An excerpt from The Prophet
Francis Ackerman Jr. stared out the window of the dark copper and white bungalow on Macarthur Boulevard. Across the street, a green sign with yellow letters read Mosswood Playground – Oakland Recreation Department. Children laughed and played while mothers and fathers pushed swings and sat on benches reading paperback novels or fiddling with cell phones. He had never experienced such things as a child. The only games his father had ever played were the kind that scarred the body and soul. The young Ackerman had never been nurtured; he had never been loved. But he had come to accept that. He had found purpose and meaning born from the pain and chaos that had consumed his life.
He watched the sun reflect off all the smiling faces and imagined how different the scene would be if the sun suddenly burned out and fell from the heavens. The cleansing cold of an everlasting winter would sweep across the land, sterilizing it, purifying it. He pictured the faces forever etched in torment, their screams silent, and their eyes like crystal balls reflecting what lay beyond death.
He let out a long sigh. It would be beautiful. He wondered if normal people ever thought of such things. He wondered if they ever found beauty in death.
Ackerman turned back to the three people bound to chairs in the room behind him. The first two were men—plain-clothes cops that had been watching the house. The older officer had a pencil-thin mustache and thinning brown hair while his younger counterpart’s head was topped with a greasy mop of dark black. The younger man’s bushy eyebrows matched his hair, and a hooked nose sat above thin pink lips and a recessed chin. The first man struck Ackerman to be like any other cop he had met, honest and hard-working. But there was something about the younger man that he didn’t like, something in his eyes. He suppressed the urge to smack the condescending little snarl from the younger cop’s ferret-like face.
But, instead of hitting him, Ackerman just smiled at the cop. He needed a demonstration to get the information he wanted, and the ferret would be perfect. His eyes held the ferret’s gaze a moment longer, and then he winked and turned to the last of his three captives.
Rosemary Phillips wore a faded Oakland Raiders sweatshirt. She had salt-and-pepper hair, and ancient pockmarks marred her smooth dark-chocolate complexion. Her eyes burned with a self-assurance and inner strength that Ackerman respected.
Unfortunately, he needed to find her grandson, and if necessary, he would kill all three of them to accomplish his goal.
He reached up to her mouth and pulled down the gag. She didn’t scream. “Hello, Rosemary. I apologize that I didn’t properly introduce myself earlier when I tied you up, but my name is Francis Ackerman Jr. Have you ever heard of me?”
Rosemary met his gaze. “I’ve seen you on television. You’re the serial killer whose father experimented on him as a child, trying to prove that he could create a monster. I guess he succeeded. But I’m not afraid of you.”
Ackerman smiled. “That’s wonderful. It means that I can skip the introductions and get straight to the point. Do you know why I asked these two gentlemen to join us?”
Rosemary’s head swiveled toward the two officers. Her gaze lingered on the ferret. Ackerman saw disgust in her eyes. Apparently, she didn’t like him either. That would make things even more interesting once he started to torture the young cop.
“I’ve seen these two around,” she said. “I’ve already told the cops that my grandson ain’t no damn fool. He wouldn’t just show up here, and I haven’t heard from him since this mess started. But they wouldn’t listen. Apparently they think it’s a good idea to stake out an old lady’s house instead of being out there on the streets doing what the people of this city pay them to do. Typical government at work.”
Ackerman smiled. “I know exactly what you mean. I’ve never had much respect for authority. But, you see, I’m looking for your grandson as well. I, however, don’t have the time or patience to sit around here on the off chance that he might show up. I prefer the direct approach, and so I’m going to ask you to level with me. Where can I find your grandson?”
“Like I told them, I have no idea.”
He walked over to a tall mahogany hutch resting against the wall. It was old and well built. Family pictures lined its surface and shelves. He picked up a picture of a smiling young black man with his arm around Rosemary. A blue and gold birthday cake sat in front of them. “Rosemary, I’ve done my homework, and I’ve learned that your grandson thinks the world of you. You were his anchor in the storm. Maybe the one good thing in his life. The one person who loved him. You know where he’s hiding, and you are going to share that information with me. One way or another.”
