From inside the command tent, the rain sounded like a deluge worthy of Noah. Outside, however, it sounded more like a steady stream of tiny droplets equivalent to a shower with low water pressure. It was, as Allen’s wife, Marissa, would say, “annoying.” Rain was okay in moderation and only then if it was much warmer.
Allen and Clarke sat around a foldable table. They pored over a letter found inside a waterproof freezer bag tied around the floater’s body, which had been hoisted out of the water on a tarp and onto a Stokes litter. The victim—or what was left—was secured inside a water recovery body bag in a morgue tent set up on the lake shore about a hundred yards from any sleeping tent. Since darkness had descended and the rain started, the body would be alone in the cold tent until the morning when a team would dive down to survey the rest of the “forest of souls,” a moniker Clarke had applied to the scene but one that hadn’t set well with Allen.
The letter remained inside the bag to preserve any evidence, but the handwritten words were clear enough. Allen transcribed on a notepad as Clarke read aloud.
“‘I don’t expect to live more than another few hours. As The One has directed, I am letting the WORLD know what I am thinking. The reasons we did what we did are not for me to explain. Those words belong to The One only as he is the Prophet. We returned here because the WORLD wants to kill us, wants to drive us out into the Valley of Death and put a bullet in our collective brains. This cannot be our fate.’”
Clarke stopped reading and looked up. “The word ‘WORLD’ is capitalized throughout the letter.”
Allen nodded and with a wave of his left hand prompted Clarke to continue.
“‘I am at a point right now so embittered against the WORLD that I don’t know why I am writing this. Someone who finds it will believe I was crazy or believe The One drove us to this action, but that is not the case. Everything good that happens to the WORLD is under attack. As I write this, I can picture some deranged fascist government person deciding on his or her own that it should be shredded before anyone else has time to hear the truth. The truth is this: the WORLD will burn, but we will live on in eternal bliss as The One has taught. He has made our paradise possible. He knew how mean the WORLD was, and I feel sorry for those who remain behind to read this. The WORLD will believe what it is told, not what is real.’”
Allen stopped writing. “The One. Conveniently ambiguous. Would be nice to put a name on this person.”
“Nutcase, apparently.” Clarke flipped the plastic bag over. “If the rest of the bodies have letters like this, we might get a break.”
“Well, if anything, we’ll have a record of why this happened.”
“What’s on the back of the letter?”
“Henry Wayne Backmon, 167.”
“One sixty-seven?” Allen pulled the letter across the table and looked at it closely. “What’s that number supposed to be?”
Clarke tapped the table a few times with his index finger as his right eye twitched. “I really hope it’s not what I think it is. If so, there are more than twenty-nine bodies to recover. Think we should get Talbert to see what he can dig up once the satellite is operational.”
Allen stood up, stretched, and stepped over to the entrance of the tent to peer outside. The team had set up five other tents along the shore to his right. To his left, a lonely light illuminated the morgue tent from the inside. What remained of Henry Backmon was out of the water.
Allen couldn’t help but wonder if this was something expected or planned. That the rest of the bodies were still planted on the bottom of the lake in weighted shoes made him curious if the floater had just been a lucky break. Maybe it was orchestrated. Did the rest of the bodies have letters or notes tied around their necks and share the same disgust at the world? Did any of them provide reasons this happened or name “The One?” At the very least, the letters would make identification of the bodies easier, and for the coroner’s office it would make notification of the next of kin possible. Clarke was right: they might get a break.
Two dive teams would head out in the morning and survey the lakebed. It was too late and too dark to dive safely. Until then, questions would fester. Perhaps there were only twenty-nine bodies, and “167” meant something entirely different. Perhaps it was the number of days Henry had been following this “One.” Maybe it was nothing at all. A sick feeling in his belly, however, told Allen they would eventually need more body bags.
Clarke spoke from inside the tent. “Ready to listen to the tape?”
Not really, thought Allen. He sighed and turned back to the table.
