One of Xavier’s most cherished memories was of watching his grandfather, Moses, pick locks in front of the TV. The man had a string of padlocks which he kept on a bicycle U-lock and he went through them one-by-one, cradling a lock in the palm of his left hand, his index and middle fingers providing light pressure to a tension bar, and delicately set the lock’s tumblers with a pick in his right hand—click…click…click—while never once missing a plot-beat or taking his eyes away from his favorite shows. Whereas other grandsons might get their grandfathers ties and socks for birthdays and Christmases, Xavier gave Grandpa Moses new locks to pick, watching with amazement as the man opened them without the slightest effort. For a time, he made it his young life’s mission to find a lock that his grandfather couldn’t pick—or at least find some challenge in opening—and he sought out locks that claimed to be “pick-resistant”, locks with nightmarish, jagged keyholes, locks with curved key-ways, locks in which the pins were guarded behind an internal barrier, but there was not one that Grandpa Moses hadn’t encountered before and could open within seconds of grabbing the right tools.
Xavier learned very early on in life that “true security” was nothing more than a fool’s fever dream.
He also learned how to become an expert at picking locks as well. His grandfather started him off on the bicycle lock itself, since “bike locks work about as well as paper chains and dissuade only the most disinterested thief”, and moved onto the padlocks from there. From then on, anytime Grandpa Moses would “retire” a padlock he’d give it to his grandson. Xavier soon had his own string of locks he would methodically go through and busy himself with while watching Saturday morning cartoons. But the best moments were those when he and his grandfather sat beside one another on the couch, not speaking, eyes glued to the TV, and racing one another to see who could open all his locks first.
By the time he was thirteen, Xavier found that he could not be beaten.
Tonight, Xavier’s grandfather isn’t with them and the twenty-year-old young man can’t help but miss him—even though the old guy is merely sitting at home painting doe-eyed porcelain figures (a strange, inexplicable hobby he picked up in later age), sitting this one out.
“My mind isn’t as sharp as it used to be,” Grandpa Moses said when his grandson asked if he would come along on this job, “and my body’s even worse. You guys have fun. Bring me back a good story and something really expensive, okay?”
“Okay,” Xavier said, smiling. He only just managed to keep the tears from his eyes.
Instead, the young man has his parents here with him and they’re all dressed in slimming black, their faces greased with black shoe polish, and Xavier takes a spray can of black paint from his mom and uses it to black out the door’s security camera before picking the lock. This is only to buy them a little extra time. There will likely be more cameras inside the home and mere minutes before the homeowners, who are out tonight attending a gala, maybe, or seeing movie, are alerted to the family’s presence. What Xavier and his parents are counting on is the police force’s typical lackluster response time. So they should have approximately twenty minutes to get in and get out by Xavier’s father’s own estimation. Which is far more time than what they actually need.
“I’m heading upstairs,” his dad says. “You and your mom check around down here. I’ll bet these people have a safe hidden behind a bookcase or something, or stacks of cash tucked between the couch cushions.” There’s glee in his voice. “This is going to be a good haul! I can feel it!”
Xavier watches his dad traipse up the stairs like a little kid hearing Santa Claus’s footsteps on the roof, then he turns to his mom, who smiles at him.
“Shall we?” she asks, weaving an arm through his own.
They walk together until they find a prototypical study, which is always a given in houses like these, and then they separate and move about the room searching for any nooks and crannies secret caches might be stashed in, until they meet in the middle.
“Mom?” he asks.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course. What is it?”
“Did you always…want to do stuff like this? Even before you met dad?”
His mom pauses a moment to think. “It’s not something I ever thought I’d find myself doing, no, but I did take to it like a duck to water. I’m sure I’ve told you that before. Why do you want to know?”
“But you’ve never felt bad about doing it?”
She thinks some more. “Sure, I felt a little bad about it at the start, but your dad’s always been like Robin Hood to me, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. No one’s getting hurt. These people, without a doubt, have insurance. Their things will be replaced in just a day or two. Eventually, I realized that there actually isn’t anything to feel bad about. Why? Are you feeling bad right now?”
She comes over and begins rubbing his back, comforting him.
“No, it’s not that. It’s just—”
His dad suddenly appears in the study’s doorway. His eyes are wide and glow as big as two moons. He’s nearly vibrating with excitement.
“You two really need to come and see this!”
Xavier’s Grandma Judith died in a shootout on some rich asshole’s 200-foot yacht. That’s what he’d been told when he asked about her at the age of five.
