The Gold Chain
By Gordon Linzner
This story last published in Whispered Legends 1983
Willy, who rarely used a last name, and never his own, entered Nick’s Pizza Palace on Tenth Avenue and jingled his pocket.
Nick glanced at him, finished boxing a pepperoni and anchovy, wiped his hands on a flour-streaked apron, and slid the box toward a pimply-faced teenager reading a comic book at the counter. “Watch the place for a minute, Mike,” he said. “I’ve got to go in the back. Then you can make your delivery.”
Mike shrugged and turned a four-color page. There were no customers in the shop; the lunch-hour crowd was not due for twenty minutes.
Nick strode past the double pizza oven, and three tables that defined the dining area, to a dark storeroom little larger than the adjoining lavatory. Willy followed, closing the door behind them. The pizza-man lit a bare ceiling bulb and retrieved a jeweler’s scale from behind gallon tins of tomato paste. Willy stood; there was only room for one chair.
“Let’s see it,” said Nick.
Willy took a gold chain from his pocket. The clasp was twisted open but the single charm, a hollow pentagram, was firmly welded to its link. It, too, was gold.
“Nice,” said Nick. “Elegant. Simple. A shame to melt it down. Why don’t you bring more of these?”
“I don’t always get to the east side. Is it worth a bonus?”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“Doesn’t hurt to ask.” Willy dropped the chain in Nick’s palm.
The pizza-man hefted it. “About five ounces, I’d say. But we’ll see.” The necklace clattered into the scale’s pan.
For a moment, the room was quiet.
“Well?” said Willy.
“I don’t understand. I’ve fenced enough of these to become a fair judge of weight, yet…”
“What’s it say?”
“Less than one ounce.”
“Look for yourself.”
Willy knelt by the table to read the scale. “Shoot, it doesn’t even register. Damn thing’s broken.”
Nick scooped out the chain, dumped in a handful of coins from his apron pocket. The weight shot up. “Not the scale,” he said. “There’s something queer about the chain.”
“The only thing funny about it is the woman I snatched it off. Instead of chasing me or calling the cops, she just laughed. You try to cheat me, you’ll be sorry.” Willy’s eyes narrowed. “How do I know you haven’t been shorting me all along?”
“Don’t be a jerk. Tell you what: I like you, and I like the looks of this piece. I’ll give you twenty dollars.”
Willy snatched the chain from the pizza-man and shoved it deep into his pocket. “I can do better than that on Fifty-Third Street. I never thought you’d try to scam me, Nick.”
“No scam, Willy. You saw the weight. You want the twenty?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
“Later might be less.”
Mike did not look up as Willy brushed past him.
Willy had his fill of studying guitars and clocks by the time the last customer left, leaving him alone in the shop with the pawnbroker. He approached the money-cage under the untrusting scrutiny of watery blue eyes.
“That’s close enough, son,” said the bald man behind the bars. “State your business.”
“Be cool,” said Willy, reassuring himself more than the proprietor. His palms were moist, making the chain in his right hand slither about as though alive. Willy preferred dealing with people that he knew…but he couldn’t trust Nick any more.
“Something you want, son?”
“The sign in the window says you buy gold.”
Wrinkles smoothed as the face relaxed. “Ah. You have some to sell?”
“In a way…”
“Jewelry. Perhaps a gold chain necklace?”
“I think I’ve made a mistake…”
“No, don’t leave. This is the right place. Listen. You wish to pledge this item, a family heirloom, handed down by your grandmother. Your mother needs money for medicine, or she’d never allow it to be pawned.”
“What are you talking about?”
The bald man smiled. “I’m merely repeating what you told me. You don’t want me to assume that your goods were obtained illicitly?”
“No, of course not.”
“Good, because as an honest citizen with a license to protect I would have had to turn you away. I cannot do so in light of your sad story.”
“My sick mother. I remember.”
“See that you do. Now, let’s have a look at this heirloom.”
Willy shoved his right fist through the opening at the bottom of the cage bars and unclenched it. The cat-shaped clock above the pawnbroker’s head ticked loudly.
The bald man turned Willy’s open hand palm up. It was as empty as the counter under it. He thrust the appendage out of the cage.
“A poor joke,” he grumbled.
Willy’s eyes dilated. “I just had it.”
“You must be new at this.” Then, gentler: “Your hand felt like ice. Don’t be nervous, son. You’ll get used to this. See if it’s in your other hand.”
Willy swallowed a sharp retort, looked at his open left hand, shook his head. Slapping his pockets revealed only some loose change. The pawn shop became very warm.
“Bungler! You must have dropped it. Maybe you only thought you’d grabbed it, eh?”
Willy could not meet those watery eyes. Sweat crawled along his back, under his shirt; sweat, and something else. Something metallic.
