FOR A LONG TIME, ROB KEPT THE WOMAN'S picture tacked to the wall by the stairs leading down from his apartment. On his way out, he'd stop and stare at her, or at least at the face that had come to belong to her. It was a dull, expressionless face, with a square, hard-set jaw and eerie, demonic, dead-zone eyes, eyes without color or emotion. In his mourning and rage and confusion, Rob decided he had met this woman before, for an instant perhaps, in the K mart or the Giant. He was certain of it. But then he'd stiffen, and wonder if that thought was only a dream. By this time, he seemed to dream when he was awake, and he wasn't always sure whether his dreams and reality weren't washing over one another. When the face would begin to resemble Meredith Baxter Birney, Rob would close his eyes and shake his head free of the image, and start again.

He would stare so long and so hard at this picture, an FBI composite drawing, that Rob even believed, or maybe he dreamed, that he understood the woman in the picture, the woman Rob was convinced had stolen his baby from Prince George's Hospital Center in June. Certainly, the woman feels guilty for what she has done to him and his wife and their children, Rob reasoned. No matter how insane, she must have a conscience, didn't God give everyone a conscience, even lunatics? And certainly she's afraid she'll be caught. She covers her face, changes her hair when she goes out, even to the 7-Eleven. She lives furtively, unable even to tell friends that she has a new baby, afraid her son -- Rob's son, really -- will be taken from her any time.

Then Rob would wonder: What name has she given him? Not Jeremiah, his real name, the name Rob gave him, the name he took from the Bible. But she knows the name. Of course. It was on TV for weeks, it's on posters all around Washington. She knows the name, all right, and someone, somewhere knows this woman has Jeremiah Thate, son of Rob and Terry, brother to Jessica and Patrick. She can't hide a baby! Not from a husband or friends or neighbors. Somebody, somewhere knows she has Rob Thate's boy, and someone, someday is going to turn her in, out of love or anger or, more likely, greed. The reward is more than $16,000, and Rob is aiming for $50,000.

His attitude has a cold and ominous and desperate certainty about it: It may be today or it may be 23 years from now, when Jeremiah will look just like his daddy does now -- tall and spare and delicate, with blue, deep-set eyes and dark blond hair -- but someone, someday will turn her in, for a simple reason:

This woman stole the wrong baby!

She stole Jeremiah Thate! Rob's boy!

Blood of blood, bone of bone, heart and soul.

This woman is gonna pay!

Jeremiah may be cradled in a stranger's arms tonight, feeling what he imagines is her love for him. But what Jeremiah is feeling is really this woman's love, or maybe her hatred, for herself, and he will learn this someday. Because somehow, Rob doesn't know how, Jeremiah is a vessel. Good things come from bad, the Bible says so, and this is a plan, God's plan. Does it sound pathetic? A father grasping at purpose in the purposeless. Think whatever, but this demented woman with dead-zone eyes has, of her own free will, become a player in a performance beyond her control.

That's what Rob thinks.

If he saw it any other way, he'd go crazy.

Let the police pussyfoot around and call her only a "possible suspect," let the police remind that composite portraits don't always resemble their subjects, that this woman could be totally innocent, that Jeremiah could by now have been sold to an unwitting couple in Oklahoma, Ohio, Kansas. No! Rob has studied this woman, and evil has a face: She did it, she has his baby, she lives here. And when she is caught, Rob will calmly tell her, face-to-face, what she has done to him and to his family. Then she must tell him why she did it. Rob has to know. It had something to do with her father, Rob imagines.

That is, if she ever had a father. ROB THATE WORKS AS A CARTOGRAPHER, METICULOUSLY

etching onto emulsified film, hour after hour, the details of roads and bridges, streams and abutments, county lines. It is appropriate work, because Rob has always seen the world about him in tiny pieces, close-ups, tight shots. He's an artist and a sculptor by avocation, though he has only rarely sold his artwork. He gives it to friends or keeps it around the house. He does small ink sketches of small things, four sapling birch trees growing in a cluster. Even his sculptures are small table pieces, parabolic shapes that lead the eye around corners without breaking vision at the edges. Rob imagines a person at a museum -- one arm crossed at his chest, the other thoughtfully stroking his chin -- as he is compelled to circle a sculpture to see its meaning from all directions, the artist shaping the form that leads the eyes that lead the feet that lead the mind, all unconsciously, always in a closing circle. It's what Rob believes life should be about, coming round with meaning.

