Final hour, p.1
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       Final Hour, p.1
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         Part #0.50 of Ashley Bell series by Dean Koontz  
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Final Hour


  Final Hour is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  A Bantam Books eBook Original

  Copyright © 2015 by Dean Koontz

  All rights reserved.

  Published in the United States by Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

  BANTAM BOOKS and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

  eBook ISBN 9781101965474

  Cover design: Scott Biel

  Cover image: Beth D. Yeaw/Moment Open/Getty Images

  randomhousebooks.com

  v4.1

  ep

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Chapter 1: Unwanted Knowledge

  Chapter 2: Wipeout Without Nose Guard

  Chapter 3: Share a Kiss or Kick Some Butt?

  Chapter 4: Where She Walks, the Earth Is Scorched

  Chapter 5: The Necessary Computer Wiz

  Chapter 6: Ursula and the Evil Twin

  Chapter 7: She Walks in Beauty Like a Polyester Resin

  Chapter 8: The Shooter and the Shot

  Chapter 9: Your Only Reliable Resource in Times of Crisis

  Chapter 10: A Pause in the Day’s Occupations That Is Known as the Children’s Hour

  Chapter 11: Happy Families Are All Alike

  Chapter 12: The Final Hour

  Author’s Note

  By Dean Koontz

  About the Author

  1

  Unwanted Knowledge

  That September day, an offshore breeze polished the glassy breakers, which were sweet ten-footers pumping in powerful sets, and though Makani wanted to be surfing, a chance encounter with a wicked woman left her riding instead waves of dread and chaos.

  Morning broke over scattered reefs of eastern clouds painted coral-rose by the early light. From the high hills graced with fine houses pinked and gilded by the sun to the harbor where thousands of sleek vessels were moored, Newport Beach seemed to assemble itself from sunlight, as if it were a Fata Morgana, too beautiful to be other than a mirage.

  Some men said that Makani Hisoka-O’Brien was also too beautiful to be true, but she was real enough: at twenty-six already a local surfing legend, an entrepreneur whose car-customizing shop booked all the work that it could handle, a hot-rod aficionado who could build a stylish street-eating machine from the ground up, a woman with a secret that distanced her from those she loved and that for a long time had made the prospect of a lover too dangerous to contemplate.

  The problem with being real was that reality kept intruding on a life that, to others, seemed like a dream. After walking her black Labrador, Bob, at first light, she and the dog went to her office at Wheels Within Wheels. Patience was the heart of hoping, and good Bob had a heroic capacity for hope, watching his mistress adoringly as she reviewed accounts payable, in expectation of a touch or treat, and then padding along at her side when she toured the sprawling shop to determine what progress had been made on the four current jobs. The primo was a sleek root-beer-red ’49 Ford Tudor that had been given a 1.5-inch chop, a two-inch nose rake, a five-inch deck-lid extension, a custom grille, and enough tasteful sparkle to out-bling a Rose Parade float.

  When her employees arrived, a couple of them had problems to share with her. They were good people, hard workers, gifted stylists and mechanics, but they were human and, as such, had their worries and dissatisfactions. In addition to being the boss, Makani had to listen and sympathize, offer considered opinions, provide thoughtful counseling, and have a ready purse. Financial crises arose, children fell into trouble, wives and husbands cheated, beloved parents died, and to one degree or another, her employees’ problems were her own.

  More than she realized, those who worked with her thought of her as unusually caring. Although there was a sense of family among those at Wheels Within Wheels, though Makani was seen as a generous person and emotionally available, everyone remained aware that she was physically reserved. Except with Bob, she wasn’t a toucher and had a sense of personal space that she maintained by countless small strategies and evasions. The theory that she might be gay, physically available and fully comfortable only with women, came and receded and returned, but no one was ever convinced of that. Perhaps she’d been badly hurt by a man too foolish to see what a treasure he had in her. Perhaps she had suffered a loss so terrible that she couldn’t talk about it; and now she saw herself as a widow forever. New theories bloomed from time to time, and withered, and all were wrong.

  Her gift, her curse—she knew not which—was that by a touch, skin on skin, she saw the other person’s darkest secret or whatever hatred or acidic envy or unworthy desire corroded his soul at that moment. If violence coiled in the other’s heart, Makani felt it as sharp as a serpent’s bite. Usually, their angers and jealousies and resentments were petty, but too often seeing just pettiness in their minds diminished her opinion of those she read, until the mere act of touching threatened to deny her the blessings of friendship and leave her isolated. Being able to read their minds entire or to see some of their worthier thoughts might have helped, but she was wired to receive only their darkest emotions and wickedest desires.

  Her one defense was a certain physical distance, an enforced personal space that made others wonder about her reticence.

  By the time she and Bob left Wheels Within Wheels, shortly before 11:00 that morning, her longing for the ocean was no less compelling than it had been when she had awakened to see the painted clouds and the gold-leafed morning light. Her shop was inland from the harbor, but in minutes she could be on Balboa Peninsula. At the peninsula point was a surfing destination called the Wedge, where the Pacific often mounted powerfully to the shore. In extreme conditions, surfers had died on the rocks of the channel-entrance breakwater, so that when she dared those waves, she felt the mortal challenge in her bones, felt the bond of all those who lived for the love of the ride and who felt the truth of eternity most vividly when they were as one with the eternal sea.