He grasped at his left shoulder. The metal thing slithered down his spine.
“I’d better come back later,” Willy said, retreating.
“Much later,” said the broker. “When you’ve learned your trade.”
Outside, Willy paused in the doorway leading to apartments above the shop, breathing deeply. A shiver ran through his right arm. He looked down at his hand.
The gold chain slid from his sleeve into his palm.
By six o’clock, Willy was perched on a water stanchion on Eleventh Avenue, his back pressed against the rough brick wall of a warehouse, mulling over the worse afternoon he’d spent outside of the Tombs…and even some of the hours he’d spent in jail didn’t look too bad. His right hand clenched the pentagon charm as if to crush it. It would not crush.
Trying to hustle this one lousy necklace had kept Willy too busy to even score a purse. The numbers man wouldn’t touch it, and neither would the bookie; both were satisfied with their own action. His attempts to sell it on the street, the most dangerous and least profitable way, were met with derision. When he’d finally gotten a nibble, the damned thing became so tangled in his fingers that the mark walked off in disgust. Using it to cover a sucker bet at a Times Square pool hall got him thrown out. And less than an hour ago, when he was ready to sell it for the price of a pizza, he found the Pizza Palace closed. Nick had been picked up for receiving stolen merchandise.
He probably thinks I turned him in, Willy thought sourly.
“Hi, honey. You want to go out?”
The speaker stood before him, her arms crossed under half-bare breasts, uplifting them, long legs exposed almost to the groin. Willy’s eyes lit up; this was just what he needed after a difficult day. Then he frowned.
“Sorry, babe,” he said. “Tapped out. Another time.”
She shrugged, started to move away.
“Wait!” Willy added. “I’ve got something better than cash.”
“I’ve heard that before. I’m off the junk.” But she let him dangle the chain necklace in her face.
“Is that worth a half-hour?” asked Willy.
“A whole night, if it’s real…and it’s not too hot.”
“If it was hot, would I be carrying it?”
“Let me see.”
Willy hesitated. The woman was as likely to run off with the chain as lead him to her room. Still, he’d be no worse off than he was. He let her take it, feeling an erotic thrill as her long fingernails grazed his skin and a deep relief when the chain left his possession.
“The clasp needed fixing,” he admitted.
“Looks okay to me.”
Willy nodded, unsurprised.
“Odd looking charm,” she said, fastening the chain about her neck. The pentagon dipped into her cleavage, resting there. “Feels warm, too.”
“That’s because I was holding it when I saw you.”
Willy shrugged. “Where to?”
“You got money for the room, at least?”
“That chain would buy a suite at the Plaza.”
“You want everything, don’t you? You picked the wrong girl for charity. Hey, this thing’s hot!”
“Not much. I told you…”
“Shove that! I mean it’s really hot!” Her fingers reached behind her neck to tear at the clasp. Links tangled in her thick red hair. Finally the chain came loose, and she flung it at Willy. He caught it in self-defense.
“You must be really sick,” the woman spat. “How am I supposed to work like this?”
Two thin scars stretched from either side of her throat to meet in the center of her chest, where a red, five-sided welt was already forming. Her hands, too, were scorched where they’d touched the chain; she waved them frantically. Willy looked at the chain in his own unsinged hand. He did not look up again until the clack of the woman’s high heels and her string of profanities became lost in the roar of passing traffic.
“That’s it,” Willy muttered,
One block west ran the Hudson River, just the place for this cursed necklace. He would walk to the end of a pier and toss this sucker to New Jersey, before his reputation on the streets was completely undermined.
At his third step, his right wrist began to ache. The chain was twisted around it. He tugged at the links in vain. Then he noticed that the pentagon was not in his hand, but suspended in the air, toward the east.
“Hell, no,” said Willy. “You want to go that way, go by yourself.”
The chain tightened, cutting his flesh. Willy was wondering how long he could defy the pentagon when a patrol car turned the corner. He did not know where the chain would lead him, but he knew what would happen if the police saw him holding something that glittered in the setting sun.
Willy faced east, grasped the charm now pointing ahead of him, and began to walk. Those who noticed the young man storming down the street, eyes flashing, clenched fist extended before him, moved quickly aside.
Inside the vestibule of a Gramercy Park brownstone, Willy shut the outer door. The inner one then opened by itself, and the chain tugged him forward. Ahead lay a narrow hallway and a flight of stairs, both carpeted in lime-green, but those were not for him. He was pulled through a door off the hall, to the right, that swung open as mysteriously as the other.
It closed behind him with the snap of a lock.
Standing before a table in the center of a cluttered, dimly lit, book-lined room, reading aloud strange syllables from a leather-bound folio, was a woman who towered over Willy by a head. Willy licked his lips. He never remembered a victim’s face, rarely even saw one, but the long silver hair had made an impression. The woman wore beige jodhpurs, a flannel shirt, and a checkered bandanna that did not quite obscure the red mark on her throat where the chain had scraped before the clasp broke.
