The Soul Catcher

CHAPTER 1

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 quiet—too quiet—the 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 coyotes—or maybe both—growling 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