Many, if not most, obstacles are easy to overcome. If there is a locked door, jimmy the lock or kick it open. Bars on a window can be dissolved or sawed through with the right materials. You might not think it, but sometimes they can even be bent. An object one cannot afford may be taken. A car, jewelry, files. A man guarding those objects can be kicked in the knee or struck across the nose. In more extreme cases, they can be choked into unconsciousness. Several men can be avoided. If that is not possible, they can be shot. Women can be wooed. Unwooable women can be forced. It’s all fairly straightforward.
There is an added emotional component. The secret smile of holding something you’re not supposed to hold. The satisfaction of doing, of purpose, in getting past a defense meant to keep you out. The explosion of orgasm in a – preferably – willing orifice. You’re making things happen, getting things done.
There is one unsatisfying obstacle. It involves getting information from someone who does not want to give it.
Not over dinner, or drinks, or in bed. Those times one must become something of a psychologist. Read the mark. Ply the layers of defense with questions as fine as the edge of a chisel slipping into a tight jamb. There’s no mistaking the satisfaction of someone spilling worlds of information in the guise of idle chatter, of trapping someone in the cage of oh- I-really-shouldn’t-be-telling-you-this-but. You feel clever. Smarter than the mark, more awake and aware.
But the amateur needs to be careful. Maybe you’re being fed the wrong information. Maybe he or she is telling you only what they want you to know. Maybe you are the mark.
Which brings me back to the unsatisfying kind of digging for information. The work itself is distasteful. The beating and the cutting. The drugs and the burning. The bending, the fracturing. One doesn’t shy from violence if one wants to be successful, but nor does one revel in it. There is no personal satisfaction in being forced to do something one finds distasteful.
I’m speaking of course of torture. The locked door of a house has dimensions you can see, materials you know and have worked with before, tools you can trust to get you through them. A mind has no map. No two are the same. Experience doesn’t often help. What will reduce you to a quivering heap, ready to tell anything and everything you have ever known or will ever learn, these are not things which would have a similar effect on me.
I will say this. There is one time it can be satisfying. When you know your victim so well (and in this case it is always a victim, never a mere mark, because the hours and weeks spent devoted to one subject, the proximity of them to you, makes it personal) that you know their absolute, atavistic fear. The thought of this fear, and the threat of your ability and willingness to apply it, is such that no violence of any kind ever enters the equation. It’s clean. Not effortless, to be sure, but clean. Dignified.
This has only happened to me twice in a career that has lasted decades longer than the average. Once, by accident. The other, because I knew this was a man who would tell me nothing at all, ever, not one syllable, no matter what horrors I or my little toys could visit on his body. He had no breaking point. I had enough experience to look in his eyes and see it. So I had to wait. I had to learn.
I found the result utterly to my liking – a few sentences spoken by me in a dim but not dark room, and this man looking more and more faint as I spoke. He told me everything I needed to know. Neither of us even had to move. It was like a ballet, a thing of much artifice and pain made to look effortlessly beautiful.
Maybe I’m imprinting too much on the moment. It was of my creation, after all, and perhaps I don’t have the distance one would need to offer an objective opinion.
Still, I would like to tell you about it, if you are willing to listen. In light of our current circumstances, I will be as brief as I can.
This was a rich man, and powerful. Let’s call him Allan. Allan knew something about the man who hired me. What Allan knew is not important. The location of the proof of what he knew, that was important. Without proof, you see, Allan could never tell what he knew. It was that kind of secret, the kind no one believes without proof.
Biding my time was a risky move. My employer didn’t think Allan had any suspicions. That is to say, my employer didn’t think Allan knew he was in any danger. It was true that Allan didn’t know about me, and he didn’t know my employer saw him as a threat, but that truth was misleading. Allan was suspicious of everyone and everything, which was how he came by his information. That is another story, one which we won’t have time for, I’m afraid. I’m only telling you this story because it’s relevant to your current situation. I’m hoping by the end I will have made myself clear, so we can both be spared further unpleasantness.
As I said, waiting was risky. Every day the weight of Allan’s knowledge wore him a little more ragged around the edges. Every day my employer grew more anxious. His growing threats at what he saw as a lack of progress were a hindrance to the job. I wasn’t merely waiting, I was observing. I was learning. My employer’s fear over his secret getting out forced me to keep him at arm’s length, and eventually sever contact completely.
