Author's Note: These first four chapters (1-4) are identical to 'Shadeside' 21-25. There is no hidden 'extra' in one version or the other. I promise. -MM
"Agent Roberts reporting for duty."
"Agent Shawn Roberts?"
"Drop the 'sir', I work for a living. I'm Agent Simmons, but you can call me Gary."
"Yes sir... Gary. My orders say that I'm supposed to report to you to receive my first field assignment."
"Your first, huh? Lucky me. Oh well, I suppose that no one goes through all the training to end up behind a desk. You gotta get your feet wet sometime."
Agent Roberts didn't have a response for that, so he waited anxiously to be told what to do.
"I guess this assignment makes more sense to me now that I know I'm being saddled with a rookie. The long and short of it is, we've been ordered to investigate the kidnapping of a child... let's see... here it is... his name is Devin Barnes. He disappeared from his home in Rockport, Connecticut three weeks ago. Yesterday we received photographic evidence of him being in Columbus, Ohio."
"And a minor being transported across state lines without parental approval would make it our jurisdiction." Agent Roberts said thoughtfully.
"That's right. What's more, it appears that the boy has been severely abused. The police officers that took the photographs weren't able to subdue the boy. He ran off into the woods and they weren't able to find him again."
"How sure are we that it was really him?"
"There's little doubt. They had him cornered for a few minutes and were able to snap several pictures of him while they were trying to talk him down."
"Were they able to gather any information about his abductors?"
"None. The boy seemed to be on his own. By all accounts, Devin seemed to be almost feral. The officers on the scene said that he didn't seem to comprehend their spoken words."
"That may indicate some type of drug being used to control the boy."
"Nothing in my reading of the report raised any red flags about that with me, but you can read over the reports for yourself on the way and maybe you can spot something."
"On the way to where?"
"When are we leaving?"
"Just as soon as you stop asking questions."
"You mean that we're leaving right now?"
"Now I see how you made it into the FBI, with deductive reasoning skills like that." Agent Simmons chuckled.
"Will I have time to go back to my apartment and pack something?"
"Sure, if you don't mind taking a later flight. Of course, I'm going on ahead while there's still a chance of finding that missing boy."
"That's okay. I'll find a way to manage. The job comes first."
"A piece of advice, Rookie. Always keep a bugout bag with you, ready to go. When we get called out, it usually isn't for high tea. Most of the time it's for something dirty, dangerous and extremely time-sensitive."
"I'll remember that."
"Good. Come on. They won't hold the flight for us."
* * * * *
"From what I'm reading here, I'm not seeing a motive for a kidnapping. The parents aren't particularly wealthy and there hasn't been any ransom note." Agent Roberts said once their plane had taken to the air.
"It could just be some pervert who likes to bugger little boys."
"Then why would his captors let the boy go out on his own?"
"Maybe he escaped."
"But if that were the case, why wouldn't he accept help from the police?"
"Trauma, maybe. Or it could be that the boy was raised to be afraid of, or even to hate the police. That's not too uncommon nowadays."
"I suppose that could be it. I've seen plenty of examples of people demonizing the police and yet who do they call at the first sign of trouble? It makes no sense."
"If you want to deal with people who make sense, you're in the wrong line of work."
"Wait. What's this? According to the Rockport investigation, Devin had made mention of being 'stalked' before his disappearance."
"Yes. If not for that, this probably would have been treated as a 'runaway' situation."
"The look in his eyes. He doesn't even look human anymore."
"Those pictures are haunting, aren't they?"
"They're horrifying. How could a sweet looking kid from a middle class neighborhood in Connecticut all of a sudden be transformed into an animal like this?"
"Another thing to consider is disease. Although that wouldn't account for the supposed abduction, it might be able to explain such a radical change in his personality."
"What are you suggesting?"
"Rabies... or some other communicable disease that can cause the victim to lose higher brain function."
"I can't say that I've ever studied much about anything like that."
"Like I said, it doesn't help to explain the abduction, so it's not likely to be relevant. Even so, at this stage of things we can brainstorm the possibilities so that we're more likely to spot evidence to support one of our crackpot theories."
