The One That Came Back

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Chapter 2 Small Change

It was late. A guy in a vest and a pair of sweatpants beat on a blond guy in a tan overcoat, in the glare of a giant Super Eight sign.

The parking lot of the Super Eight was like a cheery holiday graveyard, all lit up and nowhere to go.

“You done?” The blond spat blood on the floor and looked up at the man in the vest.

“You fucking son-of-!” The man sunk a shoeless foot into the blond guy’s ribs and the blond wheezed a sickly laugh through a bust lip.

“The pictures are in the mail.” He licked his lips and propped himself up on his hands, on the parking lot floor, to watch the man in the vest go back into his motel room.

The blond sat on the happy concrete and watched the man in the vest through the room’s open curtains. In the brightly lit room, the man in the vest was greeted by his brightly lit woman. The blond smiled and waved as he pushed a cigarette past his split lip.

The woman held the man in the vest back as his blood boiled up again. He marched over to the window, shot a few daggers at the blond and shut the blinds.

Porter pulled himself up off the ground; all the outside bits hurt, the skin and the bone, but the inside? No one could touch that. He ruffled his short hair, running a finger across his jawline to make sure his ruddy good looks were still intact. Dusting himself off, he felt a little melancholy slip in, as it usually did. The image of the woman he’d been sent to spy on, greeting the man she had sent out to beat his ass, warmed the cockles of his heart. A part of him knew he’d never have a greeting like that. Nah, it was just his job to watch, like someone paid to poke an ant-farm every ten minutes or so, to see what fell out.

What had fallen out this time? A husband had paid him a couple hundred bucks up front to get pictures. His woman was stepping out with some small-time country music singer. Apparently the honkey tonk man’s daughter had made it big up north and had left him down here to rot, squeezing her two dollar ass into five dollar Spandex and shaking it for teenagers. Fine work, if you could get it. Now the honkey tonk man was carving himself off a piece of someone else’s wife.

Porter had enough pictures already. This was just a follow up; obviously he’d outstayed his welcome.

The Super Eight was the biggest, cheapest place this close to the interstate; it had been built in a horse shoe shape, pink stucco all the way round, two stories high, neatly trimmed Texas privet bushes all over.

Porter limped across the brightly lit parking lot. He started to feel some of the blood rush back into the important parts. He got to the office at the lip of the parking lot, tossed his cigarette in a bin by the entrance and pushed through the double doors.

It was a hot night. Austin had a lot of those. As soon as he popped the seal on the door the air conditioning lit up all the sweat on the back of his neck.

The small office was lit like the inside of a fish tank. A big cream marble counter had steer head stencils running along its side. There was a fat girl with glasses and blonde hair sitting at the desk. She didn’t look up.

Porter dragged himself over to the ATM in front of the desk. He rested his aching elbows on the sand-colored marble top, yawning loudly to get her attention.

She looked up at Porter.

“Are you OK?”

“Can I use your phone?”

The girl looked confused.

“Err; sure, what’s the number?”

“Can you just pass it over?”

For a second, she stared off into space. A second of humming in her throat and she figured out she could just lift the whole phone up and put it on the marble counter top.

“Thanks Darlin’.” He smiled at her and started punching numbers. He suspected he had a bruise on the tip of his finger. Stop being a baby.

“It’s Porter. You got the pictures?”

“Sure, I got them, but I can’t say I like them.”

“You don’t have to like’em, but they’re yours, you bought’em.” Porter lit another cigarette and smiled at the girl behind the counter. He tossed his eyes at the ‘no smoking’ sign, stuck up two fingers and mouthed ‘two minutes’. She opened and closed her mouth like a fish, with a quiet, wet popping sound.

The voice on the other end sighed like sawing wood.

“Fine, fine, come by tomorrow and I’ll get you the rest of the money.”

“Sure.”

“Goddamit, now I have to get a lawyer. That bitch is gonna clean me out!”

“Sure,” Porter said as he hung up the phone. He smiled at the fat girl and put the phone back, before stumbling out of the office into the street.

He’d parked his red Dodge pickup between a minivan and a gray Oldsmobile Cutlass. Some solid citizen had put out the Cutlass’s front driver’s side window and keyed ‘SONOFABITCH’ in all caps on the hood.

“Oh well.”

-

The fax machine whined as it spat out a black and white picture of a little boy. The name at the top read ‘Johnny Bartlett – missing since 2012’.

An attractive black woman, in a pants suit, ripped it out of the machine and started a power walk to a corner office. She crossed the office so fast; the cubicle geeks didn’t even notice her half-heeled shoes clicking on the floor.

She quietly closed the glass door of the office and slammed the folder down on the desk. The room was cool and calm. The muted sounds of typing were soothing.

She clicked on the green bankers’ lamp she had picked up from a thrift store around the corner and started to spread the papers across her desk. After lifting the picture of the boy up to the lamp, her focus shifted to a framed picture of a little Mulatto girl on her desk. A dark thought crossed her mind. She picked up the receiver of a black cordless phone and dialed the number for the American embassy in Spain, which was scrawled at the bottom of the fax.

“Hello, this is special agent Nancy Jaeger, calling about the Bartlett case.”

“I’ll put you through to the director, Agent, please wait one moment,” the secretary said.

A soft spoken man answered.

“Good afternoon. Peter German speaking, Consul General, how can I help you, Agent?”

“I was just calling to thank your office for faxing the file over. I was wondering how soon we could bring the boy in for questioning?”

The man cleared his throat “Well, yes of course, I’ve sent a man out today to collect the boy from the children’s home.”

Nancy looked up from her desk as the door to her office clicked open and a broad-shouldered man in an expensive suit slipped in. As soon as he saw she was on the phone he shushed himself and tiptoed toward the black leather seat across from her desk.

Nancy glared at him. How quickly he’d got her flustered! Her partner seemed to have a direct line to her irritation and played on it as often as he could. But he was nice to look at, so she kept him around. “We’ve already informed the boy’s sister and she’s coming out to meet him in Spain. They’re going to take him back as soon as possible. She’s very eager to get the boy back, I’ve heard - as much as you would expect.” “That’s great. Call me as soon as you have him and we’ll meet him at the airport,” Nancy said.

“Is that the sex-trafficking case?” her partner whispered.

She waved her hand to shush him again.

“OK, thanks for your help. Have a nice day.” She put the phone down, exasperated.

“So?” Con said.

“We’re going to Texas.”

“So, why did you want this case? I heard you almost bit McGregor when this came up. The sex-trafficking angle get you? I thought chicks had a hard-on for raped little girls. This one’s a boy.”

“Con Folsome, the things that come out of your mouth sometimes!”

He smiled a handsome, wicked grin.

“So, Texas?”

“I dunno. There’s just something interesting about it, I can tell. Kid goes missing for four years and comes back, alive. That doesn’t happen every day.”

Con sighed and put his forearms on her desk.

“You’re not doing that whole ‘X-Files’ thing, are you? I know you like that spooky shit. You get bored of chasing serial killers? Now it’s alien abductions?”

“Get the fuck out of my office and pack for ‘hot as shit’.” She smiled and picked up the file, swiveling her chair back towards the filing cabinet behind her desk.

He got up from the chair and started for the door, trying to emulate the theme from ‘X-Files’ as he went.

“Oooeewweeewoooo”.

-

Running, running, running. The boy in the big coat jogged furiously against the noise of the traffic and the lights and the people.

His heart beat hard and his lungs burned. A layer of nervous sweat built up under his large coat. His backpack bobbed up and down, pulling on his shoulders, dragging him down.

Why was he running? All the faces blurred and dragged behind him. He pushed past, pushed through them.

Cars passing. His breath caught in his throat. He swallowed hard as he tried to lose himself on the street, to become anyone, anyone else, no one.

He cut down the high street. The pictures of shiny people, with white teeth and neat hair, people other people wanted to be like. Clothes people wanted to wear.

There were lots of people on the street and lots of cars: people coming home from bars and cafés, stumbling around, young people out with their friends, lots of taxis and prowlers and street-walkers on stilts. Cutting into a side street, he suddenly felt boxed in. The buildings were so close he could barely breathe. Overhanging balconies felt like chins jutting out over his head.

He came to a crossroads intersecting Yanguas Jimenez, with a tobacco shop on the corner. There was a white van parked across from it. He took a right.

