Mark Allen Smith is a successful television and documentary film producer and screenwriter. The Inquisitor, featuring the controversial hero known only as Geiger, is his first novel. Mark’s experience investigating features for the acclaimed ABC-TV news magazine program, "20/20," planted the seed for his debut thriller when he was involved with a story dating from the 1970s about the remarkably brutal torture and murder of a 17-year-old in Paraguay, the last true dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere. He was further inspired to action by the shocking death of Lisa Steinberg at the abusive hands of her adoptive father; this event uncorked ongoing interest in the corrosive effect of physical and psychological pressure on children and other innocents. His journey of research convinced him that the novel was his best way to bring his story to the largest possible audience.
A long-time resident of Westchester County, Mark Allen Smith now lives in New York City’s Harlem with his wife, Cathy, and a blended family of six children. He is presently working on the sequel to The Inquisitor, also featuring Geiger.
A spectacularly original thriller about a professional torturer who has a strict code, a mysterious past, and a dangerous conviction that he can save the life of an innocent child
"This is one of the best and most engrossing debut novels I've read in years, and also one of the most original. Mark Allen Smith has created an unusual hero named Geiger whose occupation is torturing the truth out of people. Geiger is good at what he does, and so is Mr. Smith. The Inquisitor will keep you locked in a room for days."
"Information retrieval takes on a sinister cast in Smith’s mesmerizing thriller debut... [Geiger is] a fascinating piece of work... This may be the most unusual and talked about thriller of the season."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"[Geiger is] one of the most utterly distinctive protagonists in a recent thriller, and one of the most unexpectedly sympathetic... Smith invests his first novel with psychological dimensions you might expect in a third or fourth book... A breezy, involving thriller that handily overcomes any resistance to its grisly premise and leaves you hoping for the return of its oddly winning hero."
—Kirkus (starred review)
"An adrenaline-fueled cat-and-mouse game… [Geiger] is a fascinating protagonist with a revealing backstory. A compelling debut thriller that blurs the lines between the good and bad guys."
—Library Journal (starred review)
At four A.M., standing on the stoop outside his back door, Geiger watched a spider weave its web.
It was raining. The sky, ash-gray and cloudy, was gathered at the horizon like an old quilt. A drop of water clung to one strand of a new web that stretched from the porch overhang to the wooden railing four feet below. The breeze plucked the strand like a guitar string; the raindrop trembled but held fast. Then the spider came down, plump belly swaying, and began weaving a new strand.
Earlier, Geiger had been typing up his notes on the session with Matthew. As Sgt. Pepper came to him through the six-foot Hyperions, he felt the superb bass response, right down to the click of McCartney’s pick on his guitar strings. The cat, as usual, was lying on the desk, stretched out beside the right end of his keyboard, a front paw rising and tapping at Geiger’s hand whenever he went more than a few minutes without being scratched. The near rumble of his purr was loudest when Geiger scratched the scar above his missing left eye. Geiger didn’t know the circumstance of the injury; the animal had looked this way when he showed up on the back stoop three years ago. Nor did he know the cat’s name or where he was from—which is to say, the two were somewhat alike.
Geiger always wrote notes the same night of a session, while actions and reactions were fresh in his mind. He found that even a few hours of sleep could smudge the edges of memory. The next day, his partner, Harry, would e-mail a transcript he had made from the video of the session, and Geiger would go through it and insert comments at relevant spots.
He worked while sitting in an ergonomic desk chair, built specially for him. But he still had to get up every fifteen minutes and walk or his left leg would go pins and needles down to his toes. Over the years he’d seen three specialists about the problem—one doctor had called it “deadfoot”—but they all said the same thing: the only recourse was reconstructive surgery. Geiger told them that no one was going to use any kind of blade on him, for any reason. Having just examined him, they understood his feelings on the subject.
Geiger had stepped out back to lose the numbness and have a cigarette. He didn’t smoke inside. He found that the smell of stale smoke in a room affected his focus. Months ago, when he was new on the couch, Dr. Corley had traced that back to his father and his endless Camels. To date, that was the only picture of his father Corley had been able to pull out of Geiger—in a dream, Geiger had seen his father’s stony face staring down at him, a cigarette clamped between full lips, smoke curling out of his nostrils. Geiger had remembered thinking, This is what God looks like. Only taller.
He felt the cat, which had just come out the open door, rub against his ankles. He picked the animal up and draped the furry body over his shoulder. Other than the perch on the desk, this was the cat’s favorite spot.
