An excerpt from The Cage
Francis Ackerman Jr. stared into the reporter’s almond-colored eyes. Her features were a perfect mix of East meets West, second-generation Asian-American characteristics tempering Caucasian elements, invoking both the exotic and the familiar. As he fell into those eyes, the killer forgot everything else. He even failed to catch which network news program she represented. She smiled as she thanked him for agreeing to be interviewed. He sensed a slight reluctance, but nothing to indicate true fear. He wondered how her attitude toward him would change if she knew that he had already freed his hands from the restraints.
Since he had become accustomed to a world without color, the reporter’s bright clothes and red lipstick seemed alien in the monochromatic surroundings. The interrogation chair holding Ackerman in place possessed all manner of restraints designed to keep him from harming his distinguished guests: the reporter and her camera crew. But the guard who secured his hands must have failed to read his file. If he had, the guard would have known that due to the severe scarring of Ackerman’s arms—a constant reminder of the pain inflicted upon him by his father—the standard pinch test used to safely but humanely secure a prisoner in handcuffs wouldn’t apply. The scar tissue caused his forearms and wrists to be thicker than his hands, and only the tightest notch of the cuffs could hold him successfully. When he failed to feel the uncomfortable bite on his wrists, Ackerman knew that this would prove to be an interesting day.
After a few preliminary questions to warm him up and test the waters, the reporter began to delve into darker territory. He had debated how to respond to her questions. He had considered his every move and analyzed how his audience would react. After all, this was a grand opportunity to add to his legend by shocking and horrifying the awaiting public. But how to best accomplish such a task?
So many directions he could go: the rambling psychotic, the brooding quiet type, the rage-filled madman, or his favorite, the all-too-popular Hannibal Lecter mold. But he felt that route was almost too distant, too smart, too alien. None of them seemed to accomplish his goal. If he truly wanted to frighten people, he needed to shatter their illusions. He needed to make them feel that he could show up at their doorsteps, charm his way inside, and murder with no provocation, rhyme, or reason. So for the purposes of the interview, he had decided upon charming with a pinch of cruelty.
“Mr. Ackerman, you have been convicted of multiple murders and claim that you have committed many more. Do you have anything to say to the families of your victims?”
He paused for effect and pretended to consider the question. “I believe that I said all that needs to be said to their lost loved ones when I killed them, but if I were so inclined to comment to the families, I would tell them not to shed a tear for those who have gone before . . . for their suffering is over.”
“Is that why you kill? Because you want to make others pay for the suffering you’ve endured in your own life?”
With her words, his father’s voice crept into his mind.
Kill them and the pain will stop . . . You’re a monster . . .
“Not at all. I kill because I’m a predator. What we seem to have forgotten is that we’re just a pack of animals. We like to think that we’re above such things, but in the end, we are all either predator or prey. We’re lions, my dear. We’re the top of the food chain. The problem is that we’re lions who have lived our entire lives in cages. We’ve been domesticated. People like to believe that we’ve filtered out this animal side of our collective consciousness with our misguided senses of morality, but the truth is that the monster sleeps just below the surface. All it takes is a little anarchy, a little disruption in our daily lives, a little breakdown in our nice, quiet society. And when that day arrives and you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you’ll discover whether you’re a lion or a lamb.”
A ghost of a smile crept onto his face as he continued. “And then there’s me. I’m a lion, of course. But I’m not in a cage—metaphorically speaking, anyway. I’m the lion from the zoo that you hear about every so often that turns on its handlers, escapes, and eats a few tourists. It’s survival of the fittest out there whether you realize it or not. That’s why I kill. I’m a predator, through and through. And I have no illusions about trying to be anything other than what I am.”
He could tell by the rapt look on her beautiful face that he was doing well. There was a twinkle in her eyes, and he knew that the potential for record-breaking ratings was dancing through her head. It was time to make it personal.
After a moment, she said, “So you want to see the world descend into anarchy with only the strongest able to survive, while the weaker of the species are trampled underfoot?”
“My dear, I couldn’t care less what happens to the world. I’m more interested in you, actually.”
Ackerman knew that he had inherited good looks from his mother’s side of the family, but his most useful trait at moments such as this were his gray eyes. In that moment, he fixed her with a gaze meant to penetrate her soul. “I’ve answered some of your questions. Now it’s your turn. I want to know something about you.”
