The Interrogator’s Last Question


The Interrogator’s Last Question

by Martin Ott

Navigating truth and lies is a lot like driving someone else’s car. Your job isn’t to provide your passenger with a map, but to steer them over ruts, dry riverbanks and intersections on lonely country roads to where it is you want to go.

David had been an interrogator in the army for almost twenty years and knew how to ask questions that dug marrow from bone. Sometimes the questions were aimed at other people. He liked these best—the ones he asked himself never quite left his head, like sand in a pair of sneakers after a long walk on the beach. Like the voice rattling in his head: Why do you find yourself driving around for hours after work instead of coming home?

It was a good question, but didn’t quite hit the mark—this was no rambling moonlit drive through the suburban subdivision sprawl he called home. David knew, for instance, that the moon was 5 days from new and that sunset would wake him at 5:36 AM tomorrow morning. The barometer was 29.8 and rising, the wind WSW, from 3 and 5 m.p.h. He also knew that no cherry trees grew on Cherry Lane, which he’d just turned onto, and that the needle of his gas tank had dipped below EMPTY 12.5 miles back, indicating that he had another 10 miles to spare.

Observation, which he’d once thought meant everything when interrogating prisoners, was now only good for estimating the amount of Glen Fiddich in a shot gas or the gas he needed to sputter into his driveway on vapors. He’d left his desk at Aries Consulting with a sore back and dry throat, downed a few at a nearby tavern and exhausted a quarter tank stewing over his problems. His wife Liz—who worked as a trainer at the same firm—had already been home for hours. Plenty of time for her to get into trouble. Even during the best of times, which these, currently, were not.

It didn’t surprise him to see a police car parked across his driveway and a pair of humorless officers talking to Liz, who motioned at them with a frisbee as though she wanted to play catch. Next to her, their eldest son Raymond shook in place as though he had to urinate, his expression wavering between amusement and shock as his pals watched from their open living room windows.

It looked as though another high school party at his house had spiraled out of control. David pulled over and got out, thinking about how Liz used to believe they were the coolest mother and father team. Now, only she was apparently. He just wished his home wasn’t the party spot for D.C.’s most prestigious alternative high school. He walked up to the older of the officers, who shined a light in his face.

“All this over an innocent game,” Liz said. “David, tell them I’m just hanging out with my teenage boys on a weekend night. That makes me a responsible mother.”

David addressed the police calmly, in full damage control mode. “Sorry, officers, it’s my fault. I was out playing poker with my friends and my wife is just trying to get attention by causing a scene.”

“Son-of-a-bitch,” Liz said.

“As you can see, I have a full evening ahead of me,” David joked, gauging the cops’ mouths, now quivering with smiles. “I’ll take her in now and get my punishment,” he said confidently, knowing he’d used the correct approach.

David took hold of Liz’s arm. The officers laughed. She tore away from him and stomped inside, past Raymond and the teens peeking out on the front porch.

“Lots of kids here,” the older officer said. “A lot of cars in your driveway.”

“It’s wrestling pay per view,” David lied. “My wife gets a little worked up watching men in leotards.”

The younger officer snorted and flicked off his light, following his partner to the squad car.

“I’ll look after her,” David called after the officers, knowing there was still a good chance he’d be seeing them later that evening.

Raymond shook his head and said, “Ever think that maybe this is your fault?”

The voice in David’s head said, Even your oldest, as selfish as he is, knows something is wrong here. Raymond grew tired of waiting for a response and stormed back inside.

******* ******* *******

A flower is a worthy present for a wife, but it is encyclopedic for the interrogator. Days after it is picked, it begins falling apart, limb by limb. When it is parched and gasping for water, it is a thing of beauty as the truth strips away and falls into your hands.

In the flower boxes next to his house, David brushed past the rose bushes he’d once planted with Liz, when they both had the time and impulse for a hobby together. He reached in through the broken storm window of his den and unlatched it, crawling up over the ledge as he often did when he wanted to avoid the drunken kiddyfests in his living room.

