The Narrowback

The Narrowback

by Michael Ledwidge
     
 

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Tom Farrell is a working-class Irish-American from the Bronx, a "narrowback" who masterminds the heist of a ritzy midtown Manhattan hotel. His well-executed scheme unravels when one of his gang claims more than his share of the loot—and suffers a brutal fate. But the dead man's IRA ties have made Farrell a marked man....On a violent crash course in a dangerous

Overview

Tom Farrell is a working-class Irish-American from the Bronx, a "narrowback" who masterminds the heist of a ritzy midtown Manhattan hotel. His well-executed scheme unravels when one of his gang claims more than his share of the loot—and suffers a brutal fate. But the dead man's IRA ties have made Farrell a marked man....On a violent crash course in a dangerous Gotham underworld, fleeing from terrorists, the NYPD, and his own criminal past, Farrell will survive the way he always has in his hard-luck life—by the skin of his teeth—and fight to be the last man standing.

Editorial Reviews

LA Times Book Review
Hard-nosed, fast-paced, cinematic shoot-'em-up...Ledwidge keeps the adrenaline pumping.
Erik Burns
...[G]ritty, violent....[relies]...on hard-boiled cliches like booze, drugs, loose women, cheap bars and brutal murders to carry this melodrama to its inevitable conclusion.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This alcohol- and cocaine-fueled noir page-turner follows a posse of Bronx-born Irish "narrowbacks" whose gangster games backfire. The ringleader, Tom Farrell, is an ex-con who dreams of a career as an artist. The trouble begins when Farrell convinces his friends to help him rob $750,000 in cash and jewels from an upscale midtown hotel. When the thugs kill an IRA accomplice who attempts to hijack the booty, the terrorist's superior enlists a Vietnam-trained sniper to claim the booty for the Cause. The bloodiness that ensues--also involving a feckless FBI agent and members of an Albanian mob--contributes to the novel's urban chic, as when Farrell looks in the rearview mirror and notices that "the cut on his chin had stopped bleeding and had scabbed up like a small goatee." A few pistol-whippings later, Farrell is wandering Manhattan in a boozy haze, believing he's the last one left alive, the IRA still on his trail. Ledwidge's too-cool characters are, like his prose, lean and mean, and their inability to distinguish the difference between loyalty to a cause and senseless violence on its behalf creates an aura of futility and hopelessness that pulses through this well-executed debut.
Library Journal
The plot here could best be described as "The Usual Suspects" meets "The Devil's Own" meets "Reservoir Dogs." Protagonist Tommy Farrell, a Bronx-born Irish American (a "narrowback"), certainly has the luck of his ancestors--all bad! Farrell seems on the verge of breaking his losing streak when he masterminds and executes a profitable heist. But he offs a member of his own gang, who unbeknownst to Farrell is a full-fledged IRA black mask with terrorist plans for the loot. Thrown into the mix are an over-ambitious FBI agent, Albanian wiseguys, and some bullet-brained Belfast boyos, all of whom are out for Farrell's hide. This taut thriller also sports many motifs found in classic literature, as Farrell descends into the underworld while seeking redemption and forgiveness for his sullied past. Though a little heavy-handed in spots, this book has an easy, fluid style; a quick-moving plot; and dialog that goes down as smoothly as Jamesons. Overall, a gangbusters first novel reminiscent of Jim Thompson and David Goodis. -- Michael Rogers

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780743403542
Publisher:
Pocket Books
Publication date:
04/03/2001
Pages:
352
Product dimensions:
6.76(w) x 4.26(h) x 1.01(d)

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


AT FIRST THE BLACK SPECK IN THE EVENING SKY SEEMED LIKE A bag, perhaps a black garbage bag borne aloft by the strong wind. When it dropped and unfurled, Farrell realized it was a crow. High above the jagged tenement skyline the bird circled and then swooped down and alit on a television aerial. Leaning back against the cold stone wall of the roof, Farrell stared out at the black bird etched sharply on the gray horizon, dark and still among the twining metal boughs.

