It was a small, red brick house with a tin roof on the wrong side of the tracks. Chimneys from nearby factories spewed their crap into the already hazy air, and from somewhere nearby she could hear the steady thump of a stamping mill.
Cheryl shuddered. She could not imagine what it must be like living in a place like this. Scott rang the doorbell and presently a short, stocky man in a stained vest and flip-flops answered.
‘I am Detective Scott Riley. This is Doctor Cheryl Parker from the CIA. We’d like to talk to you about the disappearance of your son.’
‘CIA hey?’ he mumbled. Looking at them again, he seemed to remember himself. ‘I am Hendrik Roberts, but you can call me Robbie. Come inside.’
Cheryl looked around as they entered the tiny, run-down house. She could immediately see the lack of a woman’s touch in this home. The place was a mess; empty bottles competed for space with dirty dishes on the coffee table.
Robbie turned to Scott and asked, ‘What is she doing here?’
‘Doctor Parker’s government has been kind enough to send her here to lead the investigation,’ he replied.
‘Really?’ he said, looking slightly puzzled, ‘I didn’t realise a missing boy would warrant an international collaboration. He’s just a missing kid after all.’
Cheryl interjected. ‘Mister Roberts, you need to understand that your son is only a small part of what we are investigating. You were there, you saw the mysterious craft fly into the distance, and that is why I am here.
‘Obviously, we all hope to find Johnny, but to do that we have to find the craft in which he disappeared. We are hoping that in finding out a little more about him and the circumstances surrounding his disappearance, it may shed some light on the matter. It is, after all, a question of global security.’
‘Ja, of course I understand. I just keep on forgetting the importance of this so-called UFO we saw,’ Robbie replied.
‘So you do admit to seeing the craft?’ she asked.
‘Ja! In fact I gave the cops a full description.’
‘Would you be so kind as to tell it again, in your own words, please? I have read the report but I find these things often lose their colour when reduced to words on a page.’
‘Okay, no problem,’ Robbie replied. He had a strong Afrikaner accent; accentuating his consonants, and rolling his r’s. Cheryl had to listen closely to make sure she didn’t miss anything.
‘We went fishing – just like we do every year. It’s always such a lekker time for us. When we got there, everything was fine. We set up, and Johnny went to play in the water. I had a few drinks and the next minute Johnny was back and we started arguing.’
‘What exactly were you arguing about?’ asked Cheryl, taking notes as he spoke.
‘I’ve had some time to think about it, and some of it has come back to me,’ said Robbie, ‘I remember speaking about my dead wife, and I remember telling Johnny he was adopted.’
‘Johnny was adopted?’ asked Cheryl surprised, looking up from her notebook.
‘Ja. I’ve never told him before, but for some reason it came out and after that, he hit me and I passed out. When I woke up he was already gone.’
‘How old was Johnny when you adopted him?’ Cheryl asked.
‘He was about five. We couldn’t afford to do nappies, formula, and all the other jazz that goes with a new-born, so we decided to get a little okie who could already walk and talk. That way we didn’t have to bother with potty training and midnight feeds,’ he replied.
Robbie’s callous approach to raising a child appalled Cheryl, but she assumed that his late wife had probably viewed things in a very different way.
‘Tell me about your wife, Mister Roberts. When did she pass away?’
‘Ja well, Magda died about a year after Johnny came here. She was a good, loving, God-fearing woman.’
‘So you’ve raised Johnny on your own since he was about six?’
‘Tell me about it. What kind of child is Johnny? Sports, academics, friends…?’
‘Well, he’s flipping good at sports, and he gets good marks at school too, but he’s often in trouble with the teachers, and he fights a lot. He doesn’t really have any friends that I know about, but then again, I’m on the job all day…’
…and on the piss all night, thought Cheryl. ‘So you can think of nothing that may set Johnny apart from his friends?’ she asked aloud.
‘Nah, not really. Like I said; he’s bright – a little too bright if you ask me, and he’s bigger than most kids his age.’
Robbie perked up slightly. ‘He’s a very good fighter too, and just the other day, he moered a kid four years older than him for calling me names.’
Robbie seemed really proud of Johnny for beating up an older child, and Cheryl wondered what kind of values the boy must have inherited from such a father.
‘Okay, thank you for your time, Mister Roberts. If you could just tell us where we can find the orphanage that Johnny came from, we’ll be on our way,’ she concluded.
‘What do you want to go there for?’ asked Robbie sullenly, ‘he’s my bloody kid.’
‘I want to know who his real parents are,’ she said coldly. Scott suppressed a grin, impressed by her cool putdown.
Back in the car, he asked her about her plan of action.
‘Scott, we both agree that the possibility exists, unlikely as it may be, that Johnny is in control of a space ship of an unknown origin. It occurs to me that there may be more than coincidence at play here.’ Scott looked puzzled.
‘I want to have a look at his birth records,’ she said, ending the conversation. Scott nodded silently, still not sure where her train of thought was going, but he decided to let her keep them to herself for now.
