Earth . . .
We’re driving on the highway in the Buick when a hawk crashes through our windshield.
“Holy hell,” says Floyd, and Roger and I say stuff too. The car swerves.
Brap, screeches the hawk. It’s dying, then it dies. It’s stuck through our windshield, its body on the hood and its head inside, like it’s peeking through curtains, checking things out backstage. There are spikes of glass, I spill my Big Gulp, and the hawk has a squirrel in its talons.
“Dammit.” Sprite fills the crotch of my jeans. I’m riding shotgun.
“There’s a hawk in our windshield,” shouts Floyd. He sounds awed or thrilled. He’s in the backseat. Wind whistles in around the hawk’s body, which is wedged tight. Roger, who’s driving, fights with the wheel.
“There’s a hawk in our windshield,” shouts Floyd, “and there’s glass everywhere.”
Roger pulls over. We take deep breaths. It’s six in the morning, no other cars around. There are ribbons of fog over the highway, points of dew in the roadside grass. Also, hanging dead before us is a red-tailed king of the skies.
“Wow,” says Roger. He’s got on black leather driving gloves.
“The hawk is holding a rat or something,” says Floyd.
It’s early May, the new millennium. I’m thirty-two and I bust people’s heads for Honey Pobrinkis, a Chicago gangster. Floyd’s my partner in the head-busting department. He wears his blond hair in a biker’s ponytail, and he’s as dumb as tundra, but he’s got a photographic memory, which comes in handy. As for Roger, he’s forty. He’s Honey’s nephew, but he’s only a mob guy in the summer. From September to April, Roger attends the University of Chicago, where he’s getting a master’s in anthropology.
“Honey’s gonna flip,” says Floyd. “His car is fucked.”
“Quiet,” says Roger, brushing glass off his jacket. He wears a suit and tie wherever we go.
“Honey’s ride has been fucked by a hawk and a rat.”
“Quiet, Floyd,” insists Roger.
I stare at the mangled former hawk. He’s beautiful and lordly, but he’s been dethroned. Just before the crash, I was actually thinking of animals—not hawks or squirrels, but sheep. The sheep I was pondering belong to Charles Chalk, whose head we’re on our way to busting. Charles is Honey’s diamond dealer. He lives west of Chicago, out Route 90, on a farm in Hampshire, Illinois. I visited his farm years back and admired his sheep. There were dozens of them. They were black and white and fenced in and they made noises that meant Save Me.
“Oh, man.” Floyd gets out of the car, looks at the windshield. He whistles long and low, shaking his head. “Oh, man. We have witnessed the fucking of a Buick.”
Roger finishes picking glass off his torso. He wears a porkpie hat, day and night, and under the hat is a black buzz cut with one weird white streak near the left temple. Roger’s smart, built, and mean. I’ve never crossed him.
“Oh, man,” says Floyd, “the hood’s dented. If Honey were here, he’d kill that hawk, point-blank.”
“The hawk died on impact,” says Roger.
Floyd creases his eyes. “It got off easy.”
I watch the hawk, whose fierce, shredded head hangs two feet before mine. I see no bullet wounds or other signs of why the beast kamikaze’d. What I see is the squirrel, out on the hood. Amazingly, he’s wriggling free of the hawk’s talons. He’s alive, with pure white fur.
“Shitbox.” Floyd, who’s just twenty-six, makes a reverent sound. “The rat’s still kicking.”
“It’s not a rat, it’s a squirrel.” Roger looks in the side-view, reangles his porkpie. “You all right, Henry?”
I don’t answer. The squirrel has liberated himself, and now he sits on his haunches, gazing at me through the windshield. There’s some powdered glass in his fur, but he’s still got a sporting chance in this world.
“Squirrels are brown.” Floyd folds his arms. There’s a cornfield behind him, and fog over the cornfield, and the sun’s coming up.
“Well,” says Roger, “this one’s white.”
The squirrel regards me. Other than the glinting powdered glass, his coat is free of blood or trauma, and his eyes are voids, black holes, like he could go on the news tonight, or home to the wife, or straight to hell, he doesn’t care.
