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A Parker Novel
By Richard Stark
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1971 Richard Stark
All rights reserved.
Up here, the music was just a throbbing under the feet, a distant pulse. Down below, down through the roof, through and beneath the offices, down in the amphitheater shaped like a soup bowl, the crowd was roaring and pounding and yelling down at the four musicians in the bottom of the bowl. The musicians scooped up the roars coming in at them, pushed them through electric guitars and amplifiers, and sent back howls of sound that dwarfed the noise of the crowd, till the roaring was like a blast of heat on the face. But up here it was no more than a continuing throb in the gravelly surface of the roof.
Parker raised the ax over his head and swung it hard down into the tarred surface of the roof. Thop went the ax. Parker and the two men beside him heard clearly the sound of the ax, but even as close by as the man on lookout at the fire escape, the sound was lost.
"That'll take all night," Keegan said, but Keegan was a nay-sayer and no one ever listened to him.
Parker lifted the ax again, swung it again, twisted it slightly as it struck, and this time a touch of more amber color showed through the tar and gravel: wood.
Parker moved to the left, so his next slice would be across the first two, and lifted the ax again. He was a big man, blocky and wide, with heavy hands roped across the backs with veins. His head was square, ears flat to the skull, hair thin and black. His face had a bony rough-cut look, as though the sculptor hadn't come back to do the final detail work. He was wearing black sneakers, black permanent-press slacks, and a black zippered nylon jacket; the jacket was reversible, light blue on the other side, and under it he was wearing a white shirt and a blue-and-gold tie. Cheap brown cotton work gloves were on his hands, and on the hands of the other three.
It was spring, a dry but cloudy night, the temperature in the low fifties. It was ten minutes past midnight; down below, the Saturday midnight show was building toward crescendo. The final show at the old Civic Auditorium. Monday the wreckers would arrive. From up here on the roof, the poured-concrete flying-saucer shape of the new auditorium could be seen on Urban Renewal-cleared land half a dozen blocks away.
Keegan said, "I don't like it up here." A stocky man, just under average height, Keegan had thick dry brown hair and the outraged expression of a barroom arguer. He, too, was dressed in dark clothing; he kept forgetting about the gloves on his hands, starting to put his hands in his pockets—each time he would suddenly remember, look startled, and then shake his head in irritation with himself.
Each time Parker swung the ax now, more wood showed. There was over an inch of tarpaper and tar and stones on top of the wood, and the ax blade was getting streaked black with tar. After half a dozen swings with the ax, Parker had exposed a chopped-up section of wood about the size and shape of a footprint. After his seventh swing, Briley said, "Let me have a whack at it," and Parker handed over the ax and stepped back out of the way.
Briley was tall, but lean, and spoke with the hill accent of Tennessee. His face was deeply lined, more than it should have been in a man his age, and the lines were black, as though they'd been drawn on with charcoal. Briley had been two things earlier in his life—fat and a miner—but since the nine days he'd spent underground after a cave-in, he'd been neither. He swung the ax now hard and mean, as though it were Appalachia he was chopping.
Parker stood and watched, his hands dangling loose at his sides. When in motion, he looked tough and determined and fast, but when waiting, when at rest, he looked inert and lifeless.
Keegan went over to talk to Morris, the man sitting on the low wall at the edge of the roof, his arm carelessly draped over the curving top rail of the fire escape. Parker could hear the querulous sound of Keegan's voice, but not the words. Morris, a young, soft-looking man with slumped shoulders, was also their driver. His quiet nondescript voice filled the small spaces left by Keegan's. Morris had the calm and even temper of a man who doesn't care about anything. He was a pothead, and he'd dabbled in the harder drugs, but not while working; Parker had made sure of that ahead of time.
Briley made a dozen fast mean slashes at the roof with the ax, extending the area of the chopped-up exposed wood to about the size of a mess-hall tin, and then Parker called, "Keegan, come take your turn."
"I'm coming." Even that sounded querulous.
Morris sat up straighter on the wall and called, "You want me to take a turn?"
"You just keep an eye down below."
"Somebody else could watch for me."
"It's better to keep one man on watch," Parker said, and turned his back so Morris wouldn't argue any more. He'd learned long ago that in dealing with men, it was always best to curb impatience and give them explanations, but he'd also learned that explanations could go on forever if they weren't cut off.
Briley took one more hack at the roof, then reluctantly turned over the ax to Keegan. Stepping back, grinning, wiping his forehead with the back of one hand, Briley said, "That's a good workout."
Keegan hesitated a minute, holding the ax across his body at thigh-height with both hands, making sure he had his feet set right. But he swung hard and clean, and he knew to twist the handle as the blade went in.
