Iraq war veteran Peter Ash is restless in the home he shares with June Cassidy in Washington State. June knows Peter needs to be on the move, so she sends him to Memphis to help her friend Wanda Wyatt, a photographer and war correspondent who's been receiving peculiar threats. When Peter arrives in Memphis, however, he finds the situation has gone downhill fastsomeone has just driven a dump truck into Wanda's living room. But neither Wanda nor Peter can figure out why.
At the same time, a young homeless street musician finds himself roped into a plan to rob a jewelry store. The heist doesn't go as planned, and the young man finds himself holding a sack full of Rolexes and running for his life. When his getaway car breaks down, he steals a new one at gunpointPeter's 1968 green Chevrolet pickup truck.
Peter likes the skinny kid's smarts and attitude, but he soon discovers that the desperate musician is in far worse trouble than he knows. And Wanda's troubles are only beginning. Peter finds himself stuck between Memphis gangsterslooking for Rolexes and revengeand a Mississippi ex-con and his hog-butcher brother looking for a valuable piece of family history that goes all the way back to the Civil War.
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At the time, Ellison Bell thought it was a goof, the four of them just talking, having fun.
It didn't turn out that way.
In the dark backyard of the empty, they sat on stolen or street-found chairs, sheltering behind the swaybacked old house. The grass was up to their knees and the bushes had gone leggy and wild, grown together into an unruly green wall hiding the boys from the eyes of wary neighbors.
The boys were feeling good, maybe a little loud, but it was a warm spring night, too nice to be indoors, and they weren't the only ones feeling the weather. Music from distant radios drifted on the breeze, crunk to blues to Beyonc. Ellison Bell-Sonny to his mama and pops, one dead and the other long gone, and Eli to his friends-could smell meat cooking over charcoal.
If the empty wasn't boarded up with the lights and water off, if the four boys didn't have to piss in the weeds and dig themselves a shit hole with a stick by the back fence, it might have been like having a home.
But it wasn't home, not for any of them. It was just another place to stay, the latest in a long line of empties, even if it was a pretty good one. They'd been there a month, keeping mostly quiet and careful, hoping they could make it through summer if they didn't attract attention or set the place on fire by accident or out of boredom.
Not one of them older than fifteen.
IÕm saying, thereÕs something to this.Ó Skinny B poked at the air with the half-smoked blunt. ÒA serious payday. A chance to build up a roll, get something started.Ó
Skinny B saw himself as a hustler, full of ideas, always looking to move up. Tall and thin, long arms and legs, not much muscle. His head was shaped like a chili bean, and his face was smooth as a baby's. More ambitious than smart, Eli thought. Skinny had quit the trap house in a snit when he got passed over for inside work, but there wasn't much else to do on your own. Now he was hungry. Skinny B wanted the high life, the clothes and the car, money to spend.
Right now they were talking about what he was willing to do for it.
"Man, give me that." Coyo reached out and took the crooked blunt from Skinny's hand. He sucked in a deep hit and the burning coal flared bright orange in the night. "What's the payday?" His voice was squeaky from holding in the smoke. It was the only time Coyo was squeaky. Otherwise he was low-down brown, up for anything and everything.
Anymore Eli didn't know half of what Coyo got into, although he heard stories. Coyo wasn't one to tell.
"You can't be serious." Anthony Wilkinson was middle height, sturdy but not fat, with black-framed glasses that kept sliding down the steep slope of his nose. He pushed them back up with a meaty finger. "Walk into a jewelry store with a gun? They have armed guards. Alarms. Cameras."
Eli Bell was only half listening. He had his old guitar on his lap, the original beater from his dead brother Baldwin that had somehow survived Eli's life so far. The nearest radio was playing John Lee Hooker's "Let's Go Out Tonight," and Eli worked the edges of the song, fingers finding notes on their own, heel thumping time on the hard-packed dirt.
"That's the thing," said Skinny B. "The store ain't around here. It's way out the highway, the rich white people's mall. They got guards and cameras and shit, but they ain't set up for four rough niggas like us."
Coyo snorted at the idea of Skinny B as a rough nigga. But Skinny wasn't nothing. Working outside the trap was no joke, dealing with junkies looking to fix, some of them not looking to pay. Eli had never done it.
