Book excerpt

Probable Cause

Theresa Schwegel

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One The store's alarm doesn't startle anyone. Two blocks away, in a rehabbed three-flat on Washtenaw Avenue, an underwhelmed DePaul professor hears it. He momentarily loses his place in a Tribune article, skims through something about the mayor's unfair hiring practices, yawns, and skips to the metro section, assuming the alarm is part of whatever movie-of-the-week his wife is watching downstairs on TV. Downstairs, it doesn't matter what's on TV, because his wife is already well into a bottle of average cabernet and the first stages of sleep, dreaming of being appreciated.
 
A block away, at the intersection of Lincoln and Foster, a taxi driver hears the alarm while he waits at the light. Sirens all sound the same after ten years driving this route: bau, bau, bau, bau; whup-whup-whup-whup-whup-whup--whatever, the driver thinks. The sound is mildly irritating, like any red light. He steps on the gas and makes a right for Lake Shore Drive. On the sidewalk in front of the store, a homeless woman wanders and, believing the alarm is a signal from her God, is confused as to why there is no church. No church, just Lucky Mike's Electronics: neon-yellow signage over a locked-up storefront, its windows and door fortified top to bottom by steel curtains. The woman moves on, ready to tell any other living soul her predicament. A decal on Lucky Mike's blacked-out door declares security courtesy of WESTEC: area office located exactly 9.2 miles from the store. There, a little red light blinks on a console, summoning some dispatcher to get off his ass for the third time this shift and send a car. He finishes his pastrami on rye. The dispatcher is used to false alarms. Seven-and-a-half miles from the store at Spiaggia restaurant, Officer Ray Weiss probably wishes he could hear the alarm. It'd be a nice way to ditch the horrendous dinner date his mother guilted him into making. Monica has already ordered an appetizer and a twenty-dollar glass of some kind of wine she couldn't pronounce, and now she won't shut up about the shopping on Oak Street. She says "eww" in a baby voice when he cracks his knuckles. Weiss tries to act interested in her and decipher the menu at the same time, but he's never heard of half the items, and every one costs more than both his shirt and tie. He orders something with sweetbreads, expecting, well, sweet bread. He's twenty-three. He wants a burger. He wants to get out of there and catch bad guys. No, the store's alarm doesn't startle anyone, but Jed Pagorski thinks he can feel the adrenaline coming out of his ears. In the alley behind the store, his hands are slippery in his gloves as he jimmies the loading dock's heavy garage door. "Noise" Dubois is over his shoulder, watching, making sure Jed doesn't slip up. It's the heat of the night, Jed thinks; that's why he's sweating. Can Noise tell? "Rent-a-cops will be here in ten minutes, tops," Jed says. Noise's look says: No shit. Too late to back out now, Jed thinks. Not that he would. He slides one leg underneath the door, then the other, then his torso, the weight of the door held by his twitching arms like a stacked bench press. Ten minutes. Less. "Hold this fucking door up for me." Be in control, Jed thinks. It's all under control. Noise's fingers appear in front of Jed's nose, healthy pink nails against black skin. Underhanded, Noise holds the door. As soon as Jed slides through, the garage door hits the pavement like a guillotine. Nine minutes, no counting. Jed pulls a flashlight from his belt, turns it on, and sweeps the space with light. Layout looks like the map Noise penciled on a napkin at Hamilton's earlier tonight: a doorway behind opens to outside and runs ahead to the showroom; inventory is there to the right; alarm keypad is mounted on the wall, over there. Nine-one-zero-one-six, Jed repeats in his head, the code memorized easily, after so much practice. The gloves prove difficult as he disables the alarm. The siren stops; his ears ring in the silence. He thinks he hears his own heartbeat. He remembers to breathe. Jed hears the car pull up out back, just like they planned. One of the tires crunches broken glass in the alley. Car door slams. Seven minutes, Jed thinks, to be on the safe side. To be out of there with no trouble. He approaches the door to the right of the loading dock and presses his ear against it, waiting for the signal. He turns off his flashlight like a conscience. He waits, counting backward from ten three times over, and again, the numbers steadying his concentration. Jed smiles. He's in it: he's in the game. And he won't get caught--can't, really. He smiles, notices his jaw is clenched. He's so god damn tense he