When he was a boy, Rob almost died. If his grandmother hadn't been there to pound on his back, the sourball would have strangled him, and Jeremiah would never have been conceived or born or stolen. Maybe the devil keeps an eye out for the dangerously good, Rob wonders, intervenes when he can, strikes at the righteous early. But it all seems so haphazard sometimes.

If Rob hadn't overslept that Thursday, if he hadn't stayed home from work, if his old Plymouth hadn't been on the fritz, Rob would never have gone to the hospital earlier than usual to see Jeremiah. He wouldn't have gotten to the sixth floor about 4 that afternoon and found his son sleeping on his stomach, head turned to the left. He wouldn't have held the duffel bag filled with incidentals in his right hand, reached out with his left and softly touched his son's back. He wouldn't have suggested to his wife, Terry, who had slept in Jeremiah's room for the several days he was hospitalized with pneumonia, that they leave Jeremiah and go down to the canteen for dinner. If Rob hadn't overslept, Jeremiah, three weeks old and without sin, wouldn't have been alone for the 20 minutes it took for someone to strike at the righteous.

But Rob wonders: If there is a plan, would any of it have mattered? Would Jeremiah have gotten well only to be stolen later from the supermarket or the park? Who knows. Rob wishes he had not overslept.

Rob and Terry met in a science fiction class at Prince George's Community College when he was 18, she 19. She was so pretty, with a way of flicking back her long blond hair as she laughed, always with energy and confidence. She was the kind of woman Rob figured he needed, a strong, self-reliant woman who would keep him on the straight and narrow. He was confused then, without direction, a hothead, rebellious and angry at the world, it seemed, though he was mostly angry at his father for being a father. Fathers are so important in the lives of their children, Rob believes, much more important than mothers. It was that way for Rob, and that way for Terry and most of Rob's friends. He knows this for sure because he has asked.

Terry was a born-again Christian. She gave Rob a Bible, and he was born again too. They laughed a lot in those days, Rob sent roses, they held sweaty hands and imagined raising a family. Terry told Rob he was the kindest, most sensitive man she'd ever met. They married the next year. His folks protested: Life isn't "Romeo and Juliet," you know.

The couple soon had a daughter, Jessica, and four months later, Terry got pregnant again, unexpectedly. Rob didn't take naturally to fatherhood, and he began to wonder if his parents hadn't been right: Maybe there was more to life than a wife and kids, empty pockets and a dinky, run-down, one-bedroom apartment. Marriage or not, Rob was still confused, still unable to make decisions, still, as Terry lovingly called him, "a wimp" who would break down and cry during, say, a sentimental TV segment of "Webster."

Yet Rob also came to discover that Terry was not exactly the woman he believed he had married. Her confidence and self-reliance weren't deep. Her older brother was hit and killed by a car when she was 5, and after that her mother withdrew from the family for a long time. Terry's most searing childhood memory is of her mother sitting motionless in the living room, cradling a picture of her dead son as the song "The Green Berets" played on the stereo. There were other problems too, and by the time Terry was a young teen, she felt lonely and unloved. Her sophomore year in high school she found Christ. It was only then, Terry believed, that she became the woman Rob fell in love with.

When Jessica was born, Rob hadn't been able to stay in the delivery room, with the screaming and the bleeding and the tension. He apologized to Terry for weeks after Jessica's birth, and when Patrick came he did better. But then, at the moment of Patrick's delivery, the boy got stuck. A nurse jumped on Terry's bed and pounded on her stomach. Patrick nearly died and Terry bled horribly. For a few moments she lost her vision and Rob became a pale ghost. He looked into the doctor's face for reassurance, but instead saw fear. Rob left the room again, this time to pray in the bathroom: I don't want you to take 'em, Lord, but they're in your hands.