"What kind of stuff would we get?" Anthony said. "Some kind of cheap shit we take to King Robbie and hope for a few hundred dollars?" Anthony was the only one with something to lose. He still had people, a place to go when he needed a meal or a shower. Anthony was even going to school most days. The rest of them had quit years ago.
Eli thought maybe Coyo had never gone. That boy was raised by wolves, and the wolves had given him up for wild.
Of the four boys, Coyo was always the most likely. Most likely to cause a ruckus, most likely to carry a gun, most likely to pull it. He was permanently wired on Cokes or Red Bull, would smoke a blunt down to a nub in one long drag if you weren't watching, or even if you were.
It was Coyo had set the empty on fire two houses back, burning broken-up cabinets on the kitchen floor trying to keep warm on a cold night. But he'd also shown up tonight with a paper sack full of hot hamburgers and fries and a box of cold Cokes for everyone, and didn't make a thing out of it.
"Rolex watches," said Skinny B. "Diamond rings. I figure we give a watch to King, maybe Charlene and Brody." King's lieutenants. "Then everybody else be wantin' one, too. In the store they go for eight, ten, twelve stacks each. We sell for a thousand, five watches apiece? Or ten?"
"I like the sound of that," said Coyo. "I'm ready to get paid for real. How 'bout you, Eli?"
Part of Eli was still out there with John Lee Hooker, but not so far that he hadn't been following the conversation.
Like any of these niggas were really going to rob a jewelry store.
But part of him, what Eli thought of as the mathematical part, the part that had kept him alive and fed and sheltered since he was nine years old, wanted to take out the idea and play with it.
"You been there?" he asked Skinny B. "Out to that mall?"
"Hell yes, I have," said Skinny. "I took the bus there, day before yesterday." He pulled out his phone and passed it around, showing them pictures. "They got those police camera trailers in the parking lot, and the mall cops got guns. But the store ain't locked up, you can walk right in. Glass cases full of the good stuff, I'm telling you."
"How far is the store from the mall's nearest exit?" asked Eli.
"See, this why we're talking," said Skinny B. "'Cause you got the brains, right?"
"Brains enough not to do something this dumb," said Eli. But he was imagining the money. A Gibson ES-335 for starters, for that old-time sound, with a big fat amp to really hear himself.
Then thought, Maybe a house. Maybe they could buy a house, the four of them. Something to stay in for real.
Something they didn't have to run from when some neighbor called the police.
How much could a house cost, one of these broken-down old empties? He didn't know how any of that worked. Not like they needed furniture. Eli slept on the floor wrapped in a few old blankets with some cardboard laid out for padding, or on the three-legged couch they'd carried ten blocks in the dark. That was good enough for him.
Not good enough for Nadine, he thought. But it was something. A step in the right direction.
"How far to the exit?" asked Anthony. Maybe he was already spending his share, too.
"Well, it's on the second floor," said Skinny. "So you gotta get to the escalator, let's see, maybe eighty steps? There's a side exit almost right at the bottom. That's maybe another forty steps. Parking right outside. And from the parking lot?" He grinned his gap-toothed hustler's smile. "Half a mile to the highway and we're gone."
"Whose turf is that?" Eli was nobody's idea of a gangster, he'd been fired from his starter job as a lookout at one of King Robbie's traps, but he knew, they all knew, you had to ask permission, pay a commission. Eli even paid over a piece of the small-change tips he made playing guitar on the street or at the Lucky. Cost of doing business, or you paid another price. They took it out of your skin and bones.
"That's the other thing," said Skinny B. "Out there ain't nothing but golf courses and fat houses. Can't be nobody's turf, right?"
"That's police turf," said Anthony. "And a whole lot of white folks."
"Hey, I like white folks," said Coyo. "Get real polite when you point a gun at 'em."
Eli gave Coyo a look.
Coyo gave back a sly smile that told Eli nothing at all.
He was Eli's oldest living friend.
"So we got police," said Skinny. "I dealt with them before."
Anthony raised his bushy eyebrows. "You dodge police after you take three hundred dollars off that chicken joint last month and now you an expert?"
"I'm saying, police ain't shit. They got rules, only so much they can do. Not like straight-up gangsters. Not like King Robbie."
"So what's the plan?" said Anthony. "Walk in, ask nice, and run? Where we gonna get a car? Or are we taking the bus?"
"I can get guns," said Coyo. "A car, too. No problem."
