11:24 PM


            I guess I blacked out. Everything from the last day is an incomprehensible blur. I consider the possibility that I’ve died and gone on to the next life, but the slightest movement of my shoulder sends a fresh streak of pain through my body and that hopeful notion is instantly dismissed.
What did I tell them? How long did they question me? Only bits and pieces of the interrogation come back, but it’s a senseless jumble of sounds and sensations. The only clear memory is the pain.
            I’m laid out flat on my back on the cold metal slab, a cadaver awaiting cremation. I lift my head gently from the table to get a look at myself. It’s not pretty. The spots on my skin where the electrical contacts were taped are covered in puffy wet blisters. The skin in some places has actually been burned so badly it’s flaking away. I look at my wounds with curious detachment, not quite grasping that it’s my own body I’m seeing. I realize that I’ll always bear the scars of this horrific ordeal.
That is, if they don’t kill me first.
            As the mental fog clears, I begin to recall some their questions. They wanted to know who was in charge and how the Witnesses were communicating and convening. It’s almost amusing how this untrained band of Christians has managed to evade the authorities for so long. If I remember correctly, I had asked the interrogators some questions of my own. The answers hadn’t been forthcoming, but I learned as much from their silence as I would’ve had they come out and told me everything.
            It seems that Walter and the rest of them were telling the truth: the Witnesses are harmless. This is in contrast to so many other churchgoers, many of whom took up arms to protest their suspended freedoms when things first started going downhill last year. Walter doesn’t even own a gun, for goodness’ sake.
            All of this is preemptive.
            I can’t help thinking about my own precinct. How much does Pryce know? I suppose it’s possible that he’s too low on the ladder to have the whole picture, but I guess it doesn’t really matter. I may never know the truth. Like Eva said, the waters are intentionally muddied. At some point it’ll be impossible to separate fact from fiction, to know who’s really pulling strings. Does it really trace all the way back up to the U.N., like Meade had claimed, or was that just another strand in his web of deceit?
            I close my eyes and delicately cover them with a hand. The muscles in my shoulder quiver and scream with the effort, but it’ll be the only way I can sleep in here. The halogen bulbs embedded in the ceiling are on and brighter than before. The game now is sleep deprivation, just one more tactic to get me to crack. That my government is capable of such things against one of it’s sworn officers should enrage me, but I’m far too tired to summon the indignation.
            With time my mind finally succumbs to the fatigue and my body relaxes. The pain is almost tolerable as my consciousness slips away. But all that is shattered as music is suddenly pumped into the room. It’s heavy metal, screeching electric guitars and pounding drums, all designed to push me closer to the brink. My eardrums buzz with the assault and my headache returns in full force. I jam my fingers into my ears and try to will the sounds away, but it’s futile.
            It’s the last straw. I feel my chest heave involuntarily as hot tears sting my eyes. The weight of defeat is unbearable. I’m not nearly as strong as I thought. All that experience on the force, all that psychological training, and they’ve broken me in less than a day. How could I be so weak?
            And all the while, the domed eye watches me from the corner of the ceiling, recording it all. They’ve won. I give up.
            “I don’t know anything!” I scream. The exertion sends waves of pain cascading through my body, but I ignore it as I continue screaming. I can almost feel my mind slipping away. The pain is submerged under a wave of hysterics.
I’m a victim of their game. I’m cracking.
I force myself to calm down and shut up.     Why? How did I get here? Is God punishing me?
            Maybe He really is out there and the Witnesses have it all right. Heck, maybe that’s why the feds haven’t been able to nab them yet. And if that’s true, and I’ve been trying to sell them out… I almost laugh at the thought, yet I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I’ve been on the losing side of an uphill battle for a long time.
            As suspicious as I always was of Chelsea and Walter, it’s impossible to ignore how peaceful things were when we were together. And the conversations I had with Walter, though few, stick in my mind. Even now, despite the screaming guitar chords hammering against my skull, his words come back to me.
            Imagine a cell phone plan that offered worldwide on-site emergency services. No matter where you were or how dire your circumstances, your call would be taken and responded to. Now imagine it was free. That’s what prayer is.
