Chapter 9 Wings of flies
“This is Eye Witness News at Ten,” a voiceover said as graphics rolled over the screen.
An anchor with short, slick hair and a pressed blue suit faded in.
“He disappeared, without a trace, three years ago. Tonight, a San Antonio boy is back home. Johnny Bartlett.” A video played over him, an upward shot of Johnny. He looked paler than ever under washed-out stage lighting: dark glasses, that wide-brimmed cowboy hat on his head. “Now sixteen years old, he vanished when he was thirteen. Johnny says he was kidnapped and taken to Spain. He says, for three years, he was repeatedly drugged, beaten and raped, all part of a sex slave operation involving dozens of missing children.”
A young female anchor with her hair in a short bob and too much blush continued.
“Well, Bob, the FBI is not taking this case lightly. Somehow a thirteen year old boy from San Antonio ended up in Spain, without a passport.”
It cut to a street shot of the same anchor woman on the streets of San Antonio. The sky was slate grey and she stood under a metal sign outside Fort Sam Houston.
“On the night of his disappearance, Johnny had a fight with his family, so came out here to Fort Sam Houston to play basketball. Two young boys approached him. He started talking. The next thing he knew, there was a cloth over his mouth and Johnny passed out.”
It cut to an old photo of Johnny before he was taken wearing a blue baseball cap and hoodie. “He claimed his captors changed his appearance to make him unrecognizable.” It cut to the interview with Johnny. “He was no longer allowed to speak English and they physically and mentally abused him for years” The interview had taken place in a lounge in the studio, mocked up to look like an old lady’s living room. There was a long cream couch along the wall, with a wheat pattern on it. The walls had pictures of old ships on them. Johnny had sat in a cream armchair with a leaf pattern embroidered onto it. Sandra, the anchor, had sat across from him in a white leather chair.
“Did they rape you every night?” Sandra asked, with a slight inflection, as the interview cut to a close up of Johnny’s face, pale and angular.
“Me? No, uh uh, because they- They didn’t rape me every night. Some of them, they like more.” Johnny smiled and released a sort of pained laugh. “Some of the kids they like more, they rape them usually, two or three times a week.”
“Was there a religious component to it? Were they worshipping the devil?”
Porter had been set up in a booth behind the cameras, standing watching from the dark studio. Peggy had been sitting on a couch, somewhere in back, watching on the monitors.
The booth where Porter had been standing was where they’d briefed the news crew on the basics of the story. Johnny’s photo and a few others they had pulled from the news archives had been stuck on the wall of the booth.
Porter had been standing at such an angle that he could see the monitors and the pictures of Johnny as a kid at the same time. Instinctively, he had started comparing them. In the old pictures, the boy had had blonde hair and blue, almost steel-grey eyes. Johnny on the camera now had deep brown eyes, but that hadn’t been what Porter was looking at.
Porter had started to feel warm, the hairs on the back of his neck starting to stand up and his breathing quickening. A light rushing feeling in his chest had begun to build up. There was something wrong. A fly had landed on a picture of Johnny on Christmas morning, opening presents.
Porter had pulled it off the wall, letting the tack hit the carpet. It had been the best picture of Johnny in profile.
He’d read about a man who had been caught by Scotland Yard in Heathrow Airport when police identified him by his ears. Ears were just as unique as fingerprints. Porter held the pictures up to the monitor and compared the ears.
They hadn’t been a match.
He had looked back at Peggy. She had still been watching the monitors and hadn’t seen him pluck the picture off the wall, so he had slid it into his pocket.
The phone rang in Nancy’s office in the San Antonio field office. She was on her way out and Con was half out the door, but she leaned over the desk and picked up the receiver.
“Special Agent Nancy Jaeger.”
“Hi, I was told to talk to you if I had any information on the Johnny Bartlett case. You know, the kid that went missing and came back?” The man’s voice was slow and quiet and they could hear talking in the background.
“Yes, who can I say is calling?”
“My name is Porter. I’m a PI the network hired to track him down.”
She took the receiver away from her ear and mouthed, ‘shit.’
“What’s your last name, please?”
She went around her desk and sat down, grabbing paper and pen. She quickly got down his name.
Con continued out the door, carrying a box of his things.
“What is it you have to tell me, Mr. Caraway?”
“The kid, it’s not him.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“The kid, Johnny, it’s not him, can’t be: his ears don’t match.”
“His ears?” she said in a mocking tone.
Con came in, just as she said, it and mouthed with a confused expression, ‘Ears?’ to which Nancy just shrugged.
“They’re like fingerprints. I got a picture of the real Johnny and I compared them. They’re not a match and his eyes are the wrong color, hair too, though it could have been dyed.”
“Uh huh.” Nancy said as she watched Con swirl his finger around his ear, implying it was a crank. He mouthed, ‘hang up’ and tapped his wrist as if it were a watch. They were catching the next plane back to Virginia as the case was going cold. They had nothing at all to go on. The information they’d received so far was all too vague. There was no reason for them to stay in town and Langley was pulling them away.
“Are you hearing me? He’s a fake, no doubt in my mind.” Porter was serious.
“I’m sorry; I find that hard to believe. His family would know better than anyone. Why would they take in a stranger?”
“I don’t know. That’s not why I was hired. I was just meant to find him. Look, this kid could be a Russian spy for all we know and his family could be in on it.” Porter was swimming now, a giddiness he wasn’t used to, like he was a kid in a spy novel.
“You’re getting yourself mixed up in something here, Mr. Caraway. You can’t interfere with a federal investigation. I advise you to stay away from this and trust in the judgment of the boy’s family.”