After Clarke headed to bed, Allen listened to the tape a second time and then a third. There was something in the words—if not the background noise—that reminded him if only briefly of the supposed “Death Tape” of Jim Jones. That tape, reportedly recorded during the mass suicide and murder at Jonestown in 1978, was something he had listened to a few times in his younger days. It was not a sick obsession with death but a desire to know how one man convinced others to drink potassium cyanide mixed into a vat of fruit punch and tranquilizers. Despite the debate over how many people were murdered at Jonestown versus how many people accepted the poison of their own free will, Allen’s desire to know focused more on the talent of persuasion that Jones held than anything else. If leadership can be defined as the art of influencing others to do something they would not normally do, then Jim Jones was a great leader.
So was Hitler, by that logic. Bad people can learn how to lead—or manipulate—which is really where the problems begin.
There was one big difference between the Jonestown tape and this one, however: the tape from Jonestown was filled with sounds of crying babies and young children upset at the “bitter taste” of the poison they were forced to drink. Thankfully, the tape they recovered from the camp had no such sounds.
In many other ways, however, this tape was too similar, and judging by the sound of the audience, the number of dead under the lake was likely much larger than they expected, if indeed the tape was their final message. The team originally planned to recover just one floating body, as dispatch had told them. When they found the others on a quick dive to see if there was a sunken boat or anyone else, it surprised them to find even more. They were more surprised when they learned there was a camp not too far away and they might get a lucky break if anyone saw or heard anything. However, the camp was abandoned with only this tape left behind, powered by a solar get up, as if there was enough sun to keep it alive. It seemed unrelated, but after pairing the letter on the body with the tape, what gnawed at Allen’s stomach since arriving was coming true.
He shivered at the thought of mass suicide and sat back in his folding chair at the table. The words of “The One” echoed in his head: “Well, everybody dies. Faith dies when people die. I haven’t seen anybody yet who didn’t die, and honestly, I’d like to choose my own kind of death for a change. I’m tired of being tormented to hell. Tired of it.”
Tired of it.
Allen looked toward the opening of the tent. It had stopped raining and most of the on-site recovery team had fallen asleep, fully prepared for the morning mission. It would be a heavy schedule: two dive teams of four each would head out on the Zodiac and survey what they could in a circular pattern. Marker buoys placed at the location of the other bodies would be the starting point, and while the deepest portion of the lake was just under a hundred feet, it was definitely blackwater. The forward dive team, who had counted the initial twenty-nine bodies, reported visibility of only a foot in the brightest of lights near the bottom. They would tether the dive pairs together and rotate with their relief on the surface. Thirty minutes down, rotate. Using a circular search pattern starting from the buoys in the middle of the lake, Clarke estimated it would take them from dawn to mid afternoon to perform the initial survey, barring any obstacles along the way. More divers would be ideal, but they were not prepared for this.
Each member of the team had recovered drowning victims before, but not all of them had encountered bodies as decomposed as Henry Backmon’s. It would not be easy to survey the scene, and he expected problems along the way. They desperately needed more divers, more Zodiacs, more tents, and more body bags. The media would find out soon enough, and that would create a fresh problem set. This would not be textbook. It would tax the twelve people on his team.
He was especially concerned about the rookie, Zachary Miller, the youngest member who had so far only pulled one body from water. The victim, a seventeen-year-old adrenaline junky, had drowned in a foot of water in the Skagit River north of Seattle. It was an easy recovery from a technical standpoint, but it left a scar. To make matters worse, Miller had major losses in his life, including, most recently, a sister who had run away about the same time he joined the recovery team. No amount of searching could find her. She was two years older than Zachary, and if a headstrong twenty-something wanted to run off and disappear, so be it. Still, the two had been close, and this and the other traumas had left Zachary a stoic mess.
Allen opened his dive journal and noted that Miller and the old guy, Stuart Taylor, were paired. The old guy had pulled so many bodies out of the water, off cliff faces, and out from under avalanches that he could fill a good-sized cemetery. There was a story that he once pulled a body from inside a volcano in El Salvador, but that was never confirmed. Allen did not doubt the story, though. Taylor was the best—if not the most ornery—recovery specialist he had. It was good he was paired with Miller.
He sighed, closed the journal, and stepped out of the command tent. It was three hours to showtime, and he figured a few winks would help.
It was not to be. He could not sleep, as the words from the tape rattled around inside his mind until a cacophony of noise and glimmer of dawn told him the team was ready to suit up.
I haven’t seen anybody yet who didn’t die.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish