An excerpt from
The Judas Game
Francis Ackerman Jr. admired his new face in the reflective side of the interrogation room window. The surgeons had done excellent work, better than he had expected. In fact, he hadn’t initially been receptive to the idea. It wasn’t that he had any qualms about getting a new face or worried that he would miss the original. It had nothing to do with vanity or sentimentality. His was a concern of practicality and offensive capability. He had been told by many women that his previous face was quite attractive and charming. What if he needed to seduce or charm someone of the fairer sex? His handsome face had always been a useful weapon in his arsenal—a helpful tool on his belt. What if his new face didn’t possess whatever feature he had inherited to make the last one so disarming and seductive?
As he looked at his new face, he was happy that those concerns had proven to be a nonissue. His new face was at the very least as handsome as his last. Plus, this one had the added benefit of not appearing on wanted posters across the country.
Or at least, his face had been featured on the walls of every law enforcement facility in the United States. Now, he supposed they had taken the posters down. Stuffed them into drawers or wastebaskets or wherever the paper pushers stuck the posters that were no longer needed. Not needed because the men and women gracing their covers had been captured or killed. He was one of the latter.
According to the official story, Francis Ackerman Jr. had died in a shootout with the police nearly a year ago. His new friends at the Department of Justice and the CIA had dotted the i’s and crossed all the t’s to make it seem that Francis Ackerman Jr. was a dead man.
The whole thing made him a bit sad.
Not because he was now officially dead and locked up in some CIA black site usually reserved for terrorists and national security threats. And not because of how easily a person could be erased or how quickly a person could be forgotten. And not because they had taken down his posters.
Ackerman was sad at how mundane and simple they had made his death. He hated the way they had perverted his legacy, and he felt a burning to right that wrong.
His death should have been shocking and theatrical. He had even made some suggestions to what that might look like, but they had ignored him and carried out their own quaint little plans. Small minds, small thoughts.
They had faked a death scene with two cops pulling over a stolen car and being forced to take down the murderer behind the wheel. One of the most prolific and feared killers in the history of modern society, and they concoct a tale where two average state troopers gun him down over a routine traffic stop.
It was insulting, and a stain upon his memory and reputation.
But he supposed none of what he had done to build that reputation mattered now. All that mattered was being a good lab rat and staying alive long enough for his brother to get him out of this place, so that he could do what he had been born to do—hunt and kill.
The room was cold and gray and old, and the fluorescent lighting buzzed overhead like a bug zapper. The whole black site smelled like old paper and ink, like dust and graphite. Maybe the place used to print newspapers or housed a defunct post office?
The door buzzed open, and the CIA technician entered the room. The tech wore a dark polo shirt and was a diminutive sort of person; not to say that he was tiny or fragile. In reality, he appeared to be in above average physical condition. Ackerman found the man small in a way that was less quantifiable, as if Agent Polo Shirt added no substance to the space or sucked something from it, like a black hole. Polo entered and sat down across from him; yet Ackerman still felt like he was the only living being in the room.
They hadn’t taken any chances with his restraints this time. Ackerman had been straightjacketed, restrained to a stand-up gurney from his head to his feet, and masked to keep from biting. He supposed that his last demonstration of escape artistry had made an impression.
A week earlier, he had freed himself and had drawn a maniacal happy face on a different CIA technician. He had done it just to prove a point.
Although, Ackerman couldn’t exactly recall what that point had been.
Regardless of such trivial details, he felt a sense of warmth recalling the event. A fond memory. The previous tech had cried for his family and begged for his life. Ackerman couldn’t remember the man’s name. Something beginning with an A. Austin, maybe? But he did remember how quickly Austin had lost control of his bladder. That had been good fun.
As Ackerman’s gaze fell over the new tech, he wondered if this man would instead beg to be put out of his own misery. Agent Polo Shirt was talking to him; perhaps even trying to establish some connection with him or dominance over him. Ackerman couldn’t tell which and didn’t care.
“I won’t answer any questions from this man. Roland, send me a different one.” Ackerman shifted his eyes toward the two-way mirror, knowing that the tech’s supervisor, Roland Green, was watching. He also knew that his old friend, Emily Morgan, occupied the space beyond the glass. “Better yet, Roland, just send in Emily. I’ll do the test with her. The pod person here can still handle the machines, but I won’t participate if I have to answer questions from him.”
