In the watchtower’s shadows, plastic dice rattled.
“A 14. You missed the Goblin King, LeShayne.” Ross bounced a twenty-sider against the worn concrete. “But one of his guards throws a spear at you–hits.”
Breaths sucked in. Ross glanced at the ring of stoic faces. LeShayne, Donal, Marquez, Harris, and Sykes. Convicted killers, every one. Lean muscles bunching under their coveralls as they crouched, dwarfing Ross’s hundred and forty-five pound physique.
Still, it was his game.
He bounced another die. “Six on damage. How many hit points does your elf have left?”
LeShayne waved a ragged index card. “Only four.”
“Then he’s dead, man. Sorry.”
Echoes carried from the exercise yard. The slap and shuffle of feet.
“I’ve been playin’ that character for the past two months now,” Le Shayne said. “Buildin’ him up.”
“I gotta do what the dice tell me. You saw the rolls.”
Mumbles. Sykes and Harris looked at their hands. LeShayne was nominal leader of the Naked City Crips, with ties to Barrio Libre and the Brown Panthers, when the three groups weren’t fighting. He’d survived two shanking attempts and spent the better part of last year in solitary.
Also, he had a temper.
“I let things slide for you,” Ross went on, “how am I going to maintain respect as Dungeon Master?”
LeShayne stood up. He tore his index card and flung the shards in Ross’s face. “You got other problems, now.”
Ross had grown up with institutions: juvenile hall, the Job Corps dorms, a year in the Army (dishonorable discharge), and later, after an argument with his father-in-law went deep, deep south, his current digs here at the San Carlos Penitentiary.
Dungeons and Dragons had been his salvation.
The Army shrinks called him a sociopath, but he was an imaginative sociopath, and he had the knack for sharing his imagination with others. Turned out, make-believe could be a valuable commodity in a world defined by cinderblock and razor-wire.
Smuggling in dice wasn’t that hard, either.
“Heads up,” Sykes whispered as Ross shuffled past him into the Group Room.
He’d had no sleep the past twenty-four hours; too anxious, waiting for lighter fluid to come squirting through the bars, followed by a matchstick bomb. His cellie, Vince, had told him he was walking dead.
Now, Sykes’s warning stoked adrenaline he didn’t know he had.
The Group Room was empty. Just a ring of plastic chairs where his fellow convicts should be. No counselor, either.
He bolted for the door. Before he could reach it the lanky figure of Lucius “Bone” Johnson stepped out from behind a storage unit, blocking his way.
“Nothing personal,” Lucius said.
“You here to do for me, Bone?”
“Just making sure you don’t scream too much.”
The rustle of clothes behind him. Something looped over his neck and started pulling. He tried to turn, but a foot planted itself against the small of his back, pushed. The cord tightened.
Already he was seeing gray spots. Lucius watched and shook his head.
Ross tried to dig his fingers under the strangling-cord. No luck. Just as the spots were turning from gray to black a bulky shape came hurtling into the room, careened against Lucius and sent him sprawling. Ross caught the tan of a guard’s uniform. Lucius put his hands up in surrender, but the guard’s nightstick swung down and bashed his temple.
Meanwhile, the foot stopped pressing against Ross’s back. He could breathe. Sort of. He wheeled, saw LeShayne backing away. Ross tackled him. They both went down, LeShayne trying to knee him in the face. Whack.
A meaty hand helped Ross to his feet. He loosened the extension cord wrapped around his neck.
“Looks like LeShayne’s going back to solitary for a while.”
The guard was husky, bearded, his glasses fogged from exertion. Ross smelled loser, but there was something endearing about him. Beside the fact he’d just saved his life.
“W-why . . .?” he managed to choke out.
“I heard about your game.” The guard smiled and fished a pair of twenty-siders from his uniform pocket. “I want in.”