Two moons hung in a sky shading from purple to crimson. One was blotchy and orange, like half a cantaloupe left in the sun to molder. The other was tiny and blue and nestled inside it.
Like a frozen coin.
Or at least, that’s how Katie saw it.
Marigold said it looked like that because Katie saw it that way. She said it was just Boomeye, giving them what they’d asked for. Like the little dome house at the end of the stream. Like the lake and the giant trees and the juicy reds. Like the treehouse they were in right now. The tallest treehouse ever.
Because that’s what they had asked for.
At the other end of the platform, Marigold was staring into the sunset low above the mountains. Squinting against the light. Lifting her face into the breeze, in that way that pulled her honey-colored hair back from her face.
She was smiling, but Katie knew better. Knew it was just the fake smile she got sometimes—when she didn’t want Katie to know how worried she was.
“Hey, Gold. Wanna swim?”
Katie waited. Swung her sneakers back and forth at the edge of the platform, dangling over a hundred feet of empty space, down to a false floor of glossy leaves below.
Katie didn’t actually want to swim. It would be dark by the time they got to the lake. And Katie didn’t go there after dark. That was when the fairies came.
But it didn’t matter. Because Marigold didn’t answer. Katie waited some more.
Marigold was dangling her feet too, but they were perfectly still. Her arms stuck out behind her like angled bridge posts. Katie didn’t know how Marigold could sit so still sometimes. Mom said it was because her head was “full-up with other people’s business.”
Mom didn’t know the half of it.
Finally, Marigold spoke. “Something I need to talk to you about.”
Her fake smile was fading now, replaced by the weary, grown-up look she got sometimes. Like she’d already lived a thousand lives, and they were all piling up on top of her. Weighing her down.
Marigold didn’t look at Katie. Just kept gazing out across the reeds and marshes to the sunset beyond.
“What is it?” Katie asked.
“I got a message.”
Katie waited for Marigold to say more, taking a bite of one of the fruits they’d gathered earlier, amassed in a pile on the wooden boards. Reds, they’d decided to call the fruits—a long time ago. Because oranges were orange, and reds were—well, red. Katie thought they tasted like Froot Loops.
“My dad,” Marigold said.
“Oh.” Katie paused and thought hard. “I thought he was dead.”
“So did I.”
Katie wasn’t sure what to say to that. She figured she’d probably say the wrong thing, if she said anything at all. Finally, she thought of a question instead. “What did the message say?”
Marigold didn’t answer. Not for a long time. Then she said, “The message wasn’t really for me. I just heard him—thinking. Thinking that he missed me. He thinks I died during the escape. When we got separated.”
“And you thought he died during the escape,” Katie said, trying to piece it all together. Marigold nodded but said nothing more.
Katie wiped at the juice dribbling down her chin, then spat a seed out over the platform—a big one, about the size of an almond. It fell for a long time, drifting and spiraling through the empty distance, before striking a leaf the size of a dinner plate. It ricocheted off and down through the canopy, out of sight.
“What are you going to do?” Katie asked.
Marigold glanced up, finally meeting Katie’s gaze. Her eyes were sad. Marigold pulled her legs up over the edge, crossed them underneath herself, and swiveled around to face her. “I need to go to him, Katie.”
Katie set her fruit aside. She rose quickly and went to Marigold, then sat down in front of her, cross-legged. The way they always did. Knee-to-knee.
“I’ll come with you.” She took both Marigold’s hands in hers and leaned forward, closing her eyes. Marigold did the same, until they touched foreheads.
The way they always did.
“Twin sisters forever,” Katie said. By choice, which is stronger than blood, she thought but didn’t add. Marigold said it was better to pretend it was by blood—to keep from slipping up in front of some grown-up.
“Twin sisters forever,” Marigold echoed back. But her voice sounded funny. Croaky.
Katie leaned back, opened her eyes, and saw tears streaming down Marigold’s tan face. Marigold sniffed, wiping them away.
“Katie—you can’t. You can’t come with me.”
“Why not? I’m not a baby, Gold.”
