MUSINGS OF A STORY MERCHANT

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Martin Ott's The Interrogator's Notebook - Five Day Giveaway Starts Today! 9/14 to 9/ 18

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“It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”
— James Thurber

LESSON 1

Mapping the Body 

In the beginning, there was not God. There were men who questioned the nature of the universe. These proto-interrogators did their jobs too well. Bold answers danced to life from their imaginations. The best stories became religion, and these “truths” were passed down through the ages.

Many Gods were created. Many more questions were asked. Scientists queried time, matter, and space. Explorers probed worldly limits. Philosophers wondered if humanity existed. Only interrogators mapped each man, unearthing the savage beauty within us, each truth a work of art.

In the beginning, I was not much of an interrogator. I was still uncomfortable in my man suit and did not yet appreciate the skill involved in harvesting secrets. I was the youngest in my training platoon—still seventeen—on the desert landscape of Fort Huachuca, Arizona, a place as alien as the moon after growing up in a small town in Michigan.

Our first training assignment was navigation. We were told that interrogators need to be more certain of terrain than an Army scout. After you convince your nervous subjects to open up, you chart their course backwards through time and space to find their comrades, tanks, supply lines, and commanders.

Battles could be won or lost based on an interrogator’s ability to navigate. I remember racing with other trainees to find checkpoints in the heat and dust, armed with a compass, canteen, and plastic-coated maps. I always made sure to finish near the front of each race, choosing teammates with the smarts or speed to give me some advantage.

This exercise taught us how to read a map at a glance, sideways, upside down, and in the dark. That way, when we culled the location of enemy units and compelled our prisoners to jab at the map with dirty fingers, we knew where to send a strike team. After a few weeks of navigation, each set of swirls on the map, each hilltop was as unique as a smudged fingerprint. A ridge could be a shivering spine. A valley was as distinctly endearing as a scar between the nose and cheekbone. A dry riverbed might be a vein leading to the heart of the matter. The real lesson, of course, was learning how to map the body.

My own body was changing under the strains of a military regimen. I was voracious and could not get enough food in the mess hall, and I was too keyed up to sleep. We poured into the barracks each night like fish spawning over falls. I slept with every female interrogator in my class who let me, beginning with a brunette who climbed on top of me to lose her virginity and ending with a lonely redhead who stole my phone card to call her boyfriend. I was learning to control the world at a frightening and accelerating clip. I had a natural intuition about people and a chip on my shoulder to prove my father wrong.

My time in the Army was filled with war exercises, hobnobbing with commanding officers and debriefing Russian defectors. I became a warrant officer at the end of my second term and decided to return to Fort Huachuca to teach—my last tour stop before joining the CIA. I was cocky for someone yet to see battle; my powers of observation were bayonet-sharp.

I could tell which of my trainees were worth a damn just by handing out maps, compasses, and canteens. The best interrogators would size up their competition as much as the environment. They were loners, even in a squad of smart alecks. By my second class, I had moved all navigation to nighttime exercises to raise the stakes and more easily separate those who were lost from those in control.

On one exercise, I caught a pair of my students having sex. The yelps of the woman betrayed them as her partner in crime thrust into her. She kept her arms in a push-up position against a tree to keep her helmet from banging into the bark. They saw me step into their clearing as they finished and pulled up their pants, racing off before I could confront them. I was left with a conundrum: inform the military or let it go?

In the end, I left it up to fate. I informed my training platoon that two of them had broken the code of military conduct and that they needed to interrogate each other until the offenders were revealed. It took two weeks and a few hints on my part, but the man finally broke down and confessed. He was transferred to an infantry platoon, and my commander commended me on my using them for training purposes. The woman went AWOL and I never heard what happened to her. Perhaps she was caught when she came out of hiding to attend college, be married, or obtain a credit card, or she stayed off the grid forever, a ghost.

I never questioned my decision until I had sons of my own and thought about how a youthful mistake could change the course of a life, or several lives. Truth was, I had been arrogant, a victim of my cleverness. This woman would not be the last person whose life I ruined as an interrogator.

*** *** ***
Norman Kross lowered his pen and fastened the clasp on his leather journal. He’d begun the memoir, The Interrogator’s Notebook, out of boredom. His early entries seemed more like Dear Diary confessions, the jagged letters hooking stunted truths and letting them writhe onto the page. Maybe he was just going crazy with a once-distinguished career now in the crapper.