            I think back to the few prayers I heard Walter say before meals, remembering how freely he spoke. I figure that’ll have to do, since I can’t remember any of the formal church prayers I learned as a kid. I shut my eyes and clench my hands together and hope that God, if He’s up there, won’t mind me saying this one half naked while laid out flat on my back.
            It’s awkward at first, like cold-calling a friend you haven’t seen in years because you need a favor, but it’s my last hope and I force myself to persevere. I begin with the apologies.
I’m sorry for giving Amy a hard time when I found out she was studying with the Witnesses. I’m sorry for being so cold to Chelsea and Walter when they were only trying to help. I’m sorry trying to pry the Witnesses’ for their secrets…
The list is long, but I do my best to get it all out.
            After a while, the words become more natural. It almost feels like I could be talking to someone sitting in this room, someone right beside me. I unload everything that’s been weighing me down for the past few months. My anxiety with the new recruits at the office, my concerns with the decline of society and the government’s constant encroachment of civil liberties. It’s not the country I thought I was defending when I signed up for the force all those years ago, and I’m not sure it’s where I want to be now. It certainly hasn’t protected me, has it?
            When I start talking about Amy, the tears return. The idea of her being held in a cell like this, going through any kind of interrogation, is unbearable. I pray that whatever happens, God keeps her far from this place. I thank Him for getting her through her coma. I pause as I come to the end of my prayer, wondering if I even deserve to ask to be saved. I decide it’s too unlikely to even bother mentioning, and plead again for Him to keep Amy safe. And Chelsea and Walter too. They’re good people, and if I never get out of here alive, I know they’ll adopt Amy as their daughter. I suppose, in a way, they already have. I decide to thank God for this, too.
            I finish the prayer and open my eyes slowly. The lights are still glaring down from above and the music is as loud as ever, but somehow the room looks less threatening. I feel calmer, at peace. I shield my eyes with the crook of my arm and manage to drift off.

11:47 PM


            It’s almost midnight when we pull up to the Atlanta FBI Field Office. I expect we’ll have to turn around when we spot a guard booth at the entrance, but it’s empty and the gate is open. We drive in slowly, scanning the premises. There are a handful of buildings on either side of the road. They’re five or six stories tall with wrap-around mirrored glass windows on the upper floors and chunky concrete pillars at their bases. None of them looks like a prison. Were it not for the official FBI seal we passed out front, I would’ve just as soon guessed that this was a business park.
            We coast southwards down the narrow road, flanked on either side by neat rows of towering, bare trees. The road dead-ends in a parking lot. Despite the late hour, there are a few dozen cars scattered about. Walter finds a space away from the nearest building. I turn back to glance at Chelsea, sound asleep and snoring.
            “You wait here, I’ll see if there’s a front desk or something,” Walter says without looking at me. “Keep the doors locked.”
            I nod and activate the electronic locks as he closes his door, stuffs his hands into his jacket, and strolls quickly towards the rotating glass door. The reflective glass hides him from view as soon as he enters. I wish Chelsea were awake. She’d know what to say to calm me. The thought that Luke might be nearby has me buzzing with nervous energy.
           I glance around, noticing at once the security cameras perched like vultures on the overhead light posts. I watch as one of the lenses rotates eerily my way.
            There’s a sudden bang from the rear of the vehicle. I jump with a gasp and whip around in my seat. A bright light is flashed directly in my eyes, followed by the bark of a man’s voice.
            “Ma’am, I’m gonna need you to get out of your car slowly with your hands up,” orders the voice. I raise my hands immediately and watch as the beam of light travels across the cabin. The man comes around to my passenger side window and taps the glass twice with the edge of his flashlight. The light makes it hard to see, but the firearm in his hand is clear and cold.
            “I need to unlock the door,” I say loudly.
            “Use one hand and do it slowly,” he says with a warning tone. He eyes the cast on my leg as the door eases open and motions for me to stay in my seat.
            “What’s her deal?” he asks, gesturing towards Chelsea sprawled out on the backseat.
            “She’s on heavy medication. We just left the hospital. We were in a bad car accident a few weeks ago.”
            “Uh huh,” the officer says as he shines the beam in my eyes. “You drove here?”
            “No, sir. Another friend of ours drove the three of us.”
            “Where is your friend now?”
            “He went into that building over there,” I say.
            “Why? What are y’all doing here?”
