The tan-colored bus – INMATE TRANSPORTATION stenciled crudely on its sides – skidded to a stop in the center of the rutted gravel road. The driver, one of two armed prison guards, set the hand brake and climbed out.
Adam Duval strained against his shackles, unable to see anything beyond the windshield. That they had stopped before reaching their designated work site was a bad sign.
Shoulders hunched, he tried peering between the dirty metal slats welded across the side windows. He saw little. Just eye-blistering-blue skies, a tobacco field, and a gray squirrel. Typical central North Carolina flora and fauna, except that the squirrel was dead, its bloated carcass floating in an ocean of scummy water that left only the tops of the tallest tobacco stalks visible.
Earlier in the week, a tropical weather system had stalled and dumped a record-breaking eighteen inches of rain on the state, spawning catastrophic flooding. Thousands were homeless, few had electricity, and transportation was at a standstill.
With the state’s emergency resources stretched to the max, the governor had pledged the entire prison work force to recovery efforts. While Adam had been assigned to a road gang three days ago, this was the first time the busses had actually made it off the flood-ravaged prison grounds. If they were forced to turn back it could be days before they got out again as more rain was predicted later that night, courtesy of a second system creeping in from the Midwest.
Frustrated, he waited. And watched. Then waited some more. What was taking the driver so damn long?
“Ten bucks says we turn around and head back,” Franklin Potter, one of the three other inmates, whispered.
The senior guard, Irv Wallace, who’d ignored them up till now, turned. “Who said that? McEdwin?”
When no one responded, the guard swung his black club in the air. “Y’all better shut your traps or somebody’s going to be working with a cracked skull.”
Adam narrowed his gaze to the back of Potter’s head, willing him to keep quiet. The last thing they needed was grief from the guard.
Tempers on both sides of the bars shortened as the heat index inside the bus topped a suffocating one hundred degrees. Not that the lack of air movement bothered anyone but the prisoners. The guards had a small fan mounted on the cracked dashboard. They didn’t care that the back of the bus felt like the inside of a sealed fifty-five gallon drum. Or that the exhaust system leaked.
The greasy sausage and biscuit Adam had for breakfast burned a hole in his gut. Perspiration trickled down his neck. He shook his head, realized he’d actually been praying – a habit he’d abandoned in childhood. Desperation did strange things to a man.
Finally, the driver returned and motioned for Wallace to climb off. Adam shifted, watching the guards confer outside. Neither man looked happy.
With no guards on the bus, Potter, the inmate with ten dollars, grew vocal again. “Leaving a dog locked in a vehicle this hot is against the law. Damn dogs got more rights than we do.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Lyle McEdwin, the prisoner seated behind Adam hissed. “I already owe you for letting me take the heat earlier.”
“Hey, can I help it if Wallace has a hard-on for you?” Potter sneered. “The man is always riding your ass.”
“Yeah? Well, when we get outside, I’m gonna-”
The doors banged open, signaling the guards’ return. A lethal silence fell over the prisoners. Adam shot Lyle a scowl, prayed it registered. Unfortunately, hints the size of a B-52 routinely went right over the kid’s head.
The youngest man on the road gang, Lyle McEdwin’s immaturity was legendary. He had a big mouth and a reputation for making stupid moves. He was also Adam’s cellmate.
Irv Wallace cleared his throat and removed his sunglasses. The guard’s right eye was slightly off plumb, giving him a harsh look that matched his attitude. “Listen up. Bus can’t go any further. Roadbed’s washed out. We’ll have to walk to the site. With the equipment.”
The inmates grumbled, but not too loud. Working a road gang – even under miserable conditions – beat being locked up in a prison cell. Anything beat that.
Especially today. Christ, Adam would belly crawl across razor blades with all the equipment strapped on his back to get to the work site.
The grumbling grew louder, which set Wallace off yet again. He clanged his metal clipboard against the interior bars.
