This story takes place in September of 2008
I picked up the card that was lying on my blotter, reading what was on it:
There was a phone number – whether it was a regular phone or a cell phone the card didn't say. The man who'd given me the card was sitting across my desk from me.
He was perhaps in his 40s, bald with an obvious comb-over and a fringe of hair that looked too black to be natural, a receding chin, a faint haze of gray stubble on his face, and wearing a leisure suit, of all things. I hadn't thought there was one of those still in existence. He had a slightly predatory, slightly oily look, as though a weasel had gone rooting in a jar of KY Jelly.
"My wife," I said, "told me something of what you want, but why don't you start from scratch and tell me about it?" The wife of whom I'd spoken was sitting to my left, in a straight backed chair she'd taken from in front of the desk. She had a white legal pad on her knee, with that leg crossed over the other – not the oh-so-correct way of most women and every executive I've ever seen, but with her ankle on the other knee, like I do it.
"She's your secretary?" Sloan asked.
"Yeah, and she's considering whether she wants to hang around and apply for her PI license in three years. Tell me what you need." I leaned back in my chair – a luxurious leather chair with brass ornamental tacks, or brads, or whatever you call 'em, quilting the leather. It was one of the first things Cecelia had ever given me, and after all these years it still doesn't squeak or groan when I use it.
"Well, I'm a photographer," Sloan said, never mind that his card told me that. "I, um..."
"What sort of photography do you do?" I asked.
I glanced at Cecelia. She'd noticed as surely as I had that he kept avoiding a real answer, though her face didn't show anything. If she ever wanted to, she could play a mean game of poker.
I looked back at Sloan. "Is the sort of photography you do germane to your problem?"
I hadn't thought it was such an unusual word, nothing like the 84-barreled words Cecelia likes to use. "Relevant," I said. "Does it have anything to do with your problem?"
"Yeah." He twitched his jaw a couple of times. "I shoot ... women."
I looked at Cecelia again, and this time I could tell that she was furious and disgusted. Sloan wouldn't be able to read her, but I've known her since the fall of 1994 and I could. "Let me guess," I said. "At best, these are women who aren't wearing any clothes, and at worst they're doing things that ought to be private."
"Maybe I don't want this case," I said.
"Wait!" Sloan seemed suddenly desperate.
"You'd better get to it, then."
"Well, there was a shoot last week. You know some men like 'em young, or at least they like 'em to look young. You know some models can look five years younger than they are – you know, 18-year-olds looking like they're 12, that sort of thing."
I nodded. I was perfectly satisfied with Cecelia, but I'd had my wild days when I was young. I'd never been into looking at jail bait, but I'd known some guys who were. In some circles they call those guys "chicken hawks," or at least they used to – I'd never known why.
"Well, this shoot, I swear the girl really was 12. She wasn't just young-looking, she was a kid."
"But you did the shoot?"
"Hey, it's how I make a living, okay? But I couldn't forget her. Just a kid, you know, it was kiddie porn."
"If I called the cops right now, they could bust you for that."
"You call the cops, I won't say a thing. I don't know nothin', okay?"
The answer didn't surprise me, and I went on. "So what do you want me to do?"
"Find the girl, that's all. Find her and get her out of the business. No kid deserves to be in that kind of a shoot."
"I can't think of anyone who does," I said. When Sloan started to reply I waved him to silence. "Let me think about it," I said after a moment. "This ain't my usual kind of case. I'll talk it over with Mrs. Carpenter, and we'll get back to you."
"But this is my business," I said. "I'm the guy who pays the salaries around here. You wanna go to another PI, fine. You wanna use me, you do it my way."
"Okay," he said. "When will I hear from you?"
I looked at the calendar on my blotter. It was conspicuously blank except for Sloan's appointment – I work so sporadically that I don't get many appointments. "Today's Friday," I said. "You'll hear from me no later than Monday afternoon. This number good any time?" I asked, thumping his card with my forefinger.
"Then we're done for now. My wife will see you out."
"Wait – one more thing." He reached into the side pocket of his suit coat ... or blazer, or sport coat, or whatever it was. I never did know much about those things, and don't really care, and besides I suspect that things are different with a leisure suit. He came out with a handful of photographs, which he laid out on the desk like cards, right side up for me. They were photos of a girl – I could tell she was a girl, not a young woman – with various expressions of what I supposed she'd intended to reflect ecstasy but which gave me a feeling of pure fakery. And there was one, which seemed very different. All the others showed her head against a pillow, her hair spread out around her head, but in the last one she seemed to be upright, her hair hanging beside her face.
