Both sides of the straight avenue were lined with wintry trees, their tangle of bare branches like gray writing on gray paper. This was so extensive an estate there was no need for a landscape designer to devise some picturesque approach to the mansion. A long straight drive through the grounds was the simplest, most direct way to impress. And Tom Wills was impressed. It was difficult to grow up in that part of the state and not be impressed by the figure of John Carstairs. When Tom was in high school almost all his friends had a relative who worked for one of Mr. Carstairs' companies. He may not have had global reach but in the vicinity of Charlesburg he was a dominating industrial magnate. The newspaper headline announcing his death had called him a 'czar'. Tom caught sight of the ivy-covered house, a deep green in the colorless landscape, architecturally distinguished by its four tall chimney stacks like medieval turrets.
Tom felt a little uncomfortable in his best suit. He didn't wear it often. He was happier in a sweatshirt and track pants raking the leaves on the lawn. But his unease came from more than unfamiliar clothes, he would readily admit. He had an ambivalent attitude towards serving the rich and powerful. Amy's father had always talked of him getting a big break, a foot in the door, he called it. Perhaps the Senator Michaels case was that break. Usually he didn't feel that he needed a break. Work was coming in steadily, maybe not highly paid work but Charlesburg was not a town of millionaires. Now that he had an opportunity though, he felt the excitement, the desire to make a good impression, to come out of this with a bankable reputation.
The butler opened the door for Tom but did not have to lead him further. A man, presumably Daniel Longley, who had phoned him for the appointment, was waiting in the vestibule.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Wills. I'm sorry to call you in on a Sunday but I thought the sooner the better."
"That's quite all right. Private investigators don't work nine-to-five hours."
"Quite right. I'm Daniel Longley, Mr. Carstairs' personal lawyer." He shook Tom's hand and led him into the study. This was a Hollywood set designer's idea of a rich old man's house: dark, polished wood paneling, massive brown leather furniture, and the largest Oriental carpet Tom had ever seen. Here, waiting for him seated on a wheelchair was his real client, Mrs. Carstairs, the widow. She was a thin, stately woman with curling white hair.
"You come highly recommended to me, Mr. Wills." Her voice was firm and deep in register. "You've done some work for my friend, Senator Michaels."
"I've been fortunate to work for people I've admired." It was in fact, a typically ugly case of marital infidelity but it wasn't a lie to say he admired the Senator.
"You can be counted on for your high level of discretion." Tom nodded at the compliment. Mrs. Carstairs wheeled her chair behind her late husband's desk. She drew his attention to a safe recessed in the wall. "Only my husband knew the combination to this safe. After his recent death we had to call in a man to have it opened." For the first time her face showed signs of strain.
"Why don't you tell me what you found inside?"
"Most of it was no surprise. Old stock certificates, mostly. But there was this." Her head motioned to an unmarked VHS videocassette lying on the desk. "We watched it, naturally." Mrs. Carstairs' entire body seemed to sag, as if the resolution to maintain appearances had gone from her. "Or I should say, Mr. Longley watched it. I began but had to turn away. It shows a young girl apparently being beaten, tortured and sexually assaulted. Three men are involved in perpetrating these horrors. I will tell you that I find the video very realistic." Mrs. Carstairs' voice faltered for a moment. "I'm asking for your help, Mr. Wills. I want your expert advice. Please tell me that this thing isn't authentic."
Tom put on a calm, professional demeanor. He tried to be reassuring. "I expect that it's some sort of sleazy pornography. There are people who would cater to certain tastes by marketing their material as authentic. You have to think though, why commit crimes when it's easy enough to hire actors?"
"Exactly as I was saying, Mrs. Carstairs," Longley interjected. "Hollywood effects can fake anything."
The lights were dimmed and a television set and a VCR were rolled in on a stand.
"You'll have to excuse me, Mr. Wills. My doctor tells me I mustn't upset myself further." A maid pushed Mrs. Carstairs from the room.
The video came on. There were no production credits. An image abruptly appeared. It was a white-painted room. Light came from ceiling fluorescent fixtures. Tom's first thought was to snicker at Longley's comment about Hollywood special effects. This was the furthest thing from a Hollywood production. It had the appearance, not of a film production but of a video recording of an actual event. Whether by design or not, it looked authentic. At first the camera seemed to be mounted on a tripod and was fixed. There was no recorded sound.
The girl looked like she might barely be in her teens. She had very long, straight dark hair. The hair fell over much of her face, as if disarrayed by a struggle. Her expression was sullen, maybe defiant. Tom thought, she understands what's going to happen. She was wearing a plain white, wide-sleeved gown, possibly a hospital gown. Then was this room in a hospital? Her wrists were strapped down to the armrests of her chair. Two men came into the picture. Tom half expected them to be wearing sadomasochism outfits but instead they were dressed casually in jeans and t-shirts. Both had ski masks on to hide their faces. The girl, though, didn't seem to look at them closely as if she was trying to guess who they were. Maybe, Tom thought, the masks were for the camera and the girl knew their identities. One of the men rolled a metal trolley closer to the girl. On the top surface were knives and other tools. He picked up a long knife and held it up for the girl to see, then dragged the point over her face and her throat. At this point someone – it had to be a third man – picked the camera off the tripod and brought it up close to catch the girl's expression. Tom could see the tension in the girl's throat as the knife point played over her skin. Suddenly, the girl's face was struck. Tom grunted in reaction. Another blow and drops of blood spattered on the white wall behind.