“North Carolina statute 148-26 says all able-bodied prison inmates are required to perform diligently all work assignments provided for them,” the guard recited from memory. “Diligently means doing whatever I tell you. Got that? It also says ‘failure to perform such work assignments may result in disciplinary action.’ Anybody need a demonstration of disciplinary action?”
When no one volunteered, Wallace locked his good eye on Adam before continuing in a drawl as thick and annoying as the late-July heat. “You’re awfully quiet, Hollywood. Was there any part of that statute you didn’t understand?”
Wallace dragged the slur out. Holl-Leee-Wood.
Adam knew what was whispered behind his back. Movie star face, Frankenstein body. He also knew the guard was spoiling for a fight. Part of him ached to oblige. But not now.
Stifling the urge, Adam looked away.
“I didn’t think so.” Pleased with his imagined victory, Wallace hiked up his pants and puffed his chest before speaking into the two-way radio clipped near his shoulder.
The driver moved to unshackle the inmates, an easy process since there were only four. Prison road crews were usually comprised of eight men, but under the governor’s emergency disaster plan, they’d been split into smaller groups to cover a larger geographic area. Two armed guards still accompanied each squad manned with medium-risk inmates.
As the inmates disembarked, Adam positioned himself between Potter and Lyle, who still swapped venomous glares.
“You prisoners turn and put your hands on the bus. Any unauthorized movement will be interpreted as intent to flee.” Wallace motioned with his shotgun, while quoting yet another statute granting use of deadly force.
Flee? Adam eyed the flooded fields surrounding them. With no place to hide, no cover, it was a giant kill zone. A suicide run. Hell, there was scarcely enough ground on the raised access road for the men to stand beside the bus.
Tuning out the guard’s sermon, Adam put his hands just above shoulder height and eased his head back. It felt good to be off the bus. Off prison grounds.
Squinting against the searing sun, he drew a deep breath. Free air. He’d missed it. God, he missed a lot. He’d only been incarcerated three months – nothing compared to some others – but it still had felt like a life sentence.
He thought of what he’d like to do to the man responsible for putting him behind bars. The double-dealing bastard had a lot to answer for.
“Y’all turn around and pay attention!” Wallace pointed to a line of trees about a half-mile to the west. “Tarheel Creek runs behind those woods. There are ten ditches that empty into it. Every one of ‘em is blocked with trash from the storm so they can’t drain. And that’s keeping the interstate flooded. Department of Transporation wants them cleared fast. Which means no slacking. You got that, McEdwin?”
Adam slanted his eyes toward Lyle. The younger man had been about to say something – probably a smart-ass retort – but stopped. Maybe there was hope for the kid after all.
“Then grab a wheelbarrow,” Wallace shouted after each man had donned an orange safety vest emblazoned front and back with the word INMATE. “Daylight’s a-wasting.”
An hour later, Adam waded knee-deep in water swirling with the run-off from a nearby hog farm. He squashed a hungry insect buzzing near his neck.
Two more flew in to take its place. The putrid floodwater provided perfect breeding conditions for mosquitoes and biting flies. As annoying as they were, the insects were the least of his worries.
Now that they were actually getting on with the task, a new qualm surfaced with each step. The first two landmarks Adam had been instructed to watch for hadn’t been there. The fact they’d taken a slightly different route was probably to blame. At least that’s what he hoped.
They cut across a pasture, heading south. The land rolled and dipped, much of it underwater, but finally he spotted a stretch of split-rail fence. A hundred yards beyond it sat a red barn. Bright red, you can’t miss it. He hoisted the shovels he carried higher on his shoulder. For the first time in months he felt a spark of optimism.
Which died when they arrived at the first ditch.
“Well I’ll be a-” The driver held up a hand, indicating they should halt. “Hey Irv! Look at that.”
On the opposite bank, the runoff had carved a steep ravine in the hill. A muddy chute formed, allowing garbage from an illegal dumpsite to slip down and obstruct the drainage ditch.