His feet caught on the shades and he landed in an awkward shoulder roll on the carpeting, his feet rocking into his sturdy Korean War era filing cabinet. David flopped around like a turtle on his back before finally righting himself. His thirteen-year-old son Leo didn’t even look up from the small television David kept there for the occasional sporting event. His youngest son was hanging out alone, paying rapt attention to an old Eroll Flynn and Bette Davis flick. Raymond’s drunken friends razzed Leo, even when he tried to stay out from underfoot.

“Hey, kiddo, did you see the old man can still do a forward somersault?”

Leo fidgeted with his collar and said, “Hey, Dad,” without looking up from the movie. Even though it was a Friday night, his son was wearing black slacks and a maroon tie draped over a long-sleeve shirt with buttoned cuffs. Most everyone on both sides of the family thought he might be gay and, while David didn’t disagree, it didn’t change the fact that Leo was by far the best adjusted person in the house.

“Have you seen your Mom?”

“No, not since she led limbo in the backyard,” Leo said. “She might be upstairs. Asleep. Dancing on the roof. Whatever.”

“What are you watching?”

“Do you care or are you just trying to make small talk?” Leo glanced up from the TV screen with dark brown humorless eyes that reminded him of his own.

“Son, don’t be that way. I wanted to make sure-”

“I’m OK, Dad. Really. I just thought you might want to go check on Mom. She’s been acting that way again.

“Of course, good night.”

David pushed the den door into the hallway and was greeted by the yelps and barks of the living room speakers. His stomach gurgled from too many drinks with only an appetizer of fried mushrooms to coat them. A mass of kids controlled the living room and, he imagined, the adjoining game room. He glimpsed several silhouettes clutching plastic cups and smelled the cloying mixture of cigarettes, freshly baked brownies and keg beer.

He slipped off his shoes and propelled himself toward the carpeted stairs. David trudged up them slowly, his life as much in turmoil as any teenager’s. He ached to see Liz and yet there were things weighing on his mind that he, until recently, had been unable to voice. Even to himself. Liz was the only confidante he’d ever had in a lifetime of manipulative relationships, helping him to learn to trust his emotions instead of controlling them. The steps to the second floor seemed to go forever; his feet felt almost as heavy as his heart.

Down the hallway, Jim Madsen, a.k.a. Mad Dog, stood outside the bathroom, waiting to pee. Raymond’s best friend chewed on an empty plastic cup and had an inane smile, one that David would undoubtedly see over hot cakes the next morning along with the dozen or so other teens too inebriated to make their way home. The bathroom door opened and Liz trailed out, an Aries T-shirt draped over a pair of aquamarine underwear.

David’s heart caught in his throat when he saw his wife. Her presence made him reel in terror and helplessness as nothing else did. She had the same body she had twenty years ago, the same unflinching eyes. Mad Dog and Liz had difficulties passing each other in the narrow hall. Finally, Jim grabbed Liz’s arm and pivoted around her toward the john. As the soccer striker and quiz bowl captain cleared his wife’s curves, Liz cupped a hand between Mad Dog’s legs before ambling down the hallway. Jim grunted in surprise, then teetered into the bathroom, bolting the door.

David stood dumfounded, staring at his wife as she wove her way to their bedroom. She stumbled into their room and turned off the light, leaving the door open as an invitation. But to whom? Rooted in place, David stared at where Liz had been and, gradually, he focused on the framed photograph at the far end of the hallway. It was a wedding picture, but of their assembled party, parents and friends. It was odd…he’d always thought it was a photo of them.

******* ******* *******

Sometimes sleep deprivation will trigger the truth more effectively than threats or violence. Hose them down and make them walk in circles. Place them in a locker and pound it with a stick. Force them to sit on a block of ice while a guard yells at them in a language they can’t comprehend.

That night David had trouble sleeping as Liz kept getting up and pacing around their bed. No, it was more like dancing. He could feel her stare at him with her bewitching green eyes, but he tossed and turned, trying to press his eyes shut, afraid to speak, afraid of his wife of twenty-two years.

She was taking off the next day to lead a training in Kansas City. He’d wanted to talk to her for weeks, but she’d become an emotional cauldron: equal parts love and anger, lust and despair, outbursts and obsession. She often could not remember the worst of what she said or did. This had been going on for months now. Life had become so complicated lately. Maybe it had always been that way and he’d only had the illusion of control.

