The first penny Nate ever earned was paid to him by the person he respected most in the world, who also happened to be the person he loved most in the world, his mother.
Chores and schoolwork were expected duties. But if Nate went above and beyond, learned something new on his own, or fixed something around the house so they wouldn’t have to call a repair man, his mother would sometimes—though not always—reward him with a small wage. It took him a while to figure out her system, but when he did, he found it to be fair, even generous. He always knew any future bosses of his would have overwhelmingly big shoes to fill.
But he didn’t imagine then that he would ever work for a boss who was as dishonest and greedy as his current boss. The guy probably didn’t even realize what a great place his own night club was.
On the outside, the brick building looked solid, almost humble, except for a few lanterns and an ornate marquee. But on the inside, those same bricks glittered as if they’d been dipped in stardust. So did most of the revelers and employees alike. Even when it was winter outside, it was paradise inside the club. A peacock’s paradise. Splashes of blue, purple, green, and gold painted the tables, the bar, the bottles of liquor, and the stage. Nate loved that unnecessarily extravagant stage. Decked out with tropical flowers (most made with ribbons and plastic, but some real), palm fronds, and paintings of warm sunsets and brightly colored birds, whose king, the peacock, watched over all with the hundred shimmering eyes on his gorgeous feathers. Other people did the work. Other people put in the love.
The boss just collected the check.
The boss also didn’t pay much attention, and that was why Nate was able to get away with what he was doing for so long before finally getting caught. By his new boss. Or rather, his second boss.
And his second boss was far more involved in the workplace.
Nate glanced over at his second boss as they and two other men made their way down the hall. The house they were in did not belong to any of them. And yet they knew exactly where they were headed.
To the second floor study, to the baroque painting of some medieval lord along the west wall of the study, to the safe behind the painting in the study.
“Can’t have you watching me, Ma,” Nate said quietly, as he removed the locket from around his neck, slipped it into his coat pocket, and zipped the pocket closed.
The locket was a remembrance of his mother, who had passed just as he started singing at the club. It was hers originally. She kept a picture in there of a gap-toothed Nate at age ten and herself. It was just the two of them after his father split. When she got sick, she told Nate she wanted him to have the locket, though she didn’t expect him to wear it. It was heart-shaped after all. She would lighten the mood at his hospital visits by instructing Nate that when the time was right, he should replace her picture with a picture of his sweetheart, assuming he would one day find the girl of his dreams. At first, Nate refused to acknowledge that the day would come when he would inherit the locket. But after a while, he realized that she needed for him to acknowledge that day, to show her that he would carry on without her, and live a happy life. He began to joke that it was his ugly mug he would replace, so that he would have his two girls with him always. His ma and his sweetheart. But his mother was not to be outdone. She would counter by asking what he would do if he ever had a daughter. That always made Nate blush, no matter how much he braced himself to expect it. And she would always back off after that, and ask him how he liked his work.
Nate told himself he would always wear the locket when he was working, so his ma could see he was making something of himself. He always did when he sang at the club. But his second job wasn’t one he wanted his mother to be aware of.
Nate’s second boss, Joey Dust, stationed the other two men at the two entrances to the study, the main entrance from the hallway, and a semi-secret entrance just behind a bookcase along the south wall. Joey himself was keeping an eye out for any housekeepers or neighbors who might drop by unexpectedly. While he was casing the place over the past few months, he’d noticed that the owners gave their keys to a lot of people, and were generous with the use of the house when they weren’t around. Joey had gained limited access by pretending to be a contractor or something. Nate didn’t know the details. He only came in at the end.
“How long?” Joey asked.
Nate peered at the safe.
Typically, Joey would find out what kind of safe they expected to deal with on each job, and make the same model available to Nate, so that Nate could practice cracking it. When that wasn’t possible, as it hadn’t been for this job, their time table relied on Nate.
Nate didn’t know anything about this safe that the typical safecracker would know. Make, model, vulnerabilities, idiosyncrasies, internal workings. He didn’t know because he didn’t need to. And he didn’t need to, because he wasn’t going to use his ears, his fingers, and his knowledge to crack the safe.
