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It was never dark.

It was never quiet.

The lights were everywhere, the noise constant. The hardest part was never being alone. And never being alone meant never feeling safe. It was like being back in the war, but with no place to hide. No jungle underbrush, no heavy darkness.

Bolan's concentration on the problem of protecting Reed and planning their escape was never as complete as he liked because he was always watching his back, checking out any con who came within arm's reach as a potential attacker.

Yet he continued to fine-tune his battle plan, mingling with other cons, gathering information as only those who'd spent time here would know. Together with what he'd learned from Brognola and what he'd been able to observe himself, Bolan had a pretty accurate picture of the place. Most of the 825 residents were housed in larger cells-two thirty-eight-man dorms, a bunch of sixteen-man cells and a sprinkling of two-to-four-man cells, even a few one-man isolation cells. There were no jobs, but most of the cells had TV'S. Still, boredom was the prison's worst enemy, distorting every action, making every grumpy aside a cause for fighting. The atmosphere was tense.

And to make matters worse, the spillover from other prisons brought an even worse element.

The average stay at Fulton had been thirty days, now there were real hard-timers. Contraband had been minimal, now it was rampant. Violence had been under control, now they were imitating Atlanta's policy, where prisoners were killed on "contracts" up to $2,000.

Fulton was trying a few reforms to keep the less hardened cons from joining the hard-core punks.

More frequent visitation, more recreation. It wasn't working. The really bad guys, like Rodeo, had more power over the average con's life than the entire prison system. That was the first lesson anyone interested in survival learned. All Bolan had to do was sit in his cell, go to meals and smoke in the exercise yard, keeping a discreet distance from the others but staying close enough to keep an eye on Reed. The rest of the time he perfected his plan.

But even with that to occupy his mind, the ceaseless boredom of the place, mixed with the anxiety of watching his back, gnawed at him. The cell itself was cramped and stark, a little larger than a bathroom.

It had bunk beds, two shelves, a sink, a toilet. Most of the other prisoners had decorated their walls with photos of family or raggededged pages torn from girlie magazines. Some with paintings or poems they'd done themselves.

Lyle Carrew's cell was barren. Nothing adorned the walls. No TV. A hunk of string was stretched between two walls to hold some hand laundry, socks and T-shirt, but that was all. He had a couple of books on the wall shelf, which he told Bolan not to touch unless he wanted to lose an eye.

He wasn't much company either. He sat in his chair or lay on his bunk, either reading one of his books or scribbling in a steno notepad. Bolan tried a couple of ruses to get him to talk, mostly to find out more about the prison routine, the kind of inside info — like which guards sold drugs or were employed by which prisoners — that even Brognola hadn't been able to find out. But Carrew ignored him.

There wasn't much time. Zavlin's deadline for killing Reed was approaching. And to complicate matters, Reed was also in danger from that hardcase Rodeo. Bolan had to get to Reed first.

His first opportunity came in the exercise yard. Reed was standing against the wall, watching a bunch of cons playing a rough game of three-on-three basketball. One of the guys, with two teardrops tattooed on his cheek, threw the ball at the guy guarding him, but the guy threw the ball back at him and the game went on.

"You play basketball?" Bolan asked Reed, leaning against the wall next to him.

Dodge Reed shifted nervously, looking around the yard for the nearest guard. He mumbled something.

"Huh?" Bolan asked.

"In high school. Played a little, if the team was far enough ahead or the starters all fouled out."

Bolan laughed. "Used to wrestle some myself. That and football."

Reed nodded, relaxing a little, but still tense.

Bolan studied the kid without looking at him. This would be the tough part. Telling him some Russian assassin was after him and would he mind explaining why.

That might make Reed bolt and stay away from Bolan, which would make it impossible to protect him. Play it cool for now, Bolan told himself.

Take it easy.

"You serving or waiting?" Bolan asked.

"What?" Reed look confused.

"Serving your time or waiting for trial?"

"Waiting for trial. Got held over in the prelim, set to go in two weeks. My lawyer's asked for a postponement." He shrugged.

"We'll see." Bolan saw Lyle Carrew over by the weightlifting area, curling a couple of heavy dumbbells. There were a dozen or more other lifters tugging at the weights, their bodies pumped up with blood and muscle, slick with sweat, glistening in the hot sun like armor. Armor, Bolan thought, just what they're building. Something that warns others to keep their distance. Another wall within the walls.