    He turned. A long-haired man with a goatee stood beside him studying the street below with binoculars. The man's name was Mullen.

    "What do you think?" Farrell asked. He had to raise his voice over the wind.

    It was November and cold out on the rough tar rooftop. Mullen's long, stringy hair whipped about him.

    "I think," he said, lowering the binoculars, "we better get the fuck out of this wind."

    The air in the stairwell was warm and sour. Farrell held the cheap, metal-plated door behind him to close it gently. They went down two flights of worn, stained, marble steps into Farrell's fourth-floor apartment. He threw shut the three new locks on the front door before following Mullen into the living room. The sawed-off lay on the cracked coffee table where Mullen had left it, its barrels blue in the dim light of the standing lamp. Mullen sat on the couch and retrieved his cigarettes. He took one, lit it, and tossed the pack to Farrell. Mullen smoked pensively, staring into space.

    "Yeah," he said finally. "We could do that motherfuckerwithout too much fuss. He's cocky. He looks like the type never saw a white man he was too afraid of. That's our advantage."

    "He's cocky, all right," said Farrell.

    "How'd he get in here again?"

    "Jimmied the hinge side of the door frame with a pry bar."

    "A regular one-man crime spree, huh. That cocksucker. OK, I'm thinkin it this way. I clean myself up, slap a couple of Jersey tags on the Chevy, get in the whole suburban cowboy mode, right? Then I glide up for a transaction. One look at my pasty white face puts him at ease, and when he goes down for the dope, I drop both barrels on him. You situate yourself down the block and when he falls, you come up and roll him. And before you can say "drug-related," we're in Reilly's sippin stout with our bank."

    Farrell smoked, thinking.

    "You think it could go down that simple?"

    "It ain't rocket science."

    "What about his boys on the sidewalk?"

    "You have your pistol out, You see anybody pointing anything at me, you take 'em out. I do the same for you. We won't have to worry about it, though, since once they see their boss's head come off they're not gonna be doing anything except running. Unless of course you count crappin in their pants."

    "When you thinking?" asked Farrell.

    Mullen picked the shotgun off the table and draped it on his shoulder. He smiled—the cigarette in the corner of his mouth making him squint.

    "Ain't no time like the present," he said.


It was night when they got back with the plates. From the car up the block they watched the man doing business. Wearing an enormous puffed parka, he reclined astride a thumping Suzuki Samurai in a stiff posture of threat. As cars pulled up, he leaned in and out of them with such speed and lack of gesture it seemed only words were exchanged—as if he were some priest or wise man and those in the cars pilgrims in need of quick counsel.

    Mullen took a deep breath.

    "You get goin," he said.

    When Farrell didn't move, he turned to him.

    "What's up? You pussying out on me here?"

    Farrell stared out. The Number One Broadway local trundled by on the elevated track in the distance, its windows backlit by a streetlight like the last empty frames of film through a projector.

    "Fuck it," Farrell said finally.

    "Fuck it? Fuck what? Everything?"

    "No, this."

    "Listen, if you're scared ..."

    "Oh, I'm scared. But it's not that."

    "You've been inside, Tommy. If this guy did this to you inside what would you do?"

    "This ain't inside."

    Mullen looked out the window, incredulously, at the gated windows, the garbage-strewn sidewalks.

    "Close enough, you ask me. I mean, what's the story? You gonna pull this shit again when we go do the other thing? You said we go at Christmas. How the fuck we go in a month with no stake?"

    "We postpone."

    "Till when? Next fuckin Christmas?"

    "No, the summer."

    "The summer? We gotta wait six fucking months because you got cold feet. You're not even pullin the trigger."

    "Fuck it," said Farrell. He looked at Mullen for the first time since they sat there. "My way or fuck the whole thing."

    "You're a pain in the ass," said Mullen after a while.

    "Yeah, first you said I'm a genius. Now I'm a pain in the ass."

    Mullen blew into his hands, staring out at the dealer.