Everyone came out fine.

With Patrick, their lives finally fell together. Terry stayed home with the kids, leaving them broke constantly, but for the first time, the Thates were really happy. It was a wonderful year. For fun, they'd go for walks, window-shop at malls or, on an extravagant night, go bowling. It was the happiest year of Terry's life -- the only happy year so far, she'd say, laughing.

The doctors had told Terry it could be dangerous for her to have another child, but the next year she told Rob she wanted another baby. He was re- luctant. They were poor enough. But then he got a raise. They called Terry "fertile Myrtle" for good reason, and the next month she was pregnant again. Terry hoped for a girl. Rob said he didn't care, but when Terry mentioned that she was having a birthday sleep-over for Jessica after the baby came, Rob said, "Great, I can take the boys camping that night." Terry said, "Rob, the boy will only be a week old." Rob said, "Well, maybe next year."

Jeremiah was born without trouble, and Rob finally made it through a delivery. They were ready for this one, even videotaped it. Rob had an uncontrollable, geeky smile on his face and Terry cried joyously. For the first time, she got to hold her new baby on her chest rather than see it rushed off to intensive care. Then the doctor handed Rob the scissors to cut Jeremiah's umbilical cord. Rob expected the cord to be soft, fleshy, but it was tough, more like rope. He tensed his hand to finish the cut, and at that instant -- with the click of the scissors -- Rob had the odd, fleeting, magical sensation that he had just brought Jeremiah to life. THAT LAST NIGHT, ROB AND TERRY WERE SHUFFLING

around Jeremiah's hospital room, wanting to go for dinner but anxious about leaving him to sleep alone. A nurse's aide came by pushing a little girl in a stroller. Terry knew the girl because she'd heard her crying a few nights earlier and had walked into her room, stroked her hair, talked to her softly, melodiously. The girl had stopped crying and slept, and Terry told Rob cheerfully that she was still a good mother, she could still put a child to sleep that fast.

A nurse assured Terry and Rob that Jeremiah would be fine, and so they headed for the canteen. At the elevator, though, Rob had a vague, dark intuition when he noticed a burly man wearing a red lumberjack shirt and a trucker's cap walk into pediatrics. The man had a wide gap between his front teeth, and he stopped to crush out his cigarette in an ashtray near the door. Rob watched the man walk down the hallway and thought that he looked out of place, somehow frightening. But Rob was no worrywart. He was used to shrugging off the usual moments of blind fear, the kind that would come, say, when Terry was a little late getting home and Rob was suddenly certain she had crashed the car, the times when a sense of doom touched him with a brief but cold and certain shiver. Then he'd feel foolish for, like an Alfred Hitchcock film, imbuing the trivial with the horrific.

But this happened when Rob and Terry returned to Jeremiah's room: Rob walked through the door first and saw that the crib was empty. He said, "Hey, where's Jeremiah?" Terry was behind him and to his left, her vision blocked, and she said, "What?" Rob saw the clear-plastic IV tube that had been attached to Jeremiah's arm dangling at the floor, a small, oval pool of translucent liquid beneath it. He bent down, picked up the tube and held it to his face, where he saw that it had been cleanly cut. He said absently and without panic, "This isn't right." Oh, don't worry, Terry said, an air bubble probably got in the line, that's all. As they returned to the hallway, Rob heard a baby cry -- Jeremiah, he was certain -- in an examining room across the hall. Rob confidently pushed open the door and several strangers looked his way.

Rob and Terry didn't run down the hall to the nursing station, but they did walk quickly. Terry asked lightly, "Where's my son?" The nurse looked at her blankly. And then her look changed. Nurses were soon running everywhere and Terry began to cry. Like a chant, she repeated, "This is not happening. It's not real. It's a dream. I'm gonna wake up."