The camera hovered over the victim. Tom stared at her thin white arms twitching in their restraints. Tears streamed down the girl's cheeks so that they glistened. Tom wondered if these men could really have intended the video as entertainment. Perhaps the recording was for themselves. He knew that serial killers liked to keep a trophy of their victim's so they would relive the excitement of the killing later. The video might have been part of the process of possessing the victim, of having absolute power over her. This was also a trophy they could share with the world, or at least they could fantasize about showing it to the rest of the world, achieving anonymous notoriety. If Tom thought he could keep his reactions under control by concentrating on analytical thoughts, he was wrong. All he could think of was how slender and fragile the girl looked. Her skin was pallid, as if she hadn't been in the sun for a long time. When she breathed deeply the oblique line where her ribcage ended showed clearly.
He hadn't imagined he would be affected so strongly. Tom would have admitted that he couldn't tolerate much pain himself and now he knew how low his threshold was for watching it inflicted on others. He wanted to cover his eyes but he imagined that Longley was watching him in the dark. It was like being drunk and losing control of your body. Tom felt the room beginning to spin around him. He was seized by a sense of panic. He was afraid he would be exposed as a cowering weakling, without the stomach for violence. Any chance of being a success as a private investigator would be destroyed once word got around. He clutched the arms of the chair as hard as he could. His hands seemed white to him in the dim light. He was breathing heavily. His heart was racing. It was as if something had seized hold of his insides and wouldn't let go. He tried to breathe deeply and regularly but every act he saw on the screen made his breath come in gasps. He could hear the girl's soundless screams boring into his ears.
The video ended. Just before the end there was a final close-up of the girl's face. Her black hair had fallen over her face. Only one eye appeared between strands of hair. The eye was staring fixedly back at the camera. Was it horror or fear that Tom saw there? No, he thought, it was sheer hate.
The lights were turned on. Longley went to the adjoining room to bring back Mrs. Carstairs. Tom was thankful for the moment to master himself. He took a deep breath and ran his hand over his forehead and through his thinning hair. He spoke in a normal, authoritative tone of voice. "I don't suppose I can convince you to take this to the police?"
"That is the one thing that is out of the question, Mr. Wills," said Mrs. Carstairs. "I have been with my husband for forty-five years. I've had four children and seven grandchildren with him. All that time he was loyal to me. I intend to stay loyal to him." As she said this, she began to tremble. She gave in to sobs that shook her body. She pulled out a white lace handkerchief and covered her face. When she had recovered a bit she said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Wills. I was thinking of my husband's last days."
Tom reflected that aside from building successful businesses and employing thousands, her late husband was admired as a benefactor of the community. The children's wing of the general hospital was named in his honor in appreciation of his generous donations. "I quite understand how you feel, Mrs. Carstairs."
"You can name your fee," said Longley. "Take any expenses you think necessary. We would like you to keep us informed of your progress."
"Naturally. I'll be reporting directly to you, Mrs. Carstairs, not to any intermediaries. No offense intended."
"None taken." Mr. Longley was pacing the room. "You won an academic scholarship to attend university, Mr. Wills. You took a criminology degree. At one time you were considering the law but you decided to make a career turn and take up surveillance work." Longley picked up the videocassette and handed it to Tom. Tom noticed that Mrs. Carstairs was visibly relieved to have the video removed from her home.
"You could say that I like to get my hands dirty."
Turning to Mrs. Carstairs, Tom continued, "Our best lead is the girl. It won't be easy to trace her. She may or may not be a runaway, a missing person."
"Do you have a daughter, yourself, Mr. Wills?"
"Yes, I do, ma'am. Her name is Cindy. She would be two now."
"Then you understand how I feel. You must find her, Mr. Wills. Find her and tell me that she's all right."
"I'll do my best, ma'am." Mrs. Carstairs shook his hand cordially. She was wheeled from the room again, leaving the details to Mr. Longley.
Tom waited for the door to click shut behind her before questioning Longley. "I know that a man like Mr. Carstairs wouldn't be rummaging through the bins of an X-rated video store looking for something like that tape. It's an unusual tape. I don't suppose someone could even find it in a commercial outlet. How do you suppose Mr. Carstairs obtained it?" Tom made an effort to sound neutral rather than accusatory.
"I honestly have no idea. I wish I could help you." The lawyer twirled about to face Tom. "There is one thing that I might mention, though. Mr. Carstairs' chauffeur and bodyguard, Tony Giamatti, has been missing for some days now, since the afternoon we watched the video together, in fact. I might start my investigation there, if I were you."
"Your suggestion is welcome. I'll keep it in mind."