was a fine restaurant, and Patrick could see that Karen was impressed.
"Of course I'd do this just because," he said as the
waiter brought them their drinks. "Bring you here to a fine
restaurant for no other reason than you're my girl, and you deserve
it." Karen blushed at this, and her eyes flicked to the red
shopping bag he'd been carrying. The bag was tied with a ribbon,
and although she hadn't said so, Patrick knew she believed it
contained gifts for her.
do you know about this restaurant?" he asked. "What
do you know about this restaurant, and you and me?"
cold, pale look passed over her. "Patrick, if you're going
to propose to me..." she began.
no it's not that," he said quickly. He let one hand slide
across the tablecloth to cover her fingers with his own. "Think
back, a long time ago, when we had first started seeing each other,
we were walking home from another place just down the street,
that pizza restaurant
one with the giant margaritas?" she asked.
the one," he said. "As we passed this restaurant, I
pointed to it and said that when I sold my first piece of writing,
I would use the money I made to buy you dinner here." She
took her hand from his and shifted in her chair, not quite putting
it all together. Patrick lifted the shopping bag and handed it
to her. Karen's face still held some uncertainty as she reached
into the bag and came out with a small digest-sized magazine.
She looked over the lurid cover and read the title: Killer's
Alleyway. Opening the magazine where it was marked, she at
once recognized Patrick's pseudonym.
wow," she said, her voice limp. She scanned the first few
lines of the story and then turned the magazine in her hands,
examining the front and back covers before opening it to the title
page. "I've never heard of this magazine." She put the
magazine back inside the bag and set the bag on the floor.
a detective magazine. Most of the stories are about murders and
killings, that sort of thing."
thought that you were trying for literary magazines," she
said. "Big ones like The New Yorker."
don't just start in the biggest markets, Karen," Patrick
said, his own voice quickening. "You need to start in the
small markets and work your way up."
waiter arrived and they sat in silence as he laid out Karen's
ricotta cavatelli and Patrick's veal chop. "I though that
was the whole point for you," Karen said once the waiter
was gone. "I thought you were going to just explode onto
the scene." She waved her fingers in suggestion of an explosion.
smirked. "Look, baby, we can't always do things that way.
It took me a while to learn, I admit, but I'm wiser now, I know
better. I saw that my stories weren't getting acceptedthey
probably weren't even getting read. I didn't have an agent or
a publishing history. Genre magazines are willing to give new
writers a break, so I wrote a few things with these markets in
had relaxed a bit. "So did you get paid enough for the story
to pay for this dinner?" she asked.
no, not entirely." She kept her eyes on her plate and kept
eating. Actually, his check for the story wouldn't even pay for
his martini, but Karen didn't need to know that. "Dinner's
still on me, of course," he said. "Do you want to know
what the story is about?"
Karen replied, still concentrating on her dinner.
expression became earnest. "It's about a man who is plotting
to kill his wife. She's trying to kill him also, but their young
daughter poisons them both first." He took a bite of his
made a face. "How'd you come up with that?"
didn't." He leaned back and took a sip from his cocktail.
looked confused. Patrick set his drink down and got right to the
point. "It's simple. I knew that I had to come up with stories
that would play in the genre markets, but I didn't have any good
ideas, not having read much of that sort of thing. I knew that
I could write well enough, but I needed a solid plot, a strong
central premise. I tried and tried, but I couldn't come up with
anything that seemed, well, clever enough." There was a hitch
in his voice as he admitted this. "With these types of story,
it's all twist, and if you don't have a surprise ending, then
you don't have a good story. Then it came to me, the idea"Karen
could hear the bold font in his voice."I knew that
mystery magazines have been around for a long time. So, I began
collecting all of the oldest mystery collections I could find.
I originally started reading them to get the flavor of genre writing,
but then it occurred to me that I could borrow a twist from one
of them, and make my own."
stop." Karen set down her silverware and raised her palms.