"Do you know if anyone has followed up on the 'stalker'?"
"So far, all we've been able to come up with is the testimony of the few people that Devin mentioned it to. There hasn't been any evidence to suggest that there even was a stalker. I suppose that another possibility might be mental illness. Devin might have been experiencing paranoia and was seeing a 'stalker' as a symptom of his decline into madness."
"That might be worth investigating. It fits in with the established facts. But if it were mental illness, there should have been warning signs before he went off the deep end like this. Something this severe doesn't typically manifest overnight."
"I'm going to put in a request to the investigators in Connecticut to inquire further about Devin's mental state prior to his disappearance. It could give us a clue as to whether we might be dealing with drug addiction, mental illness or something else."
"What will we be doing when we land? I'm guessing that we won't have time to go to a hotel and get settled in."
"We're going to be met at the airport by Agent Abernathy from the local field office. We'll be filled in on any new leads or developments and carry on from that point."
"Why are we being flown in if they already have local agents?"
"It comes down to specialization and experience. I'm sure that the Columbus agents are perfectly competent and qualified to investigate several different types of routine incidents. But apparently this is something far enough outside their area of expertise that they feel it's better to call in someone who's encountered such situations before."
"So do you mostly get called in on kidnapping cases?"
"No." Gary said simply and seemed to consider his choice of words carefully before continuing, "Some cases require you to 'think outside the box'. Whatever this is doesn't appear to be motivated by greed or politics. There's no indication of a relationship having been established that would make this 'a crime of passion' or anything like that."
"So you were called in because there's no clear motivation?"
"It's not just that. In this instance, there's no tangible evidence that a crime has even been committed. We know that Devin went missing, but we can't definitively say that he was abducted. That's an assumption on our part."
"I think I get it. This is so open ended that the investigation could take off in any direction. So rather than burden the local office with something that might grow out of control, they bring us in to focus on this case to the exclusion of everything else going on."
"Yes. Something like that. Although we will depend on Agent Abernathy to fill us in on any local cases that might share common threads with Devin's case."
"What do you think the chances are that we'll be able to return Devin to his family, safe and sound?"
"Listen, Rookie. Sometimes you just have to content yourself with finding the answer."
* * * * *
"Agent Simmons, Agent Roberts? I'm Agent Willem Abernathy. Welcome to Columbus."
"Thank you. Have there been any new developments in the case in the past few hours?"
"Possibly. There have been reports of missing pets near the area where we encountered the boy. That might be related."
"We haven't considered the possibility of cult activity. That might be worth looking into." Shawn said thoughtfully.
Agent Simmons nodded, then asked, "Agent Abernathy, could you possibly get us information about known cults and recent cult activity in the area?"
"That might take some doing. Although we haven't been able to pin anything down, there have been rumors of a secret society operating in Columbus for decades."
"It's unlikely that anything that well established could be responsible for Devin's disappearance. I have a feeling that what we're looking for is a bit more 'ragtag'."
"I'll ask around and see what I can uncover for you."
"Where are we going first?"
"I thought that you'd want to see the site where the pictures were taken. Maybe you'll be able to spot something that we didn't know to look for."
"I don't know about that, but I guess it's a place to start."
* * * * *
"Okay. Give me the history. How did you find out that the boy was here?"
"One of the residents spotted him digging through garbage cans and called the local police. As a matter of course, they forwarded the photographs that they took to us and our computer was able to make a match."
"When the boy escaped, where did he go?"
"Over there, into the park."
"Did they pursue him?"
"Yes, for a few minutes, anyway. The thing is, they didn't have any idea that he was anything other than a typical homeless youth at that point. When they lost track of him in a heavily wooded area, they broke off their chase, resigned to the fact that he would turn up eventually... one way or another."
"Is that your way of saying dead or alive?"
"Yes. That's what I'm saying."
"That's life in the big city, Rookie. Homeless people die. Sometimes they're kids. We don't have to like it, but we do have to accept it, or we won't be able to focus on doing our jobs."
"Is there a large homeless population residing in the park?"
