Chapter 11 The boy with the thorn in his side
Porter couldn’t let it go.
So here he was sitting in his truck on Swallow Street, outside Johnny’s old house. He had looked into the old case reports on the boy’s disappearance online. They had been bare enough for the cops not to care who looked at them, and all the addresses had been old anyway. This was Johnny’s old neighborhood; he had been kidnapped from a park not too far from his home. The family had moved out after his disappearance.
Porter had gotten hold of a Photostat copy of his missing poster. He went over it a couple of times, trying to get a picture of the kid in his mind.
Jonathan William Bartlett, Missing Since Jun 13, 2013, Missing From San Antonio, TX. DOB Dec 31, 2000. Sex Male. Race Caucasian. Hair Color Lt. Brown. Eye Color Blue. Height 4′8". Weight 80 lbs.
Identifying features: Has three tattoos. The letter T on his left hand between his thumb and forefinger. The letter J on his left shoulder and the letters L and N on the outside of his left ankle.
What’s a thirteen year old doing with tattoos? Porter thought to himself. The park where the boy had been abducted was at least a twenty minute drive, maybe an hour bike ride, or a three hour walk, from his house. A picture of this kid was forming in Porter’s mind already. The missing poster had said he had been diagnosed with ADHD. So this wasn’t your average kid. Normal kids didn’t have tattoos or take hour bike rides to go play basketball away from home.
Swallow Street was lined with modest, single-story homes in reasonable condition. Nothing out of the ordinary about it: no gangs, or drugs or undesirables about. The house Porter was looking for was 14118 Swallow Street.
It was a small, red brick building, with a tiny covered porch at the entrance and a single car garage to one side. A black mailbox stood out front. The lawn was small and sloped down. A single tree that looked like a hand stuck out of the earth, bare of all its leaves. All the houses in the neighborhood the color of sand, as if they had all just risen out of the desert.
It was early and there weren’t too many people out: the odd dog walker or baby stroller. A squat Mexican woman, one yard over, was raking leaves and mumbling to herself in Spanish.
He didn’t think it would do much good to ask the new owner about the missing kid, but he figured it couldn’t hurt to talk to the guy. Maybe if they got talking, something might tumble out.
Porter parked on the sidewalk, next to the black mailbox, and crossed the lawn, it was well kept.
He passed through the little alcove and tapped on the glass in the door. No one answered; Porter went around the side of the house and peeked through windows. It didn’t look like anyone was home.
“HE NOT HOME!” a shrill voice called.
Porter looked towards the sound. The squat Mexican woman was looking at him from across the yard, holding her rake close as she bagged leaves. Porter put on his best smile and hopped across the lawn like a little bunny. He pretended to be out of breath when he reached her. “Mr. Hostelle not home; he work in construction: travel a lot. He come back next week.”
“Something you want?”
“As a matter of fact, I was wondering if you knew the family who used to live here.”
“You here about the boy who disappeared? Johnny whatshisname?” she said, tutting as she tried to remember his name.
“Bartlett” Porter said flatly.
“That’s it! Bar-lett. The news people already been here. You with them?” she probed the air with the end of her rake enquiringly.
“Not really. I just wanted to know more about the boy. Can you tell me anything?”
“Si, I remember,” she said curtly as she tied up the garbage bag full of leaves a little too tight. She looked up from the bag and cocked her head to one side. “You want me to say he was the perfect little angel who flew away? Is not true. That one was a little puta!
“The policia, they come around all the time for this kid, and this a good neighborhood.” She swung around as if to give him a good look at the neighborhood; her house was simple but nice: a single story house with a slanted roof, a large two-car garage, with a 4x4 taking up one and a half car’s worth of space. The windows looked like church windows, three in a row. Twin cedar trees dominating her lawn. “We don’t get much trouble, but with him - always trouble. He come home late, screaming and shouting and fighting and drug.”
“That’s what I hear. I never see, but that not the first time he run away either. Last time he was hiding down the bottom of my yard, tearing up my flower bed.” She started to get fidgety now. “And these not little kid fights. When they fight, they fight: they use knives. The mother, she have boyfriends and they no good.” Something told Porter she was enjoying this a little too much. The reporters hadn’t let her get to the nitty gritty.
“Do you know what happened to Johnny’s father?”
“No, we moved in after he was already gone. They say, err, he run away – join the navy.” She shrugged and started looking a little more nervous, rubbing a cross that was hanging around her neck. She made the sign of the cross. “Madre dios, that’s not all: one night we call the police because we heard noise.”
“What kind of noise?”