The tech finished hooking up all the medical equipment and monitors to Ackerman’s body and then tried to continue with the test but, true to his word, Ackerman ignored Agent Polo Shirt.
Instead, he went inside himself. He imagined a huge hydroelectric dam bursting and flooding an entire small town. He watched the townsfolk being swept away and pinballing down the streets and alleyways, slamming into concrete walls and being impaled on tree branches. He watched an old man clawing the water for one last gasp of air. He watched a young mother futilely try to shove her children free from the smacking lips of the waves.
“Ackerman? Did you go to sleep on us, boy?”
Ackerman opened his eyes. “Good morning, Roland. So good to hear the smooth Texas twang of your voice. I just like the way that voice makes me feel. It brings to mind old Western movies. Hearing you speak makes me want to be a cowboy.”
He intentionally tried to insert the CIA man’s name as much as possible. It was a bit of a trick to keep Agent Green off balance. Ackerman had faintly heard someone in the corridor beyond the interrogation room call the agent in charge of the lab rat phase of his incarceration by his first name. Roland. The agent had introduced himself to Ackerman with his last name only without offering his first. This small nugget of information gave Ackerman a certain power over Agent Green. He could see the wheels turn in the other man’s eyes every time he referred to him by that first name. Green would try to assume that the killer had just overheard it, or he had somehow let it slip, but he wouldn’t know for sure. And, consciously or subconsciously, that question would gnaw at the back of Roland Green’s mind.
Did Ackerman know where he lived? Where he slept? Where his kids went to school?
It was delicious.
Roland Green locked eyes with Ackerman and then gestured toward the technician. “What’s wrong with him?” Green said.
Ackerman replied, “He depresses me, Roland. Just look at him. His eyes are like leaches. Stare at them too long, and they’ll suck out your soul.”
Green faced the tech, looked at him a moment, and said, “Fair enough.” Then he added, “I don’t see the harm in letting her ask you the questions while the technician monitors the equipment, but if you cross me on this or try anything, if you so much as make her teary eyed, then the deal you have with the CIA is over. Do we understand each other?”
“Am I irritating you, Roland?”
“Of course not. Seeing you is the highlight of my day, Mr. Ackerman. Now, do we understand each other?”
“Carl Jung said, ‘Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.’”
Roland Green nodded his head slowly for a moment and then said, “I’m just going to pretend you said ‘yes’ and move on. Emily, come on in.”
Green pointed at Ackerman as he left and added, “Don’t forget what I said.”
“Of course not, Roland. To me your every word is like a drop of rain to a desert flower.”
Roland raised his eyebrows and shook his head. “Whatever that means.” The door opened, and Roland and Emily passed each other in its threshold. “You sure he ain’t crazy, Doc?”
Emily tilted her head and said, “Crazy is a broad term used by the general populace, not a diagnosis. So it becomes a matter of perspective and definition.”
The gray-haired Texan just nodded and said, “Sure thing, Doc.”
Emily moved toward a pair of metal chairs which had been bolted to the floor–Ackerman had taught them that lesson as well. Agent Polo Shirt shifted over a seat as Emily slid into the chair directly facing Ackerman.
Emily’s movements reminded Ackerman of a Siamese cat he had once seen in the home of a victim. It was the way he imagined a feline princess would move–confident but not boastful. Powerful. Graceful. But gentle. All at once.
Her features were pale with an odd mix of Asian and Irish heritage. Her skin was flawless and smooth like a child’s. Like the harmful rays of the sun had never touched her skin.
If he recalled correctly, she had an Irish grandfather and a Japanese grandmother. Ackerman wondered when he had learned that piece of information.
Had Emily let that slip during one of her recent counseling sessions with him? Or had her husband told him that before Ackerman had murdered him?
He supposed that neither the source of that knowledge nor Emily’s heritage mattered. What did matter was that he found Emily fascinating.
He had killed her husband, nearly killed her, and used her as human bait. Yet, she had always treated him with respect and had never shown him hatred. Actually, she had become a staunch ally in his brother’s crusade to keep him alive and for him to be used as a resource in the hunt for other killers.
Perhaps by rehabilitating Ackerman she would give greater meaning to her husband’s death? Perhaps she just wanted to make sure nothing like that ever happened to another family? Or maybe she just wholeheartedly believed in teachings of forgiveness and the turning of the other cheek?
