Crime Thriller

“We don’t have time for this. Get to work.” What is it about young people that makes them demand validation at the worst possible moment?

Her stare could drill a hole through a strike plate. “Time, time, time. That is all you are ever think of. Every day you say, ‘Faster, Tetyana, faster. An idiot child with a bump key would be done by now. Do you have any idea how quickly Arthur Buhl picked the Lips 8362C at the third annual Dutch Open?’”


“‘Twenty seconds. Six pins, some of them mushrooms, with a paracentric keyhole made specifically to keep you out, Tetyana.” She makes me sound insufferable. If I’m hard on her, it’s only because she’s the most talented pick I’ve ever come across. Withholding my approval keeps her razor sharp. “You in wrong profession, Mister Malcolm. Should have been clockmaker.”

“Do you know the binding order?”

“No,” she admits. “Not yet.” She’s all elbows and perked ears, jiggling her tension bar like the handle of a slot machine. “This pin is telling lies.”

“Then why are you still listening to it?” There’s that look again, a black inferno that warns if I keep pushing, I might end up with a gem hook in the eye. Spite is the only tool she really needs. It’s what makes her attack a new lock like a puzzle, a game of chess with no chessboard. “Try applying counter rotation and see if you can lift it to shear.”

She’s still staring when the last pin clicks and the ABLOY 350 padlock springs open. “You are too much worry." At a hundred pounds soaking wet, it takes everything she’s got to hoist up the tailgate. I’d expect drugs, stolen goods, maybe even human chattel, anything but animal cages. Beady obsidian eyes twinkle behind the mesh, scaly hides pressed against the metal frames, snouts probing the air and flicking out long, pale ropes.

“What the hell is in there?”

“Black-bellied pangolin. Act like anteater, but more similar to bear.” She climbs into the truck and navigates through the maze of cages, whispering what I assume are Ukrainian terms of endearment: malia, mylashka, krasunia. Her eggplant fingernails graze the locks on the hatch doors. She could free them all with nothing but a bobby pin and a paper clip, and in a matter of weeks, the Savannah ecosystem would be entirely reconfigured. “In Vietnam and China, their meat is how you call…delicate?”


“Yes, that. And they use scales for traditional medicine. For the blood, for protection, for help women make milk. Grind into powder if can’t make babies.” She squats down to examine one, its tongue whisking out to graze her cheek. “Such bullshit. Scales same as hair, same as nails on finger. And this beautiful creature–”

“Tetyana…” My hand is shaking like a leaf. I dig in my pocket for my pill bottle and pop two of the blue capsules, swallowing them dry. “What exactly is your plan here?”

In the harsh fluorescent light, her skin has lost what little color it previously possessed. She flails her hands at me like the answer should be obvious. “You know…take one. Bring to animal agency, port authority, whatever like that. Someone who can help.” But as the words leave her mouth, I see her mind return to the Master Lock 410. How she turned the core 180 degrees after picking it, causing the driver pin to shove the key pins out of the holes into the hollow plastic body. She’d had to cut the plug open and transplant a new core into it like a heart surgeon.

“He’d know it was us.”

“Only if he catches you in the act,” says Isabirye. He’s flanked by two guys dressed as dock workers, but in uniforms that don’t fit correctly. All three of them carry stun guns. “Whoopsie daisy.” The din of their laughter rebounds sharply in the truck, frightening the pangolins into rolled-up balls. Tetyana’s tsk tsk is that of a disappointed mother.

“What kind of sick bastard make money this way?”

Isabirye snarls, flashing his chrome-plated incisors. “Port is filled with items worth millions, and you pick the truck full of dinosaurs. So who is crazy?” He taps the guy on his left, whose legs are so long he can step up into the truck without needing to use his hands for support. He grabs Tetyana roughly around the shoulders.

“Easy,” I warn.

“What are you going to do, old man?” the stocky one with a soul patch asks. “Shake us to death?” That gets them busting up laughing all over again.

“I am surprised at you, my friend,” Isabirye says, using his best tough guy growl. “She was the last one. After this next job, you would have been free.” I'm slow to respond, partly because the adrenaline rush has nuked my medication and the tremors are getting bad, my right arm quivering as though it means to break off and fly away. But also because I know better. Once you’re in bed with guys like Isabirye and his uncles, you never get out.