“Like an animal cry and like singing, err, not singing, like a droning noise. The police come and the man, err, what his name: J- something. He answer the door, cover in blood.” She gestured to signify the blood. Her eyes were wide now and he could see the whites. She was excited; a little theatre crept in.
“What did the cops say?” Porter stayed cold and flat, like a frozen flank steak.
“He say, the man, that it was chicken blood. He kill a chicken for dinner- no way. In mehico we kill chickens: very little blood. You see a chicken, they very small: not very much blood. Head to toe. The policia, they leave him alone.” She shrugged and wrinkled her bottom lip.
“Was this around the time Johnny went missing?”
“I don’t remember exactly. Maybe. It get so bad, with the boy that they had to bring in his uncle to come live with them because the boy was so violent. He was hitting his mother, so they bring in the man, J-something, to keep the boy, behave, you know. But you know the news? They only want to hear how good he was: cute little blond boy with blue eyes go missing. They only want to hear nice things about him.” She chuckled to herself.
“Thanks, you’ve been a big help.”
“Si?” The woman said as she raised her eyebrows and got back to raking leaves.
Porter went back to the Dodge and sat there for a moment, tossing gravel in his head.
There was a knock at the door and Peggy’s mother, Angela, opened it. Only she and Johnny were home. Peggy was at work and the kids were out playing.
Angela looked a little shaken, at first, by the two strangers standing at her front door.
After a brief second of incredulity, she said, “What is it?”
“Mrs. Hide? I’m special Agent Nancy Jaeger and this is my partner Con Folsome.”
“Yeah, what do you want?” Angela was agitated.
“Maam, I’d like to request that you submit to a DNA test, to verify the parentage of your son Jonathan Bartlett.”
Nancy was being cool and calm, but she could sense a tension building. Con no doubt could sense it too, which is why he would let Nancy do all the talking.
“Maam, if you’d just come with us, it wouldn’t take-”
“I ain’t going nowhere with you people! He’s my son and we’ve settled on that. You’re just gonna have to deal with it.” Angela folded her arms and her pale, soft face became pink and taut.
“Maam, this is going to happen whether we have to get a court order or not. If you’d just come with us, this will save us a lot of time and effort in the long run.”
“I said I ain’t going nowhere with you. Did you hear me? Are you deaf? He’s my son. You think I wouldn’t know my own damn son? Get off my property now!” Angela’s face turned a brighter shade of pink.
“Maam, please,” interjected Con. “We don’t want to have to get a judge involved. If we have to get a court order, your DNA will be taken by force.” He was calm but forceful.
“YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!” Angela shrieked and collapsed. She howled and kicked the cream carpet like a six-year-old told to take a nap. “YOU CAN’T MOVE ME! I AIN’T GOING NOWHERE WITH YOU!”
Nancy was taken aback.
“Maam, we can prove who he is once and for all.”
“I DON’T NEED TO PROVE WHO HE IS. I KNOW WHO HE IS! HE’S MY BOY. YOU WON’T TAKE ME OR HIM. HE’S MINE! I KNOW MY OWN BOY. GET OUTTTA HERE. GET GONE GO!” She screamed at the top of her scarred lungs. Her throat sounded as dry and scratched as the inside of a coal burning stove.
Con and Nancy did the only thing they could do; they got back into their car and drove away.
Inside the house, Johnny watched silently as his mother picked herself up off the floor. She walked past him, into the living room and sat down in her chair as if nothing had happened.
Porter’s day wasn’t over. He got a name from his contact at the news station: a childhood friend of Johnny’s they had been planning to interview.
Porter was driving to meet him. It was getting darker; the clouds were getting fat and heavy. He’d arranged to meet this guy at the Brighton Kids’ Centre. The guy worked there as a carer for the special needs kids. It wasn’t too far from Johnny’s old house.
Porter pulled up to the place. It looked like it was closing. Only a couple of lights were on. This was the way he wanted it. Porter pulled into Higgins Street and into the Brighton Centre car park.
There were only a couple of cars: an SUV and a sporty-looking European hatchback.
The Brighton Centre was a long, single-story coral building, painted with a colorful mural. Porter couldn’t make it out in the dark. There were a couple of maple trees out front but it was mostly concrete. A covered play area for the kids stood at the other end of the parking lot. In the dark, the swings and the slides cast grim shadows and made haunting clinking sounds in the wind, breaking the silence of the coming night and bluing sky.