“I know that. I know how brave you are.” Then she stroked Katie’s hair, pushing one lock of it behind her ear. There was love in her eyes. It made Katie feel better. A little.
“Mom needs you,” Marigold said. “You know how she gets.”
Katie sniffed. “I don’t need Mom.”
Marigold shook her head. “It’s not safe, Katie.”
“So then, why is it safe for you?”
“We don’t even know if you can go, Katie.”
Katie said nothing, considering this. “When did you get the message?”
Marigold lowered her gaze. “There’s been—more than one.”
Katie was quiet a long time. It felt like her mind was sinking into a lake. Filling up with water. She realized her hand had gone to the side of her neck. Touching her birthmark again. The pink skin that felt just a little rougher. A little achy. She dropped it. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I thought I was imagining the messages at first. Then, once I realized they were real, I didn’t know what they meant. And once I knew what they meant, I didn’t know what to do. Until today.” She shrugged. “Now I do. So, now I’m telling you.”
“Twins don’t keep secrets, Marigold. We promised.”
“I’m sorry, Katie. I have to go. I have to do this.”
Katie felt her face grow hot. She pushed to her feet, walked five quick paces, then turned back around. “You lied to me!”
Marigold looked pained. “I’m sorry, Katie. I just didn’t know what to do. I promise I’ll be back as soon as I can. It’s only for a day or two.”
“You promised!” Katie felt the tears coming now. They were even hotter than her cheeks.
Marigold said nothing. Just stared, her eyes pleading.
Katie turned and sprinted away, rattling across the rope footbridge that led back to the main trunk. Her vision doubled, then trebled. She didn’t care. Didn’t slow. She let muscle memory guide her down the ladders and footholds of the great tree. Down to the forest floor below.
If you plan to make a career of finding missing children, there are rules. Three of them, to be exact. Right then, Gene Wyke was watching his trainee break Rule One.
Ten minutes into the interview, Marcus was scribbling answers to questions without looking. Leaning across the kitchen table, gaze locked on the mother.
Big, brown, puppy-dog eyes.
Rule One was simple. It stated: Do not become emotionally involved. Not with the victim, not with their family. You are not the hero. You are not in control of the situation.
If you focused on the facts and dropped your assumptions, you stood a chance of locating your missing person. If you got swept up in the drama, you were done for. Your judgment was compromised.
From Gene’s vantage, a kitchen chair set five feet back from Marcus and Carol, it was clear: Marcus was emotionally compromised. It was etched right into his body language. Skin sheened with sweat. Elbows on the table. Hands clasped—as if in vigilant solidarity. Ready to jump on Carol’s bandwagon, wherever it might lead him.
Gene had seen it before. Many times.
Then again, Gene had seen everything before. Many times.
For Gene, the assignment to locate ten-year-old Marigold Riley was the latest of well over fifteen hundred cases he’d worked over the course of his forty years at the Bureau. He’d lost track of the exact figure long ago. Partly because he didn’t like thinking about it. Partly because it depended how you counted.
He was brought in to consult on about a hundred cases annually. Averaged fifty in terms of direct assignments, though he’d scaled back in recent years. He’d wagered lunch with an officemate this was going to be his last. But as the saying went, wish in one hand, shit in the other.
Not that Gene could blame Marcus. The guy was, in many ways, still a kid. His first nine months on the job, only his fifth case. At least he'd confirmed what they had in their files.
The mother’s name was Carol Riley. Divorced with two children: Marigold—the missing person—and Katie, Marigold’s twin sister. Non-identical, Carol was sure to mention. Quite emphatically. As if the school photos didn’t make that clear.
Gene had been examining the two wallet-sized squares while Marcus did his thing. Both photos showed the girls sitting atop the same stool, in front of the same blurred, hazel backdrop.
Marigold was sun-kissed, with auburn hair framing round, tan features. A paradoxical expression burned out of the photograph: a gaze that conveyed serene contentment yet did so with smoldering intensity. She looked self-possessed, yet playful. Childlike, yet wise. An odd mix on a ten-year-old. Part of her looked five, the other part about fifty.