"Okay," said Skinny, rubbing his hands together. "Now we making progress. Guns for the guards. For the goods, we bring hammers to break the glass on those cases. Reach in, grab what we can, run like hell."
Eli laughed, picturing it. Laughed so hard his fingers stopped moving on the strings.
Skinny looked at him. "What I miss?"
"The four of us walking into the high-tone white folks' mall? Gun in one hand, hammer in the other, wearing white T-shirts and Timberlands and ski masks?" Eli shook his head. "They'll call the police the minute we get out of the car."
Skinny B nodded. "Okay, yeah, that's a problem," he said. "How do you figure it?"
Eli didn't want to think about it. But he couldn't help himself, not now. Even if it was half the money Skinny said it could be, or a quarter, it was still a lot of money. He could eat for months on a thousand dollars, maybe get ahead a little. If he didn't get killed or go to jail.
But it was all just talk.
No way they were going into a jewelry store. No way.
Even though the mathematical part of him knew exactly how they'd do it.
The mathematical part wasn't so much about numbers, not really. It had more to do with the music that filled him, weighing possibilities and balance and proportion, seeing ahead of the present moment.
He could see it now, clear as day.
They were all looking at him.
Eli Bell laid the guitar flat on his lap. "Any of them Cokes left?"
"Do you one better." Anthony fished around in his shirt pocket and held up another blunt. Badly made, the paper barely holding together, but it would do the job.
"We're not doing this," said Eli. "Straight up, I'm saying it now. We're not doing this."
"Sure," said Coyo. "Whatever you say." He tossed Eli a Coke from the box at his feet. Anthony fired up the blunt and passed it over. "But if you were gonna, how would you?"
They stayed up talking late into the night.
Just goofing, that's all.
Eli woke on the floor with a start.
Skinny B stood over him, holding out a warm Coke and a paper-wrapped package from Hardee's. "Time to go."
"What?" Eli's head felt like a dandelion gone to seed, all fuzzy and flyaway. He got up on one elbow to make sure his guitar was where he'd left it, the first thing he did every morning. The room had cooled in the night. He had to piss. "Damn, Skinny, I was sleeping."
"Now you're awake. C'mon, eat your biscuit. Time to go."
Skinny's dumb grin brought last night's conversation back to him.
"No," said Eli, scrambling to his feet. "No way, I told you no."
"We're all set," said Skinny. "I made it up to Hubbard's Hardware in Frayser right when they opened, spent ninety-eight dollars for sledgehammers and work gloves and a big tool bag, just like you said. Anthony's outside kicking the bag around the yard so it don't look brand-new. He also went to that paint store for the other stuff you talked about."
Eli knew about the tools because of Dupree. Dupree was a bass player, a good one, but he also worked on houses, and he was always trying to get Eli to work with him. It was nice to know Eli could get a few days' pay when he was flat broke, but he couldn't get up early every morning after playing music all night, not like Dupree could. Plus scraping paint all day made his hands cramp up. Not to mention it was boring as hell.
Better than jail, though. Eli was not going to jail.
"You go ahead," said Eli. "You got the whole plan anyway. Split it three ways instead of four."
Coyo came in the back door. "Car's down the block. We good for an hour, more or less." He carried a Save-A-Lot grocery bag, the brown paper rolled tight at the top.
The heavy way it swung told Eli what was inside.
"Oh, no," he said. "No, no, no."
Eli had known Coyo since before everything changed. Before EliÕs pops went away, before his brother Baldwin got shot in the face, before his mama died with a needle in her arm. Even when Eli went to live with his nana, heÕd smuggled Coyo leftovers in a paper napkin, until his nana caught him in the act. Then she fed Coyo at her kitchen table, heaping his plate like he was one of her own.
When she passed from a stroke, neither boy had any place to go but the street. Coyo had never forgotten those meals. He'd looked out for Eli when he could.
Coyo had always been his own man, even at the age of eleven when King Robbie had threatened to beat him with a broom handle to prove a point, or maybe just because he liked it.
Coyo had pulled a gun from his pocket, not a big gun or even a good gun, but he held it firm and calm down at his side. He said, "King, I tell you what. Let's skip the next part and call it even, we both be better off."
Eli had watched King Robbie look at this half-grown wolf with new eyes. Seeing a tool he could use, sure. But never one he could own.
Excerpted from "Tear It Down"
Copyright © 2019 Nick Petrie.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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