They arrived at the orphanage and looked around. It had a stark, clinical feel to it. A sense of tragedy overwhelmed Cheryl. She felt despair for children like Johnny, who would leave a lifeless place like this and move to a loveless home like the one from which they had just come.
‘Excuse me; we need to speak to somebody in charge.’ Scott had managed to attract the attention of an elderly-looking nun with iron-grey hair and a serious look about her.
‘And who might you be?’ she asked primly.
‘I am Detective Scott Riley, and this is my colleague, Doctor Cheryl Parker from the CIA.’
The nun looked surprised, but impressed, and motioned for them to wait where they were while she fetched someone to assist them.
‘I really do wish you would stop introducing me as “Doctor Cheryl Parker from the CIA”,’ she said in a high singsong voice, flapping her hands about as she said it, ‘it’s very embarrassing.’
‘Well it’s effective. I’ve never seen such deference,’ he said. ‘Flashing my badge usually gets me instant respect, but nothing like this. If I could fold you up and keep you in my wallet I’d be set for life!’ he chuckled.
‘Hmmph! If you could fold me up and keep me in your wallet I am certain I’d look worse-for-wear within days… wrinkles in places I didn’t even know I had places!’ This time they both laughed.
The elderly nun returned, accompanied by a large nun with a fleshy, red face and a twinkle in her eye.
‘Doctor, Detective; this is our mother superior, Sister Dorothy. She has agreed to meet with you.’
Scott and Cheryl both smiled at Sister Dorothy and introduced themselves. Once the grey-haired nun had left, she offered them a seat in the lounge and waited politely.
‘Sister, we are investigating a case of a missing child – his name is Johnny Roberts – he ran away from his adoptive father a few days ago. His father indicated that he was adopted from your establishment about eight years ago, at the age of five,’ Cheryl explained.
‘We were hoping you could share some insight about his early years, and perhaps point us in the direction of his biological parents.’
Sister Dorothy gazed into space for a few moments… ‘Johnny? Johnny Roberts?
‘Oh, but of course! Little Johnny Smith! I remember now. A charming young couple, Mr and Mrs Roberts, adopted him. Yes, yes…’
‘What do you remember, Sister? Do you need to consult his file perhaps?’ asked Cheryl.
‘Oh that won’t be necessary, Doctor, I remember Johnny very well.’ Cheryl looked doubtful, but Sister Dorothy continued.
‘Oh, one doesn’t forget a little boy as special as Johnny in a hurry!’ she reflected, lost in some fond memory or another. Cheryl had her notebook out again and waited expectantly.
Sister Dorothy paused while she collected her thoughts.
‘Where to begin? Well, to answer your question first, Doctor, I am very much afraid that I won’t be able to help you find Johnny’s biological parents. You see, we really do not know. It’s that simple.’
‘I’m not sure I understand, Sister. Aren’t you required, by law, to keep detailed records of the next-of-kin; that sort of thing?’ asked Cheryl.
‘Of course, Doctor, of course. The problem with Johnny is that we simply never had that information,’ she replied.
‘He was an abandoned baby that was found and brought to us. We had obviously hoped to find his parents, but unfortunately, we never did,’ she said. ‘From time to time, we have parents arriving and claiming paternity – which is simple enough to verify with blood tests – but nobody ever tried to claim Johnny.’
She continued, ‘What made Johnny unusual was the fact that he was white.’ Seeing the shocked expression on Cheryl’s face, Sister Dorothy smiled gently.
‘Doctor, I know you come from a country where everyone is equal, or at least that is the image portrayed by the popular media – but in our country, we have cultural, ethnic, and economic divides that will take many, many generations to bridge, if at all.
‘The sad reality of life in South Africa is that the vast majority of us live below the bread line, and poverty is a very prevalent and awful reality,’ she said sadly, looking at her lap.
‘Besides AIDS orphans and the usual, we also have the unfortunate situation of young mothers abandoning their new-borns, leaving them to die. In some fortunate cases, they are found just in time and brought to us.
‘Johnny is unique because he is the only white child we have ever had that was abandoned in that way – never to be reclaimed.’
‘Okay Sister, I understand. Please carry on.’
‘Well, as I said, Johnny was left with us thirteen years ago. At the time, I was just a nun, and the mother superior, Sister Margaret, handled the adoption proceedings and other legalities. In cases like these, the orphanage adopts the child, and we then name them and choose a date of birth – all quite legally.
‘We christened him John Smith, but everyone called him Johnny. He was a gorgeous little thing, a real favourite of ours, and he was exceptionally bright. He was very, very bright, in fact; another reason why he is so hard to forget, Doctor.’
‘How do you mean?’ Cheryl asked.
‘Well, Doctor, he started walking and talking well ahead of any child I have ever seen, and by the time he was three, we were able to have in-depth conversations with him. He would ask interesting, thought-provoking questions and offer insights that were truly, truly remarkable for a child of his age,’ she answered. ‘He was an intensely-focused and inquisitive child. The interesting thing is that where most very young children accept what they’re told as being fact, Johnny wouldn’t do that. He would frown in thought over the most trivial things before either accepting or rejecting them.’
