The One That Came Back

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Chapter 12 Running scared

It was late. Johnny was taking a shower. He just let the water run over his head, his eyes closed, trying not to think.

He was the only one awake in the house. Peggy was out at a bar, some kind of girl’s night out with friends from work. The kids and his mother were tucked away in bed and Brandon was working the night shift.

He got out of the shower and dried his head with a crisp white towel.

Sitting on the end of his bed, he put on a shirt and boxers. Outside his window, the sky was black and seemed to ooze into his room.

His mind was tearing at the seams trying to make sense of all this. He let the empty blackness enter him and clear his head of itchy thoughts.

He’d soaked up enough darkness. He turned the bedside lamp off and then noticed a light coming from the crack in his door. He’d left the hall light on. He got up to turn it off.

The switch was at the top of the stairs, next to Peggy and Brandon’s room. Their door was tightly shut but not locked.

He turned the handle and the door opened with a jerk. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something light and small fluttering as he entered. He could smell her perfume and almost hear her voice. He switched the light on, stepped inside and noticed there was a small piece of tissue paper under his feet. He picked it up.

The room was nice, but there was something odd about it. It looked the way you’d expect a little girl’s room to look: cuddly toys, lots of pink and lace, a dressing table, like her mother’s, but smaller and more modern and less cluttered. The bed was big, with too many pillows, and looked like it had never been slept in. There were more plush toys on top. This was the room Brandon shared with her, but there was almost nothing of him in here, shy a few sets of shirts in the dresser near the bed.

He walked around barefoot on the soft carpet, and then went over to sit on her bed. He didn’t know why he was here or what he was looking for, but he felt different in this room. There was a cold static energy that he could feel running up his back, touching the tips of the tiny hairs on the back of his neck, touching each of his fingertips.

He looked over at the bedside table. The drawer was open about a half an inch. He slowly slid it open fully. It was almost empty but for a worn-looking purple address book.

He opened it, careful that nothing would fall out, but something did: something small and cold and metallic fell into his lap and onto the floor. The address book was a crude journal, used to jot down her thoughts in barely legible shorthand: groceries and things she did. It didn’t seem to go back too far or have too many of her innermost thoughts, but it was stuffed with pieces of folded paper which looked to be a few years older than the book itself.

He unfolded the first one as carefully as possible, trying to remember the exact way in which it was folded so he could fold it back again. It was a child’s drawing, but a fairly detailed one, drawn by an older child. At first it just looked like something a bored teen would draw: mindless gore. It showed a battlefield and stickmen killing each other. As he looked closer, he saw specifics and recurring themes in this and the other drawing.

A child slept with tears running down his cheeks. His dreams were shown in a bubble above his head. In the bubble, a man with a bull’s head laughed as he turned the boy, on a spit, over a raging fire.

The next picture was of a man with a beard sitting in a chair. The man was being bludgeoned to death with a hammer by someone marked as ‘J’. A woman in red watched in the background. There was lots of blood.

The last picture was of a boy running away from a mass of darkness made up of garbled words. The only one he could make out was ‘Nobody’ repeated over and over.

After he folded the pictures away, he remembered the thing that had fallen out. It must have hit the carpet and made no sound. He closed the book, with the drawings folded up in it, and placed it on the bed. He looked down at his feet and couldn’t see anything. It must have bounced under the bed.

“Shit!”

Johnny got down on his hands and knees and started patting the floor under the bed where he assumed the thing had bounced. After a few moments, he felt something hard and small and metallic, and pulled it out. It was a chain, a necklace. He cradled it in his hand to get a look at it in the light. It showed some kind of bird, an owl, atop a five pointed star in a circle.

-

Nancy and Con were still in the San Antonio field office. Until they could get a judge to issue them a warrant for the blood tests on Angela and Johnny, they were stuck.

Nancy was on her laptop, going through files. Her mouse pointer hovered over a file that read, ‘Matchbox Killer Case 2014.’

