Chapter 7 Sorrow’s child
The party had waned, and people with full bellies and rosy cheeks rolled out to their cars and trucks. Peggy waved them off. Johnny said he was tired and locked himself in his room for the rest of the day.
Peggy was about to call it and get an early night, with some true crime shows and a cup of hot tea, when the phone rang, which was strange since everyone she knew was either here or were on their way home.
She answered the phone with a curt, “Yes.”
“Hello is this Peggy Carson?” a woman on the other end said.
“This is special agent Nancy Jaeger of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. I was wondering why you hadn’t brought Johnny in for an formal interview yet. It’s been almost two weeks now since he arrived, isn’t that right?”
“Yeah, well, we just wanted to get him settled before we got into all that, you know?” Peggy put the phone in the crux of her neck and fiddled with her wedding ring.
“I understand, but I have an investigation to follow up on and the longer we wait the colder the trail will get. I’ll need you to meet me as soon as possible.”
“OK, I can do that.”
“I’ve organized a room for us at the San Antonio Missing Children’s Centre. How’s Monday afternoon for you?” Nancy said idly, as if she was booking a nail appointment.
“Err, yeah, Monday is good. We’ll bring him in then.”
“That’s great. I’ll see you then.”
“Bye,” Peggy said. Clumsily, she hung up the phone. Her nerves were a little shot. Maybe she had drunk too much. It was time for bed, at least.
As soon as Nancy put down the phone, Con looked up from the report he was reading and said, “So?”
“I said Monday.” Nancy smiled.
“Anxious,” she said as she looked at the color Photostat picture of Johnny. The San Antonio Missing Children’s Centre had sent it over. He was a good-looking, blonde-haired, blue-eyed kid, no more than thirteen years of age.
Con and Nancy had been set up in a small back office in the Bureau’s San Antonio field office. It was a simple room with white corkboard walls and halogen ceiling lights blaring day and night. A paltry ceiling fan did next to nothing. The desks were brown chipboard, like the ones you’d get in a community college classroom. Still, there were free donuts and the coffee wasn’t half bad. Lots of Mexican style pastries.
“Did she say why she didn’t call as soon as they had him?”
“Something like that.” Nancy rocked back and forth in her swivel chair, tossing thoughts in her head like bales of hay.
“What is it?”
“I dunno, there’s just something off about her. She seemed really nervous.” Her voice grew distant as she reached for a coffee cup on her desk.
“But she’s not the one coming in for an interview. It’s the kid. Maybe she just doesn’t like cops.”
“We’re not cops.” Nancy smiled and turned her head sideways.
“Yeah, but you sound like one.” Con gave a sharky grin.
She reached into the pink pastry box on her desk and threw a churro at him that he deftly dodged.
Sunday passed quickly and, by the time it was Monday, Johnny was already trying to get out of it. He didn’t feel well, he had a headache. He didn’t remember what happened; he had a pain in his chest, anxiety attacks.
Peggy wasn’t the type of person to miss an appointment and she’d promised she’d be there. Promised to the FBI. She made it clear that this wasn’t going away and he had to face it now because, if not now, then when? There was no getting around this. He had to talk to them.
So eventually she put him in her car, a beat up red Datsun, and trundled him along to the San Antonio Missing Children’s Centre. They took the 35 back towards the airport; it was only a fifteen minute drive across the freeway.
They were a little early. Peggy was so nervous they hadn’t eaten anything, so they stopped at a little Mexican café.
She parked outside and smiled as she pulled the handbrake.
It was just a little box at the side of the road. A cute, charmless eatery off the interstate. It looked like a communist cantina in Cuba: rectangular, with thin plastic walls and plastic windows. Their specials were written on the windows in colored pen. There were rows of black plastic tables and a counter in the back with a faux marble top. The chairs were gothic, black with red cushions.
The cute little Mexican girl polishing the tabletops smiled and said, “I’ll be right with you.” She was about eighteen going on thirty. She had dark hair tied up in a ponytail and wore blue jeans and a black blouse over a blue shirt with the top two buttons open. She took out a pad and pencil and said “Good afternoon, I’ll be your server today. My name is Sarah, what can I get you folks? “The food came quite quickly and they ate in silence.
They were both nervous, but Johnny was almost shaking. He must have been terrified, Peggy watched him finish his tacos, and smiled dimly.
