Fistfights occur regularly in prison, especially in maximum security prisons where reputation is everything. During my first year, a dedicated group of prisoners wanted a shot at my combat training, wanted to measure their fighting abilities against military training. I was a preferred objective ― if bested, a trophy to hold aloft in the chow hall. In the beginning, I fought to preserve my safety and I fought out of fear in a no-holds-barred environment. In the end, I fought because I was damned if I’d allow anyone to kick my ass just because they were a mean and cruel bastard. Sometimes I fought angrily. Sometimes I fought determinedly one on one. Sometimes two or three opponents would surround me. Didn’t matter. Queensberry boxing rules did not exist in prison. I never waited for my adversary to raise his hands and to nod his head when he was ready. I fought smart and hard and I never put up my dukes — I attacked without warning. There’s no such thing as a fair fight, especially in prison. Soon I began to fight with calm and detached anger, with a fierce and burning flame buried deep down to fuel my rage. Somehow, I seemed to be genetically predisposed to outthink my adversaries in combat scenarios. Seldom did I feel anxiety or paralyzing fears.
Steered by cold premeditation, my goal became how to end each confrontation as quickly as possible, which meant invoking the greatest physical harm with the least amount of physical expenditure. I attacked with extreme prejudice. Head butts, elbow smashes, broken knee- and elbow joints, kicks to the groin and punches to the throat topped my preferred strike list. Not long after I learned to inflict devastating physical damage in the first two seconds, not long after smashed larynxes, broken elbows, and busted knees became my calling card, challenges petered out. Youthful arrogance and natural stubbornness, combined with athletic fighting ability, earned me a reputation as someone who was better left to his own devices, most of the time.
If one remains in prison long enough, a knife fight is bound to occur. A grievance arose between me and another prisoner. Coffee, juice, and other foodstuffs had spilled out of the kitchen food carts and littered the hallway. My adversary was responsible for sweeping and mopping that stretch of tile. Abdul, the hallway cleaner, blamed me. I was one of two men who pushed the carts to and from their destination. He felt I used my reputation as an excuse to act disrespectfully toward him. The fault lay with my co-worker, but tattling was never an option. Abdul was a muscle-bound extremist who stood four inches shorter than my six-foot two-inch height with limbs like trees, and shoulders like Paul Bunyan. He and three others liked-minded cohorts cornered me in the bathroom in the gymnasium. Abdul demanded I dispose of the hallway garbage cans that day, and every day after for as long as we both shall live.
It was not my job. In truth, my pride would not allow me to yield, and I wanted to practise my craft on four people. I was confident I could drop two right away before they had thrown the first punch. I rationalized the scenario by reminding myself once a person showed weakness, further demands usually followed. Abdul and his brothers planned to strip a few layers from my hide. The gun-toting guard in an access window noticed the convergence of bodies. He opened the gun port, stuck the barrel of his rifle out, and waited. We dispersed, agreeing to return. The physiques of my opponents were the product of weights and nothing more. Endurance and speed were on my side. Strength by itself is seldom successful against a smarter opponent. Three hours after we had dispersed, I received information through the prison grapevine Abdul was strapping up. They planned to bring knives and pipes. There were several choices open to me, run and keep running, or fight. I went to Pierre, who cell was on the same range as mine, for advice.
Pierre served a triple life sentence and was known as the Wyatt Earp of knife fighters. Pierre accompanied me to the gym and made sure Abdul and I entered the card room alone. Two shanks, their handles taped with white hockey tape, were thrown onto the floor and the door was closed behind us. Pierre stood outside the closed door looking menacing, which meant just being himself. Whenever Pierre smiled at a fellow, you wanted to call home and tell mom how much you missed her. The three men who had accompanied Abdul retreated across the gym floor to await the fight’s outcome without argument. Meanwhile, inside the room, I dove for one of the knives and kicked the other one across the room behind me, out of reach. Upon seeing my readiness to enter battle, Abdul backed away, hands raised, palms out, apologizing profusely. I gladly accepted his apology.
Compared to many other prisoners, I was relatively new and I had to live inside the fence for nine more years. I wanted to avoid taking another life. Fighting was one thing, ending someone’s life for trivial reasons was impossible for me to contemplate. Survival presented me with a conundrum. How could I survive, and avoid another manslaughter conviction if I took a life? Self-defence was a difficult position to prove. Military training immediately prejudiced the court against me. They would say I possessed an unfair advantage.
The answer to my conundrum showed itself. I needed a bigger reputation; a reputation so large and daunting others would abandon any thought of confronting me without provocation. To achieve my goal, I needed to improve a different skill set. Knife fighting. Knife fighting puts a person up close and personal. It requires a complete commitment to face a knife-wielder, as well as to become one in earnest. Not everyone owned the mindset to engage in the finality that comes with edged weapons. They are messy things. Blood, piss, and feces as the body surrenders its muscular control often accompany a serious knife fight. Combat school’s basic knife fighting knowledge could not compare to Pierre`s experience. I needed what he had. I needed to build a reputation so large it became a bluff no one would ever call. Once Pierre had heard me out, he agreed to take me on as his student.