Con was sitting at his desk, playing solitaire, when his phone rang.

He answered it and said, “Hello, Folsome speaking.” He paused to listen. “OK – gotcha – yeah, it’s our case. Is the whole family there? OK, great. That’s perfect. We’ll be over there ASAP, yep. Thanks a lot.” He smiled and hung up the phone. Bouncing out of his seat, he threw his suit jacket on, spinning it like a bullfighter.

“Get a judge on the phone; we gotta get down to the jail now.”

“What’s going on?”

“They had a call from Angela Hide.” He was excited.

“Yeah?”

“She called the sheriff and had Johnny taken into custody.” He paused and Nancy tightened her jaw. “Discharging a firearm inside the house.”

“What the fuck?”

“Yeah, I know. If we’re quick and lucky, you can talk the judge into fast-tracking that warrant. We can do the tests while they’re there.”

“Shit, this is perfect. We can print him too: pictures, palm, fingers, the works. We’ve got him! This is the break we were waiting for.”

“Get your coat,” he said.

-

It was early, a cold bright morning in Texas hill country.

Porter parked his truck next to a rundown furniture store that looked like an old cigar box: peeling white and green paint. Furniture was not on the agenda for the day. He angled the truck so he had a clear view, in his wing mirror, of the Sands Motel across the highway.

To anyone passing, if anyone passed, it would look like someone moving furniture was taking a break.

The Austin Highway was a wide, desolate stretch of road in Alamo Heights, San Antonio. It was marked by deep cracks and the shadows of squealing tires. The housing prices round here had been in the toilet, mainly because of the high crime rate and the massive influx of homeless people. There were drugs here, hot cars, and probably hookers, though he hadn’t seen any yet.

The Sands Motel was the only motel near the steel mill. The old building loomed behind it, like a mountain range, dead and rusted shut. It was also only a block or two away from Fort Sam Houston where Johnny had last been seen.

The motel looked abandoned. There was a single red car that looked like a Honda parked in its lot.

The building looked dated and sad. It had probably been built in the seventies.

The sign outside was a square on a lollipop stick, with ‘Sands Motel’ written in big red letters. Eye-catching.

Porter waited there a couple of hours and only a handful of cars passed. It was around noon when a scruffy-looking couple barreled out of the door, full of cigarettes and booze and who knew what else. They got into the small red car and, with a loud screeching and a change of gears; they angled it out of the motel parking lot and drove east along Austin Highway towards the park.

Porter waited until they were over the horizon, then drove the truck around the back of the furniture store and got out.

He walked across the wide highway, slow and low, his hands in his pockets and his collar up high.

Once he was off the road and out of sight, he quick-stepped past the office building.

All the ancient white lace curtains in the rooms were drawn tight, or else the windows were boarded up. The place could have been sitting empty for forty years for all he knew. It was a neat spot. No one was going to see what he was about to do.

He’d made a note of the position of the car and the door from which the couple had come out. It didn’t take too long; it was an old door so the door jamb wasn’t covered. He slipped his library card, dated ‘1998,’ in between it and the door, slipping the lock out: the sort of thing you see in the movies, and it worked.

The door popped open and he entered quickly and shut it behind him.

Inside the room smelled of damp and dust and bad memories, cheap booze and cheaper cigarettes. They’d been at this for a while. All the adjoining walls had been pulled down, leaving one long room separated by opaque plastic curtains. It smelled like the showers in a lizard house.

He peeled them back; they made a sound like batman’s cape and he saw all the equipment you’d need to cook meth: alembics and beakers, the dust of crushed-up cold medicine, Bunsen burners. But he wasn’t here for that. Drugs weren’t interesting to Porter.

In the main part of the room a couple of army cots had been pushed together. Around the makeshift bed were ash trays, empty cans and candy bar wrappers. It was a squat. They cooked the meth here and took it out to sell someplace else. He didn’t really know what he was looking for or why he was looking for it. The place was mostly just junk; drug crap everywhere, and the smell of burnt dog hair. Why did junkies have to be so messy? Why didn’t they keep stainless steel filing cabinets labeled ‘Dirty secrets’?

