Here’s the opening chapter of my new novel The Final Hour, due out July 19th. It’s the last book in the four-book Homelanders series.
THE FINAL HOUR
Most people have to die to get to hell. I took a shortcut.
I was in Abingdon State Prison. Locked away for a murder I didn’t commit. Waiting for the men who were coming to kill me. With nowhere to run.
It was the worst thing that had ever happened to me.
I’d been there for two weeks. Two weeks of smothering boredom and strangling fear. When I was locked in my cell, the minutes seemed to lie like dead men, to decay like dead men—so slowly you could barely tell it was happening. When I was out in the exercise yard or in the cafeteria or in the showers, there was just the fear, the waiting. Waiting for the killers to make good their threat, the words one of them had whispered in my ear as I stood in the dinner line one night:
You’re already dead, West. You just don’t know it yet.
Alone in my cell, I stared at the tan wall. I felt a black despair surrounding me, closing in on me. I did everything I could to fight it. I did push-ups. I read my Bible. I prayed. The prayer gave me some comfort, some relief.
But then the buzzer would sound, loud and startling. The cell door would slide open. A guard would shout from the end of the tier:
Then the waiting and the fear would begin again.
Where was Detective Rose? I wondered desperately. I hadn’t seen him since he’d arrested me, since he’d rescued me from the terrorist cell called the Homelanders and led me away in handcuffs. Rose was the one official who knew who I was. He knew I’d been planted in the Homelanders by Waterman and his agents. He knew I’d let myself be framed for the murder of my friend Alex Hauser so the Homelanders would believe I was bitter and could be recruited. Rose was one of Waterman’s agents too—at least, I thought he was. I told myself he must be working behind the scenes to clear my name, to win my release. I told myself he would come for me. Any day now. Any day.
But the killers came for me first.
I was in the exercise yard. It was a large square of dying grass and broken asphalt. It was surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire. The fence was surrounded by a high concrete wall. At the corners of the wall there were guard towers. In the towers there were men with rifles, watching our every move.
Here, below, on the grass and asphalt, the prisoners moved in their gray uniforms. Some wore shirtsleeves, but most wore gray overcoats and black woolen watchcaps against the snow-flecked cold. Each coat or shirt had a white strip with the prisoner’s number on it sewn over the left breast. Each had the prisoner’s name stenciled over the right breast. Other than that, they were all gray.
The men’s faces, on the other hand, were black and white and brown. Their eyes were hard and watchful. There was rage and meanness and fear etched into the tight lines of their cheeks and foreheads. They gathered around the benches and free weights on one corner of the asphalt or played basketball on the half-court, or played catch on the grass or just walked and talked or just sat and stared.
Guards moved among them, men in blue shirts and black pants. They carried no weapons, just heavy walkie talkies hooked to their belts. The guards watched the prisoners but the prisoners didn’t watch the guards. The prisoners watched each other. And some of them, I knew, were watching me, waiting for their chance to attack.
I was on one of the weight benches. I was doing presses with a light bar, not trying to bulk up or anything, just trying to keep the flexibility and speed I used in my karate training. The men all around me were going for the big muscle stuff, lifting hundreds of pounds. They worked in grim silence. Whenever I dared to steal a glance at one of them, they looked like pretty nasty pieces of work. White guys with shaved heads and thick arms and chests. They had Nazi swastikas tatooed on their biceps and on their foreheads. A couple of them had Christian crosses tatooed on them too. How they thought those two symbols could ever go together—a symbol of hatred and a symbol of love—I didn’t know. I’ll tell you what else: I wasn’t about to ask. They didn’t look like the types of guys who would enjoy a good theological conversation. They looked more like the types of guys who would enjoy punching me repeatedly in the face until I lost consciousness or died. That sounded like it would be more fun for them than for me so I kept my mouth shut.
When I finished my workout, I moved away from them. I wandered to the edge of the crumbling basketball court, glancing this way and that to make sure no one was coming after me. I stood by the court and watched the game, feeling the cold air dry the workout sweat on my cheeks and neck.
The game was three against three. They were good players. Rough, fast, with accurate shots from anywhere near the key. They swirled back and forth in front of me in a shouting gray cloud of motion. They elbowed each other in the face, and jostled each other shoulder to chest as they fought for position under the board.
One guy broke through and went airborne, jamming a dunk through the hoop. As the teams reset, I took another nervous glance over my shoulder at the yard behind me. But this time, something made me pause.
The guards. Suddenly I didn’t see any guards. The blue shirts that usually passed among the gray uniforms had vanished. I felt an instinctive clutch inside me, a flash of something like panic. Where had they all gone?
The next moment, the killers struck.
There were three of them. They were black men. In prison, the Muslims were mostly black. They weren’t your regular everyday Muslims either. They were hate-filled radical Islamists.
The Islamists had heard about me on the grapevine and in the news. The word was I’d betrayed the Homelanders, a group of Islamo-fascists who recruited disgruntled Americans to pull off terrorist attacks on our home soil. The Abingdon prison Islamists had vowed they’d take vengeance on me. They’d see to it that I was punished for trying to protect my country. This was their time.
The first one came at me with a shiv—a knife he’d made by sharpening a piece of hard plastic he’d smuggled out of the cafeteria. He strode up to me from the right and drove the point in low toward my side.
I caught the motion out of the corner of my eye. I swung around fast, blocking with my forearm, blocking instinctively with the reflexes I’d developed during all those years of training at the dojo. Those reflexes saved my life—for the moment anyway.
My forearm hit the killer’s arm. The plastic shiv sliced in front of me, missing my mid-section by inches. Off-balance, I managed a weak kick at the attackers leg. It hit him high, above the knee and only knocked him back a step or two.
Then the others grabbed me from behind.
There were two of them. Big, strong. I never got a good look at them. I just felt their breath on the sides of my face. Each one grabbed one of my arms, wrapping their own arms around it, holding it fast. They pressed their bodies hard against me, blocking off my legs with their legs so I couldn’t kick again. I couldn’t move at all. I was helpless.
The man with the shiv came back for me.
I got a good look at him now. He was enormous, tall and broad-shouldered, with huge muscles that pressed through the prison grays. He had a long, thin face that reminded me of a wolf’s face. His eyes were bright with wolf-like hunger and bloodlust.
He grinned as his friends caught hold of me.
“Hold him,” he told them. Then he said to me, “Now you die, traitor.”
I tried to pull my arms free, tried to kick out with my legs. It was useless. The men who held me were too strong.
The man with the shiv stepped toward me, the sharpened point aimed at my stomach.
I had only one more second—just enough time to realize I was about to die—just enough time for that information to flash red-hot through my brain.
Then the man’s wolf-like face filled my vision, blotted out everything else. There was nothing but his grin and his eyes.
But all at once, his eyes flew up, went white, empty. His grin vanished and his mouth dropped open, slack. He staggered back away from me. I saw his legs go wobbly. I saw his knees buckle.
He collapsed onto the grass with a hollow thud. The plastic shiv fell from his limp fingers.