            It takes me a moment to think of the right response. “Checking up on a friend.”
            I expect a barrage of questions but the officer just glares in silence. A moment later he calls for backup into a microphone hidden somewhere on his wrist.
            “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t realize we were breaking any rules coming here. The guard shack out front was empty, so we just drove in.” The officer gives me a strange look and then turns away to say something else into his mike, but it’s too muffled for me to hear.
            A second officer arrives in an unmarked car. He slings an automatic rifle over his shoulder and extends a long pole with a small angled mirror attached at the end. He makes sweeping motions under Walter’s car, apparently looking for hidden weapons or explosives.
            The first officer looks me over suspiciously while the other conducts a thorough search.
            “Your friend, the driver. What’s his name?”
            “Walter Novak,” I say without hesitation. And just as I do, I see him walking back towards the car, alone, and my heart sinks.
            “Can I help you, officers?” Walter asks as he approaches the vehicle with his hands raised. The two officers whip their weapons in his direction and order him to freeze. They ask a few questions and even frisk him, but when their search turns up nothing, they seem to relax a little.
            The officers finally agree to let us go, but as Walter enters the driver’s side and pulls out his keys, the unthinkable happens. A loud crack of gunshot splits the air. The officers begin shouting as they duck for cover behind their cars.
            We spot the van as it barrels towards the parking lot. The top half of a body is sticking out form the top of the roof, holding something up to his face. The object lights up with an orange spark as he fires a second round. I hear the bullet embed itself into the metal of one of the unmarked police cars.
            Walter doesn’t wait for the third shot. He jams his keys in the ignition and floors it, racing to the far end of the parking lot away from the gunfire. Several more shots ring out behind us as we speed away. The sounds are much closer, the federal agents returning fire.
            The men in the van holler and shriek with laughter as they race down the road, seemingly oblivious to the bullets whizzing their way. A cloud of yellow fire erupts from the ground as an explosion goes off. Streaks of blue flame creep along the pavement as the fireball dissipates high in the air.
            “How are we going to get out of here?” I ask, terrified, as I watch the mayhem unfolding in our rearview mirrors. There’s only one road in and out of this lot, and it’s currently blocked by armed madmen. Walter still has us pointed in the opposite direction, but we’re quickly running out of room to run. A handful of heavily armed officers spill from one of the building’s side doors as we speed past. They take up positions behind trees and parked cars and join the fray.
            Walter rounds the end of the parking lot, getting us as far from the rattle of automatic weapons as possible. A spotlight from somewhere high up floods the parking lot with a focused beam of light and centers itself on the attackers. I can see them clearly now. There are four men in total. Bandanas are tied around their heads and they’re covered in some kind of armor. Their van appears to be reinforced with heavy metal plating, and each of them is firing a weapon. On the side of their vehicle is a large, red spray painted ‘Z’.
            “Who are these people?” I ask, terrified.
            “I’ll explain later. Right now, I need you to hold on to something and make sure your seat belt is on.”
            I turn around quickly in my seat and buckle in as he activates the 4x4 drive on his steering column. I brace myself by pressing against the headboard as Walter rambles up the sidewalk and onto a small paved footpath. Spindly shrubs scrape noisily against the sides of his truck. He grits his teeth as we charge up the hill. We plow across a small lawn bordered by low bushes and bound ahead.
We dodge trees and benches and eventually make our way back onto the main road. We’ve cut around the flying bullets, but it’s still only a few dozen yards behind us. If the attackers have backup, we’ll be right in their path.
            Walter floors the gas as the screams of injured men fade in the distance. We fly past the abandoned guard shack and slip back onto northbound 1-85.


8:00 PM


            I sit on the cold, damp concrete slab of the cell floor and listen to the groans of my empty stomach. I assume it’s nighttime, or perhaps early morning, but I’m neither tired nor alert and I can’t tell if I’ve slept. I suppose it could be the anxiety keeping me awake.
            Hunger and cold are the only sensations that register. My wrists have stopped aching; the lack of circulation to my hands has numbed everything below my elbows. There’s a metallic groan as the door swings slowly open. A man in military fatigues enters.
            “Try anything stupid and you’ll regret it,” he says with a sharp look as he pulls a knife from his back pocket and snips the zip ties off.