Along Calle Campanario, the walls were all painted a sandy yellow and they were lit like a badly decorated Christmas tree. This street was cobbled, but as he jogged out into the open, it bled into tarmac and he felt like he could breathe. The sky was now visible at a horizontal angle. He slowed enough to give a woman carrying her groceries time to shoot him a cautious glare of contempt for being in her path at this hour.

This part of town seemed pretty empty; it wasn’t touristy: just a local bazar on one side and tall trees sticking out of the concrete on the other, an open area with big steps, and some sad-looking plants dotted about, trying to remind people that things lived there.

He speed walked down the street, keeping his head down. A few cars passed, taxis ferrying drunken tourists back to their hotel rooms to be sick at their leisure.

He crossed the street to avoid a local bar that had spilled out onto the sidewalk: people smoking and laughing and drinking odd European beers. He looked back to see if there were any cars but couldn’t see any. He crossed the street again onto an island in the road, part of a big roundabout split into four segments, like a mini-park, with splotches of green artificially injected into the ground. Palm trees lined one side of the street.

The plaque in the centre of the roundabout said it was called ‘Plaza Del Ayuntamiento’. Something else was written in Spanish below it. Probably details of when and why it was built and what the sculpture in the centre meant. It just looked like a big flat rock with two holes in it, suspended by two concrete beams.

It wasn’t well lit and he felt strange standing there looking at it. A car horn got his attention and he thought it might be an empty taxi, so he turned back to the road and saw headlights. It was one of those little European Smart cars. He thumbed it down and it slowed to a halt, leaving the engine on. He ran up alongside it. But before he could get to the driver’s side, to tell him where he wanted to go, a skinny, pale man with light curly hair and a big nose stuck his head out of the window and called out to him.

“Johnny Bartlett?”

-

The man was the Vice Consul to the U.S embassy, Milton Dammers: a nervous and reserved young man who tore out into the night, in the back of a taxi cab, to find a boy twice missing.

He stood waiting, in an over starched grey suit, for the Consul General to pick up his phone.

“I found him.”

Dammer was using one of the hall phones in the children’s shelter. The walls were cream-painted over cheap, old, rotten wood, coarse and sticky, as if someone had just painted over old stone. The hall was sparse of furniture, besides old, dark wooden benches that looked like pews.

“What do you mean you found him?”

“I got here and he was gone, so I took a taxi out to go look for him. He was wandering around the museum district; he seemed a little shaken, but he’s OK now.”

“So?”

“He speaks English; I think he’s an American”

“Well, shit, that doesn’t mean much. The people who do my laundry speak English and they sure as hell aren’t American.” The Consul General paused and then released an uncomfortable sigh. “OK, Milt, have him ready, we’re sending his sister out to come and get him ASAP. She’ll have the final word.”

“On it, sir.”

-

Johnny was awoken by a knock at the door of his room in the children’s home.

His room was sparse, a little bigger than an exchange student might have in some university campus closer to the centre of town.

It had a large window in an alcove opposite the door. It had threadbare curtains that did nothing to keep the morning sun out. It didn’t really bother Johnny, as he’d become accustomed to sleeping with the covers completely over his head.

The room itself was clean enough. On the walls, yellowish brown wallpaper looked like it was made of recycled paper, like it was the cardboard at the bottom of a notepad, coarse to the touch.

There was a sink at the end of his bed and a mirror above it. A small, old radiator stood next to his bed, adjacent the window.

There was a cross nailed above his bed, featuring the man himself, half-naked and with a deer in headlights look about him. Other than that, and a few pictures ripped out of magazines and left by the person who’d had the room before him, the walls were bare. The bed covers were made of some synthetic woolen fabric that made his skin itch.

There was a single empty chair across from his bed.

He opened the door eventually, putting the chain on. There, in the gap between the door and the jamb, was Abran, the director of the children’s home. He wore his signature fleece.

Abran was talking fast in Spanish. He was excited. His eyes lit up with some rehearsed tenderness. Johnny realized the man was asking him if he was happy.

“You must be happy!” He told him his sister was coming for him, his sister from San Antonio was on her way; she was on a plane right now coming to get him.

Johnny smiled and agreed and closed the door back up without removing the chain.

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