Ethan Cross: An excerpt from The Cage

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Cage front coverI think that the second chapter of The Cage is vitally important to the series as a whole and this novella in particular. It introduces details regarding Ackerman’s titular “cage,” but it also provides a piece of information that goes a long way in explaining Ackerman’s state of mind – an actual physical defect that coupled with his childhood has molded him into a killer.

As she surveyed the powerful and influential group of men and women sitting around the dark marble conference table, Dr. Jennifer Kelly pushed a strand of auburn hair behind her ear, revealing a thin scar running from her temple to her jaw. Her boss and director of the Cedar Mill Psychiatric Hospital, Dr. Stuart Kendrick, gathered his notes and then stood to let everyone in the room know that he was ready to present his case. It was a presentation that had the potential to change Jennifer’s life forever, and she had a much more personal stake in the meeting’s outcome than Kendrick did.

The others gathered in the room ceased their chatter and turned to Kendrick. Jennifer admired his ability to command attention. She found him attractive for an older man, and his salt-and-pepper hair only added to his authoritative features. If she hadn’t known better, she would have pegged Kendrick, rather than the unassuming younger man at the head of the table, as the governor of Michigan.

They were gathered at the Michigan Department of Corrections headquarters in Lansing’s Grandview Plaza. The group consisted of a team from Cedar Mill—herself, Kendrick, and their facility’s head of security, David McNamara—and several men and women heading the branches of state government affected by their proposal, including the governor, the directors of the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH), and a few other political and medical advisors to the governor.

“Ladies and gentleman, I’d like to thank you all for taking the time from your busy schedules to meet with us today,” Kendrick said. “I’m sure that once you see our research and hear our proposal, you’ll find that your time has not been spent in vain. If you would please turn to page five of your booklets, I’ll go over our—”

The director of the MDCH, a middle-aged woman with raven hair and a stern gaze, spoke up before Kendrick could continue. “Dr. Kendrick, I’ve already briefed the governor on the preliminaries of your work and what it involves, so feel free to cut directly to your proposal. As you mentioned, we are all very busy.”

Kendrick didn’t show much reaction to the interruption, but Jennifer knew that having his extensive presentation cut short before it even began would infuriate him. He was a passionate man and felt that his exploration of the psychopathic mind was some of the most important research being conducted by the psychiatric community. Kendrick had no family, and his work was his life. She could understand his passion. She felt the same fire deep within herself, but not toward her work. She was driven by a more singular goal: revenge.

Kendrick dropped his booklet onto the table. It struck with a dull thud. “I’ll try to be quick. Over the course of my research and the research of others, I’ve found that most forms of psychopathy emanate from a group of interconnected brain structures, known as the paralimbic system, that are involved in processing emotion, goal seeking, motivation, and self-control. By using a portable fMRI—functional magnetic resonance imaging—scanner of my own design, I’ve found thinning of the paralimbic tissue within the brains of many violent offenders. This shows that these areas of the criminals’ brains are underdeveloped or, in many cases, severely damaged. Through the request that you granted last fall, we have transferred several violent offenders showing damage in these areas to the secure wing of our facility and have begun testing a revolutionary new plan of treatment. I’m talking about true rehabilitation from the inside out, an actual correction in the way that these men think and view the world. We’ve achieved incredible results using a combination of drugs and intensive one-on-one therapy sessions known as decompression.”

The MDCH director spoke up again, irritation creeping into her voice. “As I said, we’ve discussed this, and it concerns me, Doctor, that you have failed to publish these results publicly and have chosen to keep the details of your treatments a secret even from this committee.”

Kendrick pursed his lips, and his eyes narrowed. “I assure you, Doctor, that our results are very real, and as soon as this next phase of our trials is complete, we will be sharing our results and methods with the world. However, we’re not the only group in the country conducting such research, and it would not be beneficial to anyone involved for us to publish anything prematurely. That’s why I’m here today. To ask for your assistance with the next phase of our research.”

Jennifer held her breath as she watched Kendrick ready himself for the next portion of their presentation, a section that they had made deliberately vague in fear that their request for this meeting would be rejected outright. She didn’t even know the full details of what Kendrick was about to say. She had argued vehemently for one course of action, while Kendrick had been a proponent of another. He had yet to reveal his decision, a choice that could make or break all that she had worked toward for years. Her stomach knotted as she wondered whether he would follow her advisement. If Kendrick chose to go in his own direction, her best and perhaps only shot at vengeance would be gone.

For the first time, the governor joined the conversation. “We’ve already dedicated a large chunk of money and resources to your program, Dr. Kendrick. The additions to your facility and additional security staff did not come cheap. We were given assurances when we slipped these upgrades into last fall’s Corrections budget that this would sustain your program for some time.”

Kendrick nodded. “I speak for myself and our board of directors when I say that we deeply appreciate all the support that you’ve given us thus far. And let me set your minds at ease by saying that my request will not require additional money or resources.”