Allan was a challenge. Going through his house and his office gave me nothing. I hardly expected to find an itemized list of his darkest fears tucked into a rolled up sock or hidden on his laptop with the pornography, but his personal space revealed nothing of the man himself. In fact, he didn’t even have pornography. No magazines or tapes or downloads, nothing in his browsing history. I don’t have any pornography at any of my places either, but that is because I need to hide myself. I realized Allan was hiding himself, too.
No threats against those closest to him would work. He had no friends, family, or even pets. No threat of taking away a favored pastime, cutting the fingers off a hunter, say, or blinding a painter, would work either. Apart from television and an occasional movie – which he always attended alone – and a biography on Lyndon Johnson that he plodded through the entire time I watched him, he didn’t seem to have any passions. He was a blank slate.
He had one odd habit I couldn’t explore. He carried a small notebook with him at all times. He wrote in it often. In the backseat of his Town Car. On the toilet. Between meetings at work. At night before he went to bed, he burned the pages he’d written that day. He tore them from his notebook, put them in his fireplace, doused them with lighter fluid, and watched them burn. While he wrote, his face betrayed nothing. But I was convinced these pages were so perverse and warped that they held the key to breaking Allan down. This was not an ordinary diary. What could be so terrible that once you wrote it down, you had to burn the evidence?
I’ve kept an occasional journal. It helps me get perspective on troubling jobs. I can look at my thoughts from a distance and see where they’re taking wrong turns. Outside of my head, my mistakes are obvious to me.
This man we are calling Allan, he wrote as therapy. It didn’t show on his face but his actions made it clear. He needed to get these thoughts out of his head before they drove him mad. And he never wanted to see them again. In fact, he needed them utterly destroyed. Whatever he was trying to do, it wasn’t working. His was writing more and more, burning more and more, and getting less and less sleep. He kept his journal on his bedside table and turned the light on to write between fitful attempts at sleep. Sometimes he wrote two or three times a night. These pages would not be burned until the following night, before he went to sleep. I realized nothing the man said or did would reveal any weakness to me; I needed to see that notebook. I began sleeping during the day and spending my nights beneath Allan’s bed.
Allan was an odd kind of paranoid, one who believed that once he locked his doors he locked the world away. Like a child who believes that monsters won’t attack him as long as he stays under the covers. Allan never found me, but I read from his notebook during the night. Once I could read the patterns of his breathing, it was easy. I knew his contented snores from the snores which meant he was waking. I knew when I could move about with relative ease and when to tiptoe. Like a good wife, the wife he never had.
Allan was not an attractive man. He was shaped like a pear. He had wild hair that was jet black and oily-looking, which made his dandruff stand out that much more. He had no chin. He carried himself like a squirrel, hunched and holding his arms to his chest.
Only his eyes were hard. Gray blue like the metal of a gun.
Physical limitations haven’t stopped other men from being loved. I find it fitting. Allan’s mind had gotten him to where he was in life, but all that money couldn’t change how he saw himself. His mind was the key to his success and his prisoner.
His journal was not what I’d hoped. I read them anyway, hoping for some kind of pattern. Some pages were filled with numbers. How many footsteps he took between his front door and his car, how many cars he passed, how many times his driver scratched, how many footsteps between the car and his office, the number of steps in the stairwell, even though it never changed. Other pages had things like you’re so stupid or why? why? why? written over and over to the point where they lost meaning.
The content was useless, but Allan’s increasing slavery to the journals told me my employer’s secret had pitched his original obsessions to screaming levels. I waited, because it was all I could do.
Finally, one night without a movie or work function or feverish writing. He took a taxi to the design district. He walked to midtown. He went to a certain building. In this building, it’s possible to do – certain things. The women arrive in cargo crates from foreign countries with no hope of escape. You can have sex with them for money. For more money, you can have a fetish fantasy fulfilled. For the right amount of money, you can do whatever you have a mind to do.
Allan’s mind… well, he had a lot of issues. Beauty issues. Sexual issues. Anger issues. His woman was naked and young. She’d been wrapped to a bed with layers of cellophane, bound from her neck to her ankles until she couldn’t move. Allan cut away the cellophane to get to the parts he liked. The look on his face was the same look he had while he wrote. Blank and lifeless.