He was wading through filth, kicking up dirty clothes and old butts, stopping to think whether they’d even notice someone had been through here, probably not, when his foot caught something and he stopped to dust it off.

It was an old cigarette box, the type you got from the airport, but the label had been worn off. It had been poking out from under one of the cots, from beneath a pile of dirty clothes, plastic bags and gas station burrito wrappers, where no one but he would have found it.

He opened the box slowly; it was sticky and smelled like bubblegum. Inside were pictures that seemed innocuous, of a little girl. Maybe the couple had a kid. As he kept flipping through them though, he noticed slight differences in the girls in the pictures. They were all little girls, of around nine or ten, with long brown hair. Most of them looked like they had been photographed at a distance. The kids didn’t look like they had known they were being watched. Never the same location or time of day.

As he was flipping through the pictures, his mind started to wander and get lost. He by startled at a loud cracking sound that echoed down the street. He ducked down fast and went into the next room, through the thick plastic curtains.

The room had been gutted. All the carpeting and furnishings had been pulled out to make room for two bathtubs pressed up against the far wall. Sacks of salt stood against them. This part of the room smelt like a hospital.

He peeked back the way he’d come, but there was nothing there. Must have been a car backfiring.

-

The couple came back sometime later. They spent the rest of the night drinking and smoking outside the room in little deck chairs. A few cars came and went.

By around ten, Porter was bored and hungry. He went up the road to a red brick bistro for a burger, before catching a few hours of sleep in the bed of the truck, under an old army blanket.

The next morning he brushed his teeth, rinsed with a bottle of water and spat it out into the grass of the lot behind the furniture store. He’d been thinking about those pictures all night.

He sat in the truck as he had before and watched the couple in the side mirror. If they had even noticed him the first day, by now he was a piece of furniture, just part of the scenery.

It was the same song and dance as before: a commotion started around noon. This time it was louder. The girl came out first. He got a better look at her this time.

She was young, maybe in her mid-twenties, with dirty hair and ripped jean shorts. She came out screeching about something. The guy followed after her, tripping over a pair of worn out jeans, caught around his ankles and on a pair of cowboy boots. She was steamed about something. Maybe he had smoked all her devil’s lettuce. She got into a car, swung it around and was gone in puff of smoke.

She tore off down the street, painting the road with thick, black streaks: broad brush strokes.

Porter kept watching. The guy pulled his pants up and put on a flannel shirt. He kicked one of the deck chairs back into an upright position; sat down and cracked open a can of beer.

Porter saw this as an invitation and hopped out of the cab of the Dodge. He walked down the street a little, so the guy wouldn’t notice he’d been at the furniture store.

But when Porter looked back, he was gone. The deck chair was still in place, but the guy was nowhere to be seen. Porter froze.

Before the sweats could start, he saw the guy come out of the room again, this time with a new can of beer and a cooler under his arm. He put the cooler down next to him and sat back down in the deck chair, sighed and cracked the beer open with a loud hiss.

Within a few seconds Porter was within spitting distance.

“Morning!” he called out, as jolly as he could be on maybe two hours sleep.

The man jumped. He dropped his beer and it span out on the floor of the parking lot, foaming and hissing like a broken sprinkler head.

“Jesus, how long have you been standing there?”

“Not long. You gonna invite me in?”

“Err, yeah, sure,” he said as he went into his top pocket and slid a cigarette into his mouth.

He was young, but looked worn and all stretched out. His eyes were bloodshot, his face unshaven and spotty and sun-damaged, as if he had fallen asleep on a rock in the park. He had shoulder-length greasy black hair and some tattoos sticking out of the collar of his shirt: generic playing cards and tribal shit, the kind of tattoos unimaginative people get who have nothing better to spend their money on.