"You stole someone's story?"
looked hurt. "Of course not. This isn't plagiarism; it's
more inspiration. The idea came from one of those old-fashioned
murder mysteries, you know the onesa mayor or heiress or
some such is killed and some old biddy or retired lawyer solves
the thing, the kind that grandmothers read. There's no market
for that sort of thing anymore, no one wants to read placid mysteries
with tidy endings and rational outcomes. But the truth is, there's
a story in there; there's a murder in there, one with a twist,
something unexpected, just waiting to evolve into something stronger.
So, I come along, and I change a million details and almost all
just stared at him. Patrick took his eyes from hers, but just
for a moment. He swallowed and pressed on. "Look, it's true
that in both stories, a husband, wife and child are plotting to
murder each other, but that's the only similarity. In the
original, some pipe-smoking professor solves the mystery and muses
philosophically as the childwho is seventeen, by the way,
hardly even a child at allis led off by the police, all
neat and clean. In my story, the girl is eleven, and she isn't
caught. The story ends with her standing alone in a house empty
except for the corpses of her parents." His elbows were on
the table with his hands held high, fingers spread wide, as if
casting a spell. "My version is much richer in the stuff
of humanity than the first. In the original, the murders were
all about money. In mine, they're a rancorous outcry against nameless
insults borne too long in silence." He took another sip of
his martini and settled back in his chair. "I see it as a
partnership. It's like the original idea is the rigging that I
hang the sails of my story upon, and together, we move forward.
It should be flattering to the original author. You could see
it as their spirit living on beyond their lives."
listened patiently until she was certain he was finished. "You
know what this sounds like, Patrick?" she asked, rising from
her chair. "This sounds like that time you made out with
your old girlfriend but it wasn't cheating on me somehow."
She threw her napkin on her plate and walked out, knocking over
the gift bag as she left. Patrick rose to follow her, but the
other diners were looking him, now, and their fixed attention
stopped him in his tracks. If he chased her, it would be a scene,
and he wasn't going to give her the satisfaction.
stooped and picked up the gift bag from the floor, and placed
it on the cushion of her empty chair. He had lost his appetite,
but he finished eating anyway. Then he asked to have Karen's mostly
uneaten meal packaged to go.
* * *
listen, I'm sorry about, well, whatever it was that I did to upset
you." This message wasn't going well. Of the five or six
voice mail messages Patrick had left her in the past few weeks,
this one was the worst. No wonder she wasn't calling him back.
hung up the phone and walked back to his computer. He realized
that he was calling Karen whenever he got stuck in his writing,
but that didn't mean he could stop himself from doing it. Like
rearranging his email inbox, it was something he drifted into
when his neurons that controlled drafting and editing stopped
there was good news: these motivational blackouts were happening
less and less. With a story published, Patrick's energy for writing
was stronger than it had ever been. Even after a day at the office,
he could come home and spend three, five, even eight hours at
the computer, putting stories together, cutting them down, and
sending them out. At his best, he was too productive to miss Karen
wanted to be published again as soon as possible, so he attacked
on two fronts: he continued to write and submit his own, wholly
original, more literate stories to the quality magazines. These
stories Patrick wove together with exquisite care. The hardworking
men and women in these tales suffered, struggled and often failed,
but in the end they were victims of nothing worse than poor decisions
or the pitiless ironies of everyday life, and these manuscripts
were rejected with perfect reliability.
also updated more old mystery stories. While this proved faster
than writing a story from scratch, it wasn't easy. Patrick had
built a slush pile of his ownstacks and stacks of ancient
mystery collections he had gotten cheap at a second hand paperback
shop. The books had an old, musty stink about them, and the smell
hung in the air and clung to Patrick's fingers as he handled them.
Patrick had settled on a good candidate for 'inspiration', the
work really began. He had to turn the stories inside out to get
something useable out of them: more character, more leaning, less
shock and surprise. He submitted these stories to genre magazines,
and these manuscripts were nearly always accepted, leaving Patrick
awash in a flood of shame and delight.
time, the shame lessened, and Patrick began to feel like an author.
