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Set during Prohibition, Live by Night is Dennis Lehane's fast-paced chronicle of Joe Coughlin, son of a corrupt Boston police superintendent and self-described outlaw. The book follows Joe from his days as a small-time gangster in Boston through a hitch in prison, where he earns the friendship of an Italian mobster. After springing Joe from prison, the mob sends him to Florida, where his shrewd tactical sense and knack for making friends — especially among Cuban revolutionaries — help him build an empire as rum-running boss of the South.Lehane clearly enjoys laying on the period detail, but it's Joe's contradictory character that drives Live by Night forward. Early on, he makes the mistake of falling for the coldhearted Emma Gould, girlfriend to Albert White, a vicious rival gangster. In this exclusive selection, Joe makes plans with Emma to leave Boston, intending to fund their flight with a bank robbery. Tim Hickey, whose murder sets this chapter's events in motion, is the boss of Joe's gang. Live by Night will be published Oct. 2.
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains adult content and language that some readers may find offensive.
Tim Hickey once told Joe the smallest mistake sometimes casts the longest shadow. Joe wondered what Tim would have said about daydreaming behind the wheel of a getaway car while you were parked outside a bank. Maybe not daydreaming—fixating. On a woman's back. More specifically, on Emma's back. On the birthmark he'd seen there. Tim probably would have said, then again, sometimes it's the biggest mistakes that cast the longest shadows, you moron.
Another thing Tim was fond of saying was when a house falls down, the first termite to bite into it is just as much to blame as the last. Joe didn't get that one—the first termite would be long fucking dead by the time the last termite got his teeth into the wood. Wouldn't he? Every time Tim made the analogy, Joe resolved to look into termite life expectancy, but then he'd forget to do it until the next time Tim brought it up, usually when he was drunk and there was a lull in the conversation, and everyone at the table would get the same look on their faces: What is it with Tim and the fucking termites already?
Tim Hickey got his hair cut once a week at Aslem's on Charles Street. One Tuesday, some of those hairs ended up in his mouth when he was shot in the back of the head on his way to the barber's chair. He lay on the checkerboard tile as the blood rolled past the tip of his nose and the shooter emerged from behind the coatrack, shaky and wide-eyed. The coatrack clattered to the tile and one of the barbers jumped in place. The shooter stepped over Tim Hickey's corpse and gave the witnesses a hunched series of nods, as if embarrassed, and let himself out.
When Joe heard, he was in bed with Emma. After he hung up the phone, Emma sat up in bed while he told her. She rolled a cigarette and looked at Joe while she licked the paper—she always looked at him when she licked the paper—and then she lit it. "Did he mean anything to you? Tim?"
"I don't know," Joe said.
"How don't you know?"
"It's not one thing or the other, I guess."
Tim had found Joe and the Bartolo brothers when they were kids setting fire to newsstands. One morning they'd take money from the Globe to burn down one of the Standard's stands. The next day they'd take a payoff from the American to torch the Globe's. Tim hired them to burn down the 51 Café. They graduated to late-afternoon home rips in Beacon Hill, the back doors left unlocked by cleaning women or handymen on Tim's payroll. When they worked a job Tim gave them, he set a flat price, but if they worked their own jobs, they paid Tim his tribute and took the lion's share for themselves. In that regard, Tim had been a great boss.
Joe had watched him strangle Harvey Boule, though. It had been over opium, a woman, or a German shorthaired pointer; to this day Joe had only heard rumors. But Harvey had walked into the casino and he and Tim got to talking and then Tim snapped the electric cord off one of the green banker's lamps and wrapped it around Harvey's neck. Harvey was a huge guy and he carried Tim around the casino floor for about a minute, all the whores running for cover, all of Hickey's gun monkeys pointing their guns right at Harvey. Joe watched the realization dawn in Harvey Boule's eyes—even if he got Tim to stop strangling him, Tim's goons would empty four revolvers and one automatic into him. He dropped to his knees and soiled himself with a loud venting sound. He lay on his stomach, gasping, as Tim pressed his knee between his shoulder blades and wrapped the excess cord tight around one hand. He twisted and pulled back all the harder and Harvey kicked hard enough to knock off both shoes.