    "You're sure?" he asked.

    He sounded disappointed.


Farrell awoke to the blaring alarm, and in half darkness he turned and set it silent with a slap. From the open, shadeless window came the sounds of the street—tires on pavement, the whine of brakes, a far-off horn. Headlights swept across the rough, pocked walls of the small room, and after a moment he rose naked and walked across the bare wood floor.

    The bathroom light sent forms scurrying, and he showered quickly and shaved. He retrieved the garment bag from the otherwise empty closet and put it on the bed. He opened the bag and felt the rich fabric of the suit. How, at thirty years of age, could something so standard have eluded him so completely? He dressed in the mirror above the scarred bureau by the glow of electric light coming from the window.

    He was an average-sized man but lean, which gave him an appearance of height. His face was plain and pale, the skin pulled tight on his cheeks, and there was tension to his glance. His medium-length hair was black and combed neatly, and his eyes reflected whatever he wore. In the somber business suit they seemed almost black, forgettable. He could have been any of the businessmen he passed in the street every day.

    From under the bed he retrieved a used leather briefcase. He popped it open and laid it on the bed. From under the mattress he took out the gun. It was a silver Smith & Wesson 9-millimeter, and he held it, staring for a while. Then he clacked back the slide, chambered a round, flicked on the safety with his thumb, and placed it in the briefcase.

    The box of Marlboros and I LOVE NY zippo he had bought at a newsstand the day before were on top of the nightstand, and he picked them up and packed the cigarettes against his palm in slow ceremony. He went to the window, took out a cigarette, and lit it with a clip-clop of the lighter. It was his first in six months, and a twinge of remorse came with the head rush.

    On the street the pink neon offerings of "LIQUOR" and "TAROT CARDS" and "BUDDY BOOTHS" burned like beacons in the dark. He would have waited down on the corner, but he knew that in July at four A.M. the human residue that called the streets of Times Square home was just getting its second wind. Dressed as he was, he didn't need to risk having to show the contents of the briefcase to anyone prematurely. Already the stale air of the room was warming, promising scorching heat for the day to come. That he had lived in this mangy place for so long stone sober still surprised him. The amount of horror a man was willing to inflict upon himself obviously knew no bounds.

    A beat-up blue van pulled out of traffic and stopped in the street down in front. He flicked the cigarette out into the night. He went to the bed, picked up the briefcase, and came out of the dingy room, leaving the door wide open.

    It was even warmer in the dark street. The night did nothing to dispel the stench of the city that hung heavy in the doorways and wafted up from the stained sidewalks, the smell of piss and cement and car exhaust. He didn't try to look for omens as he came away; any sign of promise—if any had ever existed—had fled that place long ago.

    "That's a good disguise," Mullen said from behind the wheel as Farrell entered. "You actually look halfway respectable."

    Mullen was clean shaven now, and his hair was pulled back neatly in a pony tail. He bore a dark tattoo of an elaborate Celtic cross on his pale, wiry forearm like a brand.

    Farrell smiled, slamming the door shut.

    "Well, let's just hope it goes over," he replied.

    He turned. Three men were sitting in the back of the van. Two were big and stocky and had long hair and sideburns and wore mustaches in the style known as Fu Manchu. The third was small and clean shaven, almost childlike but for the grim expression steadying his features. All wore blue work clothes and ski masks scrunched on their foreheads. All smoked. Each man sat sweating and holding a bulky, ink-black Uzi in his lap. There was a large, gray, metal gas tank with dials and hoses feeding out of it on a metal hand truck behind them, and there was a canvas tool bag beside it.

    "How we doin back here?" Farrell asked.

    "For fuck's sake," the smallest of them barked, "let's get it done."

    The two big brothers, Roy and Billy Burns—or the Sideburns, as they were collectively known—were acquaintances of Mullen, and like him they hailed from Hell's Kitchen on Manhattan's West Side. The smaller man's name was Durkin, and by manner of his speech, evidently was from Ireland. He was a welder by trade and had been recruited by Billy Burns in an after-hours bar in the Bainbridge section of the Bronx not two weeks before.

