The Lockpicker

In The Lockpicker, jewel thief Jake Ahn gets involved in a burglary in Seattle that turns violent when his partner tries to double-cross him. Escaping to San Francisco, Jake looks up his brother, Eugene, and finds himself in the middle of Eugene’s marital and career problems, while gradually becoming attracted to Eugene’s wife, Rachel. The brothers’ painful memories of their childhoods are awakened with this visit, while Jake eventually turns back to his criminal pursuits, involving Rachel.

By Leonard Chang

Lockpicking is a dead art. Make no mistake about it. Those movies of gentlemen thieves, the Cary Grantish dapper tuxedoes leaning politely down and picking a lock one-two-three-zip-zap – those are full of crap. That’s fantasy. Reality is brutal. Lockpicking has been shoved aside by crowbars and jacks that wedge open door frames, by messy saws and drills, by a meaty shoulder and a running start.

Doors are barriers, but they need not be broken through with stripped cylinders, sawed-off bolts, and splintered wood littered on the Welcome mat. Doors and locks are puzzles to solve, mazes to navigate, questions to answer. It’s a subtle touch – not a slamming fist – that provides access to a locked apartment, a quiet click freeing the secrets behind a small piece of metal from Medeco or Corbin factories.

Consider this door Jake appraised. He first made sure the door was in fact locked. Once he had begun working on a door only to discover that it had been open all along. This door, his brother’s, was secure. He ran his fingers lightly across the stiles, feeling the grooves in the wood, until he reached the center. He pressed in, checking how much action there was – how tightly the door stayed sealed in the doorjamb. If the door was too tight, then he’d have trouble, since the latch assembly would be wedged against the jamb; he’d have difficulty feeling the nuances in his tension wrench. This door was snug, but not too snug. A small enough gap to work smoothly. He peered closer, smelling the greasy metal. There was a simple pin tumbler cylindrical lock in the door handle, and an additional tubular deadbolt above it, which might or might not have been engaged.

Jake sighed. Wasn’t life much simpler when all he had to think about was opening a lock? He stood, stretched, and looked up and down the hallway. It was quiet. He thought he heard the TV news coming from an apartment a few doors down. He returned to the task at hand.

These days, most gorillas trying to break through a door might try one of the common, cruder methods. They might drill into the cylinder, destroying the pins. This is akin to a blindfolded dentist using a claw hammer to get rid of cavities. Or a gorilla might use a high-grade screw to bore into the keyhole, then yank out the entire cylinder with a pair of pliers. If the pliers are really strong, a gorilla could simply grasp the entire cylinder itself, violently twisting it until it broke. Even worse, and Jake really objected to this method, was the gorilla way of jacking or crowbarring the door frame apart, exposing the lock, then sawing off the lock bolt. Sawing! You might as well ram a truck through the house.

Jake tried to be neater. First, he took out his snapping wire, which looked like a large safety pin and was simply a shortcut first attempt before using his picks. He inserted the snapping end along with his tension wrench into the keyhole. Using the spring action of the wire – pulling it down and letting it snap up and lightly hit the pins inside the lock – Jake then tried to force the pins into place by applying pressure to his tension wrench, turning the cylinder. He was in effect jamming the pins up to their correct opening positions. It wasn’t as pure as using his picks, but it was easy and fast, and worked about half the time. There were even pick guns that worked on the same principle, everything mechanized and loaded into a small pistol-shaped tool, and pulling the trigger snapped a small wire in the lock. But Jake never bothered with those. They were bulky and expensive. The snapping wire, just one long piece of thin metal bent into a curly “u” shape, was disposable, simple, elegant.

With the wire, it was still about touch, about feeling the slack in the cylinder, the tension wrench clicking into place. He worked quickly, snapping the wire, then checking the wrench. The tension wrench wasn’t a “wrench” in the toolhead sense – it was another small piece of metal wedged into the keyhole and twisted while picking. It duplicated the turning action of a key. That was all. Very straightforward. Very easy.

Snap, click. Snap, click. After a few more snaps he felt the wrench give a little, and he slowly turned the cylinder, unlocking it.

Ahhh. Here we go, he thought.

