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The Lock Artist
By Steve Hamilton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Steve Hamilton
All rights reserved.
Locked Up Tight for Another Day
You may remember me. Think back. The summer of 1990. I know that's a while ago, but the wire services picked up the story and I was in every newspaper in the country. Even if you didn't read the story, you probably heard about me. From one of your neighbors, somebody you worked with, or if you're younger, from somebody at school. They called me "the Miracle Boy." A few other names, too, names thought up by copy editors or newscasters trying to outdo one another. I saw "Boy Wonder" in one of the old clippings. "Terror Tyke," that was another one, even though I was eight years old at the time. But it was the Miracle Boy that stuck.
I stayed in the news for two or three days, but even when the cameras and the reporters moved on to something else, mine was the kind of story that stuck with you. You felt bad for me. How could you not? If you had young kids of your own back then, you held them a little tighter. If you were a kid yourself, you didn't sleep right for a week.
In the end, all you could do was wish me well. You hoped that I had found a new life somewhere. You hoped that because I was so young, somehow this would have protected me, made it not so horrible. That I'd be able to get over it, maybe even put the whole thing behind me. Children being so adaptable and flexible and durable, in ways that adults could never be. That whole business. It's what you hoped, anyway, if you even took the time to think about me the real person and not just the young face in the news story.
People sent me cards and letters back then. A few of them had drawings made by children. Wishing me well. Wishing me a happy future. Some people even tried to visit me at my new home. Apparently, they'd come looking for me in Milford, Michigan, thinking they could just stop anybody on the street and ask where to find me. For what reason, exactly? I guess they thought I must have some kind of special powers to have lived through that day in June. What those powers might be, or what these people thought I could do for them, I couldn't even imagine.
In the years since then, what happened? I grew up. I came to believe in love at first sight. I tried my hand at a few things, and if I was any good at it, that meant it had to be either totally useless or else totally against the law. That goes a long way toward explaining why I'm wearing this stylish orange jumpsuit right now, and why I've been wearing it every single day for the past nine years.
I don't think it's doing me any good to be here. Me or anybody else. It's kind of ironic, though, that the worst thing I ever did, on paper at least, was the one thing I don't regret. Not at all.
In the meantime, as long as I'm here, I figure what the hell, I'll take a look back at everything. I'll write it all down. Which, if I'm going to do it, is really the only way I can tell the story. I have no other choice, because as you may or may not know, in all the things I've done in the past years, there's one particular thing I haven't done. I haven't spoken one single word out loud.
That's a whole story in itself, of course. This thing that has kept me silent for all of these years. Locked up here inside me, ever since that day. I cannot let go of it. So I cannot speak. I cannot make a sound.
Here, though, on the page ... it can be like we're sitting together at a bar somewhere, just you and me, having a long talk. Yeah, I like that. You and me sitting at a bar, just talking. Or rather me talking and you listening. What a switch that would be. I mean, you'd really be listening. Because I've noticed how most people don't know how to listen. Believe me. Most of the time they're just waiting for the other person to shut up so they can start talking again. But you ... hell, you're just as good a listener as I am. You're sitting there, hanging on every word I say. When I get to the bad parts, you hang in there with me and you let me get it out. You don't judge me right off the bat. I'm not saying you're going to forgive everything. I sure as hell don't forgive it all myself. But at least you'll be willing to hear me out, and in the end to try to understand me. That's all I can ask, right?
Problem is, where do I begin? If I go right to the sob story, it'll feel like I'm already trying to excuse everything I did. If I go to the hardcore stuff first, you'll think I'm some sort of born criminal. You'll write me off before I get the chance to make my case.
So maybe I'll kind of skip around, if you don't mind. How the first real jobs I was involved with went down. How it felt to be growing up as the Miracle Boy. How it all came together that one summer. How I met Amelia. How I found my unforgivable talent. How I got myself heading down the wrong road. Maybe you'll look at that and decide that I didn't have much choice. Maybe you'll decide that you would have done exactly the same thing.
The one thing I can't do is start off on that day in June of 1990. I can't go there yet. No matter how hard other people have tried to convince me, and believe me, there were a lot of them and they tried pretty damned hard ... I can't start there because I already feel claustrophobic enough in here. Some days it's all I can do to keep breathing. But maybe one of these days as I'm writing, I'll get to it and I'll think to myself, okay, today's the day. Today you can face it. No warm-up needed. Just go back to that day and let it fly. You're eight years old. You hear the sound outside the door. And —
Damn, this is even harder than I thought.
I had to take a little break, get up and walk around a little bit, which around here isn't very far. I left the cell and walked down through the common area, used the main bathroom and brushed my teeth. There was a new guy in there, someone who doesn't know anything about me yet. When he said hey to me, I knew I had to be careful. Not answering people might be considered rude on the outside. In here, it could be taken as disrespect. If I were in a really bad place, I'd probably be dead by now. Even in here, in this place, it's a constant challenge for me.
I did what I usually do. Two fingers of my right hand pointing to my throat, then a slashing motion. No words coming out of here, pal. No disrespect intended. I obviously made it back alive because I'm still writing.
So hang on, because this is my story if you're ready for it. I was the Miracle Boy, once upon a time. Later on, the Milford Mute. The Golden Boy. The Young Ghost. The Kid. The Boxman. The Lock Artist. That was all me.
But you can call me Mike.CHAPTER 2
Outside Philadelphia September 1999
So there I was, on my way to my first real job. I'd been on the road for two days straight, ever since leaving home. That old motorcycle had broken down just as I crossed the Pennsylvania state line. I hated to leave it there on the side of the road, after all it had given me. The freedom. The feeling that I could jump on the thing and outrun anything at a moment's notice. But what the hell else choice did I have?
I took the bags off the back and stuck my thumb out. You try hitchhiking when you can't speak. Go ahead, try it sometime. The first three people who stopped for me just couldn't deal with it. It didn't matter how nice my face was or how used up I might have looked after all those lonely miles. You'd think I'd stop being surprised by how freaked out people get when they meet a man who is always silent.
So it took a while to get there. Two days since the call and a lot of trouble and hardship. Then I finally show up, tired and hungry and filthy. Talk about making a good first impression.
This was the Blue Crew. These were the guys the Ghost called steady and reliable. Not quite as top of the heap, but professional. Even if they were a little rough around the edges sometimes. Like most New York guys. That's all I'd been told about them. I was about to find out the rest for myself.
They were holed up in a little one-story motor court just outside of Malvern, Pennsylvania. It wasn't the worst place I'd ever seen, but I guess if you were stuck there for an extra day or two, it would start to get to you. Especially if you were trying to keep a low profile, ordering pizzas instead of going out, passing a bottle back and forth instead of seeing what the local bars had to offer. Whatever the reason, they weren't all that happy when I finally showed up.
There were only two of them. I didn't think I'd find such a small crew, but there they were, both staying in the same room. Which I'm sure didn't help their mood any. The man who answered the door was the man who seemed to be the leader. He was bald and maybe twenty pounds overweight, but he looked strong enough to put me right through the window. He spoke with a pronounced New Yorker accent.
"Who are you?" He stared me down for five seconds, then it hit him. "Wait a minute, are you the guy we've been waiting for? Get in here!"
He pulled me inside and shut the door.
"You're kidding me, right? This is a joke?"
The other man was sitting at the table, in the middle of a hand of gin rummy. "What's with the kid?"
"This is the boxman we've been waiting for. Can't you tell?"
"What is he, like twelve years old?"
"How old are you, kid?"
I put up ten fingers, then eight more. I wouldn't turn eighteen for another four months, but I figured what the hell. Close enough.
"They said you don't talk much. I guess they were telling the truth."
"The fuck took you so long," the man at the table said. His accent was a lot thicker than the first guy's. So thick it sounded like he was standing on a Brooklyn street corner. I nicknamed him Brooklyn in my mind. I knew I'd never get real names.
I put my right thumb up, moving it slowly from side to side.
"You had to hitchhike? Are you kidding me?"
I put my hands up. No choice, guys.
"You look like shit," the first man said. "Do you need to take a shower or something?"
That sounded like a great idea to me. So I took a shower and rummaged through my bag for some clean clothes. I felt almost human again when I was done. When I stepped back into the room, I could tell that they had been talking about me.
"Tonight's our last chance," Manhattan said. That was the nickname I'd already settled on for the leader. If they had brought three more guys with them, we could have covered all five boroughs. "Are you sure you're up for this?"
"Our man comes back home tomorrow morning," Brooklyn said. "If we don't hit him now, this whole trip's a fucking waste."
I nodded. I understand, guys. What else do you want from me?
"You really don't talk," Manhattan said. "I mean, they weren't pulling my chain. You really don't say one freaking word."
I shook my head.
"Can you open the man's safe?"
"That's all we need to know."
Brooklyn didn't look quite as convinced, but for now he didn't have much choice. They had been waiting for their boxman. And their boxman was me.
About three hours later, after the sun had gone, I was sitting in the back of a panel van marked ELITE RENOVATIONS. Manhattan was driving. Brooklyn was riding shotgun, turning every few minutes or so to look at me. It was something I knew I'd have to get accustomed to. It was like the Ghost had said, these guys had already done all of the legwork, had scouted out their target, had watched their man's every move, had planned the whole operation from beginning to end. Me, I was just the specialist, brought in at the last minute to do my part. It didn't help that I looked like I hadn't even started shaving yet, and that beyond that I was some kind of mutant freak who couldn't even say one word out loud.