In the chaos Rob felt a sudden composure. He told himself to stay calm, to remember what he saw, to move quickly. He ran to the elevator, where a candy striper was standing inside the open doors. He pushed for the main floor and waited, nothing. He glanced over and saw the young woman, looking very proud and professional, with her left hand on the "hold" button. Rob cursed and she looked at him fearfully, as if calculating the chances that a crazy man had randomly fallen upon her. She removed her hand slowly, never losing her studied poise, but never taking her eyes off Rob.

On the main floor, Rob sprinted, yet the doorways and the people he passed moved in slow motion. With a robotic efficiency, he looked in everyone's arms. A woman carried a shopping bag; he looked inside. Out the doors, across the drive and over a grassy knoll, past three people standing at a bus stop. Rob ran to the hospital parking lot, up the off-ramp and stood before a woman leaving in her car. They stared into each other's eyes, and she looked momentarily confused. Rob looked for an infant car seat, saw none, and ran on, through the lot and back into another hospital door. The stairwell had just been painted, and as he ran past he heard a fat woman with short hair complain bitterly about the odor.

Up and down stairways, past gawking nurses, secretaries, administrators streaming home for the day. When Rob reached pathology on the first floor, the smell of formaldehyde was overpowering. He remembered: the burly man with the lumberjack shirt and the gap between his teeth. But back in pediatrics, the man was still there, with his wife, visiting a child. He looked so benign.

The man had not been evil itself, only one of its shadows. THE OTHER NIGHT, TERRY THOUGHT SHE HEARD NOISES ON the back steps, outside the kitchen door. Then Rob thought he heard noises. He got up, checked the lock, peered out the windows. He jammed the straight back of a kitchen chair beneath the knob. He couldn't sleep. He heard more noises. He walked the dark apartment, his heart pounding, working himself into a frenzy. He sat nervously in his favorite stuffed chair. Terry tried to calm him.

Rob said, "I'm sick of being afraid. I'm getting a gun."

He raised his left hand to his chest, cradling the barrel of an imaginary shotgun. He tightened his right hand around its stock and suddenly snapped his left hand up and down, click-click, the sound of a shotgun pump setting its shell. He did it again, click-click. The next day, they laughed about how groaning floorboards aren't scary without the enveloping darkness. But even then, Rob stood in the living room and assumed the pose, click-click. Maybe a Beretta, a 15-shot Beretta, he told Terry. Maybe that was what he needed.

The FBI and the police have no hot leads on Jeremiah. Except for the woman in the composite. In the days before Jeremiah disappeared, several people noticed a woman -- whose presence the FBI has been unable to account for -- wandering from room to room in pediatrics. The FBI sketch that is burned in Rob's mind is based on these eyewitness descriptions. The woman is not an official suspect in the case, but police would like to question her. The odds, based on other baby-snatching cases, are good that Jeremiah was taken by a sick person craving a baby, that he is still in the area, that he is unharmed. These are the good odds. Rob doesn't dwell on the bad odds -- that Jeremiah is dead or sold or living halfway across the country. With the help of people at their church, the Thates found a lawyer who set up the Jeremiah Recovery Team foundation to keep Jeremiah's name and the woman's face before the public. Rob wants the foundation to someday give advice to other parents caught in similar tragedies.

So much advice the Thates got was ludicrous. People said, "Good luck." Imagine it! They said, "Good luck." Only a week after Jeremiah's abduction, one intimate told Terry, "You've got to put Jeremiah out of your mind and get on with your life." And just about everybody said, "I can't imagine how horrible it must feel." Rob would think, You're right, you can't imagine.

The FBI went hard at Rob as a suspect for several weeks, as is customary in these cases. He passed a Prince George's police lie detector test, but the FBI polygraphs were inconclusive. Then one night, an FBI agent looked Rob in the eye and said he believed Rob had arranged his son's abduction. He asked if Rob believed in psychic phenomena and could he communicate with Jeremiah to learn his location? Or could Rob, because of his faith in Christ, ask God to divinely inform him of his son's whereabouts? Rob answered the questions, but later sobbed angrily to Terry, "They think I stole my own son!" Finally, along with the police, the FBI concluded that Rob was not a suspect.

