Wednesday November 20
Suffolk County, Massachusetts, on the Neponset River
Eric Pratt leaned his head against the cabin wall. Plaster crumbled. It trickled down his shirt collar, sticking to the sweat on the back of his neck like tiny insects attempting to crawl beneath his skin. Outside it had gotten quiettoo quietthe silence grinding seconds into minutes and minutes into eternity. What the hell were they up to?
With the floodlights no longer blasting through the dirty windows, Eric had to squint to make out the hunched shadows of his comrades. They were scattered throughout the cabin. They were exhausted and tense but ready and waiting. In the twilight, he could barely see them, but he could smell them: the pungent odor of sweat mixed with what he had come to recognize as the scent of fear.
Freedom of speech. Freedom from fear.
Where was that freedom now? Bullshit! It was all bullshit! Why hadn't he seen that long ago?
He relaxed his grip on the AR-15 assault rifle. In the last hour, the gun had grown heavier, yet, it remained the only thing that brought him a sense of security. He was embarrassed to admit that the gun gave him more comfort than any of David's mumblings of prayer or Father's radioed words of encouragement, both of which had stopped hours before.
What good were words, anyway, at a time like this? What power could they wield now as the six of them remained trapped in this one-room cabin? Now that they were surrounded by woods filled with FBI and ATF agents? With Satan's warriors descending upon them, what words could protect them from the anticipated explosion of bullets? The enemy had come. It was just as Father had predicted, but they'd need more than words to stop them. Words were just plain bullshit! He didn't care if God heard his thoughts. What more could God do to him now?
Eric brought the barrel of the gun to rest against his cheek, its cool metal soothing and reassuring.
Kill or be killed.
Yes, those were words he understood. Those words he could still believe in. He leaned his head back and let the plaster crumble into his hair, the pieces reminding him again of insects, of head lice burrowing into his greasy scalp. He closed his eyes and wished he could shut off his mind. Why was it so damned quiet? What the hell were they doing out there? He held his breath and listened.
Water dripped from the pump in the corner. Somewhere a clock ticked off the seconds. Outside a branch scraped against the roof. Above his head, a crisp fall breeze streamed in through the cracked window, bringing with it the scent of pine needles and the sound of dry leaves skittering across the ground like the rattle of bones in a cardboard box.
It's all that's left. Just a box of bones.
Bones and an old gray T-shirt, Justin's T-shirt. That was all that was left of his brother. Father had given him the box and told him Justin hadn't been strong enough. That his faith hadn't been strong enough. That this is what happened when you didn't believe.
Eric couldn't shake the image of those white bones, picked clean by wild animals. He couldn't stand the thought of it, bears or coyotesor maybe bothgrowling and fighting over the ripped flesh. How could he endure the guilt? Why had he allowed it? Justin had come to the compound, attempting to save him, to convince him to leave, and what had Eric done in return? He should have never allowed Father's initiation ritual to take place. He should have escaped while he and Justin had a chance. Now what chance was there? And all he had of his younger brother was a cardboard box of bones. The memory brought a shiver down his back. He jerked it off, opening his eyes to see if anyone had noticed, but found only darkness swallowing the insides of the cabin.
"What's happening?" a voice screeched out.
Eric jumped to his feet, crouching low, swinging the rifle into position. In the shadows he could see the robotic jerks of the others, the panic clicking out in a metallic rhythm as they swung their own weapons into place.
"David, what's going on?" the voice asked again, this time softer and accompanied by a crackle of static.
Eric allowed himself to breathe and slid back down the wall, while he watched David crawl to the two-way radio across the room.
"We're still here," David whispered. "They've got us"
"No wait," the voice interrupted. "Mary should be joining you in fifteen minutes."
There was a pause. Eric wondered if any of the others found Father's code words as absurd. Or for that matter, wouldn't anyone listening in find the words strange and outrageous? Yet without hesitation, he heard David turn the knobs, changing the radio's frequency to channel 15.
The room grew silent again. Eric could see the others positioning themselves closer to the radio, anxiously awaiting instructions or perhaps some divine intervention. David seemed to be waiting, too. Eric wished he could see David's face. Was he as frightened as the rest of them? Or would he continue to play out his part as the brave leader of this botched mission?
"David," the radio voice crackled, channel 15's frequency not as clear.
"We're here, Father," David answered, the quiver unmistakable, and Eric's stomach took a dive. If David was afraid, then things were worse than any of them realized.
"What's the situation?"
"We're surrounded. No gunfire has been exchanged yet." David paused to cough as if to dislodge the fear. "I'm afraid there's no choice but to surrender."
Eric felt the relief wash over him. Then quickly he glanced around the cabin, grateful for the mask of darkness, grateful the others couldn't witness his relief, his betrayal. He set the rifle aside. He let his muscles relax. Surrender, yes of course. It was their only choice. This nightmare would soon be over.
He couldn't even remember how long it had been. For hours, the loudspeaker had blared outside. The floodlights had sprayed the cabin with blinding light. While inside the radio had screeched on and on with Father reminding them to be brave. Now Eric wondered if perhaps it was a thin line that separated the brave and the foolish.
Suddenly, he realized Father was taking a long time to respond. His muscles tensed. He held his breath and listened. Outside, leaves rustled. There was movement. Or was it his imagination playing tricks on him? Had exhaustion given way to paranoia?
Then Father's voice whispered, "If you surrender, they'll torture you." The words were cryptic, but the tone soothing and calm. "They have no intention of allowing you to live. Remember Waco. Remember Ruby Ridge." And then he went silent, while everyone waited as if hanging by a thread, hoping for instruction or, at least, some words of encouragement. Where were those powerful words that could heal and protect?