So yeah. I didn't blame them for being a little skeptical.
From what I could see out the front windows, it looked like we were heading into some prime real estate. This must have been the Main Line I'd heard about. The old-money suburbs west of Philadelphia. We passed private schools with great stone archways guarding the entrances. We passed Villanova University, sitting high on a hill. I found myself wondering if they had a good art school. We passed a long sloping lawn with strings of lights and white furniture set out for some sort of party. All of it in a world I'd never get to see in any legal, legitimate way.
We kept going until we hit Bryn Mawr, past another college I didn't catch the name of, until we finally took a right off of the main road. The houses started to get bigger and bigger, yet still there was nobody to stop us. No uniformed men with tin badges and clipboards to check our credentials. That was the thing about these old-money houses. They were built years before anyone ever dreamed of "gated communities."
Manhattan pulled the van into the long driveway, drove it all the way back, past the loop that would have taken us to the front door, instead going around to the back of the house, where there was a large paved area and what looked to be a five-car garage. The two men put on their surgical gloves. I took the pair they gave me and put them in my pocket. I had never tried doing any of this with gloves on, and I wasn't about to experiment now. Manhattan seemed to make a mental note of my bare hands but didn't say anything about it.
We got out of the van and made our way across a large veranda to the back door. There was a thick line of pine trees surrounding the backyard. A motion sensor light snapped on as soon as we got close to the house, but nobody flinched. The light did nothing but welcome us, anyway. Right this way, sirs. Let me show you fine gentlemen exactly where you're going.
The two men paused at the door, obviously waiting for me to perform the first of my specialties. I took the leather case out of my back pocket and got to work. I chose a tension bar and slipped that into the bottom of the keyhole. Then I took out a thin diamond pick and started in on the pins. Feeling my way through those pins, back to front, pushing each pin up just enough for it to catch against the shear line. I knew that on a house like this, the lock would have to have mushroom pins at the very least. Maybe even serrated pins. When I had all the false sets done, I worked my way through them again, bumping each pin up another tiny fraction of an inch, keeping the tension exactly right. Shutting out every other thing in my mind. The men standing around me. The simple fact of what I was doing here. The night itself. It was just me and those five little pieces of metal.
One pin set. Two pins set. Three. Four. Five.
I felt the whole cylinder give now. I pressed harder on the tension bar and the whole thing turned. Whatever doubts these men may have had about me, I had just passed the first test.
Manhattan pushed in past me, going right for the alarm station. This was the part they needed to have worked out already on their own. There were so many elements that could be compromised in an electronic alarm system. Bypassing the magnetic sensors on a door or window. Disabling the entire system itself or just disconnecting it from its dedicated phone line. Hell, even getting to the person who was sitting in the alarm company's control room. As soon as you have a real live human in the loop, things get easier, especially if that real live human being is earning $6.50 an hour.
Somehow these guys knew the pass code already, which is the simplest way of all. They might have had a connection inside the house. Either a housekeeper or a service man. Or else they had just watched the owner closely enough, with enough magnification to see the buttons as he pressed them. However they did it, they had the number, and it took Manhattan all of five seconds to turn the whole system off.
He gave us the thumbs-up, and Brooklyn split off to keep watch or whatever else he was supposed to be doing. This was obviously routine for them. Something they felt totally comfortable with. Me? I was in my own little zone now. That warm little buzz, the way my heart rate would speed up until it was finally in sync with that constant bass drum inside my head. The fear I lived with every second of every day finally draining away from me. Everything peaceful and normal and in perfect tune, for just those few precious minutes.
Manhattan gave me a little wave to follow him. We walked through the house, as perfect a house as I had ever seen. It was decorated more for comfort than for show. A huge television with chairs you could disappear into. A fully stocked bar with glasses hanging from a rack, a mirror, bar stools, the works. We went up the stairs, down the hallway, and into the master bedroom. Manhattan seemed to know exactly where to go. We ended up in one of the two big walk-in closets, rows of expensive dark suits on one side, expensive casual clothes on the other side. Shoes arranged neatly on their slanted platform. Belts and ties hanging on some kind of electric contraption. Press the button and they would all start rotating into view.
Of course, we weren't here for the belts and ties. Manhattan carefully slid some of the suits aside. I could see the faint rectangular outline in the back wall. Manhattan pushed on it and it popped open. Inside that door was the safe.
He stood aside for me. Once again, my turn.
Excerpted from The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton. Copyright © 2009 Steve Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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