Her dance turned into a waltz, with her following, then leading an armful of air. As his wife dipped and swirled around him, he thought back to his only affair. It had not had much passion and fizzled almost as soon as it had begun. Her name was Harriet and he’d met her toward the end of his stint as a Russian linguist and military interrogator. He started the affair following several rounds of after-class drinks during a CIA course they were both taking in DC, before the cold war went stale like an American lager left too long in the sun.

David’s first exposure to the capitol was dizzying, filled with secrets, innuendoes and lust. He made love during lunch hour to Harriet, an N.S.A. agent who made her living opening other people’s mail. While lying together she would tell them the secrets she and uncovered, most of it affairs. David had never figured out how to stop people from telling him the truth, except that his own family seemed immune.

Liz spun and flung out her arms by the headboard, her hair lightly brushing the tip of his nose as she now shimmied to a light salsa beat. She was an army brat and they had met when he was still a teenager learning Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey. She had followed him to Germany as the wall fell, living at bases all across the country, and watched him go off to the first Gulf War with two young children left behind. She had convinced him of the darkness that would fall over his profession at Abu Ghraib and other hidden prisons, and he walked away from the only life he had known. Something in him still yearned to break men like bread sticks.

They relocated back to DC, the land of milk, honey and lucrative government contracts. Liz had studied organizational development at several colleges while he trained in endless ways to break men, and she found a job as a trainer at Aries. She had convinced him to apply as a salesman, and they had both worked there for over a decade. Now he was a shining star at Aries while Liz was relegated to training. She had too many morals to thrive as a consultant to executives—she told difficult truths that her clients didn’t want to hear.

Liz, finally, stopped dancing and crawled back into bed, burrowing her head into his chest. Now the tears would start. David held his wife, knowing none of the soothing words that came tumbling to his lips would do any good until she cried herself to sleep. To save his marriage, the former interrogator would need to ask the most import questions of his life. To himself. Who was he beneath his current uniform of suit and tie? And what was he willing to do to save his wife and family?

******* ******* *******

Watch for gaps in their stories. Make them account for their day, then grill them about discrepancies or time shifts. The truthful ones are often angry and shoot accusations back. The ones who evade questions or dispute facts with “There’s no case against me,” have something to hide.

“What were you two doing yesterday?” David asked, his boys wolfing down cereal at the dining room table at breakneck speed. The two of them had been in cahoots all week with Liz gone, needing a common enemy to stand each other’s company.

“Well, Raymond? Don’t tell me the movies again.”

Leo swallowed the last sip of milk from his glass bowl, wiped his mouth with a corner of his napkin and said, “Dad, don’t take it out on us because Mom’s not calling you.”

Leo rose calmly and put his bowl into the sink to rinse. “Coming, Raymond?” he said, walking out the door. His shocked older brother stood with mouth agape and stumbled out after him, no longer the oldest, no longer the one in control.

David picked at his own cereal, picking at what had just transpired. As a boy, Leo had been filled with endless questions: do parakeets have bones? Do actors have bones. Do houseplants and presidents have bones? Do bones have bones? And now the questions his youngest asked him had barbs, much like his own.

David found his interrogator training next to useless when it came to his sons, his wife, anyone he cared about. He’d failed to work up the nerve to talk to Liz before she left, and was depressed as hell about it. Raymond and Leo could sense his foul mood and were making a career out of making themselves scarce. David was master of his domain in every aspect of his life, confident and respected, except where it counted most—in affairs of the heart. He knew Liz’s bizarre behavior was only the tip of the iceberg. He was no less flawed.

******* ******* *******

The body tells realities we’ve yet to imagine. A truthful subject leans forward in her chair, aggressively, defending her position. A deceiver slumps far back from you, using the chair or other people around her as a barrier to keep the interrogator away.

“Sorry, Liz, I can barely hear you.”

“The bar is pretty loud, I guess.”

“At the airport?”

“No, I’m still at my hotel killing time before my flight.”

