Abbot Gregory watched Alan Carstairs shiver in his chair. It was November, and the stone monastery walls and slate floors encouraged cold.

Gregory’s forehead wrinkled up into his bald pate. “What is your purpose with brother Tobias?”

“We need his special gift.”


 “Toby was a maestro, a wizard of interrogation. Until he got religion-no offense- he was our best at crawling inside a suspect’s head and dragging out his secrets.”

Gregory pushed his chair back away from his desk, and Carstairs, by several inches. “We’re recluses, not sadists.”


“I’m a brother, not a priest.”

“Brother Gregory. We’d pick him up, and bring him back in three days, four tops. We would pay the monastery one hundred fifty thousand dollars, which I believe could be put to urgent use.”

Gregory stood up and half-turned his back to Carstairs. “Use your own people.”

“Our best already failed.” Carstairs compressed his lips. “The questioning will take place with or without him. May I talk with him before I leave? In your presence of course.”

Carstairs glanced around at the shelf-loads of old books. His expression suggested he suspected paper lice and bookworms. 

Gregory sighed, a decision made.  “Please wait here. Feel free to look through any of the books on the shelves.” The Abbot retrieved his cane and shuffled out of the office.

Fifteen minutes later Gregory returned with a tonsured monk. “Hello Toby,” Carstairs said. “You’ve lost weight. Wish I could.” Tobias nodded, saying nothing.

Gregory sat back down across from Carstairs. “Brother Tobias is under a discipline of silence.”

Carstairs’ smile was tense. “Toby, I know we didn’t part well, but it’s Brian.  We finally caught the bastard, but our interrogators can’t break him. We’ll give you six month’s pay for four days’ work, in addition to what I promised the abbot. You can donate it if you want. Please, Toby. We’re desperate. I’m desperate. We’ll provide whatever you need.”

Tobias put his left finger tips to his lips, then pointed the hand at Abbot Gregory.

“Permission to speak, Brother Tobias.”

Tobias cleared his throat twice. “It’s Tobias now, not Toby. The job broke me, Alan, and I’m done with it. You already know my methods.”

“We couldn’t get the mix right, too many negative consequences.”

Tobias flinched. He’d left because of fatal consequences.

Tobias glanced at Gregory. The Abbot’s expression was impassive, but Tobias knew how badly they needed the money. Carstairs also showed no emotion. A room full of poker pros and I’m the mark. But it’s Brian.

“If I could crack him, you’d agree to release him with fresh documentation. All terms in writing and witnessed. And a guarantee that this is the last thing you’ll ask.”

“You know we don’t allow any paper trails…”

“In writing or no deal.”

“Jesus. All right. Abbot, do we have your blessing to use Toby, ah, Tobias?”

Abbot Gregory looked like a hockey fan who’d lost track of the puck, but recovered. “Yes, given brother Tobias’ assent.” 

Tobias ushered Carstairs out and then returned to the abbot’s office. Abbot Gregory’s bony frame had sunk back into his chair.

“Your task is odious, brother Tobias, like flushing out our latrines. Patriotism aside, your service provides us with power and heat for months. I’m sorry you’re immersed in this spiritual cesspool, but your faith can save you from being soiled by it.”

Tobias stood in silent dissent. Gregory, in his ignorance, was wrong. Tobias knew what he needed to do and that God wouldn’t be taking part. The wages of sin are generous, but maybe not atonable.


Brother Tobias waited outside under the arched entryway to the monastery. He stared at the stubbled corn fields across the road. It was just above freezing in Orange County, New York and the sodden wind blew through his wool robe as if it were gauze. His hands began to ache, and he put down his small overnight bag to rub them together.

He’s packed one change of underwear and sandal socks, planning on hand washing that day’s linens each evening. Even with a breviary and small wooden cross in the bag there was room to spare. Poverty has its advantages.

A gray SUV arrived. The driver said only “Seatbelt, please,” during the forty-minute ride, but was edged out by Tobias’ complete silence. The ride ended at a brick office building notable for barred windows and painted-over glass. Tobias pushed the buzzer next to the faux-wood metal door and waited.

“Identify yourself.”

Tobias said nothing but turned his face toward the security camera mounted above the door.

“Identify yourself, I said! Oh, the monk. Wait a second, while I get a hold of your escort.”

Perhaps a minute later the door buzzed and swung back a few inches, then was pulled completely open by another bulging sport coat who studied him while holding a picture. “Brother Tobias? I understand you don’t talk. Come with me.”

Just inside the door was a security station with a conveyer x-ray. Once frisked and zapped, Tobias was escorted to Carstairs’ office. The massive wood desk suggested seniority, if not authority. “Please sit down, Toby. I’ll take you to your room when we’re finished. The cafeteria is closed, but I can get someone to raid the refrigerator if you’re hungry.”