This was no small blockage; there was everything from rusted washing machines to yellow bats of insulation. But the coup de grace: a mountain of black rubber tires. While the landslide looked recent, a virtual lake of floodwater already gurgled behind the well-packed dam, growing larger by the minute.
Adam located the prearranged landmarks once again. The fence. The barn. Where the hell was the other?
A sickening feeling of déjà vu settled in his stomach. This had happened twice before. A dry run, he’d been told. But he’d been promised this time was it. God help him, someone would pay if it wasn’t.
Scanning the area one more time, Adam finally spotted his last marker. It was buried under some debris, barely visible. That it hadn’t been lost in the landslide was a miracle. He released a pent-up breath, relieved he wasn’t facing failure this soon.
“Hold up while he checks this mess.” Wallace pointed to the driver.
“Me?” The driver glanced up at the hill. “I don’t need to check it out. Any idiot can see there’s a ton of garbage still perched up there. If I sneeze wrong it will fall.”
“Then don’t sneeze. Idiot.” Wallace didn’t like having his authority questioned. “And hurry back.”
Adam clenched his jaw as the driver kicked at a large blue coffee can before disappearing from sight. Seconds stretched without end as they stood, broiling beneath the unrelenting sun. Potter mumbled threats under his breath, low enough so that Wallace couldn’t hear, yet loud enough Adam wanted to deck him.
The driver returned, dour faced. “It’s worse than I thought. There’s twice as much crap piled up behind this.”
Wallace shrugged. “So they have to work twice as hard. Big deal.”
“You don’t understand. This is too big for four men and shovels. It’ll take dynamite. Maybe a crane. We need to forget this ditch and move on.”
“Dynamite? It don’t look that bad to me,” Wallace said. “Now you sound like them. Always wanting to skip the shitty jobs.”
“That’s bull-” The driver launched into defense mode, arguing his point.
As much as he disliked the senior guard, Adam silently sided with Wallace on this one. Skipping this ditch was out of the question.
“Five minute break,” Wallace finally shouted. “You can sit down, just don’t get too comfy.”
As Wallace turned his back to talk into his radio, the driver shifted away, more intent on eavesdropping on Wallace’s conversation than watching the inmates.
Lyle lowered himself to the ground beside Adam and picked at his fingernails. “What’s going on?”
“Not sure. A lot depends on him.” He nodded toward Wallace, mentally measuring distances and weighing alternatives. One thing was absolutely certain: Adam was not going to return to prison.
“Follow my lead if we’re ordered to move to the next site,” he said.
“What if I-”
“My lead.” Adam noticed Potter watching them. He met the inmate’s gaze, held it until the other man looked away. “And let me handle Potter.”
“I can take him.” Lyle flexed his arm.
“Sure you can. The point is: Don’t. Brawling with him could blow everything.”
Wallace’s radio crackled as the voice on the other end instructed him to stand by while they checked with the D.O.T.
“Stand by? Right.” The driver spat and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Sounds like we’ll be here a while.”
Wallace mopped his brow with a bandanna, then lit a cigarette. He frowned at the prisoners. “Well, what are you waiting for? The friggin’ trash fairy? Start bagging that crap on the bank. Just don’t touch anything near the water.”
“Be ready.” Adam climbed to his feet, thankful their original plan was still operable. Lyle was not the type he’d want to ad-lib with.
Grabbing a garbage bag, Adam moved across the sodden ground and claimed an area by stopping to pick up an empty soda bottle. Lyle moved off to the right leaving behind Potter and the other inmate who were just pushing up from the ground.
“See there?” Wallace pointed to Adam. “That’s the kind of attitude I expect. Show ‘em how to do it, Hollywood.” Grinning, the guard walked off to respond to a radio call.
Pretending to pick up a piece of garbage, Potter bumped into Adam as soon as the guard’s back was turned. “You trying to make the rest of us look bad, Hollywood?”
