Anatomy of a Murderer
Almost a year after Franklin Kettle shot my friend Pete Lund through the head, a squad of cops took Franklin to my mom’s lab so she could put a hole in his head and slide a small electronic capsule inside.
The three police cruisers swerved to a stop in front of the sleek glass structure, their tires kicking up snow, their sirens for some reason blaring. The noise seemed to reach all the way around the lab and spread across the surface of the frozen lake beyond. Then there was a clattering of car doors opening and closing and booted feet stomping the slushy pavement. Gruff voices barked orders back and forth.
Franklin appeared to be enjoying all the fuss. When the cops helped him out of the middle cruiser’s backseat, the chains on his wrists and ankles clinking, he had a tiny, secret smile on his face.
The police walked him past a sign that read MINNESOTA INSTITUTE OF NEUROLOGICAL RESEARCH and into the lab. An elevator sliced through the building without a sound as it carried them to the top floor. The door whispered open on a bright
corridor, where a lab tech with a pierced nose, an asymmetrical wedge haircut, and a badge on her white coat that said GERTRUDE THOMAS waited. She blinked at the sight of the six huge cops packed into the elevator, but then she recovered herself and shifted her gaze to the skinny seventeen-year-old kid they were guarding.
“Hi, Franklin. I don’t know if you remember me.” She dipped her head a little but didn’t manage to catch his eyes. “I’m Gertie. We met the first time you came here last year?”
Franklin responded with a slight tilt of his head that might’ve meant he remembered her and might’ve meant he didn’t. His eyes never left the elevator floor.
“Why don’t you follow me?” Gertie said. “I’ll take you to Dr. Braithwaite.”
She led them all down the corridor, only once throwing a flustered glance back at the mob of cops tromping after her. At the end of the corridor she grabbed the badge clipped to her lab coat and touched it to a card reader next to a door. The door clicked open. The group entered a big room with a floor-to-ceiling window spanning the rear wall. It looked out onto Lake Superior, which was solid and gray, like a continuation of the room’s concrete floor. A table stood in front of the window.
My mom sat behind it.
A middle-aged man with a comb-over stepped forward and offered Franklin his hand. “Welcome, Mr. Kettle. I’m Dr. Hult, the head biomedical engineer. We’re all thrilled to have you back. We can’t wait to get started.”
Franklin didn’t look at him, either. Instead he let out a quiet snort, like he’d just told himself a private joke.
Dr. Hult glanced at his outstretched, unshaken hand and stuffed it into his lab coat pocket. He nodded at Mom. “I think you know Dr. Braithwaite.”
“Hello, Franklin,” Mom said. “Thanks, Gertie. You can go now.”
Gertie cast one more uncertain look at Franklin before slipping out of the room.
Mom gestured toward a chair across the table from her. While one of the cops guided Franklin over and sat him down, Mom smoothed her straight hair—iron gray, like the concrete floor and the lake, shot through with a single thick streak of white near the front. She’d always refused to dye it. I’d told her once I thought the white streak made her look like a mad scientist, especially when she had her lab coat on, but she’d just replied, “Then it’s a good thing I am one.”
“It’s been a while,” she said to Franklin now. “How are you doing?”
He raised his hands—he had to raise both of them, because the chains bound his wrists close together—and pointed at the chair next to her. Something rested there, some kind of box, with a white cloth draped over it. The top of it was just visible above the table. A soft scratching sound came from within.
“We’ll get to that in a moment,” she said. “I want to talk to you first. Do you understand why you’re here?”
He slouched down low in his chair and stared at the box.
“Franklin? It’s important that you answer the question.”
“You want to open up my head.”
“That’s part of it, yes. Now, I know you must be nervous.”
“I’m not nervous.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
“Why do you think I’m nervous? Do I look like I’m nervous?”
He didn’t look like he was anything. Franklin Kettle had a face empty of expression—except, sometimes, for that half smile of his—and a low, weirdly calm voice, like the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kettlebot, kids had sometimes called him at school. His eyes, partly hidden behind spiky chunks of hair and glasses with bulky black frames, looked like dull gray stones.
“I’ve undergone thousands of hours of military training,” he said. “I think I know how to keep my cool.”
Mom pursed her lips. “You’re talking about that video game you play. It isn’t quite the same thing, is it?”
“It’s not just a video game,” he replied, still in that same calm tone. “Military training programs all over the world use Son of War to help prepare soldiers for combat. And I have one of the all-time high scores. You don’t think that says something about me?”
“I’m sure it does.”
“I do see your point, though, Madame Doctor. Can virtual combat make a person fearless for real? It’s an interesting question. The kind of question you probably think about a lot, being
a brain scientist and all.” His smile had returned. “Sort of like: can sticking some gadget in the head of a cold-blooded killer make him not a killer anymore?”
