The call that day startled Antoine Eveque. This was not the Una James he knew. It was not the woman who had introduced herself by stopping him outside a Publix supermarket and requesting a ride. It was not the woman who had asked to use his address so she could properly register her son, Lee Malvo, in school.

This Una James was in a panic.

" 'I can't find my son. I can't find my son. I've been looking everywhere. . . . I don't know what to do,' " Eveque, 47, a local hotel cook, said James cried over the telephone that morning in early October 2001. Lee Malvo had been missing for more than a day, the distraught mother reported, and neither she nor anyone at his new high school had any inkling of his whereabouts.

A week or two later, James again telephoned Eveque. Her son had finally called, she told him, and the news was not good. The teenager who had started using the name John Lee Malvo had abruptly left Florida and was now on the other side of the country -- in a Bellingham, Wash., homeless shelter and in the company of John Allen Muhammad.

The sudden departure from Fort Myers was, in retrospect, a defining moment in the relationship between Malvo and Muhammad, the suspects in a cross-country shooting rampage that left 14 dead, 10 of them in the Washington area. In the months leading up to that October day, Malvo's life appears to have achieved a level of stability he had not enjoyed in many years. He had been reunited with his mother that summer. He was enrolled in an American public school, where he was an attentive student who never missed a day.

And perhaps most important, life in Fort Myers was also life without Muhammad. After spending several months together on the island of Antigua while James settled in Fort Myers, Muhammad had smuggled Malvo into the United States, reuniting son and mother. The ex-soldier and the young man from Jamaica then appear to have parted ways -- until the events of October brought them together again.

Little is known about those crucial days in Fort Myers 15 months ago. But Eveque's account, along with other interviews here and in Bellingham, indicate that the stability that the mother and son had achieved without Muhammad suddenly ended. It is also likely that Malvo, contrary to some speculation, traveled alone the day he left and subsequently joined Muhammad in Bellingham.

The Rev. Al Archer, director of the Lighthouse Mission in Bellingham, said shelter records show that Muhammad was a resident during the time Malvo would have been traveling to Washington state. He said that Muhammad returned to the shelter Oct. 14 after leaving for four days and was not signed out again until Oct. 26. Malvo, who was then 16, arrived at the shelter Oct. 20.

"I don't believe Muhammad came along with Lee from Fort Myers," Archer said. "Based on my conversations with Una, it was my impression that Lee got on a bus himself and headed to Bellingham."

There are other indications that Malvo may have left of his own volition. Fort Myers police said that James did not report her son as missing. A spokesman for the Bellingham police, Lt. Craige Ambrose, said James told investigators there that she did not report Malvo as "a runaway" because she had hoped to persuade him to return.

"I see nothing in any of our reports that indicates the mother thought that Lee Malvo had been taken or kidnapped," Ambrose said.

Until Malvo left, mother and son seemed to be settling into their new life together in Fort Myers. In August, James signed a year lease on a two-bedroom apartment for $450 a month. Tony Ferrari, the landlord, remembers James as a demanding tenant who, even before she moved in, showed up one day and watched as workers cleaned the carpet and then pointed out where they had missed a spot. Once they settled in, Malvo took an active role and complained about any problems with the unit, Ferrari said.

James found a job at the Red Lobster restaurant not far from the apartment and quickly earned a good reputation as a hardworking and dependable employee who oversaw food preparation in the kitchen -- one of the several jobs that she juggled to bring in more money. She was known at the restaurant as Ana James, the name on a fraudulent green card bearing her photo and a nonexistent resident alien number that she presented -- along with a fake Social Security number -- to Red Lobster management before starting work there Jan. 12, 2001.

James seemed determined to get U.S. residency and stay in Fort Myers -- no matter what it took. In a civil ceremony on April 20, 2001, the Jamaican divorcee married Jeremiah J. Neal, a Fort Myers resident with a criminal history who agreed to her sham arrangement for $2,500, according to James's own account to authorities.

She left blank a box on the marriage license seeking information about any previous marriages -- answering truthfully could have invited further scrutiny of her background. Neal, who was rarely seen around James, spent some time with Malvo, helping him to get part-time work at a local carwash.

At the 2,000-student Cypress Lake High School, Malvo started attending classes on Aug. 13, 2001, and quickly distinguished himself as a solid student who earned A's and B's and impressed his teachers by often standing up in class to answer questions. During the 39 days that Malvo went to Cypress Lake, he logged a perfect attendance record, took honors and Advanced Placement courses and had no discipline problems, according to sources familiar with his school performance.

And then came Oct. 5, the last day Malvo showed up for school and the first hint that something was about to change. Eleven days later, a caller claiming to be Malvo's parent officially withdrew him from Cypress Lake and told the school official on the phone that they were headed to Montgomery, Ala., according to a person familiar with the events. The only person authorized on Malvo's records to pull him out of school was James, the source said, adding that it is uncertain whether she was the caller.

What is clear is that Malvo left behind a $90 debt to the school district for books that he failed to return. Moreover, Cypress Lake officials are now questioning the authenticity of the transcript Malvo provided them from the Seventh Day Adventist School in Antigua, where he suddenly stopped attending classes in late March 2001 before leaving for the United States with Muhammad a few months later. Malvo had distinctively neat penmanship and the handwriting on the transcript is very similar to his own, according to two sources.

If James was the person who withdrew her son from school, she gave a different story to her Red Lobster employers when she abruptly quit her job Nov. 15, after 11 months with the restaurant. "She said she was moving to the Washington area," said Denise Wilson, a spokeswoman for Red Lobster's Orlando-based parent company, Darden Restaurants Inc. "She had asked for a transfer and was supposed to contact us when she reached her destination. But she never did."

On Oct. 31, James and Neal were divorced in Lee County Circuit Court. According to the divorce filings, she requested that her name be legally restored to Una Sceon James. Around the same time, James moved out of the apartment without giving notice. She broke the year-long lease and left behind her $300 deposit, said the landlord, Ferrari. In the three or so months that James and Malvo lived in the building, on Broadway Avenue just south of downtown, Ferrari did not recall ever seeing anyone there who matched the description of Muhammad.

James had previously lived nearby, in an apartment on Central Avenue. Residents there remembered her living alone and doing her laundry quietly in the building's machines. But they were struck by the fact that she did not have a car -- which is how Eveque met her one day in early 2001 outside the Publix supermarket.

"I saw her with two or three [grocery] bags, and she said to me, 'Can you do me favor?' " Eveque recalled. "She said, 'I can't get a taxi because I don't have money. Could you give me a ride?' "

Eveque, a Haitian immigrant, became one of the few friends James made in Fort Myers. She invited him to her marriage ceremony, but Eveque could not attend because he had to be at work. He said that James never mentioned Muhammad and that he has not heard from her since that second phone call in which she told him Malvo had contacted her.

James arrived in Bellingham on Dec. 14, a month after she quit the Red Lobster. The bus trip took four days. Her possessions were in six large cardboard boxes, among them a large TV set and sundry cooking utensils. She went to Bellingham hoping to reclaim her son from Muhammad. It turned out to be a fruitless attempt.

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

Lee Malvo, as he was known at the time, hadn't missed a day of school when he vanished from Fort Myers.Malvo's mother, Una James, panicked when her son left, and she later tried to reclaim him.