Adam drew up his full height. At six-four, two-thirty, he towered over most men. So did his reputation. Inside the prison walls, he’d carved out his own niche, made his own rules. Most people gave him a wide berth. But he still had enemies. Everybody did. And Potter was everyone’s enemy; a trouble-making prick who never thought beyond the moment.
Adam wanted to end this before it started. “You don’t want to go there. Not today. I’ll pound you into sand.”
Potter glanced sideways, nervous, noticed the other inmates watching. Straightening, he tried to save face. “I don’t care how many people they say you killed, you don’t scare me.”
“Then maybe I need to try harder.”
Potter backed down. “We’ll finish this later.”
Later meant back at prison where the ultimate jury of peers presided. There was an unwritten rule that inmates were supposed to look out for each other. No matter what. The old Us against Them. Except the rules shifted with the wind, often pitting inmate against inmate. Ultimately it was about power. Some had it, some didn’t. Most abused it.
I won’t miss that either.
Adam bent to pick up the trash in front of him: a soggy newspaper half covering a blue, three-pound coffee can. He grabbed the can, its top covered by a snap-on plastic lid. It was heavy, full; but not with coffee.
He lowered the can into his bag, adrenaline kicking up as he checked the contents. There was no turning back now. Apprehension sank fangs into his spine as he thought of what was at stake, of what could go wrong. And how easily the line between right and wrong blurred.
He glanced at Lyle, nodding once. This was it. If the kid blew this, he’d strangle him.
Lyle moved, then stumbled and fell. Rolling onto his back, he grasped his ankle, yelping in pain.
“On your feet, you little wimp!” Wallace ordered.
“I…I can’t. I think I broke it.” Lyle grimaced. “In that goddamned gopher hole.”
Wallace motioned to the driver. “Check McEdwin. The rest of you men: Down.”
Careful to keep a safe distance away, the driver eased closer and nodded toward Lyle’s ankle. “Let me see.”
Biting his lip, Lyle reached for the hem of his pants. But instead of raising it, he twisted and sprang forward, clearing the distance to take the unsuspecting driver out at the knees.
The driver’s shotgun dropped. The two men rolled around in the muddy clay as each man struggled to retrieve it.
Wallace’s response was immediate, as if he’d expected it. Almost gleefully, the senior guard raised his shotgun, trained it on Lyle and the driver as they wrestled. His finger moved to the trigger. “Prisoner, freeze! Or I’ll shoot!”
Behind his back, Adam yanked out the Beretta nine-millimeter that had been planted in the coffee can. He pointed it at Wallace. “Drop it.”
The look on Wallace’s face shifted from Kodak-moment to Stephen-King-nightmare. He swayed slightly, uncertain whether to keep his weapon trained on Lyle, or to come about and face Adam.
The guard clearly had difficulty comprehending two facts: first, that Adam had a weapon, and, second, that Lyle – of all people – was his accomplice.
At that moment, Lyle leaped to his feet, leaving the driver sprawled on the ground, face down and unmoving. Triumphant, he scooped up the shotgun, jacking a round into the chamber before swinging it toward Wallace.
Wallace opened and closed his mouth, then shouted the driver’s name. “Get up, damn you. I need help!”
The driver didn’t respond.
“Lay your weapon on the ground and step back,” Adam ordered.
“Easy, there.” Wallace’s voice remained surprisingly calm as he slowly lowered his weapon and moved away. “You don’t want to do this, Duval. He’s made you an accessory to murder. They’ll fry you.”
“Murder? Bite me.” Lyle moved in and kicked Wallace’s shotgun out of reach. “He ain’t dead. Just out cold thanks to my special sleeper hold.”
Unable to hide his irritation, Adam glared at Lyle before nodding toward the driver. “You forgot to secure him.” Sleeper hold or not, the driver could regain consciousness at any time. “And hurry.”
Red-faced, Lyle stepped back and quickly cuffed the driver’s hands using the handcuffs from the man’s own belt.
