I'd always been a precocious kid. I remember one day at school the library was closed. Well, I wasn't raised to put up with that kind of thing, so I spent a fair mount of my lunch trying to crack the lock open with a paperclip to get at all the delicious, papery knowledge within. The assistant librarian found the door open and me ensconced in a corner with a copy of some paperback about mystery-solving teens. They were never quite sure what to make of that.
Growing up, my parents always told me that I could be anything I wanted to be. Well, it turned out that mostly what I wanted to be was someone who could get into places he wasn't supposed to be. That quivering illicit thrill as the door clicked open, always fearful of a hand on my shoulder, or angry voices and torches off in the distance. The pleasure of outwitting all the little traps and schemes laid down for me. I know why Houdini did it. Sitting underwater desperately willing that last padlock to come free in time? That's the human condition, and it beats worrying about how you're going to pay your rent.
Not that I took it too seriously, at first. It was a hobby, that's all. Something to do with my spare time, based on a visceral distaste for anything marked 'no unauthorised access'. A locked door is a blank invitation. What are they keeping behind there? Mostly the answer was maintenance stuff. I suppose I should've lost my enthusiasm when I realised that there weren't any secret chambers or grand conspiracies. I was never going to sneak into a room clad in shadows to watch men in robes chant around a pentagram. But somehow I was still hooked. All these tunnels and vents and wires and pipes secreted away from public view, diving in and out of our lives like Brazil. I wasn't going to stand for that. Which is how I came to spend most of my history lessons diagramming out steam vents.
As a teenager I read and re-read the MIT lockpicking guide while my friends were studying for exams. I wasn't interested in them. I wanted adventure, and I was determined to get it. My first set of picks were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. My own personal keys to the city. They gleamed. I must've spent a week making sure they didn't. For someone so cavalier, I was unusually determined not to take any chances. I knew I was small enough to get through any tight spaces. Black clothes too tight to catch on anything. A mask in case there was anything in the air that shouldn't be. I spent a lot of time looking for the right boots. I didn't know where I was going, but they had to be sturdy and quiet. All in all, I must've looked like some obscene fetish model. But you have to have the right equipment for such specialised recreation.
And I had a target. That one maintenance door I could never get to, just off from the staff room. I'd seen janitors going in and out long enough to know I wasn't wasting all my time lusting after a broom closet. That blank white door, with an outdated lock and a big 'no entry sign'? How could I say no? I'd have to get in after hours. There was one underpaid security guard in a booth, set to watch a massive campus. The thought that breaking into my own school of a Friday night might not be the healthiest thing to be doing didn't even cross my mind. Not until I was over the fence, anyway. It's hard to talk an 18 year-old out of doing what they've got their heart set on, even if it is criminal trespass and breaking and entering. Look at Romeo and Juliet. You can't keep someone apart from the object of their desire like that without bad consequences all round.
Getting there was easy. I was half-afraid I'd round a corner and bump straight into a teacher working late, or something like that, but I never heard a sound. Maybe no-one ever foresaw the possibility of someone breaking in just to go exploring, and if so that's their misfortune. I got there and it was just like I'd imagined it. Waiting for me. The wind outside howled like a wild animal. This building was old. I could hear the windows rattling in their frames. No lights. Don't want to be seen now. "NO ENTRY," said the sign, nothing more. Oh, you tease.
The lock didn't last long. It was good, but I'd been practicing. A little bit of tension in the right place can do a lot. I'll be honest. I had been expecting more. It seemed... perfunctory. A few moments of fumbling in the dark and then that was it. The door swung open, and I was in.
I'd never been down here before. There was a stairway down, lit up in red by emergency lights. It didn't look to be connected to any of the other maintenance levels. That was promising. Tentatively, I edged down the concrete stairs, down two or three flights. This was beyond a sub-basement, I thought. I must be properly underground. The stairs ended with a corner, a corridor stretching off into the distance, outlined in scarlet. More concrete, but... rougher-hewn than the others, somehow. No pipes or cables. My curiosity wasn't going to stand up to that kind of assault. I had to see where it went.
I don't know how long I walked for. I remember there being a crossroads somewhere, but after that it was so hard to tell the turnings apart. I knew I should've brought that ball of yarn. The quiet was putting me on edge. Normally you get a generator hum. Dripping water from a leak, maybe. Here, nothing. And that's when I saw the door. Not that I could've missed it, really. It was set back into the wall, and by inches. Thick walls. That explained the sound. But raised other questions. It looked out of place, by several miles and at least one century - some kind of dark, gnarled wood, with a big brass handle that shined incongruously. I reached for it. At least, I think it was that way round. It's difficult to remember clearly. Locked.
This, at least, was something I was equipped for. The feel of the picks in my hands was comforting. You have to hold onto what little control you have. This one was more difficult, twisting away from me every time I thought I was getting close. I realised I was sweating, and wondered how hot it was down here. Stay calm. I had to fight with it, struggling to get the pins into place. I was still down on my knees in front of the door when I finally got it, and the lock clicked open with so much force I almost lost my balance. I took another deep breath before retrieving the lockpicks and slowly turning the handle.
I wasn't prepared for what I saw in there. Twisting, gyrating forms I didn't even think were possible. It hurt just to look at the contorting figures, and all I could hear was a rasping, desperate breathing that I realised with creeping horror was my own. ...Something resolved itself back into a shape I could understand. A woman in a long white dress. As her irises flared golden she asked me the question I knew I'd been waiting for all this time.
"Who are you, and how did you get in here?"
And I looked at her and I stammered and just about managed to say,
"I'm a locksmith. And... I'm a locksmith."