White light flared in his vision when they hit him again. Tom landed on his back on the sand. Catcalls came from all around him and bounced off the walls of the little prison in the desert. He stared up at the cloudless blue sky for a second and waited to see what his attackers were going to do. It was a showdown, but they didn’t know that. They thought they were teaching him a lesson because he made a comment during the morning meal that rubbed them the wrong way.
He kicked out with his feet and bucked his hips at the same time, throwing himself into a standing position. The looks on their faces showed the move had the result he wanted: they were re-evaluating him. They weren’t the first big guys to assume a little guy was an easy target based on his size. They also weren’t the first big guys to be wrong about that. He wondered as they came at him slowly, if they knew why he picked the fight or if they knew he picked the fight. They were the informal leaders of the prision. Bullies who picked on the people from their country as much as they picked on him.
He needed them and to recruit them he had to beat them.
“Maybe we should talk about this, gentlemen,” he said. His hands were in front of him with his palms out, held at about chest height. “Think it over before you start swinging again.”
“Think it over?” The one on the left said. He barked a laugh as dry as the sand. With a fat finger jabbing toward Tom, he said, “You should have thought it over before you called me fat!” His shirt was off. The sun gleamed on droplets of sweat on his tan chest. His gut stuck out father than his pecks, which looked like small fat breasts.
“You work so hard to maintain your bulk, I thought fat would be a compliment.” He grinned. The man was getting mad at him, madder than he was when he took the first swing. That was good. He watched the fat guy’s nostril’s flare. Come at me, bull boy. The other guy, the tall skinny one, was on the fat guy’s right. If he was smart, he would have moved away so Tom would have to choose which one to watch.
The fat one charged him; the skinny one was half a step behind. Tom put his weight on the ball of his left foot and spun out of the way when they charged him, he continued the spin and clocked the fat man on the back of the neck with his hands together. The man’s head went down as Tom opened his hands, put them on his back, and shoved. The man fell forward and slid on his belly on the sand. The skinny one turned, right into a punch Tom threw with his left hand. He hit the man squarely in the nose. Blood flew.
He moved back and waited for them to pull themselves together. The fat man pushed himself up, spitting sand. His eyes were full of rage. Rage and surprise. The tall guy was temporarily out of the picture. He was clutching his nose with both hands in an attempt to stem the blood and clear his vision.
The big one charged Tom, and he didn’t wait for the collision. He ran into it, charging the big man with his head down. The big man tried to wrap his arms around Tom, but he was moving too fast. He came in low and brought the top of his head up into the man’s chin. Teeth clacked. He punched rapid-fire with both hands and landed seven or eight blows on the man’s gut before he jumped back. Grunts turned into a roar. The big boy charged again with his arms open.
Tom charged the man charging him. The arms couldn’t close around him before he rammed his forehead on the bridge of the man’s nose. He felt the big man jerk back and grabbed his shoulders in both hands. Their eyes were inches apart—the fat man’s unfocused—when Tom rammed his right knee into the fat man’s groin. The roar turned into something that sounded almost meek when the pain from the blow rose into his stomach.
Tom cracked his forehead on the fat man’s nose and pushed him back in almost the same motion. When he landed on his back on the sand, Tom took a step and stomped on his stomach. One down, and maybe one to go. The tall guy was taller than Tom by almost a foot, just as wiry, and probably at least as strong. He took his eyes off Tom’s for a second and looked blankly at the man on the sand. When he looked back at Tom, it was without self-confidence.
“I left him alive because I almost like him,” Tom said in a near whisper. “How do you think I feel about you?” He grinned with no hint of friendship.
His grin was returned. The skinny man’s grin had the special malice held by someone with the upper hand in a mismatch. His eyes went to his hand. Tom wasn’t sure where he got it, but the sun glinted in a piece of metal about two inches long sticking out between the man’s fingers.
In a blast of speed and burst of sand behind him, the tall man charged at Tom. His hand went back, straight back, and he tried to jab Tom’s stomach when they closed. Tom slipped to the side, easily avoiding the blade and the hand holding it. He grabbed a handful of the man’s hair with his left hand and rammed his right palm against the man’s Adam’s apple. He slipped his fingers around the side of the man’s chin, shifted his left hand so he gripped the side of the man’s head, and twisted. The snap of his neck crackled the dry air. His feet went out and he fell back on the sand, staring at the sky with unseeing eyes.
Tom spun on the big man on the ground. He was pushing himself up, made eye contact with Tom, and looked at the body of the other man on the sand. Tom stepped toward him and in a low voice said, “Him, I didn’t like.” He reached out with his right hand. “Are we done fighting, or would you like the study the sky like he is?”
“Done. We are done fighting, little man.”
“Call me Viper.” Tom reached out and let the big man grab his right wrist. He helped him to his feet. In a whisper only the other man could hear he said, “We’re going to put our energy to good use, you and I. It’s time we took over this place. Understand?”
That was all the conversation they were allowed. The guards approached and pulled them apart. Tom looked over his shoulder only once. He wanted to see which cell they dragged the fat man to. Two more guards were dragging the dead guy away. Tom didn’t watch them.