How the hell did he, of all people, end up on the wrong side of the table?

The rickety metal chair bit into his back as he studied the room’s exposed pipes, peeling paint, and windowless interior. A damp smell reminded him of combat boots after a day of humping through the brush. A yellow pad of paper and ballpoint pen sat on a small folding table, prompting him to write a confession. He’d been captured in an American museum with a French passport, a diagram of the entrances and guards, and a packet of C4 residue. He was screwed. Big time.

He wanted absolutely nothing to do with the man who shoved the door to the room so hard that it ricocheted and slammed against the back wall.

“This is Rick—your worst nightmare,” the guard outside called out.

A tall, muscular interrogator strode inside with the door quivering and shot his prisoner eye daggers. This was the Silence technique, one that Norman had used to great effect many times, though the knowledge of it did not help him. His skin spilled sweat as though sliced, and wetness filled him inside and out.

Fifteen minutes later, a second agent slid into the room—female, more commanding, with a feral look in her eyes. She placed a mug of steaming black coffee on the table.

“Now you’ve gone and done it,” Rick taunted.

“This is a mistake,” Norman said. Who knew what these two were capable of?

“Only if you don’t talk,” the woman said tersely. “I’m Gretchen.”

“I have nothing to say. I was framed.”

“Then there’s no hope for you,” Rick said.

“If you talk to us, I might be able to get you a lawyer instead of sending you overseas to a prison you’ll never get out of,” Gretchen warned.

“What was your target?” Rick pressed.

“You don’t scare me,” Norman said. “I have rights.”

Rick’s fist pounded the tabletop and overturned the mug. The hot coffee funneled along a groove toward Norman’s seat.

“Don’t you even think about moving!” Rick commanded, pounding his fist. The coffee’s course along the scarred varnish surged forward. “I’ll set fire to you like you terrorists did to the World Trade Center.”

“I can’t control him,” Gretchen said. “He lost his brother on 9/11.”

Norman stared at the expanding black puddle, which threatened to pull him into the darkness. Was this what he deserved for the questionable things he had done as an interrogator? His hands started to shake.

“Who the hell do you work for?” Gretchen asked.

“It’s a nice day for a barbecue,” Rick said.

“You’ve got to help me help you,” Gretchen almost pleaded.

“You’ll burn in hell.” Rick sneered.

The first drips of coffee dribbled onto his pants. Rick picked up the table end and slammed it to the ground again and again. Norman knew that they were being monitored, but a shiver still went down his spine. These two were on the verge of getting out of control.

Rick growled, lifting the table as high as he could. The hot black stream flowed onto Norman’s lap and he whimpered. Rick let go, and the table came crashing down.

“Last chance. Who do you work for?” Gretchen barked, her nose inches from his.

Norman burst out of his chair and swooped up the pen from the puddle on the floor, where it had fallen. He gripped it like a knife and propelled himself toward Rick, his flushed face now ashen. Gretchen shrieked. Norman stabbed down at the tablet on the floor as he carved out the name of his cell leader.

The puddle of coffee drenched his knees, and he wailed as though he had lost a son. He stared up into the camera and milked every moment for the group of student interrogators. He wanted them to face their fears and themselves.
*** *** ***
“What the hell do you think you were doing in there?” Kevin Vail admonished as though Norman were a naughty student in their basic interrogation course.

Norman did not look up from the desk given to him by a former ambassador to Russia. Instead, he calmly addressed his fellow instructor. “Kevin, please come in and take a seat.”

“I asked you a question.”

“OK, then. Stand if it suits you.”

“I will.”

Finally, Norman cocked his head and almost burst out laughing. His agitated colleague rocked on the heels of his cheap leather shoes. Everything, from his lanky build and pasty skin to the eye rings and cheap haircut, was the result of too much time indoors with men serious about the wrong things. “Don’t you think this is funny?”

“What are you going on about?” Kevin was one of those Anglophiles who mixed in lingo with decidedly American pronunciation.

“How poorly you’re interrogating me,” Norman said matter-of-factly. “Of all people, you should see the irony.”

“I’m trying to have a conversation, mate. I’m trying to do my job.”
His job. What was that exactly? They both taught workshops for a corporation called Night Guard that provided training for private armies, security guards, and interrogators. Although the name might very well have been used for an underarm deodorant or feminine hygiene product, their services were no joke. The “teachers” doubled as elite squads that could be purchased for the right price and with complete anonymity.

