Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One
 
But for the Grace
 
The alley wasn't as dark as Danny would've liked, and Evan was driving him crazy, spinning the snub-nose like a cowboy in some Sunday matinee. "Would you put that away?"
 
"Keeps me cool." Evan smiled the bar-fight grin that showed his chipped tooth.
 
"I don't care if it makes you feel like Rick James. You shouldn't have brought it." Danny stared until his partner sighed and tucked the pistol into the back of his belt. Evan had always lived for the thrill of the job, all the way back to when they had stolen forties of Mickeys from the 7-Eleven. But the addition of the gun made Danny uneasy. Made him wonder if Karen was right to suggest he start thinking long-term. Reconsider his options.
 
He shook his head and stared out the window. Earlier, munching greasy chips in a taco bar across the street, they'd watched the owner of the pawnshop lock up. The dashboard clock now read just after eleven, and the alley was stone quiet. Chicago life centered on the neighborhoods; once night fell, the downtown area died. Twenty minutes ago they'd cut the phone lines without a show from the cops, which meant no cellular alarm. Everything looked good.
 
Until something moved.
 
Fifteen yards away, in a pocket of black. There, then gone again. Like someone stepping carefully. Like someone hiding. Danny leaned forward, one hand covering the glowing radio to sharpen his night vision. Shadows painted dingy brick walls with a black brush. A breeze sent a newspaper tumbling by the passenger side window. Maybe he'd just seen blowing trash and his mind had filled in the rest of the picture. The tension could get to you.
 
Then he saw it again. A slight motion. Someone getting closer to the wall, deeper in the shadow. His pulse banged in his throat.
 
Beat cops didn't sneak around that way. They just rolled up with their lights spinning. Unless the police hoped to catch them actually robbing the place. Danny pictured Terry, that weasel mustache, the moist stink of a habitual farter. He'd told them about the job--had he sold them out?
 
Out of the darkness stumbled a stooped man with greasy hair. He ran one hand along the wall to steady his cautious shuffle. A pint bottle nosed out of a frayed pocket. Reaching the trash bin, he glanced in either direction and unzipped his fly. Took a piss with one hand in his pocket like he was in the men's room of his country club.
 
Danny breathed again, then chuckled at his nerves. When the bum finished, he crossed to the other side of the alley and leaned against the wall. He slid down to a squat and closed his eyes. Danny said, "He's camping."
 
Evan nodded, rubbed one hand across his chin, the stubble making a grating sound. "Now what?"
 
"Guess we could give him a minute."
 
"He looks pretty tucked in." Evan paused, then looked over. "Should I shoot him?"
 
Danny shrugged. "Sure."
 
Evan drew the gun, sighted through the windshield. He closed one eye. "Bang." He spun the gun to his lips and blew imaginary smoke.
 
Danny laughed, then turned back to the problem at hand. The drunk sat directly across from the pawnshop door. With his head resting on his knees, he looked almost peaceful.
 
"Chase him off?"
 
"No. He might yell," Danny said. "Might run into a cop, who knows."
 
"So I'll knock him down." Evan smiled. "You know they don't get up after I knock 'em down."
 
The idea wasn't totally without merit, but lacked elegance. Too much noise, and it wasn't like the bum had done anything to deserve a beating. Besides, Evan was Golden Gloves. Probably end up killing the poor bastard. Danny squinted, trying to think of a way to get rid of the guy without complicating the job. Then smiled. "I'll take care of it." He reached for the door handle.
 
"He looks dangerous. Don't forget the pistola." Evan held it out, a mocking smile on his lips.
 
"Fuck you." Danny stepped out of the car.
 
At the sound of the door, the bum scrambled to his feet, holding his hands in front of him. The sleeves of his suit jacket were three inches too short. Beneath it he wore several sweatshirts. "I got nothing." Drink rounded the edges of his words, and he reeked of urine and panic. "Don't hurt me."
 
Danny shook his head. But for the grace. "Relax, old man."
 
The man peered at him suspiciously, ready to run. "You got a cigarette?"
 
"Don't smoke. My friend," jerking a thumb toward the car, "he smokes. But he will hurt you."
 
The man stiffened, yellowed eyes darting. "Listen, mister--"
 
"Shut up." Danny reached in his pocket, took out his wallet. "See this? Twenty bucks."
 
The bum froze, eyes locked on the bill. "I--I don't do that stuff, the faggot stuff . . ."
 