  From her ideal Hawaiian childhood on the island of Oahu until now, Makani’s best friend had been the ocean, which concealed nothing worse than sharks and rip currents. It possessed no capacity for calculated deceit. Even Bob, for all his sweetness and loyalty, had an agenda of his own, but the sea had none.

  On any other day, with her surfboard already slung in a padded vinyl case in the backseat, she might have left Bob in the care of her employees, might have driven her street rod—a fully customized, glossy black ’54 Chevrolet Bel Air—straight to the Wedge. But that evening she would be having a man to dinner, the first hope of romance in a long lonely time, in fact the best chance ever, and she had preparations to make.

  Bob rode shotgun.

  Instead of the Wedge, she allowed herself a quick drive to the part of Corona Del Mar that locals called the Village, stopped for a large latte, curbed her car on Ocean Boulevard, and sat with Bob on a bench in the seaside park. She watched formations of pelicans ply the air with only a rare beating of wings, dolphins schooling south through the sun-sequined deeps, and glassy surf breaking on the beach, leaving filigrees of foam upon the ebbing water.

  Having finished the latte, she disposed of the cup in a trash can and, with Bob on a leash, headed back toward her car, which was when she spared a young woman from a serious fall and, by doing so, brought darkness into the day.

  The stranger was about thirty, a blonde in a baseball cap, a well-filled yellow tank top, cunningly tailored white shorts, and running shoes: a variety of eye candy not uncommon to the wealthy neighb
orhoods of Newport. With an iPod clipped to her belt, a wire trailing to her left ear, she maintained the remorseless stride of a girl who knew the profound social and financial value of well-toned muscles, who yet had miles to go before she would allow herself a lunch of cantaloupe and thin slices of Italian ham. Her expression was one of grim determination. Behind her wraparound sunglasses, her eyes no doubt looked straight ahead with the resolve of one who dared not look back.

  Maybe the woman was lost in whatever music she piped into her ear, or maybe she was distracted by the thoughts that Makani would soon read, ruminations about a murder and the rewards that it would bring her. She didn’t hear the two rude and perhaps pot-high teenage boys who were in violation of various city rules when they bore down upon her from behind, hooting and raucous as they competed to see who could maneuver more recklessly on his skateboard, racing side by side, flailing out at each other in hope of scoring an upset.

  The park was largely deserted at the moment, and the boys were as oblivious of the woman as she was of them. Only Makani saw the three of them and the collision imminent.

  She snared the blonde by one arm, pulling her off the sidewalk, onto the grass, as the teenagers rocketed past in a clatter of wheels and squeals of idiot laughter. The runner’s momentum sent her staggering with her rescuer for a few feet, at risk of falling over the dog and his leash, before they regained their balance.

  Looking after the skateboarders, the blonde muttered, “Dimwit little shits.”

  At first Makani couldn’t speak, because she had seen into the stranger’s rat-maze mind and glimpsed at the center a windowless room where a woman was kept in chains, a woman being tormented and starved to death. The room existed somewhere, as real as this park and the plumb-fall of sun that had shrunk the late-morning shadows. The victim was real, too, in a desperate condition, pale and gaunt and hollow-eyed, and fiercely hated by the blonde, who wished for the prisoner a slow and painful death.

  “Somebody should cut off their pathetic little peckers,” said the stranger, “teach them a lesson.”

  Makani had snatched her hand away in horror at what she had seen. Still reverberating with the shock, she asked, “Why?”

  Regarding her rescuer through a black-plastic curve that didn’t reveal the color of her eyes, let alone the expression in them, the blonde said, “Why? I’ll tell you why. Their useless shit-for-brains parents don’t know how to spell the word discipline, let alone enforce any.”

  Bob liked people more than he liked other dogs, but he did not wag his tail for this woman.

  As the vision echoed through Makani’s mind, she realized that the prisoner’s hair had been the same shade as her jailer’s, and in spite of being painfully thin and haggard, she also had resembled this woman who wanted her dead. Relief trembled through Makani at the thought that she had misunderstood, that what she had seen was not another woman in dire circumstances, but instead this runner’s mental image of herself as someone’s victim, trapped perhaps in a bad marriage or in some other relationship that left her feeling tormented and starved for affection.

  “Something wrong?” the runner asked, pulling her sunglasses down on her sculpted nose to fix Makani with a cold blue stare.

  Makani’s eyes were blue as well, but a different shade from the pair that chilled her now, the warm color of certain hydrangeas, in striking contrast to her Hawaiian features and complexion.

  The blonde searched Makani’s eyes as if she, too, were psychic and sought secret knowledge. “Hey, anybody home? Is something wrong with you?”

  “No. Nothing, no. I just…That was close. I mean, they could have hurt you big-time, broken your neck or something.”

  Bob had backed away as far as his leash would allow.

  Perhaps as intuitive as she was well put-together, the blonde regarded Makani with suspicion. “Something’s wrong here.”