“Why do you even care? What’s he to you?”
“He’s nothing to me. I could care less about your grandson. But someone that I do care about is looking for him, and I try to be useful where I can. And, like you said, sometimes bureaucracy and red tape are just too damn slow. We’re going to speed along the process.”
Rosemary shook her head and tugged on the ropes. “I don’t know where he is, and if I did, I’d never tell a monster like you.”
His father’s words tumbled through his mind.
You’re a monster . . . Kill her and the pain will stop . . . No one will ever love you . . .
“Oh, my dear, words hurt. But you’re right. I am a monster.”
Ackerman grabbed a duffle bag from the floor and tossed it onto a small end table. As he unzipped the bag and rifled through the contents, he said, “Are you familiar with the Spanish Inquisition? I’ve been reading a lot about it lately. It’s a fascin-ating period of history. The Inquisition was basically a tribunal established by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile in order to maintain Catholic orthodoxy within their kingdoms, especially among the new converts from Judaism and Islam. But that’s not what fascinates me. What fascinates me are the unspeakable acts of barbarism and torture that were carried out in the name of God upon those deemed to be heretics. We think that we live in a brutal age, but our memories are very short-sighted. Any true student of history can tell you that this is the age of enligthenment compared with other periods throughout time. The things the Inquisitors did to wrench confessions from their victims were nothing less than extraordinary. Those Inquisitors displayed fabulous imagination.”
Ackerman brought a strange device up out of the duffle bag. “This is an antique. Its previous owner claimed that it’s an exact replica of one used during the Inquisition. You’ve got to love eBay.”
He held up the device—made from two large, spiked blocks of wood connected by two threaded metal rods an inch in diameter each—for their inspection. “This was referred to as the Knee Splitter. Although it was used on more than just knees. When the Inquisitor turned these screws, the two blocks would push closer together and the spikes would first pierce the flesh of the victim. Then the Inquisitor would continue to twist the screws tighter and tighter until they received the answers they wanted or until the affected appendage was rendered useless.”
Rosemary spat at him. As she spoke, her words were strong and confident. He detected a slight hint of a Georgia accent and suspected that it was from her youth and only presented itself when she was especially flustered. “You’re going to kill us anyway. No matter what I do. I can’t save these men anymore than I can save myself. The only thing that I can control is the way that I go out. And I won’t grovel and beg to the likes of you. I won’t give you the satisfaction.”
Ackerman nodded. “I respect that. So many people blame the world or society or others for the way that they are. But we’re all victims of circumstance to a certain extent. We like to think that we’re in control of our own destinies, but the truth is that much of our lives is dictated by forces far beyond our control and comprehension. We all have our strings pulled by someone or something. It’s unavoidable. The only place that we have any real control is right here.” He tapped the tip of his fifteen-inch survival knife against his right temple. “Within our minds. Most people don’t understand that, but you do. I didn’t come here to kill you, Rosemary. It will give me no pleasure to remove you from the world. But my strings get pulled just like everyone else’s. In this case, circumstances dictate that I hurt you and these men in order to achieve my goal. I’m good at what I do, my dear. I’ve been schooled in pain and suffering my entire life. Time will only allow me to share a small portion of my expertise with you, but I can tell you that it will be enough. You will tell me. That’s beyond your control. The only aspect of this situation that you can influence is the duration of the suffering you must endure. So I’ll ask again: where is your grandson?”
Her lips trembled, but she didn’t speak.
The smell of cinnamon permeated the air but was unable to mask a feral aroma of sweat and fear. Ackerman had missed that smell. He had missed the fear, the power. But he needed to keep his excitement contained. He couldn’t lose control. This was about information, not about satisfying his own hunger.
“Time to begin. As they say, I’m going to put the screws to this officer. Makes you wonder if this device is responsible for such a saying, doesn’t it?”