He took a deep breath, as usual, and summoned his quietest and calmest tone. “This one is new to me,” he said. He glanced at Joey and shook his head. “I’ll work as fast as I can, but I don’t know how long.”
Joey nodded. He had accepted the unpredictability of Nate’s unique skill before he ever introduced himself to the most popular crooner at the Peacock’s Paradise Club.
“Most popular? Really?”
“At least with the ladies,” Nate had said.
It was almost half a year ago. Nate was caught red-handed, standing in front of the safe in the boss’s office, by one of the club’s new bouncers, a big guy named Joey Dust.
Joey chuckled. “You trying to convince me or yourself, kid?”
Nate thought Joey was going to take him straight to the boss. When he didn’t, Nate feared that Joey was going to do worse, kill him maybe, take the money from the safe, and split.
He didn’t imagine that Joey would offer him a job.
Because Joey Dust hadn’t just seen what Nate was doing. Joey Dust had seen how he was doing it.
And he had also figured out why Nate was daring to steal from the big boss.
As it turned out, Nate was the real deal. When he sang, his voice was like honey and sunshine. The piano player joked that Nate’s last name was a fitting one for a man who could make people cry waterfalls worth of tears, whether he was singing a happy and hopeful song or a sad and mournful one. It was Nate himself who cried the first time he read a glowing review in the papers. He’d regretted that his mother wasn’t there to read it, to see that her pride and faith in him had paid off at last. The reviewer said that Nate’s voice had the power to “unlock hearts.” That word. “Unlock.” It stuck with Nate.
Something as complex and intricate as the human heart, could he really unlock it? Nate didn’t know. But he was soon to discover that he could unlock something else with his singing. As preposterous as it seemed even when he realized he could do it, even when he actually tried and succeeded, he could unlock safes just by singing to them.
Other than his mom not being there to see it, Nate’s life had been going great until he discovered his unique skill. He’d had the gig at the club for over a year. He found a great new place to stay. He was saving up to get himself a car. He was dating a nurse who wanted to go to medical school and be a heart surgeon. Nate would joke that after he unlocked people’s hearts, she could seal them up again.
He was happy, just as he mother hoped he would be. That’s why when he first noticed he was getting shortchanged on his earnings, he let it go. At first, he thought it was a mistake. When it happened again, he started staying alert. And when it happened a third time, he started asking around. He found out that was how the boss operated. He’d hire some fresh new talent, someone young and eager, give them a fair salary at first, and when they were at a happy point in their lives, he would ramp down that salary. People who were generally happy were less willing to make a fuss.
Nate tried. He met with the man who’d hired him and paid him. That man told Nate that his pay was what it was. And if Nate really wanted to make a stink about it, he’d have to bring it up with the big boss, the club’s owner.
This, Nate did. The owner was friendly on the outside. He handed Nate a cigar, and walked him over to the balcony that extended outside of his office, from where he could see the whole club. He told Nate that he loved the club, but it wasn’t all that profitable despite the apparent opulence. He put his arm around Nate’s shoulders and asked him to be patient.
Sure enough, in a few months, Nate’s salary went up again for a while. But then it dipped again as well. By that time, Nate had done enough of his own digging around to find out that the club was indeed profitable, highly profitable. And had been so the whole time he’d been employed there. That money wasn’t being reported as part of the club’s profits. It was going straight into the owner’s pockets, to pay debts, some legal, some not so much. But no one protested because of all the rumors, that he had connections with organized crime or shadow governments. Nate preferred to observe and figure the guy out for himself. He watched and surveyed, and got closer and closer to getting into the boss’s office, where the safe was, without being seen.
Nate figured out how the money at the club was being counted, and he found a gap he could exploit so the boss wouldn’t know the money was even missing. He even had a plan. Everyone liked rumors so much. He would spread a rumor that the boss was going to start paying everyone a fair wage, but only if they kept quiet about it. He didn’t want to appear weak in front of the other ruthless businessmen. It was thin story, but Nate had a feeling the rumor would be properly embellished with believable details by the time it made its rounds among the club’s employees. Assuming he managed to pull off the ruse and theft, Nate knew he couldn’t keep doing it forever. So he kept on watching the boss, for signs that he might be able to convince the man to sell the club someday, to someone who would take good care of it and the people who worked there. Nate even dreamed that someone could be him. Of course, that meant he would have to save up money, which meant he would have to make decent money, which brought him back to the safe in his boss’s office.