Tobias shook his head no. He used his left palm and right index finger to indicate writing on a tablet.

“Of course, here’s a tablet. I can read what you write on my computer and phone.”

Tobias fired up the machine and began to type. ‘Will stay mute except for his questioning. You have drugs I asked for?’

“Of course. The first interrogation is scheduled for 8:30 tomorrow morning. The polygraph equipment is set up. What else do you need?”

Tobias resumed typing. ‘Just caffeine & coke shot pre-polygraph. If he beats machine, need go to delusion and pain procedures.  Need to check out machine this eve.’

Carstairs looked up from his computer screen.  “No problem. You know how sorry I am about that thing four years ago. We screwed up. But if this goes well, I think I can get you back on the team…”

‘No chance,’ Tobias tapped. ‘You know he’ll be damaged goods by the time I’m done?’

“Can’t be helped. Follow me to the exam room.”


Tobias was normally asleep by 9:00, but the warm room and soft bed made him restless. Like his thoughts. Can I justify going Judgement Day on him? Can I stay spiritually fit if I do this? Maybe and not a chance.

He washed his underwear in the bathroom sink and draped it over a radiator to dry. Then he prayed, first for Brian, then for his fellow brothers, and lastly for himself. The next morning a uniformed guard approached Tobias as he was finishing off some leather-skinned scrambled eggs.

“Come with me please.”

Brian was already cuffed to his chair and further cuffed with polygraph sensors. His hair was unkempt and greasy.

 “Hello agent Toby.”

Tobias cleared his throat.  “Hello Brian. Been awhile. You’ll be questioned using techniques and drugs you’re not trained to counter. If I don’t believe what you say during the first session, we’ll move on to more painful drugs and techniques. I’ll be wired into your responses- pulse, respiration, brain activity. I’ll sense your pain. And your lies. If you refuse to answer, or garble, or prate nonsense, you’ll be electroshocked. Like this.”

Tobias pushed a button, and Brian’s body convulsed, his head snapping back and forth.

“Hurts like hell, doesn’t it? Avoid the pain, answer the questions.”

Brian shrugged off the residual pain and glared at him.

Tobias admired his obstinance. It’s good to be set against a professional, more satisfying. Then guilt flushed over him. Have I already turned back into Torquemada?

“It’s a metered flow of caffeine and cocaine, Brian. You’ll think you’re having a heart attack. You’re aren’t, quite.”

Brian’s look was pressurized hate pushing to burst loose. “What’s with the funeral dress, Toby boy?”

“It’s Tobias now. Until yesterday I was a monk, growing vegetables.”

“Well, my pious farmer, when I get out of here, I’ll make arrangements about you.”

Healthy attitude. Tobias signaled to an assistant who wired and pressure cuffed him so he could viscerally sense Brian’s reactions. The drugs already had Brian trembling. making it difficult for him to maintain his counter-interrogation training.

“Let’s begin. Please state your name.”

He leered at him. “Brian Peabody, you cretin.”

Tobias briefly shocked him. “No editorial content, please. Where do you live?”

As the preliminary questions droned on, Tobias could feel the man tensing. He’s done this several times before, knows the trap questions will come in the middle of the easy ones. “Have you ever stolen classified information?”

Brian paused to stabilize himself. “No.”

Even in his agitated state, Tobias sensed only faint quivers in Brian’s readings. He’s good. But shadings, a slight change of expression, a shift in Brian’s focus, an inflection in tone, told Tobias that he wasn’t truthful. He’d broken Russian agents trained to beat polygraph examinations, but sensed Brian was better. Hopefully these drugs are enough.

As the questioning continued, Tobias grudgingly admired Brian’s Zen-like composure. I’m interrogating you by a book you’ve already read. Where are you in there?

Tobias adjusted the drug inflow as the interrogation continued. Brian had begun to sweat after the first fifteen minutes, and Tobias felt the readings get less precise as the skin contacts moistened.

Despite the drugs, Brian beat the machine. But not Tobias. He leaned toward him as their machine hook ups were being disconnected. “Brian, I have to congratulate you. That was very, very good. Too good in fact. We both know the questions you fudged. Tomorrow we’ll try a different approach. It has serious side effects that I’d like to spare you.”

“I didn’t think you cared.  Do your worst. You can’t hang me for what I don’t admit to.”

Tobias sighed. “Brian, as God is my witness, I want to avoid destroying your mind. I appear to have every reason to lie, but there’s a way for you to get out of here uninjured. If you provide the information and it checks out, I’ll spare you mental violation. Better, you’ll leave this facility without being imprisoned. Jobless, homeless, but free.”