Question: Which way do you turn? Clockwise or counterclockwise?

Answer: Doorknob locks almost always turn clockwise. As for padlocks, Master locks go in either direction. Yale locks clockwise. But here’s a tip: before you begin anything, use the wrench to test both directions. You’ll feel the pins engage when you turn the lock in the correct direction. In the incorrect direction, you’ll feel solid metal resistance.

Jake tried to push open his brother’s door, but the deadbolt was engaged.

Good for Eugene. Jake had always warned his brother to use both locks. The deadbolt was a wonderful invention. Security is very important, you know.

He tried snapping the deadbolt the same way, but was unsuccessful. The deadbolt looked newer than the door handle, with fewer scratches around the keyway, the brass shiny; there might not have been enough leeway in the shear line. No problem. He looked through his small pack of tools, and selected his rake pick, which used a similar principle as snapping. Here he used the jagged pick head and raked (or “scrubbed” as some people termed it) the pick back and forth, trying to force the pins up to the correct height. Yes, it was another rough and quick method, but he would be derelict if he didn’t try these methods first. There was a procedure he liked to follow, moving from simple to intricate, quick to methodical.

The raking didn’t work either. A decent lock. This was not unexpected.

He unsheathed his diamond pick, one of his favorites. Unlike the zig-zagged rake pick, the sharp hook pick, or the bulbous ball picks, the diamond pick had a simple triangular head, and yet it opened so many different kinds of locks. Pin tumblers, disk tumblers, wafer tumblers, double wafers, warded locks, lever locks. You name it, the diamond pick – in the right hands – can open them all. Hell, he could even use the diamond to emulate other picks, such as the ball pick, by turning it upside down. Beautiful. He used to practice with this one, keeping his fingers in shape. He’d wear down the head so quickly that he’d always have a couple of spares.

Jake settled down in front of the deadbolt. He looked up and down the hallway. Where was everyone? It was past six. Possibly dinner. He set in his tension wrench and inserted his diamond pick, feeling the contours in the keyhole, pushing up each individual pin inside the lock, essentially imitating a key one notch at a time. He used the tension wrench to feel if he had clicked the pin above the shear line.

It was all about touch. A delicate, sensitive touch.

He couldn’t see anything inside the lock, of course, and the only indication of progress was the tiny twitch of the individual pin “breaking” at the shear line, the point at which the pin allowed the lock to begin turning. He felt it in the tension wrench, a fraction of a fraction of a millimeter. The turning pressure helped keep the clicked, spring-loaded pins in place, so the slightest movement in the wrong direction could change their position and force him to start over. It was like balancing spinning plates. He couldn’t forget the other plates as he spun a new one.

He worked on the five pins, moving from back to front, setting the pins in place while keeping the wrench at the right pressure. Then, after the last pin, Jake felt the wrench loosening as he turned the cylinder, now freed from the pins, and he slowly unlocked the bolt.

Jake always felt a pleasant rush when he picked a difficult lock, even if this one was his brother’s. It was the feeling of satisfaction mingled with surprise, that he could actually do this, bypass locks meant to keep him out. He touched the deadbolt, then pressed his index finger over the keyhole, letting the small gap indent his fingertip. It was a superstitious gesture that he had started years ago – he wasn’t even sure how or why he began doing this – but now, after a diamond pick job, he let the lock pinch his finger. Thank you.

He put away his picks, and pushed open the door slowly, listening. He waited, but didn’t hear anything, and slipped in. He immediately checked for an alarm control unit, and relaxed when he found nothing.

The apartment was dark, silent. He stood still, and smelled beer. He heard a clock ticking. For the first time in days he felt relatively safe. He patted his backpack and stepped forward. Welcome, welcome.

Reprinted with permission. Excerpted from The Lockpicker, by Leonard Chang (Black Heron Press, May 2017).

Leonard Chang

Leonard Chang, M.F.A. ’94, is the author of eight novels, including Crossings and Triplines. He wrote for NBC’s “Awake” series and FX’s “Justified” and is currently a writer/co-executive producer for the FX drama “Snowfall,” about the early days of the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles, premiering this summer. He received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Harvard University.