Tim snapped his fingers. One of his gun monkeys handed him a pistol and Tim put it to Harvey's ear. A whore said, "Oh, God," but just as Tim went to pull the trigger, Harvey's eyes turned hopeless and confused, and he moaned his final breath into the imitation Oriental. Tim sat back on Harvey's spine and handed the gun back to his goon. He peered at the profile of the man he'd killed.
Joe had never seen anyone die before. Less than two minutes before, Harvey had asked the girl who brought him his martini to get him the score of the Sox game. Tipped her good too. Checked his watch and slipped it back into his vest. Took a sip of his martini. Less than two minutes before, and now he was fucking gone? To where? No one knew. To God, to the devil, to purgatory, or worse, maybe to nowhere. Tim stood and smoothed his snow-white hair and pointed in a vague way at the casino manager. "Freshen everyone's drinks. On Harvey."
A couple of people laughed nervously but most everyone else looked sick.
That wasn't the only person Tim had killed or ordered killed in the last four years, but it had been the one Joe witnessed.
And now Tim himself. Gone. Not coming back. As if he'd never been.
"You ever see anyone killed?" Joe asked Emma.
She looked back at him steadily for a bit, smoking the cigarette, chewing a hangnail. "Yeah."
"Where do you think they go?"
"The funeral home."
He stared at her until she smiled that tiny smile of hers, her curls dangling in front of her eyes.
"I think they go nowhere," she said.
"I'm starting to think that too," Joe said. He sat up and gave her a hard kiss and she returned it just as hard. Her ankles crossed at his back. She ran her hand through his hair and he looked into her, feeling if he stopped looking at her, he'd miss something, something important that would happen in her face, something he'd never forget.
"What if there is no After? And this"—she ground herself down on him—"is all we get?"
"I love this," he said.
She laughed. "I love this too."
"In general? Or with me?"
She put her cigarette out. She took his face in her hands when she kissed him. She rocked back and forth. "With you."
But he wasn't the only one she did this with, was he?
There was still Albert. Still Albert.
* * *
A COUPLE DAYS LATER, IN THE BILLIARDS ROOM OFF THE CASINO, Joe was shooting pool alone when Albert White walked in with the confidence of someone who expected an obstacle to be removed before he reached it. Walking in beside him was his chief gun monkey, Brenny Loomis, Loomis looking right at Joe like he'd looked at him from the floor of the gaming room.
Joe's heart folded itself around the blade of a knife. And stopped.
Albert White said, "You must be Joe."
Joe willed himself to move. He met Albert's outstretched hand. "Joe Coughlin, yeah. Nice to meet you."
"Good to put a face to a name, Joe." Albert pumped his hand like the pumping would get water to a fire.
"This is Brendan Loomis," Albert said, "a friend of mine."
Joe shook Loomis's hand, and it was like putting his hand between two cars as they backed into each other. Loomis cocked his head and his small brown eyes roamed over Joe's face. When Joe got the hand back, he had to resist the urge to wring it. Loomis, meanwhile, wiped his own hand with a silk handkerchief, his face a rock. His eyes left Joe and looked around the room like he had plans for it. He was good with a gun, they said, and great with a knife, but most of his victims he just beat to death.
Albert said, "I've seen you before, right?"
Joe searched his face for signs of mirth. "I don't think so."
"No, I have. Bren', you seen this guy before?"
Brenny Loomis picked up the nine ball and examined it. "No."
Joe felt a relief so overpowering he worried he might lose control of his bladder.
"The Shoelace." Albert snapped his fingers. "You're in there sometimes, aren't you?"
"I am," Joe said.
"That's it, that's it." Albert clapped Joe on the shoulder. "I run this house now. You know what that means?"
"Means I need you to pack up the room where you've been living." He raised an index finger. "But I don't want you to feel like I'm putting you on the street."
"It's just this is a swell joint. We have a lot of ideas for it."
Albert put a hand on Joe's arm just above the elbow. His wedding band flashed under the light. It was silver. Celtic snake patterns were etched into it. A couple of diamonds too, small ones.
"You think about what kind of earner you want to be. Okay? Just think about it. Take some time. But know this—you can't work on your own. Not in this town. Not anymore."
Joe turned his gaze away from the wedding band and the hand on his arm, looked Albert White in his friendly eyes. "I have no desire to work on my own, sir. I paid tribute to Tim Hickey, rain or shine."
