Jakub nudged the door to the study open, and his first glimpse inside had his heart racing.
All he could see was a rounded top of polished, dark metal, but it was enough for him to recognize it immediately: a safe. And not just any safe, a top of the line Steel Gremlin. A closer look and he spotted a pair of combination locks in the door, each with its own handle mechanism. He had only ever seen one in sketches before, packaged with tall tales from convicts regaling drunks with their glory days. The owner hadn't even bothered to hide the damn thing, such was its reputation. Though Jakub was not the type easily swayed by imagination, the thought of whatever might lay inside put his mind's eye to the test.
"Put everything back," he said.
Barney had just emerged from the master bedroom with a sack full of jewelry, and he glared at Jakub from under the brim of his hat, appalled. "What?"
Jakub pushed the door open wide so that Barney could see for himself. The look of surprise and intrigue that crossed his face was vindicating. "Put everything back," Jakub said again, his heavy eyebrows drawing in seriously. "The Rutgers will be away again next week. We can bring Hauser to crack safe."
Barney sighed, hefting his sack as if already regretting the loss of his score. "They can't suspect we were already here," he agreed. Grumbling, he turned back into the bedroom.
Jakub moved swiftly back through the house, replacing the candlesticks on the mantle, the cash in the tobacco tin, the revolver from the locked cabinet he'd already picked open in the hall. He and Barney exited the lavish Rutger home through the rusty cellar door they had entered through, and from there they hurried three blocks to the car waiting for them. They retreated, empty-handed, deeper into the city.
"What do you think is in it?" Barney asked along the way, but Jakub didn't answer. He knew better than to invite disappointment.
Kasper Kozlow lowered his newspaper to fix Jakub with stern look. "Didn't anyone tell you?"
Jakub stood up straighter. He may have been young but he wasn't one of Kozlow's fresh recruits, eager to cower beneath the boss' disapproving eye. He'd earned the right to have courage. Even if he did feel a pang of apprehension, it never reached his face. "Sir?"
"Hauser was put away last week," said Kozlow, dropping his paper to the desk. "Coppers picked him up from a street fight, realized he already had a warrant for that botched heist last fall. They'll make an example of him this time."
Jakub's heart sank. "Is there no one else that can crack the Gremlin?" he asked.
"You know there isn't. Not on this coast, anyway." Kozlow scratched irritably at his beard. "You should have taken the lot and moved on. Who's call was that, Barney's? Christ."
"Ah. Well." Kozlow pulled a face and the grabbed his paper back up. "Now you know. Go back as soon as Rutger is out of the house and lift what you can. We can't be short at this month's pickup or those barrels will be up our assholes, understand?"
"Of course," said Jakub, turning to leave. He didn't quite make it to the door before Kozlow called after him.
"Hold up, Jake." Kozlow stared at his paper for a long moment, intensely thoughtful, and then nodded to himself as if having come to a decision. "There may be someone else. Don't make another move on the house until I say so."
"Yes, sir." Keeping his curiosity to himself, Jakub showed himself out.
A New York City sunrise. Jakub dropped onto the stoop and watched morning cut through the haze of factory smoke. Already cars were blaring in the distance, heavy machinery churning with a steady clunk clunk clunk . If he strained his ears, he could hear a few gunshots and even a bird. The wind was chill and sharp, and every breath off his cigarette tasted like the river. Four years he’d woken up the same say. Some days he couldn’t remember what home smelled like.
He had planned to spend his morning with Barney going over their take, divvying up the jewelry and other goods to be hustled at various pawn shops and private collectors. Instead he leaned against his knees, trying not to wonder what was behind all those metal locks.
Jakub flinched; he couldn't remember a time when someone had managed to sneak up on him. He glanced up and found a man leaning against the entrance hand rail, watching him with smile.
It wasn't anyone Jakub recognized—and he would have recognized him, had they ever met. The stranger was tall and broad-shouldered, a few years older than himself at least. His jaw was finely chiseled and his honey-colored hair swept back, a pair of fancy, wire-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose. The cut of his suitcoat and the glint of good humor in his eye didn't match anyone Jakub would have expected to meet, huddled on the back porch of a small time mobster.
Jakub chewed on the end of his cigarette. "Who's asking?"
The man grinned. "Cheshire Bloom."
Jakub scrutinized him carefully, but there was nothing in the man's accent or bearing that helped him much. And he was familiar with a very wide variety of accents and bearings. "What kind of name is 'Cheshire'?"
"It's my name," he replied smartly.
"I mean," Jakub tried again impatiently, "where are you from? Are you English?"
"I'm Albanese." He smirked like he was telling a joke, but Jakub could only stare back blankly. Seeing his humor wasted, Cheshire heaved a sigh. "You are Jakub, right? The boss says we're going to be partners."
Jakub sat up straighter, his first thought that Boss Kozlow was punishing him for abandoning their take after all. His second thought was, "You are safecracker?"
Cheshire grinned wider, and despite his better sense, Jakub found himself excited by the prospect. "Well, I haven't tried it yet," Cheshire said, and Jakub's heart crumbled. "But I'm sure I can figure it out."
Jakub vowed to never get his hopes up again. "Safecracking is not something you can figure out . It takes knowledge and practice."
Cheshire's eyebrow arched. "Do you have a safe I can practice on?"
"What? No, we—" Jakub sighed, taking the cigarette out of his mouth so he could rub his face. "No one has Gremlin. And if we did, only Hauser can teach you, but he is locked up." He snorted. "And even if he was not , I would ask him to teach me before you."
Cheshire rested his chin against his forearms. "Does it have to be quiet?"
"Did you not hear me? You can't just blast open a Steel Gremlin, either, they're made like tanks."
Cheshire shrugged, infuriating. "I mean, you don't know until you try."
Frustration started to get the better of Jakub, which was in itself was an unusual and very unwelcome feeling for him. "Did Boss Kozlow really send you back here?"
"Yes, he really did." Cheshire chuckled, looking far too amused for Jakub's liking. "Look, Jakub. Take me with you when you make the hit. If I can get it open, great! If not, I'm an extra pair of arms to haul the rest of the take. Get me?"
Jakub eyed him, admitting to himself that at least the man had muscle. If he'd said from the start Kozlow wanted him to haul the entire Gremlin back with them, it would have made a more believable story. "Fine," he said. "But this is my job. You follow my lead."
"Fair enough," said Cheshire, and he extended his hand.
Jakub hesitated, realizing for the first time that Cheshire was wearing white leather gloves. With a deep breath he finally closed the gap to shake hands. "Saturday," he said. "We meet here after dark."
"Sure," said Cheshire, his grip so firm that Jakub could still feel it cinching around his palm long after they separated.