            The muscles in my shoulders protest painfully as I slowly swing my hands into view. My wrists have been worn raw, though it’ll be a few minutes before I can feel their sting. I knead my forearms gently to get the blood flowing as the man leaves without another word. The door slams shut, and a few minutes later a small slot at the bottom slides open. A metal tray of food clatters along the floor and my mouth waters instantly.
            It’s not much–a few slices of bread and two cold hard-boiled eggs–but I scarf it down without a second thought. I wash it down with a cup of heavily chlorinated water and feel my energy gradually return. My wrists are burning now, but at least my stomach is placated. I stand slowly and begin to explore the room. My knees pop with the effort, pain shooting through my thighs as my legs unfold.
            I get my bearings, studying the tinted dome in the corner of the ceiling, which is certain to house a camera monitoring my every move. There’s the steel door, of course, which I’ve been staring at now for hours, and a closer inspection reveals nothing new.
            I sigh, imagining Amy’s fright. At least she has Walter, I think, and I’m comforted. He’s been like a father to her this whole time. I’m ashamed for ever trying to betray him, but what choice did I really have?
           The faint sound of voices leaks in from the other side of the door, which opens again to reveal two new faces. One man wears a dark blue military uniform, his face pinched in an eternal scowl. The other appears to be a doctor of some sort. He leans down and shines a flashlight in my eyes, mouth, and ears, and then jots something on a clipboard before nodding to the military man. He shoots me a final, nervous expression as he leaves the room. Something about his expression makes my hair stand on end.
            Agent Meade enters next, pushing a cart full of tangled wires and electronic equipment and he closes the door behind him.
            “How was the meal?” he asks cheerfully as he and the other man sit on folding chairs.
            “Delicious,” I say.
            “Well, we do make a point of caring for our own,” Meade says with that devil’s grin. The other man frowns at him and then stares at me.
            “I’d like to introduce you to George. George, this is Luke.”
            I give the man a cautious nod. I might as well be greeting a piece of stone. He is completely motionless as his eyes bore into me. He doesn’t even seem to be breathing.
            “George here works with Homeland Security. He identifies threats, investigates them, and takes the appropriate action. He was one of the men who asked for you to be brought here. I, of course, was against the idea. I didn’t like the thought of a friend of mine ending up in a place like this,” Meade says with mock sadness as he looks around the cell. “Anyway, I guess by now you’ve probably figured out what’s going to happen next.”
            “I’m guessing it has something to do with that machine,” I say, trying to keep my voice level as I look at the cart overflowing with wires.
            “That’s correct. I don’t like having to pull this thing out, but I have to admit, it gets results,” Meade says, sighing. I swallow hard as I glance into George’s eyes, two smoldering pieces of coal, but there’s no salvation there.
            “Interestingly, once upon a time this thing was actually illegal. In 2008, when all those leaked documents made their way to the Internet after Guantanamo Bay, Congress stepped in and labeled it cruel and inhumane. Unfortunately for you, that decision was overturned a couple of years back when terrorism spiked.” Meade is smug as he lets the words sink in.
            “The good news is, you have a choice. We don’t have to use this today, or ever. But we need the information you were supposed to give us.”
            “Why? Why are you after these people?” I ask. The question elicits a raised eyebrow from George.
            “Because they’re breaking the law, Luke. In the last few months, this government has effectively stopped the practice of religion, and we believe the nation is better for it. But somehow, the Witnesses have managed to continue their operations.”
            “They’re not bad people,” I say softly. “They’re no threat to anyone. Why not just let them be?”
            Let them be? And what kind of government would that make us, Luke? We pour hundreds of billions annually into maintaining a first class military. Our intelligence agencies are second to none. Our police are more armed than any other paramilitary organization in the world. And we can’t handle a single religious organization? What kind of message does that send to the rest of the world?”
            “So that’s what all this is about? Saving face?”
            Meade chuckles a little before responding. George remains stoic.
            “Of course not. Actually, this goes beyond just the government of the United States. Believe it or not, this directive comes straight from the U.N. Security Council. They’ve put a deadline on the eradication of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that deadline is almost up.”
            “This is happening around the world?” I ask. Meade nods proudly.
            “So as you can see, there’s really no other options available to you. Whether you help us or not, the Witnesses will soon be a thing of the past.”