And on her face there was an expression of pure terror.
"My wife will show you out," I said, my voice sounding strange. "I'll let you know."
After Cecelia had escorted Sloan out of the office, and returned, I handed her the photo that seemed unposed. "Tell me what you think," I said.
"I have seen frightened people before, and she is one."
"I guess he's got the negatives, and printed these out for me, probably so I could identify her. But for some reason – testing the light, making sure the camera worked, just for grins and giggles, I don't know – he shot this one before the shoot began. She knew what was coming, and it scared her to death."
Cecelia was looking down at the photo, which she'd laid down on the desk. She was standing there in her black blouse and white skirt, a skirt that reached to her ankles and let me see the sandals she was wearing on her feet. Her hair was in its usual short ponytail at the base of her skull, and in profile her face had that wedge shape that always reminds me of Nefertiti, though Cecelia's lips are thinner and her nose flatter, and her neck less like that of a swan. And of course the famous bust is alabaster, and white, while Cecelia's skin is the color of fractured milk chocolate.
"It would be very easy to ask why she was there, where her parents were, why she didn't run – all sorts of things which I doubt would be profitable."
"I'm sure that her choices were less than infinite in number," I said, my anger making my English better than it usually is.
"That is my deduction, so I do not ask the questions." She looked up, and looked at me. "The question I do ask – no, I don't even ask that question, but make it a statement: I presume you will take this case."
"Siddown, C," I told her.
She took the chair she'd been using earlier, and moved it around in front of the desk again. She sat down and looked at me, attentively.
"Before I decide that, I need to talk to you. We just kind of wandered into you doing my filing, and your notion of maybe gettin' a license come up out of the blue. We need to know what we're doin' before we get any further down the road of a partnership."
"Will you make me your partner, if I do obtain a private investigator's license?"
"Probably, yeah. I can see payin' you to write my checks and file my reports and all that, but if you do become a PI I'd probably change what's on the door to Carpenter & Carpenter."
"That question, while important to me, is not the most important question right now, I perceive. I believe you wish me to tell you whether I do, at this time, intend to pursue an apprenticeship with you, or whether I wish to remain mainly, if not entirely, your part-time secretary."
"Exactly." I waved a hand at the photos on the desk, thankful that Sloan had cropped them down to the face instead of handing me the full shots. "This is maybe an extreme, but it's the kind of slime that even a part-time PI gets to wade through sometimes. You've never much inquired into what I do, until the past couple of months – and the other case was more me asking you in than you asking to get in. But if you're going to go for your license, I intend to put you to work – beginning with this one, if I take it."
"It would be a baptism of fire, wouldn't it?" She looked at me for a moment, and some slight shift of her head sent the light refracting through the diamond she wears in her nose. It's a small diamond, barely visible ordinarily, but when the light hits it just right there are shards of color everywhere. "If I say that I wish to proceed, will I be able to alter my position at a future time?"
"Yeah, though once you're in it becomes a waste of time if you decide to get out. But Cecelia, here's how it is: If you want out, you're still my wife and I still love you, and I'll never hold it against you. Shoot, if you find out what's involved and decide to bail out, it just might prove once and for all that you're smarter than I am."
"It is impossible, my darling, to prove an untruth," she said with a smile. "However, I value your reassurance, however fictional some of its propositions are. As for your question, I will – for now, at least – proceed with my apprenticeship. And I will hold you to the option to withdraw, whether tomorrow, or in a year, or the day I become eligible to apply for a license. For I do not know, Darvin, whether at the end of three years I will wish to apply."
I nodded. "I done some checking, and as long as the three years fall into the past five years, you're cool. You could put in a year, then take some time off, and put in another year, or do three years all to once and then wait two years, or however it works out."
"Assuming, of course, that the law does not alter in the meanwhile."
"Yeah, assuming." I brought the photos together, the one of the frightened child on top. "Your first job will be to begin a file for the case, and these'll go into it. Then you'll write up a contract for Sloan – full rate, not a bit of discount. He's gonna pay for my services, since he's part of the problem. You'll ask him to get us a bunch more copies of the top shot – if he wants to bill us, which would be ridiculous, we can just add it to our bill. We ain't gonna pay for them prints – that's final. Then you'll set up an appointment for Monday – with you. I'll write you out a list of questions to ask him for the initial interview, and you'll conduct it. OJT, you dig?"
Cecelia grinned at me. "I dig, oh most gracious employer, and I hear and obey."
"Oh, go file a form before I fire you right outta this office."
She grinned again, blew me a kiss, and went to do my bidding.