“Whatever you’re going to do to us, why don’t you just get it over with?” For a split second, he’s that same rinky-dink kid from ten years ago standing in my shop in his knockoff Jordans and yellow Umbro jersey. Jaw falling open at the sight of the wall covered in multicolored locks, including the infamous Banham M2002, which features twelve directly-opposed pins that penetrate the key entirely to touch in the middle. I’d shown him the reverse picking technique required to open it, and let him give it a shot. To my astonishment, he sprang it on the first try. He’d let out a whoop of pure joy and danced around like he’d won the World Cup.

But that boy is now a man hewn of stone.

To prove it, he activates his stun gun and jams it into my jugular.


Begin, I say, and start my watch.

They turn over their canvas bags and the locks thunk-thunk-thunk into the carpet, the world’s worst Christmas presents. The girl from Kyiv is so focused, the very air around her coils in anticipation. She moves through luggage locks and cam locks and Mortise cylinders like they’re nothing, like she's seen harder days rolling sourdough in her grandmother’s kitchen. With her hair in a ponytail, I spot a blue and yellow trident on the back of her neck. Miles ahead of everyone else, she claims her final victim–a bronze furniture lock I pried off an antique during a repo. She calls TIME, practically singing it. The others deflate in bitter defeat.

Her face is a paper lantern as she floats up to receive her prize: a manila envelope full of cash. A cruel trick, because they will just take it back to apply to her debt. But for her, in this moment, it doesn’t matter.

Congratulations, I say. Her smile could thaw the Spanish moss frozen to the side of the building. A smile I will not see again in the austerity of my shop, or the cramped apartment above it, but will long for in the late night hours when she is pouring herself into Locks, Safes, and Security: An International Police Reference. I will make coffee she won’t drink because she prefers cold mint tea, and crack locksport puns she won’t laugh at. Her smile is on reserve, she'll explain. It awaits her husband, trapped back home by a sex-selective martial law that won’t allow him to leave regardless of whether or not he’s been conscripted. She’s vowed not to use it again until she sees him.

The most I get is a gentle smirk that arrives at the end of a lesson, when I go to stop my watch and find nothing but a bare wrist.

Tsk tsk, she clucks, and reveals it dangling loose around her birch limb of a forearm. Look who is out of time now, Mister Malcolm!

The gleam in her eye could end any war.


My neck is crispified, the salty air infused with the smell of charred flesh. Hot waves jettison down the right side of my body, nerves igniting with electric pain that radiates in my nipple and fingertips, the acrid taste of metal on my tongue.

Isabirye and his guys are bickering in Swahili over whether to use zip ties or chains to bind me. “Master locksmith, kichwamaji!”, Isabirye spits, and vetoes the discussion by yanking my hands behind my back and securing them with a thick strand of orange plastic. “Use chains on the girl,” he says. “Old man believes she is good enough to risk everything. Let us see.”

“P-pills…” I stammer, but they either don’t hear me or don’t care. Tetyana is barely conscious, strands of bloodied hair clinging to her face. The men secure her hands and feet to a cinder block with a length of chain, then lock it with another ABLOY.

“You like Houdini?” Isabirye asks. “Of course you do. He is the greatest of all time, no? I don’t care for these new guys, your Criss Angel and your David Blaine. But a man escaping from the belly of a whale? Like out of the Bible? Wow!”

In plain view of the nation’s third busiest harbor, the two henchmen drag Tetyana to the dock's edge. “Stop!” I shout. “Don’t do this!”

Isabirye crouches beside me. “I love the part of the illusion when it appears no escape could be possible. When you think to yourself, no person could survive that, no way Jose. And then–” He snaps his fingers. “Allakhazam! The magician is free, climbing out of the water! What a feeling, eh?”

“You can have my shop. Whatever you want, take it. You don’t have to do this, Isa.”

He snatches my jaw and squeezes it shut, gritting his teeth. “You don’t get to call me that. Ever.” Thrusting me away, he adds, “We already own your goddamn shop. In this economy, it’s not worth even half what the pangolins will earn.”

