Chapter 10 All tomorrows parties
Within a week Con arranged for the boy to flown out to Houston to have a forensic interview. Johnny was taken alone, by a consort of FBI agents, from the San Antonio field office. He was put on a plane and sent to meet a psychologist at the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, one of the biggest hospitals in the state.
They waited in an air-conditioned waiting room with a black leather couch. His handler was a stuffy man that didn’t talk and just sat and read magazines. He had the demeanor of pampered night watchman, always checking the time he could clock off. Johnny people-watched and bobbed his knees up and down. He couldn’t sit still, struck by a sort of nervous energy, halfway between fear and excitement.
Within a couple of minutes, Johnny was called into an office: blue walls and dark maroon leather chairs; grey steel filing cabinets against the walls.
He was greeted by a soft-looking middle-aged man, with glasses and light, curly hair, sitting behind a teak desk. He was dressed casually in a white shirt and sweater vest with no tie and brown pants.
He stood to shake the boy’s hand and sat down.
“Johnny, it’s nice to meet you. I’m doctor Banner. I’m just going to ask you a few questions. It’ll be very relaxed; nothing to worry about.” He smiled earnestly. There was something calming about his voice. He put Johnny at ease within a few moments and soon Johnny was rattling off the story he’d told so many others already.
“This is Doctor Jules Banner for Agent Nancy Jaeger.”
“Speaking.” Her voice carried the vague disinterest of a skeptic.
“Oh, well, I have some unsettling news.”
“Erm, well, concerning his trauma...”
“Well, to be frank, there doesn’t appear to be any.” He sounded incredulous.
“What do you mean?” Nancy was hanging on the edge of the phone now.
“Well, I didn’t see the same physiological change that you get in most people who suffer trauma. His body posture, his pupil size, his heart rate... There weren’t the usual changes you’d associate with someone reliving trauma.”
“So you’re telling me he’s not traumatized?”
“Yes, but what’s more, what I find troubling is he can’t seem to speak English without an accent.”
“He claims to have been held in Europe for a number of years.”
“You’re not following me. He speaks with an accent, and an accent can be picked up, but he can’t speak without it. This is supposed to be a boy who was raised in an English-speaking household until he was thirteen.”
“Well, it tells me about the development of his brain and the development of language. It’s impossible for someone raised in an English-speaking home to not be able to speak without an accent, regardless of spending, five, ten, twenty years in a foreign country.”
“What exactly are you telling me?”
Con was watching from his desk on the other side of the room, but he wasn’t saying anything. His face was still and expressionless as he watched Nancy talk.
“I can guarantee you, within the best of my abilities” - he paused for effect - “this child was not raised in an English-speaking home.”
“Once more please.”
“This child cannot be Jonathan Bartlett because this child is not an American.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” she said as she hung up the phone.
“Peggy, this is Special Agent Nancy Jaeger.”
“Yes?” Peggy’s voice was strained, anxious.
“I’ve spoken with the forensic psychologist and we have some troubling news.”
“What is it? Is Johnny OK?”
“Doctor Banner has informed me that the person claiming to be Johnny Bartlett cannot be your brother. Because he is not, in fact, an American.”
“What do you mean, he’s not an American? He’s my brother.” Her voice got higher and she took on a comic incredulity, as if she were waiting for a punch line.
“The psychologist has confirmed he was not raised in an English-speaking house, due to the development of language in his brain.”
Peggy got quiet. She started breathing heavy over the phone. “Oh my god!” she said through her hand cupped over her mouth.
“Now you don’t have to worry, I will-“
“OH MY GOD!” Peggy started crying and shrieking over the phone. “WHAT DO I DO, WHAT DO I DO?”
“Don’t panic. My partner and I will meet him at the airport. We will take him into custody in the meantime, until we can figure out who he is. You don’t need to meet him. You don’t need to take him home. We’ll handle everything.”
Con and Nancy had taken the earliest flight they could, arriving at San Antonio International before Johnny came back from Houston the next day.
They were both tired, wired, working on maybe four hours sleep. Most of all, they were excited. They knew this was coming to a head, one way or the other. This was it, the break they’d been looking for. Everything was about to fall into place. He was about to fall into their laps.
His flight was early. He was due in for about eight. If everything went smoothly they’d pick him up and take him back to the field office for questioning, then house him somewhere off-site with a few people watching over him. He could be considered a flight risk, put under suicide watch: there was no telling what this might be.