Albert White got a look like he didn't like hearing Tim Hickey's name uttered in the place he now owned. He patted Joe's arm. "I know you did. I know you did good work too. Top-notch. But we don't do business with outsiders. And an independent contractor? That's an outsider. We're building a great team, Joe. I promise you—an amazing team." He poured himself a drink from Tim's decanter, didn't offer anyone else one. He carried it over to the pool table and hoisted himself up on the rail, looked at Joe. "Let me just say one thing plain—you're too smart for the stuff you've been pulling. You're nickel-and-diming with two dumb guineas—hey, they're great friends, I'm sure, but they're stupid and they're wops and they'll be dead before they're thirty. You? You can keep on the path you're on. No commitments, but no friends. A house, but no home." He slid off the pool table. "If you don't want a home, that's fine. I promise. But you can't operate anywhere in the city limits. You want to carve something out on the South Shore, go ahead. Try the North Shore, if the Italians let you live once they hear about you. But the city?" He pointed at the floor. "That's organized now, Joe. No tributes, just employees. And employers. Is there any part of this I've been unclear on?"
"No, Mr. White."
Albert White crossed his arms and nodded, looked at his shoes. "You got anything lined up? Any jobs I should know about?"
Joe had spent the last of Tim Hickey's money to pay the guy who'd given him the info he needed for the Pittsfield job.
"No," Joe said. "Nothing lined up."
"You need money?"
"Mr. White, sir?"
"Money." Albert reached into his pocket with a hand that had run over Emma's pubic bone. Gripped her hair. He peeled two ten spots off his wad and slapped them into Joe's palm. "I don't want you thinking on an empty stomach."
Albert patted Joe's cheek with that same hand. "I hope this ends well."
* * *
"WE COULD LEAVE," EMMA SAID.
"Leave?" he said. "Like together?"
They were in her bedroom in the middle of the day, the only time her house was empty of the three sisters and the three brothers and the bitter mother and angry father.
"We could leave," she said again, as if she didn't believe it herself.
"And go where? Live on what? And do you mean together?"
She didn't say anything. Twice he'd asked the question, twice she'd ignored it.
"I don't know much about honest work," he said.
"Who said it needs to be honest?"
He looked around the grim room she shared with two sisters. The wallpaper had come off the horsehair plaster by the window and two of the panes were cracked. They could see their breath in here.
"We'd have to go pretty far," he said. "New York's a closed town. Philly too. Detroit, forget about it. Chicago, KC, Milwaukee—all shut to a guy like me unless I want to join a mob as low man on the totem."
"So we go west, as the man said. Or down south." She nuzzled her nose into the side of his neck and took a deep breath, a softness seeming to grow in her. "We'll need stake money."
"We got this job lined up for Saturday. You free Saturday?"
"I've got to see You Know Who Saturday night."
"Well, yeah," she said, "that's the general plan."
"No, I mean—"
"I know what you mean."
"He's a bad fucking guy," Joe said, his eyes on her back, on that birthmark the color of wet sand.
She looked at him with a mild disappointment that was all the more dismissive for being so mild. "No, he's not."
"You stick up for him?"
"I'll tell you he's not a bad guy. He's not my guy. He's not someone I love or admire or anything. But he's not bad. Don't always try to make things so simple."
"He killed Tim. Or ordered him killed."
"And Tim, he, what, he made his living handing out turkeys to orphans?"
"But what? No one's good, no one's bad. Everyone's just trying to make their way." She lit a cigarette and shook the match until it was black and smoldering. "Stop fucking judging everyone."
He couldn't stop looking at her birthmark, getting lost in its sand, swirling with it. "You're still going to see him."
"Don't start. If we're truly leaving town, then—"
"We're leaving town." Joe would leave the country if it meant no man ever touched her again.
"Biloxi," he said, realizing as he said it that it actually wasn't a bad idea. "Tim had a lot of friends there. Guys I met. Rum guys. Albert gets his supply from Canada. He's a whiskey guy. So if we get to the Gulf Coast—Biloxi, Mobile, maybe even New Orleans, if we buy off the right people—we might be okay. That's rum country."
She thought about it a bit, that birthmark rippling every time she stretched up the bed to tap ash off her cigarette. "I'm supposed to see him for that new hotel opening. The one on Providence Street?"
She nodded. "Supposed to have radios in every room. Marble from Italy."
"And if I go to that, he'll be with his wife. He just wants me there 'cuz, I dunno, 'cuz it excites him to see me when his wife's on his arm. And after that, I know for a fact he's going to Detroit for a few days to talk to new suppliers."
"So, it'll buy us all the time we need. By the time he comes looking for me again, we'll have a three- or four-day head start."
Joe thought it through. "Not bad."
"I know," she said with another smile. "You think you can clean yourself up, get over to the Statler Saturday? Say, about seven?"
"Then we're gone," she said and looked over her shoulder at him. "But no more talk about Albert being a bad guy. My brother's got a job 'cuz of him. Last winter, he bought my mother a coat."
"I don't want to fight."
Joe didn't want to fight either. Every time they did, he lost, found himself apologizing for things he hadn't even done, hadn't even thought of doing, found himself apologizing for not doing them, for not thinking of doing them. It hurt his fucking head.
He kissed her shoulder. "So we won't fight."
She gave him a flutter of eyelashes. "Hooray."
* * *
LEAVING THE FIRST NATIONAL JOB IN PITTSFIELD, Dion and Paolo had just jumped in the car when Joe backed into the lamppost because he'd been thinking about the birthmark. The wet sand color of it and the way it moved between her shoulder blades when she looked back at him and told him she might love him, how it did the same thing when she said Albert White wasn't such a bad guy. A fucking peach actually was ol' Albert. Friend of the common man, buy your mother a winter coat as long as you used your body to keep him warm. The birthmark was the shape of a butterfly but jagged and sharp around the edges, Joe thinking that might sum up Emma too, and then telling himself forget it, they were leaving town tonight, all their problems solved. She loved him. Wasn't that the point? Everything else was heading for the rearview mirror. Whatever Emma Gould had, he wanted it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. He wanted it for the rest of his life—the freckles along her collarbone and the bridge of her nose, the hum that left her throat after she'd finished laughing, the way she turned "four" into a two-syllable word.
Dion and Paolo ran out of the bank.
They climbed in the back.
"Drive," Dion said.
A tall, bald guy with a gray shirt and black suspenders came out of the bank, armed with a club. A club wasn't a gun, but it could still cause trouble if the guy got close enough.
Joe rammed the gearshift into first with the heel of his hand and hit the gas, but the car went backward instead of forward. Fifteen feet backward. The eyes of the guy with the club popped in surprise.
Dion shouted, "Whoa! Whoa!"
Joe stomped the brake and the clutch. He rammed the shift out of reverse and into first, but they still hit the lamppost. The impact wasn't bad, just embarrassing. The yokel with the suspenders would tell his wife and friends for the rest of his life how he'd scared three gun thugs so bad they'd reversed a getaway car to get away from him.
When the car lurched forward, the tires kicked dust and small rocks off the dirt road and into the face of the man with the club. By now, another guy stood in front of the bank. He wore a white shirt and brown pants. He extended his arm. Joe saw the guy in the rearview mirror, his arm jumping. For a moment, Joe couldn't comprehend why, and then he understood. He said, "Get down," and Dion and Paolo dropped in the backseat. The guy's arm jerked up again, then jerked a third or fourth time, and the side-view mirror shattered and the glass fell to the dirt street.
Joe turned onto East Street and found the alley they'd scouted last week, banged a left into it, and stood on the gas pedal. For several blocks he drove parallel to the railroad tracks that ran behind the mills. By now they could assume the police were involved, not enough so that they were setting up roadblocks or anything, but enough that they could follow tire tracks off the dirt road by the bank, know the general direction in which they'd headed.
They'd stolen three cars that morning, all in Chicopee, about sixty miles south. They'd picked up the Auburn they were in now, as well as a black Cole with bald tires and a '24 Essex Coach with a raspy engine.
Joe crossed the railroad tracks and drove another mile along Silver Lake to a foundry that had burned down some years before, the black shell of it listing to the right in a field of weeds and cattails. Both cars were waiting for them when Joe pulled into the back of the building, where the wall was long gone, and they parked beside the Cole and got out of the Auburn.
Dion lifted Joe by his overcoat lapels and pushed him against the Auburn's hood. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"
"It was a mistake," Joe said.