    Five men in a confederacy based on common gain. Although it was Farrell's plan that brought them together, he avowed no leadership. Whatever might drive his accomplices, he speculated, lay solely in their own perhaps dark, but wholly wild, hearts.

    "You heard the man," Farrell said. "Let's roll."

    They pulled out and made a right at the corner and proceeded carefully cross town. Farrell felt an urge to go over everything one more time, but let it pass. In the silence he lit a second Marlboro and stared out at the night. The cigarette ads on the last diehard taxis cut the air above the dark streets like shark fins. A WWII surplus truck came to a screeching halt in front of the clapboard newsstand just long enough for its driver to savagely kick a bloated stack of papers out of its doorless cab before a clutch-rending departure. Garbagemen down a block wordlessly fed black bags into the beetle-backed hydraulic pits of their crunching, beeping machines. Farrell liked the down time between four and six A.M. Emptied of the crowds and traffic, the massive buildings and wide avenues seemed boundless and the bleak beauty of the city lay bared. It was the other twenty-two hours that killed it for you.

    At the wide promenade of Park Avenue the van made a left and headed uptown. The hovering METLIFE building behind them watched their progress. At 66th they passed the building where Farrell used to work; he looked over at the morning papers piled at the door. At 71st they made a U-turn and slowed to a stop. Mullen handed Farrell a black radio, which he put in his briefcase. Farrell retrieved a pair of round-framed glasses from the inside pocket of his jacket and put them on. He winked at Mullen, picked up his briefcase, and got out of the van.

    It took a full minute to hail a taxi.

    Farrell gave the driver his destination, and the cab stopped five blocks down. He paid wordlessly and got out.

    The hotel stood catty-corner to his previous place of employment. Forty floors of beige limestone with cascading light down the corners of its multilayered tiers, with dramatic shadows down the length of its edifice. Farrell turned. The van idled half a block down. He took a deep breath.

    The doorman smiled as he pushed through the revolving door.

    "Bags, sir?" he asked.

    Farrell held up his briefcase.

    "You're looking at it. The rest will be along later, I hope."

    "Airline had a mix-up?" the doorman asked with understanding.

    "It's been a long one," said Farrell, putting weariness in his tone.

    "Check-in is up and to your right."

    "I appreciate it."

    Farrell almost shook at the intensity of the lobby, a vast pristine chamber of white marble floored with checkerboard tile that shined like glass. He felt that same palpable sanctity as in a cathedral or a museum or a courthouse. The plainclothes security guard standing beside the bank of elevators on the back wall watched Farrell between sips of coffee. Farrell returned a disinterested glance as he approached the check-in desk to his right—each footfall ricocheting off the tile like a pistol shot.

    Behind the desk were a young man and a woman typing at a terminal. The man smiled at Farrell's approach. He was clean-cut and wore a blue blazer and a smile as plastic as the DANIEL MARTIN name tag on his lapel.

    "Good morning, sir. How can I help you?" His cheerful tone rang hollow at four-twenty in the morning.

    "Good morning, Daniel," Farrell said, reading the tag deliberately and offering back a weary grin. "I had reservations for yesterday evening and my flight was incredibly delayed, and frankly, I need to get some sleep before I collapse."

    "I'm sorry to hear that, sir," the clerk replied earnestly, looking down at his terminal. "I'll have you right on your way. Your name?"

    "Peter Ullman," Farrell said. He checked his watch.

    "OK, Mr. Ullman," said Martin, hitting buttons. "Here we are. The suite you reserved is still available. It's on the twenty-first floor, Central Park side. The views, I think, you will find most magnificent. Breakfast starts at seven in all three of our restaurants, and the dry-cleaning service starts at six ..."

    Farrell was no longer listening. He brought the briefcase up to the desk ledge and popped the clasps. He reached into the case and gripped the pistol. He turned over his shoulder and watched the guard. From down the stairs came the sound of commotion.