Rob doesn't exactly know why, but he found himself wearing a cold public mask after Jeremiah was stolen. At home, Terry was inconsolable. Little Patrick would walk into the bedroom, smile and vomit. Jessica, always so cheerful, was whiny and cranky, though she only dimly understood why. She said, "A bad person took Jer-e-MI-ah." Gentle Rob yelled at the kids. He and Terry argued about socks and underwear on the floor, unwashed dishes, a catsup bottle left on the table. Rob tried to limit his sobbing to the shower. But in TV interviews, he didn't seem broken enough for the living-room jury. The etiquette of public mourning demands emotion, tears, crackups. Rob could give none of it. He had to be strong, he told himself, for Terry and the kids.

The deeper reason: Rob imagined that the kidnapper -- locked in a weird sum-loss psychological game with him -- might draw strength from seeing his weakness.

The interviews, the investigation, the letters of consolation gave the first few weeks afterward an air of unreality, as does the rush of family support after, say, a husband or wife dies. Rob expected the tension to ease, but it worsened. After Jeremiah's abduction, there were frantic warnings that he might die if not returned to a hospital for medical treatment. But because Jeremiah had been on antibiotics for several days before his disappearance, doctors now believe it's likely -- though not certain -- that he would have recovered from his pneumonia if cared for properly, even by a kidnapper.

So in Rob's mind, Jeremiah lives. He and Terry consent to every interview, every talk-show request, and they repeat the story, over and over, because any of these could generate the phone call, the tip that will free Jeremiah. Each time, they are drained and empty for the day. At home, they have had horrible fights, over nothing, really. Once they were in the bedroom, bellowing at each other, and Rob said, "I just feel like killing someone." Terry said she couldn't take anymore, she was leaving with the children.

Rob could only think, This is it, divorce! Then Terry slugged him. Slugged him in the face. She said, "Go ahead, hit me!" For some reason, Rob had a baseball in his hand. He shifted it from hand to hand, hand to hand. No, he told himself, I won't, I won't lose control. Then, like an explosion, he fired the ball at the bedroom wall. It shattered the plaster and bounced back. He threw it again and again, before Terry grabbed his arm. She spoke softly now, "Stop, stop, we can't go on like this." Then they sobbed.

Every night, Terry was in and out of bed, checking the kids four, five times. She imagined kidnappers in their room. Sometimes, Patrick and Jessica would wake up screaming. Rob dreamed of walking down the street pushing Jeremiah in a stroller with Terry and the kids around him. The most trivial things became frightful: One day Rob noticed a ladder leaning against the house next door, opposite the kids' room. He thought, A madman could tilt that ladder this way, climb in and take the children. At night, Terry would stay up past midnight by herself, until she fell asleep on the couch from exhaustion.

She remembered how her mother had withdrawn from the family after Terry's brother was killed. She didn't want to abandon her children to grief, so she stopped listening to the moody, inspirational Christian music she loved. She watched only game shows on TV. All the others seemed sad and tragic. There were kook threats against the kids. One day Terry came home to find the yellow ribbons she'd strung around two trees in front of their apartment ripped down. Another day, she saw two men sitting in a red car, talking, and glancing at Patrick and Jessica playing in the yard. Terry hurried the kids into the house, called the police. When they arrived, the red car was gone.

This became Terry's ritual: Almost every day, she would change her hair style, put on sunglasses and wander around shopping malls. There was a report that a woman resembling the composite had been seen at a shopping center that Terry had frequented, and she came to believe the woman had seen her there, realized she was pregnant and planned the abduction. So Terry went to this mall often, looking into the face of every baby. Her fantasy: She would find Jeremiah, grab him and order the crowd to tackle the woman as she fled: "Stop that woman! She stole my baby!" Then Terry would walk up to the woman and slap her and slap her and slap her and slap her.

Late one Saturday night, as Terry sat once again rocking, rocking and crying in the darkened living room, it came to her: the good carving knives. Tomorrow morning she would feign illness and stay home from church. She'd then run to the store and buy a six-pack of beer. She'd have to be drunk. Then she'd cover the floor with plastic garbage bags and put a note on the door telling Rob to leave the kids outside. Rob had once told her that people not serious about suicide cut their wrists the long way. She would slit them across.

