'You're not alone. You're never alone.' Charlie West has held on to that belief, but now he's starting to wonder.
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THE FINAL HOURThe Last Homelanders Novel
By ANDREW KLAVAN
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Andrew Klavan
All right reserved.
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 were in shirtsleeves, but most wore gray overcoats and black woolen watch caps to ward off 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 one another. 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 tattooed on their biceps and on their foreheads. A couple of them had Christian crosses tattooed 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 one another in the face, and jostled one another 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 through the grapevine and on 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 midsection by inches. Off-balance, I managed a weak kick at the attacker's 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 his 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 wolflike 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 wolflike 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.
Chapter TwoThe Yard King
What just happened?
In the terror of the moment, I couldn't make sense of it. Then I could.
One of the Nazi musclemen—one of the thugs who'd been with me by the free weights—was standing before me where the wolf-faced man had been. His fist was raised, a stone gripped in it. He had stepped up behind the Islamist assassin and clubbed him in the back of the neck.
The next instant, the two men holding me were ripped away, as if they'd been caught up in a tornado or something. Some swastika-tattooed musclemen had grabbed them, too, dragged them off me. As the men fought back, more of the Islamists were running to the scene to join the fight and more of the Nazis too. Another second and hate-filled men were battling other hate-filled men back and forth across the grass. There was the crack of fists on bone. Blood flying through the air. Grunted curses and ugly names. Men down on the ground rolling over and over one another, trying to gouge one another's eyes or clutch one another's throats.
It all happened in a second. I stood, dazed, at the center of the chaos.
I thought: This is hell. It must look just like this in hell.
Now the guards in their blue shirts seemed suddenly to reappear out of nowhere. They rushed into the melee of gray uniforms, wrapping arms around prisoners' throats to pull them apart, hammering at their heads with the edges of their walkie-talkies, kicking at them as they rolled around in the dirt and on the asphalt.
Shouting and striking out, the guards drove the Nazis and Islamists away from one another, forcing them into opposite areas of the yard.
It was all over as quickly as it had begun. I hardly had time to register what had happened, to compute the fact that this prison feud had saved my life. One hate group had fought off another hate group and somehow the result was that I was still standing, still alive.
Still alive—but my troubles were far from over.
Because, now, across the grass, the Yard King was coming.
That's what they called him: the Yard King. His real name was Chuck Dunbar. He was the corrections officer in charge of the prisoner recreation area, the chief guard of the exercise yard. He wasn't a big man, but he packed a lot of nastiness into his thick five-foot-seven frame. He was squat and broad and had a face like the business end of a fist, all mean and knuckly. His headquarters was a place the prisoners called the Outbuilding. It was a grim, featureless cinder-block box that stood in the farthest corner of the yard. Dunbar spent most of his time in there, doing whatever it was he did. But when there was trouble—or when he wanted to start trouble—out he came. The sight of him was always bad news for someone, because the Yard King was a man who liked hurting people.
And right now, he was coming straight at me.
He barreled forward with his peculiar rolling walk, his lips twisted in a snarl, his fists clenched by his sides. His eyes were pale, almost colorless, but they seemed to burn as if they were lit with white flames.
Another second or two and he was standing in front of me. The rest of the guards lined up on either side of him. The Yard King glanced to his left and to his right.
"Get this con garbage back in their cells," he growled.
Instantly the guards started moving, started screaming at the prisoners, striking out at them and herding them toward the prison doors. The men moved sullenly, their gray shoulders hunched. They cast wicked glances at one another, muttering threats through the gaps between the guards.
I started moving, too, figuring I was supposed to go back to my cell as well.
But Dunbar stepped in close to me, blocking my way.
"Not you, lowlife," he said. He had a voice like a rake on gravel. It seemed to rattle inside his throat as it came out at me. "You're the one who started this."
"Me?" I blurted out. "I was just standing here. That guy tried to kill me. He had a knife. He ..."
The Yard King hit me in the face. He used the back of his hand, snapping it fast at my cheek. My head flew back, my thoughts rattled.
"Shut up," Dunbar said. "Don't lie to me."
I rubbed my bruised cheek. It didn't seem like a good idea to answer him, so I didn't.
Dunbar smiled, his eyes flashing. "How could anyone have a knife in the yard?" he asked me. "If someone had a knife in the yard, that would mean they'd gotten it past one of my guards. That would mean there was something wrong with the way I run this place. You think there's something wrong with the way I run this place, punk?"
I went on rubbing my cheek. I went on not answering. But that wasn't good enough for the Yard King.
This time, when he struck out at me, my hand was in his way and blocked the blow. But I still felt the jar of it.
"I asked you a question, lowlife," Dunbar said. "You think I'm not doing my job right? You want to file a complaint with the authorities?"
I tried to think of something to say. But all I could think of was the way things used to be, the life I used to have. I flashed back on how things were when I was at home. I thought of the way my parents and pastors and teachers and my karate instructor Sensei Mike would always tell me to tell the truth no matter what. It seemed like only yesterday I was back in that world, and yet it seemed like a million years ago. Back there, back home, there weren't any guys like Chuck Dunbar—or if there were, I didn't know them and they didn't have complete and total control over my life. Back home, it was easy to say, "Tell the truth no matter what," when "no matter what" didn't include a guy who would gladly break every bone in your body and never pay a price.
Still, I didn't say anything. I couldn't think of anything to say.
Dunbar smiled again, a weird, dreamy smile full of cruelty and a sick pleasure in cruelty. "Charlie West," he said. My name sounded pretty bad when he spoke it, like the name of some kind of slimy creature you wouldn't want to find crawling on you. "You think you're pretty special, don't you, Charlie West? I watch you. I know you. You think you're something better than the rest of us."
"I don't ..."
He hit me again, not hard, just enough to make me shut up—and shut up is exactly what I did.
"You're nothing," Dunbar said, his pale eyes gleaming. "You're not even nothing. You're a piece of garbage blowing across the yard. I'm going to teach you that, West. I'm going to make it my special mission to teach you. I'm going to make it my hobby, my pastime. From now on, the slightest thing you do, the first wrong move, the first wrong word that comes out of your mouth, I'm taking you into the Outbuilding."
I stood up straight when I heard that, my heart clutching with fear. The Outbuilding. Every prisoner in Abingdon knew what that meant. The Outbuilding was where the Yard King took you when he wanted to teach you a lesson, when he wanted to work you over hard, with his fists or with a club. Tucked away in the shadow of the yard wall, the building was only partially visible from one of the guard towers. Once you were inside, no one could see what was happening to you and no one would ever tell. It was the heart of the Yard King's sadistic kingdom.
"Now, I asked you a question, garbage," he said. "How could a con in this yard have a knife when I'm in charge of keeping the place safe? You think I'm not doing my job, garbage? You think I made a mistake? Answer me."
I know: I should have answered him. I should have just lied and said no. I should have said, "No, sir. You're doing a great job." I should have said, "There was no knife, sir. There couldn't have been a knife, sir. Because you don't make mistakes, sir."
That's what I should have said. But somehow ... as far away from home as I was ... somehow I just couldn't forget what my mom and dad and Sensei Mike had taught me. I couldn't force the lie up out of my throat. It stuck there, sour and disgusting. All I could do was stand and stare into the fistlike face of this cruel, sick little man.
Dunbar grinned. "What are you waiting for, garbage? You think someone's gonna help you? No one's gonna help you. Not in here. In here, you're all alone."
Excerpted from THE FINAL HOUR by ANDREW KLAVAN Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Klavan. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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