    "Hey!" someone, probably the doorman, called out.

    As the guard went to the stairs, Farrell brought out the Smith & Wesson. He had it trained when the guard reached for the small of his back a moment later.

    "DON'T!" Farrell screamed.

    The security guard looked at Farrell and froze with his hand behind his back. For an instant it seemed that he would draw, but the moment passed, and with a slackening around his eyes, he put his hands in the air.

    "NOBODY FUCKING MOVE!" Roy Burns screamed as he came bursting up from the steps, training his Uzi at the guard's chest. Billy Burns and Durkin, a step behind, rushed the bewildered doorman before them.

    Farrell turned back toward Martin, the desk clerk, whose soft, puzzled expression bespoke a mind not yet caught up with the split-second change that had just occurred.

    "OUT FROM THE COUNTER, BOTH OF YOU!" screamed Farrell, putting the gun to Martin's temple.

    The girl, like Martin, stared dumbstruck—a deer caught in oncoming headlights. Farrell pulled Martin's head onto the counter by his hair and trained the gun on her.

    "MOVE!" he screamed.

    She moved. Farrell got them out from behind the counter and onto the floor and took a pair of black leather gloves out of the briefcase and pulled them on. The doorman and security guard were herded by the Sideburns next to the clerks. Farrell reached around the guard's back and retrieved his gun, a snub-nosed, hammerless revolver, and put it into his waistband. Billy Burns produced a thick roll of gray electrical tape. He quickly taped the arms and legs of the woman clerk and then the doorman. Farrell took the keys from the guard's belt. He locked all the elevators open with the smallest key and quickly came back to the guard.

    "Front door," Farrell said, handing him the keys.

    The guard stared at him. Roy Burns jabbed the Uzi's barrel off the man's temple, and then the guard selected a key and handed the ring back to Farrell. Farrell jogged down the entrance steps, locked the revolving door, and came back up. He emptied the guard's pockets, retrieving a radio, handcuffs, and the man's wallet. He opened the wallet.

    "Jerry Franklin," Farrell said. "You're cooperating. That's good. You know what we're here for. We're going to take it and get right back out of your life." Farrell hefted the guard's radio. "Your partner calls down, you're going to tell him to take it easy and catch a little more shut-eye. I know your partner is snoozing, OK. I know fucking everything. Right now everything is fine, nobody's hurt. If you pull any shit and he comes down here or calls the cops—you see that pretty girl?—I'm going to drag her over here and make you watch as I put a bullet in her head. That's a guarantee. She's the first body gets kicked down to the hostage negotiation team, you got me? I want you to be informed because it's not up to me, it's up to you."

    Farrell cuffed the guard's hands behind him. The girl was whimpering softly. Farrell helped Martin up by the scruff of his jacket and jammed the Smith & Wesson into his ear. He banged him through the swinging door behind the check-in desk. Durkin followed. On the back wall beyond some desks and filing cabinets was a steel gate.

    "OK," said Farrell, letting him go. "I know what your bosses told you to say. You don't know the combination, blah, blah, blah. You're the man on this shift, I know you are, Danny Boy. Now you can save yourself a lot of pain by owning up to that right now, because I don't see your boss here, do you? All I see is you, me, and my friend here." Durkin produced a large, drop-bladed hunting knife and held it out for Martin's inspection.

    The clerk trembled.

    "I'll do anything you want," he said.

    "I want you to get the keys to the gate there, and then I want you to open up the safe and the safety deposit boxes."

    Martin shakily retrieved a set of keys from one of the desks and opened the steel gate. Inside, foot-square stainless-steel lockers went floor to ceiling along both walls, and a waist-high combination safe sat in the back wall.

    "The safe first," ordered Farrell, pushing Martin into the room.

    Martin knelt by the safe, his face a film of sweat. He turned the tumbler slowly left-right-left-right-left. Farrell and Durkin looked at each other in disbelief. Martin paused, steadying his shaking hands. He pulled the handle. The door slowly swung open. A quarter way up the safe, bundled stacks of cash stared out at them.