Eric heard branches snap. He grabbed his rifle. The others had also heard and were crawling and sliding across the wooden floor to get back to their posts.
Eric listened, despite the annoying banging of his heart. Sweat trickled down his back. His fingers shook so violently he kept them off the trigger. Had snipers moved into position? Or worse, were agents getting ready to torch the cabin, just as they had done in Waco? Father had warned them about the flames of Satan. With all the explosive ammo in the storage bunker beneath the floorboards, the place would be a fiery inferno within seconds. There would be no escape.
The floodlights blasted the cabin, again.
All of them scurried like rats, pressing themselves into the shadows. Eric banged his rifle against his knee and slid down against the wall. His skin bristled into goose bumps. The exhaustion had rubbed his nerves raw. His heart slammed against his rib cage, making it difficult to breathe.
"Here we go again," he muttered just as a voice bellowed over the loudspeaker.
"Hold your fire. This is Special Agent Richard Delaney with the FBI. I just want to talk to you. See if we can resolve this misunderstanding with words instead of bullets."
Eric wanted to laugh. More bullshit. But laughter would require movement, and right now his body stayed paralyzed against the wall. The only movement was that of his trembling hands as he gripped the rifle tighter. He would place his bet on bullets. Not words. Not anymore.
David moved away from the radio. He walked toward the front window, his rifle limp at his side. What the hell was he doing? In the floodlight, Eric could see David's face, and his peaceful expression sent a new wave of fear through Eric's veins.
"Don't let them take you alive," Father's voice screeched over the static. "You're all heroes, brave warriors. You know what must be done now."
David kept walking to the window as though he didn't hear, couldn't hear. Hypnotized by the blinding light, he stood there, his tall, lean figure wrapped in a halo, reminding Eric of pictures he had seen of saints in his catechism books.
"Give us a minute," David yelled out to the agent. "Then we'll come out, Mr. Delaney, and we'll talk. But just to you. No one else."
He saw the lie. Even before David pulled the plastic bag from his jacket pocket, Eric knew there would be no meeting, no words exchanged. The sight of the red-and-white capsules made him light-headed and dizzy. No, this couldn't be happening. There had to be another way. He didn't want to die. Not here. Not this way.
"Remember there is honor in death," Father's voice came smooth and clear, the static gone now, almost as if he were standing in the room with them. Almost as though he were answering Eric's thoughts. "You are heroes, each and every one of you. Satan will not destroy you."
The others lined up like sheep to the slaughter, each taking a death pill, reverently handling it like hosts at communion. No one objected. The looks on their faces were of relief, exhaustion and fear having driven them to this.
But Eric couldn't move. The convulsions of panic had immobilized him. His knees were too weak to stand. He clutched his rifle, hanging on to it as though it were his final lifeline. David, zeroing in on Eric's reluctance, brought the last capsule to him and held it out in the palm of his hand.
"It's okay, Eric. Just swallow it. You won't feel a thing." David's voice was as calm and expressionless as his face. His eyes were blank, the life already gone.
Eric just sat there, staring at the small capsule, unable to move. His clothes stuck to his body, drenched in sweat. Across the room the voice droned on over the two-way radio. "A better place awaits all of you. Don't be afraid. You are all brave warriors who have made us proud. Your sacrifice will save hundreds."
Eric took the capsule with shaking fingers and enough hesitation to make David stand over him. David popped his own pill into his mouth and swallowed hard. Then he waited for the others and for Eric to do the same. The calm was unraveling in their leader. Eric could see it in David's pinched face, or was it the cyanide already eating its way out of his stomach lining?
"Do it!" David said through clenched teeth. Everyone obeyed, including Eric.
Satisfied, David returned to the window and called out, "We're ready, Mr. Delaney. We're ready to talk to you." Then he raised his rifle to his shoulder, taking aim and waiting.
From the position of the rifle, Eric knew without seeing that it would be a perfect head shot, without risk of wasting any ammo on a bullet-proof vest. The agent would be dead before he hit the ground. Just as all of them would be dead before David's rifle ran out of ammunition and the mass of Satan's warriors crashed through the cabin's doors.
Before the first shot, Eric lay down like the others around him, allowing for the cyanide to work its way through their empty stomachs and into their bloodstreams. It would take only a matter of minutes. Hopefully they would pass out before their respiratory systems shut down.
The gunfire started. Eric laid his cheek against the cold wooden floor, feeling the vibrations and shattered glass, listening to the screams of disbelief outside. And as the others closed their eyes and waited for death, Eric Pratt quietly spit out the red-and-white capsule he had carefully concealed inside his mouth. Unlike his little brother, Eric would not become a box of bones. Instead, he would take his chances with Satan.
Maggie O'Dell's heels clicked on the cheap linoleum, announcing her arrival. But the brightly lit hallwaymore a whitewashed, concrete tunnel than a hallwayappeared to be empty. There were no voices, no noises coming from behind the closed doors she passed. The security guard on the main floor had recognized her before she displayed her badge. He had waved her through and smiled when she said "Thanks, Joe," not noticing that she had to glance at his name tag to do so.
She slowed to check her watch. Still another two hours before sunrise. Her boss, Assistant Director Kyle Cunningham, had gotten her out of bed with his phone call. Nothing unusual about that. As an FBI agent she was used to phones ringing in the middle of the night. And there was nothing unusual about the fact that he hadn't awakened her with his call. All he had interrupted was her routine tossing and turning. She'd been awakened once again by nightmares. There were enough bloodied images, enough gut-wrenching experiences in her memory bank to haunt her subconscious for years. Just the thought clenched her teeth, and only now did she realize she had developed a walk that included hands fisted at her sides. She shook her fists open, flexing her fingers as if scolding them for betraying her.