wishes he'd taken Noise up on that drink back at Hamilton's. Sweat trickles through his brow and into his eyes and he wonders, where the hell is Noise? Be in control. It's all under control. He grips his flashlight like a weapon in his right hand and reaches for the door with his weak left. He turns the lock, it clicks; he pulls the handle down and inches the door open to get a look outside. Before he can make sense of it the barrel of a gun slips through the crack. The muzzle stops an inch from his face. He drops the flashlight and turns to take cover, but the door is pushed open quickly and with so much force that Jed can't get his feet set. He tumbles to the floor and covers his face with his forearms like a little girl would. Noise doesn't say anything. Just holsters his gun and stands there, shaking his head. "God damn, Noise, what the fuck?" "Is that a question?" Noise swipes Jed's flashlight, then helps Jed to his feet. Through the open door Jed sees the car, trunk open. Five minutes left, no time for Jed's answer. He follows Noise into the showroom. The only light comes from a flickering exit sign just above them; the front windows are blacked and reinforced, shielding the merchandise from bad reflection during the day and undue interest at night--a security measure, backfired. Noise shines the flashlight over surround sound stereos, home theater systems, digital projection packages. He stops, focuses the beam of light on a 48-inch Sony plasma television. Jed can't see Noise in the dark so he asks, "That's it?" "It's a nice TV." "I know, but that's all we're taking?" "You think we should load up the backseat? Strap a big screen to the hood?" Jed knows better than to ask stupid questions. He knows that. He also knows he has to be the one to lift the TV. Sometimes he thinks they only want him for his muscle. Suck it up, he thinks. One TV, maybe three minutes and one fucking nice TV, and he's in no matter why they want him. Noise disappears as Jed disconnects the control box from the screen. He can't carry both at once, so he takes the box first, out the back, down the steps. He sets it in the trunk like it's his mother's favorite porcelain figurine. Noise sticks his head out the back door, uses Jed's flashlight to inspect the job. Jed hustles back up the stairs past Noise, says, "I know," assuming Noise's pursed lips were about to squeeze out a customary Be careful. Jed goes inside, and he can see the finish line now, his vision narrowed in the showroom. He hoists the 48-inch screen under his right arm and negotiates his way through the dark, out the back. Noise isn't there, but there's no time to wonder where he went. Jed hopes Noise won't harp on him about the screen's scraped edge. Forty-eight inches happen to be a perfect fit for the trunk, except he didn't know that when he gave the screen a little too much elbow grease on the way in. Jed shuts the trunk and closes his eyes, sealing his fate in the trunk: he is one of them. Finally. And with at least a minute to spare. "Jed." Noise's tone is far from congratulatory. Jed looks up: Noise is standing at the top of the steps, holding a VHS tape. Be careful. Jed had mocked him, instead of checking for cameras. "Surveillance. Man, Noise, I thought--" "Don't tell me what you thought. Tell me what you know." Jed's answer comes out like a reflex: "Cover your ass." Noise stops short of a nod. His body seems to tense from the inside out. Jed watches him, waiting to maybe get yelled at. A car turns into the alley, shining its high beams on the men. Noise tucks the tape in his jacket and remains on the steps. "Shit," says Jed, thinking he fucked this up somehow, took too long, and now they'll have his ass. He leans over the trunk, his arms spread, head hanging, like he's ready to get frisked. The driver pulls up, gets out, says, "What is going on?" "Mr. Lukas?" Noise comes down the steps cautiously, gun drawn, held close to his leg. Jed is afraid to turn around. "Yes," the driver says. "What in the hell happened?" Jed can feel the rush in his veins. He stands up, reaches into his jacket, waits for his cue. "Well?" the driver asks. Of course Noise doesn't say anything. Be in control, Jed tells himself. It's all under control. Then he turns slowly, arrogantly, and produces his badge. "I'm sorry, sir, it seems there's been a burglary."  Copyright © 2006 by Theresa Schwegel. All rights reserved.   
  Theresa Schwegel was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, and attended Loyola University there.  She received an MFA in screenwriting at Chapman University in California and now lives in Los Angeles.  Her first novel, Officer Down, won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and was shortlisted for the Anthony Award for Best First Novel.