“Do you think I might have a second career as an actor?” Norman asked.

“Jesus, you’re daft,” Kevin spouted angrily. “The protocol is there for a reason. Can’t you take this seriously?”

Norman turned his sea-green eyes, inherited from his Norwegian mother, toward Kevin. “I’m deadly serious.” His father had always had called them witch eyes, and Norman knew they were a weapon in his arsenal. The two men pushed their eye-bulbs into each other’s grill, and disdain radiated from Kevin’s face. Who could blame the guy? Norman was being an ass. No wonder so few of the staff liked working with him.

Kevin blinked first. “I’m going to have to report this incident.”

“Is that what this is about?”

“As instructors, we have an obliga—”

Norman cut him off. “Were you scared for me?”

“Scared of the paperwork I’d have to do if you got in a tussle.”

“Or a donnybrook,” Norman teased, but it went over Kevin’s head. The blowhard was completely unaware of how odd the English expressions sounded in his residual Bostonian accent.

“This isn’t funny, Norman. What do you think Lawrence would do to us if we got sued?”

“To me … nothing. He has insurance,” Norman said carefully. “And me for a friend.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“If I were threatening you, Kevin, it would be more serious, such as, I know people who could make you disappear off the face of the earth.”

“You’re a real bastard. This isn’t a game.”

“It isn’t?” Norman dipped his pen into a chipped mug labeled “World’s Greatest Cad,” a white elephant holiday gift he received not long after he’d joined the staff. Maybe it was from Kevin. “You mean there aren’t winners and losers?”

“People’s lives are at stake here.”

“Exactly right. Which is why I’m trying to push these trainees hard now, so they won’t make mistakes down the line.”

“You mean, like the mistakes you’ve made?” Kevin asked.

“Who’s the bastard now?”

Kevin didn’t answer; he just gave Norman a self-satisfied smirk, turned on his heels, and left him in his office to brood. What the hell? This was no way for instructors to act. Maybe Norman was damaged goods after being an interrogator for so long and was lashing out from his frustration with teaching others with far less talent. He’d heard the typical stories of athletes and artists, once at the top of their professions, who viewed teaching as a shared form of torture. He knew he was a difficult man in the best of times, and his current moodiness was becoming a burden to everyone around him.

His bombshell Russian wife, her volatile violinist father, and his two headstrong sons stared at him from their framed family holiday photo. What did it say about him that he wasn’t in it? He could easily chalk it up to traveling on business, but this year that would no longer be the case. Did his family like having him around now that he wasn’t traveling to the four corners of the globe dissecting the truth for agencies with capital letters for names and lengthy titles and operating procedures?
Death still surrounded him, even in retirement. He felt the presence of Howard Hughes, whose ghost watched over the building rented from the millionaire’s long-dying company. Norman paced over to the window and swept his hand along a wall with lead shielding. His workstation was formerly used to develop military hardware and was designed to block Soviet spy gear.

He looked out over the Boeings, Raytheons, and space weapons facilities surrounding the airport in southwestern Los Angeles in a nexus of concrete and spidery overpasses. Smoke spewed from the oceanside oil refinery and water treatment facility in nearby El Segundo. Businessmen descended from airplanes at LAX into a wasteland of dilapidated strip bars and aging Cold War complexes with windows sealed to prevent the downtrodden from jumping.

He spritzed Rogaine onto his scalp from a canister he kept behind AF Manual 64-3, which outlined survival behind enemy lines. He patted the moisture into his balding blond mop and returned the plastic container to its hiding place. He did not need the window’s reflection to know that his close-cropped cut hid the tinge of gray around his ears, or that the gel formed a helmet of hair to distract from the thinning, or that his boyish good looks now stood on an unwatched precipice. His retirement had driven him to odd quirks and a discontent unlike any he’d known since boyhood in Alpena, a town known for its cement plant, the syrupy stench from the wood pulp plant, and drunken fathers.
He strolled out to reception, knowing full well that Lawrence had already left him a cryptic message on his cell last night about meeting for happy hour. This was just for show, as Kevin sat out in cubicle land, within earshot.

“Norman, Lawrence wants to confirm tonight’s appointment,” Andrea said. Their current administrative assistant was an anorexic workout addict who dated one of the security squad members on the lower floors.