    "Good man!" said Farrell, ruffling Martin's hair. "No torch," he called into the radio.

    "Rockin," Mullen called back.

    Durkin inspected the door of the safe keenly.

    "I could a done her," he lamented as he took some black nylon bags from his coveralls, "just as well."

    They cleaned the safe. The stacks were mostly twenties and fifties, but there were more than a few hundreds. Farrell looked at Martin.

    "The boxes," he said.

    Martin held out one of the keys. Farrell took it and opened a box at random. Inside diamond earrings sat on black felt. He scooped them out and dropped them into the bag. He made Martin lie down on the floor, then took out his radio.

    "Time?" he called into it.

    "Six minutes," Mullen blared back.

    Roy Burns entered. Farrell opened the lockers as fast as he could. Watches and jewelry blurred into the bags. His hands had begun to cramp when Mullen's voice blared, "Time!" from the radio.

    Farrell stopped. He wiped his sweaty face across the arm of his suit coat. Durkin and Roy were still emptying boxes.

    "We're done," said Farrell.

    "But ...," said Durkin.

    "Time's up," Farrell barked.

    Durkin chucked a last jewelry box into a bag. Farrell held out a packet of cash to Martin. The clerk looked at the money, puzzled. Farrell winked and Martin smiled, quickly stuffing the money down the front of his pants. Farrell then bound his arms and legs and left him face down on the floor. They left the vault.

    Back in the lobby Farrell got the security guard to his feet.

    "OK. Just the tapes and we're out of here."

    "Tapes?"

    "Don't fuck with me now," Farrell said angrily.

    "First floor, first door on—," said the guard.

    "No, you're gonna show me."

    Farrell pulled the guard into the elevator. At the first floor he again locked the elevator, checked the empty hall, and then led the guard out. The guard indicated a door off the hallway and showed Farrell which key. Farrell put the guard on the floor, drew his gun, and keyed himself in slowly. Farrell dragged the guard in and closed the door. On the console in front of him were sixteen small black-and-white television screens showing various parts of the hotel. On one screen were the bound workers with the menacing ski-masked Burnses standing over them. Another showed the main entrance, where Farrell could just make out the grill of the van. A third revealed the trashed vault room (which surprised Farrell because he had seen no indication of a camera) with Martin trussed in the corner, now on his side. Farrell uncuffed the guard and helped him up.

    "Get them," he said, training his gun.

    The guard opened a compartment at the bottom of the console revealing sixteen numbered slots. He hit the stop button on the first tape and then rewind.

    "I'm not taking them back to the fucking video store," Farrell said exasperated.

    The guard put his hands up in nervous apology, ejected the tape, and placed it on top of the console. Fifteen others followed. Farrell piled them into his briefcase.

    "That's it?" he asked.

    "That's it."

    "Turn around."

    As Farrell re-cuffed the guard, he noticed movement on one of the screens. Durkin appeared in the vault. Farrell watched the screen, stunned, as Durkin went over to Martin and unzipped the bound man's pants. Martin lashed out instinctively, catching Durkin in the face with a knee. Durkin fell back and pulled off his mask. He dabbed his fingers to his mouth and, without putting his mask back on, produced a small gun with a long cylinder attached to its barrel from an ankle holster. He placed the gun to the clerk's head and retrieved the hidden money. Then he hid the money in his shirt, dabbed the blood from his mouth with his mask, and put the mask back on. He pressed his pistol to the man's throat for a long second, took it away, and left.

    Farrell stared at the screen bewildered. The hidden gun hadn't bothered him so much as the silencer. The silencer fucking scared him. The silencer meant Durkin had plans of his own in mind. Solo plans. Farrell thought hard.

    "What the fuck you waiting for!" blared Mullen from Farrell's radio. Farrell and the guard jumped.

    "On our way," Farrell called. He took a deep breath and brought the guard out and down the hall.