After the first stroke, he said, "We'll be at this till morning." The next swing, the ax blade sank on through the wood and almost knocked him off-balance.
"Hold it," Parker said. Keegan pulled the ax out and stood back watching, and Parker went down on one knee beside the hole. He took off his right glove and picked away some splinters of wood, then felt around underneath with the tips of his fingers. Nodding, he got to his feet again and said, "There's a space under. Chop the hole a little bigger, but don't go straight down. We don't know about wiring."
Keegan bent over the hole, gripping the ax near the blade with his right hand and halfway down the handle with his left. Using short chops, he sliced away at the gouged wood, opening a hole the size of a coffee-container lid, then stopping.
"Bigger than that," Parker said. "We've got to be able to see in there."
"I think I'm hitting a two-by-twelve here on the right. I'll go the other way."
The other three watched him, and Keegan bent low over his work, chopping six inches from his feet. He opened a hole as big around as a guard's hat, and then stepped back again.
"I'll get the flashlight," Briley said. There were two metal toolkits on the roof out of the way, and Briley went to them and opened the one on the left.
Parker went down on one knee again, picked away the splinters from around the edge of the hole, and when Briley brought him the flashlight he bent low over the hole to shield the light while he looked inside.
The tar had been laid down on tarpaper, which had been tacked to wooden planks. The planks, Parker now saw, had been laid across two-by-twelve joists sixteen inches apart. A ceiling of planks was fastened across the underpart of the joists, closing this space off. There was neither electric wiring nor insulation anywhere to be seen.
Parker switched off the flashlight and got to his feet. "I think we've got an extra level to go through."
"There's always some damn thing," Keegan said.
"I can use the workout," Briley said.
Parker took the ax and took full swings, clearing the tar out of a wider area, bounded by the joists underneath. Keegan went back over to complain to Morris some more, but Briley stood impatiently waiting for Parker to be finished with his turn at the ax.
Briley ended the job at this level, swiping the ax down sideways, as though playing golf, stripping wood away even with the joist-edge on both sides. Then he and Parker pulled all the shards and splinters out of the hole.
Briley said, "That wood'll be nothing to punch out."
"We don't know what's under it. Hold the light for me."
From the toolkits Parker got a hand drill and a narrow handsaw. He and Briley knelt across the hole from each other, and while Briley held the flashlight low, Parker drilled a hole in the planking near one of the joists, put the drill to one side, inserted the first few inches of the saw into the hole, and slowly sawed the one plank all the way across. Then Briley got a hammer and chisel, and while Parker held the light, he pried up one edge across the saw-mark. His hands around the edge of the plank, knees braced on the roof, Briley bent the plank upward and back until it cracked with a sound like a pistol shot in a barn.
"Got you, you son of a bitch."
Grinning, Briley twisted the plank back and forth till it ripped entirely free. Keegan had come back over by now, and the three of them looked down in when Parker shone the light through the new hole. They saw fluffy pinkness, like clouds: insulation. Also a length of old-fashioned metal-shielded electric cable.
Keegan said, "Now where do you suppose the box is?" Electricity was his department.
Parker said, "We'll have to assume it's live."
Briley said, "At least the saw won't cut through it. I saw a boy do that once with the new wire."
"It wouldn't hurt him," Keegan said. "Your saw handles are wood."
Briley demonstrated with hand gestures, saying, "He had his left hand on the top of the saw for more pressure." He grinned and said, "There's a boy burned for his sins."
"Kill him?" Keegan sounded really interested.
"No. Threw him about twelve foot."
Parker began to saw again. After a while he gave the saw to Keegan, and in the silence before Keegan started, the music could be heard, very faintly. But an actual presence now, and not merely a vibration.
As each plank was sawn through, Briley gripped it, bent it up and back, and each one snapped near the opposite joist. When an area had been cleared about a foot square, Parker took a linoleum knife from one of the toolkits and used it to cut through the insulation, slicing across the same line over and over until he got down to the paper backing. He slit that across, reached his gloved fingers under, and ripped the insulation upward. It had been stapled to the joists on both sides, and came up in a series of quick jerks.
And underneath was sheetrock, which should be the ceiling of the room below. The surfaces, from top to bottom, were the tar and gravel on tarpaper on wood laid across joists set on wooden planks laid across more joists going in the opposite direction, against the bottom of which was the sheetrock. With the joists, vertical two-by-twelve beams, going one way in the top air space and the other way in the lower insulated airspace, that meant there would be no opening they could make larger than fifteen inches square.
It was twelve-thirty when Parker took the linoleum knife and began to score the sheetrock along the edge of one joist; they'd been at this twenty minutes. They'd opened an area larger than they'd be able to use, and the electric cable was just outside the section they were working on.