The cellular phone whined from static. David’s grip tightened on the receiver as he dodged in and out of traffic.

“I see.”

Liz giggled and David overheard at least two different men laughing over the din of voices.

“I have to go, dear. I’m afraid I’m getting myself in trouble again. I told a few of the fellows here how unfair I thought it was that women had to show so much skin in their business attire, so they’re unbuttoning their shirts.”

“Liz, I have to go, too. Looks like there’s an accident further ahead. The traffic’s hell.”


Again the cackling men. David slammed his cell phone shut and laughed himself, switching lanes, accelerating. He was going to be late for his meeting in Springfield. Again. The Henry G. Shirley Memorial Highway was clogged and it wasn’t even rush hour.

He swerved into the carpool lane and passed a few slow-moving cars, dreading seeing his wife later that evening. She’d probably be exhausted from her training and there would no doubt be another Friday night kegger filling his house with hollow cheer. He spotted a cop on the shoulder of the road and swerved back out of the faster carpool lane, cursing the insufficient highway, pushing the needle of his gas tank gauge below EMPTY. “God dammit, Liz,” he said, slapping his horn. “God dammit!”

******* ******* *******

If you don’t have suitable restraints, use their boot laces. More than 95% of POWs will answer all your direct questions. Torture is unreliable. You can always switch from a good guy approach to being a hard-ass, but never the other way around.

“So what’s the use teaching the bitch a lesson if she’s not smart enough to get the point?”

“I know what you mean,” David said, even though he didn’t. His thoughts kept drifting during his meeting with Chad Harris. He knew he should get his act together and pretend to be interested. After all, Hitech Solutions was his biggest client. Half of being a good consultant was listening to these assholes problems.

David stared across the oak table, polished to a manic gleam, at his client whose fingers twitched as though he needed a smoke. “So to make a long story short, my wife and my girlfriend missed each other by less than five minutes. My life passed in front of my eyes, I swear to God.”

“Hmm.” David followed the twittering wrist to the neckline of a now-wrinkled dress shirt. Seeing Chad stare at him expectantly, he said, “Which one were you scared of most?”

“You kidding? Between those two? It’s like choosing between death by drowning or by fire.” Chad grinned at his own wit. David could almost see the stitches of last year’s hair transplant through the glare of over-bright fluorescents and Grecian formula. “I’m between a rock and a soft place, you might say.”

David chuckled and hated what was expected of him. When he’d sold Chad on Leoes’ services he had used one of his favorite ex-interrogator tricks-of-the-trade. He’d shared a story where he’d embarrassed himself in front of a two-star General. Of course, it was a lie. Chad could relate to it anyway. As product development director, he’d just been reprimanded for a testing glitch on his pet project, Lightning, a new ground-to-air missile system.

“Christ. Answering my car phone’s like playing Russian Roulette. They actually expect me to recognize their voices,” David said, referring to the imaginary girlfriends he’d created to get in good with Chad.

“Fucking hassle.”

David knew that people opened up to you only if you made yourself vulnerable first. And once they did, they were usually so cut off from their emotions that their whole life story came spewing out like blood from a severed artery or a bullet to the heart. He’d used the same technique to score his first date with Liz, charming his way into her bed a few hours after meeting her. She was one of those women who thought they were tough-as-nails, but were really easy marks. That first night he got her to spill her guts about her first sexual experience and stories she swore she’d never shared with anyone before.

He missed her. Terribly. Even when Liz was home, it was obvious that something was changing inside of her. She’d become forgetful, her behavior more and more inexplicable. Her personality was at once breezy and intense, an escalator of emotions. He feared it was the onset of Alzheimer’s. He feared she was on drugs. He feared she’d fallen out of love with him. He feared all of the above.

“Hey, it’s Bridgette’s night over at The Martini Shack.” Chad slurred the name of the brunette waitress to make her sound half-French. David was beat, but nodded anyway. He didn’t want to go out, but knew this was one of the prices he paid for being a salesman.

“Oui,” David said, channeling bad high school French. “Drinks are on me.”

******* ******* *******

Silence is one of the most effective tools of interrogation, especially when a subject is pensive and nervous. The fear of what may happen is always greater than what has already come to pass.

He and Liz didn’t talk that evening, or about anything more significant the remainder of the weekend than what to eat or what sitcom to watch. David found himself avoiding her over the next few weeks, although he knew her problem wasn’t something that could be ignored forever. For a few months he was able to convince himself that he was looking out for her by not bringing it up. The truth was that he was the one frightened—of losing her or that she might never get better.

Leo tiptoed up to him one night in his study after Liz had broken down in tears from watching The Disney Channel. “Dad,” his son said simply, “Mom’s waiting for you. We’re waiting for you.”

But David found himself frozen with indecision. Every morning he would attempt to broach the subject with Liz and every day he found some excuse not to. It’s kind of cute, he’d tell himself when she sang to the radio that didn’t work or forgot his name. Talking to her now was like listening to a favorite record, scratched and filled with crackles and pops, but still infinitely dear.

Who, what, when, where, why, how: the question words, still the best tools for finding out what you need to know. Visualize the scene from the POW’s perspective and fill in the holes.

How in God’s name was he supposed to live with himself? What if she blamed him for making her a prisoner to a disease with a twelve-syllable name or to drugs that harmed her as much as helped? Before now, the truth always seemed something he could lasso and bring to bay, something that only applied to strangers.

******* ******* *******

It’s shocking how many secrets have been uncovered and lives ruined for a single cigarette, a piece of Swiss chocolate, a letter home. Showing you care is the key to any exchange, from business to love to treachery. But never promise more than you can deliver. Some truths even interrogators need to follow.

If someone had peeked into the conference room, just then, it would have had the ambience of a séance with the lights on. Each of Aries’ staff meetings started with hands held and a silent prayer. Two dozen trainers and consultants sat in a horseshoe, the backbone of a liberally-bent and yet profitable company. Eyes snapped open and the meeting launched immediately into their yearly marketing strategy. The battlefield had been forming for months, ever since David had scored his deal with Hitech. Some of the assembled group thought that Aries was losing its heart, its mission. David thought too many people in the company were afraid to ruffle feathers or say what they meant.

Their own technology was to blame. Aries’ TEN STEPS TO EMPLOYEE EMPOWERMENT™—which they sold in droves to the stupefied masses—had just the creepiest tinge of breaking down people emotionally and then building them back up. The subtle manipulations in the workshops were familiar to David. There were others who worked here, however, who used empowerment as an adjective and placed absolute faith in the nobility of themselves and others.

Nathan Frost, the founder of Aries, and author of the well-known “Heart, Body, Mind, Workplace Satisfaction” facilitated the heated conversation, controlling what was said like the master manipulator he was. It was no surprise that the person who won the first TV show Survivor was an organizational development professional. They make their living helping people to feel good about owning up to their dark nature, not unlike an interrogator.

“We’re working for all the major oil and petrochemical companies,” Liz said, “not to mention aerospace. It’s just plain wrong.”

Nathan paced in front of the room. “And this makes you feel….”

“Like we’re only in it for the money.”

David fiddled with his tie and burst in with, “Liz, we decided last month not to work for Philip Morris, for God’s sake.”

“You know that’s bullshit, David. The contract was small and that made it a hell of a lot easier for us to be righteous.”

“Don’t you think these companies deserve to have empowered employees, too?”

“Why, so they can rape the environment more efficiently?”

David didn’t even try and hold it back. He glared at Liz with all the frustration he’d been storing up.

“Fuck you, too!” Liz said, bolting out of her seat. She bumped several swivel chairs and barged out of the conference center into the main office. David rose, apologized to the room and followed his wife’s trail. He dashed past the receptionist and tracked her into one of the private meeting rooms where she sat, bawling into her fists.

He kneeled and wrapped his arms around her. “It’s OK.”

But it was anything but OK. He couldn’t help but wondering what was driving his wife to the brink: menopause, brain cyst, meth-amphetamines?

“Don’t you think we should be able to have some fucking control over the work we do?”

“Shhh,” he said as she bucked in his embrace.

“Just a little fucking control, is that too much to ask?”

