Read Mortal Lock Online

Authors: Andrew Vachss

Tags: #Collections & Anthologies, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #General

Mortal Lock (3 page)

But, first, it has to be published.

It took me quite a lot of rejections to learn this.


After I graduated, I knew I couldn’t continue living at home. My parents would have let me, but that house could never provide the atmosphere I needed. Too much noise, too many distractions. And too many things other people would expect me to do. Family stuff.

I needed my own place. Which meant I needed money. I thought about getting some college-graduate job, maybe even teaching high school English. But I remembered Mr. David. I didn’t know if he was a real writer—I thought maybe he was, although I couldn’t explain why I thought so—and I realized that a high school teacher never has any time for his own work.

I thought of being a cab driver, but that was too scary. In this city, cab drivers get killed all the time. And they have to work very long hours to make any money. I researched all that because I was trying to find a job where I wouldn’t have people telling me what to do all the time.

Finally, I ended up working at this big office supply store. All I had to do was keep the shelves stocked, answer customer questions sometimes, and not get fired for breaking the rules. Simpleton rules, like no smoking inside the building, not leaving your
personal cell phone on, never taking stuff home … stupid, petty things like that.

All I really wanted to do was write. All the time. All day, every day. And this job let me get pretty close; I could put in four hours every night during the weekdays, and the weekends were all mine. Even when they changed the employee schedule—and they were always doing that—it didn’t matter to me. When they put me on weekends, I still had Monday and Tuesday off. Days never mattered to me, only hours.

The only place I could afford wasn’t nice in any way at all, and I didn’t waste time trying to keep it clean. I knew some of the great writers had worked under much worse conditions. One day, I’d be telling the story of how I’d sacrificed so much for my art.

Telling the story to some interviewer, after I was famous.


It took me almost nine months to finish my first novel. I didn’t know what to do next, so I went back to researching.

I joined a writers group. I thought it would be a good place to learn how to get my novel seen by the right people, but all they wanted to do was read their own stuff out loud, and then get “feedback” from the others.

Just like in college, only now, everybody was supposed to be “supportive.” Like it was some sickening form of group therapy.

It always felt more like a secret society than a group of professionals. They all threw around insider terms like “hard-soft deals” and “The List.”

The screenplay morons were the worst, dropping names like they were throwing coins into a wishing well.

They all had the vocabulary down pat, but it wasn’t
vocabulary. In their mouths, those same words all turned into hollow dreams.

So I gave up on writing groups. I started going to open-mike readings. But the crowds there were always more interested in how the writer looked than anything he wrote. Some of them even brought their own cheering sections. The big favorites were always the ex-cons and the ex-hookers.

It was hard, but I did it. And all for nothing. Even the people who seemed to really love my work, all they had for me was
advice. Most of it was some variation of “What you need is an agent.”

As if I hadn’t known that! I’d tried researching agents, but it was like trying to negotiate a booby-trapped path through a forest of lies. Some of them wanted a “reading fee,” some said they were “coaches,” some were nothing but fronts for a vanity press outfit. It seemed as if the only
agents already had more clients than they needed.

That made sense to me. If you make your living off a percentage of what a writer sells, why would you want to represent a writer who’s never sold a thing?

I felt stupid for not understanding what I should have known all along. Like when I was competition-checking in one of those giant Barnes & Nobles. I watched a middle-aged woman walk in the door. She didn’t even look at the books, just asked the clerk at the front desk, “Where’s the Bestseller List?” The clerk didn’t even look up, just pointed her to a special shelf they had standing all by itself. She marched right over there, like there was nothing else worth reading in that whole giant store.

So I did more research. It seemed as if the major houses were always publishing first novelists, so they had to have discovered them somehow.
had to be the door I was looking for.

I could see how
books got published. If you were a famous person, you could always sell your life story, especially if you had sex with other famous people. But it didn’t matter if you were a
movie star or a serial killer, publishers loved “true” stories … even the ones that turned out to have been made up.

I thought of making up a story myself, but people are much more suspicious than they used to be, with so many frauds getting exposed all the time. Besides, even if I got away with it, all I’d have was money. Nobody would know me as a writer.

the path to my destiny was its own test. I knew if I ever stepped off that path, I could never reach what was at its end.

So I looked even deeper. And I found one of the answers. All of those first novelists had a common denominator. Contacts. Connections. Somebody who could open doors for them.

I didn’t have anyone like that. And I never would.

Even so, I never strayed from my path.


I met women in the places I went to for readings, but all they wanted was to hook up, as if the place were a singles bar instead of a showcase. I could use them for what they had to offer, and sometimes I did … just in case they knew somebody. But none of them ever did.

When I finally met the person who changed everything, it was in a place I’d never imagined. At work.

Her name was Julia. “Like Julia Roberts,” she said, “except for my face and my figure.” I knew that kind of talk. It’s supposed to be self-deprecating humor, but it’s really a test. And I knew all the answers.

Julia had been working there longer than I had—“Right out of high school,” she told me, later—but I never actually noticed her until the day she caught me in the stockroom. I was supposed to be out on the floor, but I had an image in my head, and I had to get it into my notebook before it disappeared.

“I didn’t know you were a writer,” is the first thing she ever said to me.

From the moment she said I was a writer, I knew she was the one. But I had learned a lot by then, just like Mr. David had said I would.

“I never said I was—”

“Oh, you don’t have to worry, Seth. I never could figure out why a guy like you would be working in a place like this, and now I know, that’s all. I’d never say anything to the people who work

“I’m just—”

“Taking notes, I know. That’s what writers do, isn’t it? They all keep notebooks. I heard Stephen King say that once. On TV.”