            George stops glaring at me for a moment and motions impatiently with his head to Agent Meade. Meade nods and walks over to the far end of the cell, where he tugs at a metal panel in the wall. It extends as a narrow slab just big enough for a body. Without warning, two soldiers enter the cell and forcibly heave my body onto the slab. Rigid nylon straps are pulled tight around my ankles, thighs, shoulders, wrists, and forehead. The soldiers disappear as George dons a pair of gloves.
            He swabs a cold and pungent liquid onto a few spots on my exposed skin before affixing something to the wet points on my chest, arms, and thighs. It’s sticky and metallic. I shut my eyes tightly.
            “Last chance,” Meade says as George wheels the cart over to the side of the bed.
            “Even if I knew anything, I would never tell you,” I say softly. Meade nods once as George pries my mouth open and stuffs a rolled towel between my teeth. There’s a low hum as the machine is switched on and I brace myself for what will surely be the most horrendous moments of my life.

10:15 PM


            Walter wheels me into the elevator and down to the lobby. I’m sure my doctor would have a fit if she saw me checking out so soon, but the chaos engulfing the ER spills quickly into the rest of the hospital, and no one notices us exit the ward.
Bloodied gurneys line both sides of the hallway on the first floor. Several patients moan in agony, many of them covered in gruesome burns and bandages made hastily from torn bits of clothing.
            “What happened?” I ask Walter, my voice trembling. For a moment I meet eyes with a man pressing his fingers to a gaping, ragged wound in his shoulder.
            “Rioting. It’s happening all over the country. We need to get out of here, and quick. This whole area is going to start looking like a war zone,” Walter says anxiously as we rush out the front doors into the cold night. The air is filled with the wail of sirens and a hint of smoke. Walter quickens his pace and finds his truck at the far end of the parking lot. He fumbles for his keys and helps me into the front seat.
            “Keep your head down. Whatever happens, do not open these doors unless you see me. You got it?” he says sharply with a finger pointed at me. I nod, frightened beyond words.
            “I’m going back up to get Chelsea. Sit tight,” Walter says before shutting the door. He folds up my wheelchair and sticks it in the bed of the truck and jogs back into the hospital. An ambulance nearly runs him over at the front doors. EMTs swing open the back gates and unload a gurney with a small child. I look away quickly.
            I lie across the front seat, trying to ignore the awful sounds swirling in the air outside the truck. Occasional gunfire peppers the air, followed by scattered screams of panic. I squeeze my eyes shut and stick my fingers in my ears, but it’s no use. It’s as if the noise is emanating from within my head and nothing will keep it out.
            I say a prayer to calm my nerves. A sudden blast rocks the truck and I peek out the windshield to see a row of cars burst into flames. A man with a bandana tied around his mouth lights a piece of cloth jutting from the end of a glass bottle and tosses it in my direction. The glass shatters on the ground as a plume of fire erupts into the air just a few yards from the truck. I fall back against the seat and pray again, feeling the heat from the fire gradually warm the interior. My heart is racing.
            There’s a bang on the driver’s window and I scream. I look out to see Walter holding Chelsea in his arms and I lean over to unlock the door. He puts her in the backseat and straps her in before quickly starting the car and backing out of the space. There’s a screech as his tires peel against the pavement and we shoot into the road.
            The traffic lights are out, and Walter slows the truck slightly as he approaches the first intersection. A group of people in masks are throwing bricks through the glass windows of an electronics store and clambering inside, shouting with crazed glee as they loot and pillage.
            “When did all this start?” I ask, my voice shaking as I take in chaotic scene.
            “The first riots started a couple weeks ago, but they’ve spread quickly. The police are doing their best, but they can’t keep up with it. They’re completely outnumbered.”
            I think of Luke, in custody, and wonder for the first time if maybe it was for the best. I turn around to look at Chelsea. Her head sags and bobs with the movement of the car. She appears to be unconscious. Maybe drugged.
            “Is she ok?” I ask Walter.
            “It’s just the sedatives in her system. She’ll be like this for another few hours, I think, then she should be ok.”
            “It’s good to see her,” I say softly.
“Yeah. At least we’re all together. We should’ve left earlier, though. We’re cutting it very close.”