Suddenly terrified, Terry shook herself out of it. When she told Rob, he didn't know what to say. He asked, "Do you think if a person commits suicide, he goes to Hell?" But Terry was beyond caring. She had already raged at God out loud, "I hate You! How could You do this to me? I had one good year!"

Rob said, "This woman has got to know what she did." IF LIFE HADN'T GONE BERSERK, ROB MIGHT NOT RECALL THE things about Jeremiah that are now all that he has left to recall. That when Terry was pregnant and asleep on her side, Rob would reach around under the covers and gently poke her bulging stomach -- and Jeremiah would poke back. That when they brought Jeremiah home after his birth, Rob didn't like the way he slouched in the infant seat, so he stopped and spent $39 on a new seat, and said, "There, little guy, isn't that better?" And that in the last days, when Rob took Jeremiah down for his chest X-ray at the hospital, he laid him on the table and noticed how cold the table was against the back of his hand, compared with the warmth of Jeremiah's naked body against his palm.

Rob believes the person who took Jeremiah figured it this way: The Thates already have two kids, so they won't miss this one. There was a time Rob might have seen some crazy logic in that, but now he knows it's like saying because people have two legs, they won't miss the one that gets cut off. He laughs at rediscovering the wheel: You don't know what you've got till it's gone. Rob never thought he'd be famous. Then he lost his son and ended up on TV, on the front page. He met the TV news stars he'd always figured had the life, boy. And they were just people, people who didn't seem any happier than he. Suddenly, Rob wanted from life exactly what he once had -- simplicity and anonymity.

This woman, this woman!, had stolen these things too.

But she will be caught. Rob is certain. He has refused to go on TV and beg Jeremiah's abductor for his return, though reporters have asked him to do this again and again. This woman is a criminal, Rob has explained each time. If we beg criminals, they win. They are in control. And this woman is not in control. God is in control. And with His help, Rob is in control. It is as if Rob is locked in a personal war of wills with the woman in the composite.

When he talks, it sometimes seems he is talking directly to her, as if he can see her out there in a room somewhere, Jeremiah on her knee, as she drinks her morning coffee and reads Rob's words: "I just want this woman to know she's not gonna get away with it. There's not gonna be a day she doesn't have to look over her shoulder, because one day, I'm gonna be behind that shoulder. She's gonna go into a store to buy a gallon of milk and, bam, someone's gonna recognize her and she's gonna be history. I'm gonna find her. Even if she goes to a deserted island and eats bananas, I'm gonna find her. This lady took the wrong baby. Because Jeremiah was my baby."

Every morning, Rob offers the same prayer: God, bring back Jeremiah and help me and Terry and the kids come through this. Then Rob asks for one more thing, that God help him come to love the woman in the composite. The only good thing -- and it is not a small thing to Rob -- that has come out of Jeremiah's disappearance is that Rob's faith is stronger. He cannot understand why Jeremiah was stolen, but he trusts that God knows what He's doing. Rob told Terry with astonishment, "All the things I said I believed about my faith, it turned out I really did believe them." Then he smiled.

It hasn't been easy. Rob has imagined slipping under a table where the woman is sitting and slicing her Achilles tendon so that forever when she walks she'll remember what she did. He has imagined throwing her to the pavement and driving his knee into her back. Rob tells himself: The Bible says get angry, but don't sin. Yet he has imagined worse for this woman, this woman with the dead-zone eyes, the cold, vacant, reflectionless eyes. This woman . . . she has shattered Terry's life and faith, sapped Rob of trust and joy and naivete', forever imbued the trivial in their lives with the horrific. This woman . . . Rob the rageful wants to kill her! This woman . . . Rob the faithful wants to heal her! This woman . . . Rob the seeker of meaning wants to ask her a single question:

"What was your father like?"

Oh, God!, the man must have been a monster. ::

before dawn, Rob goes to a

favorite spot

overlooking the

Potomac River

near Great Falls

to think and

remember.