For this he had no answer. All of the years controlling men and their surroundings, and keeping himself beyond emotions had not prepared him for answering questions as hard as this.

******* ******* *******

A fox-trot on a packed dance floor—that’s what interrogation seems most like sometimes. Intimacy is the key to good dancing and unguarded conversation. Kindness are the hands, anger the feet, questions the rhythm, while the music crescendos in the interrogator’s hands, who has left thought behind and can use the resistance of his partner to propel them to where he needs to go.

Dinner that night with his parents at Maury’s Grill was a subtle brand of torture. His folks had moved to town last year after early retirement to “be close to him,” although they’d never been close before. Liz was distracted and quiet, picking at her food. Both of his sons had managed to duck out of the engagement.

“Two months. It’s been two months since I’ve seen my grandsons.”

“They had plans, Dad. Raymond’s out with his friends and Leo’s got dress rehearsal for a play he’s in.”

“Another play?”

“Yes, Mom, he’s got the lead this time.”

His father snorted. “I can’t believe my Leo isn’t here because he wants to practice being a puffter.”

“What did you say?”

“You heard me, son, a puffter.”

Several heads turned from the booth next to them. Liz smiled, but her words were pure venom, “Look, Felix, Leo is applying himself to something, unlike Raymond who is out carousing with his buddies. How come you never say anything bad about him?”

“Liz, if you don’t want my opinion just say so, the last thing I would ever do is intrude on how you raise your sons.”

“All right then, shut the fuck up. You too, Ruth. I know what you’re thinking.”

“David, are you going to let her talk to your mother like that? I didn’t say anything.”

“Come on, let’s all be reasonable, Mom, Liz.”

“Once a month we ask them to dinner. How could we be any less obtrusive.”

“Dad, I know…look-”

Liz rose. “Quiet, this is my song.”

“What is she talking about, David, I don’t hear any song.”

Liz fluttered gracefully to a small opening between tables. It didn’t take long for the packed restaurant to take notice with her swaying between tables, pirouetting to waiters, using tables and chairs as impromptu partners.

There are some dark corners where even the most skilled dancers cannot navigate.

“David, what in God’s name is she doing?”

“She’s dancing. She needs a partner,” he explained.

Fear is one reason. Unwilling to lose control another. Denial. Hatred. Love.

“I’m going to talk to her, Mom.”

Liz started singing, loudly, “Is there nothing I can say, nothing I can do? To change your mind, I’m so in love with you. I wanna be your emotional rescue.”

Oh no, not this. Couldn’t she sing a nice show tune instead of disco-era Rolling Stones?

“Bu bomp, bu bomp, be bomp bomp buh.” David reached Liz’s side and grabbed her hand. “Bu bomp, bu bomp, bu bomp bomp buh.”

The true professional never stops learning new steps to cajole, dazzle and invigorate – the perfect spin, swivel or dip into meaning.

She whirled as though they’d rehearsed a dance number and he followed her lead. He felt his own voice go falsetto, “Yeah, baby I’m crying…over you….”

Here’s the real secret of interrogation—to be more lost than anyone in the music. The interrogator holds his partner close in the lights and tries not to let go.

They continued dancing and singing and butchering lyrics while the crowd clapped and his parents grimaced. Finally, when they had repeated the same refrain for the third time, David dipped her and held her close. He thought about what questions it would take to reach her: Who are we, what are we, when are we, why are we, how are we…

She held him tightly and he whispered, “I’m sorry. We can’t go on like this can we?”

“No.” He pulled her back to her feet and lifted the veil of hair from her eyes.

“I’m scared.”

“Me, too.”

They might be fine as a couple or might not. Their sons might be scarred by this or would use family strife to make themselves stronger. Liz might need a dose of hormones or something that would poison her even as it cured her. Truth would set the interrogator inside of him free so that the man hidden there could emerge. David kissed his wife’s brow and held her hand as the world spun around them dizzily. He would not let them fall.

  1. Wonderful story! As a former dancer, I particularly love the intersection of dance and interrogation 🙂

  2. One of the classic hallmarks of a good story (or in general good piece of writing) is when an author connects things I don’t expect. Glad you enjoyed it, Rose!

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