"No. It's a little too rustic for most of them. Actually, the homeless tend to steer clear of this area."
"Do we have time for me to have a look around?"
"Don't get too full of yourself, Rookie. Don't be thinking that you know it all."
"Do you have a more productive strategy in mind?"
"Yes. I'm getting familiar with the background so that I can determine what still needs to be investigated."
"That sounds like a good plan. While you're doing that, I'll be here, walking around the park looking for leads. Call me on my cell when you're done."
"You seem to be awfully sure of yourself all of a sudden."
"Am I a member of this team or your personal assistant, following you around, waiting on you to tell me what to do?"
"Well, to be honest, I expected for you to tag along behind me for at least a few weeks, absorbing my 'pearls of wisdom', but then I'd be forced to kick you out of the nest so that you could try to become your own person." Gary said frankly, then added, "Let's give this a try. If it ends up not working out, there's still plenty of room in the nest."
"I'll remember that." Agent Roberts said with a smile, then thought to ask, "Do you have my cell number?"
"Yeah. It was included in your assignment paperwork. You got mine?"
"Yes. I made sure to add it to my contact list before I reported for duty."
"Fine. Call if you run into any trouble."
* * * * *
Agent Roberts was startled by the sound of his cell phone ringing.
"Hello?" He answered unsteadily as he put the phone to his ear.
"I finished going over the local cult activity with Agent Abernathy and I thought that I'd check in with you. Have you been able to come up with anything?"
"I don't know."
"Don't be too hard on yourself, Rookie. There may not be anything to find."
"The last thing I remember was being in the parking lot talking to you and Agent Abernathy. I snapped out of it just now when my phone rang. Now I'm in a restaurant... somewhere."
"Are you saying that you don't remember anything that happened to you in the past three hours?"
"I guess so. I can't be sure about anything at the moment. I'm still a little out of it, like I just woke up from a deep sleep."
"Give me your location and I'll take you to a doctor."
"No. Except for the gaping hole in my memory, I think that I'm fine."
"We'll need to do a comprehensive drug test to try to account for your missing memories."
"I haven't had anything to eat or drink since I arrived in Columbus so it seems highly unlikely that I could have been drugged."
"This doesn't have anything to do with uncovering the truth. This is about covering your ass and eliminating alternative explanations."
"Fine. Give me a second." Shawn said into the phone, then he could be heard saying more distantly, "Excuse me, but I need to call for a ride. Can you tell me where this is?"
Agent Simmons couldn't hear the response, but a moment later Shawn said into the phone, "I'm at the White Castle on Alum Creek Drive."
"Hold on. I need to be sure that Abernathy knows where that is." Agent Simmons said seriously.
Shawn waited anxiously, and noticed that he had empty food wrappers and a beverage container on the table before him.
"She knows where it is, but she wants to know how you got all the way out there."
"I'd like to know that too. I'm going to do a little investigating while I wait for you to show up."
"Be careful, Rookie. Don't make the mistake of assuming that things are what they appear to be. It's possible that you're being set up to 'discover' something."
"I'll keep my eyes open. Ring me when you get here."
* * * * *
"Excuse me. Do you have a minute? I need to ask you a question."
"I got me a old man at home an two babies. Ain't gonna happen." The cashier said flatly. She was wearing a name badge that said 'Cheryl' and a weary expression.
"No. It's nothing like that. I just wondered if you were here when I came in."
"Yeah. I guess so. I been here since eleven."
"Did you see if I came in with anyone else? You see, I can't remember. I just woke up here." Shawn quietly explained.
"Got roofied, huh? I'm guessin you came in with the lunch rush. I got no idea if you came in with someone else. First I noticed, you was sittin over there munching your fries."
"So you don't remember if I ordered the food I was eating?"
"Listen, I see maybe two hundred people in the space of an hour during lunch rush. Don't ask me to remember any one of 'em."
"Do you think anyone else might have noticed?"
"Prolly not. I got the best view of the dining room from the register." Cheryl said simply, then added more firmly, "If you'll excuse me, these nice folks behind you look hungry and they prolly don't have all the time in the world to be waiting on you."