She sat back and placed her hands on the edge of the metal table. Condescension crept into her voice. “Mr. Ackerman, I’m not going to reveal my darkest secrets to you. You don’t need to know anything about me. Now, please tell us—”
He interrupted, his voice barely above a whisper. “I don’t want to know your darkest secrets, my dear. I have enough darkness of my own. What I’d like from you is a taste of the light. You know my history, so you know that I’ve never been able to experience what it’s like to be normal. I’ve never taken a girl to the prom or shared that first kiss in the backseat of a friend’s car. I’ve never gone out for drinks with coworkers or shared a quiet meal with a woman I love. The vast majority of my life has been spent in a cell much like the one in which I currently reside.”
He looked away for a moment and released a long but measured breath. When their gazes locked again, he said, “All I want to know is your favorite meal. You’re a very beautiful woman, and I don’t mean for that to carry a sexual connotation. We break everything down into terms of sex these days, another example of our true animal selves shining through. But I’m speaking from a purely philosophical and artistic standpoint. I’ve seen how ugly this world can be, and that has led me to appreciate true beauty. And you are beautiful. All I ask is that you share one minor detail with me, so that when I’m sitting alone in my cell with all those ugly memories, I can focus instead upon something beautiful. I can imagine myself sitting with you at dinner, sharing that quiet meal. And maybe, eventually, I’ll forget that it’s just a fantasy and start to believe that I really lived that one pure day. Maybe in that moment, I’ll find some peace.”
He noticed her swallow hard, and when she spoke, her voice sounded brittle and dry. “Umm . . .” The scent of her perfume drifted across the table, and he recognized the touch of oleander. She cleared her throat and lowered her eyes. He wanted to smile but knew that he needed to maintain a look of pain and sincerity.
“I’m a steak and potatoes girl. Got that from my dad.” The look in her eyes indicated that she had shocked herself with that last oddly personal statement. It was something a person would say to a date, not a notorious serial killer.
“How do you like your steak prepared?” he said.
“Medium rare. My father always told me that you lose the flavor if you cook it too long.” Again she seemed surprised by her own candor. He also noticed that when she shared this, she leaned much closer, as if she didn’t want the cameraman to hear.
This was the moment he had been waiting for. He hardened his eyes and let a bit of cruel menace seep in. “She likes it bloody. A girl after my own heart.”
In a blur of movement, Ackerman’s hands flew from behind his back as he lunged over the table and grabbed the reporter by her hair. He dragged her small frame over the table that separated them, pulling her onto his lap. As her screams filled the room and the smell of intense fear mixed with perfume filled his nostrils, he placed one hand behind her head and one on her chin. With a quick twist, he could easily snap her neck and sever her spinal cord.
The guards reacted quickly. They screamed their orders and lifted their shotguns. Ackerman knew that a new form of shotgun shell known as a Taser XREP that contained a miniature stun device instead of buckshot filled the guards’ weapons. Taser XREP rounds had been designed as a less-than-lethal alternative to conventional shells, which meant that the guards could fire upon him without worrying about hitting his hostage.
Although they would assume that this unexpected act was an attempt at escape, he knew that breaking from a cage with such advanced security measures would be nearly impossible, especially since his legs were still shackled to the chair. He had no intention of trying to escape. He simply wanted to give the audience a show to remember.
“Let her go now!” one of the guards said as he sighted down the barrel of his shotgun.
Ackerman looked at the guard calmly and replied, “If you come any closer, I’ll break her neck.”
“Give it up. No way you leave this room.”
Ackerman tightened his hold on the reporter, inducing a small cry of pain from her. “I don’t intend to escape. I simply wanted to give a small message to my lady friend here.”
He leaned in close to the reporter’s ear and whispered, “I want you to remember from this day forth that the only reason you are still alive is that I’ve chosen to give you life. I own every breath you take. Every smile. Every tear. Every moment is one that I’ve given to you. It’s a debt that you owe to me. And someday, I may come to collect upon that debt.”
Ackerman shoved the reporter away and welcomed the sting of the Taser round. He had accomplished his mission. Neither the reporter nor her audience would ever forget the name Ackerman. He closed his eyes, heard the blast of the shotgun, and felt the concussion of the dart as its barbs penetrated his skin.
His body convulsed, and then the guards overtook him.