“You won’t make it far. Not with that dipshit for a partner.” Wallace eyed his voice-activated radio, smug. “Besides, they’ve heard every word. Probably got back up coming already. You’re both gonna regret this. I guar-an-fucking-tee it.”
“Afraid not.” Adam held up a wafer-thin transmitter that had been taped to the Beretta’s grip. “Radio’s jammed. They’re only hearing static. By the time they send someone to check, we’ll be long gone.”
“Yeah. So hit the ground and kiss dirt,” Lyle added.
Wallace’s self-righteous smirk melted as it dawned on him that no help was coming, no rescue was imminent. The balance of power had shifted, leaving him trapped in a guard’s worst nightmare. He was probably recalling every wrong act he’d committed against a prisoner.
And while he wasn’t as barbaric as some, Adam knew first hand how the man misused authority.
Once the guard was flat on his stomach, Lyle leaned close and knocked Wallace’s hat off before securing his hands. Then he drew back and kicked the guard hard, in the ribs.
“How does it feel to know nothing can stop me from blowing you away?” Lyle dropped to one knee and shoved the end of the barrel into the guard’s right ear as he ran his hand along the shotgun’s stock. “Bet you never figured I’d be the one to off you.”
“Leave him,” Adam ordered.
When Lyle made no move to comply, Adam shifted closer. So far no one had been injured. He damn sure wanted to keep it that way.
“I heard you.” Lyle withdrew the shotgun then bent down and snatched the guard’s cigarettes from his back pocket. “Guess I’ll catch you next time. And give Huggins this message for me: Tell him to watch his back.”
Ned Huggins was another guard, known for being exceptionally cruel, especially to the prisoners he considered weak. It was no secret that Lyle had been Ned’s favorite target.
Adam turned to the other two inmates who were on their feet now. “It’s every man for himself. You don’t have much of a head start so I’d think twice before wasting time with them.” He nodded toward the guards.
Potter moved forward. “Fuck that. I’m going with you.”
“No, you’re not.” Adam raised the nine-millimeter. “And I’ll shoot anyone who tries to follow us.”
Potter stepped sideways. “I’m taking his gun, then.”
Adam moved closer to Wallace’s shotgun, blocking Potter’s access. “You heard me. It’s every man for himself.”
Snarling, Potter raised his fist, shook it. “We’ll meet again, Duval. And remember: payback’s a bitch.” Spitting, he turned away and took off running with the other inmate.
“Shoot him,” Lyle urged. “Show him who’s boss.”
Adam stooped to pick up Wallace’s shotgun. “I already did. Let’s go.”
Motioning for Lyle to lead, Adam threw one last look at the guards then took his first step toward the woods.
Toward freedom, justice…and retribution.
Adam didn’t stop running until they’d reached the car – a stolen Ford Taurus – hidden in a dense copse of hickory trees a mile away.
Letting the shotgun slide to the ground, Lyle collapsed against the car’s hood, panting. “Did you see the look on Wallace’s face? He thought he was seconds away from getting his head blown off. By me! What a fucking rush!”
“Rush? You think killing people is a joke?” Adam yanked the younger man to his feet, and spun him around. He wanted to throttle Lyle, shake some sense into him. Except there wasn’t time for that much shaking. “We agreed up front – no shooting unless absolutely necessary.”
“Hey, back off! I wasn’t really going to shoot him. Just fire a warning shot next to his head. Make him piss his pants. He did it to me plenty of times.”
“We weren’t that far from the main road. Someone could have heard.” Adam released him. “I ought to leave your ass right here, right now. I didn’t want company to begin with and I don’t need someone who can’t stay focused on the big picture.”
Lyle straightened his shirt. “I thought the big picture included settling old scores. Hell, I’ve heard you talk about it plenty of times.”
“That comes later. The first priority is to get away. Which means sticking with the plan until we’re safe.”
“Well, this couldn’t wait,” Lyle defended. “Wallace has been on my case since I got there. Circling like a buzzard, hoping to collect the reward on my kin. I hope he’s shaking in his boots wondering what my pa will do to get even.”