When Nate actually found himself in front of the safe, he realized that he had no idea what to do next. He had always thought it would be impossible to get into the boss’s office without getting himself fired and tossed out of the club. He’d managed to sneak in sooner than he expected. He wasn’t ready.
He tried to open the safe using random combinations. He tried to put his ear up to the lock, like he’d seen them do in films, and tried to hear for the clicks he expected to hear if he should hit the right number, but that didn’t work at all.
He stepped back. He wondered to himself what he must be thinking. He should leave before anyone spotted him. He crossed his arms and shook his head. It was so close, the money he was owed. The money others in the club were owed. He took a deep breath and exhaled, humming in thought.
And that was the first time he felt it.
Though his lips were closed, he felt something reaching, straining out of his throat. He hummed again, and he felt it again. A tickle of something riding on his voice and on his breath.
He thought he heard something too. From in front of him. From the safe. A whisper? A ping?
Nate narrowed his eyes and peered at the safe.
That’s what he had been doing when Joey Dust caught him. He’d been peering at the safe, preparing to sing. Joey told him that he knew what Nate was trying to do.
“You’re trying to right a wrong,” Joey had said. “You’re trying to get what you were promised and are owed. And you’re trying to do that for everyone at the club. Even though that’s really stupid. But you know it’s stupid, so what’s your back-up plan?”
Nate didn’t have one. He didn’t reveal his long-term hope of buying the club someday.
Joey Dust knew the right things to say. A little bit of threat, a little bit of encouragement. He didn’t put his arm around Nate’s shoulder, but he did tell Nate about how there were people out there in the world, like the big boss, who had more than they could ever need in one lifetime. Joey was in the business of taking from such people. The rich. He stole from them. Nate could help, in exchange of course, for Joey not telling the boss about how Nate was periodically breaking into the club’s safe to balance the books in favor of the employees.
Joey had come to steal from the club too, until he realized someone was already doing it, and he was curious. He was stunned the first time he hid in the room and heard Nate sing, sing out loud in front of the safe. He thought Nate was nuts and debated whether he should reveal himself right then and there, or wait to see if the crazy kid actually managed to get the safe open.
What he saw next stunned him even more. Joey didn’t turn the knob. The only part of the safe he touched was the handle. He opened the safe, and Joey Dust figured that the boss must have mistakenly left it open, or that Nate was working with a partner or a team, and someone else had come into the office and opened the safe.
But that didn’t make sense. The more people trying to get into and out of that office, the riskier the whole thing was. Joey Dust thought that maybe Nate was going to clean the club out. But Nate closed the safe, turned the lock, and made sure it was locked again. It didn’t look as if he’d taken much.
So Joey kept watching. And he figured it out.
“Help me take from some of these folks,” Joey had said in his recruitment pitch, “then you won’t have to keep taking from the club’s safe. You can use your share from the jobs we do and spend it however you want. Give it away. Do what you’re doing now and balance the books in favor of all the other folks working for the club. Heck, sock some money away and buy the place. I can tell you love singing here. Work with me, and you can stop worrying about getting caught and getting fired.”
“I could get caught stealing from someone else,” Nate said. “I’d still get fired, and locked up.” He had looked Joey squarely in the eye then and said, “But I guess I don’t have much of a choice.”
Joey shrugged. “You did have a choice before you started stealing from the big boss here.”
Nate admitted that Joey was right about making the choice to steal. But he put in some conditions and terms to their arrangement. No violence. And he wanted himself, Joey, and anyone else on the team to wear masks. If Joey didn’t agree, then the deal was off, and Nate didn’t care if he got fired from the best gig he’d ever had.
Joey Dust agreed to Nate’s conditions.
So Nate joined the gang. And he established a stream of ‘supplemental income.’ They were so subtle in their thievery (and their victims were so private about their affairs) that they didn’t even make the papers. The cops suspected but had no solid evidence. Joey abided by the conditions of their agreement. He would bring a gun, just in case, but he never drew it. And everyone was already masked before they arrived at the scene of whatever their latest job was. So Nate never knew who the other two guys on the team were. They, however, figured out who he was. As soon as they heard him sing.