    Durkin was standing by the check-in desk as the elevator opened. Farrell brought the guard to where the doorman and girl lay, placed him face down, and quickly taped him like the rest. Without another word, Farrell turned and led Durkin and the Burns brothers out of the lobby.

    He keyed open the revolving door and they filed out, and he locked it behind them. They jogged to the van and jumped into the open side door. The van lurched quickly up Park Avenue. They barreled left on 61st, sped over two blocks, and careened left again onto Third. Farrell climbed into the front passenger seat and turned, looking out the back window. No flashing lights. No sirens.

    "Well?" yelled Mullen over the wail of the van's engine.

    "We got it," said Farrell.

    "How much?"

    "I didn't get a chance to count it, but there's enough to go around."

    Mullen brought the speeding van into a skid as a gypsy cab ate a red light half a block ahead. Mullen steered into the slide, missing the multicolored cab by inches. The van vowed to roll for a long awful second, but Mullen righted it, and they sped on.

    "Slow the fuck down! You hear any sirens?" Farrell screamed when his heart began beating again.

    "You're shitting me?" said Mullen oblivious. "We're talkin substantial cash in the safe?"

    "That's right."

    "We're rich?" asked Mullen.

    "We'll see," said Farrell, taking off his glasses and turning around.

    In the back of the van, Durkin and the Burnses had taken off their masks and were laughing with relief. Durkin smiled at Farrell.

    "Ya surprised me in there—the way ya put the fear of God inta those bastards," he said.

    "You weren't so bad yourself," said Farrell.

    "The way ya were talkin, even I believed ya," continued Durkin.

    Farrell said nothing.

    Spanish Harlem blew past the window, all steel shutters and storefront churches. At the end of Third Avenue a skeletal black woman in a bikini stood on the corner and peered rapaciously in at the van as it went right. The road was flanked by a city bus depot and the sloping roadbed of the Harlem River Drive. They bore left under the highway, but instead of continuing up onto the entrance ramp they went over the curb onto a concrete embankment that hovered above the black surface of the Harlem River.

    Across the water on the Bronx side, a dead electric billboard jutted a colossal pack of cigarettes at Manhattan as if offering the city a smoke. The van continued left to the gate of an abandoned construction materials site and stopped. A huge, rusted-out cement mixer behind the gate stood out against the night sky like some misbegotten carnival ride. They got out of the van, taking the bags. Mullen unlocked the gate. Inside sat a primer-colored Chevy. They transferred the bags, Farrell's briefcase, and the Uzis to the trunk of the car.

    "Let's get out of here already," said Mullen, going over to the van. "Help me get rid of this fucking thing."

    The Sideburns stayed by the car while Farrell went over to the van with Durkin. Mullen opened the door and popped it into neutral and began pushing, pulling hard on the steering wheel to point it at the river. Durkin pushed at the passenger side and Farrell from the back. As the van approached the edge, Farrell glanced around the side of the van and spied Durkin bent, grabbing at something at his ankle. Farrell turned back and slid the revolver from his waistband, his heart slamming, his mouth cotton. When he peeked out again, Durkin was turned all the way around with the pistol in his hand. Their eyes met.

    "What the fuck?" said Mullen from the other side. "Push!'

    Farrell backpedaled as a small hole punched through the metal beside his head with a hollow ping. He lost his feet and sat in the gravel. He heard Durkin's boots quickly approaching, and he rolled under the van. He could see the boots now, and he aimed, animal fear like a clamp on the back of his neck, and shot. Durkin cried out and went down.

    When Farrell scurried out from beneath the van, Durkin was lying on his side holding his ankle with both hands. Blood—black in the bad light—poured out between his fingers and stained the gravel. His pistol lay on the ground beyond him. Farrell stepped over and picked it up.

    "What the fuck you think you're doing?" Billy asked quietly beside Farrell. Farrell glanced around to face the black barrel hole of Billy Burns's Uzi.

    "He tried to take us off," said Farrell.

    "What makes you think that?"