“Your grandma was as crazy as a betsy bug,” Grandpa Moses told him. “She yowled and spat and cursed that rich bastard out as soon as he pulled a gun on her, and he gut-shot her for the trouble.”
This had happened when Xavier’s dad was still a boy, during the brief period when the family thought they’d give piracy a try. They’d rowed a dinghy out to the yacht in the middle of the night and Xavier’s grandparents had boarded while his dad stayed in the little boat, ready to fire up the outboard motor at a moment’s notice. Grandpa Moses and Grandma Judith snuck through ship until they found the stateroom. Grandpa Moses had studied the blueprints for this particular model of yacht and knew that there would be a built-in safe behind a painting on the starboard wall. Judith went about cracking the safe’s combination while Moses kept a lookout. All was quiet and still except for the gentle rocking of the ship.
“Then all the lights came on and the rich bastard was standing there in the doorway, a shotgun in his hands. Your grandma took one look at him, screamed, ‘Stick it up your tailpipe, you rancid piece of chum!’, and pulled her own gun, a revolver we’d bought off a foreigner somewhere along the coast. I’d told her not to bring the gun, that it wasn’t necessary, but your grandma never liked listening to me too much. Also, her gun etiquette was a bit lacking. The gun went off in her hand unexpectedly and shot through the floor, probably all the way through the hull, though we didn’t stick around to find out. I’d like to think the yacht sank to the bottom of the bay. Anyway, everyone in that room—me, your grandma, and the bastard—were now deaf almost so I only saw the flash when the asshole fired the shotgun.”
Grandma Judith stumbled backward, her stomach all in red tatters, but she continued cursing the bastard and even raised the revolver to return fire, but Grandpa Moses ripped it away from her hand and began hurrying her back to the dinghy. The woodwork splintered around them as they made their escape and the bastard continued to fire wildly at their retreating forms, managing only to speckle the back of Grandpa Moses’s legs. Once back in the dinghy, Xavier’s dad fired up the motor and they roared away as fast as they could.
It was apparent to all of them right away that Grandma Judith wasn’t going to make it and beneath the bright diamonds of the stars and the silvery caps of the waves she told them her goodbyes. Then she tossed herself over the side and was almost immediately devoured by the sharks circling beneath them.
“Sharks have amazing noses. They can smell just one drop of blood in the whole entirety of the ocean and will coming looking for lunch right away, and your grandma was giving them a whole lot more than on drop of blood to track her by. I think it’s how she always wanted to go, to get swallowed up my man-eating beasts. There was no other way to extinguish that spirit of hers, really.”
It wasn’t until they’d reached shore that they realized Grandma Judith had left them one final gift: several fat stacks of one-hundred dollar bills and a whole slew of jewels. For years afterward, Grandpa Moses and Xavier’s dad where able to live the high-life on that haul, though their careless spending caused it to run out much too quickly and they had no choice but to go back to their old way of living.
It wasn’t until he was fifteen that Xavier learned that Grandma Judith passed away from a brain tumor that she wasn’t diagnosed with until it had nearly pushed her left eye out of its socket, and by then it was too late.
“Isn’t it amazing?” Xavier’s dad asks his family. He’s taken them into the basement where a huge standing safe looms against the far wall. “There has to be something major in there!”
Xavier’s mom beams. “Don’t get too excited, we still have to open it. Xav?”
“Sure,” Xavier says, and leans his face close to the safe’s dial. He listens to the clicks as he turns it and his fingers search for the slightest amount of tension going from one pip to the next.
“You think there’s enough time?” his mom asks his dad.
His dad sighs. “I don’t know. We’ll be cutting it close, regardless. Xav?”
“I think I can do it,” Xavier says. “I just need quiet.”
“Okay,” his parents whisper together.
Xavier had never gone to an actual school, nor had he been legitimately home-schooled. His parents hired other people to do his schoolwork and forged whatever certifications he needed in order to graduate from one grade to the next. Also, because of the mercurial nature of their livelihoods, they never stayed in any one place for very long. It was almost impossible for Xavier to get to know people and make friends.
At the age of fifteen he got himself a job in an ice cream shop, forging the necessary documents to make it appear as though he was a very young-looking eighteen. He’d already been driving for a year by then and even owned his own car, which he’d purchased with the money he’d been saving up from the jobs he did with his family, so getting to and from work was no problem for him.