"Yes. Of course. But please ask around to see if anyone might have seen me come in or how I got here."
"I'll do what I can." Cheryl responded, then looked past Agent Roberts and said, "Welcome to White Castle. What can I get for you today?"
* * * * *
Shawn went back to the table where he had awakened and looked at the opposing seat to see if there was any indication that someone might have been sitting with him.
Nothing immediately caught his eye, so he opened his drink container and carefully sniffed to see if he could detect anything out of the ordinary that might have been added to it.
Again, there wasn't anything obvious, but he resolved himself to taking the drink container with him so that it could also be tested.
After taking his seat again, he surreptitiously looked around the dining room to see if anyone appeared to be watching him, either having recognized his predicament or possibly to observe their handiwork.
Everyone seemed to be enjoying their meals and paying no attention to him whatsoever.
"Man, I axed around in the back and no one saw nothin." Cheryl said as she approached his table.
"Thanks for checking. I appreciate it." Shawn said sincerely.
"Did they get your money or anything?"
Shawn took out his wallet and quickly verified its contents before saying, "No. In fact, whoever did this to me must have paid for my meal because every bit of my money's still here."
"They roofied you up and didn't even take your money? All I can figure is that you musta been sperm-jacked. All dressed up in that suit like that, it wouldn't surprise me. You prolly a good catch. Don't be surprised if in a month or two some bitch shows up an says you gone be a daddy."
Shawn's eyes went wide at the suggestion.
"Breaks over. Good luck, Baby Daddy." Cheryl said with a sympathetic grin at him before returning to the kitchen.
Shawn looked back at the table and fought harder than ever to try and retrieve some sort of memory of what had happened in the past three hours.
* * * * *
"How you doing, Rookie?" Agent Simmons asked as Shawn got into the car.
"I'm about as freaked out as I've ever been." Shawn said honestly.
"Abernathy's going to drive us to the hospital now. Have you remembered anything?"
"No. It's like those hours of my life were completely edited out."
"Well, the good news is that there haven't been any reports of a bank robbery or a shooting spree during that time frame, so at least you don't have to worry about that."
"Good to know. I hadn't really thought about it, but it is possible that I could have done something illegal during that time."
"We'll worry about that if the time comes. For now, let's just focus on what we know and what we can verify with evidence and facts."
"We know that I was at the location by the park. We know that three hours later I was at the White Castle. I don't know where to begin with what happened in between."
"The drug test may provide some answers."
"I brought my drink from White Castle, just in case they slipped me something in there."
"Seems unlikely, but it's worth checking."
"Hold on. Incoming message." Agent Abernathy said from the driver's seat as she put a hand to her earpiece and said, "Abernathy here. Go ahead."
Gary and Shawn went silent and waited.
"Acknowledged. Secure the scene and we'll be there as quickly as we can."
There was another long silent moment as Agent Abernathy touched her earpiece again, then she said, "Police report an abandoned car with Connecticut plates located in Reynoldsburg. They're securing the scene and will wait for us to arrive."
"Any word on the owner of the car?"
"It was reported stolen three weeks ago. As soon as local FBI operatives arrive on the scene, they'll start working on trying to trace the car back using traffic cameras and other video surveillance."
"Good. With any luck, the driver will have stopped at an ATM somewhere along the way."
"The hospital's up ahead. Why don't I drop you two there and continue on to the scene?" Agent Abernathy asked seriously.
"I'm a big boy. I don't need for someone to hold my hand. Why don't you two go on ahead and I'll call when I'm done with the blood test?"
"No can do. If anything comes of the blood test, we're going to need corroborating testimony about how the samples were collected. I can't say that me being there will help our case, but me not being there will only open us up to another avenue to have our findings questioned." Agent Simmons said frankly.
Shawn didn't dispute the senior agent's words and waited as Agent Abernathy pulled to a stop by the hospital entrance.
* * * * *
Walking into the hospital, Shawn was dreading what was to come.
"They should be expecting us. I called ahead." Agent Simmons assured him.