Brian’s stare was stony. “Your horror movie robe doesn’t scare me.”

“You did what your case officer asked. They’ve had several months to use the information. Surely, they’d understand if you protected yourself? Your future usefulness to them is nil. Please, Brian, save yourself.”

His expression softened. “Nice try. We both seem to be locked into our roles.”

“Just think about it. Meanwhile, I’ll arrange for you to take a shower. Supervised, of course.”

Brian laughed. “Please. It’s way too late for Good Cop.”

Carstairs was waiting for Tobias outside the examination room. His expression was sour. “He didn’t tell you anything.”

Tobias began tapping on his tablet. ‘Told me everything I need. Know where he lied, that’s where he gave away secrets. Chemicals ready for tomorrow?’

“Yeah. Scopolamine, sodium thiopental and midazolam. Quite the witches’ brew.”

On the walk back to his room Tobias silently recited his Vespers prayer, and by the time he sat on his bed his self-repugnance had almost submerged.

He prayed, this time for himself, thinking that he needed it most.


The procedure resumed the next morning. Brian had cleaned up nicely.  Tobias paused before starting the flow of drugs.

“Brian, listen to me while you’re lucid. These drugs are going to badly disorient you. They’re not perfect, there is no real truth serum, but you’ll become pliant and suggestible. They’re also dangerous, a negative reaction could spark a brush fire burning up a lot of your brain cells. You don’t have to take the risk, just tell me what we need to know.”

“Sounds like a guilty conscience, Tobias. Let’s get on with it.”

He administered the drugs and studied Brian as he was being hooked up to him. He’s screwed. Even if we let him go, his former team will interrogate him yet again. No wonder he’s stoic.

As the drugs took hold, Brian’s pulse and breathing were like his slurred words: erratic and halting. He laughed at unfunny questions and Tobias sensed him involuntarily wetting himself.

“Have you provided information to a person or organization for money?”

“Naw, hell no. Have to be stupid to do that.”

“Are you in the employ of a foreign government?”

“Nah. Working for one government is hard enough.”

Tobias led him through a tangled chain of questions that his deranged mind couldn’t keep track of, zapping him when he wandered off the path. As his thinking shattered Brian began revealing things.

“You said your contact’s name was Ballitnikov…”

“Wrong again. It’s Volodka, honest too, not like you.”

“You told Volodka about the agent code named Celery.”

“Celery, Asparagus, you’da thought we were Vegans.”

Brian began to sense Tobias’ emotions through the two-way loops that connected them-his fear of the intrusion and self-hate for what he was revealing. Brian tried to push him out but fumbled like a drunk warding off blows.

After fifty-five minutes he reacted badly to the drugs, convulsing and shaking the equipment so violently that accurate readings were impossible.

Tobias picked up his tablet and typed. ‘Have to stop or he short circuit. Give him shot to counteract drugs. Need to flush out system.’

Carstairs came on the intercom while Brian was being administered the shot. “We didn’t get everything we need. You have to repeat the process.”

Tobias glanced over at Brian, who was still writhing. He tapped, ‘Can’t. Would kill him before I extract info. No choice, we go tertiary.’

“You up for it?”


Tobias had tried to hide inside his mind during the worst of the second procedure, visualizing himself in the monastery’s wainscoted chapel during devotions, trying to react to Brian’s anguish and dementia as if they were Latin chants. He’d failed. As Brian gave his befuddled accountings, his somatic reactions had surged through Tobias’ system. But it hadn’t worked and Brian would suffer worse tomorrow morning.

I abandon a vow of silence so I can sin. Worse, I deform Brian’s mind for dubious greater good. And God help me will do it again.

Tobias forced himself to eat a large supper, and to go to bed at his usual hour. It was cleaner when the accused were dunked underwater and condemned if they floated. He had a brief, unkind thought about Brother Gregory and banished it, falling asleep just before 10 p.m.


The next morning Brian was shuddering, his eyes half-empty of intelligence. Tobias walked over to him and leaned over to whisper “Brian, try hard to listen to me. I’m offering the same thing as yesterday. Tell me everything and you walk. Don’t tell and we go immediately to your third shot, a mixture of mostly cyclosporine and pravastatin. The drugs react with your system to create pain in every muscle. We then manipulate your arms and legs, producing greater agony without inflicting permanent damage or bruising. It’s like a terrible attack of gout, but instead of just your feet or joints, all over your body. It’s elegantly terrible. Please don’t force me to do this.”