And then, at the peak, when nearly everything was going Patrick's
way, it suddenly got better.
* * *
letter came on a Thursday afternoon, and Patrick knew at once
by the thick, bone-white paper of the envelope that the letter
was something special. Inside was a note congratulating Patrick
on his recent successes. The writer went on to inquire about the
rights of his stories, with the intent of collecting some of his
writing in a forthcoming anthology. The signature read George
Lockerbie, President and Chairman, Mortal Coil Publishing.
did a small dance in his driveway, before he ran into his apartment
and at once telephoned George Lockerbie, President and Chairman.
* * *
agreed to lunch in a pub not far from Patrick's apartment. Patrick
had no trouble identifying Mr. Lockerbie. On the phone Mr. Lockerbie
had said 'look for a distinguished older gentleman, and that will
be myself,' and there could be no doubt. George Lockerbie was
oldvery old. His long face was creased with wrinkles so
deep that his eyes were practically hidden in their shadows. His
eyebrows were bushy tangles, and there were silver hairs jutting
boldly from his ears. Patrick shook the man's hand and it was
like handling a dead fish wrapped in a plastic bag.
his advanced age, there was a look of money about George Lockerbie,
small glimpses of success and privilege, like the heavy gold wristwatch
or the fine silver pen settled in his pocket. His suit may have
been out of style, but was it clearly expensive and well cared
for. "I am a great fan of your work," Mr. Lockerbie
said. "It's quite
remarkable, if I may say so."
you." Patrick said.
will be our youngest contributor in some time," Mr. Lockerbie
continued, encouraged. "It will be well, to have some fresh
perspective mixed in with our own writing."
is such great news." Patrick said. "No one had taken
notice of me before. Mostly I was sending work to quality magazines,
you know, the literary ones, and they never accepted anything."
He hadn't meant to talk of his earlier frustrations, but found
that he couldn't help himself. "They didn't even bother to
comment on it, the high-horse bastards. Then I discovered genres,
and these editors know what they're about. They know good writing
when they see it." Patrick reigned himself in.
continued to smile gently at Patrick. "You speak as if being
published were the principle point of writing. For most, writing
is a quest to describe the truths of life, not to see their names
of course," Patrick replied. "I get closer to truth
every day, but if no one notices, what's the point? It's like
with the mysteries I've been writing
Lockerbie interrupted him. "Yes, your stories. They are quite
brutal, you know."
think it's necessary." Patrick replied. "I read a lot
of the old collectionsit's part of getting it right, reading
what's already been donebut there is such a quaintness
to these old stories." He pronounced 'quaintness' as if it
were a dirty word. "People are more sophisticated today,
they know the world's going to hell and they know murderers aren't
little old ladies slipping arsenic into tea."
Lockerbie dabbed at his colorless lips with a napkin. "I
see," he said.
went on. "Poe had it right, from the very beginning: the
killer in The Telltale Heart didn't do it for money or
to repay an insult or for any cause at all. It was senseless,
it was brutal, and ended in dismemberment."
Poe left much to the imagination," Mr. Lockerbie said. "There
is something to be said for the unspoken."
people have less imagination these days." Patrick replied.
"I blame television."
still write a little, myself." Mr. Lockerbie said, surprising
Patrick with the sudden shift from Patrick's work. "I do
seem to be experiencing less success in being published than I
did in my younger days." There was a palpable note of regret
in his voice. "You would think it gets easier, but then,
tastes change, editors you've come to rely on die
The old man began to drift into a brown study, but caught himself
and returned to the moment. "Perhaps you have a point. Something
may be needed, to further define the murder mystery as a unique
genre amidst the post-modern clap trap that passes for 'good writing'
these days." He gave a defeated sigh. "Modern literature
is about the world outside our windows, the inner lives of our
neighbors, perhaps even ourselves, to explore the commonplace
miseries therein. Well, I've lived a long life, Patrick. I've
been through all the loneliness and despair I care to experience.
