffee, hot fat, and potatoes. The booths jutted out from the front windows and lined both sides of the center half-height wall. Along the back of the room was the counter with its stools, and the hatch into the kitchen.
At the near end of the counter a Hispanic-looking woman of about twenty with a pierced lower lip made change at the cash register. "Excuse me," Reyes said to her. "I'd like to speak to Lekeesha Burke, if she's got a moment."
His badge would have got him that moment and more. But he thought Burke might prefer it this way.
The woman at the register frowned at him, as if trying to remember if she'd seen him before. "Lemme ask. What's your name?"
"Stephen Reyes. She doesn't know me; I'm here on business."
She took the change to a customer at one of the booths, then pushed through a swinging door beside the kitchen hatch. Half a minute later, she came back out.
"She's on break in fifteen minutes, if you wanna wait."
"Yes, thank you. Could I have a cup of tea, please?" It would be lousy, but he wanted to pay for the seat. He slid onto the nearest counter stool.
It was closer to twenty minutes later when Lekeesha Burke pushed her way out of the kitchen. She was about medium height and heavy, with an olive undertone to her brown skin that hadn't shown in her photos. Her straightened hair was packed into a hairnet, and she still wore an apron over her T-shirt and jeans. Tiny pearl studs shone in her earlobes.
She eyed him sideways, warily. "I'm Lekeesha Burke." Her voice was startling: velvety, like a late-night radio announcer's.
"I'm Supervisory Special Agent Stephen Reyes, of the FBI. I've come because I hope you can help me with a case my team is working in Houston."
He'd spoken softly, but alarm opened her eyes wider, and she shot an involuntary look at the rest of the room.
"This is no one's business but yours, and you're free to refuse to speak to me if you prefer."
"Is that why you're talking to me at work?" There was no missing the sarcasm.
"I'm sorry. I know this is awkward, but it's a child abduction case. The time factor may be critical."
He saw the past rise up bitter in her throat. "I am done with that." The force in her words didn't require volume; he nearly took a step backward.
"I understand. But we suspect the person who took this boy is the same one who took your son."
Burke stood stiff behind the counter, as if strung tight between turning her back and staying. But she said finally, "You shouldn't oughta order tea in a place like this."
"I know." He let one corner of his mouth lift.
She nodded. "Let's go outside."
She led him around the side of the building to a boarded-up drive-through window, where an awning cast a neat rectangle of shade. "All right," she said, and folded her round arms across her apron.
"You weren't the first," Reyes told her, because he knew she was moments away from telling him to get the hell out of her breathing space. "Two other nine-year-old boys were kidnapped before yours, at three-year intervals. In both cases, their mothers didn't remember they existed."
Burke's chest rose and fell, and her teeth pressed into her lower lip. "Aren't you going to tell me that's not possible?"
"No. That's what makes me different from the other people who've asked you questions."
He watched that sink in, watched with a twinge of regret as it weakened the steel she'd used to hold herself up for the last three years. "They thought I killed my son. Not just forgot him--killed him. I got laid off from my job. I got e-mails calling me a murderess, calling me Satan's own, saying I should kill myself. God knows how they got my e-mail address.
"One morning I came out of my house and I found a little bird. Somebody had stuck it to my door with a pocket knife. I moved twice. So far, nobody's bothered me here. So when you say you understand, maybe you don't know every little thing."
"Do you remember anything at all about your son? Has anything come back to you?"
Her chin sank--not in shame, but in an attitude of melancholy thought that painters had delighted in since at least the Renaissance. Ghoulish bastards, painters. She picked up a corner of her apron and wiped her fingers as she spoke, as if she felt grease Reyes couldn't see.
"I had photos. I used to look and look at them, and I'd think, 'That's my baby. That's my boy. I named him Burell.' That was my mama's maiden name, so he really was mine, 'cause how else would he be called Burell?" She lifted her eyes to meet Reyes's. "Sometimes I'd think I remembered something. Then I'd realize I just remembered the picture."
"I know it's been a long time. But did anyone new come into your life at about then? A new coworker, an acquaintance, a neighbor. Even a stranger you might have noticed."
Burke shrugged. "People always coming and going in the hospital kitchen. I don't recall any new neighbors."
"Do the names Shawn Cover or William Schutts sound familiar? Or Shawna Cover, or Tara Schutts?"
Burke shook her head. "Are those the other boys and their mamas?"
"Yes. If we could find something the boys had in common, we might be able to learn more about the person who took them."
She almost laughed, though the arches of her plucked brows suggested pain more than amusement. "Well, since I don't know a thing about my child, I won't be much help. Maybe I've got something in common with their mamas."
So Reyes told her what he knew about Shawna Cover and the late Tara Schutts. He watched her eyes narrow as he talked, her jaw jut forward.