Mom was unfazed. “Actually, that’s what I want to talk to you about, Franklin: why you’re here. Do you understand what we hope to accomplish when we—”
The chains clanked as he pointed again. His eyes hadn’t budged from the box covered by the white cloth. “What is it? Why is it making that noise?”
She glanced at the thing on the chair next to her. “It’s a gift. I was planning to give it to you a little later.”
“Give it to me now. The noise is distracting me.”
Mom hooked her hair behind her ear while she thought about it. “All right then.”
She lifted the box onto the table and, drawing off the cloth, revealed a Plexiglas cage with half a dozen mice inside.
Franklin pulled himself out of his slouch so he could set his hands on the table, reaching them as far as his chains would allow. He tapped a fingernail on the white tabletop and watched the mice react.
“How come?” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“How come you’re giving me these mice? What do you want me to do with them?”
He still didn’t make eye contact with Mom. That was another thing about Franklin: he never looked anyone in the eyes. Not out of shyness. At least it didn’t seem that way. He just appeared
uninterested in connecting with other human beings.
“Whatever you like,” Mom answered. “I thought you might enjoy them.” To one of the police officers standing behind him, she said, “Would you take off his wrist restraints, please?”
The cop unchained his hands. Without hesitating or pausing to ask permission, Franklin opened the door to the cage and reached his hand inside. His fingers closed around a mouse with a coat of white and brown splotches. He brought it to his chest and stroked its head. The mouse’s tiny pink paws scraped his fingers.
“I know what you want me to do with them,” Franklin said. “You want me to hurt them.”
Mom sat up a tiny bit straighter. “Why would I want you to do something like that?”
“So you can study my behavior. Gather data for your project. See for yourself what a psycho I am. You and whoever else is watching.” He nodded at one of the cameras hanging from the ceiling. “You’re all thrilled to have me back,” he added, slitting his eyes at Dr. Hult, who was standing by the door. “You can’t wait to get started.” His chains rustled as he faced Mom again. “You’re hoping I’ll put on a show.”
“What do you mean, ‘put on a show’?”
He shrugged. “Maybe I’ll smash this mouse on the table. Maybe I’ll squeeze him until his eyes pop out. At least, that’s what you’re hoping, Madame Doctor.”
Mom pressed the nail of her left index finger into the pad of her thumb. A couple years ago, while making dinner, she’d
accidentally sliced off the tip of that thumb. A doctor had managed to sew it back on, but it had been numb ever since. Prodding the thumb had become a habit, something she always did when she got tense. Aside from that, though, she kept up an appearance of calm that matched Franklin’s. “You don’t really want to do that, do you?”
“No. I like this mouse.”
The animal had started clawing at Franklin’s hand more frantically, like it could understand the various fates he’d described for it. He brought it close to his cheek and shushed to calm it down.
Dr. Hult raised his eyebrows at Mom. She gave her head a small shake for him to stay put.
“I’m not stupid,” Franklin said, the two stones behind his glasses fastened on the Plexiglas cage and the other mice inside it.
“I know that,” Mom answered. “I know you’re very intelligent.”
“I’m onto your brain-doctor tricks.”
“I’m not playing any tricks, Franklin.”
He tipped his head forward, so his hair fell in front of his eyes in a curtain. “Stop watching me. I don’t like it when people watch me.”
“I’m not watching you. I’m looking at you. I’m having a conversation with you.”
“No, you’re not. You’re studying me.”
“That’s not true. I want to talk to you about what’s going to happen over the next few days. I want to make sure you understand—”
Franklin opened his mouth wide and stuffed the mouse in.
Mom’s metal chair screeched across the concrete floor as she sprang to her feet. “What are you doing, Franklin?”
The cops took a few steps forward, but Mom put up a hand to stop them. Franklin’s bulging cheek rippled as the mouse struggled inside.
“Take out the mouse,” Mom said. “You just told me you didn’t want to hurt him.”
Franklin settled back into his slouch in the chair. He laced his fingers together on his lap. Even with the mouse struggling behind his cheek, you could still see the little smile on his lips.
“Listen to me, Franklin. Right now you have a choice. You can—”
His jaws closed with a sound like someone crunching into a mouthful of almonds. A trickle of blood snaked from his lips. He chewed a few times and spat the mouse onto the table. Tiny black beads of blood flecked the white surface and the Plexiglas cage and even Mom’s lab coat. One of the mouse’s hind legs continued to kick.
With sudden energy, Franklin sprang to his feet and banged his hands on the table. “Happy now? Happy?”
The police finally snapped into action. As they rushed to grab him, he kept repeating that word over and over, blood spraying from his mouth, his normally quiet, empty voice filling with rage, rising to a yell.
“Happy? Happy?! HAPPY?!”