Porter got out of the Dodge and walked through the front entrance into a brightly lit, overly warm lobby. Pictures of disabled kids, smiling and coloring and holding hands, lined the walls. Kid’s drawings were stuck to the walls. They reminded him of a fridge in some buttoned down family man’s house. Still, it smelled sterile, like cleaning products and shit. Cheap plastic toys baked under halogen lights.
“Are you Porter?” a voice said from behind a sheet of plate glass.
Porter sucked his gums and nodded. Within a matter of moments, a three hundred pound baby barreled out of a tiny reception booth.
Standing to shake Porter’s hand, he said, “I’m Kevin, we spoke on the phone. We don’t have a lot of time. I have to close up soon. I still live with my mom and I don’t want her overhearing this stuff.” Kevin was a fat guy in his late teens, early twenties, wearing a black ‘Motley Crew’ T-shirt. His head was shaved. His voice was a nasal whine and had the tone of a sad, brave victim of circumstance.
“We could have gone to Denny’s,” Porter said.
“The stuff I have to tell you is sorta delicate,” Kevin said as he rearranged the square hipster glasses he was wearing. Every time he finished a sentence, he made annoying clacking sounds with his tongue: a way of making sure you were paying attention, hanging on every word. “We can talk in the cafeteria. Follow me.” Kevin waddled ahead.
Porter followed Kevin through a big assembly hall that smelled like dead bugs, then along a long hallway, flicking on and off lights as they went. The walls were decorated with pictures of the kids planting trees and learning and going on trips to museums.
Finally they reached the cafeteria.
It was just the kind of commissary you’d expect to find in any military barracks: three long tables with benches, a kitchen with a store front, and a buffet with coolers for drinks.
It wasn’t as bare bones as he’d expected though. The benches were padded and the tables weren’t cheap foldaways but tough steel and wood, meant to last.
Kevin was excited. He waddled on ahead of Porter, flicking on all the lights. “Take a seat wherever you like. You want a drink or something?”
Kevin walked over to the cooler near the buffet tables and got himself a can of Diet Coke before joining Porter at one of the tables. “OK, you wanted to know about Johnny, right?”
“Well, what d’ya wanna know? Exactly?”
“How close were Johnny and his mother Angela?”
Kevin rearranged himself on the bench.
“Oh, they were really close. He was, like, the apple of her eye, you know? It seemed to me anyway, they were close as they could be, until Jack started living with them again.”
“Jack? Who’s Jack?”
“His older brother.”
“His neighbor said Jack was the name of his uncle”
“You mean that Mexican lady? Well they didn’t talk much and Jack was much older, probably a kid from a previous marriage, you know? He was grown man when he started living there again and that’s when the problems started.”
Kevin scratched the back of his neck and rolled his eyes to the ceiling.
“His mother loved him to death. I mean, you could tell he was the centre of her world. I can’t imagine how devastated she was when he went missing. She can’t have been the same person. He was the light of her life.” He stopped and took another slurp of Coke. “So this guy, Jack, moves back in, and he’s a bum, a drug addict, really bad news. He only cared about himself. No one existed but him.” He clacked his tongue and said, “And when he got back into that house it just made it worse, you know?”
“Worse?” Porter said with a raised brow.
“I’m pretty sure he brought drugs into that house. I’m not a hundred percent, but I think he got his mom addicted to them too. Maybe even Johnny. All I know is when he showed up, the whole house went to hell and it was never the same.” Kevin took a tight sip of Coke and set the can down. “That house was like a powder keg after he moved back in.”
“Had Johnny ever run away before?”
“A couple of times, but this time was different. He told me Jack wanted to put him in a group home or something like that, so he ran.” Kevin thought for a minute and clacked his tongue again. “Jack was a weird guy. Johnny would tell me he was into all that weird occult stuff. “He clacked his tongue, filling his mouth spittle. “Like devil worship or whatever, so I said, ‘Yeah right.’ Well, one day, we snuck into this place he had, like, a shack. I can’t remember where it was exactly, but I swear it was the weirdest place I’ve ever seen: drugs, knives, blood.”
“When was the last time you saw Johnny?”
“The last time, we were playing basketball and he called home to ask his mom to come and pick him up. But he got through to his brother, Jack who said she was asleep. He didn’t want to wake their mom up to come and get him, so I guess Johnny just went home on his bike, but that was the last time I saw him. I remember because he was telling me about this weird dream he had.” His throat was getting dry and the clacking got louder. “In it, his dad, his real dad, was fucking killed by some monster with a bull’s head.”
“Do you know what happened to Johnny’s real father?”
“I heard he ran off somewhere. I don’t really know. I moved to the neighborhood after he was already gone.”