“Don’t worry. Everything will be fine. You just tell them everything you remember and it’ll be over sooner than you think.” She put her hand on his and looked at him. “You haven’t done anything wrong. They’re just doing this to make sure you’re alright, OK?”
Johnny nodded and exhaled through his nose.
The children’s centre was a kiosk-like building, only one story high, with grey roof tiles, sandy brown stucco walls, and glass storefront windows and doors.
It was low key and unimposing, which was a relief to Peggy. They had been expecting a huge government building, but this looked more like a family dentist’s office.
Although Peggy couldn’t quite remember how Johnny felt about dentists either.
They entered and were pleasantly surprised by the air-conditioning. It seemed larger inside somehow.
Peggy approached the reception desk. “I’m Peggy Carson. I’m here to meet the FBI.”
The woman at the desk was a middle-aged, blue-haired woman with pointy fifties glasses hanging on a chain around her neck.
She looked a little confused and then said, “Oh yeah, of course. They’re waiting for you in interview room B. Go right ahead.” Her face lit up with the faux smile of a not so gracious host.
“Thanks,” Peggy said as she was directed to a tiny corridor with only two doors.
She stopped at the one paned with toughened glass and knocked. She could see a man and woman inside.
The room wasn’t like a police interrogation room in the movies. There was no two-way mirror. The chairs looked quite comfy and there was even a bean bag chair in the corner with coloring books and Lego.
“Come in,” the woman said.
Peggy dipped her head, a conciliatory smile on her face.
The black woman stood up first. She looked sharp and formal and had the demeanor of a bank manager. Her partner looked smooth and handsome, with a touch of measured ruggedness. When he saw his partner stand, he fumbled to his feet too. He smiled awkwardly.
“Peggy Carson, I’m special agent Nancy Jaeger. We spoke on the phone. This is my partner, Constantine Folsome”
“Special Agent,” Con added, smiling at Nancy. “Hi, it’s nice to finally meet you. Please have a seat.”
“It’s nice to meet you folks, too,” Peggy said, the smile on her face fixed like lead paint.
Nancy was ready to start.
“You’re Johnny Bartlett?”
The boy nodded but didn’t look up. “First, I’d like to thank you both for coming at such short notice. I understand what you must be going through.” She said this as a formality. “I must inform you that the purpose of this interview is to ascertain your account of your kidnapping, to assist in the ongoing investigation to locate your abductors. Do you understand?”
“Do you mind taking the hat and glasses off before we start please?”
He nodded again and chewed his bottom lip, then slowly began to take off his hat and dark glasses. He put them on the conference table.
He was very different from Nancy’s picture of him, and appeared to have a shadow of a beard. His hair seemed to be dyed blonde; the roots were much darker, but most striking of all were his eyes. They were deep brown.
Nancy turned to Peggy. “You can leave the interview room, but you’re permitted to stay if you’d like.”
Peggy paused and swallowed and finally said, “I’ll stay.”
Nancy flashed a fake smile and started the digital tape recorder on the table.
“Is your name Jonathon William Bartlett?”
“Yes,” the boy said.
“Can you tell us anything about your abductors?” Nancy asked. Con sat at her elbow, watching, with his arms folded and a distant look on his face.
The boy looked nervous, fidgety.
He started to talk. His English was stunted and broken and his accent was very thick. “I was taken by military. Oversea.” Nancy furrowed her brow. “I was abducted and put in a van, flown out of the country. I never knew where it was.” He cleared his throat. “I was put in a room, with lots of other kids. They knocked us out with drugs and took us there; none knew where we were.” He looked at Peggy and stopped.
“What did they do with you?” Nancy asked.
“They were high-ranking military. They subjected us to ritualistic sexual abuse. Every night the kids were molested and raped by men that they didn’t know who it was.” His accent got choppier as a little emotion crept in. “They were American some, Mexican and some Europeans too, all military.” He swallowed again and his eyes became moist and his voice hoarse. “They broke both my hands, especially my right hand and all the fingers, with a baseball bat.” He put his hand on the table and indeed it did look like it had been broken some time ago and left to heal incorrectly. The fingers seemed gnarled and bent and it didn’t look like he could get much, if any, use out of it. “They burn me a lot, with cigarettes and other things.” He pulled his head forward and pulled the hair at the back of his neck up. It revealed a cluster of little circular burns. Then he stood up and showed them the ones on the back of his knees and ankles. “They torture us and feed us insect.” Tears were running down his cheeks now, but his face was taut and tense.