How far’d you fall? I wonder.
“Fine,” says Floyd. “Three white guys, one white squirrel, one bashed-in Buick. That’s the scenario.”
The squirrel stares at me. I’ve seen dark, dead eyes like his exactly once, on a Cabrini-Green mark who owed Honey five grand last year. I cornered the mark around midnight outside a convenience store where he’d bought a six-pack of Schlitz. I got the guy in an alley and cracked his beer bottles over his head, but his eyes stayed gone, even when the blood trickled in.
“Yo. Henry Dante. You with us?” Roger punches the windshield in front of me, making me jump. The squirrel scampers off the hood, into the cornfield.
Floyd glares after the creature. “Fucking thing.”
I blink at Roger.
“So, you’re there after all.” He notices my wet lap. “What’d you do, piss yourself?”
“It’s soda,” I say.
“Floyd,” says Roger, “pull the hawk out and chuck him. Let’s get to the farm.”
Floyd stands in his jeans and his black tank top, which he wears year-round, heat wave or blizzard. His breath comes in vapors, and he watches them like they’re crucial to the scene. Floyd loves a crisis. He once had a nonspeaking part in his high school play, where he tolled a bell to indicate a man’s death. I hear about the bell frequently.
“Oh, man,” says Floyd. “I was already having a lousy morning. Now Honey’s Buick is fucked? This is the last straw.”
Roger cracks his neck, watches the sky getting bluer, grins. Roger can do that, love colors one minute, club someone the next. He weighs only a hundred and ninety, but Roger’s a Pobrinkis. He’s killed men, led hitting crews. Floyd and I just do head-busting and bringbacks, so Roger’s in charge.
“This is the straw that humped the camel.” Floyd yanks out the hawk carcass, tosses it, pulls glass from the windshield like icicles.
“Broke his back, you mean,” says Roger.
Floyd considers this. “No. Humped him.”
“Broke the camel’s back.” Roger lights a cigarette. When he killed his first mark, he ran the guy over with a stolen cab, then left the cab on top of the guy, the meter running.
“This is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Roger. “That’s what you were trying to say.”
Floyd gets his defensive look. He purses his lips. “I said what I said.”
“Straws don’t hump camels,” says Roger. “No wonder you didn’t get speaking parts.”
“Oh, man. Fuck you. I tolled the bell.”
“Get in the car,” says Roger.
Floyd reclaims the backseat, and Roger revs up, pulls out. I’m still thinking about the squirrel. Air gushes through the windshield.
“There’s an absence in our windshield now.” Floyd speaks over the wailing air. “There’s an abyss.”
Roger keeps checking his eyes at me. He likes my voice more than I do. “What’s the word, Henry? Hawk plummets from the heavens. Accident or omen?”
I’ve worked strong-arm for Honey Pobrinkis for seven years. Honey owns Chicago bistros, Vegas casinos, Canadian whores, the whole shebang, but his fetish is diamonds. He’s the Adam Smith of the black market ice trade from Moscow to Mayberry. The rumor is, Honey has a five-carat, internally flawless back molar, but he never smiles or laughs, so I can’t confirm this. Anyway, crewing for the Pobrinkis family, I’ve learned how to wait in cars, shatter jaws, keep my mouth shut. I’ve never killed anyone, though, or been on a hitting crew, or even wheelman for a hitting crew. I’m privately proud of these facts. My soul has a sporting chance.
“I don’t know,” I tell Roger.
Roger chews his Chesterfield. He half smokes cigarettes and half eats them.
“I believe in omens,” announces Floyd.
“Floyd,” says Roger, “would you do me the profound courtesy of shutting the fuck up?”
Floyd leans an elbow on each of our seats. He has a skinny orphan’s frame, and marks never guess the crazy strength in his arms. “I just think there’s omens.”
Roger taps the steering wheel. “Forget the omens. Our concern is Charles Chalk.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Sweet and Vicious by David Schickler. Copyright © 2004 by David Schickler. Excerpted by permission of Dial Press Trade Paperback, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.