After she asked me a couple of dozen times, I brought one of my short stories to work and gave it to her.

The very next day, she told me I was the most amazing writer she ever read. She had stayed up all night, reading that story over and over again. “And every time I read it, I found something new,” she said. Her eyes were pure and true as she recited my validation.

Listening to her, I felt the same way I had when I’d first seen my name in print. This was meant to happen. Destiny, finding its way. Rewarding me for never straying from the only path there was.


Julia had been saving for years. “What have I got to spend money on, anyway?” When I first saw her apartment, I was surprised at how big it was.

“I lived here with Mom ever since she moved back home after
the divorce. I was only four then, so I don’t remember much about it. Mom moved back in with
mother. My grandmother. It was just the three of us. Then Nana passed, and it was just us two. I was twenty-three when Mom died. One day, she told me she had cancer. She only lived a couple of months after that.

“Mom didn’t have any money to leave me, but, in a way, I guess she did. This place is rent-controlled, and now it’s mine. I could never afford such a nice place otherwise.”

I made some sounds. If people are getting emotional, it’s better not to use words. If you stick with sounds, they’ll turn those sounds into whatever they need to hear.


Julia had to talk me into it, but, finally, I moved in with her. Even half the rent on that place was much less than I had been paying for the little dump I had before. And Julia moved everything around, so I had plenty of space. Even a separate room of my own, just for working. She called it my “studio.”


A couple of months later, I told Julia I had to leave.

“But why, Seth? Don’t you have everything you want here?”

“It’s a beautiful apartment, Julia. And you’re a beautiful girl. But you know how I feel about my writing. I
to do it. But it’s just too … hard this way. We come home from work, and I just disappear into my studio. It’s like we live together, but we never see each other, you see what I mean?”

“That’s okay, Seth. I know you have to—”

“It’s not okay with
, Julia. I want to be able to … be with you, but by the time I get home from work, I know I’ve only got
a few hours until I’m too tired to write any more. By then, you’re already asleep. I live here like some ghost. And that hurts me. Because I know it’s hurting you.”


Julia got a second job, part-time. I stayed home and wrote. That way, I always had some time to spend with her. Every time I told her maybe I should go back to work so I could help pay some of the bills, she practically ordered me not to.


The writing I did in that place was my best work. When I told Julia I couldn’t have done it without her, she started crying.


I kept going to writing conferences—the ones you have to pay for, like it was tuition. But I never came back with anything I could use.

I remember one of the speakers, though. After he made a little speech, this writer whose book was being made into a movie took questions from the audience. When someone asked the same question I would have, I couldn’t breathe, waiting for the answer.

But it wasn’t The Answer—it was just a mask, dropping. “The most important thing to remember is to
writing. It may take a while, but cream always rises to the top.”

As he said that, he looked like the cat who had just swallowed that cream.

Like he was smirking right at me.


One time, Julia and I were in a bookstore together. I opened a book that the
reviewer called a “tour de force.” I read a few pages. A red mist came over my eyes. I threw the book across the room. Nobody even noticed.

“I can write better than that in my sleep,” I told Julia.

“I know you can, honey. None of them—”

“No, you don’t understand,” I told her. “It’s not
being a better writer. It’s not that kind of fight. I have to find another way.”


But it was the other way that found me.

I was in one of those miserable little clubs, sitting at a table, waiting for the open-mike to start. Julia was working that night, so I was there by myself.

“Mind if I join you?” a man said.

He was older than me, wearing a fine suit and a silk tie. Nothing flashy; this wasn’t a man who needed props to put on an act. My heart almost stopped; I knew he
to be an agent.

But it turned out he wasn’t an agent, he was a writer. Well, not really, not yet. But he had plans.

“You ever write any crime fiction?” he asked me.

“I don’t do genre stuff,” I told him.

“But you
, if you wanted to.”

I just shrugged, but I was impressed. Maybe he wasn’t an agent, but he had the insight to understand what I was capable of. It was as if he knew the real reason I even came to those readings.

He leaned closer. “There’s an endless market for crime fiction that the reader thinks of as ‘realistic,’ ” he said. Not a lecture, an explanation. He didn’t talk down to me like some pompous professor; he showed me respect. “That means the writer has to have
some credentials, so the readers can tell themselves they’re being let in on the inside stuff.”

“That wouldn’t be—”

“Enough? Of course not. Probably half the cops in L.A. have written screenplays. Medical examiners, forensic techs, psychologists … most of them have file cabinets full of crap they think are great novels. Any part of the criminal justice system you can name, even those idiot ‘profilers,’ they
think they can do it. DAs, Legal Aid lawyers, judges.… I’ll bet
of them have some kind of half-ass ‘book’ they’re working on right this minute.”

As I lit another cigarette, I noticed his eyes were as flat and silvery as mirrors—I could see myself in them.

“That’s what makes crap like
Law and Order
such a smash,” he went on. “People know every episode is ‘ripped from today’s headlines.’ Ripped
would be more like it, but you can’t argue with success.”

“My work is—”

“Original,” he cut me off. “I know. I’ve listened to it. And read it, too. Not all of it, of course—only the short stories you’ve had published in those little magazines. But that was more than enough. This is the ninth reading of yours I’ve been to. What does that tell you?”

“That you go to a lot of readings.”

He smiled away my wariness. “Scouting expeditions,” he said.

“But you said you’re not an agent, you’re a—”

“I didn’t say I
a writer. I said I wanted to be one. A rich, famous one. And I know how to make that happen. I’ve studied the process for a very long time, and I’ve decoded the formula. Want to hear me out?”

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