She stopped reading and looked at him without surprise. Then she closed the book.
“We won’t need that any more,” she said. “Hand it to me, please.”
Willy’s hand was already extended, though he did not recall offering it. The chain and pentagon lay lightly on his palm. The woman took the necklace, examined it casually, and put it on. The pentagon went under the shirt, to rest against her breast.
“Much better. I feel almost naked without this.”
Not trusting his knees, Willy sank into a nearby overstuffed chair. “It doesn’t burn you?”
“Of course not. It’s attuned to me.”
“What is it?”
“By itself, nothing. I use it as a focus for certain energies, a sort of psychical shortcut. Not as effective as a proper invocation” – she patted the book – “but good enough for most purposes, and much less bother. Invaluable in my work.”
The speech gave Willy time to recover. “How about a reward?”
Pale eyes rose. “Reward?”
“I…found that. I’m returning it. Isn’t that worth something to you?”
“You found it around my neck,” she snapped. “I don’t employ my talents for fun, Willy. Yes, I know your name. The forces I deal with can be dangerous. Normally, I’m well paid for my risk, but today I’ve had to hazard myself without profit, to obtain what was already mine. I am not in a kindly mood.”
Willy’s eyes roved the apartment and fixed on a knife that the woman used for opening letters. His fingers itched. “I went through some changes, too. I ought to get something out of this.”
“Perhaps you should,” she agreed. “That’s a Malay kris you’re admiring, a gift from an associate. Not only is it a particularly nasty weapon, with that undulating blade, but it has some value as an antique. I don’t think you’ll find it very useful, though.”
Willy sprang from the chair to grasp the graven hilt. The woman waited, motionless, beside the table. “Hell,” Willy said, “I’ve been using blades since…urghh!”
The weapon dropped from nerveless fingers, clattered on the table. Willy fell back into the chair, gasping agony.
“Tsk,” said the silver-haired woman. “Looks like arthritis.”
“Bull. I’m only nine-, er, fifteen.”
“Do the police buy that?”
Willy did not answer. His eyes grew sullen as the pain ebbed.
“That peasant figure on the table beside you is Chinese jade,” the woman continued. “I won’t give it to you, but if you can take it, it’s yours.”
Willy eyed her suspiciously, stretched out his left hand. The fingers barely brushed the cool green statue when the spasms struck. He glared at the woman.
She smiled warmly. “Penny for your thoughts.”
Willy stared at the bright copper coin, shook his head.
“Don’t be shy. It’s yours. I give it to you freely.”
Willy touched the edge of the coin with a fingertip, drew back. No pain. He snatched the penny from her outstretched hand, held it clenched in a fist on the arm of the chair.
“I’m no doctor,” the woman said, perching on the end of the table, “but you seem to have a selective case, Willy. Apparently your arthritis only acts up when you’re reaching for something that doesn’t belong to you. I wonder if it’s similar to the technique used in lie detector tests.”
“I don’t know what you did, or how,” Willy snarled, “but you’d better un-do it, quick.”
The woman’s smile faded. “Not a chance. You said you deserved something after today’s events. I agreed.”
“Stealing’s the only way I know to survive. How’m I supposed to live?”
“Like most people: honestly. The change will do you good.”
“Nobody’ll hire me.”
“I think you’ll find differently. If you have any trouble, let me know. I’ll be glad to recommend you.”
“I don’t even know who you are.”
“My card is in your shirt pocket.”
Willy felt the stiff cardboard through the fabric of his shirt. “I don’t want anything from you,” he said. “I just want to leave.”
The door lock clicked, and the door swung inward. The woman gestured. Willy hauled himself out of the chair, eased past her with a nervous glance, and hurried outside.
He was halfway to the Hudson when he stopped running. Pausing in the glare of a streetlamp, he remembered the business card and took it from his shirt pocket. There was no address, no telephone number, only the woman’s name and a descriptive phrase in red and gold letters:
His hand trembled, a reminder of the anguish that had coursed through it. He cursed, but saw no way out. He’d have to find a job tomorrow, or starve. He’d never been able to get one before, even when he wanted it, but now he was sure he’d be working before another day was out. More of the silver-haired woman’s doing.
There were worse fates, he supposed. Anyway, maybe the spell, or curse, or whatever it was would wear off after a few weeks, or months, or years.
Or maybe earning his way would become a habit.
Either way, Willy would not soon forget Evelyn Slade.
About the Author:
Gordon Linzner is founder and former editor of Space and Time Magazine, and author of three published novels and scores of short stories in F&SF, Twilight Zone, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, and numerous other magazines and anthologies. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association and a lifetime member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.