“I’m a fan,” one of them had said.
“They not paying you enough at that club?” asked the other.
“No, they’re not,” Nate had replied.
Nate’s unique talent didn’t work with door locks or car locks. He felt it might be because they were simpler. Or maybe the situation with the safe at the club was unique, because the universe was balancing the scales. He was only stealing back what belonged to him in the first place. So he half-expected it not to work on that first job.
But when he sang to the safe. When he felt those golden threads of his song weaving their way into the safe’s door, finessing it open without him laying a finger on it, a thrill of sincere surprise and triumph came over him.
He heard Joey Dust chuckling behind him.
“Who knew a safe could be easier to crack than the mystery of a woman’s heart?” Nate said then.
Joey kept chuckling. “You did.”
Nate walked away with enough money to cover three months of his salary at the club. His plan was working. He supplemented everyone’s pay, then gave the rest away. He did that for the next job, and the next. But then, one time, instead of giving all the excess away, he kept some, and put it in savings for himself. And he did it again with the next job. And the next.
Then one day he bought a real nice gift for his girl from his legitimate earnings. But he knew deep down that he wouldn’t have been so cavalier with his spending if it weren’t for that savings he knew he could rely on if things got rough. The savings that came from his illegitimate earnings.
His girl knew him well enough to be suspicious. He didn’t lie. But he did bend the truth when he said that he’d manage to put aside enough savings to feel like it was high time he got her something nicer than a box of chocolates. He insisted she keep the necklace, which she felt was too extravagant to wear anyway, except when she came to the club to watch him sing.
Nate was careful after that. But he started growing weary of taking what didn’t belong to him, even from people who seemed to not need what he was taking.
The day came when Nate told Joey that he wanted to quit. Nate had decided he was going to quit working at the club too. He decided he would use the money that he’d taken from stealing, and build his own business with it, a legitimate business. Maybe he would even leave town. Maybe he would open his own club, and sing there, and he would pay his employees fairly, and take care of them.
He was afraid Joey Dust would tell him that he was stuck forever. But Joey surprised him and shrugged.
“All good things must come to an end,” Joey said. And then he asked Nate to help on one or two more jobs. That would give Joey time to find another safecracker.
That was how Nate found himself walking down the darkened hallway of the manor. How he found himself in front of a painting behind which there was a safe. A safe whose make and model he did not know. Whose strengths and weaknesses he could not gauge.
Nate took a few deep breaths. He rubbed his jaws to massage away any tension. He stretched his mouth and tongue. All the exercises he would do before a performance at the club, he did now.
He was loathe to admit it, but he would miss doing what he was about to do. Not the stealing, but the safecracking. It was different from singing at the club. There, he could belt it out as loud as he wanted to. He didn’t have to worry about getting caught by a guard or police, or being heard by curious neighbors. At the club, the whole point of his performance was to be heard by as many as were present.
But now, the whole point of his performance was to be heard by only one. The waves of sound that his voice produced would suffuse the door of the safe, weave themselves around the mechanism of the lock, vibrate and shift the parts of the mechanism, coax the parts to relax their vigilance. He couldn’t just sing any notes. They had to be the right ones in the right sequence at the right volume.
He thought it was intuition at first that guided him in figuring out the right song to unlock the safe. But he soon realized that he was reading the safes the same way he would read a crowd. He would prepare a song for his performance, maybe something quiet and subtle, but if the crowd that night was rambunctious and jolly, then he would switch it up and sing to their moods. And he knew their moods by observing. He did the same with the safes. There must have been some sound bouncing back toward him, to his ears, echoing too subtly for him to hear consciously. But whatever it was he was hearing subconsciously, it guided him away from an inappropriate song and toward the right one.
Nate took a final deep breath and began to hum. He couldn’t see the waves of sound extending from the depths of his throat toward the unsuspecting safe, but he felt them.
The safe was stubborn. He hummed a series of notes for a full minute, and it still didn’t give. Joey hadn’t been able to find an identical or even similar one for Nate to practice on. He couldn’t always manage with the rare and expensive ones, like this one. This one had been custom-made.
