The Locked Door

#11 managed to pull the knife from her chest just as I was unlocking the door.

I knew where to find her – the sort of place where he had left all of his victims, #1 through #10: in the basement of an abandoned house, inside a closet or coal bin or trunk, a bomb shelter once, another time in a hastily-dug grave – and until now always I had been too late, by weeks or months, by years, finding bones, maggots, rags of clothes torn from bodies in rage? passion? something.

This time, for the first time, I almost made it in time.

She had been missing a week, but we knew now he always kept them alive at least that long, sometimes longer, sometimes months. She’d been an angry kid, like all the others had been, like I had been once, willful, rebellious, with a kind of fuck-you smirk aimed at anyone over twenty-five. He had taken her from the street, casually, and no one she was with remembered what he looked like or what he said, they had all been too stoned to notice or care. He had lured her with the promise of adventure, or easy drugs, or easier money. He was young, we assumed, and handsome, else why would she trust him? Or a cop, of course, but there are so few of us now, thousands only in a dead-broke city limping away from financial Armageddon, so few of us that we can check our brothers out and no, he most likely isn’t a cop. Whoever he is, he took her, drugged her, held her captive until he grew bored or guilty and then he stabbed her, leaving her to die quickly or slowly, it didn’t really matter to him so long as she did die.

But this time he made two mistakes.

He slipped the knife between her ribs at a slightly different angle, missing the heart by millimeters. She lay for thirty-six hours, harboring strength, maybe praying, slowly bleeding, slipping in and out of consciousness, waiting.

And he sent me the key and riddle, assuming the bankrupt P.O. would take its usual week-to-ten-days to get a letter across the city. But today, miraculously, it reached my desk in less than twenty-four hours. The key was old, mid-20th century, the riddle more obvious than the others.

“Dear Ben,” it began. “‘What did Della wear?’ Perry asked. ‘Who’s buried in Grant’s nemesis’ Fort?’ Tragg replied.”

Old stuff. Obscure song. Stupid joke. Forgotten writer. Except I remembered Erle Stanley Gardner lying around my grandfather’s house, dusty and no longer read, before the house was sold. And my mother had a penchant for obscure songs and stupid jokes.

She wore a brand New Jersey. Tragg was a street in Fort Lee.

So I raced across the river to Fort Lee, New Jersey, where I found an abandoned house on Tragg Street. I didn’t bother calling for backup because there really wasn’t any any more, the force was so depleted, I simply broke into the house and pounded down the stairs to the basement.

She must have heard me coming. Maybe my arrival brought her back to consciousness, reawakened that primal fear, thinking it was him returning, and so she seized the handle of the blade and pulled just as I unlocked the cupboard door.

She stabbed me twice before we both lost consciousness.

THE STORY: The year is 2029, and Detective Ben MacDonald is on the trail of a killer.

Once a year, for the last eleven years, someone has taken a thirteen-year-old girl, cut off her hair, then stabbed her and locked her away, leaving her bleeding. Ten of these victims have died, found months or years later after their murderer mailed a clue to Ben hinting at the latest burial site. But this time luck seems to be working in Ben’s favor.

Since the financial disaster known as the Collapse, the infrastructure of government, police and service industries has suffered greatly. The Homicide Squad of Greater New York is severely short-staffed and under-budgeted, and modern forensic capabilities are applied only when the money is available, which is almost never. Highways are disintegrating and air fares prohibitive, making long distance travel a challenge. What remains of the Postal Service takes forever to deliver mail – but for once the killer’s clue arrives the day after it was posted, and Ben finds the latest victim still alive. Thinking her kidnapper has returned, she stabs Ben twice as he tries to rescue her, and by the time help arrives she too has died and Ben has bled into unconsciousness. Forced to take sick-leave, Ben is frustrated with nothing to do. His husband (and ex-homicide partner) Jeff has a suggestion:

“Get off your mental butt,” Jeff says after enduring four days of my moping.

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” he says.

“Do something,” he says.

“What? What can I do? Eleven girls have died and I’m not any closer to stopping him than before I even knew he existed. It’s almost like he’s taunting me. Maybe without me, he’ll stop, or at least slow down, until he has someone else on his hook. Maybe that’s enough. Christ. What am I supposed to do?”

“Rainy,” he says. Nearly a question.

Lying in bed, recovering, bored with reading, bored with music, I have nothing better to do than to solve Rainy’s murder.

Rainy is Ben’s sister, who was kidnapped and murdered in 1999 when Ben was only three years old. Her killer was never found, the mystery of her disappearance never resolved. Ben was obsessed with the case when he was a boy, and now he becomes obsessed with it again. What strikes him immediately are the similarities between Rainy’s death and the murders of the eleven girls, and soon he comes to believe that not only are these crimes – thirty years apart – connected, but that Rainy’s killer is sending Ben clues because he wants to be found before he kills again.

But The Locked Door is much more than a murder mystery. It is the story of Ben’s family, four generations’ worth, beginning with Ben’s great-grandfather Charlie and his emigration from Scotland to New York  in 1918 in a desperate attempt to escape a curse that follows him to the grave.

It is the story of Ben’s grandfather Jim and Jim’s two brothers Pete and Frank, and of how Charlie’s curse hounds each of them, turning one into a murderer and the other two into his victims.

It is the story of Jim’s sons Gary and George, each trying to escape what nature has forced them to become.

It is the story of Gary’s children, Rainy and Ben. At the age of thirteen Rainy uncovers a terrible secret and writes about it in her diary:

And inside the envelope was a bunch of papers and clipped to the front was this thing like a receipt and it had my mother’s name and then it said “Five thousand dollars” and it was marked “Paid In Full.” And under the receipt on the first page was the word “REPORT” in big capital letters and that was followed by the date, which was just after I was born.

And I thought I heard my mother coming (false alarm!) so I went to my room and locked my door and plopped down on my bed and I started to read.

Oh.

My.

God.

What Rainy discovers leads to her disappearance.

What Rainy discovers leads to her death.

What Rainy discovers reveals the existence of a world far beyond our ordinary experience: Ben’s great-grandfather Charlie was haunted by fairies, fantasies that—real or not—colored his life. They chased him to America. They shadowed his children and grand-children. Their history leads to the solution of a mystery, their tales to the resolution of a saga, their destiny to a conclusion that will leave the reader breathless.

And so the world of The Locked Door unfolds, doors behind doors, locks revealing other locks, keys lost, missing, re-discovered, unlocking locks, opening doors. And as each door swings wide, the story changes, transforming the book from Mystery to History to Fantasy and back to Mystery again, until Ben—and the readers—learn the most astonishing secret of all.

THE BACKSTORY: This was the first novel I wrote, and is by far the best. It’s hard to describe; it resists categorization. I love it.