He got up from the deck chair. He had a little sleep in his eyes and looked a little groggy from the night before. He shuffled over to the door and started to open it. “Did J send you?”

Porter waited til he’d gotten the door open, before clipping him in the side, just under the ribs, as hard as he could. The guy fell through the door, onto a pile of dirty clothes, gasping for stale air.

He pulled a black snub-nose Ruger 22 out of the front of his pants.

“Yeah, J sent me.” Porter reached over him and plucked the Ruger out of his hand. The kid barely even seemed to notice.

Porter went over to the army cots and unearthed the cigarette box from the same place he’d put it the day before. He watched the kid who wasn’t moving much. He was on his knees, had his hands on the floor and was using his forehead as a kickstand as he tried to breathe normally.

Porter went over and flipped him over with his foot. The kid flopped onto his back. All the color had gone out of his face and his lips were moving, but no sounds were coming out.

“Tell me about the pictures.”

“Pictures? What pictures?” he coughed. His throat sounded scratched.

Porter opened the box and tipped the pictures out onto him; he didn’t even notice them at first. Porter wondered if he had a knife and if he’d pull it.

But then the kid opened his eyes wide and, with great effort, looked at the pictures.

“I’ve never seen these before, man. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“What’s your name?” Porter sat down on the end of one of the army cots, the gun in his hand. The kid lay on his back with his feet out the door and his head near the bottom of the army cot.

“Micky.”

“Is your mother alive, Micky?”

“What?”

“Your mother.”

“Yeah?”

Porter stood up and pressed the barrel of the Ruger into Micky’s forehead. He looked into his eyes as they widened.

“Does she want an open or closed casket?”

“Oh, Jesus!”

“I’m not looking for Jesus, Micky, not today - the pictures.”

“This guy, he asked me to hold onto them. I never opened the box, I swear.”

“J?”

“I only know him as J.”

Porter was getting frustrated. He wanted this to be over as quickly as possible. This looked like it was going down the wrong road. Maybe he’d got his wires crossed. The kids in the pictures looked nothing like Johnny, so maybe those images were just a coincidence. Porter reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the picture he had of Johnny.

“You see this kid before?” he said as he held the photo over Micky’s head. Micky tried to reach for it, to get a better look, but Porter pulled it back. “Look, don’t touch.”

“I don’t know, man”

“You sell drugs to his family,” he said as he slipped a cigarette into his mouth.

“I don’t remember.”

“It wasn’t a question. You kill the kid?” He lit the cigarette, still holding the gun on Mickey.

There was a pause, a stark silence, which rang in Porter’s ear. The guy didn’t say no. “Yes, no?” demanded Porter.

“No!”

“Is that right?”

Micky started to break down. His face seemed to slide, like he was having a stroke. Tears started to ball down his face and soak into the putrid carpet.

“It wasn’t my fault!”

“What wasn’t your fault?” Porter was smoking, playing with the match book between his fingers.

The guy was spitting as he talked now, his words tripping over each other, rushing to come out. He was blubbering like a baby.

“We just wanted to scare the kid. He saw us cooking. I don’t how he got there.”

“What happened?”

“We took the kid out to the reservoir, tied his hands”

“By ’we,’ you mean you and that chick that peeled out of here?”

He nodded, snot bubbling out of his nose.

“We took the kid, hands tied. We didn’t mean to. It was an accident. He just fell in and we were so high, we didn’t think to go in after him.” He coughed loud, like he was trying to hurt himself. “We were scared; we didn’t know what to do.”

“What about J?” Porter got off the bed, went around to the door and kicked Micky’s feet into the room.

“He said he needed the kid. The red woman told him in his dreams that he needed the flesh of fallen angels.” Micky’s eyes rolled up in the back of his head; he wasn’t making much sense. Meth was a hell of a drug. “I’m dying. I think I’m dead.”

“See ya, Micky, you’ve been a big help.” Porter stood up.

A shotgun racked and a cold barrel was pressed into the back of Porter’s neck.

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