Whatever it was, Ackerman found it remarkable. He found her remarkable. Unlike the way Polo Shirt sucked life from the space, she brightened it. She filled it with some kind of ethereal grace.
“I think I’m annoying poor Roland.”
“I know what you’re trying to do by using his first name.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“You’re establishing dominance. Stealing power from him and bestowing it on yourself. With you, it’s always about power. That and pain. Establishing power, experiencing pain in one form or another.”
“You say all that as if I’ve never done any self-exploration of my own feelings and motives. I’ve lived most of my life in a cage. I’ve had ample time to plum my own depths.”
“I never claimed otherwise. I was simply making an observation. Here’s another. I know that your little trick with Special Agent Green’s first name is very mundane in origin.”
“How can you be so sure that I don’t just know more about this facility than any of you could possibly imagine?”
“Because if it was something clever, you wouldn’t have been able to resist telling us all about it by now.”
Ackerman smiled. “I’ve missed you, Emily.”
“I’ve been busy with other obligations.”
“Obligations in regard to counseling or your field agent training?”
Emily had been given a counseling job within the Shepherd Organization after the courage she had displayed in her last encounter with him. It made sense. She had been a therapist in her pre-Ackerman life, and the Shepherd Organization was almost entirely made up of people who had displayed certain qualities during run-ins with serial killers. She fit right in as the counselor that this group desperately needed. But the thoughtful and deep-thinking Emily Morgan had shocked him by instead pursuing a position as a field agent. In fact, the argument of how to use Ackerman best had opened up another debate over the possibilities for Emily to serve as his liaison and babysitter.
“Obligations that are none of your concern,” Emily said as a statement of fact, without a hint of emotion on the subject one way or another.
“Was it about the boy?” Ackerman said. “I hear he’s having trouble adjusting to the new school.”
Emily said, “His mother was murdered by your father, his grandfather. Then he was brainwashed and nearly killed by the same man. He’s having a hard go of it after all that. I’m sure you can relate to how he’s feeling.”
Of course he could relate. Dylan’s experience mirrored his own in many ways. Except that Dylan missed out on all the torture and manipulation for years on end.
“The boy needs to learn from the experience. Let it mold him. Make him stronger. We can’t allow him to be a victim of his circumstance.”
She held up a hand. “Let me handle the therapy. In your communication with Dylan, you should remain a positive, supportive listener. Nothing more. I monitor every word between the two of you. Every gesture. And if I ever have even the slightest suspicion that you are attempting to manipulate Dylan in any way, then your privileges with him will be revoked.”
Ackerman involuntarily gritted his teeth. He hated that his jailers had something to hold over his head. He didn’t like having something to lose.
He changed the subject. “So what new technology or technique is the CIA testing on me today? Are these electrodes to shock me or read my mind?”
“Neither,” Emily said. “Nothing so dramatic. They’re refining their new lie detection algorithms based upon the last test they did with you.”
“That’s a shame. I had been hoping for some electric shocks.”
Agent Polo Shirt told Emily that they were ready to begin. With a nod, she glanced at her clipboard. Apparently, there was a list of predesigned questions she was supposed to ask. She said, “What species are you?”
Ackerman cleared his throat and said, “I am a meat Popsicle from the planet Galaktron.”
Polo Shirt swore under his breath and said, “According to the system, he’s telling the truth.”
Emily said, “Just to be completely clear, I am directing these questions to Francis Ackerman Jr. and expecting a statement of fact in answer to my question. Mr. Ackerman, do you understand what we are doing and what is expected of you?”
Ackerman chuckled. Emily must have been trying to verify that he wasn’t using some kind of mind trick or distancing to confuse the CIA’s high-tech new toy. “I understand,” he said. “And I, Francis Ackerman Jr., do hereby forswear to answer your questions to the best of my abilities and with the utmost respect and the most unimpeachable honesty.”
“He’s telling the truth,” Agent Polo Shirt said.
Emily continued with the questions. “Please state your name and occupation.” She rolled her eyes, possibly at the question’s absurdity.
“I am the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. And I am a knight.”
Polo shirt sighed and said, “Telling the truth.”
Ackerman watched hungrily as a ghost of a smile passed over Emily Morgan’s porcelain features before she continued on to the next question.