Since I’ve been meaning to be “writing” again, instead of endlessly churning out word count doing things that aren’t fiction (ie, journaling, book reviewing, etc.) I took on a writing challenge on Tumblr I saw posted: anyone who reblogged it would get a prompt in their inbox of two words and an emoji.
I received: levelheaded, gross, and 💰 .
Here’s what I wrote.
Jay leaned against the thick wall of the safe, and I winced. His weight wasn’t nearly enough to shift it–this thing had to weigh at least a ton, literally–but the sound of his shirt brushing the metal, while probably silent to him, was loud and abrasive to me, listening for the tumblers to click inside the lock. “Don’t do that,” I whispered.
“Does it fuck something up?” He kept his voice low, too, and I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or if he was genuinely curious. He wasn’t a safecracker. He was my borrowed guard dog while I worked, because my brothers were busy on another job with Mom, while Dad was off scouting. We didn’t usually split the family when we were on business, and it was even more rare to bring in an outsider. But Mom apparently went way, way back with Jay’s aunt or something, I didn’t know the full story. I was just told he’d be my backup.
“You were loud.” I didn’t offer any more explanation than that, but he straightened and took a step away from the safe. Half a step, anyway. We didn’t have a lot of room to spare in what was essentially a glorified closet. The floorboard creaked under his weight, which told me the floor was only reinforced directly under the safe. I doubted that would prove useful information, but I filed it away along with everything else I knew about this place. You don’t know what will come in handy when something goes wrong.
Jay was here in case something went wrong. Jay was watching the door while I had my back to it. No one should be here this late. No one should find us. But crooks who don’t plan for things that shouldn’t happen, happening, don’t last very long.
I kept working. This combination lock was a stubborn one, old and cranky. The newer, higher-tech locks were their own kind of hell to break through, of course, but I did love the meticulous process of turning the dial and listening for changes in the sound and eventually finding the right numbers. But this lock’s tumblers sounded grating, rusted, disused. It made things more challenging, and while I like a certain amount of intellectual challenge, I preferred it in the forms of jigsaw puzzles and brain teasers, not the lock that stood between me and my goal, when at any moment a very angry person could charge in with a gun, hell-bent on stopping me from making off with my prize.
It didn’t take me long to become totally reabsorbed in my work, and it didn’t take much longer for Jay to break my concentration again. “So how did you get into this business, anyway?”
I merely turned my face up to his and gave him a look. He was only here because my family knew his well enough to trust. That didn’t necessary mean Jay wouldn’t knock me unconscious as soon as I had the safe open and steal the contents for himself, but it did mean that if he did, we’d know who to lean on to get it back. My parents would raise hell if that happened.
And I didn’t doubt Jay knew it. Aside from this mildly irritating curiosity, he’d been a perfect gentleman, from the moment he’d picked me up at the anonymous little coffee shop, through the whole two-hour drive to get to the coast and this fancy-pants modern mansion. I hated this place the moment I stepped inside, but more on principle than decor–who had this massive beast of an old-fashioned safe but didn’t have any building security or an alarm system worth mentioning? It was a contradiction, or possibly an indication of massive stupidity. Or arrogance. Like the owner didn’t think anyone would ever know what he had, so why to go all that trouble to protect it?
Jay had the grace to look sheepish, though the light in here wasn’t good, so maybe he was actually just constipated or something. It’s not like I knew him well enough to know better, we’d met less than three hours ago. “I meant the safe-cracking part, not the general life of criminal activity. You don’t see a lot of women on that side of the business.”
I scoffed lightly. “I don’t know why that is, it’s not like there’s anything about it that makes it a boys’ club.” I turned the dial a bit farther and was rewarded with a distinct click–I had the third number.
Problem was, this particular model was a five-numeral combination.
“I was the most patient and levelheaded of the three of us as kids,” I went on, because that was explanation enough to me.
“So your mother sat you down one day and said, ‘Deborah, honey, I want you to grow up to be a locksmith and learn to crack safes?’ Seems odd.”
There wasn’t much judgment in his tone, but enough to rile me a little. “That’s not how it happened. And besides, how did you end up in the business? Most guys don’t work for their aunts unless it’s at a bakery or restaurant or something like that. And neither of us is mafia, so yes I know it’s a family thing, but not like that.”
He shrugged. “Made some bad choices in high school, and this is where I landed. Aunt Michelle took me in and gave me some purpose for my talents.” I caught a hint of unfamiliar movement out of the corner of my eye, and looked up to see he’d crossed his arms, lifted his chin.
So he was defensive about his past. Got it. I wouldn’t ask anything else. “Can you let me concentrate now?” I said, deliberately whining. If he thought I was annoyed with him–and I was–but if he thought I was, then we’d both be clear this conversation was over and neither of us had to air any more of our dirty laundry.
It worked, and I got back to work. Jay stood silently, almost completely still, except to check his watch. I had noticed he wore one, so few men in my circle of acquaintances still did, but his had caught my eye because it was big and shiny and silver-colored, though if it was real, it was probably actually platinum. I’d noticed because I couldn’t reconcile a watch worth hundreds of thousands of dollars with a big man, a bodyguard, a piece of muscle wearing worn jeans and a simple canvas shirt.
I was trained to notice oddities, after all.