“You’re telling me to back off?”
“I’m telling you to back off.”
“OK,” he said as he hung up the phone.
Porter was sitting at the bar in the Gingerman with an untouched pint of Guinness in front of him.
When Patrick moved out the way. Porter found himself staring into the mirror at nothing in particular.
“You haven’t touched your pint and ya look gorgeous,” Patrick said, in his annoying fake Irish accent.
“Not now, Pat.”
“What’s up? Luck of the Irish not favourin’ ya today?”
“I said drop it.” His tone was as cold as the side of a butcher’s knife.
A local drunk by the name of Lafferty threw his arm around Porter and said, “It’s not the end of the world, pal. I’m sure she’ll call.” Laffery laughed. His breath smelled like boiled eggs and soap powder.
“You lay off him too, alright? He’s had a hard day,” Patrick said.
Lafferty was old and grey and looked like a worn out boot that someone had thrown through the window.
Porter got up and walked around the bar.
“I need to make a phone call.”
“It won’t do any good. Your job was just to find the kid. You found him, you got paid, leave it that; it’s got nothing to do with you anymore.”
Lafferty watched them both and his eyes went to the unguarded pint of Guinness.
“If I do that, if I just ignore this and I turn on the news to see the Air Force base up in flames, or the army base, or whatever... I don’t know what he is, but he ain’t right and I don’t like it and, if I don’t see this through, it’ll be on me.”
“You’re talking crazy now. He’s just a little boy that got lost and came back with a fish story. Happens all the time. Or maybe it’s true, who knows? Either way, it’s got nothing to do with you; it’s not your case anymore.”
By now Lafferty had stopped caring whether they saw and was taking sneaky gulps of Porter’s pint.
“I’m making it my case. I’ve got a bad feeling about it. He’s lying. I know it. I saw the picture; his ears don’t match.”
Lafferty chimed in, in a moment of clarity, now holding the pint proudly as if it was his.
“I watched the interview. He said they changed his eyes and his hair and his accent. Why couldn’t they change his ears too?”
Porter and Pat looked over at him and he said, “I’m just saying, it can be done. I seen people getting fuckin’ horns put on their heads. Split their tongue. Make their eyes like snakes eyes. It’s freaky, but it can be done, so if they go through all the trouble to change his eyes, why not his ears too?” Lafferty finished the pint and set it on the bar.
“Yeah and maybe they swapped out his blood with maple syrup; it’s bullshit,” Porter said.
“Why would his family take him in if he wasn’t their kid? You’d think they’d say ’hey, I have no idea who this guy is, get him the fuck away from me, ’but they didn’t; they took him into their home and that’s where he is. They accepted him, so why can’t you?” Pat said.
“I’ve just got a bad feeling. This kid is bad news”
“Who cares if he is? It has nothing to do with you. Let the FBI and his family sort it out. I think they know their son better than you. Can you tell me why this family would take in a stranger?”
Nancy and Con were back in Virginia, behind glass, where they felt safe and strong. The office was modern and shiny. Nancy could see all the drones buzzing around, sitting in their cubicles. She knew when they got up for coffee; she knew, by their expressions, when they took a leak or were on Facebook. The office was all glass and stainless steel, clean and perfect. Her office was a complete mess. She and Con had pored over mountains of files. They were searching for any connection between the kid’s story and anything that existed in the real world. They had pulled up dozens of cases of missing kids and had found nothing. They’d even spoken to Interpol. Everything the kid had said had been vague, the words of someone outside looking in. Either these guys were too good to be caught. Or too connected. Or they didn’t exist. They were ghosts. Either way, the news story didn’t help. If they hadn’t gone underground by now, they were gone for good or here to stay.
“We’re at a dead end,” Con said. He looked tired, his eyes unfocused and painted on.
Nancy was trying to bury herself in papers and pictures, clutching at straws.
“If they exist, we’ll find them.”
“And if they don’t exist?” Con said.
Nancy looked up from her desk.
“All we have is the kid,” she said.
Con smiled. His laughter line flared up. “OK, so we kidnap him and beat it out of him.”
“I hate you.” Nancy chupsed and rolled her eyes. “Can’t you take anything seriously?” She cast her eyes down at the picture of a cute Mulatto girl in pigtails, half-buried in papers on her desk.
“It’s your kid’s birthday soon, right?”
“How is it you know, but her dad has forgotten three times in a row?”
“I’m a savant with dates, especially birthdays. I got her a little something.” He got a little box with a ribbon on it out of his desk drawer and set it down on his desk. “It’s just a little thing; it’s nothing special.”
“That’s sweet,” she said, a reluctant smile on her face.
“I know a lot of things are running through your head right now. But this kid is the key and we have to do everything we can to stop this happening to anyone else.” Con was sincere. It made a nice change,
“What do you suggest?”
“I think we have a doctor look at him, a forensic psychologist interview him, and see if they can get more out of him”
“You think his family will agree to that?”
“They’ll agree if we tell them its trauma counseling”
“So we lie to them?” Nancy said, sounding slightly indignant.
“It’s not illegal to lie. We need to know more and he’s all we’ve got. We have to press him further. We need to get inside his head”.
“You sound like you want to drug him or put him under hypnosis.”
“You know, I would if I thought that would work. They tried that in the old days, maybe some places still do. But it’s bullshit; it’s all suggestion, implanting false memories. That’s why, when you regress your past lives, you never get any Prussian toilet cleaners. It’s based on people’s desires; they believe what they want to believe.”
“You think it’ll work?”
“I think we have nothing and it’s worth a shot.”
“OK, I’ll call his family and fly him out once you’ve arranged it at your end.”