Read Mortal Lock Online

Authors: Andrew Vachss

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

Mortal Lock (4 page)

I just nodded.

“The first step is to understand that you
have talent,” he said. “The next step is to find someone who does.”


That was almost ten years ago. Today, H. Emory Trelaine is a fixture on the bestseller lists. His Darrow series has been translated into a dozen languages, and the critics love the fact that he’s “been there.” They blather on about how Trelaine’s real-life experience “informs” his novels.

And Trelaine
been there. Any reviewer could trace the origin of his protagonist, Clarence Darrow Nighthawk. A career prosecutor who proudly described himself as a “mixed-breed,” he was the son of a brilliant biologist and a “special needs” teacher. When he was a freshman in high school, his mother had been killed by a drunk driver. The driver survived the crash.

While he was still in college, his father had been murdered. He was killed in prison, where he was doing a life sentence for mailing an envelope full of contact-poison to that drunk driver.

As a prosecutor, Trelaine had devoted his life to fighting crime. And the books were his “catharsis,” since Darrow often worked outside the same law that was always tying his hands in court.


I wrote every word of every one of those books. First, I read nothing but crime novels for ninety days straight, day and night. I made notes. Took a little from some, a lot from others. When I had the formula down—and Trelaine had been right; it
a formula—I turned my gift loose and let it soar.

I wrote the first Darrow novel in less than two months. When I showed it to Trelaine, he promised to get back to me.

A week passed without a word. I got more and more anxious every day. “He’ll call, honey,” Julia kept telling me. “I know he will.”

She was saying something like that one day when I’d finally had enough of her puerile nonsense.

“Could you just shut—”

But then the phone interrupted me.


Trelaine had no trouble getting himself an agent. “One phone call,” he told me. We were sitting in a booth in a diner out in Queens at three in the morning—it would be the last time anyone could possibly see us together in public.

He said his agent had gotten a major house to take on his first book, especially when he was able to promise them this one was just the start of a series. A series with legs.

“Serious money,” he said. “And plenty more to come.”

Trelaine wanted to pay me a flat fee, like I was some hired hand. I told him it had to be a percentage.

I don’t know what he heard in my voice when I said that. Whatever it was, he knew I meant it. And that it wasn’t about money.

When I got back home, I told Julia it was just another false alarm.

She said the kind of stuff she always said.

I kissed her forehead, blessed her for having so much faith in me. And then we went to bed.


Three books later, Trelaine was rich and famous. I was just rich.


The day after my first check cleared, I packed my stuff and moved out. When Julia asked me why, I told her that it wasn’t right, her
giving up her life for a man so obsessed with his writing that he couldn’t give her any of the things she deserved.

It’s easy to lie if you put enough truth into it.

It was time to face reality, I told her. I was never going to be a published author. But I was going to die trying.

Even that part had some truth in it.

“I’ll never stop believing in you, Seth. Never.”

That was the last thing she ever said to me.


The first four books in the series made The List, but Trelaine and I never met again, even in private. He never even called, except to tell me when his agent had signed another contract.

I was alone. But not alone with my writing, the way I’d always thought it was meant to be. Julia wasn’t in the way, anymore, but that damn Darrow series was. Thanks to all the pressure from the publisher, I could work on my own stuff only part-time.

Just like I’d been doing when I’d first met Julia.


I never got invited to one of those launch parties the publishing houses throw for a book that they know is going to be hot. I never did any book signings. Nobody ever asked to interview me.

But I did get to talk to the editor of the Darrow series on a pretty regular basis, especially when he sent over his “notes” on a manuscript I’d just submitted.

Even with that kind of access, it took me a while. Mr. David had been right—some things came naturally to me, but other things I needed a lot of practice to get good at. Good
, that is. By the time I’d made the deal with Trelaine, I knew how to get
what I needed. I knew that patience is a weapon. And timing really

During one of our meetings, the editor let it slip that the publishing house had known the truth ever since the second Darrow book. I sat on that knowledge like a man with a powerful handgun in his pocket, but only one bullet for it.

When I
it, when I knew it was
time, I just walked into the publishing house and asked for the editor. I didn’t have an appointment, and I had to show ID at the security desk before they would even call upstairs. It took a couple of minutes, but then they gave me a badge and told me to go on up.

I didn’t waste the editor’s time. I told him he knew better than anyone what I was capable of as a writer. Just imagine what I could produce if I was liberated from the genre ghetto.

I showed him the manuscript of my own novel, the one I had been working on for years. He promised to get back to me.


A week passed. A hundred times, I reached for the phone. But I always stopped myself. I’d already fired the one bullet I had—acting all anxious could send it off-course.