Bolan saw Carrew look at him, then away again, as if they were strangers. Bolan also saw Rodeo. Tall, lanky, mean. Walking toward him and Dodge Reed. His sleeves were rolled up and the fat tattooed snakes were more apparent now as they wound their way up his arms, their fanged mouths open and angry on each biceps. Their eyes were red, the only other color against the rest of the blue tattoo.

His bald head reflected the bright sun, the little braid of hair bouncing off the back of his neck.

Rodeo had his thumbs hooked in his pants, cowboy fashion. He wasn't alone. Two other rough-looking guys matched him step for step, though they fell off and waited about ten yards away as Rodeo approached Bolan and Reed.

"Hiya, kid," Rodeo said to Dodge Reed, winking.

Some of the other inmates who'd been standing nearby quickly drifted away. Apparently, Rodeo expected Bolan to do the same, because he suddenly gave him a harsh look.

"You waiting for something, asshole?" Rodeo said to Bolan.

"Yeah," Bolan replied. "A tan. And you're standing in my light."

Rodeo's pale face flushed with rage. His shoulders stiffened. He stepped closer to Bolan, looking down from his six-feet-six-inch height. "You're Damon Blue, right?"


"Done some time in Joliet and Attica?"

"Word gets around."

"To the right people," Rodeo said. "And I'm the right people in this hole. Outside you may have been a tough guy at your local bar or in your bowling league. But in here you're just a piss ant. Got me, Blue?"

"I got a feeling you don't want to be friends."

Reed started sliding slowly along the wall, trying to get away. A big hand with long fingers like, squid tentacles clamped around Reed's upper arm. "Not so fast, kid. You and me are gonna get to know each other. Real well. You like grass, man? Scag? Coke? I got it all. Whatever you want."

Reed shook his head. "N-no, thanks. I don't use anything."

Rodeo laughed. "You will, kid. I'll show you how. Ain't nothing like the first time someone fixes you up. Makes you almost glad to be in here. Stuff's easier to get than outside." He patted Reed on the head. "Yeah, kid, you and me gonna be real good friends."

Reed flinched from the hand on his head, ducking out from under it. That angered Rodeo, who immediately lashed out with an open palm and smacked Reed across the face. The power of the blow bounced Reed's head off the cement wall and left five red welts on his cheek where the fingers had made contact.

"Don't you ever do that again, kid!" Rodeo snarled, his upper lip curled back to reveal those twisted brown teeth. "You piss me off and I'll turn you over to half a dozen guys at once, then slice off an ear and blame it on the blacks. You understand?" He had his big hand around Reed's throat now, squeezing, lifting the kid up onto his toes.

There was more strength in that tall lanky frame than it appeared. Reed's face was turning a little blue as his toes scuttered against the pavement. The angle of the wall made it difficult for the guards to see them, especially with so many cons milling around.

The one guard who had perfect sight of them was obviously ignoring them. Bolan had heard from some other cons that Rodeo's drug business at the Big A and here netted him more than $100,000 a year.

With that kind of money, he could afford a guard or two.

"I think he's had enough," Bolan said.

Reed looked about to pass out. "Fuck off, man," Rodeo warned.

Bolan fired his right fist into Rodeo's kidney with enough impact to drop the big man to one knee.

Rodeo's face contorted with pain as he grabbed his side.

Dodge Reed sagged against the wall, rubbing his throat, sucking in air. All the prisoners who saw it just stared openmouthed, then scattered, trying to get away. Except the two badasses who'd accompanied Rodeo. They rushed at Bolan with closed fists and murderous scowls. The first was about 230 pounds, with short thick arms covered with matted black hair. He tried to wrap them around Bolan's chest, but the Executioner sidestepped him, spun around behind him and rammed his face into the cement wall. The nose popped immediately, spraying a sunburst splotch of blood onto the wall. Bolan kept his hand at the back of the guy's head, grinding it into the rough cement, scraping the skin off his face until he dropped to his knees with a howl.

The second heavy was not as big as the first, but he was faster and smarter. He snapped his knee high into Bolan's lower back, sending a freight train loaded with dynamite rattling up Bolan's spine. The next blow was a rabbit punch, exploding at the base of Bolan's skull with brilliant fireworks. The force of the blow sent Bolan stumbling forward, almost tripping over the first guy, who was still on his knees, dabbing his fingers in blood, feeling for what was left of his face.

Out of the corner of his eye, the Executioner saw Lyle Carrew wheeling his chair toward them. Not in any hurry though. Slowly, as if strolling.