Brian’s head had been bobbing while he spoke. “Nice guilt ploy. You got some of it, punk monk, but you’ll never learn the rest. I can handle pain.”

Tobias sighed. He’s already half fried. He won’t make it. The pain will shred him. “Let’s begin.”

Three minutes after getting the shot, Brian began shuddering, matted hair flopping across his forehead, eyes bloodshot and vacant. The questioning resumed. Brian’s voice was guttural, as if his lungs hurt to speak. Every time he lied or denied, Tobias would nod and a white-uniformed man would grasp one of his arms or legs and twist it. Tobias winced in sympathetic pain with each twist.

Brian’s screams degenerated into gurgling moans, his eyes and nose began to run freely, and thick drool formed in the corners of his mouth.

Tobias had turned his head away but couldn’t block Brian’s pain inputs. He forced himself to stare. Brian’s pulse and blood pressure were chaos, and Tobias knew Brian would shortly be going into a catatonic state. He nodded to the white uniform.

“Wait!” Brian screamed. “Wait.”

Tobias waved off the orderly, stood up, still attached to cuffs and sensors, and leaned over Brian, their faces a few inches apart. “Brian,” he whispered, “you’re fighting to stay in a rat trap. Focus on the me that you feel.  There’s a way for you to escape both us and the Russians, but you have to give me the information first. Blink twice if you agree.”

He blinked, then again. Tobias picked up his tablet. ‘Alan, he’s going catatonic. I’m giving him something to lower the pain.’

The response was quick. ‘Bad Call.’

‘Mine to make.’

Tobias put down the tablet, removed a vial from a shelf refrigerator, loaded a syringe and injected Brian. He passed out seconds later. Tobias sat back down in the chair next to him, waited several minutes, then woke Brian by gently wiping the tears and mucus off his face. He leaned over until his lips were against his ear and began to whisper.

“I’ve given you the complete antidote, don’t let it show. If you don’t answer the questions, I’ll have to put you back under. When we’re done, don’t trust the identity they’ll give you, you’ll always be traceable by them, and they may at some point horse trade you for a spook of our own. Memorize this number: (203) 555-1435.  (203) 555-1435.  Call it from a burner phone. You remember the number?”

Brian blinked twice again, as Carstairs came onto the intercom. “Toby, what the hell are you telling him?”

Tobias ignored him. “Shall we resume, Brian?”

 “Where did you usually meet Volodka?”

“Did you provide all of the Korean wartime contingency plan, or just certain chapters?

“Which ones?”

Some information Brian said he’d forgotten, and Tobias read him as truthful.

Tobias began typing on the tablet. ‘That’s everything significant, Alan. I’m finishing up.’

Carstairs lumbered into the room while Tobias was still standing in front of Brian. He silently mouthed: ‘Thank you.’ Tobias smiled. He mouthed back, ‘you’re welcome.’

Carstairs was in his face. “Toby, what the hell did you just do?”

Tobias spoke out loud to him as he was stripping off the contacts. “Relax, Alan. You got the information, and it’s legit. Now come through on your promise for him. And give me the info on his new identity so I can check and make sure he’s all right. You know what happens otherwise.”

Carstairs subsided. “Yeah, we got a lot more than I thought we would. Once we verify a few things I’ll release payment to you and the monastery. And I’ll get the perp released with new ID. It’s what we agreed, but I don’t like the way you just played me. What did you tell him?”

“Reassurances to gain his trust. Making it a secret made it more powerful. I lied, it worked and you got what you needed.”

“That’s the devious son-of-a-bitch I love. Come back with us.”

“Never, sorry. I’ll clean up and get ready to go. And return to silence.”


Abbot Gregory looked down at the stacks of hundred-dollar bills on his desk, then up at Brother Tobias. “We’re solvent for another year. I can look at you and guess what you’ve had to undergo. You have our respect and thanks.” He paused. “Ah, Brother Tobias, since you’re also under a vow of poverty, might we be able to utilize your six months’ pay as well?”

Tobias put his fingers to his lips, then pointed his hand at Gregory.

“Permission to speak.”

Tobias cleared his throat. “Unfortunately, no, Abbot. The money is committed to another charity.”

“Do I know it?”

“No. It’s quite small. And given to secrecy.”

“Irregular, Brother Tobias, but very well, so long as you don’t keep it.”

That Sunday, Tobias joined the other monks in their chants. A hundred fifty people sat on hard folding chairs listening to them. When the performance was over, the monks dispersed and the crowd began filing out. Tobias met a man in an alcove and handed over a parcel.

“Not my business, brother, but why does this guy get new docs and deluxe treatment?”

“Sin offering. Or maybe atonement for shared memories.”


“Never mind. Pox Vobiscum.”