Chapter 8 God’s away on business
It was happy hour.
Porter was sitting at the bar with an untouched pink flamingo cocktail in his hand. It was dark outside but still warm.
“Phone for you, Porter!” Patrick said, at the back of the bar. Porter hadn’t even heard it ring. The bar was full, locals mostly and a couple of college kids that looked lost.
Porter walked around the bar, trying not to fall over a guy in a hockey jersey who couldn’t find his feet.
The phone was on the end of the bar itself, all the way in the back.
Patrick wasn’t waiting. He had left the receiver on the side.
“Dear God, you sound terrible.” A snippy New Yorker accent rattled around in his ear like a bad penny circling a drain.
“Wrong number. God’s away on business.”
“Phil Robertson from Channel Eight Action News.” He said it almost like a chant. Porter licked the corner of his mouth. “You remember me, you prick!” Phil smiled on the other end. “I remember, what is it?”
“You been watching the news at all?”
“I don’t have all day.” Porter was used to long stories from people who liked to talk but not on the phone.
“Sure you do. Who are you kidding? All you micks do is sit around that bar, waiting for someone to bludgeon you with a chair leg.”
“Is it a job?”
“It’s a job.”
“Yeah?” Porter was waking up now. His eyes were half open and he slipped a carton of cigarettes out of his pocket and pushed one between his lips. He looked up and saw his brother signaling for him to put it away, a soggy bar towel twisting between his hands.
“Usual rate plus expenses.”
Porter grimaced and put the whole pack down. He glared at his brother who smiled like a cherub and tossed the bar towel over his shoulder, slapping himself in the face with it, by accident, to the great joy of a local tout.
“Better not be anything to do with a sextape. I’m done with celebrity bullshit.” Porter felt antsy. He needed to put something in his mouth. He reached for a handful of bar nuts and started crunching them into the receiver.
“No it’s nothing like that. Are you hearing a crackling sound?”
“Must be on my end. There’s this kid. He was on the news; it was leaked by someone on the inside. We don’t know who and we can’t get in touch with anyone from the embassy who’ll talk to us”.
“OK, OK, I just want you to track him down so we can set up an interview, that’s all. He’s in San Antonio, but that’s all I know. That’s not too far from you, right?”
“So you’ll do it?”
“Yeah, I’ll do it.”
“Great, great. The kid’s name is Johnny Bartlett and his sister’s name is Peggy Carson. You might do better going through her. Supposedly this kid has been missing for over four years. Do you need me to spell any of that? Are you writing this down?”
“OK, keep me posted. I’ve already got a crew set up in North San Antone. The address is K335 Northwest Loop 410. It’s along the freeway? You can’t miss it; they’ll be there all week.”
“Just find’em and get’em there, that’s all”
“Right,” Porter said as he hung up the phone.
The next morning he filled up on bacon and runny eggs and headed out.
He took the thirty-five state highway. From there, it was a straight shot into San Antonio, across the Colorado River. Austin was pretty buttoned down, metropolitan, some might say. But San Antonio sprawled all over, all white and flat and open, real country.
It took him about an hour and a half to get to the centre of town. He stopped outside Kirby and picked up a phone book from a local drugstore, and started going down the list of Peggy Carsons.
There were two in China Grove, one in Alamo Heights, one in Macdona, another in Selma, and the last was in Somerset. They were scattered all over. He figured it was gonna take all day, if not a day and a half.
He decided to go for the two in China Grove first. It was the closest to the centre of town and those odds looked good, two in one shot. Then, if that didn’t pan out, he could swing wide to Selma. Then come back around to Alamo Heights and do the others tomorrow.
He could have just called them and saved a lot of time, but this way he’d know for sure and they wouldn’t get spooked.
It was a nice day. The sun was still coming up.
He got back inside the Dodge and started it up.
The place he was looking for was 6738 Joe Louis Drive, a neat looking trailer painted white with a brown trim. The house was neatly tucked away down a small dirt road. There was a big peach tree out front with a tire swing hanging from it.
He parked behind a black Camaro parked facing the trailer.
Before he even got out of the truck, a young guy with a beer belly walked out. He came out onto the wooden porch with a small knife, picking at his nails.
“What can I do fer ya?”
“I’m looking for a Peggy Carson. Does she live here?”
“Does she have a brother, name of Jonathan William Bartlett?”
“What’s this about? Did she win the Lotto or something?” He laughed and looked up for a second before going back to picking his nails with the knife.
“Nothing like that. I’ve just been sent to look for this particularly person and it looks like I got the wrong one.” Porter smiled politely. “Sorry for bothering you.”
“Special Agent Nancy Jaeger.” Nancy recited as she picked up the black cordless phone on her desk.
“Yes, I know who you are. This is regional director Schuwirth. I’m gonna get straight to the point, agent. We’ve had leaks”
“Yes, leaks: the boy’s face all over the news. I read your report. There’s a military connection I don’t like. If that gets out, it could be very complicated for us, do you understand?”
Nancy was listening, She and Con were still working the case in the San Antonio field office, for the time being, working with the very little they’d been given by Bartlett.