“Fine. Once we part ways, you and your family can do whatever you want.” Disgusted, Adam stepped away.
“Wait.” Lyle’s brow wrinkled. “Ah, hell. I’m sorry. You’re right. And I swear, after we hook up with my family, you’ll forget all this talk about parting ways.”
“I doubt that.” Adam’s snort was authentic. “You place too much stock in your family, kid. Family will screw you just as easily as a stranger off the street.”
“Mine won’t. Mark my words. Besides, you need me – my connections. Remember?”
Adam stared at the ground, pretended he was weighing options he didn’t have. Lyle’s connections were indeed vital.
The two men had shared a cell from the first day Adam landed in prison. Initially wary, they forged an uneasy alliance when Lyle hid contraband for Adam during a search.
Adam repaid the favor by showing the younger man several effective self-defense moves, which improved Lyle’s fate with the other prisoners if not with the guards. This last act also elevated Adam’s status to hero.
When Lyle guessed Adam planned an escape, he begged, pleaded, to be included. Adam flat out refused. Until Lyle promised that his family would hide them once they were on the outside.
His offer had been impossible to refuse. Willy McEdwin, Lyle’s father – and his three older brothers, Nevin, Tristin, and Burt – held the top four spots on the FBI’s most-wanted list. Dubbed the Four Horsemen in the right-wing press, they were responsible for the deaths of more law enforcement officials than anyone in history – a number they had sworn to double.
If anyone could hide two fugitives, it was Willy McEdwin and sons. Famous for striking and disappearing without a trace – and despite rumors of family rifts – they had eluded capture for over four years. And while Lyle had had no contact with his family in the nine months he’d been incarcerated, Adam doubted Willy would leave his youngest out in the cold once he’d escaped.
However…until they connected with the McEdwin clan, Adam wanted to make damn sure Lyle played by the rules. His rules. “We also agreed: I’m in charge until we part ways.”
“Whatever. You da’ man.”
Lyle lit a cigarette, then blew smoke rings and tried to poke a finger through one, reminding Adam that he was barely twenty years old. Still a kid – albeit a stupid one.
At thirty-four, Adam felt ancient.
“Now can we celebrate?” Lyle asked.
“Not yet. If the guard doesn’t check in soon, they’ll dispatch someone to investigate. We need to vanish. And I cashed in all my chips making arrangements for two.” He looked pointedly at Lyle. “Which means the ball’s in your court. I held up my end, got us out, got us wheels. But we need a destination. As soon as we’re on the road, you need to contact your family.”
Unloading the shotguns, Adam pocketed the shells and tossed both twelve-gauges into the brush.
“Are you crazy?” Lyle started after them.
“We don’t need them. And I damn sure don’t want any souvenirs from that hell hole.”
Adam moved to the back of the car and opened the trunk. Inside were civilian clothes, non-perishable food, a few hundred in cash, a handheld police scanner, a cell phone with charger, and a second handgun, this one a Smith & Wesson.
Eyes wide, Lyle made a grab for the gun. “You’re right, we don’t need their stinking shotguns.”
“Cut the John Wayne act, kid. I mean it. We’re stowing both weapons under the seat.” Where Adam could keep track of them. “Let’s change up and go. I want to put some miles on this car – fast.”
“You won’t regret this,” Lyle said. “I promise, by nightfall, we’ll be somewhere safe and sound.”
“Yep, like the county jail.”
Both men jumped and turned at the new voice.
About thirty feet away, Adam spotted a man crouched beneath a tree, an old double-barrel propped at shoulder level.
The man’s overalls and worn John Deere cap indicated he was a farmer, probably the owner of the submerged fields surrounding them. And judging by the comfortable way he held the shotgun, he wasn’t fond of trespassers.
Adam raised his hands. “Easy, Mister. We don’t mean you any harm.”
“You can tell that to the sheriff when he gets here,” the farmer said. “Now tell your friend to get his hands where I can see ‘em.”