Bolan heard the shuffle of feet as his attacker again lunged at him from behind. Bolan ducked out of the way, tucking in one shoulder and rolling as the hardguy's size-twelve foot came stomping down where Bolan's head had been a moment before, dust puffing around the foot from the impact. The Executioner stopped his roll and looked up in time to see the man getting ready to jump on his head again.

Quickly, Bolan rifled a leg straight out, cracking his heel into the attacker's kneecap. The fragile bone shattered, dropping him to the ground in agony. Bolan snapped his other heel into the guy's gaping mouth. The hard rubber clipped the row of bottom teeth, popping them out of the gums onto the ground like a handful of white dice.

Rodeo's two henchmen lay moaning, halfconscious. That left Rodeo, who faced Bolan, one hand pressed to his tender side. His bald head was bumpy in the bright sunlight, the small eyes almost invisible under the dark canopy of his thick eyebrows. He reached inside his waistband and plucked out a nineinch shank. "You gonna die, asshole. In small pieces."

Behind Rodeo, young Dodge Reed had recovered enough to understand what was going on. He looked at the two writhing men on the ground, the gleaming shiver of sharp metal in Rodeo's hand. Then he attacked. It wasn't much of an attack, a weak punch to Rodeo's back ribs, as if he was trying to find the same spot where Bolan had hit the prison tough guy. Rodeo barely noticed the punch, whirling fast enough to backhand Reed, knocking him off his feet and spinning back to face Bolan again with his blade.

"That kid's gonna be even sorrier than you, Blue," Rodeo said, grinning. "He's gonna be the whore of some of my guys, who aren't too nice. But then, at least he'll be alive awhile. Not like you."

Rodeo held the shank flat in his hand, the way an experienced knife-fighter would. Bolan spread his arms wide, centering his gravity as he backed up slowly.

From behind him came the creaking of a wheelchair, and Lyle Carrew swung into view, setting the brake on his chair, smiling for the first time since Bolan had met him.

"This I got to see," he said, rubbing his hands together. Rodeo's toothless pal groped around on the ground, trying to pull himself up. Blindly he grabbed Carrew's wheelchair. "Hey, man," Lyle said, hammering him on top of the head with a fist, knocking him back to the ground, dazed. "Hands off," he said.

The first cut came from a fake. Rodeo thrust the blade low toward Bolan's stomach, forcing the Executioner to dodge to the left. When he did, Rodeo whipped the shank upward toward Bolan's exposed throat. Bolan pivoted in time, but the steel shank scored, tracing a bloody line across his shoulder. The slash burned a little, but Bolan ignored it. He'd fought guys with knives before.

Many didn't know how to use them properly. Those who knew what they were doing were another matter.

Especially when they were that tall.

The hand with the knife teased at Bolan, flicking out, then pulling back without committing itself. Bolan watched it, saw the tattooed tail of the snake coiled around the wrist, the rattles etched onto the back of the hand.

"Come on, you guys," Carrew encouraged. "These guards aren't going to play dumb forever."

Rodeo lunged again, the blade torpedoing at Bolan's heart. Bolan chopped at the wrist, knocking it away. That blow would have broken an ordinary man's wrist. Not Rodeo's. He kept coming, thrusting the knife in quick jabs. Bolan leaped out of the way each time, finally grabbing the wrist and pulling Rodeo closer, snapping his forehead into Rodeo's chin, trying to twist the blade out of Rodeo's hand.

"Guards!" someone whispered.

Rodeo and Bolan pushed apart. There was more to fear from the guards than from each other. Inmates had all the time in the world to deal with petty squabbles. But not from solitary confinement. By the time the guards pushed their way through the crowd, Bolan and Rodeo were standing far apart, Bolan helping Reed to his feet, Rodeo nudging his men with his feet.

"What's going on here!" the first guard demanded. "What happened?"

"Basketball," Bolan said, "We were playing. Scrambling for the ball. A wild elbow, you know. Accident."

"No harm, no foul," Rodeo agreed.

"Search 'em," the first guard ordered, throwing all of them up against the wall. They patted each prisoner down, but there were no weapons. Rodeo's blade had been passed on to a friend who was already on the other side of the yard.

The guard pulled Rodeo's heavy henchman to his feet, wincing at the pulpy shredded face.

"Holy! Get this one down to the infirmary."

"What about me?" Rodeo's other man asked, his toothless mouth a bloody hole.

"Yeah, you too. Let's go." The first guard hauled them off. But Bolan saw a look pass between the second guard and Rodeo, something like a shrug.

Rodeo nodded and rubbed his hand over his lumpy bald head, fingering his braided tail. He stared down into Bolan's eyes, and growled, "Soon, Blue. Very soon."

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