As they walked to the main reception area, Gary took the lead and said, "We're Agents Roberts and Simmons from the FBI. I was told that there would be someone here to expedite the process of gathering blood samples."
"Yes sir. We have someone on the way, he should be here any minute. If you'll please take this paperwork and fill it out, he should be here before you're finished."
Shawn inwardly groaned at the chore before him, but understood the necessity of it.
* * * * *
"Agents Simmons and Roberts?" A pleasant looking man asked as he walked into the waiting area.
"Yes. Over here." Agent Simmons said as Shawn continued to answer a variety of health related questions.
"I'm Dr. Raphael Killian, I was called in to personally oversee your testing. Before we begin, I'd just like to know what it is that we're looking for."
"Something unusual happened to Agent Simmons. If it's possible, we'd like to find out if it's somehow drug related."
"I assume that you're not talking about recreational use." Dr. Killian said in a leading tone.
"No. Agent Roberts and I were together, about four hours ago and everything was fine. When we parted company to investigate separately, something happened and the next thing he knew, he was in a White Castle, several miles away, three hours later. He has no memory of how he got there."
"White Castle?" Dr. Killian asked cautiously.
"Yeah. The one on Alum Creek Drive. Is that significant?" Agent Simmons asked hopefully.
"No. I just haven't had lunch and... never mind. Are you just about done with the paperwork?"
"Is it ever completely done? It seems like the more I do, the more there is to do."
"Yes. That is one of the mysteries of the universe." Dr. Killian said with an understanding smile, then continued, "You can bring the clipboard with you. We need to get this started."
"I brought this drink from White Castle. Could you test it to see if anything's been added to it?"
"Yes, of course. The sooner we get this started, the sooner we'll be finished."
Shawn was only too happy to comply.
* * * * *
Agent Simmons watched as Dr. Killian walked around the treatment room, gathering what he would need to perform the blood tests.
"Tell me, Agent Roberts, how are you feeling? Do you have a headache?"
"A stiff neck or aching joints?"
"What about classic flu symptoms?"
"No. Except for being freaked out by what just happened to me, I'm fine."
"You know, in the past, when someone needed a blood test done, I'd usually get a phlebotomist or at most, a nurse, taking care of it. I don't think I've ever had an actual 'doctor' perform the blood tests before." Agent Simmons said thoughtfully.
"I normally wouldn't be called in. I'm an expert in infectious diseases and immunology and I sometimes collaborate with the CDC on certain cases. I was in my office when the call came in about an FBI agent needing a drug screening and it set off some alarms with the hospital staff, so they called me." Dr. Killian said to Agent Simmons, then turned to Agent Roberts and said, "Please take off your jacket and roll up your sleeve."
"Why would a drug screening cause them to call you?" Agent Simmons asked suspiciously.
"We've had cases that appeared on the surface to be drug related that ended up being biological in nature. The staff here know to call me when something doesn't sound right to them. When I'm called, I decide if I'll investigate it personally or not." Dr. Killian said as he swabbed the crook of Shawn's arm.
"So you think that this could be something viral?" Agent Simmons asked carefully.
"Not necessarily, but it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility when we can prove or disprove the notion with a simple blood test at this early stage of things." Dr. Killian said to Agent Simmons, then turned his attention to Agent Roberts and quietly said, "This will sting, just for a second."
Agent Roberts was surprised to realize that he barely felt the needle at all. Dr. Killian had a gentle touch and obviously had enough experience to have 'perfected' the art of drawing blood.
"So if it's viral, what are we looking at?" Agent Simmons asked cautiously.
"The first thing that comes to mind is Naegleria Fowleri, also known as Brain Eating Amoeba." Dr. Killian said frankly, then hurriedly continued, "I'm not saying that that's what we're dealing with here. In fact, that's very unlikely. But the complete loss of memory for a specific period of time automatically makes me think of something like that."
Agents Simmons and Roberts were silent as they watched Dr. Killian carefully apply a printed label to the vial of blood that he had drawn.
"Something's eating my brain?" Agent Roberts finally asked.