Katie’s picture was a stark contrast, but equally paradoxical. Espresso-brown hair crowded in on narrow, pale features. Dark, furtive eyes. Her gaze was intense, like Marigold’s, but where Marigold was confident, Katie was ambivalent. From behind an uncertain smile and an outthrust chin, she was broadcasting both apprehension and rebelliousness. Submissive defiance.
Peeking out from behind the hair was what appeared to be a red mark on the left side of her neck. Maybe an injury. Maybe a birthmark. The photo was too small to be sure.
Luckily for the kids, Carol resembled neither. She was rail thin, looked about fifty, claimed to be thirty-nine, but was forty-three according to her file. As she spoke, a lit cigarette bobbed up and down on her lower lip, growing a finger of ash. Gene’s eye kept catching on it. His eye also caught on the track marks running up her left arm, which disappeared under the sleeve of her robe.
They looked old—scarred over maybe. Or covered in foundation. Carol had that kind of over-tan skin and thick eyeliner that hid both her age and her past. Her whole attitude spoke of a need to conceal something. Minimally, deep-seated insecurity, but maybe other things too.
What she couldn’t conceal, she was evidently hell bent on medicating. The amber ashtray in the center of the table had gone from empty to overflowing in the thirty minutes since they’d arrived. In one corner of the dining room, half a dozen empty champagne bottles were arrayed on the floor like bowling pins. But the longer Carol talked, the more Gene’s eye kept running to that cigarette.
According to Carol, Marigold had gone missing two nights ago—sometime late Saturday night or early Sunday morning. Carol had left for work around three in the afternoon on Saturday. The girls had made themselves dinner and put themselves to bed—as they usually did. Latchkey kids.
Carol had pulled overtime at the bar, which put her back home at three in the morning. She’d gone straight to bed without checking on the girls. The next morning, Marigold was missing from the girls’ shared bedroom.
Carol explained they’d looked all over town, asked friends and neighbors. Nobody had seen her. So, at ten o’clock Sunday night, Carol had called the police.
Marcus asked Carol for details on when exactly Marigold might have gone missing, but she had none to give. She insisted she felt just awful leaving the kids on their own for so long but explained she couldn’t afford a sitter because her tips were down. She further lamented this was due to her looking “like shit” these days, because she could only afford the, quote, “Mexican salon.”
Marcus seemed not to hear the slur; he looked like he was about to pull out his wallet and offer to pay for both her hairdo and her sitter.
That had been the first ten minutes. Since then, Carol had been running nonstop. And Marcus had let her. Let another fifteen minutes drain away, with no attempt at interruption or redirection. Now they were sitting at twenty-five minutes. Twenty-five minutes was a very long time in the lifespan of an interview.
But Gene had promised Marcus thirty, and he would give it to him. Far from an effective use of time. But it was true what they said: trainees had to learn somehow. And breaking Rule One was recoverable here.
Probably. So long as Gene stuck close. To nudge Marcus back on course if he drifted a little right or a little left. Or a lot left, as the case might be. Right now, he was about as far left of Rule One as you could get.
Carol was eating it up. Letting the front of her pink fleece bathrobe fall open to reveal the low-cut black cocktail dress underneath. Her waitress uniform, but it looked more like lingerie. In another life, with fewer burdens to shoulder, Carol might have been beautiful. Big dark eyes. Full lips. High cheekbones.
Maybe that was part of Marcus’s problem. Or maybe it was just plain, old-fashioned pity. Gene suspected the latter.
Gene glanced at his watch. Three minutes left.
While he listened, Gene noted the table held five empty beer cans, the ruins of four TV dinners, an ashtray branded “Rick’s Café,” and near the back edge, three Barbie dolls, stacked like cordwood. One of the dolls was naked and missing an arm. The other two were clothed—one in an elaborate blue ball gown, a la Cinderella, the other in stiletto pumps, black miniskirt, and orange tube top, a la—well, not Cinderella.
Carol explained the father wasn’t in the picture—never had been. He lived in Florida; some Podunk town called Sweetwater, deep in the Everglades. Two thousand driving miles from where they were now—another Podunk town, called Galvin, but this one high up in the Rocky Mountains, three hours west of Denver.