“Soldier boy, if you’re going to swing a shank, you gotta be smart. In case you ain’t noticed, there are a few mutts who’d like to put a soldier boy notch on their shank handle.”
Penitentiary policy prohibited mock fighting and most types of sparing. Certain guards, however, refused to involve themselves in prisoner affairs, or they were bored and wanted to watch, which suited me fine. Let everyone watch. Let them all gauge my growing skillset and beware. Anything to keep the challengers at bay and to help ensure I would be released from prison on my dates and not have to spend the rest of my life in jail because I wasn’t smart enough to avoid confrontation.
By exploiting the laxness in our keepers to enforce certain rules, I began to learn how to wield a knife using a chunk of broom handle. For many days, my ribs hurt. A blunted wooden handle can inflict bone-deep bruises.
“If you’re unarmed,’ began Pierre, “and face a man in your cage, get out. Fuck trying to disarm him or blocking with a pillow. Find space to move. If possible, grab the shank and twist it out of his grasp. Cuts to your hand are a cheap price to pay. Most guys will hold it low, pointing outward. Exploit this mistake.
“Hold it straight up in your fist, not out straight like no fucking spatula. French Foreign Legion instructors train their guys to hold it extended in front of them. That stance leads to slashing. Slashing is less effective than stabbing, and it’s slower. Those Foreign Legion mongrels belong in the kitchen flipping eggs,” explained Pierre while fitting my hand around the broom handle end. “Can you feel the difference? This way, you retain leverage.
“Stab up underneath the chin, through the pallet, into the brain and then twist like a motherfucker. That’s how Israel’s Mossad trains their agents. Multiple nations have been trying to exterminate these guys for decades, but they’re still around. They are tried and true tough motherfuckers. Use your other arm to block slashes and to sweep away thrusts. Even if you wrap a towel around your arm, it’s going to get cut defending. Don’t be no pussy. Keep your arm held high. Scratches ain’t dead. There ain’t no arteries or any major tendons to worry about on the top of your forearm. You’ll live. Your opponent won’t.”
Pierre’s lessons came hard. Repeatedly, he forced me to perform the same movements.
“Another thousand times. Let it become an extension of your arm, natural like. There ain’t no time for thinking. Make it part of you. Block, thrust and twist.”
By the end of the first month, I wanted to make the broom handle part of Pierre, permanently.
Poking my torso with his finger, Pierre said, “Kidneys, here and here. Liver and appendix, there and there. If you can’t hit the primary targets, make ’em bleed. Stick his liver and I guarantee his arm will drop. Too many shit ribs near the heart to go for it unless you can slip in under the arm. Now, don’t telegraph your target zone. You take what your opponent is offering. If he starts making mistakes, don’t interrupt him, let him continue until he goes down.”
Slowly I began to make Pierre work. Eventually I scored a kill-zone hit. From that day onward, he pulled out the stops, weaving in earnest to avoid my strikes. When I proved myself proficient with shanks, we moved on to staves. During the initial months he wrapped my knuckles, swept my feet out, butt-ended my stomach, chest, and jockstrap protected testicles.
“Staves are the best defensive weapon the Nips ever created. Learn the fucking staff and you ain’t got to fear long shanks or pipes. Mops. Brooms. Hockey sticks. Look for ’em wherever you go. The staff is superior to all handheld weapons except for the spear, which is a staff with a knife at one end.”
A broom handle is a lethal weapon whose beauty comes from its defensive properties. Parry and hook. Block and thrust. Lock and jab. Sweep and slash. Its basic principles were those of kendo. Lacking recent practice with guns, knives were what I knew best. To remain proficient with small arms, a person had to practice. Fourteen years had passed since I had had any serious practice with long- and short-barrelled firearms. My proficiency with firearms would take weeks to reacquire. In its own way, prison had readied me for the night ahead. Long years of brutality had hardened me mentally to face what lay ahead. Beyond the mental and physical attributes, prison had moulded and nurtured a savage intelligence. It endowed a black-hearted sagacity unclouded by doubt.
I would not flinch.
Ruthlessness was not the same as bravery. Odera had shown unparalleled courage, was brave beyond comparison to face her demons. I was no better than the Machine. Nevertheless, the qualities I disliked most about myself benefited the night ahead. Society’s rules could not apprehend Odera from Gomez’s clutches. No amount of justice, humanity or fair play would arrest her death. Strength, intelligence and superior tactics won over evil, not laws limiting the scope of action. Gomez did not use a rulebook. The moment the police showed themselves at the gate, Odera would die. She would die long before the hostage negotiation team pitched their command tent. Gomez would escape through a secondary exit. He had a way out, even if it was not depicted in the drawings. He was ex-military. He might even be expecting me.