Predators inside the prison yard grew tense and quiet. They’d caught the scent of a weak prey, the overweight, middle-aged prison guard named Boyd. Sweat streamed down his face and his tobacco-brown skin had lost two shades.
Standing alone with arms crossed over his orange jumpsuit, Ryder Van Dyke kept an eye on Boyd and the other twenty Atlanta Federal Penitentiary inmates milling around during their hour of yard time.
The standard mix of killers, rapists and thieves.
Present company excluded.
Ryder had never harmed a woman. He had stolen and killed, but only to protect the innocent. Actions he’d taken to preserve national security while on black ops missions for the Army before he was honorably discharged.
Operations that had resulted in saving thousands of lives.
Had that weighed in his favor when someone framed him for murder?
Hell, no. In fact, being an elite marksman—a sniper—was one piece of the circumstantial evidence that had convicted him. But he had a two o’clock meeting this afternoon with his attorney that he hoped meant positive news.
Forty-three minutes from now.
He eyed the guard and the players in the yard.
Ryder couldn’t ask to go back inside early. Not at this point. If the guards picked up on something in the yard after he left, the other inmates would accuse him of snitching and turn on him even though he had no idea what was going down.
No, he was stuck until they were all called inside.
Survival to this point had been iffy. He’d spent the past four months, twenty-nine days and thirteen hours in this shithole. Given a choice, he’d have taken a bullet between the eyes instead of getting locked away in a space so small it would drive a dog crazy. He was lucky to have survived this long, and almost hadn’t that first week.
The predators, led by the Beast, had turned on Ryder the second day.
Facing an undetermined stay here, he’d had only one option to stay alive. Take on the meanest bull in the yard–the Beast–and bust his balls, if he could, to make the rest think twice before testing him.
Ryder had ended up taking on three, and had hobbled away with cracked ribs, a bruised ball of his own, and peeing blood.
But he’d been upright.
The other three had left on stretchers.
Cost him thirty days of solitary confinement in the SHU, Single Housing Unit, aka the Hole.
A safe place. Physically. A wasteland of invisible land mines mentally.
The space would have been suffocating for an hour. He’d touched two walls when he stretched his arms across the space and the COs, Corrections Officers, controlled the fluorescent light that stayed on nonstop. Seconds turned into endless minutes that blurred into insanity while he waited to get out. His palms dampened just thinking about that thirty days.
When Ryder’s breathing hitched, he ran his hand over his forehead to wipe away perspiration that stung his eyes. He drew a deep lung full of air. Stay calm.
In the past, he’d adjusted to any situation, but there was no way in hell he’d ever get used to being locked in a cage forever.
Movement in the yard tapped at his awareness. Shuffling around was normal. Choreographed moves were not and, all at once, it seemed as if everyone had new dance steps.
The predators were twitching.
Ryder eyed the sickly guard.
Fifteen feet away, Boyd panted in between wheezes from his two-pack-a-day habit. With a cool, late September breeze scurrying through the dirt exercise area, the temperature wasn’t causing Boyd’s excessive sweat that soaked his steel-blue uniform. Did he have the flu? He fisted his left hand then opened his fingers as if trying to work out a muscle issue before he gripped his rifle again.
Now Cherry Man turned toward Boyd. Bad sign that. Wide as a refrigerator, if they were produced in the color of burned oil, and just as hard to knock down, Cherry Man had been convicted on six brutal rape accounts. He gave a tiny head nod to the Beast.
His full moniker was the Rajun Beast. He’d climbed out of the Louisiana swamps and killed a two-hundred-pound man with his bare hands during a botched robbery attempt.
Rumor was, that hadn’t been his first B&E or his first kill.
Cherry Man and the Beast moved slowly toward Boyd.
The rest of the jackals eased along behind their vicious leaders. All but four inmates who migrated away from the pack to the opposite side of the yard. What were they up to?
Ryder assessed the threat.
The Beast wouldn’t be thinking to grab a sick guard’s rifle and shoot his way out. He was a homicidal maniac with plenty of self-preservation instinct. Six weeks ago, Boyd had reported the Beast for harboring a homemade weapon. The Beast had been dumped in the Hole. He had the ruthless patience of crocodile, waiting for a chance to make Boyd pay, and this was shaping up to be the perfect opportunity.
Fuck. Ryder had to keep his nose clean so he didn’t make it any more difficult for the attorney hired by Slye Temp, his former employer, to get his ass out of here.
He still couldn’t believe Sabrina Slye and her team of operatives continued to stand behind him even with a potential murder conviction.
His family sure as hell hadn’t.
Except for his brother, Terrence, who’d visited three times and offered to bring in Van Dyke attorneys. Accepting that would have just put Terrence at further odds with their father, the one man Ryder did not want to owe.
Besides, aid bought with Hubrecht Van Dyke’s checkbook would only play into the prosecutor’s case against Ryder.
Smart money said to keep as much distance from the Van Dykes as possible. That same smart money also said Ryder should stay away from Boyd, who was looking worse by the minute.
Boyd leaned back against the wall, grimacing with each breath he took and white-knuckling his weapon. His hand went for his radio, hesitated, then he drew a raspy breath, straightened up and pulled his hand back.
He was a decent guy who showed up and did his job without attitude. He’d actually dragged Ryder away after Ryder’s fight with the Beast and his lackeys, before someone else could attack his broken body.