Danny couldn't help chuckling. The guy clearly had no idea what he smelled like. "Take this money and go up to Grand and LaSalle. There's a liquor store there. Buy a bottle, take a seat in the parking lot." Danny stepped closer, his voice conspiratorial. "In about half an hour, a friend of mine will come by. I need to tell him something, but I don't want to say it on the phone, know what I mean? My friend, he'll be wearing a tan raincoat. You tell him--you listening?--you tell him the birds have flown the cage. You do that, he'll give you another twenty."
 
"That's it?"
 
"Easiest money you ever made." He proffered the bill, trying to keep the laugh from his eyes. The bum reached, hesitated, took it. "Good man. Don't let me down."
 
The guy turned, started east down the alley, the wrong direction. Danny almost called him back, figured what the hell, stood in the shadows until he was out of sight. The car door opened. "How much you give him?"
 
"Ten."
 
Evan snorted, shook his head. "Let's work." He popped the trunk, light flooding across his black T-shirt, dug around and came up with a fistful of thick chain. Danny took one end and walked to the door, playing it out slow, the rattle loud in the close confines of the alley. The bum had gotten his blood up, and he let the rush take him, everything clear and sharp, his movements precise. A heavy steel cage sealed the rear door of the pawnshop, the metal discolored with age. Danny hooked the chain to the bars, thinking of the movies, the way thieves always tunneled up through the streets with plastic explosives or cracked safes with diamond-tipped drills. Eight bucks at Home Depot had bought them all the supplies they needed.
 
Robbing pawnshops was generally a dicey proposition. Because they kept cash on hand, security could be a hassle. According to Terry, this guy sold more than old TVs and secondhand bling. He also dealt weed in weight. That meant extra cash--more than enough to make up for the trouble.
 
Sure. Easy money. Same line you just sold the bum.
 
No time. Danny double-checked the chain, then turned and nodded. Evan inched the Mustang forward, headlights off, the car a black shark. As the links grew taut, Danny stepped behind the shelter of the rust-stained Dumpster. He cocked his head to listen, one hand up.
 
A long minute passed before he heard it. Slow at first, just a distant rattle, but it swiftly grew to a full clattering roar. From the elevated tracks, sparks blew sideways into the night, heralding the passing of the Orange Line El.
 
Danny dropped his hand. Evan gunned the engine quick and hard. With a screech--tortured, but barely audible over the train--the metal latch gave. The gate ripped open, chain still attached, hinges straining from the pull of the car. For a second Danny thought Evan might tear it right off the wall. But brake lights washed red across him, then the white of reverse, and finally the engine fell to silence.
 
The chain felt warm as Danny detached it and crouched to check the revealed door. Twin Schlages. He slid the Crown Royal bag from his inside pocket. Some guys cut down hacksaw blades, some liked the professional kits. Personally, he'd always found the bristles of a street sweeper made the best lock picks, hard but flexible. He'd popped both deadbolts by the time Evan had stowed the chain.
 
The rattle of the El faded as they stepped into the cramped pawnshop office. Danny generally liked to take a moment inside to listen to the darkness, but Evan already had the flashlight out. As it glared to life, Danny caught a glint off the gun in Evan's other hand. Showboating, chasing the thrill. He thought about saying something, decided against it.
 
"There." A battered metal desk winked in the flashlight beam, below a calendar with a swimsuit model cozying up to a carburetor. He could make out a rumpled mattress on the floor beside it. "Terry said the bag would be in the manager's desk."
 
"Not in a safe?"
 
"Owner's a gun nut, apparently. Figures no one will mess with him."
 
Evan nodded, moving over to test the drawer. "Locked."
 
Danny smiled, pulled out the Crown Royal bag again.
 
"I'm going to look around." Evan had the door half open already.
 
"What?"
 
"It'll take you a minute, I'm going to check the front room. See if there's anything in the register."
 
"The flashlight--"
 
"Relax, Danny-boy. I'll be right back." Not waiting for an answer, he slid into the pawnshop.
 
Shaking his head, Danny fumbled in the dark to find his own flashlight and set to work. He ran a pick down the inside of the lock, counting clicks. Four. Factory-issue. He eased in the tension wrench and started with the farthest pin.
 
Twenty seconds later, the lock twisted open. He pulled the top drawer, rifled around, his gloves inky in the flashlight's warm glow. Papers, pushpins, day-job junk. The second was crammed with Hustler magazines from the seventies. In the third drawer lay a sleek black automatic pistol, big, with an extra-long clip jutting out the bottom. It looked like it could punch through an engine block, and something about its cold, machined intent sent shivers down the backs of his thighs. Next to the pistol sat a nylon bank bag with a brass lock. The bag was two, maybe three inches thick.
 