The job was…sort of awful…sort of not. It was really boring, slow most of the time. There was one customer who came in once a week and insisted on trying every flavor of ice cream but never once bought anything. It was never quite warm enough behind the counter and every time one of the tubs ran low Xavier’s hands went numb with cold as he pinted the rest. But it wasn’t all bad because he worked with a girl named Beverly and on the days when it was just the two of them and no one else was around she would take him back into the ice cream freezer and they would kiss each other to pass the time, and sometimes they did even more. He considered her to be his first girlfriend, though they never dated and didn’t really hang out much outside of work except for one time she invited him to a party to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. They “broke up” when she found a new job as a waitress at an outdoor restaurant down the street. He’d sometimes walk by after his shift ended and wave to her, but she never waved back.
It was at that job that he learned just how little he knew about anything. He had no life experience beyond picking locks and robbing houses and forging checks and lying and manipulating and taking advantage of others. He knew nothing about politics and world events and history, geography and literature and mathematics, even movies, TV, music, video games and other pop culture remained somewhat elusive to him as he’d only ever viewed these things as a casual observer rather than be immersed in it as his peers were. After about a month, he decided that he’d begin to make a legitimate effort with his schoolwork rather than cheat his way through his class assignments and tests, only to realize that he understood none of it. He hired tutors who were shocked to find that he barely even knew the fundamentals and that they had to teach him about the most rudimentary things.
By the time he was eighteen, he’d managed to fast-track himself to the twelfth-grade level, albeit passing by a lot of “extraneous” knowledge while doing so, and enrolled in a community college. He majored in psychology, with no plans to use his degree for anything, and got a job in a hardware store while also apprenticing himself to a locksmith on the weekends, a man who knew less about locks than Xavier did. It was in his psychology classes that he met Sophie, a kind-hearted young woman two years his senior and too much of a soft-touch for her own good. She wanted to help people with her degree, people with drug abuse issues, who were sexually abused as children, all those who felt lost and hopeless in their lives.
“I lost my older brother to suicide when I was seven years old,” she’d told him after only five minutes of knowing each other. “I don’t want anyone else to have to through what I did. There’s a karmic debt that I must pay, I guess you could say.” She was also far too open and honest and willing to be vulnerable for her own good.
He fell in love with her within those five minutes, though he didn’t realize it until a week later when he made the decision to ask her out on a date. She said yes.
Xavier turns the handle on the safe’s door with a ch-thunk and pulls it open. It’s taken ten minutes to crack and the pressure of little time weighs heavily on them all, but they’ve come too far now to abandon whatever light might shine at the end of the tunnel. The door swings open without sound, almost without friction, and the family is faced with the biggest haul that any of them has seen.
“Mom? Dad?” Xavier says.
“Yes, honey?” his mom asks in a daze.
“Yeeaaahh?” his dad salivates.
He takes a deep breath and lets it out. “I’m out. I’m done. I love you both and I appreciate all you’ve done for me, but this is the last job for me. I can’t do this anymore.”
His mom looks at him with sadness in her eyes. “Oh, honey, really?”
“Yeah. I just don’t think this is the kind of life for me.”
“What are you talking about?” his dad asks. “You were born to do this!”
“Hush!” his mom says, then regards Xavier with tenderness. “If that’s what you really want, then we support you one-hundred percent.”
“Thanks. I just wish Grandpa could’ve been here with us.”
“Your grandfather will be happy enough when we bring all of this home to him.”
“Yeah.” Xavier breathes a sigh of relief.
They turn their focus back to the contents of the safe again. Outside, a police cruiser rolls up to the curb and two officers approach the front of the house. The door is ajar and one of them calls out as they enter. All is quiet and still as they walk from room to room. Nothing is in disarray. The air smells faintly of shoe polish and they follow the scent down to the basement. There they find a huge standing safe, its door open and whatever it might’ve contained cleaned out completely. The beams of the officers’ flashlights circle around the basement again and again but there’s no other signs of disturbance and the shoe polish smell leaves little by little until neither of them can smell it anymore.
“That was a close one!” Xavier’s dad grunts as they vault over fences and crouch-run through neighboring backyards.
“It was!” his mom agrees.
They all jingle and move awkwardly, like a collared house cat returning home from an unauthorized excursion.
“It was fun!” Xavier says, and looks sad for a moment, though neither one of his parents can tell in the black of night, through the black, greasy shoe polish. “I’m really going to miss it,” he whispers.
Then they all continue on homeward.