Sister Dorothy paused briefly and smiled.
‘As you can imagine, myself and the other sisters were absolutely smitten by him. He was an exceptionally beautiful child, and coupled with his natural charm and astonishing intellect; he was simply irresistible. We were all very sad to see him go,’ she finished.
Cheryl looked thoughtfully at Scott. He raised an eyebrow as they both shared the same thought. Perhaps there really was more to Johnny than first met the eye.
‘Sister,’ Scott said, ‘I am curious about one thing.’
‘Go on Detective.’
‘You say that Johnny was five years old when Mr and Mrs Roberts adopted him, but yet he was an abandoned baby. How can you be so sure of his age?’ he asked.
‘Of course it is impossible to know the exact date of his birth, but Johnny was only a few weeks old when he was left with us – perhaps a month, or even possibly two months – no more,’ she replied.
‘One more thing, Sister,’ said Scott again, ‘what was the date that Johnny was found?’
‘Why that’s easy Detective. I remember it well. It was on Christmas eve, 1997.’
‘This is crazy,’ he said, shaking his head in disbelief. Both Cheryl and Sister Dorothy looked at him expectantly. He took a deep breath and asked
‘Sister, where was the infant found? Who brought him here, and to whom was he given?’
‘The child was found by a young police officer in the veldt outside Soweto. He brought him here and I was the Sister on duty that signed him over into our care,’ she replied. ‘At the time, we both thought that he may have been kidnapped to be used in the black market for muti, but after many unsuccessful months of trying to track down his parents, we were forced to concede that perhaps he had just been abandoned there after all.’
Scott was stunned by this revelation, and he looked across at her with silent intensity.
‘Sister, I am that young policeman. I found the child in the veldt, and I brought him here. This is such an outrageous coincidence!’ he said, still shaking his head. ‘The young man we are looking for is that beautiful little boy I found in the grass so many years ago? Unbelievable!’
Sister Dorothy clapped her hands in delight. ‘I thought you looked familiar, Detective. This is amazing.’
Scott looked across to Cheryl and said, ‘You know, I’ve never forgotten that night. There was something special about it. I remember every detail so vividly.’
Cheryl got the sense that there was more on Scott’s mind, but that he wasn’t prepared to go into it here. She stood up and gently put her hand on Sister Dorothy’s shoulder.
‘Sister Dorothy, I think we have all the information we can use at this time. Thank you so much for your assistance, you have been an invaluable help. If there is anything that you can think of that Detective Riley or myself may need to know, please do not hesitate to contact us.’ She placed her business card on the table.
‘Oh, it was no trouble at all, Doctor. It has been my pleasure,’ she replied, ‘please do your best to find Johnny, he is such a special child, and when you do, please be so kind as to remind him of us. I’m sure he’ll remember us fondly.’
‘I’ll do that, Sister. Thank you again, and have a good day.’
They saw themselves out, and once back in the car, Cheryl turned to Scott and asked, ‘Is there something you wanted to add, Scott?’
Scott pondered for a moment. ‘Cheryl, why did you want Johnny’s birth records so badly?’
‘I’m not sure you’ll understand, Scott. I’m afraid you’ll think I’m nuts,’ she replied.
‘Oh, I already think you’re nuts!’ he joked half-heartedly, ‘But I also think that I do understand.’ Cheryl raised an eyebrow.
‘Let me tell you a story that I have never told anybody before, Cheryl.
‘Thirteen years ago I found a little boy abandoned in the veldt. People have heard that part of the story before, of course. What I have never mentioned were the circumstances that led me to the discovery. Perhaps when I’m finished we’ll find that we are on the same page,’ he said.
‘I had noticed a bright flash of light in the night sky that evening while I was patrolling the area, and decided to investigate. I thought it was a flash-bang, you know – a stun grenade – and I thought that criminals were out there, up to no good, or maybe just some kids playing with something illegal that they’d found. Obviously, when I got there I found nothing, but I did find Johnny.
‘I didn’t think much about it after that, thinking I had just imagined it, and the memory started to fade, but a few weeks later, believe it or not, I happened to read an article in a tabloid magazine describing a bright light seen over Jo’Burg that very night.
‘I had heard about a particularly bright shooting star in the sky that night, but the publication claimed that it couldn’t have been a shooting star, as so many people believed, as it slowed down for a fraction of a second and emitted a bright flash before changing direction and shooting off into the distance,’ he said.
‘When I read the article and thought back to that night, I remembered thinking about the flash of light I had seen, but I never for once made any kind of connection between that and the child I had found.’
‘Okay, so what are you getting at Scott?’ Cheryl asked quietly.
‘It occurs to me that the flash in the sky and Johnny may be connected, Cheryl. I think I’m going to give the paper a call in the morning and see what I can find out.’
They looked at each other, neither willing to be the first to admit what both of them knew the other was thinking.
Published Titles in the Johnny Roberts Series:
Book Two: Johnny Roberts and the Gods of Eden
Andrew Noble © 2012
Cover artwork: Adam Van Der Riet © 2012
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© 2012 Andrew Noble All Rights Reserved