TIME SPIKE – snippet 23:
James Cook took a deep breath and kept walking.
“I’m talking to you, sister!”
The voice was coming from one level up. The line of sixty men he was in was making its way across the metal grating that porched the fourth floor of the five-tiered cell house. The metal stairs leading to the ground floor were packed. He was trapped. He looked around for a screw. There. At the door. A guard. If he could get close enough to be seen, if he got stuck, at least he wouldn’t bleed to death before they found him. The line moving from the back of the cell house to the door slowed to a snail’s pace.
He knew the score. He had just hoped it would be someplace else, someplace in the open. His uncle had explained it to him as soon as they knew he was going to be doing some serious time. “Boy, how you start is how you go, so be careful. You’re looking at half a lifetime behind bars. So, as good lookin’ as you are, you have no choice. If you don’t want to be turned out and punked out, you’re going to have to be one hell of a hog. You can’t back down. You gotta beat the shit out of some big motherfucker. Hell, you might have to kill someone as soon as you get the chance. Whichever way you go, make sure the shitheads know you got heart, that you done it. But try to do it in a way the turnkeys can’t pin it on you. There’s no sense upping the ante to a lifetime behind bars.”
The old man looked grim. “And never forget one thing, either. There’s no men behind them bars. Just animals. Wolves and rabbits. And you’ll be one or the other. So make up your mind as to which.”
It hadn’t taken James more than a couple of days in the fish tank to realize his uncle was wrong. There were quite a few men behind the bars, actually. They were just hiding it from the wolves because they didn’t want to become rabbits.
He slowed his pace to match that of the line. Fear was the one thing he wouldn’t show.
“Hey, squaw! What’s your hurry?”
Cook resisted the urge to drop his hands into his pockets. The voice was closer, but not close enough for him to play his hand. There was still a chance the guy intended to take it to a blind; someplace the guards wouldn’t be so likely to see.
He walked with the line, not crowding the man in front of him and forcing himself to keep his breaths steady.
Finally, they were through the door and onto the street. This was better, but not the best. He glanced around and spotted where he wanted the fight to take place. It was a small area of hard concrete and scattered gravel. It was the same area he had picked up the small stones he now carried inside his pocket. The footing was good, too, which he’d need against a man a lot bigger than he was. He’d finally gotten a glimpse of the guy who was after him. He probably outweighed James by a good fifty pounds, and it didn’t look as if much of it was fat.
He hunched his shoulders, jammed one hand into each pocket, and picked up his pace. He wanted the wolf to think he was scared, running.
It worked. The large man with full sleeves—snake tattoos running from shoulder to wrists on both arms—hooted and followed him toward the open area away from the guards. Cook sped up, forcing the man behind him to break into a trot. When he was sure the guy was closing in, he stopped and turned around. He could see other prisoners a dozen yards away. They weren’t here to help with the beating; they were just sightseers along for the fun.
One on one, then. He had a chance.
The man coming toward him had a pillowcase in his hand. James knew it would be filled with batteries, scrap metal or something equivalent. That was okay. It wasn’t a banger. He had a chance.
He pulled his hands from his pockets, slow and easy. He wanted one fight and one fight only. He wanted the rumors that followed this fight to tell he was bare-fisted. The small pebbles he had tucked into his right hand wouldn’t be visible. There were about a dozen of them, none bigger than a beebee.
He waited. He would let his assailant throw the first punch. That was for the audience. He knew the way he wanted to do his time. He wanted to be a man others felt safe around. A man who didn’t look for a fight. But he would also be a man that wouldn’t run. One who could inflict some damage when pushed.
The big man hesitated. He had expected the Indian to turn and run, but he hadn’t. Instead, James brought his fists up in an exaggerated fighter’s stance. The big man sneered and swung his pillowcase, aiming for the head.
James had counted on that. A man this much bigger than he was would assume that his weight and strength would be enough. And he wasn’t likely to know that James had done a lot of amateur boxing.
He dodged the blow easily. Then, sent a left jab into the man’s face, followed by another. Quick-quick. He had good speed and reflexes.
Most important of all, he’d boxed enough to know you had to control the adrenaline. Watch. Take that extra split second to see what the opponent was doing before you threw another punch. If you lost that control, the adrenaline took over and you just started swinging madly. Against a man this much bigger, that was hopeless.
His assailant was surprised. Then, furious. He howled something and drew back the pillowcase for another blow.
His face was wide open. James hurled the pebbles right at his eyes.
The man howled again and clutched his face. James kicked him in the groin. Not the full swinging kick he’d have used on a football. Just a quick snap-kick. Everything had to be quick. It was his only chance.
It wasn’t the kind of blow that would collapse a man, but any kind of blow to the testicles hurt like hell. The guy’s hand came away from his face and went to his groin.
Again, his face was open, but that wasn’t James’ target. The man had the sort of square heavy head that would just break knuckles if James tried a full punch.
He gave him two more left jabs. Quick, stinging blows; designed more to confuse the opponent than hurt him.
The man roared with fury and charged.
James met the charge with his first full punch. A right cross with everything he had and all his weight behind it. But his hand was open, the thumb and fingers forming a vee, and he wasn’t aiming for the face. The throat below was completely exposed.
It was a blow that might have killed a smaller man. This one’s neck muscles were just too thick for the impact to collapse the throat. But it took him down, it surely did. Down hard, and down final.
James looked down at his assailant for a moment, gauging whether he needed to start kicking him.
No. He was on his side, clutching his throat, gasping for breath. His eyes were bulging.
The fight was over. It hadn’t lasted more than a few seconds. That would do more for James’ reputation than any amount of pointless stomping. He just turned and walked away.
Carefully, keeping his face calm and expressionless, he headed toward the infirmary. The crowd parted, letting him walk through. Just as he reached the door to the infirmary he heard someone say, “Injun, you in deep shit now. That was the Butch. Luff’s favorite boy.”
James stopped and turned around, to see who was talking. Making sure to turn easily—no spinning around, nothing that looked excited or nervous—and keep his face expressionless.
But whoever it had been was not inclined to speak up again.
Good enough. After a second or so, James went into the infirmary.