Zero evidence of contact between father and kids.
Still, they would need to track him down, no matter what Carol told them. The family was always the place to start—that was Rule Two.
Which was why Katie was next up on Gene’s list of people to interview.
They were told she was playing with her tablet in Carol’s bedroom. They were informed that the tablet was a gift from her aunt. They were also informed that Katie was refusing to sleep, due to her being “all bent out of shape” about her sister having gone missing. Carol had said it as though the child were out of line.
Meanwhile, Rule Three kept knocking on the back door of Gene’s mind.
Rule Three amounted to a warning: Time is the enemy. From the first moment a child goes missing, a clock starts running. A clock whose elapsed time correlates with likely causes of disappearance. Statistics bore it out. Every hour that slipped by, the worst-case scenario—that the child was dead—became increasingly likely.
On a long enough timeline, every search for a missing person became a search for a body.
In the case of Marigold Riley, time was most certainly the enemy. As of this moment, they were sitting at thirty-eight hours. And thirty-eight hours was not good.
Carol noticed Marigold was missing at 7 a.m. Sunday morning. Best case, she’d gone missing just before then—say 6 a.m. Call that hour zero. The local police hadn’t been notified until 10 p.m. later that night. Already hour sixteen. Grand County Search and Rescue had dogs and helicopters searching the area by midnight, the eighteen-hour mark. By 6 a.m. the next morning, several Denver television stations were already running a crawler along the bottom of the morning news. That had marked day one. Twenty-four hours.
The Denver field office was notified an hour later, and since Denver had no specialized kidnapping unit, they’d forwarded the call to Gene’s office in Washington. That afternoon, he and Marcus were on a six-hour flight from Dulles to DIA via O’Hare. They landed at 6:30 p.m., checked out a pool car from the Denver field office at seven forty, then took I-70 west. Ninety minutes of stomach-churning switchbacks, twenty minutes spent debriefing with local police, plus the last thirty minutes while Carol rambled (and Marcus let her), led them up to now: 10:04 p.m. Mountain Time, Monday night. Thirty-eight hours since Marigold had gone missing. And that was best case, considering Marigold might have disappeared hours earlier—really anytime during the night. Worst case, she’d been missing forty-five hours. Almost two full days.
Not good at all.
Search and Rescue had refused to give up the search, though, even after nightfall. The dogs and their handlers were still out there right now, checking and rechecking for scent trails. They used tracker dogs, trained to follow a target scent, in this case taken from an article of Marigold’s clothing. Tomorrow, they would bring out differently trained animals, ones that didn’t need a target scent: cadaver dogs.
Gene hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Hoped they could get things moving and turn this thing around in time to avoid the worst-case scenario. On that note, he checked his watch.
Time was up.
* * *
Gene hadn’t invented the rules. But he’d learned the rules from the guy who had. His former boss and handler—the man who’d trained him, once upon a time, a thousand years ago.
His name had been Dick Handy, and Dick had developed the rules long before anybody thought twice about a name like Dick Handy. But Dick had never gone by Richard. In fact, he’d corrected anybody who called him that. When Gene had asked him why, he’d said he’d never met a Richard he liked.
Dick had recruited Gene straight out of Quantico, then brought him into the specialized unit he was building within Missing Persons—one devoted exclusively to locating minors. The three rules were a centerpiece of Dick’s program. Part of a burgeoning binder, crammed with statistics and case studies and practical advice for avoiding a minefield of pitfalls. Dick’s manual started with Rule One.
In simple terms, Rule One explained that no matter how charged the situation, no matter how much you liked or detested the person in front of you, you had to remain emotionally neutral. You had to separate facts from personal biases. You had to learn the difference between a hunch and a hope.
A hunch, when backed by relevant experience, was more than just a guess. It was a professional appraisal, honed by years of accumulated domain knowledge. Hundreds of hours spent building theories, testing them, then finding out the hard way when you were wrong.
Hope—now that was an altogether different substance. A vitally important one. But a private one. Dick’s manual cautioned that, on the job, hope destroyed reason. Tainted logic. Poisoned critical thinking. Hope had no business in the Hoover Building, or in the field.