Geiger lit a Lucky Strike and watched the spider. Full of purpose, it performed its singular task with innumerable perfect strokes. Imagine a carpenter who could spit out nails made in his gut and use his hands as hammers. Imagine a musician whose instrument was his own body. Geiger wondered, Is there any other being so diligent and artistic at creating a killing apparatus—besides man?
* * *
Geiger was an apostle, a slave to the specific. He was constantly breaking down, distilling, and defining parts of the whole, because in IR—information retrieval—the details were crucial. His goal was to refine the process to an art, which was why every single thing that happened from the moment Geiger walked into the room had its own degree of significance and required recognition. Each facial expression; each spoken word and silence; each tic, glance, and movement. Give him fifteen minutes in the room with a Jones and nine out of ten times he would know what the reaction to a particular action would be before the Jones made it: fear, defiance, desperation, bravado, denial. There were patterns, cycles, behavioral refrains. You just had to pay very close attention to see them all. He’d learned that by listening to music; he’d come to understand how every note plays a part in the whole, how each sound affects and complements the rest. He could hum every note in a thousand pieces of music. They were all in his head. In music, as in IR, everything mattered.
Still, even with the countless elements that could come into play, Geiger’s view of his work was relatively simple. The client and the Jones almost always presented him with one of three basic scenarios.
No. 1: Theft. The Jones had stolen something from the client and the client wanted it back.
No. 2: Betrayal. The Jones had committed an act of disloyalty or treachery and the client wanted to learn the identity of any accomplices and the extent of potential repercussions.
No. 3: Need. The Jones possessed information or knowledge the client wanted.
Human beings are all different, but only in so many ways. Geiger’s transcripts proved it time and again. Since he had started this work, he had filled twenty-six black four-inch binders, which now sat lined up on his desk. He could cross-reference the data in the notebooks by profession, age, religion, net worth, and—most important—allegation. The binders were an encyclopedia of information on response and reaction to intimidation, threat, fear, and pain. But there was no data within the pages about death. Geiger had never had a Jones die in a session—not once in eleven years. As Carmine would say, Geiger was batting a thousand.
Geiger’s clients came from the private sector, the corporate world, organized crime, government. Four years ago, he’d even done a stint at a black site for some agency spooks. They believed their methods were cutting-edge, but Geiger had immediately seen that they were way behind the times; they were men pulling wings off flies while they talked of saving the world. In IR, there was no substitute for expertise. Patriotism, religion, a steely belief in what was right and wrong—these were all things to be set aside. In the end, there were lies and there was the truth, and the space between the two could be so thin that there was no room for the clutter of rectitude and conviction. The spooks at the black site had stood in the shadows observing him as he worked; to Geiger, they’d looked like cavemen watching him light a fire with a Zippo.
He was a student of the craft, and a historian. Just as the black binders contained the sum of his own work, he was a living text of the trade—its origins, rationales, methodologies, and evolution. He knew that man had been using torture without apology since at least 1252, when Pope Innocent the Fourth authorized its use to deal with heretics. Since that official sanction, immeasurable time and effort had gone into creating and perfecting methods for inflicting pain in the pursuit of what a person or group considered indispensable information or truth. The practice had no cultural, geographic, or ethnic bias. History proved that if you had rudimentary tools—hammer, saw, rasp—and basic materials—wood, iron, rope, fire—you needed little more. Add even the simplest understanding of physics and construction and you were in business.
Geiger had begun his education by studying the instincts and foundational choices of the pioneers. Certain methods and techniques were especially effective, including:
Sharpened objects. The Judas Chair proved so successful during the Inquisition that most European countries began customizing their own versions. Culla di Giuda, Judaswiege—by any name, it was a pyramid-shaped seat upon which the Jones, raised by ropes, was perched.
Encasement and pressure. The Iron Maiden, an upright sarcophagus, was fitted with interior spikes and apertures for the insertion of various sharp or pronged objects during an interrogation. It was also, to a degree, the ancestor of the sensory deprivation process. The buskin, Spanish Boot, and Malay Foot Press all used shrinkage and manipulation to break feet; the thumbscrew was limited to single digits, but an interrogator who carried one in his pocket could turn any place into a torture chamber.
Manacling and stretching. The rack was a technological advance, with its employment of rollers, gears, and handles, allowing one the ability to quickly increase or reduce physical pain by minute degrees.
Waterboarding was another brainchild of the Inquisition’s interrogators. They understood that whereas submerging a Jones in water might prove effective over time, waterboarding triggered the gag reflex almost instantaneously, heightening the fear of death.
