Ethan Cross: An excerpt from The Shepherd

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Shepherd Front CoverThis selection from the fifth chapter of The Shepherd is integral to the book and the series as a whole because it establishes the relationship between Ackerman and his father and the events forced upon the killer when he was only a child. It illustrates Ackerman’s subconscious need to live up to the expectations of how the world views him. This chapter is also the first real insight into the character of the Sheriff and demonstrates that there is much more to him than that which meets the eye.

The deputy knocked on the ornate oak door to the Sheriff’s office. “Come in,” a voice said from the other side.

The elegance of the Sheriff’s department shocked Marcus. The intricate woodwork, plush leather chairs, and soothing natural tones of the walls and decor seemed to be stolen from a New York law firm. It was not the kind of ambience he had expected to find at a local sheriff’s office. Then again, he’d never been in a local sheriff’s office, and television was his only frame of reference. He knew better than to believe everything he saw on TV.

He stepped into the office, and the deputy closed the door behind him. The Sheriff sat behind a beautiful mahogany desk, watching a film of some kind on a computer screen. The Sheriff didn’t turn to greet him. The older man seemed hypnotized. His interest piqued, he moved around the desk enough to see the screen.

As he rounded its corner, he scanned the top of the desk. The papers and files formed neat, tidy stacks. He noticed a file under one of the stacks with his name on it.

Great. Second day in town and they’ve already put together a file on me.

His eyes darted over the other papers. Nothing of importance. Files labeled with the name Francis Ackerman Jr. A flyer for an auction, a two-story white house displayed prominently on its face. Several of the typical bureaucratic forms that filled the tedium of most cops’ lives. He thought back on the hours he had spent filling out reports, hours that should have been spent on the street protecting and serving. But it’s all part of the job.

His eyes moved to the computer screen. A slight man with glasses filled the display and spoke in a calm, quiet voice. A feeling of déjà vu washed over him at the sight of the man. The man’s face and eyes seemed to prompt a recollection that swirled at the edge of his consciousness, but the grainy image and camera angle lacked the detail necessary to make a connection.

The video looked like some type of clinical trial.

“Today, we’re going to be performing a recreation of a traumatic event that occurred in the life of Albert DeSalvo, better known as the Boston Strangler. I have documented the exact procedure in my journals and will be videotaping the entire process. I plan to observe the boy’s reactions to the event over the next week and conduct a few behavioral tests before moving on to the next experiment.”

The man, who Marcus assumed was some type of doctor or psychiatrist, reached up and stopped the camera. The display flashed, and a bare white room containing a cot and a toilet replaced the image of the doctor. A young boy sat on the cot and stared vacantly at the wall. In a moment, the door to the room opened, and the doctor entered.

“Hello, Francis,” the doctor said. “We’re going to play a game.”

The Sheriff reached up and pressed a key on the keyboard. The image on the screen froze, and the look on the boy’s face gave Marcus chills. The expression of pure terror etched across the child’s features reminded him of an illustration he had once seen of Dante’s Inferno. In that image, a demon tortured a soul that possessed an expression similar to the boy’s. He wondered if the scene before him now was all that different.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” the Sheriff said under his breath.

“What are you watching?”

The Sheriff seemed to register that he had entered for the first time and said, “Marcus. Hello. Where are my manners? Go ahead and have a seat.” The Sheriff gestured toward one of the leather chairs in front of the desk.

Marcus sat down and repeated his question. “What was that?”

The Sheriff shook his head, and a look of disgust contorted his features. “That was a recording that a friend of mine at the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit just sent me. They have hours upon hours of this. The bureau refers to them as the Ackerman tapes. I don’t know if you’ve heard anything about it, but Francis Ackerman is suspected to be traveling through this area. We, of course, don’t know that for sure, but I contacted an old friend at the bureau and asked him to send me some more info. I want to be prepared, just in case. It’s a fascinating story really. Anyway, I wanted you to stop by so we could—”

“What’s a fascinating story?”

“Ackerman. I’m sure you’ve seen something about it on TV?”

“I don’t watch much TV. I’m more of a book and movie kinda guy. If I am watching TV and a news story about murder comes on, I usually change the channel.”

“Really. Well, the long and short of it is that Francis Ackerman Sr. was a twisted individual. He was a second-rate psychology professor. His theories and papers were pretty much ignored by the medical community. Basically, he had a theory that killers were made and not born—pure products of their environment. He blamed society for creating these monsters. I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist or whatever you’re supposed to be, but from what I gather, most experts agree that the root of violent crime and abhorrent behavior stems from a combination of both. Certain environmental factors causing a reaction in people with certain genetically inherited characteristics. After all, most people who suffer a traumatic event during childhood don’t grow up to be serial killers. And not all killers had traumatic childhoods.”

“Didn’t the FBI release a study a while back that stated that something like three quarters of killers suffered some type of abuse during childhood?”

The Sheriff nodded. “Apparently, you don’t always change the channel. You’re right. Nature versus nurture is a huge debate in the behavior and personality camp. Both sides seem to have compelling evidence. That’s probably why most experts believe it to be a combination of many factors. Ackerman Sr. wanted so desperately to make a name for himself that he decided that the only way to prove his theories would be to conduct real-life experiments upon a child—his own son.”

“What? He wanted to prove that he could make his own son go crazy?”

“That’s exactly what he set out to do. He wanted to prove that he could take a normal child and create a psychopath. Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine that you’re a very young boy. Then, think of every bad thing that has ever happened in the life of every bad person. The tragic events that molded them into monsters. Abuse, physical and psychological. Torture. Death. Anything you can think of that no child should ever see or experience. Now imagine that all of those things happened to you.”