“Please,” Nancy said.
“They, they broke my right foot with a crowbar. They raped us repeatedly.” He bit the inside of his cheek. “They experimented on us, using psychological torture. They put needles in our eye; they put headphones on us and played loud music for hours at a time. They try to drive us insane. They wouldn’t let us speak English. They scream at us and beat us if we spoke English. The headphones would say over and over again, ‘You are not you!’ They moved us around a lot on military planes. We never knew where we were going. “He paused and swallowed again. His throat was getting dry. “They change our identities. Change the way we look, either by dying our hair or change our eye color or other ways. They put a solution in my eyes and change them. They change them from blue to brown. They always wear uniform. They sold us for sex.”
“Did you ever get a look at their faces?” Nancy chimed in softly.
“No, they always wear mask.”
“How did you get away?”
“They always left the door open. They tell us that we will die if we escape. They tell us they’re in the middle of the desert or the Arctic. If we go outside, we die of starvation or cold or thirst or they shoot us on sight. So we always scared, too scared to leave.” He opened his mouth and looked away. “They make us do things, horrible things: kill animals, drink their blood, eat parts raw. Make us say strange things we don’t understand. They want us to feel blame, make us feel broken.” He scrunched his face up. “They want to make us feel like there was no place for us in the real world, there was no home for us here. They made us feel like we weren’t human. They make us fight; I saw they make a boy kill another boy with a rock.”
“They left the door open?”
“They know we never try to escape, but I try. I thought, ‘If I die, then I can be free anyway.’ What did I have to lose? The door was open, so I went through it and there was a long hallway, but it was empty; there was no one. It look like a building under construction and there was a big set of fire door, and I open them and I ran and ran and ran. It was only hours after that, I discover I am in Spain and the police find me.”
Nancy was measured. She was professional and she noted every detail down as accurately as she could in her head, but she was taken aback by what she heard and the level of detail that was relayed. She looked at Peggy and could see she was fairing much worse. She was white as a bed sheet and looked like she might throw up.
Con’s face had taken on a waxy look; his eyes were fixed and glassy.
“Yeah,” he said, with a sharp inhalation.
“Would you mind taking Mrs. Carson into the waiting room and getting her a cup of coffee?”
“I can stay,” she said, her voice almost non-existent, as if she was miles away; it came from somewhere deep down in her throat. She looked up at Nancy and held back tears, or vomit or insane screaming or laughing, whatever form this mania would manifest itself in, and said again, “I can stay.”
“Are you sure?”
She swallowed hard and said, “Yes.”
Con got up.
“I’ll still get us some coffees. I feel like stretching my legs anyhow. Milk? Sugar?”
“None for me please,” Peggy said. Johnny didn’t even turn his head.
“Do you have any information that could help me in the investigation?” Nancy asked Johnny. “Anything that could help me find these people? Anything they said or did?”
“No, I’m sorry, I can’t think of anything. They were very thorough; they never let us know more than we had to.”
Nancy was shaken but she couldn’t tell whether it was from horror or from some morbid excitement.
“Thank you for taking the time and having the courage to relive this event. I’m very sorry you had to go through this. I promise we will do the utmost to find the people responsible and see that justice is done.” She sucked in some air and offered a comforting smile. “Thank you, that’s all for today. If we have any more, we’ll get in touch.” Nancy stood up and walked around the side of the conference table to meet Peggy who still looked green and shaky.
She rose from her chair. Her knees were weak and they buckled slightly, but she stood with some help from Johnny. He’d put his hat and dark glasses back on and had wiped his face with the sleeve of his shirt.
They shuffled out of the room looking, like they’d been in there for days. Nancy watched as they bundled into the Datsun and drove away. The boy, Johnny, looked back at her for a moment before they did. He smiled at her and there was something about it that made her blood thicken.
That someone could relay a story like that, in such detail, and smile so soon after... Did it make him feel lighter, having talked about it? How could anyone make up a story like that?
Con was waiting for her in the lobby with a cup of coffee in both hands. He handed her one and she took it, watching Peggy’s tail lights disappear around the corner. It was getting darker now. It was November and the days were getting shorter.
“You think he’s telling the truth?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Kid’s one hell of an actor if he’s lying,” he said as he blew on the cup.