Intense heat had always been a staple of the torturer’s trade—consider the phrase “putting one’s feet to the fire”—as had the ripping and flaying of flesh. Also useful was a wide array of tools, from the simple—such as pliers for denailing—to the complex—such as the Pear, a hinged and often exquisitely etched steel tool inserted into the vagina or anus and slowly expanded by means of a screw handle. The catalog of tools was extensive: the Wheel, the Cat’s Paw, the Head Crusher, the Crocodile Tube, the Picquet, the Strappado. All these and more had been invented before the Industrial Revolution, and Geiger had come to understand that the practice of torture was not an aberration. In the cause of expedience and the quest for information, man has always been willing to trump his laws and betray his beliefs to legitimize the torture of those who do not share them.
After much study and consideration, Geiger had devised a standard operating procedure. He worked only by referral. If a company or individual was in need of his services, they were directed to his website and given the password. Harry, his partner, would immediately review the request; if he didn’t see any red flags, he asked the potential client to send some preliminary information about the Jones. Then Harry started digging, and within a couple of days he put together a detailed profile. Harry was prickly, but there was no one better at what he did. He could find out things about a Jones that the spouse or best friend didn’t know, the government didn’t know, even the Jones didn’t know. Once Geiger read the dossier, he would tell Harry whether the job was a go.
Geiger had three rules. He didn’t work with children, though Harry had never received such a request. He didn’t work with people who’d had coronary events in the past. And he didn’t work with people over seventy-two—Geiger had reviewed studies showing that the risk of heart attack and stroke rose to unacceptable levels after that age.
But there was one gray area: the asap. Geiger’s corollary to “Everything matters” was “A Jones is not the perfect sum of his or her parts.” So if a client wanted an asap—a rush job—Geiger would often decline. There was so much to take in: body language, verbal response, vocal tone, facial expressions, a constant stream of information that shaped his choices and decisions—and a miscalculation or an incorrect conclusion, no matter how minor, could blow up a session or even tear a hole in his private universe. Which is why Geiger preferred to work inside out and follow a game plan based on Harry’s research. Some pros, like Dalton, worked from the outside in and used a more single-minded, head-on application of brutality. But with this approach, the client couldn’t always be sure what shape the Jones would be in when the session was over—although in some cases, that wasn’t an issue.
Geiger, like everyone in the IR business, had heard a number of stories about Dalton. The most famous one dated from Desert Storm, when Kuwaiti cops caught one of Saddam’s henchmen sneaking across the border. They worked on the Iraqi for a week and got nothing, so they brought Dalton over and gave him carte blanche. That kind of session was called a “norell,” short for “no release likely,” meaning that it would probably be unwise to allow the world to see the Jones again after the interrogation was completed. The first time Dalton asked a question, the Iraqi smiled and Dalton sliced off a lip with a rotary knife. Then he went to work with a pneumatic nail gun—and the Jones gave Dalton what he wanted. The story may have been apocryphal, but it made Dalton’s career. In IR it didn’t hurt to have that reputation—that you were capable of anything—because most clients saw the Jones as the enemy and, in truth, wanted more than recompense or enlightenment. They wanted their pound of flesh.
The way Geiger saw it, politics, business, and religion were the three remaining fingers of a battle-scarred fist. Truth, meanwhile, was a weapon that even a damaged fist could still grasp and wield. It was a remarkably versatile commodity; it could be traded, or help serve an end, or produce a profit. But it was an unstable element with a short half-life, so it had to be used quickly, before it blew up in the client’s face. Early on, Geiger had learned that truth was no longer sacred—it was simply the hottest thing on the market, and anyone in IR who believed that they acted within the parameters of some righteous code was at the very least deluded.
The cat jumped from Geiger’s shoulder to the porch railing and went on his nightly way. Without fail, he would be back around five A.M.; the creature’s clock was a nearly perfect thing.
The spider had finished its night’s work. A large, striped moth was already caught dead center in the web, struggling furiously, not knowing that the more it tried to free itself, the tighter its shackles grew. Moving without haste, the spider came down from the web’s upper right-hand corner. It demonstrated no sense of urgency, as if the ends were secondary to the means, the meal simply a by-product of the art that had snared it.
Geiger lit another Lucky, and as the spider reached its prize Geiger put his lighter’s flame to an anchoring strand. The web, moth, and spider all went up in a puff of fire.
Geiger decided not to think about his action just now, and headed back inside. He would talk about it with Corley tomorrow.
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Allen Smith