"No," she interrupted at last. "I got nothing in common with trash like that. I worked hard. Shelton and I were gonna get married. We loved each other. I never did drugs and I never drank. I may not remember my child, but I know I would have been a better mother to him than that." Her hands, twisted in her apron, were shaking.
"Yet you left him home alone when you went to work."
"I got no memory of that, either. Those other two women deserved to have their troubles. What did I do that's like what they were? Why would something like this come down on me?"
"It came down on your son, Ms. Burke." It was the first time in the interview he'd sounded like a Fed, and he knew it was because he was angry. Burke hadn't been nine years old and alone except for a stranger. She'd had people to turn to.
And they had turned away.
Burke breathed hard, like the fighter she was, and her lips worked. Finally she turned and leaned one shoulder against the frame of the old drive-through window, as if her moment of anger had taken all her strength. "You're right. I forget that, because...because I forgot him."
Remorse pinched at Reyes's guts. "I'm sorry. Of course. And none of this was your fault. Whoever took your son, you were as much his victim as the boy was."
It was true. Leteesha Burke's life had been broken open and everything she loved scattered beyond gathering. Her son's suffering Reyes had to imagine, but Burke's was standing in front of him.
"Thank you, Ms. Burke. I'm so sorry to have put you through this again. If I can help you, please, don't hesitate to call." He fumbled his card case out of the inside pocket of his suit jacket and handed her one.
She stared at it as if it were blank. "You still believe me. That I can't remember."
"Yes. And that none of what happened was your fault."
She nodded, her lips pressed tightly closed. "I got to go back to work."
"Thank you again. And I'm sorry for your loss." The pat sentence meant something different this time, but he meant it just as fervently.
As he reached his rental car, his phone muttered in Ella Fitzgerald's voice. He propped his elbow on the roof and answered it. "Reyes. How's it going?"
Esther Falkner managed to sound weary and crisp at the same time. He realized that didn't surprise him. "Gina Marotta could have had contact with our UNSUB dozens of times in the course of her day. There's no security desk in the office building, so no sign-in log. The parking garage is public access. And her condo community gives the residents so much privacy they might not even look out a window for days at a time. However."
Reyes's spirits had been dropping, but the last word kicked them upward. He opened the car door and sat sideways in the driver's seat. "Go."
"Worth learned that Marotta spent a lot of time on the Internet. E-mail, Facebook, at least half a dozen bulletin boards, as well as following and commenting on a list of weblogs. We're working on getting consent from Marotta to go over her laptop."
"She'd be crazy to give it," Reyes said.
"Why? You have any objection to granting her immunity in exchange?"
"Hah. Editorial comment withdrawn." Something about Worth's discovery made him itchy, so he scratched. "Leteesha Burke said something about e-mail. That she got hate mail in her inbox after she was released from custody."
The silence on the other end of the line probably seemed longer than it was. Finally Falkner said, "The William Schutts abduction took place in 2001. Correct me if I'm being old and stodgy here, but I don't think Facebook existed."
"I'm not sure most of those things existed. I'm certain they weren't the entertainment of choice for nine-year-old boys."
"No," Falkner answered, dragging it out as if she needed to taste it, to be sure, "but maybe that's not who we're talking about."
"The mothers." He felt again the shiver, the jolt, that said they had hold of the right fact. "It's not about the boys. They're not his victims. He's targeting the mothers."
"Surrogates. Whoever he's angry at, he can't touch."
"And he was nine years old when whoever it is hurt him. His mother, or someone he saw as his mother." He was breathless; the hunter was riding him hard.
"Stephen. That's a start. But it's not going to narrow the field enough."
Falkner was right. Even within the greater Houston area, there had to be thousands of people who, correctly or not, felt wronged by their mothers at nine. They could start with Child Protective Services, comb their databases for abuse cases involving nine-year-old boys, but they'd be at it for days.
"Assuming the person we're after had contact with CPS in the first place," Falkner said, finishing his thought. He hadn't realized he'd been thinking aloud.
"We need to compare Marotta's Internet contacts with Burke's."
"And with Cover's and Schutts's, if they had any. How long will that take?"
Reyes sagged against the seat back. The car was parked with its nose to the west; beyond the windshield a low, ragged line of trees showed black against long striations of orange, peach, and unlikely lavender clouds. Sunset in Texas.
"Stephen?" Falkner's voice in his ear reminded him he hadn't spoken aloud this time. "You're not seriously considering it."
"Give me an alternative."
"The genie won't go back in the bottle. You can't monitor her, and you can't control her."
"No," he said, and grief and self-loathing almost strangled the next words in his throat. He swallowed, and got them out. "But Villette can."