“Where?”

“The Orient Express at six. You’re going to have to give me the skinny on that place tomorrow.”

“Why?” Norman asked, watching Kevin rustle across the aisle in his cramped workstation with a sliding glass door like a cheap motel shower.

“Because everyone wants to get in that place, silly. You have to be an A-lister.”
“So I am,” Norman said, winking first at Andrea and then at Kevin as he made his way to the first of the metal detectors and checkpoints in the facility. When it came to security or secrets, Lawrence Michaels just wasn’t fucking around.

*** *** ***
Of course, Lawrence was late. Norman shifted uncomfortably at a corner table in the Hollywood bar—a spot he’d chosen so that he could people-watch—and took in his surroundings. The Orient Express was austerely outfitted with train paraphernalia and photographs of locomotives. The tables were bench style, with shiny vinyl checkerboard veneers. Light fixtures spaced at regular distances beamed eye darts at him from the reflection in the room-length bar mirror. Liquor bottles were stacked along the gleaming oak shelves so evenly, reminding Norman of tiny soldiers in formation.

The owner, Phil, tended to his customers personally and mixed drinks that he thought they should have—never what they asked for. This was part of the Orient Express’s mystique. It was infrequently open and almost impossible to get into and you could not choose your own poison. This combination had caused Phil to toss and blacklist more than one celebrity who took umbrage with their preselected cocktail. Beer and wine were not even options.

Norman’s dark Puerto Rican rum and Coke was hitting the spot, and he had appreciated the Rusty Nail Phil had made for a pair of bra models, as well as the owner’s assertion that it would put hair on their chests. He was convinced that he would have recognized more of the clientele if he were interested in more than just the news, science, and history channels on television.

Footsteps approached the table, the staccato rhythm of leather shoes signaling expensive bodyguards. This could only mean one visitor—the owner of Night Guard, a Cold War author who had reinvented himself as a patriot the same way Norman had tried to as a teacher. Lawrence Michaels appeared in the main bar as an optical illusion, filling the doorway at distance with his six-foot-five frame. His shape was vaguely oval but not flabby, built up by a cadre of personal trainers and rounded by his indulgence in French cuisine, Spanish wine, Cuban cigars, and all-night poker binges. He dressed himself in multipiece suits like combat armor, his impressive height and girth gliding through the world like one of the vessels he wrote about in his once-famous military suspense novels. And just like those dramatic atomic submarines or battleships, he had the potential of leaving wreckage in the wake of a legendary temper.

Lawrence’s press was often blown out of proportion. Norman appreciated his boss’s quick wit and self-deprecation enough to overlook his boasting and moodiness. Lawrence was an honest jackass, at least, which meant a lot to someone who had spent a career hammering away at subterfuge. They had a friendship based on mutual admiration, hidden pains, and bruised egos they smoothed over with boasting. Lawrence instructed his bodyguards to fish him a drink and joined Norman at the table.

“How are the memoirs going?” Lawrence asked.

“I’m not certain if they’re memoirs or a how-to book.”

“On how to be a son of a bitch?”

“No. Those would be your memoirs.”

“If I ever wrote them, I think they’d have to label it fiction.”

Norman laughed. “We all lie to ourselves.”

“Perhaps some more than others,” Lawrence said. “Perhaps us more than most.”
Nowhere was the distinction between truth and lies more blurred than in Hollywood. While the political maneuvering behind the conflicts Norman had worked in behind the scenes came a close second, it was second nature in entertainment to build a story that cast the teller as hero in a tale of his own control. This illusion was based on the fickleness of fame and connections with others seeking the same. That did not mean the drama was any less real.

At the bar, a haggard scarecrow of a man intercepted Lawrence’s cocktail and walked it over. His eyes were like a cup of strong coffee drained too many times through the same filter. His salt-and-pepper beard, slow movements, and black suit and tie made it seem like he was in a black-and-white film from another era.
“Hello, Lawrence. Hope you like White Russians,” the man said with a voice like a kettledrum, measured and deep.

“Owen, why don’t you join us?”

“Fancy meeting you here,” the man said, his tone rising even as he lowered his body into a chair. Owen clutched a bulging manila envelope in his right hand the way he would a child’s hand when crossing the street. It was clear that this was no chance meeting. Lawrence had staged it. Owen’s puffy eyes, bruised voice, and medicated movements hinted at someone in mourning.

