News that somebody was trying to get into the vault again spread seemingly instantaneously, like many-branched lightning, and people gathered to see. Some of them, certainly, in the hopes of seeing the impossible feat accomplished, see what was discovered inside before it was inevitably raided and emptied within minutes. Others definitely just wanted to see the consequences of this ambitious young safe cracker’s failure. Because it was always a failure, and it was usually spectacular.
Hammond packed and lit his pipe, took his place in the rapidly gathering crowd around the pagoda. He always kept an eye on the vault, here in its little shelter, so he had arrived soon enough to be near the front, about as close as he was allowed to be. People on either side of him muttered and laughed nervously, recounting some of the mishaps they had seen on this spot. As if they needed to. There had been only twenty attempts, and each was legendary.
Mr. Brandt was there to oversee, as he always was. He towered next to the young man who was about to make the attempt, hunched over but still half again as tall as anybody else present. Grim and serious, haunted. Dapper, dressed businesslike. Skin pale and grayish, wrinkles around his mouth and eyes not quite convincing. He said nothing, because he never said anything – not since he had initially announced the bounty on the vault. Only swung his head languidly to look between the vault, the contender, and the crowd.
“A week ago I was living out of a car, but I suddenly knew that this is what I’ve been preparing for all my life,” the young man declared. “I was one of the Red Kids.”
A silent but detectable wave of admiration rolled across the crowd, remembering the rumors that had circulated ten, fifteen years ago. Church experimentation, seeking children with psychic or psycho-manual powers. Offering lavish payment to poor rural parents in return for taking their children to test and hopefully train. Stories and plays and movies about those children, the Red Kids, and a romanticized version of their situation had proliferated for a while, but died when the Kids began to come of age and could describe to the public their awfully mundane experiences.
But none had attempted the vault yet.
The Red Kid had come dressed in the appropriate color, adorned in decorative bangles and with a pattern of vertical stripes painted on his face. That probably meant something in his home village, but here it looked like another flashy gimmick, such as contenders in Mr. Brandt’s contest had taken to adopting, hamming for the audience and making themselves memorable. Hopefully he didn’t try to sing or dance. He had some more to say about his plight: how he had no education because he had been pushed to dedicate his childhood to attuning himself to metaphysical forces; how he was thrown out to the street when the church was done with him, and his family could not take him back in or they would be required to pay back the gifts they had been given when he was taken away. Some other things. People shouted over the rest because they wanted to see him try. He wrapped up his speech and looked to Mr. Brandt for permission, which came in the form of a silent glance from him to the vault.
Below the pagoda was a block of impenetrable unknown metal, unearthed when Hammond and his construction crew had been preparing to pour a foundation several years ago. It had been excavated and stood upright, but it was bound to something else below and couldn’t be moved any farther. Now it was like a turret, maybe housing a ladder to an underground tunnel, or a chamber full of ancient treasures. The door on its front was thick, and modern imaging technology had found an incredibly complex mechanism inside it to hold it closed. In all this time, no locksmith or holy engineer had been able to make that door budge.
Hammond had been forbidden to talk about what his shovel had actually struck when he had unearthed this thing. The lizard, which he had thought was of the same strange metal, welded on to the side so that it jealously clutched the vault. It had been gone by the time he returned with his supervisor. Slunk off, leaving only a slightly smoother outline of itself on the metal below. Soon after, the mysterious Mr. Brandt had appeared, with his dubious claims that the vault had belonged to his ancestors and that he owed them to see it opened. The church seemed to believe him implicitly. Hammond did not. Now Hammond and his crew were banned from the pagoda’s immediate premises. He chewed on the end of his pipe and tried to meet the tall, cadaverous man’s eyes, but never could.
Finally, the Red Kid turned away from the crowd to approach the vault. He did so with his arms spread, like a dancer bracing to launch into a routine. Cameras showed his approach from all angles. The weeping face on the door contorted into a more pained expression, as it always did when it was approached. The many cast metal pieces that made it up shifted just slightly.
The Red Kid felt it with his fingertips. Probed the face, cast psycho-manual tendrils into it to try and identify the workings of its mechanism. The audience fell quiet, waiting for the face to emit the lethal shriek it had defused one attempt with, fire explosive darts from its eyes as it had another, clamp its teeth down and sever an arm as another. For the moment it seemed only to weep and grimace as usual.
The contender then pressed his thumbs into gaps between the shapes that formed one cheek and one corner of the mouth, and pulled. Pieces slid, the entire face parted. The audience gasped, because they had not seen that before. The entire door seemed to shiver, and it broke up into a thousand, maybe ten thousand smaller pieces that had fit so closely together no one had guessed it was anything but a single sheet. Those moved out of the way as the Red Kid, eyes closed and breath even, pushed the pieces of the face away, spread it out until there was no semblance of their original shape left. He stirred the freely sliding metal shapes with his fingers, as though there were symbols he knew to draw in the virtually liquid surface.
Then he opened his eyes took hold of one part, closed it in his fist, and drew it outward. The audience – even Hammond – stood in rapt silence. He might actually do it.
It looked as though the myriad glistening metal pieces were receding, that they were pulling away to maybe reveal the treasure inside, maybe only give access to a real, conventional lock. But the ones adjacent to the piece the Red Kid held seemed to rebound. They were then a rippling pool, then the jaws of a clasp, then the jaws of a beast. A new face, something like that of a dragon, closed its maw with mighty force around the young man’s arm, up to the elbow.
The impact and the crushed bone were audible. The contender dropped to his knees, unable to pull himself away. The dragon’s head worked its jaws to draw his arm in farther by an inch, then two. Hammond turned away. Some of the audience, a shamefully small portion of it, did too. The rest had its bloodlust fed, or else couldn’t take their eyes off the horrible scene as the unfortunate youth groaned and cried out.
Hammond turned his eyes to Mr. Brandt again. It was hard to read the sad disappointment on that barely mobile face, but it was there. The old, haunted eyes might have met those of the builder this time, but only fleetingly.