            Walter swerves hard to avoid a barricade in the middle of the road. Things quiet down some as we hit the outskirts of the city. Apparently we’re not the only ones evacuating. We spot dozens of other cars loaded up with belongings as people flee the city. I wonder where they’re all headed.
            The highway traffic is thicker than usual for this time of night, but we make good time as we head north on I-85. I lose count of the number of ambulances and police vehicles that pass us. Walter is careful to stay well within the speed limit, although I can feel the urgency in his driving. He shoots constant nervous glances into his rearview mirror as we crawl up the interstate. Suddenly, he yanks his cellphone from his jacket pocket and hands it to me.
            “Alright, I’ve made up my mind,” he says. I glance at him quizzically. “Do a search for ‘FBI Field Office’ and get me those directions.”
            “We’re going there?”
            “We should be passing close by. If it looks safe, we can at least stop and see.”
            Walter glances over as I beam at him. I lean into his shoulder and wrap my arms around him. “Thank you. Thank you so much,” I say.
            “Don’t thank me yet, Amy. There are no guarantees.”


4:29 PM


            The next hour passes in frantic confusion. Nurses and doctors are in and out of my room, retrieving items from the ground as I struggle to understand what’s just happened. A perplexed security guard is brought in and surveys the damage, wandering off moments later to check the CCTV tapes. Someone refills my water cup and I gulp it down, feeling my throat open a little. My voice is still a thin whisper, but at least I can talk.
            I ask a nurse to make a call, and within minutes Walter arrives from the other wing of the hospital. He’s thrilled when he sees me sitting up in bed, but his expression quickly changes as I struggle to tell him everything. It takes great effort just to get the words out. My tongue and lips move numbly and awkwardly, as if I’m speaking for the first time.
            Walter orders me to calm down and relay all the details to him clearly. Tears begin welling in my eyes from the fear and frustration.
            “They took him!” I say, gasping through sobs. The exertion of the last hour has burned through the traces of whatever drugs they’ve pumped into my system and the pain is returning with a vengeance. Still, it barely registers over the panic.
            Who took him?”
            “They were police, I think,” I say, forcing myself to think clearly.     “Police? From Luke’s precinct?”
            “No, no, I don’t think so. I didn’t recognize them. And they didn’t look like regular cops. One of them was in a suit. They hurt him, Walter! They hurt Luke and handcuffed him!”
            “Ok, ok. Let me just think for a second,” Walter says. He puts his fingers to his temples and begins pacing the room. The orderly who was sent in to clean up after the scuffle glances at Walter with annoyance and lets herself out with a snort.
            “Why do you think they took him?” I ask softly.
            “I have no idea, Amy. Everything is… happening so quickly. Luke’s not the first to be arrested.”
            “What do you mean?”
            “There have been a few others. None in our congregation, but in some of the others… It’s happening.”
            “You think this happened because of us? Because he was associated with us?”
            “It’s possible. I hope that’s the case. If it is, Jehovah will see to it that he’s taken care of.”
            “What does that mean? You’re not saying… We’re going to help him, aren’t we, Walter?” Walter gives me a long look before glancing at his wristwatch and frowning.
            “Amy, something’s happened.” I wait as Walter agonizes over his next words.
            “This morning we received a message from the branch. The information was to be conveyed to every congregation member.”
            “What message?”
            Walter looks over his shoulder and lowers his voice. “It contained specific instructions for our evacuation,” he says.
Walter nods. “The instructions were very explicit. Our congregation, along with a few others, are to head to a secret location. A safe house, if you will.”
            “No later than midnight tomorrow.”
            I gasp. “Midnight! But what about Luke?”
            Walter shakes his head sadly as a single tear strays down his cheek. “I’m sorry, Amy. There’s nothing we can do but pray. It’s in Jehovah’s hands. We have to trust that he’ll know what to do.”
            “No… Please, Walter, there must be something!”
            “It’s out of our control, Amy,” Walter says firmly.
            “We can’t just give up on him! He was coming around Walter, I could feel it! He just needs more time!”
            “I’m sorry, Amy, but–
            “What about the officers at his precinct? What if we contact them? Maybe they can help!” Walter’s mouth opens as if to object, but he stops himself. Another glance at his watch. And then a slight nod.