Two more weeks. Then the editor called me and asked me to come in. He told me my novel was brilliant. Almost magical. “But there’s no market for a novel of that complexity. Not now, anyway. The only way to make something like this a commercial success is by
promotion, Seth. And publishing today is all about consolidation, not risk-taking. Especially with the economy the way it is now.”


Trelaine’s next book had Darrow going after a ring of rapists who made movies of what they did, previewed them over YouTube, then sold them through a “back channel” over the Internet. It was his biggest seller ever.

A few weeks later, Trelaine’s body was discovered in the front seat of his Mercedes. The back of his head was nothing but pulp.

The papers went insane with speculation. What had made him a target for assassination? Was it his courtroom fighting for justice? Or was it his novels, the ones that had carried his crusade even farther?

Trelaine’s entire backlist was reissued, with new thematic jacketing of the paperbacks. On the back of every one was a collage of newspaper headlines about his murder.

They flew off the shelves.


I let six months pass. Then I called the editor, and told him I had something he
to see. I could hear the boredom in his voice until I said, “And I can’t tell you about it on the phone.”

Inside his office, I told him I had another three Darrow novels on my hard drive. All completed.

He wasn’t bored anymore.


The head of the publishing house called a press conference to announce that Trelaine couldn’t be silenced. “Whoever had him killed thought they could stop him from writing the truth, but they didn’t know who they were dealing with,” he told a rapt audience. “There are at least two more
manuscripts already in our hands. That’s all I have to say at this time.”

The press corps had heard a version of that story before. Stieg Larsson died before
of his books had been published, and now he’s the bestselling writer in the world. They did everything but shout “Amen!”

CNN ran the story every hour for a whole day and night.

The bloggers kept it alive for weeks more.

Preorders came in so quickly they almost crashed the company’s server. It was probably even worse at Amazon.


On a special crossover episode between
Law & Order
, a crusading novelist was found dead in the front seat of his car.

At first, his wife was the prime suspect. Especially when they found she’d been having an affair, and that there was a big life insurance policy, too. But the murder turned out to be the work of a professional. The truth came out when they matched the assassin’s “signature” to other crimes in the FBI database.

In exchange for the DA’s office “taking the needle off the table,” the assassin gave up the people who hired him—a cartel of kiddie-porn producers.


When the next Darrow finally came out, they couldn’t print them fast enough.

HBO bought the series.
quoted a studio bigwig as saying “Darrow is too big for any one movie.”


Trelaine’s editor is my editor now.

My own novel was released, under my own name. The house
paid a respectable advance, and made a commitment to major promotion: full-page ad in the
, thirty-city tour, a launch party at the publisher’s mansion. Plus the stuff the public doesn’t know about: window displays, end-caps, front-of-the-store dumps … you have to
for all that. Throw in the top-tier Amazon “package,” a ton of favor-trade blurbs, and you can bet the farm on the outcome. It’s simple math:

I’m a lock for The List.

I wonder if Julia will see me on TV.

for David Hechler


When I got down to my last sixty-one bucks, I knew it was time to go.

My room rent was paid for that night, and they wouldn’t lock me out until ten the next morning.

I couldn’t die with money in my pocket.

So I put fifty on the nose of a trotting mare I always liked. Fancy Candy was a gross longshot, even against the pack of non-winners they had her in with at Yonkers.

That left enough for a better supper than I’ve had in … ah, who remembers? I blew the change on a tip for the waitress. For luck.

I never buy the newspapers—they tell you who’s running, but not much else. You need the race program for real information, and the price keeps going up. The last four times I lost, I was betting on memory … on horses I remembered from better days.

I guess their better days were over, too.

I went down to OTB in the morning, holding my last ticket.

Fancy Candy paid $33.70 to win. My ticket was worth eight hundred and change.

That was seven months ago. At one point, I was up sixteen grand. Now I’m back where I belong.

This time it’s forty bucks. I put it all down. Every last cent.

I can’t die with money in my pocket, but I don’t mind going out on an empty stomach.

for Frank Caruso



“What do I care what kind of horses they are? I’m not here to join some 4-H club.”

The old man was looking out over the rail at a bunch of horses pulling little carts around the track. He never turned around, but I could hear him good enough. “A smart kid like you, I figure you probably know the difference between stupidity and ignorance, right?”

“I’m not sure,” I answered him. Not challenging, asking. “Show him respect,” is what they’d told me. I always do the job the way the people paying me want it done. That’s my reputation, and I worked a long time to earn it. The better your reputation, the better you earn.

“You can do something about being ignorant,” the old man said. “Not everybody gets the chance to do that. But if you do, and you pass it up,
you’re stupid.”

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