"No. Almost certainly not. But it's possible that something's been introduced into your system that mimics that aspect of the disease. Will you disrobe for me?"
"Excuse me?" Agent Roberts asked uneasily.
"I need to do a visual survey to rule out any animal or insect bites. It won't take but a minute."
"Nothing's bitten me." Shawn immediately defended.
"Not that you know of. But what about during that missing period of time? It would be irresponsible of me to take you at your word and it will just take a minute to rule out the possibility."
"If something did bite me, does that make the brain eating thing more or less likely?" Shawn quietly asked as he began to undress.
"More, especially if it's an animal bite."
"So you're worried that it might be something like rabies?" Agent Simmons asked carefully.
"Yes. I suppose so. The transmission vector would essentially be the same and some of the symptomology might be similar."
"Is there something going around like that, because if there is, I haven't heard anything about it." Agent Simmons asked cautiously.
"All it takes is one little mutation for something that was once benign to become deadly. In my line of work, I'm reminded every day of how little it takes for a devastating disease to come into being. That's why I'm here, to try and catch the early 'first' cases before they can spread unchecked throughout the world."
"Do you think that's what we have here?" Shawn asked as he sat down to take off his shoes.
"Let me have a look at you, then I'll be in a much better position to answer." Dr. Killian said seriously, then thought to ask, "You haven't noticed any indication of recent sexual activity, have you?"
"No. But the cashier at White Castle suggested that I might have been roofied and sperm-jacked while I was unconscious. Do you think that's what happened to me?" Agent Roberts asked uneasily as he pulled down his pants.
"Not really. I'm just asking because it's another transmission vector to investigate." Dr. Killian said assuringly, then hesitantly asked, "So you haven't noticed any indication of anal penetration?"
"No! Why would you even think that?" Shawn asked with surprise.
"Again, I'm just trying to rule out transmission vectors."
"Are you saying that someone might have knocked me out and raped me while I was unconscious?"
"I'm saying that it happens. But if it were something like that, you'd know it. The type of person who'd drug you and rape you isn't likely to be gentle about it."
"I guess not."
"All of it." Dr. Killian said as he gestured toward Shawn's boxer shorts.
Shawn glanced at Agent Simmons uncomfortably, then pulled down his shorts in one quick move.
Dr. Killian was silent as he carefully examined Shawn's naked body.
Agents Simmons and Roberts both waited anxiously as the doctor conducted his investigation.
"Good. You can get dressed. There's no indication that you were bitten either by an insect or an animal." Dr. Killian said as he made a note on his clipboard.
"So, is that it? Have you checked everything out?" Shawn asked as he began to dress.
"All that's left is to look at the results of your blood tests and the test on your drink. That could take several hours."
"Doctor, based on what you've seen so far, have you found any indication of what we might be dealing with? Even if it's not based on empirical evidence, it might give us a place to start looking."
"No. All I can do at this point is try to eliminate as many possibilities as I can. Once that's done, we can look at what's left."
"We'll be waiting for your findings. Will you forward the results to the local FBI office?"
"That depends on what they are. If I don't find anything of concern, I'll forward the report. Otherwise I'll contact you directly regarding further tests or questions that I might have."
"Do you have our contact information?" Agent Simmons thought to ask.
"I have Agent Roberts' cell number on the paperwork he just filled out, if you'd like to write your number down, I'll consider you a secondary contact."
Agent Simmons did so, then watched as the doctor left.
* * * * *
"I just texted Abernathy and she said that she'll be here in a few minutes. How about we have her take us to a decent hotel so you can take some time to collect yourself?"
"Are you kidding me? I want to go back to that park and try to figure out what happened to me! Three hours of my life were stolen from me and I want them back."
"That may not be such a good idea, considering what's already been done to you."
"Listen, the way I see it, I must have stumbled onto something really big for such a drastic thing to have happened to me. We're on the right track. We've got to be. Let's not squander this opportunity."
"You're attributing a lot of meaning to a missing period of time."
"Am I wrong? Doesn't this just scream to be explored and investigated?"
"You may be onto something. We'll go... together... and investigate."