Suffolk is shaking, I can see it. He’s a sadist and a coward, and he knows damn well that all of those charges could be leveled at him, and possibly more.
He’s also dangerous. The way he went after me, the unhesitating way he choked me, tells me it isn’t the first time he’s tried to kill someone. It might actually be the first time he’s failed.
“I don’t know anything about Absalom,” Suffolk finally says, and Lustig sighs and starts to kick his chair back. “Except a couple of names, that’s all! Just some names. Screen names, not even real ones. You know. Graham made some side deals with me, that’s all. He and I had . . . common interests. We swapped videos. I didn’t know he was the one killing those girls! I thought he got ’em from somebody else.”
“Sure you didn’t. Let’s start with screen names,” Lustig says, shoving a pad of paper and a felt-tip marker across to him. “And throw in anything else you can come up with that might save your ass from twenty-five to life in a federal penitentiary, too. Because I can predict with a fine degree of certainty how pleasant that vacation stay’s going to be for you. Bet you can, too.”
It takes half an hour for Lustig to get a full picture of the things Suffolk collected, beyond the photos and videos he supplied to Absalom’s marketplace. He enjoyed a very special kind of horror: graphic videos of torture and murder. Snuff films. The official FBI position has always been that they don’t exist, but it comes as no surprise to me that they do, and that there’s a marketplace for them on the dark web.
It’s a nasty surprise, though, that Absalom deals in those, as well as child pornography. Their sideline in blackmail and Internet tormenting is just that: a hobby, though it helps them attract and identify potential customers. Psychopaths recognizing psychopaths and then catering to their particular pleasures. Layers and levels to all this evil, and at its core, a heartless, soulless greed.
Melvin Royal, Suffolk said, was a gold-level supplier. When he was still active, he’d filmed his crimes, and Absalom found a market for them after the fact. I’m sickened, but not surprised. Only his still pictures were found and presented at trial, but a video camera was in the garage. Just no tapes or digital files.
What really frightens me is that if Melvin’s real video cache surfaces now, the fake one that links me to his crimes will only have more credibility. There’d certainly be an official investigation—Mike might even head it—and I’d be exonerated, eventually.
But as I already knew, being found innocent of a crime doesn’t mean much to most people . . . and it means even less if they have something tangible to convince them differently.
“Yeah, Melvin Royal sold his shit directly to Absalom,” Suffolk tells Mike. “They ran a pay-per-view event for every new video, and then sold downloads. Thousands of ’em. If it works like my deal with them, the money they paid him is in a Bitcoin account he can access from anywhere. But I don’t know for sure. I told you. I’m just on the fringes. A customer.”
A customer who collects the murder and torture of innocent victims. I want to throw up, remembering those hands around my neck.
Mike finishes writing his notes. “Anything else?”
On the screen, Suffolk leans back in his chair and says, “One more thing.” Then he looks up at the camera and smiles. Just smiles. It’s eerie, and chilling, made more so because then he actually winks. “Make sure you watch the whole recording of that first video you showed me, the Royal one. There’s a treat for you right at the end.”
Lustig gets up from the chair and slides it neatly in at the table.
“Oh, I’ll be sure to do that,” he says. “But if you think you’re going to get a last good-time jolly watching it with me right now, dream on. You get used to being alone in a locked room for a while. Call it a preview of the rest of your life.”
He’s in the monitoring room in another minute, nods to us, and goes straight to the tech. “Raj? You got me a seat?”
“You can watch in the back; I’m queuing it up now,” the tech says. He looks up and past us and gives Lustig a concerned look. “You sure you want to see it?”
“Wouldn’t be doing my due diligence if I didn’t. Have you seen the whole thing?”
The tech looks away. “I haven’t finished yet.”
“Tough work, I know,” Lustig says, almost gently. “I’ll finish it up. I’ll log the time codes as I go.”
Raj looks unspeakably relieved—this, I realize, must be part of his job. Watching horror after horror reduced to pixels, to light and shadow and sound. “I’ll queue it up to where I stopped logging. Headphones are next to the monitor, sir. Thanks.”
Sam catches Lustig’s arm as he passes. “Hey. Are you seriously going to play his game—”
“I have to,” Lustig says. “Believe me, I wish to hell I didn’t. Wait here.”
We wait. I glance over at Lustig every once in a while. It takes a long time, and there’s no movement in the room except for the creak of our chairs and the sound of Lustig’s pen scratching on paper, and after nearly half an hour, the sudden, sharp sound of Lustig’s chair rolling back from the small, gray desk. I look up. So does Sam. Lustig’s gotten to his feet, headphones still on. His face is, for just that moment, completely overcome with surprise. He’d have steeled himself against the horror, the anguish, the brutality, so what surprised him enough to bring him right to his feet?
Lustig hits a key on the computer, rips off the headphones, and charges over. To me. He takes my arm and tows me back, fingers digging in painfully, and when I try to resist, I get dragged. All my instincts put me on alert, and I have to fight the urge to hit him hard, fast, and with brutal force. I don’t let people handle me like this.
But this is an FBI agent, and I know resisting will only make it worse.
“Hey!” Sam shouts, but Lustig ignores him. Sam follows as I’m pulled toward the computer. “Mike, what the hell are you doing? You—”
His voice fades as we both see what’s on the screen.
A hot, needle-pricking sensation of unreality washes through me. I feel dizzy again, and I’m suddenly glad for Lustig’s hard grip holding me in place, because on the screen, frozen in time, is the bleeding, screaming victim. In front of her, Melvin reaches for an evil-looking knife.