Give me an adventure, give me mystery, a thing I've never done
but wanted to, a thing I've never seen, but wished for my entire
life, even if I could never bring myself to ask."
Lockerbie, I could sit here and talk shop all day," Patrick
interrupted, struggling to get the conversation back to the topic
of his future, "but I was hoping we could discuss the collection
you suggested in the letter. What sort of terms were you considering?"
He silently cursed himself for sounding so anxious.
Lockerbie gave a gentle smile. "I'm afraid you misunderstand
the point of our meeting today. Yes, I am the Chairman, but my
responsibility is principally content. I am as adrift as any novice
when it comes to the details of rights and such. I simply wanted
to meet you, to talk shop and so on. Our lawyers handle the paperwork."
He beamed as an idea took hold of him. "You know, we're having
a bit of a get-together this weekend, at Bill Doctrow's place.
It's our annual board meeting. We make a dinner out of it, nothing
too fancy, but it's good to dress up occasionally. You know Bill's
writing, of course."
thought for a moment. He had read scores of short story collections
in preparing his stories but the name Bill Doctrow didn't ring
any bells. He shook his head.
Lockerbie held his look of anticipation for a moment longer, and
then surrendered to disappointment when it became evident that
Patrick didn't know the name. "Well, you'll get to meet him
soon enough." Patrick made to decline, but the old man cut
him off. "I insist. I'm certain that the others are as anxious
to make your acquaintance as I was. I'll have my girl call you
and set up the date and time."
word 'girl' set off a spark in Patrick's head. "May I bring
Lockerbie rose from the booth and began to pull on his jacket.
"Of course." He smiled. "The more, the merrier."
Patrick watched him leave. A uniformed driver helped the old man
into a silver Mercedes.
* * *
had been several months since he had spoken to Karen, but dinner
was an easy sell. Patrick knew that she had missed him just by
the sound of her voice in the phone, and he was a little surprised
to discover he had missed her as well. He apologized for his behavior
and assured her that he had gone out of the story-borrowing business
forever. He had certainly learned his lessontoo much honesty
could be bad for a relationship.
night of the dinner arrived. Patrick met Karen at her apartment,
and she looked stunning. They exchanged polite greetings, got
into the car, and had to pull over after a few minutes to hold
a spontaneous, enthusiastic and physical reunion.
were back on the road after a short time. The Mortal Coil was
meeting at a private residence about an hour's drive away, so
Karen had time to neaten her dress and reapply her lipstick. They
chatted back and forth, warmly recalling their good times together.
Their spirits remained high until they actually saw the house.
mansion than house, Bill Doctrow's place was a looming shape on
a hill, thrusting its heavy square shadow into the pale night
sky. The windows were blazing with light, in violent contrast
to the dark trees that circled the property. Patrick killed the
radio and crept the car up the gravel driveway. He had expected
to find Cadillacs and Mercedes lining the driveway, but there
were no cars here at all. "This is the place?" Karen
asked, even though she was holding the directions in her lap.
Patrick didn't answer. No valet emerged from the shadows and asked
for his keys.
was no bell, so Patrick rapped lightly on the door, Karen standing
beside him. He was aware of her shifting her weight from one heeled
shoe to the other with apprehension. After a moment, a young man
wearing cook's whites opened the door. The front of his apron
was smeared with various stains, and his eyes seemed to lack focus.
He didn't greet Patrick or Karen, only turned and headed back
into the house without a word.
Lockerbie emerged from a lighted doorway and exclaimed, "The
guest of honor, the man of the hour has arrived!" The old
man crossed the foyer with his hand thrusts out in enthusiastic
greeting. Patrick returned the greeting with equal fervor. "Mr.