Nancy was sitting pretending to read a paper in the arrivals lounge. She was too tired to make the words stand still and her mind was buzzing like a hill of ants. Con was leaning back in an uncomfortable plastic chair, his arm over the side, yawning and scratching his salt and pepper stubble. He looked like a handsome hot mess, clothes creased beyond reason. He was wearing a grey morning suit that looked like it’d been slept in.
Nancy was wearing a blouse and black suit trousers, her hair pinned back to hide the fact she didn’t have time to wash it.
Con and Nancy swapped silent glances as they sat in the arrivals lounge.
They liked to think they knew what was coming through that long tunnel. There were ideas rattling around in both their heads. They were too tired or too scared what the other might think if they uttered them aloud.
Was he a terrorist? A spy? A space alien? A ghost? Or just a scared kid? Who would really know? Did the kid even know? Maybe he really did think he was Johnny Bartlett. Maybe that was the scariest thing of all.
Nancy shuddered at the level of uncertainty she was entertaining, a rare thing for her. She was usually so clear in her thinking. It was always right there in front of her; she just had to reach out and take it and nothing would stand in the way of the truth. This time, she almost didn’t want to touch it; there was something not right about it. She felt like she was trespassing.
Con yawned and they heard, over the speakers, that the flight from Houston was arriving at the gate.
Nancy jumped up and slapped the newspaper into his lap, and he hopped up as if hit by a sudden fear of falling.
Both their hearts were pounding now, blood flowing to the right places.
They knew, as soon as Johnny saw their faces, he’d know they knew and maybe he’d run and maybe they’d have to chase him. Either way it would be over.
It seemed to take forever. The plane taxied and the people started piling out: streams and streams of people, fat, old, young, slim, black, white, men, women, children. Nancy’s eyes picked through them, as if she were sorting through a filing cabinet: the hat and the dark glasses, the pale skin.
Con moved his head from side to side. A good foot taller, he had a bird’s eye view and shifted to get more vantage points.
Finally they caught sight of him. Johnny was alone now.
Their hearts were beating hard, a light, airy feeling, like swallowed fairy lights. They both breathed hard and tried not to show excitement.
He’d seen them now and he was waving and smiling. They’d only met once before. He must have recognized them, but there was no way he could have known they’d be here. His behavior was odd. They’d expected fear, at least surprise.
Nancy’s heart sank. She could barely believe what she saw next. It was as if she were watching a movie, just pictures over her eyes.
Her mouth became dry and she couldn’t find any words.
The boy wasn’t waving at them at all. He hadn’t seen them. Right there in front of them was Peggy. She was hugging and kissing Johnny, as if they’d never had their conversation on the phone.
They hadn’t noticed Con or Nancy in the crowd of people. Greeting each other like a brother and sister might.
“What do we do?” Nancy was dumbstruck. She felt lost and she turned to Con.
“We’ll wait for them to leave. They haven’t noticed us yet,” he said without taking his eyes off them.
They both walked casually into the crowd, near to a bank of ATMs and a kiosk selling hats and t-shirts.
“What the fuck is going on? I was on the phone with her not eight hours ago, telling her that that wasn’t her brother.”
“And now here she is acting like that never happened.” Con was talking, keeping his eyes on them still, counting his teeth with his tongue.
“I don’t get it. I don’t get it at all. What do we do? What do we tell the field office?” Nancy was spiraling.
Con slicked his hair back over his head and paced it out. He touched his mouth a few times until he had something to say.
“We have to let it ride, for now.”
“Let it ride?”
“We let them take him back and we work out something from there.”
“But what if he’s a terrorist, or a psycho, a serial killer? What if we turn on the news and he’s chopped off all their heads and sacrificed them to Baal or something?”
“Dark. I doubt it. There’s nothing we can do. We don’t have anything. No one is going to buy the accent thing if it didn’t deter the kid’s own family. There has to be more to this.”
“So what, we just sit on our hands?” Nancy was getting ready to swallow her rage, let passive aggression take the wheel. Con was being pragmatic and that pissed her off. That was her job.
“We push for a DNA sample now, and we dig up whatever we can on Johnny Bartlett.” He paused and took a deep breath. ”The real one.”
Part 3 Nobody