            “Ok, that’s an idea. We can try that. But we need to leave as soon as possible.”
            I have Walter grab my phone from my purse. The battery is dead and it takes him a few minutes to round up a charger and another few to get it back to life. I skim through the contacts until I find a name I never thought I’d be asking for help.

7:02 PM


            I come to in a bleak concrete cell. A row of overhead halogen tubes cast stale white light into the small space, aggravating my throbbing head. A single steel door with a three-inch square window is the only way in or out. The window appears to be blacked out with some kind of paint.
            My hands are still cuffed behind my back, though they’ve swapped out the steel cuffs for plastic zip ties. They’re cinched so tight that my hands are cold and stiff from the lack of circulation. The ties are connected to a short length of chain attached to the floor. Movement is painful and difficult. The slightest twist of my wrists drives the edge of the plastic ties deeper into my skin.
            It’s impossible to tell the time in here. There’s no natural light, no clocks hanging on the bare walls. This is intentional, of course. Disorientation is part of the mind game. I’ve heard about federal prisons like this before, along with the horrors of water boarding and sleep deprivation. Just reading about them is harrowing enough; being here in person makes my skin crawl with morbid anticipation.
            As my head clears and my eyes adjust to the light, I realize how empty my stomach feels. I wonder how long it’s been since eating lunch back at the station before I got the call from the hospital. It seems like days ago, but I’m guessing it’s only been a few hours judging from the intensity of the hunger pangs.
            Is it within their legal bounds to withhold food from a prisoner? It’s best not to think about it, just as I resist the urge to speculate what horrors await me in this awful, dank cube.
I think about Amy, how scared she must be through all of this. That’s what makes me the angriest, really. It was so cruel, so unnecessary, for Meade to make her witness all that.
            I can’t help but think back to Eva’s warning the other night. She was right. And I’m not the first. The reminder twists my stomach in knots. I look again at the stark space around me, sick with the speculation of how many others suffered a similar fate at Agent Meade’s hands.
            Suddenly there’s a groan of scraping metal as the door yawns open. Meade’s got a manila folder in one hand and a folding chair in the other. He sits down a couple of feet in front of me and smiles.
            “Holding up ok, Harding?” he asks.
            “Why are you doing this to me?” I ask pitifully.
            “You’re taking this far too personally, Luke. This isn’t me against you. This is your country taking necessary actions to protect its interests.”
            “What interests?”
            “Peace and security. The eradication of religious sects.”
            “What does that have anything to do with me?”
            Meade looks at me dubiously before scoffing. “Really? You’re going to play dumb? We both know you were cooperating with the Witnesses. You were bound by law to take action against them, and instead, you aided them. We have all the evidence right here,” Meade says, waving the folder in the air. “You want to look at it?”
            “You put me up to it, Meade. I was working for you. I wouldn’t have gotten involved if it weren’t for you.”
            “And yet, before we met, you already knew your wife was affiliated with the Witnesses, didn’t you?”
            “It wasn’t illegal at the time for an officer’s family member to be affiliated with a religious group,” I say.
            “Yeah, that’s a good defense strategy. You can try that at your hearing. We’ll see how it pans out.”
            “Why are you doing this to me? What benefit is it to have a law enforcement officer in a prison like this?” I’m nearly begging now, but I don’t care anymore. I need to get out of here. Meade’s cold eyes suggest terrifying things.
            “Good question. And it’s one I’m willing to answer, because I want you to know how serious your government is about enforcing its laws. That’s the beauty of this Liberation Act. It’s streamlined everything. The red tape is gone. The bureaucrats are finally at bay. We can do what we need to ensure order. You could’ve been a part of that, too, Harding. Too bad you chose the wrong side.”
            “So that’s it, you’re just doing this to punish me? To show how much clout you have?”
            “Well, that’s part of it. I won’t lie, Luke, there’s nothing I enjoy more than seeing swift justice carried out. Especially against traitors like yourself.” Meade leans back in his chair and cracks his knuckles. He glances up at the corner of the cell, and I notice for the first time a small black dome jutting from the ceiling.
            “What’s the other reason?” I ask.
            “Well, I’m not the only one who has a say about what happens to you. Homeland Security has been working closely with us to gather intel on the Witnesses, and they believe you know more than you’ve given us.”