“So, Lawrence, are you going to cut to the chase and tell me who it is you want me to interrogate?” Norman asked, downing his drink and letting the warmth fill his belly. “Your friend needs help—the kind men like us provide.”

With a shaking hand, Owen slid the envelope over to Norman. “He’ll do.”
Lawrence beamed proudly. “I told you he’s the best.”

“He’s going to have to be. The police cleared that bastard of all charges.”

Norman already had a few questions but knew that he had to tread carefully.
“His daughter’s name was Natasha Arnold,” Lawrence said softly. “And he thinks—”

“The asshole killed her. Somehow. I don’t know how.”

Norman recalled the news coverage from that infamous Fourth of July party, where the daughter of famous horror director Owen Arnold had been found floating facedown in a character actor’s pool.

“The asshole is George Stark,” Lawrence said. “We want you to interrogate him.”

There it was—a name like a superhero in hiding. Stark had been investigated and cleared of charges. The autopsy ruling had been accidental death from her having downed too many sleeping pills and drinks and then slipping into the water from a poolside chair.

Owen looked Norman over and asked, “Are you a parent?”

“Yes,” Norman said.

“Good. Then you’ll understand that no father should stay up at night wondering if his baby was murdered.”

For once, words escaped Norman. What do you say to something as raw as this?

Owen buried his forehead in his palm and muttered, “Thank you,” before stumbling to his feet. The director shuffled outside, his monochromatic exit followed by other patrons who obviously knew him and his story. There was a buzz in the place.

“Why the stunt, Lawrence?” Norman asked.

“I had to find out for myself.”

“What?”

“If Madrid had made you lose your edge,” Lawrence said.
“It made me quit working as a freelancer, didn’t it?”
“It’s not as bad as you think.”
“I think a lot of people died,” Norman said.
Lawrence paused and took a long sip from his White Russian. “I’ve been told I have expensive tastes. I think you’re one of them.”
“I’ve been worth every penny, every peso, every ruble.”
“True enough … in the past.”
“What does that mean?”
“What do you think it means?” Lawrence shot back.
“Don’t go passive-aggressive on me when you’re aggressive-aggressive with everyone else.”
“Jesus, Norman, aren’t you sick of babysitting yet?”
“You mean teaching? I told Vera that I retired from being an interrogator.”
“Did she ask you to stop?”
“No. She asked me to be happy.”
Lawrence slapped his enormous hands together, and the clang from military insignia rings echoed for dramatic effect. “She might as well ask you to be prince of the fairies.”
“I think Peter Pan has that gig.”
“Hmm. All that lad wanted to do was to thrash the bad guy and hang out with his posse … just like you will on your new assignment.”

“I’m too old for this.”

“Bullshit! You’re experienced, like me.”

Norman shook his head. “I messed up.”

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself. This is the perfect rebound case for you. I need this, Norman. I need to get back in with the Hollywood crowd.”

Lawrence’s spy novels had sold fewer and fewer copies, and none of the past several had been made into films.

“And you need to send your boys to college,” Lawrence continued. “My instructors all have to be working interrogators. You know that it’s the only way for us to land government contracts.”

There was no subterfuge here. Norman’s teaching gigs obviously came with strings, favors he would need to perform to keep the checks coming in.

“You can be a real dick sometimes,” Norman said.

“C’mon, it’s not like I’m putting you in a war zone. Besides, Owen’s a friend.”
“You mean you have friends not on your payroll?”

Lawrence chuckled. “That’s better. We’ll put that razor tongue of yours to better use than on the poor students in class.”

“You heard about my last session?”

“Kevin called to complain.”

“No surprise there.”

“I’ve got your back if you have mine,” Lawrence said.

“Tell you what: I’ll look at the case file tonight and give you a buzz,” Norman promised. “In the meantime, would you do me a favor?”

“Why do I have the feeling this is going to cost me?”

“Only someone’s pride. Assign me as the lead workshop instructor tomorrow. I think it’s best to let Kevin watch a real pro at work for a few days until he gets his nerve back.”

“I’m glad I’m not your enemy,” Lawrence said and gave him a nod of affirmation. He chuckled and pointed his callused index finger outward. A pen. A gun. A handshake. He poked his finger against the scar on Norman’s temple, which was as intimate as the two men ever got.