Jackpot. He stood up and slid through the door, his soft-soled gym shoes silent on the concrete. The pawnshop was a forest of dim shapes, electric guitars strung above what looked like power tools, a couple of racks of looming TVs. Danny couldn't see Evan, but a glow behind the counter marked his spot. The cabinet doors on one wall stood open, and there was a thumping sound.
 
"Come on, man." Danny pitched it low but urgent. "I found the money."
 
"Give me a hand." Evan's voice was muffled.
 
"With what? Let's go."
 
"I was thinking." Evan rose behind the counter, stretching, vertebrae popping as he flexed his broad shoulders. "Man sold weight, right? So there's gotta be a pound of dope here, maybe two. That's another couple grand easy."
 
"That wasn't the plan."
 
"Ah, fuck the plan. It'll take two minutes. Help me out, check those cabinets over there." Evan squatted, facing the counter, and started feeling around beneath. From his belt the gun handle gleamed like a lethal comma.
 
Danny felt a trickle of sweat run down his side, the drop cold against his muscles. Half the cons he knew--the smart ones, even--had landed inside because they got reckless, decided to push their luck. Anything could give you up. A stray flashlight beam. A pedestrian who heard voices. A beat cop on a random patrol.
 
Still, he knew Evan well enough to know he'd have to drag the guy out of here. It'd be faster to just try and find the dope. "All right, damn you. Two minutes." He moved to the far side of the pawnshop and opened the first cabinet, his flashlight playing across stacks of neatly bundled cables, a box of computer paper. He tapped the inside, wondering if he'd be able to hear a false bottom. Wondering how a false bottom sounded different from a regular one.
 
As Danny moved to the second cabinet, he heard Evan stand up. "Nothing here. I'll check the office." Danny nodded, sorting through a selection of cheap porcelain figurines. A crystal unicorn winked in the flashlight. His mind drifted as he worked, thinking of Karen's apartment. Candles on the nightstand, traffic noises through the open window. Waiting in the sleigh bed for her to get home after her shift. Her soft smile to find him awake. He saw it all, and wondered why he was here instead of there.
 
And then he heard the sound.
 
A metal rattle, like--
 
"Evan!"
 
--a security gate. The front door swung open, the night street glowing outside. A silhouette, big, stepped in, saying, "Come on, little darlin', a couple puffs before we do it won't make you lose control. I won't do nothing you don't want me to." The lights flickered on as Danny scrambled to his feet, recognizing the owner they'd watched earlier. A bearded guy in an orange hunting vest, leading a skinny chick with bad skin. Everything went slow motion as the guy spotted him, a hand already sliding inside his vest, a practiced move that produced a shiny automatic. The man racking the gun as he raised it, the snap echoing. Spreading his legs for better footing. Danny thinking this was it, the owner was going to shoot his ass. Mind telling body to leap aside, but his muscles not moving. The man with both eyes open and the gun in both hands, a target shooter's stance that put the barrel square at Danny's chest.
 
An explosion. Somehow the owner's stomach bloomed red. He collapsed like he'd been dropped from a great height. His gun clattered on the floor beside him. In the doorway to the office, Evan stood with one arm extended, the pistol in his hand.
 
Everything stopped.
 
The hum of fluorescent lights and the wet sounds of breathing. Danny's head throbbed, but in his chest, deep, he felt a cold sensation. Cold and deep and knotted. He knew that no matter how hard he squinted, he wouldn't be able to see Karen's bedroom now.
 
Then adrenaline hit, and he lunged. The girl was frozen, eyes and mouth wide, and he shoved her aside to slam the door. He jumped back to avoid the slow spread of something red, Jesus, blood, a crimson pool of it, creeping from where the owner moved in a sort of crab-writhing, fingers clutched over his stomach.
 
"No." The word slipped feathery soft from his mouth.
 
"He alive?" Evan asked, voice distant after the roar of the gun.
 
The man rocked back and forth. His hands were scarlet. A stain crept up his chest. There was a lot of blood. A kid from the South Side grew up knowing what blood looked like, broken noses and teeth knocked out, but to see it pouring from someone's stomach . . .
 
"Danny." Evan's voice jerked his head up. "Is he alive?"
 
"Yeah."
 
"Ask him where the weed is. You," gesturing with the pistol, "Little Darlin'. Over here." White-faced and shaking, the woman moved next to a shelf of beat-up VCRs.
 