            “And they want you to share it with us,” Meade says.
            I shake my head and let out a chortle. “Really? You expect me to cooperate after this?”
            “They do. They’ve got quite an offer, too.”
            “An offer? What offer?”
            “It’s very simple, Luke. You cooperate, and in return, they agree not to throw Amy into a cell just like this one.”
            There are no words to express my anguish. I shut my eyes and lower my head. He lets out a little laugh, letting it all sink in slowly, before rising and exiting the cell with his papers and chair.
            “I’ll give you some time to think it over, Harding. See you next time.”
            The door groans shut and all is silent.

7:30 PM


            Walter lifts me delicately from the hospital bed and sets me into the wheelchair. It’s the first time I get a good look at myself and I hardly recognize what I see. I’ve lost at least a quarter of my body weight and barely have the strength to sit upright. Walter props me up with pillows and wheels me down the hall.
            The corridors are surprisingly full for the late hour. Some halls are lined with stretchers and wheelchairs of the infirm. I ask Walter about it and he briefly mentions a bad flu going around. An orderly we pass in a doorway hands us a couple of masks and tells us to keep them on when outside of the room.
            Gabe is waiting for us at one of the round tables in the dining area as we approach. He’s frowning at a news segment covering a series of fires downtown. I only catch a glimpse of the headline–something about riots is scrolling by too quickly for my tired eyes to capture. He finally sees us and gives Walter an odd look before letting his gaze fall on me.
            “Wow,” he says. “You look awful.”
            “Thanks,” I say dryly.
            “So what’s up? You said it was an emergency,” Gabe says with a glance at his watch.
            “It’s about Luke. Something bad has happened to him.”
            Gabe crosses his arms and glances back and forth between the two of us. “Oh yeah? What?”
            “I think he was arrested. The men who took him didn’t look like regular police. They said he was involved in some kind of conspiracy… For treason.”
            Gabe’s eyebrows raise slightly and he scratches the back of his neck. “Treason, huh?”
            “Do you have any idea what they were talking about, or where they were from?”        Gabe avoids my pleading stare to glance back up at the TV for a few moments.
“I can’t say for sure, but I definitely think Luke was wrapped up in something.”
            “Did any of this have to do with that reporter?”
            “Yeah, maybe. I dunno. Luke didn’t tell me much. The FBI raided our office a couple of months ago. They questioned him. It had to do with some leaked information. The investigation sort of died out after a few days, but they kept in contact with him. Luke never said anything, but there were all kinds of rumors going around the office. Someone had seen him with one of the agents in a park. It wasn’t really our business to butt in. The feds hate it when local law enforcement encroaches on their investigations. I figured Luke was working with them on something, I even asked about it once, but he was pretty tight-lipped.”
            “And you didn’t think to say something to someone? To me?” I say angrily.
            “Look, with all that’s been going on lately, we’ve all been a little tense, ok? You have no idea what it’s been like around the station lately.”
            Walter puts his hand on my shoulder and gives it a gentle squeeze.
            “Officer, is there anything we can do to help Luke?” Walter asks.
            “Who’re you?” Gabe asks with a snort.
            “A family friend,” he says. “Name’s Walter.” He reaches a hand out and Gabe shakes it reluctantly.
            “Look, I don’t know nothing, but it sounds like Luke got wrapped up in something bad and the feds got onto him. They’re probably the ones who took him into custody.”
            “Is there a way to contact him?” Walter asks.
            Gabe shakes his head, “Nah, I don’t think so. You’ll just have to wait. He should be able to call. Then again…”
            “Then again, what?” I ask.
            “Well… Laws have been changing. The FBI’s limitations have been totally redefined. They aren’t bound by the same rules we are. They can take suspects into custody for all sorts of things. No lawyers, no trials, nothing.”
            “Do you know where they might be keeping him?” Walter asks.
            “My guess would be the FBI field office in Atlanta, but there are a couple of closer resident agencies in neighboring counties. He could be in any of those places.”
            I place my head in my hands. It feels hopeless.
            “Look,” Gabe finally says, “I gotta run. I’m sorry about Luke, but I’m sure he’ll be fine.” I look up to see him smiling at me, but it gives me little hope. He gives Walter a curt nod and walks briskly back to the elevators.