Nate took a breath to try again, when he heard something that made his gut fill with dread.
“Hold it right there.”
“Put your hands up, turn around slowly, and walk to the center of the room.”
Nate put his hands up, turned slowly and saw Joey, who’d been standing behind him, still frozen. Joey had his right hand inside his coat and he wasn’t turning. Nate realized he was reaching for his gun. Nate glanced around. The other two men on their crew were nowhere to be seen. From behind Joey, a man stepped toward them, holding a gun in his outstretched hands. Nate hoped the other members of their crew were planning on jumping the man from behind. Because Joey was reaching for his gun, and if the others had fled…
Nate hoped that Joey realized they had their masks on. The man didn’t know who they were yet. Maybe Nate could say something. Maybe he could convince the man to let them go, as ridiculous as that sounded. He had to try. He opened his mouth, and he felt a catch in his throat.
“Okay, don’t shoot,” Joey said. He began to raise his arms, but as he did, he lifted the gun out of his coat.
Nate’s eye widened as Joey turned to his right, slowly and calmly. The man was watching Joey, but Nate noticed the unsteady way he was holding his gun. The man was no guard. Before Joey finished turning, he whipped the gun out of his coat.
“No!” Nate cried just as the gun discharged.
The man recoiled and dropped to the ground.
“Where did he come from?” Joey wondered aloud as Nate dashed toward the man.
Gasping, Nate heard the faint sound of sirens, and even though it meant he was doomed, he felt a surge of relief.
The man must have called the authorities before he walked in the room.
Nate dropped to his knees and saw that the man was still moving. He seemed stunned and unaware that there was a pool of blood forming on his chest near his left armpit.
Joey knelt beside them. “Finish the job, Nate.”
Nate turned his head and glared at him. Joey had his gun trained on Nate.
“If you shoot me, you won’t get what’s inside that safe anyway,” Nate said. “Let me help him.”
“He’ll be fine. You probably won’t. Once you start singing, he’ll be able to identify you. But as long as he doesn’t know who I am, he’ll be fine.”
Nate pulled his mask off. He put it on top of the wound and pressed. “I’m sorry,” he said to the man, who still seemed dazed as he rolled his eyes toward Nate in response to the sound of his voice. “Help is on the way.”
“Have it your way, Nate,” Joey Dust said, rising. “But just remember when they question you about your associates, that I know how to get a hold of your girl. And that I’m not squeamish about pulling triggers.”
It took a few minutes for the police and paramedics to arrive. Nate stayed with the injured man, keeping pressure on the wound just as he’d learned from his time in the service.
The man was conscious, but said nothing to Nate as the paramedics hauled him away. Nate wondered why the man hadn’t just waited for the police. Maybe he was afraid they would come too late, that Nate would crack the safe first. Nate didn’t know who the man was, and where he had come from. Probably from another secret entrance to the room. One that Joey hadn’t found.
It was only after the paramedics took over caring for the man and the police put him in cuffs that Nate took a final glance at the unopened safe. He’d gotten close. But then he glanced at the man and his wound. A few inches further to the left and the bullet might have punctured his lung or his heart. Nate couldn’t fool himself into believing that Joey Dust had purposely shot the man in the arm. The man was holding a weapon on them. Joey had shot to kill. And he was close enough to have done it. But something had happened.
Nate had felt it rise up through his chest and into his throat. It rode the sound of the word “no” when he cried out. Some force he had never felt before. It wasn’t like his singing. It wasn’t subtle and coaxing. The force was primal and raw. It felt like a roaring and raking. It felt as if the word had been given substance, and had struck Joey.
Did it strike Joey before he fired? Just before? Nate wondered.
For a split second after he cried out, Nate had felt a sharp pain in his throat, as if someone had jabbed a knife into his neck. The pain vanished as suddenly as it appeared, and Nate gasped a few breaths, before dashing toward the man that Joey had shot.
Nate swallowed now, and his throat felt fine. Some of the officers recognized him. He saw the dismayed looks on their faces.
