Gone in Five Minutes

Hondo unlocked the gate and closed it behind us. The yard was empty.

“Flattop picked up a Volkswagen last night, you can practice on it.”

“Practice what? Hotwiring?” I asked.

“Nah, that takes too long and it’s too complicated. Just let me show you.”

He unlocked the garage and we went in. The Jaguar was squatting in the corner under it’s tarp, and where the skeletal Camry had been there was instead an intact, white Volkswagen.

2018 Volkswagen Jetta White 7CGB398

“These are another of our staple cars. Just about everything on this thing our boy can sell at the flea market.”

“How much do you make off these anyway?” I asked.

“Not a lot. About $5k, and we pay about $2k out in expenses.”

“I thought it would be more.”

“The parts are hot and used, so the price has to be good or no one will buy. If they buy an alternator and it goes bad 100 miles later, there aren’t any refunds.”

“Make sense. So what do I need to know?” I asked.

“Stealing most cars is real simple. You’ve got three steps. Come over here and take a look,” Hondo said as he moved to stand on the passenger side of the Jetta.

“First step—does somebody love this car? Is it freshly cleaned, is the interior clean? Has he put custom rims on it? A new exhaust? An expensive stereo or custom seats? Take a look and you tell me.”

I looked in the window. The dashboard was dusty, with a few pieces of paper trash visible in the passenger footwell. The rear was the same. More paper sat on the dash. I didn’t know cars, but everything inside seemed pretty normal.

I stepped back and looked at the car itself. I couldn’t see anything unusual about it. The tires and rims seemed normal to me.

“I don’t see anything.”

“Yeah, that’s right. It was a trick question. Flattop wouldn’t have stole it if it looked like it was loved. Because that’d mean it might have an alarm, and maybe a tracker.”

I was getting it. “Okay, so if it’s loved don’t try to steal it. Got it.”

“Hold on. You aint got it yet. Just because it’s dirty don’t mean it don’t have an alarm. How do you tell?”

That one was easy. I was familiar with people and their obnoxious, mostly-ignored car alarms. “Bump it.”

“That’s right. You give it a good bump,” he said, and demonstrated by smacking his hips into the door. “If the alarm goes off, you keep walking. Nothing to see here.

“That brings us to step two, which will be the hardest one for you to do quietly. Getting in to the car.”

“I’ve seen this in movies, don’t they use a slim jim?”

“It’s not the fifties any more, Mack. That shit don’t work most of the time unless the car’s real old. Even then they can be a bitch to use.”

“Alright, so what then? Pick the lock?” I asked.

“You got the skill? Go for it,” Hondo said.

“Er, no, actually,” I replied. I had dabbled with picking locks when I was a kid but never got much past being able to open simple pin tumbler locks.

“Aight, it’s not that hard but we don’t have enough locks for you to practice on to get the skill. It really boils down to two other methods. Wedge and rod, or if you’re in a hurry you just smash the window.”

Smashing the window I understood. It might get some attention, but at least it’d be quick.

“What’s wedge and rod?”

“That’s the way Flattop does it. If you get good at it, it’s real fast. Here, you’re going to practice on this car.”

Hondo rooted around on one of his benches for a moment and then came back with a telescoping car antenna and what looked a lot like the rubber wedge I’d bought for my door.

“This shit isn’t ideal, but if you can make this work you’ve got it. Insert the wedge at the top to give your rod enough space to get in and push the unlock button.”

When he said it like that, it sounded easy. The first time, it really wasn’t. I struggled first to get the rubber weatherstripping around the edge of the door out of the way. Once that was done the gap between the door and frame was still so tiny. I had to force the leading edge of the wedge into the gap and then pound it with the heel of my hand while using my fingertips to pull the door away from the frame.

Hondo stood nearby, watching. It took me a few minutes to work the wedge in far enough that the gap was sufficient for the antenna.

“Now stick the antenna in there and hit the button.”