People who’d never been in a prison might assume Boyd’s action had been standard protocol for a guard. Not even. The guards could have left Ryder to the other thugs, until his entire body had looked like hamburger, but Boyd had been standing close enough to know Ryder hadn’t started that altercation.
Ryder spent thirty days in the Hole with nothing but time to think about that one act of consideration.
Forty-three-thousand, two-hundred minutes.
No clothes except underwear. Nothing but him, a bunk too short to sleep in, a toilet, and whatever rodent came by to steal a bite.
Dots swam in front of his eyes.
He squinted. Stop thinking about it.
Instead, he focused on Boyd.
What to do? Take the risk of saving a life, or live with the guilt of not lifting a finger?
Ryder began moving toward the guard with subtle steps as he searched the yard to locate all the players in the macabre show unfolding around him. He should back away, but his damn DNA was hotwired to his conscience. His odds floated right around toilet level. Interfering with the Beast’s plan meant facing the Beast and Cherry Man.
The second guard in the yard was still observing what had turned into an intense four-man conversation.
Ryder looked back at Boyd, who sagged. Stubborn bastard, radio someone to relieve you. But Boyd had missed too much time recently to care for a diabetic little girl he was raising alone.
He was afraid to take another day of sick leave and risk losing this job in a sucky economy.
Ryder didn’t want to know all that, but he did.
Don’t take your eye off the goal, his common sense warned. Half an hour until the Slye attorney showed. Six minutes until exercise hour ended.
Come on, assholes, call us in early.
The predators closed the gap between them and Boyd to thirty feet. At five steps from the guard, Ryder paused because everyone else had stopped. Maybe he’d misread something and let his mouthy conscience interfere when he should be listening to his common sense. Just a couple more minutes and the Beast would lose his chance at whatever he was up to, this time at least.
Boyd looked right at Ryder then his face drooped on one side and his skin paled two shades.
One of the inmates whistled a birdcall. A signal.
The foursome over in the corner cranked up the volume on their rumble-in-the-making discussion, which hadn’t reached the point of an argument. No worse than a loud debate about sports. So far.
Whatever the Beast had in mind was on.
Ryder wasn’t surprised at the crazy inmate going after vengeance, but how much was this going to cost him? The Beast had to pay the other inmates–and Cherry Man would not be cheap–plus he’d face whatever disciplinary action the warden dealt out.
When the other guard took a step toward the four noisy men, Ryder relaxed. That guard would call the end of exercise time and …
Boyd’s left arm fell slack at his side. The rifle slipped in the grasp of his other hand. His knees buckled and Boyd slid helplessly down the wall, moaning.
Ryder took another cautious step. Sweat trickled into his eyes. Why wasn’t the tower calling the other guard?
Because the four men in the corner had everyone’s attention.
Everything happened within seconds.
A shrill birdcall split the air, then a shouting match erupted between the four men, but no contact or the tower would shoot. The second guard rushed over, weapon raised and ordering the men to separate.
At the same moment, sixteen predators rushed Boyd.
Ryder cursed his stupidity and lunged for the guard, hoping like hell he didn’t draw a bullet from the tower.
Bullets popped the ground around them. Sirens screeched and bullhorns shouted to break apart.
The guards might hesitate to shoot into a crowd if they thought this was nothing more than a prisoner battle and didn’t realize a guard was at the bottom.
Boyd’s pain-filled eyes locked on Ryder with a glimmer of hope that one person was not coming to hurt him.
Reaching the guard first, Ryder slammed his foot down on the rifle as he squatted to unclip the guard’s radio. He got his fingers on the radio, then was body tackled to the ground. Feet and legs were everywhere. Dust boiled the air. Ryder choked and coughed. He sucked in the odor of stinking bodies. Fists punched his body and a sneaker-covered foot bashed his face.
What the fuck?
The bigger the pile, the easier it was to cover up whatever went on underneath.
Sirens wailed and shots were fired.
Ryder yanked the radio free and dragged it toward his mouth. Calling medical aid for Boyd might save both their asses.
Two huge hands grabbed Ryder’s forearm, knocking the radio loose and yanking his hand into the pile. His palm landed on cool metal. He closed his fingers to jerk it away. Another shoe kicked his jaw, knocking him dizzy. His captured hand slammed down on something. He couldn’t breathe with the weight on his back. Stars crowded his vision. The inmate pinning him down rolled off. When Ryder felt his arm slip, he wrenched his hand back and found it empty. He shook his head to clear the ringing.
Gritty voices shouted orders. More shots erupted close by.
An inmate clutching a rifle fell across Ryder. Guess that was the one who’d grabbed Boyd’s weapon. The pungent smell of fresh blood stained the air.
Ryder shoved his elbows to his sides and pushed up to hoist the limp body off his back.
Boyd’s arm stuck out of the pile with his banged-up Timex watch. His fingers flexed. Ryder grabbed Boyd’s wrist, trying to drag him from the pile. If he could keep the guard alive then he had a chance to prove …
Another shoe heel slammed Ryder’s kidneys. He fell down on his side, curled in pain. He tasted blood in his mouth.
More guards shouted as they poured into the yard, locked and loaded.
Inmates grumbled and cursed as they unpiled.
Clutching his gut, Ryder lifted his head and looked to his right.
Boyd’s face was turned to him, eyes wide and blank. Blood trickled from where a homemade shiv had been jammed into his throat
A vile laugh drew Ryder’s gaze up to find the Beast grinning at him.
This hadn’t been about payback to Boyd, but to Ryder.
There would be only one set of prints on that metal shiv.