Before that first time he broke into the big boss’s safe, he’d had a romantic notion of being a kind of singing Robin Hood. But the stark reality was apparent from the moment he took that first wad of bills. He wasn’t a noble thief evening the balance sheets between rich and poor. He was the man who invaded people’s homes and stole their possessions. He was the man who had allowed Joey Dust to bring a weapon into those homes. He was the man who lied to his girl and put her life in danger, because he chose to steal from his boss and to join a crew of thieves. He was the man who had almost gotten another man killed that night.
Now, he was the man who would pay the price for his choices with his freedom.
Nate didn’t sing. He didn’t give up Joey Dust. His girl visited once or twice and tried to convince him, if only to protect someone else from getting shot. Nate thought that she understood he was trying to protect her. She understood. But she didn’t accept. Then one day, she visited, and Nate broke it off. She protested, but in the end, she understood. And she did accept.
The man who’d been shot tried to speak on Nate’s behalf. He had the grace to thank Nate for staying and trying to save him. Even though he wouldn’t have been shot in the first place if it wasn’t for Nate.
Nate didn’t sing. He didn’t sing songs. Singing was his passion, but he didn’t think he would ever feel the same about it. He couldn’t understand how he had blinded himself to the truth of what he was doing. He had corrupted his voice, his song, by using it to commit crimes. He had fooled himself into believing he was just solving puzzles when he cracked all those safes.
Now he tried to fool himself in a different way. He tried to tell himself there was no point in singing. What good was it anyway? What was singing compared to what his girl—his former girl—did, saving people’s lives? When did singing a song ever save a life?
Nate knew that was false logic. He had witnessed for himself how his singing could uplift and inspire. He just didn’t know if he could ever sing the way he used to sing.
His cell mate was an older gentleman who’d heard some of the other inmates speaking about Nate Falls, the crooner at the Peacock’s Paradise Club, the singer that all the ladies fancied. He scolded Nate for landing in jail when he had such a promising start. He nagged Nate not to let his talent go to waste even now. Nate would nod, but mostly he just ignored the old man. He had to or else he might go mad. Not being able to sing was stifling, numbing. But even though he heard other inmates singing or whistling at odd times, Nate held on to the notion that it was too sacred a thing for a place like a prison.
Then, one night, shortly after lights out, Nate thought about his mother, and he thought about the girl he’d lost, and he thought about that unnecessarily extravagant stage in the club, and his heavy heart began to fill with something until it felt like it would burst. Nate closed his eyes as he lay in his cell, and he sang a quiet lullaby. There were a few protests. But he kept singing. Night after night, he would sing a different song. Soon, he was singing all the guys on his cell block to a restful sleep each night. It wasn’t the same as what he did with the safecracking. There was no force, no invisible threads riding his voice and his breath. But inside the walls of a prison, he was using his talent for something honest.
After several months, Nate heard that Joey Dust had been picked up. He’d been arrested for trying to break into the safe at the Peacock’s Paradise Club. He screwed up somehow. Made a racket that made the other guards come running. No one had been hurt. But he did have a gun on him when they arrested him. And Nate came forward with the truth about the night he was arrested. He told the police about Joey’s threat. His court-appointed lawyer wanted him to make a deal for a lesser sentence in return for the information he had about Joey Dust. But Nate volunteered the information and asked for nothing in return. As far as he was concerned, his revelations were overdue. And he admitted that if the police hadn’t picked up Joey Dust, he might still be keeping silent.
So he sang after all.
They once said his voice had the power to unlock hearts. But he had wasted it unlocking safes. It all started with trying to right a wrong by doing wrong. When Nate was done paying his debt for his part in the burglaries, when he left prison, whether or not he ever got a job singing again, he was determined to use his voice to help and to heal. He was determined to right wrongs by doing right.
He would figure it out. Then he would look forward to the day he left the prison and collected his personal effects, and earned the right to put on that locket again, the remembrance of his ma. The one he always took off before every burglary because he knew she would disapprove—no, she would despise what he was doing.
He would hum and sing until he felt that force riding his voice and his breath. And just as he once directed that force to unlock safes, he would use it for some other purpose, a good purpose. He would figure out what that purpose was.
He was his own boss now.
Copyright © 2017 Nila L. Patel.