When I saw enough, I went back to Allan’s house. I waited in his study for him to come home. The only light was the glow from the computer screen. He liked to check his email at night to keep on top of business interest in other time zones.
When Allan returned, I watched him check email for a while, then I cleared my throat.
I must confess, I enjoyed seeing him jump.
I told him he could burn his journal forever. That he had no need of it. That he had found a new place to pour the obsessions which plagued his mind. But I also told him that if he let the proof that he possessed go public – certain names on certain deeds to certain buildings in the design district, manifests for missing shipments with certain signatures on them – then the place he had visited just a few minutes earlier would cease to exist.
Allan’s face was white in the glow of the computer screen, long with shadow. He looked like an illustration. He took a key from the pocket of his robe and told me the name of a bank. He told me the number of a safety deposit box. I thanked him. I told him to terminate his business relationship with my employer, but to enjoy the recreation that he had only recently begun. A tear rolled down his cheek when I told him that.
I knew him so well by then. It was a tear of gratitude.
I left and I never saw him again.
That was a beautiful moment. For all his quirks and odd behaviors, Allan would not have responded well to torture. Who does, right? But what I mean is, his obsessive, compartmentalized brain would have held him through whatever I could inflict. He would have died after perhaps a week, and without telling me what I needed to know.
Allan didn’t have a breaking point, but you do. I see it in your eyes, behind your anger. I can read you, my dear. I’ve been a professional too long for it to be otherwise.
But everything in front of that breaking point presents a problem. I’m up against a deadline here. A date that cannot be moved. I don’t have the time to devote to you that I otherwise would. So let’s have a game. Let’s pretend it’s tomorrow and I have crumbled your defenses. And make no mistake, given world enough and time, I would break you. You would tell me everything I need to know. It’s not even a question. But you don’t want to go through all of that. And as I explained earlier, I find the process distasteful myself.
So how about you tell me where your husband is right now?
It’s not a difficult question. Try not to think of putting him where a man like me might reach. You’re long past the honeymoon phase. Yours is a marriage of open minds and clear eyes, a marriage of individuals. The crime is his, not yours. You don’t need to be punished.
Perhaps there is a shortcut. I could contact an ex-employer. I could introduce you to an old friend. The building is still there. Well, a different building. These things do tend to move around, but it maintains the same spirit of conviviality toward certain desires. As I said, I haven’t seen Allan in some time. But I’ve heard tell of him. If rumors are to be believed, his tastes have grown rather morbid. He’s had to become an investor himself to make up for lost inventory.
Oh, relax. He doesn’t kill these women. But they are in no condition to work again. Ever. I would hate to see that happen to you.
I am very good at what I do, but everyone has aspects of their job that they find distasteful, or at which they perform poorly. As I said, I do not revel in violence.
Allan is a different matter.
I do not want you to meet this man, but every minute you refuse to cooperate brings you that much closer to an introduction. As far as I’m concerned, Allan and I are squared away. But to a mind like Allan’s, he may think he owes me a debt. Or he may think working with you would put me in his. Either way, he would never turn down free female flesh. Especially unwilling female flesh. I promise you, the things Allan finds satisfying are nothing you should have to experience.
I know this is difficult for you. You shouldn’t have to subject yourself to the pain of speaking this twice. So please, control yourself, breathe, and speak as clearly as you can.
I believe you. Please, calm down. It’s okay, now. Everything will be okay.
I do my research, when I have to. Your husband’s money buys a lot of closed lips. But in the end, diligence paid off. My hands are clean. You remain unharmed. I may have exaggerated my need to speed things along, but it had the desired effect.
Don’t look at me like that. What’s real is what happened to you at Green Lakes state park all those years ago, at the bonfire after the prom. Men in rural areas can be callous toward women. And all that came afterwards, how they bullied you and cast aspersions on your character… it was a terrible, terrible thing.
There’s only one truth. You may be done with the past but the past isn’t done with you. As for Allan, or that building, well. You never need to know whether they exist. Thank you for opening up to me. We won’t meet again.
I can’t say whether you’ll see your husband again.
But would my answer change yours?