“Half an hour,” he said softly, letting me know how long I’d been at it. Until I got up close and personal with a lock, I couldn’t predict how long it would take me to break through, but after examining this one I’d estimated an hour. I was on track for that, maybe even faster if I got lucky. And we had the time, we had until morning, because we didn’t want to be seen leaving by daylight.
We had less time if something went wrong, of course, but we had no way of knowing when that shoe might drop. I took a deep breath.
Later, when I found the final number in the combination and the handle of the door released under my hand, I glanced up at him. “Time?” I asked.
“Forty-two minutes. Impressive,” he said gravely. Then he chuckled. “Actually, I have no idea. Not my area of expertise. You could have been super-slow, for all I know.”
I pulled the safe door open. “That’s my new record on this style of lock, but of course I can crack simpler ones much faster.” I reached inside, pushing stacks of cash out of the way.
A few fell on the floor, and Jay whistled. “How much has he got?”
“That’s not what we’re here for.” I considered my instructions briefly and made a decision. “Though I suppose we can take it, it’s not like this guy’s not going to know he was robbed. But I’m actually here for this.” And I pulled out a small, flat case, black leather, no lock. It popped open in my hands just like a glasses case.
Jay leaned down to see what was inside. “Gross!” he cried, a little too loud for my sensitive ears. He drew back, shuddering.
“It’s worth a lot to the right people.” I snapped the case shut and stowed it in my bag.
“It’s human hair!”
“It’s Victorian-era mourning jewelry.”
He shuddered again as I stood. “People wore that?”
I glanced at Jay’s nearly-bald head, his blond hair buzzed so close it was more of a suggestion of color than a physical reality. Did he hate hair? Was that a thing? Or was it the fact that it was hair belonging to long-dead British people that caused his revulsion. I shrugged, both at his question, and at my own curiosity. It wasn’t impossible that I’d work with Jay again in the future, if the rest of this job went well, but it wasn’t a certainty either. I might never see him again, so why waste time wondering? “Let’s go.”
Getting out of the huge home was no harder than getting in. I slid into the passenger seat of Jay’s car–which was nice, certainly, but not platinum-watch-level nice–and kept silent as he began the long drive home.
Not that we were going home. We were rendezvousing with my mother, who was handling the actual sale of our newly acquired merchandise. I never met our buyers, never knew how they found us to request the items they wanted us to steal for them. I was just as happy that way.
After that, jay would drop me back at the coffee shop, chosen for the convenience of being open all night and the deliberate inconvenience of being absolutely nowhere near my apartment or my day job. Jay had kept being a gentleman, I reflected on the long drive back, trying to keep myself awake when the darkness outside the car and the soothingly dull engine noise conspired to send me to sleep. If the worst thing he did was irritate me a little with his curiosity, that was a win.
But with maybe half an hour to go before we reached the meeting place–we’d planned on a gas station, it was easy to park our cars at adjacent pumps and swap bags out of view of the security cameras–Jay spoke up, surprisingly me out of the comfortable near-sleep daydreaming state I’d sunken into.
“What’s your policy on dating coworkers?”
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Had I fallen asleep? Did I dream that question? “What?”
He repeated himself, and no, I hadn’t dreamed it. Unless I was still asleep.
“Are you asking me out?”
He laughed, and without the need to be quiet in case someone was in the house, as he had been on the job, his laughter was loud and free and boisterous. “No, Deborah. I’m asking if I’m allowed to ask you out. Maybe you don’t date people in your line of work, or maybe you don’t date at all. Or hell, maybe you’re not single anyway. Once I know that much, then I’ll make a decision on whether or not I’m asking you out.”
Logical, if weird. “But doesn’t that question signal your intention to ask me out?”
“Well, yes, but there’s really no way around that, is there?” He tapped two fingers of his right hand against the steering wheel, an idle twitch, or maybe a tell, if I got to know him well enough to find out.
“I am single,” I began slowly, choosing my words with care. “And I suppose I don’t yet have a policy on dating coworkers, because until tonight, my coworkers have been exclusively blood relatives. Obviously I don’t date them.”
Jay laughed again. “Good point. Then, think about it, I guess. Decide if I can be your test case.”
“You’re not going to…” I trailed off, not sure how to finish that sentence.
“To force the issue, right now, in the car on the way to meeting with your mother?” He made a sound that was sort of like flapping his lips in a raspberry, sort of like a snort. I don’t think I’d ever heard that exact noise come out of someone’s mouth before. “I’d like to keep all my parts intact, thank you. Your mother has a fearsome reputation, and when I met her before the job, I could see it’s well deserved.” When I didn’t say anything, his voice softened. “My aunt respects the hell out of her, so she can’t be a nightmare crazy person or anything. So yeah, she scares me a little, but not so much that it was going to stop me from asking you out.”
“Or finding out if you can ask me out,” I clarified.
I bit my lower lip, thinking. I knew it was one of my own tells, but I wasn’t playing poker here, and Jay wouldn’t know that anyway. Not yet. Maybe not ever. “I’ll think about it. I guess.” I echoed his phrasing and was rewarded with a smile. A handsome smile, to be honest. “But don’t expect an answer tonight. Let’s just get this done, okay?”
He nodded. “Sure thing. You’ve got my number.”
I did, from organizing the pickup tonight. “So I’ll be in touch.”
The rest of the drive was silent, and I couldn’t have been happier for it, because Jay had given me too much to think about. I looked forward to handing off the package to my mother, so she could take that weight from me. This new complication, though, that was all mine to deal with.