The Questioner (sample)
Don’t confuse me with others in this game. I’m no cold reader. I don’t do hypnosis, I don’t look for tells, and I don’t use Amytal or psychedelics. Staging is important, yes, but I am the only indispensable element in the equation.
Once I enter the set, I can flex the environment. This allows me to accommodate each new element as it surfaces within that environment, be it volunteered, bargained-for, or elicited.
I practice control, not coercion. Even in a no-rules contest, I am never seduced by shortcut-seeking. A torture victim will say anything to make the pain stop—as when a confession is tormented out of a factually-innocent captive. A “result,” certainly. But one of no value.
Terror is an inherently defective tool. Torture is ultimately counterproductive. So I reject them both, just as I reject chemicals.
I never seek to prove some pet hypothesis. I don’t collect data, and I don’t apply for grants. But I do use the tools of the pure researcher. That means my work must always be non-ethical. Because none of my subjects are volunteers, some degree of fear is always present, some possibility of pain is environmentally implied. I never enhance this atmosphere. Neither do I dispel it.
The readout on my watch said 14:37. I tapped the numbers twice to produce a new screen. When the red tracking arrow turned the far corner of the displayed map, I stepped out of the alley. Maintaining momentum, I reached the curb just as a Prius electro-glided to a stop. To anyone watching—and in this part of the city, someone always was—I was a late-clubbing businessman whose Uber had finally showed up. Alone, with both hands showing as I moved, I was a moderately attractive target for any rough-off team. But I wasn’t staggering, and my hands were gloved. And I was inside the car too quickly for bottom-feeders to complete the risk-gain calculations.
I didn’t have to say anything to the driver—the coded text I’d sent to bring him to the mouth of the alley had all that info attached. Destination familiar, routing optional. Had speed been important, my text would have come boxed in green.
The generic-faced driver wasn’t a wheelman. He never did getaway work, just pickups and deliveries. His one-off vehicle had been expensive to create, but that was all accounted for. Literally. To any interested agency, the paper trail would run from his big win at an Atlantic City casino four years ago to the garage on Long Island that performed the custom fabrication from blueprints he had personally designed. His business taxes were duly paid through an S-corporation every year. Any close audit would show small credit card hits from hundreds of Uber riders who had called his registered vehicle. Installation of simple duplicator chips together with a rolling “sort” program ensured no overlaps of time and location. There would never be a card-holder complaint—only the rides they actually took in other vehicles would ever appear on their statements.
But despite the window signage and all those credit-carded rides that made up his annual income, he wasn’t a freelancer. I was the only package he ever transported. For what that cost me, he kept the Tesla hidden under the Prius body humming, always on full boost. Always on call, too. It hadn’t come cheap, but it was a perfect fit for what I do. Those Tesla underpinnings weren’t there for speed. Although it could stun any pursuer with a soundless breakaway if needed, the extra power was to move its armor-plated door weight and reinforced suspension. A custom-crafted city car, right down to its adjustable-tint Lexan windows and light-absorbing paint. Underneath, all-wheel drive and run-flat tires made it impervious to weather and road conditions.
All my go-to-work requirements in one package: stealth, safety, and silence.
The drop-off was another alley. I walked past ankle-height smears of luminescent paint you wouldn’t see unless you knew where to look. Orange: good to go. A tap on a new watch-face menu opened the matte black wrought iron gate. I kept moving until I heard the yipping and snarling of terriers at work. A motley-colored pack, maybe a dozen, all roughly the same size. Loved their work.
In this city, if you want to keep a basement rat-free, cats won’t do the job. No cat would try an urban-evolved rattus norvegicus alone, and cats don’t work in packs. Traps just bring more rats. They don’t mind feeding on their own, especially those with freshly-broken necks and still-pumping blood. And the load of poison needed for a quick effect on those creatures would make the rest of the building uninhabitable from the up-floating fumes. But terriers are natural ratters: fast, fearless, fatal.
No gate would ever keep rats out. Not the narrowest mesh or the tightest fit. Bluesmen have been sounding that warning ever since ever: “A rat ain’t got no bones.” Telling the truth.
Maybe word of the terriers had gotten down to the rats. Took a while, but they’d stopped coming. Still, if the terrier mob ever moved on, they’d be back. So money had gone down to the subterraneans, who dumped two sacks a night over the gate. For subway-tunnel dwellers, capturing rats is easy enough. No more complicated than picking up litter on a community-service sentence. Doesn’t take skill. Or even patience. The difficult part had been finding some of that tribe willing to leave the tunnels, even at night.
But it got done, and the terriers stayed supplied. So they stayed put.
The dogs knew my scent, but they wouldn’t have tried to stop me anyway. The only thing those terriers wanted from a human would be a pat on the head or a scratch behind the ear. Maybe a “good dog!” and a biscuit once in a while. But they didn’t deeply need any of us. They had each other. And their work.
Stone steps descended to an iron-plated door, set deep and thick enough to turn an RPG round. I didn’t try to pick up the camera eyes. I knew they were micro-dots set in some randomly rotating pattern, back-lit infrareds that would unsnap the locks as soon as they sent my image to the central computer. Once, a very determined killer had used a surgical saw on a club member and tapped the inset circle with the dead man’s finger. Ever since, the people who own this setup won’t accept anything but a full-body view, including a Bertillon face-map.
I moved through centuries-old stone corridors, running parallel to the building’s life support systems, taking harsh right-angle turns until I came to the entrance of my chamber. I carried no papers—the subject’s dossier was already committed to memory. That dossier would have been cross-checked for factual accuracy, but it wouldn’t go deep enough. That was my job.
For all secrets created, a tiny percentage is kept against any intrusion. The ultimate extractor of such secrets is The Questioner – a man who has trained himself to become empty, who uses that emptiness to listen fully, to sense what others need to hear, to respond in ways that lead them to reveal their most protected thoughts. Disdaining torture or coercion, he mines those secrets with nothing more than conversation.
For those who meet his price – governments, multinational corporations, and the most complex criminal organizations – The Questioner obtains information. The secrets he learns can create or topple empires, win or destroy fortunes, lubricate the gears of the world ... or grind them to a halt.
But as the Questioner moves from one target to the next, just beyond the outer edge of his probes lurks something dangerous to his own emptiness. It will force him to turn his powers inward, to ask how he became what he is, and to find a truth he has never sought.
Oh, my goodness. This is Andrew Vachss at his most engaging and insightful. The Questioner comes across as both riveting tale and instructional guide to the savage mind, the ones who lurk on the outskirts of society and identify victims like hungry lions determining the weakest antelope in a herd. This story looks right into the primitive brain of those who seek control over others for power and dark satisfaction. Right down to the last thrilling and chilling lines of this gripping tale, it's obvious Vachss knows something the rest of us actually know deep in our own primitive brains but are afraid to address. Vachss opens that door for us and turns on the light, dim and as bug-swarmed as it might be, and lets us see, and feel, the ugly truth.
Andrew Vachss after literally a lifetime of vigilant service to the marginalised and abused has produced his finest work. A stunning, vital, necessary book that is so desperately needed in these insane times.
The Questioner is vintage Vachss: the unparalleled insights into the darkest aspects of human nature; the unflinching portrayal of a societal underbelly Vachss has seen firsthand, and understands like no other writer I’ve ever known. But it’s a departure, too, introducing a new character whose abilities are more cerebral than physical, an interrogator who knows that ‘lie detectors’ are useless against someone who can’t feel guilt, but who doesn’t need a machine because he has something better: himself.