“Then what do you want?”

“Up to this point, our test subjects have been violent offenders temporarily transferred to our hospital by the DOC. We’ve had great success with four men convicted of multiple cases of assault and even one serial rapist. However, the next phase of our research and our biggest test yet would require someone even more dangerous. We need to find out if we can duplicate our results on even the worst of offenders.”

At this new piece of information, the potbellied DOC director sat forward. “What’s with all the secrecy and posturing here?” he said. “What exactly are you after?”

Jennifer readied herself for disappointment. Kendrick had wanted to request the transfer of a man who had drugged five women at nightclubs and then later murdered them. He was a shy and small man who had needed to dose his victims with Rohypnol—the date rape drug—out of fear of a physical confrontation. Jennifer had argued that such a man was not a real test, and that only a high-profile killer would gain them the exposure needed to boost their work from the research phase into accepted medical practice. She had a particular subject in mind, a man who still haunted her dreams.

She noticed Kendrick’s body stiffen as his mind seemed to be physically preparing for the onslaught that was about to come. “We want you to remand a well-known serial killer into our custody—Francis Ackerman Jr.”

Jennifer had expected an outburst of questions and refusals, but instead the room fell completely silent. She forced in a deep breath and noticed for the first time the strong smell of leather and lemon-scented cleaning fluid that permeated the space. The room had grown quite hot, and she felt a drop of sweat roll down the small of her back.

The director of the DOC leaned back in his chair and said, “If I thought you had even a small sense of humor, Kendrick, I’d think you were joking. But since you don’t, that leads me to believe that you’re out of your damn mind.”

“Ackerman would be the true test of our research. While some of his scans have proven inconclusive, others have shown problems with his amygdala, an area of the brain that generates emotions such as fear. Monkeys with damage to the amygdala will walk right up to people or even predators. This goes a long way in explaining why Ackerman is the way he is. I truly believe that we can, at the very least, lessen this man’s desire to harm others. And I assure you all that we are quite capable of safely containing a man like Ackerman. We’ve taken every—”

The governor held up a hand. “Do you have any idea how many requests we’ve received to study that whack job since we took custody of him? Not to mention all the interview requests. Did you happen to see the last interview the warden granted? Reporter was nearly killed. Off the record, if it were up to me, I’d stick Ackerman in a pine box and bury him alive in an unmarked grave. Unfortunately, I can’t do that, but I can make sure that he never sees the light of day again. I think we’re done here.”

Jennifer began to speak up, but David McNamara beat her to it. He shot to his feet, rolled back his shoulders, and addressed the governor with a tone of confidence drilled into him during his time in the armed forces. David had been a soldier in another life and still carried the scars, but Jennifer knew that a part of him would always be a military man. “Sir, with all due respect, we are fully equipped to handle Ackerman in the Iron Circle,” David said in his South Carolinian baritone.

“The Iron Circle?”

“Yes, sir. That’s what we call our secure wing. Unlike the guards that secured Ackerman for his last interview”—David glanced toward the DOC director as he spoke, and the big man shot daggers back—”my men are fully briefed on how to handle Ackerman. The Iron Circle is based upon the designs of the best supermax facilities in the world. Ackerman would be held in solitary confinement, monitored twenty-four hours a day, and only allowed to leave after being fully secured. His only time out of his cell would be for therapy sessions conducted behind Plexiglas in another specially designed room and for his daily hour of physical activity in an enclosed area connected to the back of his cell. He would have no contact with anyone else. The cells are located behind a loading area and another security door that goes to a small hallway flanked by a security control room containing two armed guards. Even if someone made it through that area, they would still have to go through two more security doors manned by another armed guard just to reach the main hospital. There are no windows and there is no escape. We’ve thought of everything.”

The DOC director laughed. “You’d better think again. All it takes is one mistake with this guy and you and your men will be dead—or worse. Plus, no matter how many inner security measures you employ, your facility still has no outer security. No guard towers. No razor wire. If he makes it through your men, he’s home free.”

Taking charge again, Kendrick said, “Governor, let’s look at this another way. I know that you have political aspirations beyond our state. I’ve even heard your name mentioned on the list of possible vice presidential candidates. With that in mind, I want you to consider that the estimated expense of prosecuting and incarcerating men and women with psychopathic tendencies, combined with the costs of the havoc they cause, totals between two-hundred-and-fifty billion and four-hundred billion a year. If we are successful in finding a treatment for this condition, an affliction that we could begin testing for as early as age five, I am prepared to make known the integral role that you played in pioneering this revolutionary process . . . and the billions of taxpayer dollars you saved by doing so.”

The governor crossed his arms and leaned back. A surge of hope shot through Jennifer as a small smirk crept onto the man’s face. “Dr. Kendrick, you are a man after my own heart.”



Ethan Cross is The Story Plant’s March Author of the Month, which means we are offering sensational deals on his work. You can read more about the program here

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On March 12, 2013
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