"Last week it was a mistake," Dion said. "This week it's a fucking pattern."
Joe couldn't argue. But he still said, "Take your hands off me."
Dion let go of Joe's lapels. He breathed heavily through his nostrils and pointed a stiff finger at Joe. "You're fucking up."
Joe took the hats and the kerchiefs and the guns and put them in a bag with the money. He put the bag in the back of the Essex Coach. "I know it."
Dion held out his fat hands. "We've been partners since we were little fucking kids, but this is bad."
"Yeah." Joe agreed because he didn't see the point in lying about the obvious.
The police cars—four of them—came through a wall of brown weeds on the edge of the field behind the foundry. The weeds were the color of a riverbed and stood six or seven feet tall. The cruisers flattened them and revealed a small tent community behind them. A woman in a gray shawl and her baby leaned over a recently doused campfire, trying to scoop whatever heat was left into their coats.
Joe jumped into the Essex and drove out of the foundry. The Bartolo brothers drove past him in their Cole, the back end sliding away from them as they hit a patch of dry red dirt. The dirt spewed onto Joe's windshield and covered it. He leaned out the window and wiped at the dirt with his left arm while he drove with his right. The Essex bounced high off the uneven ground and something took a bite out of Joe's ear. When he pulled his head back in, he could see a lot better, but blood poured from his ear, sluicing under his collar and down his chest.
A series of pings and thunks hit the back window, the sound of someone skipping coins off a tin roof, and then the window blew out and a bullet sparked off the dashboard. A cruiser appeared on Joe's left and then another on his right. The one to his right had a cop in the backseat who rested the barrel of a Thompson on the window frame and opened fire. Joe stepped on the brakes so hard the steel coils of his seat pressed against his back ribs. The passenger windows exploded. Then the front window. The dashboard spit pieces of itself all over Joe and the front seat.
The cruiser to his right tried to brake as it turned in toward him. It rose on its nose and left the ground like something lifted by a gust. Joe had time to see it land on its side before the other cruiser rammed the back of his Essex and a boulder appeared out of the weeds just before the tree line.
The front of the Essex collapsed and the rest of it snapped to the right, Joe snapping with it. He never felt himself leave the car until he hit the tree. He lay there for a long time, covered in glass pebbles and pine needles, sticky with his own blood. He thought of Emma and he thought of his father. The woods smelled like burning hair, and he checked his arm hair and head just in case, but he was fine. He sat in the pine needles and waited for the Pittsfield police to arrest him. Smoke drifted through the trees. It was black and oily and not too thick. It moved around the tree trunks like it was looking for someone. After a while, he realized the police might not be coming.
When he stood and looked past the mangled Essex, he couldn't see the second cruiser anywhere. He could see the first, the one that had fired the tommy gun at him; it lay on its side in the field, a good twenty yards from where he'd last seen it bounce.
His hands had been chewed up by glass or fragments flying around inside the car. His legs were fine. His ear continued to bleed. When he found the rear window along the driver's side of the Essex intact, he looked at his reflection and saw why—no more left earlobe. It had been removed as if by a flick of the barber's blade. Past his reflection, Joe saw the leather satchel that held the money and the guns. The door wouldn't open right away, and he had to put both feet on the driver's door, which was unrecognizable as a door. He pulled hard though, pulled until he felt nauseated and light-headed. Just when he was thinking he should probably go find a rock, the door opened with a loud groan.
He took the bag and walked away from the field and deeper into the woods. He came upon a small, dry tree that was aflame, its two largest branches curving toward the fireball in its center, like a man trying to pat out his own burning head. A pair of oily black tire tracks flattened the brush in front of him, and some burning leaves listed in the air. He found a second burning tree and a small bush, and the black tire tracks grew blacker and more oily. After about fifty yards, he arrived at a pond. Steam curled along its edges and wisped off the surface, and at first Joe couldn't tell what he was seeing. The police cruiser that had rammed him had entered the water on fire, and now it sat in the middle of the pond, the water up to its windowsills, the rest of it charred, a few greasy blue flames still dancing on the roof. The windows had blown out. The holes the Thompson gun had made in the rear panel looked like the butts of flattened beer cans. The driver hung halfway out his door. The only part of him that wasn't black was his eyes, all the whiter for the charring of the rest of him.