If I can get to my watch, maybe we stand a chance. As for what comes next, I’ll worry about that when I get there. I press my wrist into my buttocks; it doesn’t feel like anything is on it. My watch has grown legs again.

I glance up in time to see Tetyana's signature vitriol shining out from two blackened eyes, one dimple forming in her left cheek. Is she smirking at me?

Isabirye waves his hand. The henchmen heave the cinder block off the dock. It crashes into the Savannah River, yanking Tetyana down after it like a ragdoll. I scream and thrash until an oily rag is stuffed in my mouth. “Come now, Mister Malcolm. Try to show some faith in your apprentice.”

Time, time, time. That is all you are ever think of.

How long has she been down there? Twenty seconds? Thirty? The men stare into the water, watching it roil. The wait is unbearable, the tremor in my arm ratcheting up until it threatens to become a full-blown seizure. She must have my watch. She’s pulling the pin and using it to probe the padlock’s hidden nexus, applying tension with one of her fingernails. Any second now she will surface, and the men will be shocked and amused, and I can use the distraction to mount an offensive. I have to be ready.

But another full minute passes, and still nothing. Soul Patch draws his hand across his throat. No more bubbles.

Tetyana is gone.

"Whoopsie daisy," says Isabirye.

Something inside me torques until it snaps. I groan into the rag–without it, the men would be subject to an unholy torrent of profanity and threats. Spasms rack my upper body, every muscle attached to my axial skeleton clenching like a vice grip.

"What is his problem?" asks Daddy Long Legs.

"He's old as dirt, that's what."

My vision has gone hazy. I keep picturing the pangolins rolled into protective spheres, everything tucked away except their tails. "I think he's broken. Might as well throw him in, too." Rough hands grip me by the arms, hauling me toward the river as I writhe like an eel.

Her voice is clear as a bell. Why is it called the Bogota pick?

Because it was invented by Raimundo, who's from Colombia. See how it looks like mountains? She is tracing over the bumps and transporting herself to those endless green hills. And I am right there beside her.

I blink at my own reflection wavering in the dark water, straddled by two menacing shadows. I look like a corpse.

"Go ahead, boss. Should be you."

Isabirye is a specter looming over my head. I feel his shoe on my back. "Go have a look for your little pet," he says.

But then: a bullhorn. Someone shouting commands. I'm struck blind by the bright blue lights that fill the harbor.


It's always sweltering hot in here. They won’t even bring us a fan. But it’s quieter than Gen Pop, for which I am eternally grateful since a migraine has taken up permanent residence in my skull. I did manage to convince a CO to bring me a copy of the Tribune in exchange for a crash course in picking handcuffs. The top headline makes my heart swan dive into my stomach: Coast Guard Exposes Port of Savannah Smuggling Ring.

No mention of any girl; the tip was made anonymously. But they printed my full name alongside Isabirye's and those of his uncles and crew. The author cites it as the largest seizure of exotic animals and stolen goods in the history of the state. The pangolins are being sent to a wildlife refuge in Uganda. Everything my young protege could've asked for.

But was it really her? I’ll probably never know. Every mail day, I gird myself against the crushing disappointment when there's nothing for me. Because of course there's not. What would she send, a postcard perfumed with her scent of berries and cloves? She’s smarter than that. Doesn't make sense for her to contact me. If she wants to see her husband again, she needs to be a ghost. More than that–she needs to have never existed at all.

 Three weeks later, I finally gain access to the Internet through a smuggled-in smartphone. The kid who lends it to me shows me how to use a third-party app to automatically translate foreign websites, and I start browsing through Ukrainian news forums. Not sure what I’m looking for exactly, just a sign of some kind. Anything to disprove the notion that the universe could bear to part with someone so gifted and so fierce in her fragility.

And then suddenly there it is. A picture of a liberation group. Their cause: change the martial law to allow Ukrainian men ages eighteen to sixty to leave the country if they haven’t been drafted. A girl approximately Tetyana’s height and weight stands off to the left, with blonde hair and hazel eyes that could be a wig and contacts, her image cut in half by the frame. But her head is rotated just enough that I can glimpse the upper prongs of a blue and yellow trident emerging from the back of her neck.

And she's smiling.

September 29, 2023 23:39

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