Danny stared at Evan, the gun still in his hand, fingers loose on the grip. He couldn't decipher the energy playing across his old friend's face. Nerves? Excitement? He seemed calm. Potent. It was like pulling the trigger had freed something inside him. He almost swaggered as he walked over.
 
It scared hell out of Danny. "Let's go."
 
Evan kicked the owner's gun across the floor, then stared down at his prone form. "Look at that shit." He popped his head to either side. "You ever see anything like that?"
 
"We have to go."
 
"In a minute." Evan nudged the guy with his boot. "Where's your stash, old man?"
 
The owner groaned, a strange, raspy sound. Danny's heart roared so loud it seemed to muffle the world, and his gut turned in knots. They'd shot someone. Jesus. They'd shot someone, and they had to go.
 
"Where is it?" This time Evan kicked the owner, steel-toed boot driving into the man's stomach near where his hands clenched the wound. The guy gasped for air, an agonized keening.
 
"Evan!"
 
"What?" Evan spun, eyes narrowed and arm half raised. The air-conditioning chilled the place cold as January. For a long moment, they stared at each other, Danny wondering how he'd ended up here, calculating ways to get out. Then he saw motion, turned to look.
 
"Fuck!" Evan yelled after the girl as she sprinted to the back room. "Stop!" For a moment she seemed to hesitate, then leapt a pile of junk from one of the cabinets and sailed into the dark office, slamming the heavy door behind her. Danny heard the click of a lock.
 
Evan roared with frustration, his face burning bright red, that angry color he got in a fight. Turning, he kicked the owner again, the guy trying to cover his head with one hand and his bleeding stomach with the other, a whimpering sound coming now, fast and hard, a sound Danny had never heard a human make and never wanted to again.
 
He stepped in front of Evan, hands to shoulders, and shoved him back. His partner stumbled, almost went down, came up mad. Eyes narrowed, he looked like he was about to bull rush Danny. The gun shook in his hand.
 
"Stop." Danny kept his voice cool and his hands out, no threat. "Stay cool. Brothers."
 
For a moment, he wasn't sure it was going to work. But then Evan straightened, slowly. He exhaled loudly, then nodded. "All right, forget the weed. We've got the money."
 
Danny's guts tumbled to his knees. His mouth opened, but he didn't know what to say.
 
Evan looked at him, then at the office door, closed and locked. "Where is it?"
 
Danny spoke softly. "It's in the drawer."
 
"Jesus, Danny."
 
"Well, I wasn't planning on shooting anybody. If we'd left earlier we'd be halfway home."
 
"Don't start." Evan's eyes blazed. "I don't want to hear that shit."
 
"Fine." Danny kept his hands out. "But look, now there's no choice. Let's go."
 
Evan stared at him, shook his head. "No."
 
"The cops will be here any second," Danny said.
 
"I'm not leaving empty-handed." He started for the office door.
 
Danny knew this mood. It was Evan at his most volatile, ten drinks in and more than willing to go three rounds with God Almighty.
 
Standing outside the office, Evan spoke loud and precise. "Lady, open the door or I will break it fucking down." Silence. Maybe the woman had spotted the back exit, been smart enough to leave.
 
"Have it your way." Evan lashed out with his boot. The door shivered in its frame, but held. As he stepped back to wind up again, a sharp roar tore a chunk of wood out of the door, spraying splinters in all directions. As the second bullet punched through, Danny remembered the gun in the open drawer.
 
For a hesitant second nothing happened.
 
Then Evan exploded. Whatever demons shooting the pawnshop owner had freed took control of him again. He raised his pistol and pulled the trigger, aiming in a triangle of quick blasts. Not pointing at the lock but trying to hit her, trying to kill. At Danny's feet, the man groaned. Evan frothed and raged, kicking the door again. The frame was cracking, and Danny thought he could hear a whimper behind it. Everything had gone crazy, he was standing beside a pool of blood, Evan making enough noise to pull people for blocks, the lights on, for Christ's sake, the fucking lights on.
 
Danny had taken two falls, one county and one state, done the time like a man, but for this they'd get years.
 
No. No more.
 
He opened the front door and slipped out into the night. His body screamed to run, just go, but he made himself walk. Not draw attention. Just a guy headed for the El, nothing noteworthy about that.
 
When he was two blocks away, he heard the sirens.
 
Copyright © 2007 by Marcus Sakey. All rights reserved.

 


Excerpted from The Blade Itself: A Novel by Marcus Sakey
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.