“What do you think happened to Johnny?” Porter furrowed his brow.
“Erm, well, we used to joke - I mean, the local kids made up, like, scary stories - that his family sacrificed him to the devil. Or they ate him. Or, you know, aliens abducted him without a trace, but honestly, I don’t have any idea.” Kevin sighed and sunk into his chair with the Coke can resting on the top of his belly.
“What did the tattoos mean?”
“Err, I don’t know. I know the one on his hand wasn’t a ‘T,’ like the news said: it was a cross, duh.”
“You said there were drugs. Where did he get them?”
“You mean, do I know who sold them to him? Wait, I thought they found Johnny? Didn’t he know who took him?”
“Never mind that”
“Yeah, OK, I know who sold him drugs. Shit, everyone knows. They operate out of this abandoned motel, out near the old steel mill, but I wouldn’t ask them the time of day, if you know what I mean.” He put the empty can down and leaned forward. “You think they had something to do with Johnny’s disappearance?”
“I dunno. That’s why I’m gonna ask them.”
“Hey, did you talk with the guy?” Phil’s voice sounded muffled. It was late, but he was still in the office.
“Yeah, mostly rumors and tinfoil hat shit. I need everything you can dig up on this guy, Jack, Johnny’s older brother.”
“Jesus, gimme a minute.”
Porter waited. .
“What, are you calling me on a payphone?” asked Phil. “I can hear beeping. Why don’t you have a cellphone, like normal people?”
“I had one; it broke.”
Porter was standing in a brightly lit payphone outside of a gas station on the interstate.
“Are you still over in San Antone?”
“I’m heading back home soon. Do you have anything on the brother?”
“Jesus, I’m looking through the police files as we speak. Hold your horses, OK?”
Porter lit a cigarette and waited. “OK, OK, I’ve got something; it’s not much, just a couple of police reports on Jack Hide. Petty shit: possession, assault, causing a disturbance, misdemeanors mostly, some parking violations - that kind of thing.”
“Is that it?”
“Err, there’s one more thing. It says here he called in a report about his brother a little while after the kid went missing.”
“…” Porter straightened and waited.
“Yeah, it says he called the cops saying his brother, Johnny, was trying to break into the house. When he tried to confront him, he ran off. After that, they never saw him again. This was a few months after he was reported missing. What do you make of that?”
“Nothing. Could be true; coulda been that he wanted to cover something up, make the cops think Johnny just ran off and was messing around in the back country. Thanks, Phil, I’ll let you know if any more comes up.”
“There’s really a story here, right? Bigger than the kid who came back? Come on, Porter, you can tell me.”
“But you won’t? Tell me straight. You think the parents are hiding something, don’t you?”
Porter chewed on the end of his cigarette. “You know I looked into this,” Phil continued. “I really did my homework. The kid’s disappearance didn’t even make the national news, but his family were no slouches. They made T-shirts, hung posters, the whole nine yards. Now you’re making like they had something to do with it?” Porter sighed.
“Did I ever tell you I worked the Sharron Wilson case?”
“I never heard of that.”
“Another missing kid. The parents did make the national news: heartfelt appeals, posters, T-shirts, interviews, Oprah. The whole neighborhood was up in the mountains, looking for her, her parents included. They looked for weeks. The father? He put a ten grand reward out for finding the kid and he hired me to look for her, promising me the money on top of my fee if I found her.”
“Did you find her?”
“I found her.” A slake of ice chipped off as he said it.
Porter breathed out into the receiver.
“In the trunk of his car”.
“So it was all bullshit? He just did it to look innocent?”
“I don’t know. I gave up trying to understand why people do things. For all I know, he actually thought he might find her up there - maybe bashing her head in was just a bad dream to him and he really believed she’d just got lost. Maybe she’d come back, or someone wearing her face and name would, someone close enough but not quite right.”
“I think you’re being a little paranoid. If you turn up anything, I want to be the first to know. This is my story, OK? You find anything worth airing; I’ll make it worth your while. You know this is what real reporters used to do, go out and investigate shit? Now all they do is Google everything and copy -paste what everyone else is saying. Or they just make shit up; maybe spin nonsense - first world problems. They call opinion pieces news.” The rant ended. Phil took a breath. “What are you gonna do now?”
“I love stupid stuff.” Phil smirked.
“A three hundred pound bird told me, there might be a drug angle.”
“Drugs as in drugs? As in meth?”
“Wait, you’re going after methheads? Are you nuts? You’re gonna get yourself killed. Wait, wait Porter, this is not worth it. Do you even have a gun?”
“This is Texas.”