Lawrence pulled a quill out of his coat, scrawled Norman’s name on the manila envelope in a spastic cursive, and slid it over. His boss had purchased the quill from Samuel Clemens’s estate. The writing tool was out of place in the twenty-first century. Norman couldn’t help but notice the similarities between them—they both were more comfortable with earlier times and quietly worried about impressing others, even as they desired control over the world around them. Lawrence’s passion had moved his empire building from books to movies to private organizations like Night Guard. Norman’s own passion had become a lump in his shoe.

“Call me tonight after you’ve read the dossier and get your groove back,” Lawrence said, finishing his drink, nodding at Phil, and heading for the entrance with his bodyguards in tow.

The folder felt cold and unnaturally heavy. Norman could feel the obsession of a new case growing inside him, the dark seed taking root in the recesses of his reptilian brain.

Lawrence departed with a salute, and Norman felt a buzzing in his pants pocket. He pulled out his phone and examined the cracked face. Vera had texted him as she often did after work, when he got lost driving around Los Angeles, contemplating the serpentine existences inside those rolling metal cages.

The message was simple, without a smiley face or LOL. Two words: Game night.

*** *** ***
Not even a home-cooked meal could take away the sting of the day, the argument with his fellow instructor, the dossier stashed in his safe next to his notebook, and the feeling that he was carrying secrets with him that could spread like a virus to his entire family. How did he expect to be close to his wife and boys when he was locking a part of himself away?

“Why do you always get to be Colonel Mustard?” Paul asked, the elder son pulling on the frayed sleeves of the Mellow Felon T-shirt he wore everywhere to advertise his rock band.

Before Norman could answer, his father-in-law, Ari the Elder, spat out, “Because he’s a military asshole!” from in front of the television.

His younger son, Ari, snorted, even though he and his grandfather shared little else besides their names and the intensity of their expressions. Vera hissed at her father and passed out the Clue cards on the coffee table she’d collaged and varnished that summer with old National Geographic and Smithsonian photographs. Paul shared his cards with his girlfriend, Corazon, a Filipino punk-rock princess who spent most of her waking hours with them. Norman didn’t really mind. Their two-story Spanish-style Silver Lake home had tall ceilings and felt spacious even with his father-in-law bunking in a converted pantry off their sun porch.

“Are you hungry?” Vera asked him, having noticed how he had picked at his lamb at dinner while draining several glasses of wine.

“Not with you here.” Norman flirted even as three teenagers’ eyes rolled. Vera smiled, her mischievous eyes, full lips, and lithe body still taking his breath away after two decades. They’d been introduced in the nation’s Capitol when he’d interviewed her father at the request of the NSA. The violinist had been corresponding with a military relative in Moscow and had gotten flagged on a random mail check. The letters back and forth were bizarrely coded, or else garbled in complex emotions. Ari was haughty throughout the lengthy interrogation. He claimed that an accomplished artist should be above reproach. Vera, just home from Oxford, had been visiting her family. She served them tea, cracked jokes, and buffered the tension.

After Ari was cleared of charges, Norman used her father’s seat in the DC Philharmonic as an excuse to check up on him … and her. On their first date together, they ended up in bed. Vera told him later that she had confided secrets to him that night she’d never shared with anyone before—how she used to sneak peeks of her parents playing instruments without clothes, her first sexual encounter with a famous conductor, the anger that had caused her to slap a former friend after the minx had stolen her boyfriend.

To gain her trust, Norman had shared private details about his own beast of a father, his boyhood in Michigan, his mother’s death, and the loneliness of his career in intelligence. It was one of the tricks of his trade, and yet it was he who had been lost that night and the years following.

“Your turn, moy volk,” Vera said, nicknaming him after the Russian animal that most suited him according to her mood. So now he was a wolf? Probably not too far from the truth, as he rarely lost board games and was particularly skilled at Clue, which pissed off the boys to no end.

Norman rolled the bones and took in the game play. Out of habit, he took advantage of his location in the room. He leaned into the sofa with his back to the setting sun, which aimed knives of lights into the eyes of the other contestants. He barely listened to the idle chitchat about high school, Paul’s recent triumphant gig, Ari’s even more triumphant play tryout, Corazon’s angry father who swore in Taglish on her cell phone, Vera’s account of the close vote on the international cookbook of the month on her favorite new blog.