Con watched from his desk across the room as the frown lines deepened on Nancy’s forehead. He mouthed, ‘Who is it?’ to which she responded by squinting and telling him to shush.
“What do you want me to do, sir?”
“I want you to talk to his family and make sure they don’t shoot their mouths off about this. No press. If there is a military connection it won’t do the case any good if the suspects know that we know, now would it?”
“You’re right, sir, but some media presence might bring out some new leads. Maybe new witnesses would come forward.” Nancy took on the demeanor of a plucky intern leaning on edge of her chair.
“It’s too much of a risk. By what I read in your report, if these people get wind that we’re looking for them, they could scatter. They could be anywhere in globe within a week.”
“I’ll make a call, sir” she said through a tight smile.
“You do that, agent. We can’t let this get any more complicated than it already is. The news media is probably already sniffing him out as we speak. It could be very dangerous for the boy’s family. Who knows who these people really are, if they really exist at all?”
Nancy made a creaking sound as she leant back in her swivel chair.
“You think the kid’s making it up for attention?”
“Now you’re putting words in my mouth. He went somewhere. He wasn’t picking apples for four years, but his story is real tinfoil hat stuff. Right up your alley, so I’m told.” The director cleared his throat and went on. “Nevertheless, it’s very detailed. It would be hard to believe that someone so young could even make something like that up. What do you make of it?”
“I think he believes it.”
“That’s all, Agent Jaeger. You’re coming back to Virginia soon, I hear.”
“Well, I’ll see you then.”
She hung up the phone gently and leaned back in her seat.
“Who was that?” Con asked.
“What did he want?” he said, raising an eyebrow.
“There were reporters at the airport waiting for him, the kid.” She closed her eyes as she reclined in her seat.
“Someone at the embassy, you think? Maybe the children’s home?”
“I wouldn’t rule it out. He wants to keep a lid on it because of the military connection. Doesn’t want an ‘international incident’.”
“You think it’s time we talk with Interpol?”
“Not yet. I want to sit on the kid a little longer. He has more to tell us, I’m sure. I should call Peggy and tell her to keep a lid on it for now.”
She grabbed the phone again and started dialing.
It was about a twenty minute drive to Selma, so Porter put the radio on. It was all country and western and Alex Jones. The weather seemed to be taking a turn. The air was getting more damp and the sky was getting grey and sick-looking, but there was no rain. He kept going north and the clouds started to break apart.
Selma was a reasonably good area: lots of two story houses, lamp-posts every couple of feet, well-lit, a kids’ park with a play area. It was a family neighborhood, a little boring, a little out of the way, but it was home to a lot of people.
The house was two storey, white wood and red brick, with a fence running around back. It didn’t look too special. There was an old, dark red Datsun in the drive and a pretty blonde in her thirties taking groceries into the house.
He thought it was best to park across the street, so as not to jump on her. She looked ready to fold. He pulled the Dodge up onto the sidewalk in front of the house opposite.
He got out of the truck and walked slowly across the street.
“You need help with those?” he said, a smile on his face given to him by the devil himself.
She looked at him like a deer in headlights and he knew she was the right one.
“Mm, no thank you,” Peggy said as she carried the bag of groceries to the front door, her keys tinkling in her other hand. She had no reason to fear; nevertheless her fingers fumbled trying to get the keys in the front door.
“Is your name Peggy Carson?” he asked, in a benign tone.
“What do you want?” she said, with her back to Porter.
“I want to meet your brother, Johnny. Is he home?” Porter stayed where he was at the end of the drive.
Peggy turned to face him. She had the door open now and she looked like she was ready to slam it. The phone was ringing in the house but she didn’t hear it. “What’s this about?”
“My name’s Porter Caraway. I’m a private investigator. Someone hired me to find your brother, Jonathan Bartlett. That is his name, your brother?” He watched her face: no doubt about it. “And you’re Peggy, Peggy Carson? Nice to meet you.”
“What do these people want? The people who hired you.” Peggy had frozen. Porter was smirking now. He could read her, could see her imagination doing backflips. She tossed her dirty blonde hair and her red lips wrinkled. Something about it excited him and he let it ride, just for a moment.
“An interview, an exclusive with your brother, the boy that came back.”
“So you know all about it?” Peggy looked indignant but relieved.
“Some, all I need to.” Porter went back to being aloof after his brief stint as a predator.
“Will they pay?” She perked up a little, her eyes forming shrewd slits.
Porter nodded. “How much?”
“A lot.” He was already getting bored of the conversation.
“Do I have time to think about it?”
“You have the time it takes me to walk to my truck.”
“OK, just let me talk to him and we’ll follow you.”
After he’d waited a couple of minutes with his arms folded, she came out with the boy. He was small and scrawny, wearing dark glasses, like a blind man, and a flat-brimmed cowboy hat. Bright blond hair stuck out from under it. He was wearing jeans and a camel suit jacket that looked like it didn’t fit.
Peggy had changed into a pressed white blouse and a blue suit jacket.
She tossed a smile at Porter. He unfolded his arms and got in the cab of the truck. They followed behind in the Datsun.