    "I don't know," Farrell said, breathing heavily, "maybe the fucking shot he just took at me?"

    "What shot? I didn't hear no shot," Roy said.

    Farrell handed him Durkin's gun and pointed to the silencer. Then he bent and reached into Durkin's shirt and took out the money he had given the clerk. He tossed it at Billy.

    "I threw the clerk a little tip in the vault. Guess Durkin here thought I was too generous, because when I went up to get the tapes, I see him on one of the screens goin back to get it. And when the kid resists, he pulls out this silenced piece here. Then he takes it out again a second ago and throws a shot at me. So I rolled under the van and caught him in the damn foot."

    Farrell still clenched the revolver in his hand, and it shook a little as he finished his story.

    Mullen took Durkin's .22 from Roy and looked at it. He handed it back to Farrell.

    "A silencer? This guy's a fucking assassin," Mullen concluded.

    Billy's face twisted in calculation, and then he put the Uzi down and shrugged his shoulders.

    "OK," he said. "He said he dropped something in the vault. I didn't know. Sorry bout that."

    "No problem. Only what do we do with him now?" Farrell asked earnestly.

    Roy eyed Durkin dreadfully.

    "Me and Billy brought him in," Roy said. There was an odd flatness to his voice, a peculiar calm. He glanced at his brother.

    "Only right we take care of it."

    "How?" Farrell was about to ask, until he suddenly realized it.

    Without another word, the Sideburns walked over to the Irishman. For all his small stature, Durkin didn't cry out or change his implacable expression as the two brothers converged on him.

    Billy lifted him clear off the ground by his throat while Roy scooped up his legs. The grim procession moved off behind the piled rubble.

    Farrell had been to prison, and he thought the daily malignancy he had witnessed there had hardened his heart. The sight of Durkin being dragged off into the shadows rattled him to his soul.

    "This part you don't wanna see, Tommy," Mullen said, putting an arm across Farrell's shoulders and leading him back toward the car. He offered his cigarettes. Farrell took one.

    "Believe me," Mullen said, giving him a light.

    When Roy came back around the rubble, he was wiping at something silver in his hand with a bandanna. Then he folded it shut and put it in his jacket. His brother, following, dragged Durkin over the cement by a bare, bloody foot. When they got beside the van, Roy turned and lifted Durkin by his hands. Durkin's head lolled back exaggeratedly.

    "One," they said in unison, swinging the diminutive Irishman back.

    "Two."

    "Three."

    They let him go. Durkin's arms spread to the sides as he sailed through the air, as if he wished them one last embrace, and then he disappeared into the darkened side door of the van with a negligible thump. Roy slid the door shut with a bang. The Burnses rolled the van off the platform. It hit the water heavily and then sunk under the black surface, front end first.

    The four of them got into the dust-colored Chevy. The Burnses in the back, Farrell at shotgun, Mullen at the wheel. Mullen barreled over the curb onto the entrance ramp with an angry bark of tires and gunned the car north on the highway.

    "How much, Tom? For real." Mullen smiled after a few minutes.

    "I don't know," said Farrell flatly.

    "Didn't even need the donkey cocksucker, huh?" Mullen said.

    "Nope," said Farrell, looking off. "The kid opened the vault like it was his high school gym locker."

    "With all that money there?" asked Mullen.

    "I don't know. I guess somebody fucked up big time."

    The silent car sped north. Farrell looked out at the water and at the expanse of the South Bronx on its opposite shore. Sunrise hinted over the concrete box horizon in a touch of light blue that led into dark blue that led into a purple sky. The lights of the Bronx reflected in the black ribbon of the Harlem River, their yellow glow spread in strips upon its oily surface. Farrell lit a cigarette. Suddenly it occurred to him that the lights in the water didn't seem like reflections at all, but like emanations, glowing spirits sunk to some dark and lonely place.

What People are saying about this

James Patterson
Stylish, lucid, and compelling, The Narrowback is as auspicious a debut as I've seen in years.

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