But the manual didn’t include the most important lesson on hope. Dick had taught that to Gene in person, one on one over a beer in one of DC’s local taverns. It was after the first of Gene’s cases had ended really badly. Ended in the worst way possible.
Dick’s lesson was about compartmentalization. He explained that every successful agent needed to become two separate people. The person who came into work in the morning didn’t talk about hope. Didn’t use the word aloud in a sentence, or God forbid, on a report. But after sundown, the person who hung up his suit jacket back home damn well better be stockpiling his own private stash of the stuff.
Because in the business of finding missing children, sooner or later, a day would come when you needed it. A day that shook you. Rattled you so hard it left your mouth dry and your fingers trembling. And as bad as that day would be, the night that followed would be worse.
Gene’s stash was a physical one—a shoebox of wallet-sized school photographs, set high on a shelf inside his closet. It contained the photos of every child he’d found after it was too late.
There were 139 of them.
Over the years, from time to time, Gene took the box down from its high shelf and flipped through them. Laid them out in a grid on his kitchen table. Dealt them out into little piles, like playing cards. Counted them, then recounted them. Not because he didn’t trust his arithmetic. Something about the act soothed him—the same reason some people counted prayer beads, he supposed.
On the surface, counting photos of dead children sounded like a strange manifestation of hope—even morbid. But it worked for Gene. It reminded him that each of those kids had been real once. Vibrant. Alive. Beaming with promise.
It reminded him of the best possible outcome at the outset of every assignment.
Finding a child alive and bringing them home.
* * *
Gene picked up his chair, pulled it up alongside Marcus, then sat down in it. Marcus glanced over at him, frowned, then went back to scribbling notes. Carol droned on.
Marcus’s time was up, and he knew it—but he was having trouble cutting Carol off. Clearly. Carol was going on about a new “bubble tea” establishment in town that Marigold liked to frequent, usually with Katie in tow. Apparently the two were inseparable. That certainly explained why Katie wasn’t able to sleep, given Marigold’s disappearance. Gene’s file told him that local police had already checked the bubble tea place. Twice. They’d questioned the manager and all the employees. Interviewed a dozen patrons. No leads.
Gene leaned forward, interrupting Carol. “Ms. Riley—thank you for all that. Now I’d like to switch gears. That be all right with you?” Then he waited a beat.
Carol said nothing. Only gazed back, a little walleyed.
She seemed, for the first time, speechless. Which was what the question was designed to do, both in its phrasing, as well as its casual intonation. It acted as a pattern interrupt. A cognitive circuit breaker.
On the surface, it appeared to cede some control. A request for approval. Yet in reality, it ceded nothing, because Carol had no idea what she was saying yes to.
Switching gears? What did that mean?
Carol blinked a few times, but before she had time to respond, Gene continued as though she had.
“Great,” he said, a little too loudly. He was looking down at his notes, pretending to scan them using his pen as a pointer. “Let’s see … you told us earlier that Katie and Marigold are twins, correct? Nonidentical?”
“Oh—yeah. They’re practically glued together. Couldn’t be more different, though. Marigold’s tall, Katie’s short. Marigold’s blonde, Katie’s dark—”
“Great,” Gene said, cutting her off again. “And where is Katie right now, Ms. Riley?”
“Oh, she’s in my bedroom, on her tablet. She was just so upset—”
“Got it,” he interrupted again. He looked down, pretending to scan his notes again. He didn’t look up as he asked, “And where is Marigold?”
An absurd question. But he delivered it with no change in volume or intonation. Just a bland monotone, like he was ticking off items on a grocery list—as if Marigold might be in a bedroom down the hall, or sleeping over at a friend’s house, not missing for nearly two days and possibly kidnapped or dead.
Carol blinked heavily mascaraed eyes, speechless again. “What?”
Gene slammed an open palm down on the kitchen table. Glasses rattled. One of the Barbies fell off the table and clattered to the linoleum. It was the one missing an arm.
Gene raised his voice to a yell. “Where is Marigold, Carol?”
* * *