Marcus slowly opened his eyes. “My God,” he whispered. “But that would make anyone lose their mind. It doesn’t prove anything.”

“That’s the worst part. Ackerman Sr. thought that his experiments would provide insight into the minds of killers and ultimately save lives. He thought that his work would light the way to finding a cure for abhorrent behavior. He expected to be a hero. Of course, he understood that everyone would be shocked and outraged at what he had done, but he planned to move overseas and continue his work after his findings were revealed. He planned to create a vicious killer and then cure him. But when his work was discovered, as you said, it didn’t prove anything. The bottom line was that he was a poor psychologist.”

“I’d say he was a lot worse than that. Anyone who could do that to their own son has to have more than a few loose screws.”

“Precisely. He set out to prove the nurture theory, but ultimately he gave credence to the nature theory as well. Many psychologists surmised that Ackerman Sr. was broken to begin with and simply passed his psychosis along to his son. Either way, this kid went through hell for no good reason.”

“Is there ever a good reason?”

“I suppose not.”

“What happened to the father?”

“Same thing that happens to every mad scientist. His creation turned on him.”

Silence hung in the air for a moment.

“That’s one heck of a story,” Marcus said.

“Yes, it is, but that’s just the beginning. Now, we’re left to deal with the monster that he created. The good doctor wanted to prove that he could construct a murderer, and he succeeded. His son will go down in history as one of the most notorious.”

The Sheriff seemed to stare off at something that only he could see. “He’s extremely intelligent and plays these elaborate games, but he’s also reckless. He kills at random, at least on the surface. Doesn’t care about being caught. He definitely falls into the mixed category of killers, those displaying traits of both the organized and disorganized offender. Of course, that’s the FBI’s investigative classification system for an UNSUB. But even if we think in terms of the Holmes and DeBurger method, which focuses more on classifying the killer by motive, he’s still a mix. A cross between a hedonist thrill killer, who derives a sadistic pleasure from the process of killing, and a power/control killer, whose primary motive is controlling and dominating the victim.

“He’s a mystery from a psychiatric standpoint as well. Before he escaped, the doctors pored over him. Is he a narcissist? A true sociopath? Does he have emotions, or is he devoid? Does he feel remorse? Hell, some even believed that Ackerman was schizophrenic. During their sessions, one doctor would come to a conclusion, and the next would come in only to have Ackerman’s reactions lead him down another path.”

“Sounds to me like he was screwing with them.”

“That could be, but one of the shrinks had a different theory. This doctor, I forget his name, watched all of the tapes Ackerman Sr. made. He noticed that eventually the boy would become whatever his father wanted. If he wanted him to kill, he killed. If he wanted him to lack emotion, then the boy suppressed his feelings and became stone. This doctor felt that Ackerman had merely been programmed to unconsciously and intuitively become whoever the shrinks wanted him to be. If the nature of the questions seemed to be trying to prove that he felt no remorse, then he showed no remorse—on the outside, at least. And vice versa. That’s why he’s such an interesting case. He’s really not his own man. He often imitates other killers and not just those from real life, but also those found in pop culture. It’s almost as if he doesn’t kill for himself. It’s like he’s trying to give the world what they expect a crazed killer to be. He’s playing the role that he feels was assigned to him.”

Marcus considered this for a moment and then, wanting to change the subject, said, “No offense, but you seem to know a lot about serial killers for a local sheriff.”

The Sheriff laughed. “In another life, I was a special agent with the FBI. I worked out of the Behavioral Analysis Unit. Loved the work, but I didn’t get to see much of my daughter. It was as much a calling as it was a job. Shortly after my wife . . . passed away, this position came open, and I took it. With this job, I was home almost every night. Things worked out for the best. I don’t regret it one bit.”

He registered that the Sheriff volunteered his lack of regret without being prompted. He wondered who the Sheriff was trying to convince, his guest or himself?

The Sheriff continued. “That’s my story. Why don’t you give me yours?”

“Not much to tell. Born and raised in New York. Used to be a homicide detective there. The work didn’t agree with me. My aunt passed away, and I inherited a small ranch outside of town.”

“A bit young to have been a detective, aren’t you?”

He shrugged. “There were a lot of cops that agreed with you.”

“Hmm, apparently not all of them.”


“I made a few phone calls and talked to one of your former commanding officers.”

His chest tightened. That can’t be good.

The Sheriff hesitated a moment, as if gauging his reaction.

“The gentleman I talked to said that you were a fine officer and a brilliant detective.”

“Really?” He tried to hide his shock but realized that he had failed miserably.

“He seemed to like you, and so does my daughter. That’s good enough for me. Don’t worry. I’m not going to give you the ‘don’t break my little girl’s heart’ speech. She’s a big girl. She can take care of herself. I just wanted to take a moment to get to know you a little better and welcome you to Asherton. You seem like a good kid, and the fight at the bar didn’t appear to be your fault. But this isn’t New York. I’m the law here. Keep your nose clean, and we’ll get along just fine. Did you fill out a statement about the incident from last night?”

“Yes, sir, your deputy took care of it.”

The Sheriff stood. “Good. If you need anything, just let me know. Maybe we can talk more later, but I really need to get back to work.” The Sheriff extended a hand, and Marcus took it. “Thanks for coming in.”

Marcus stood and moved to the door. As he was about to walk though the entryway, the Sheriff said, “And Marcus . . . don’t break my little girl’s 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 19, 2013
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