  Because she could not bear to leave the issue unresolved, Makani reached out and, with a hesitancy that might have seemed like tenderness, touched the runner’s bare arm. She knew at once that what she had seen was not this woman’s mental image of herself, born of self-pity. The prisoner was real, alive now but being starved to death, and she was this murderous creature’s twin sister.

  The blonde snatched her arm away from Makani as if she felt some alternating current jittering back and forth between them. She rubbed her flesh where she had been touched, and in a voice heavy with scorn, she said, “What’re you going all creepy on me for?” Her eyes widened. “You’re a girl’s girl, aren’t you? I don’t swing that way, honey. Find some Jane who’s a Tarzan, or go home and make it with a mirror.”

  She pushed her glasses higher on her nose and set off once more in a run. She glanced back just once with mild contempt, not as if she expected to be pursued, but as though she knew from experience that people she turned off would stay turned off.

  In the grip of sudden purpose, Makani hurried with Bob across the street to her car. She started the engine and waited until the blonde was almost out of sight before pulling into the street and following at a distance.

  2

  Wipeout Without Nose Guard

  Riding shotgun sans shotgun, Bob made a gruff noise that seemed to be a query.

  As she drove, Makani said, “I don’t know. What am I doing, huh? Why do I always feel I have to do something? It’s not seeing their thoughts that gets me in trouble, it’s this dangerous compulsion to do something about it.”

  The last thing that any boardhead wanted was responsibility for anyone beyond his or her circle of family and wave-riding friends. When you gave your life to surfing, either entirely or, like her, as much as you could after you’d spent as few hours as possible earning a living, the point was to give the finger, politely, to everyone and every social force that would fence you in and saddle you and break you like a wild horse. Time would be your prison master if you let it. The timeless sea was freedom, and the surfer’s life was ideally lived always in the moment, shorn of striving and struggle, with simplicity, without the envy that led both to regrets about the past and to a focus on the future at the expense of now. Those who wanted to change the world were certain to do great harm to it, while those who loved the world as they found it, those who shunned politics and theories, might discover in themselves a grace to match that of the sea; they might live a life that would be a beautiful line of calligraphy written not in ink, but in sunshine and mist, written in the wake carved in the water as you navigated the face of a wave, every trace of it gone with you when you left the planet, no stain or wreckage left behind.

  The tireless running blonde turned left off Ocean Boulevard, onto Poinsettia, a street of charming houses in many styles, as were most of the quaint streets in the Village. Over the years, the sidewalks had been ramped here and there to accommodate tree roots; therefore, she ran instead on the blacktop, which was lightly traveled at this hour, with the tourist season past.

  “What kind of person would starve a twin sister to death?” Makani asked.

  Bob whined.

  “Yeah, we know what kind. Dirty crazy California girls.” The day that she had left Oahu six years earlier, against her family’s wishes, her great-aunt Lokemele, who had never traveled outside the islands, warned her, Stay away from dirty crazy California girls and fast-talking nasty boys, instructions with which Grandma Kolokea and tearful Uncle Pilipo solemnly agreed.

  She pulled to the curb and stopped, driving forward once more only when the runner was nearly out of sight. Three blocks and then left on Third Avenue, another left on Orchid, back to Ocean and a right turn, then another right, heading inland again on Narcissus. The woman was a running machine, her route evidently programmed, for she never hesitated at an intersection and never glanced back. She was running all the parallel streets named for flowers, so that it was easy to anticipate her next move and let her get out of sight from time to time.

  To Bob, Makani said, “She could crack walnuts with those butt cheeks,” and the d
og grinned at her.

  She’d left Oahu when she was twenty, afraid that if she stayed in the company of her family, her terrible gift would gradually alienate her from them. They were good people; however, a touch, a hug, a kiss would reveal to her only their darker thoughts. She had given up her island birthright to preserve in her heart the love of family that she could not live without.

  Eventually, the blond runner stopped at a silver Mercedes sports car with a convertible top that was open to the sunshine. Curbed a block away, Makani watched the woman snatch a towel from the storage space behind the two bucket seats to blot her sweaty face, neck, and limbs.

  Surveillance became trickier when the pursued and pursuer were rolling on rubber. Makani had to stay far enough behind to escape detection, letting other traffic get between her and the Mercedes, especially because her heavily customized ’54 Chevy was a standout that didn’t allow her the anonymity of most other vehicles. Yet she needed to get through the traffic lights that the blonde cleared or be left behind at an intersection.

  She was never quite close enough to read the license plate on the convertible, which was the minimum information that she needed. But when the blonde pulled into the parking lot at Gelson’s market, Makani was given the opportunity to get the number on the tags and perhaps more.

  She parked at a distance from the would-be murderer and watched the woman move away across the sun-baked blacktop. Undulant currents of heat shimmered up from the pavement, slightly distorting the blonde’s taut form, as though her body might be only a superb illusion, a masquerade by which something demonic passed for human.

  The moment the woman entered the supermarket, Makani told Bob, “Wait for Mommy,” sprang from the Chevy, and hurried to the Mercedes convertible. With a felt-tip pen that she had taken from her purse, she quickly recorded the number of the license plate on the palm of her left hand.

 
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