Corazon kept a close watch on his movements, but Norman had an advantage he wasn’t about to share. Whenever his family made a guess and was shown a card, Norman observed which quadrant of their checklist was marked. He also kept track of the pattern of guesses, which tended to tell which items had been crossed off their list. He could keep the details in his head as easily as those in a dossier. Norman still retained almost total recall, an unfair advantage in marriage, friendships, and board games.

Before long, he’d solved most of the puzzle. He knew that the blowhard Professor Plum had hung his victim, but it took him a few turns to isolate where. When it was his turn, he stood and pronounced, “Professor Plum was a bitter man who one day took his most promising student into his billiard room for a game. The young man was so intent on aiming at the eight ball that he didn’t notice the rope sliding around his neck. The professor won his game, just like I have.”

Norman smiled as his exasperated family confirmed the results.

“You cheated,” Ari said.

Vera sighed. “Don’t be a poor sport.”

“He had to have cheated. Because I was cheating and I still didn’t beat him. There weren’t enough moves for him to narrow it down so quickly.”

“Luck?” Norman suggested.

“Looks like you can be lucky in cards … and in love,” Vera said.

“Bull,” Ari said.

“Watch your mouth, squirt,” Paul said, rubbing in the fact that he was not just older, a high school senior to the freshman, but that he was almost a full head taller, broader in the shoulders, and more confident. Paul, although named for his mother’s fisherman grandfather, looked more like his violinist grandfather with the sharp, dark features from their Russian-Jewish heritage. Ari was a blond-haired miniature version of Norman and his mother’s side of the family. Norman didn’t hit his final growth spurt until he was sixteen, so he had a pretty good idea of the teasing that Ari must be getting—at home and in school.

“C’mon, boys, easy now,” Corazon mocked in a surprisingly apt imitation of Norman.

“It’s part of his strategy to make everyone fight,” Ari the Elder called out. “Look at how often Vera and I argue.”

“That’s because you’re ungrateful,” Vera said.

“Don’t forget mean and ornery,” Norman added.


“I’d like to change the game to something else,” Ari said. “How about Euchre?”

Norman grinned. He’d gotten his family hooked on the card game almost everyone in his small Michigan hometown played. They’d also adopted his penchant for fresh-picked berries and beer-battered fish.

“There are too many people,” Vera said. “I can sit out.”

Norman rubbed her arm just above the elbow in a place he’d found drove her to distraction. “Let me. I have work to do for a lecture tomorrow morning.”

“Don’t let him fool you. He just wants to sneak away to his man cave,” Ari the Elder muttered.

Before he could get an earful from Vera, he grabbed the remote and turned up the volume on a news story abuzz with reports of a subway bombing. It was El Mar, the Madrid terrorist group named after “the all-powerful, righteous, and dangerous sea,” or so their leader had said from behind a blue mask in the now-famous videotaped recording. The group had taken responsibility for the subway bombing beneath Plaza de España that had killed more than a dozen soldiers, police officers, and commuters.

Norman stood, mesmerized by the grainy image of smoke and debris, the horrified faces in the crowd, and the caption: Infamous Terrorist Group Strikes Again. Vera glanced at him worriedly, but he waved halfheartedly to his family to go on without him as he disappeared into his den.

*** *** ***

The floor safe in the den yawned open at Norman’s ankles. Inside was the dossier that Lawrence had handed him, The Interrogator’s Notebook, a few old passports, and a Taser. He secretly kept things from his family—that much the old goat Ari was right about—but what was he supposed to do? They would never understand the circuitous path to truth that he and his government sometimes traveled. The safe that stored his secrets was like a metal mouth, threatening to clamp on and never let go.

He reached in past the tumblers, pulled out the manila folder, and slid a rubber band off a dossier that had been prepared by one of the top private-investigation firms in LA. He hadn’t completely lied to Vera; he did have a presentation for his class tomorrow, but that preparation would have to wait until he’d had a chance to plumb the case file.

He examined the heartbreaking photograph of Natasha Arnold. She looked like a pale angel floating facedown in the pool. No one knew who had snapped the photo or provided it to the tabloids, but it was the most dramatic case Hollywood had seen in years.