Joe walked into the pond until he was standing on the passenger side of the cruiser, the water just below his waist. There was no one else inside the car. He stuck his head in through the passenger window even though it meant getting that much closer to the body. The heat radiated off the driver's roasted flesh in waves. He leaned back out of the car, certain he'd seen two cops in that cruiser as they'd raced across the field. He got another whiff of cooked flesh and lowered his head.
The other cop lay in the pond at his feet. He looked up from the sandy floor, the left side of his body as blackened as his partner's, the flesh on the right curdled but still white. He was about Joe's age, maybe a year older. His right arm pointed up. He'd probably used it to pull himself out of the burning car and fell into the water on his back, and it had stayed that way when he died.
But it still looked like he was pointing at Joe, the message clear:
You did this.
You. No one else. No one living anyway.
You're the first termite.
A Hole at the Center of Things
Back in the city, he dumped the car he'd stolen in Lenox and replaced it with a Dodge 126 he found parked along Pleasant Street in Dorchester. He drove it to K Street in South Boston and sat down the street from the house he'd grown up in while he considered his options. There weren't many. By the time night fell, he'd probably be out of them.
It was in all the late editions:
THREE PITTSFIELD POLICEMEN CUT DOWN (The Boston Globe)
3 MASS. POLICE OFFICERS BRUTALLY SLAIN (The Evening Standard)
COP SLAUGHTER IN WESTERN MASS. (The American)
The two men Joe had come across in the pond were identified as Donald Belinski and Virgil Orten. Both had left wives behind. Orten had left two children. After studying their photos for a bit, Joe decided that Orten had been the one driving the car and Belinski had been the one who pointed up at him from the water.
He knew the real reason they were dead was because one of their brother lawmen had been stupid enough to fire a fucking tommy gun from a car bouncing across uneven ground. He knew that. He also knew that he was Hickey's termite and Donald and Virgil never would have been in that field if he and the Bartolo brothers hadn't come to their small city to rob one of their small banks.
The third dead cop, Jacob Zobe, was a state trooper who'd pulled over a car along the edge of the October Mountain State Forest. He'd been shot once in the stomach, which bent him over, and once through the top of his skull, which finished him off. The killer or killers ran over his ankle as they sped away, snapping the bone in half.
The shooting sounded like Dion. It was how he fought—punched a guy in the stomach to fold him in half and then worked the head until he went down for good. Dion, to the best of Joe's knowledge, had never killed a man before, but he'd come close a few times, and he hated cops.
Investigators had yet to identify any suspects, at least publicly. Two of the suspects were described as "heavyset" and "of foreign descent and odor," while the third—possibly a foreigner as well—had been shot in the face. Joe looked at his reflection in the rearview mirror. Technically, he supposed, it was true; the earlobe was attached to the face. Or, in his case, it had been.
Even though no one had their names yet, a sketch artist with the Pittsfield Police Department had rendered their likenesses. So while most papers ran pictures of the three dead cops below the fold, above it they printed sketches of Dion, Paolo, and Joe. Dion and Paolo looked more jowly than normal and Joe would have to ask Emma if his face looked that thin and wolfish in the flesh, but otherwise, the resemblance was remarkable.
A four-state dragnet was in effect. The Bureau of Investigation had been consulted and was said to be joining the pursuit.
By now his father would have seen the papers. His father, Thomas Coughlin, deputy superintendent of the Boston Police Department.
His son, party to a cop killing.
Since Joe's mother had passed two years ago, his father worked himself to numb exhaustion six days a week. With a dragnet in effect for his own son, he'd have a cot brought into his office, probably not come home until they closed the case.
The family home was a four-story row house. It was an impressive structure, a redbrick bowfront where all the center rooms looked out at the street and boasted curved window seats. It was a house of mahogany staircases, pocket doors, and parquet floors, six bedrooms, two bathrooms, both with indoor plumbing, a dining room fit for the great hall of an English castle.
When a woman once asked Joe how he could come from such a magnificent home and such a good family and still become a gangster, Joe's answer was two-pronged: (a) he wasn't a gangster, he was an outlaw; (b) he came from a magnificent house, not a magnificent home.
From Live by Night, by Dennis Lehane. Copyright 2012 by Dennis Lehane. Excerpted with permission from William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.