Parker scored the sheetrock three times down the same line, and the fourth time the knife broke through over the whole length. Briley was holding the flashlight again now; Parker dropped the knife on the sheetrock and got to his feet, saying to Keegan, "I did the left side."
Keegan got down on his knees beside the hole. "Getting colder," he commented, though it wasn't, and went to work on the opposite side. When that was cut through, he scored a line bridging the cuts at one end, drew the knife down along that line again, and when he did it a third time, the whole section of sheetrock sagged downward.
Parker had been standing across from Keegan, watching. Now he said, "We want to lift it up, if we can."
Keegan looked up, squinting into darkness after looking into the flashlight's illumination. "Why not just kick it through?"
"Who'd hear anything with that racket? That's the whole idea, isn't it?" Every time they removed a layer of roof, the music and the crowd noises got louder. Now it was at about the level of a busy country bar on Saturday night, as heard from the driveway.
"We don't know if there's a room under this one," Parker said. "Or if anybody's in it. They'd hear something that heavy hit the floor."
"No problem, anyway," Briley said, squatting down beside the hole. "Here, hold the flash, Keegan."
Keegan took the flashlight, and Briley took the linoleum knife. He chipped away a little at the stationary part of the end-line, so there'd be room for his fingers, then put the linoleum knife to one side, reached down to grasp the end of the sagging section of the sheetrock, and pulled it slowly upward. It curved, but wouldn't split.
Parker stood beside him and took one corner in both hands. "Get a better grip."
"Thanks." Briley, still holding the sheetrock, got to his feet and then shifted his hands to the other corner. "When you're ready."
They pulled upward, and the sheetrock cracked along the fourth side with a flat sound like two pool balls hitting. They leaned it back at an angle against the edge of the cleared section, like an open trapdoor.
Morris called, "Something happening down below."
All three went over to look. They were about fifty feet from the ground, the equivalent of a six-story building. There were windows in the top two stories, but below that the wall was blank. Black metal doors led out to the fire escape on the top two landings. By day, the wall was made of grimy gray-tan bricks; by night, it was simply darkness, with an illuminated blacktop alley at the bottom. Down there, near the bottom of the fire escape, a pair of large black metal doors led inside somewhere; all equipment for the shows put on here came through the wrought-iron gates at the sidewalk end of the alley, down across the blacktop and through those metal doors. At the far end, the alley was stopped by a blank brick wall. The opposite side of the alley was the rear wall of the Strand, a shutdown movie theater. The Strand and the Civic Auditorium stood back to back at opposite ends of a long block, all of which would come down, starting Monday. A sixty-eight-story office building covering the whole block was due to go up, starting next year.
Down below now, the wrought-iron gates over by the sidewalk were standing half-open, and someone was moving around with flashlights. Two of them, with two flashlights.
"Now how the hell did they get onto us?" Keegan said. He didn't sound surprised.
"They're not onto us," Morris said. He was still sitting on the wall, half-twisted around, with his shoulder braced against the curving top rail of the fire escape as he looked down.
"They're cops, though," Briley said.
"Looking for groupies," Morris said.
Keegan turned an exasperated frown on Morris. Things he didn't understand he liked even less than things he did understand. "Groupies? What the hell's a groupie?"
"Rock-and-roll fan. Mostly girls."
Briley laughed and said, "Looking for autographs?"
"Looking to get laid."
A flashlight beam arched upward in their direction, and they all leaned backward. They waited a few seconds, and then Morris took a look and said, "They're all done."
"Just so they don't come up the fire escape," Keegan said.
Parker looked over the edge, and the flashlights were moving back toward the wrought-iron gates.
Morris said, "Just an easy check. Now they'll put a man outside the gates, so nobody climbs over."
"By God," said Keegan irritably, "what if they see something on the Strand door?"
They wouldn't, because there was nothing to see, but nobody bothered to answer him.
They had gotten here through the Strand. At four-thirty this afternoon they'd driven up to the entrance of the Strand in a gray-and-white Union Electric Company truck, all four of them wearing gray one-piece coveralls with the company name in white on the back. It had been simple to get through the lobby doors of the Strand, carrying three toolkits, the third containing sandwiches and a Thermos container of coffee. Briley and Keegan and Morris had played blackjack to pass the time, betting the expected proceeds from this job, but Parker had slept for a while, walked around the dusty-smelling empty theater for a while, and sat for a while in darkness in the manager's office, looking out at the city. He'd watched the crowds form for the early show, all the bright colors after the gray centuries of Reason, and then the traffic. Then he'd left the office to walk some more.
Excerpted from Deadly Edge by Richard Stark. Copyright © 1971 Richard Stark. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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