Maneuvering the rod was a little tricky, but not bad. The lock/unlock button was just visible and when I pressed it, I heard the lock’s clunk.

“Yeah!” I yelled in triumph, and pulled on the door handle. It was locked.

Hondo chuckled. “The door was already open, Homes. Hit it again.”

The door unlocked, and I swept it open. The wedge fell to the concrete floor, bouncing away.

“Nice. You’ll get faster at that with practice. Now the final step—starting the car.”

I smiled, collapsing the antenna I still had in my hands. “Alright, I’m ready.”

“If you’re stealing a car that somebody loves, it might have an immobilizer or a kill switch and you’ll be wasting your time. That reminds me. If you’re stealing a car that’s really unloved the damn thing might be broke down. Find the balance.”

I rolled my eyes. “Alright, shitty but not too shitty.”

“Don’t blame me if you get it wrong and spend ten minutes trying to steal a car that won’t start because you can’t find the kill switch.”

I threw my hands up in surrender. “I’ll try to get it right.”

He nodded, mollified. “Next step is getting the car started and the steering wheel lock disengaged. There’s a lot of ways to do that, I’m just going to show you the simplest way. Flattop’s already done it on this car, so no practice for you. Get in the passenger side.”

I got in the car and Hondo joined me not long after, carrying a cordless drill and a short, flat-headed screwdriver.

“Like I said, there’s lots of ways to do this. If you’re going out to steal a car for yourself or the chop, then this is how you do it. You bring a drill like this with a good metal bit. Look here,” Hondo said, pointing at the ignition switch with the tip of the drill.

I did, and saw that where normally there’d be a simple horizontal slot for the key there was instead a roughly drilled out hole.

“Flattop drilled out the tumblers. You drill once, and then again. If you get it right, that’s it and they’re all gone. Then it’s just a matter of-” he paused and then inserted the screwdriver into the slot and turned it. The Jetta started right up.

“That’s it, she’s started and the steering is unlocked. You drive away. You bring the right tools you can drill out the lock in a minute.”

I was surprised at home simple it seemed. In fact, something had been tickling my brain and finally surfaced.

“Is it really this easy? I thought they put chips in the keys to stop this kind of thing.”

“Chips? What the fuck are you talking about?”

“You know, electronics that prevent the car from turning on if the key isn’t legit.”

“How are they going to fit electronics on a little key, Homes? Be sensible,” Hondo replied, looking at me as if I was stupid.

“You’re right, my bad,” I replied. I should have known that the ‘no computers’ thing would apply to stuff like that as well. “Should I be trying to get a skill?”

“There aint no skill for drilling out locks. If you want the lockpicking skill you need to practice on a bunch of different locks with the right tools. If you pick up the Car Thief job you’ll get some skills, but you don’t need em.”

“How do I unlock the job?”

“Steal five cars, sell one for more than $1k. It’s pretty easy.”

It seemed like a good source of cash, but there had to be a catch.

“Why aren’t you and Flattop putting more cars through the shop? It seems like easy money.”

“Fuck you, Homes!” Hondo said. “Easy money. I’m the one has to strip these fuckers down. It’s just me here.”

“Sorry, man, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“We used to do more when my dad was here. He could chop a car fast as hell. We had more ways to sell the parts then, too. We just can’t handle much more than we’re already doing right now. That’s one of the reasons I’m glad you and Manny are here. We needed some fresh blood.”

“Yeah, I’m glad you guys came over and told me what a dumbass I was being.”

“You’re welcome. Now I gotta get to work. If you want to practice your wedging, try not to get in the way, aight?”

I agreed, and I did practice for another thirty minutes. Hondo was under the hood, pulling parts out of the engine bay while I did so. After my practice I could pop the door on the Jetta in just over a minute. I wasn’t confident I’d be able to do it so quickly on a different door, but I had the principles of the thing down.

Drilling out the lock I’d have to learn in the field, but I was feeling ready to steal my first car.