Overwhelmed and surrounded, a single incandescent bulb pushes back defiantly against the stygian black. Its feeble light barely reaches through the emptiness, but what illumination it brings reveals the length of a man secured horizontally to a low bench with leather straps and restraints.
The man's panicked eyes dart left and right and his fingers curl and uncurl in jerking fits; nothing else moves, such is the completeness of his bondage.
The chamber feels cavernous and open, its ceiling and walls lost in the murk. Aside from the light and its immediate surroundings, there's little discernible in the empty dark, just the man, the bench, an ominous black structure that looms over him...and a whisper-quiet shadow that moves about without word or worry.
The shadow glides this way and that, checking bindings, tinkering with machinery, tending its business. The smell of blood and fear flavors the air.
When all is ready, all but one small thing, the shadow pauses to study his victim with unseen eyes. Moving closer, he walks a slow, ritual circle around the binding bench, pausing one last time to check a strap. The victim's gaze follows every move, his eyes wide with horror. Indistinguishable sounds issue from someplace deep in his throat, no doubt begging, pleading, for mercy.
The shadow stands still for a long moment, and then, slowly, it moves even closer and a face presses forward from the gloom. For the first time the shadow is recognized as human—all but the eyes; they surrendered their humanity long ago. With deliberation, the shadow opens its mouth and breathes out four whispered words: "Thou shalt not kill."
Utter silence follows, and then the shadow smiles. A single metallic click breaks the darkness, instantly followed by the scraping whoosh of steel coming to life. The sound lasts but a moment, the screaming...much longer.
What was a human bound to a bench becomes a writhing creature, wailing in agony, shrieking in pain, straining against bonds that simply will not give.
The shadow watches.
Intolerable seconds pass into a nightmare of minutes and the creature weakens, falling into delirium; his cries soften until all that's left is a final push of whispered air from spent lungs...and then all is still.
Thou shalt not kill.
In the cavernous darkness there remain but two sounds: the steady drip drip drip from the tainted bench, and the quiet, measured breath of the shadow.
Interstate 5, Southbound from Bellingham—September 2, 1:47 A.M.
The siren wails its lonely dirge.
It's a mournful song, rising and falling, and I know every musical pitch of it by heart. The red and blue emergency lights flash in accompaniment, reflecting off signs and windows, but there is no synchronization to this oft-repeated play. The lights and the siren coexist because they must, though they don't always dance together.
They are the harbingers—the raven and the lightning; bearers of bad news or bad deeds. Today it's both.
Jimmy—that's my partner, FBI Special Agent James Donovan—weaves the black Ford Expedition expertly through the parting sea of traffic as we make our way south on Interstate 5, past Lake Samish and eventually into the flat farmland of Skagit County. The speedometer reads ninety-seven; I try to ignore it. Jimmy is riding the left shoulder now.
It's clear as far as the eye can see and traffic is pressing to the right to get out of the way. Motorists stare from their vehicles as we pass, and the draft from the SUV shakes the smaller cars. As we continue south and the drone of the siren begins to fade, the sea of people in our wake share a common emotion: relief.
The raven has passed them by.
The lightning didn't find them.
Someone else wasn't so lucky.