The police had found Ecstasy, cocaine, and alcohol in her system. B-list actor George Stark, who’d played the role of an annoying guy in a least two dozen major releases, had claimed ignorance of what she’d been doing throughout the evening. A grand jury had refused to indict him, even though Owen Arnold had pressured the police to dig up more evidence. Accidental death had been the final verdict, and the case had been closed.

Norman pulled out the victim’s diary, a pink journal with Hello Kitty stickers, something a teenage girl might take to the mall rather than a chronicle of a grown woman’s final thoughts. Norman read a passage at random: George made me feel like I wore an invisibility cloak. He would track me by the sound of my voice and footsteps, but he didn’t recognize my body, even when he possessed it.

Natasha had kept a journal just like he did, and it was filled with a messy jagged pain. Norman knew from these few words that he was hooked.

He called Lawrence and asked, “What if the actor refuses to talk to me?”

“Then you’re not the interrogator that I think you are. Owen told me something interesting about the guy that can help you.”

“What?”

“Aside from being a twisted prick, Stark has this delusion that he is a once-in-a-generation character actor. He studies for future roles by spending time with deep, dark, twisted souls.”

“Are you talking about me?” Norman asked. “How sweet.”

“Owen thinks this nut job will want to talk to you.”

Norman frowned. “Why in God’s name would he do that?”

“To see how you tick. Not long before she died, Natasha told her father that Stark got a kick out of mocking her with her own words.”

“Just about every actor worth a damn in this town is crazy. Does Owen really think that Stark is a killer?”

Lawrence paused. “I don’t know. His daughter dated him for a while until he got a few roles from her father’s connections. It wasn’t long after that that he dumped her for some other starlet.”

“If being phony were a crime,” Norman said, “we’d be filming every Hollywood blockbuster out of the state pen.”

“It’s more than that. Rumors on the set say this guy has a nasty temper.”
“But no police record.”

“That’s why we called you in, Norman. Stark has an answer for everything—all of it glib. Owen wants to find out the truth, even if this bastard is beyond prosecution.”

“This isn’t about revenge, is it?”

“What if it is?” Lawrence asked. “You’ll do the right thing here. I have confidence in you.”

This confidence was something that Norman used to share. He’d had a high opinion of himself stemming from a long string of successes and had been completely taken off guard when his interrogation of the El Mar cell leader had gone south. Homeland Security thought that this prisoner would be the key to bringing down the whole organization. The only thing was that Norman’s overconfidence had led to the prisoner’s death and the US Embassy’s being blown up by a truck bomb the next day.

He could have stopped the blast, saved those lives. His self-imposed exile had started while on the flight home. Now Lawrence was asking him to put himself back in the game. Sure, the risks seemed low enough. A father’s peace of mind … he probably had enough in him for that. Maybe he could find redemption for the fallen soldiers, his wreckage of a career, and keep himself together long enough to send his boys to college and retire with Vera in a style that she and her father were accustomed to.

“OK, you bastard. I’ll do it,” Norman said. “I’ll talk to the actor tomorrow. We’ll probably never know the truth if he clams up.”
“My friend, I know you’ll succeed, no matter the obstacles.”
Or the cost. Norman hung up the receiver and began sifting through the pink journal and the remains of a young woman’s life.


LESSON 2

Confessions of an Interrogator

A secret as large as killing a man is difficult to keep. Sin is ingrained in us from childhood, even for those who do not believe in God. So is redemption. One thing Americans love more than heroes are rehabilitated heroes. Sure, we may whisk foreign citizens away to secret prisons and torture them, but afterwards we recast ourselves as the penitent warriors. For these acts, we confess our sins to the world and expect a second chance to present itself.

An interrogator’s confessional is more introspective and gradual. In the pages of this notebook, my past rises to the surface—first fin, then shark. Am I a patriot? A blunt instrument? Selfless or selfish? Before you cast judgment, first imagine what it is like to have the power to absolve men of sins or damn them.

Part interrogator, part clergyman, I wield forgiveness in one hand and a .45-caliber lightning bolt in the other. Like a priest, I am a conduit of a higher power, the pistols on the belts of my guards no less potent because I ensure that they are unloaded. After all, it’s the symbol of damnation that I want. The similarities between a pistol and a cross are striking—both can be used for torture and kissed in an act of contrition.


Copyright © 2013 by Martin Ott. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the author.








The Interrogator's Notebook, by Martin Ott The Interrogator's Notebook
by Martin Ott
Interrogator's table turns on him.

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