Lockerbie," he began as he stepped aside to allow Karen to
cross the threshold. "Wonderful to see you. Allow me to present
my companion for the evening, Ms. Karen Stepmeyer."
smiled as Mr. Lockerbie took her hand and kissed it. "The
honor is mine, Miss Stepmeyer," he said. Mr. Lockerbie helped
Karen out of her light wrap. She was wearing a black dress that
left her shoulders exposed and Patrick caught the flash of excitement
in Lockerbie's eyes at the sight of Karen's luminous skin. "Well,
allow me to introduce you to the others before they accuse me
of trying to keep you two all to myself." Mr. Lockerbie said
as he put a hand on Patrick's shoulder and guided his guests into
a long dining room. In keeping with the house, the dining room
was majestic in scope. There was a great table, large enough for
a score of guests, set out with candles and centerpieces and graceful,
high backed chairs. Each place had full banquet silver laid out,
and the china plates and crystal goblets sparked in the light
of the great chandelier, but the opulence was not what first caught
Patrick's eye. Rather, it was the guests that commanded his attention.
were perhaps a dozen people seated around the grand table, and
they were all old. Karen and Patrick gaped at the guests, the
shrunken men, with their great hanging earlobes and swollen noses,
and the antique women who stared back at them bleary-eyed from
beneath impossible wigs.
Lockerbie gestured towards Karen and Patrick as if the couple
were a marble statue that he had just unveiled. "Assembled
board members of the Mortal Coil, may I present to you our guests
" Mr. Lockerbie went on with the introduction,
but Patrick's concentration was too engrossed by the members of
the Mortal Coil to hear. One woman had obviously suffered a stroke,
and the left side of her body hung completely slack. A clear tube
ran above her upper lip, with short hoses jutting up onto her
nose. Another tube hung from the corner of her mouth. Patrick
was reminded of the tube a dentist uses to collect spit, and indeed,
he saw there was an unknown liquid bubbling in the tube. He heard
Karen moan with irrepressible revulsion.
continued the introductions, and each guest responded to their
names in turn, looking Karen and Patrick up and down with weak,
unfocused eyes and greeting them with lifeless gestures. George
seated Patrick and Karen beside each other, and then took his
own seat at the head of the table. He put a napkin over his lap
with great enthusiasm.
are all writers, here." Mr. Lockerbie began. "With the
exception of Miss Stepmeyer, of course, but that's all right,
you'll find we're quite accepting here." Karen smiled demurely
but Patrick could see anxiety lurking behind her polite expression.
have a lovely home." Karen said to Mr. Doctrow. "You
must have had a very successful career to afford such a large
estate." Patrick shot her a cautionary lookhe didn't
think these people would appreciate being discussed in the past
life came into Mr. Doctrow. "Writing, you mean?" he
gave an amused chuckle. "I never paid for a damn thing by
writing. My father invented air conditioning." Quiet laughter
traveled around the table; even the woman with the tube in her
mouth gave a pleased gurgle.
man who had answered the door entered then. Still dressed in his
stained cooks whites, he appeared even less hospitable than he
had at the threshold. He silently poured their wine, his thick
lips folded into a frown above his huge chin. "A toast,"
Mr. Lockerbie said as soon as Patrick's glass was full, not even
waiting for the others to be served. "To the newest friend
of Mortal Coil." He raised his glass and drank. Patrick did
drained his glass; he wanted to take the edge off. He realized
that all of the guests were watching him with heightened attentionexcept
for Karen, who was polishing off her own glass of wine. The cook
at once refilled their glasses.
of the guests, Mr. Kellogg, spoke to Karen. "Are you a fan
of the murder mystery, my dear?" he asked.
smiled politely. "Not really," she replied. "That
is, I haven't read very many of them."
a pity," Mr. Kellogg replied. "Here you are in the company
of some of the greatest mystery writers of the last century."
He smiled broadly, his dentures as blank and white as fence posts.
"Many of the stories we have written, although a bit old
fashioned now, were quite well received in their day. There was
a need for them. Our little stories showed how death is always
with us. Something you come to understand all too well when you
reach our age."
here," said Mr. Doctrow. He raised his wine glass towards
Patrick and drank. Patrick took another sip of his own wine in
this take much longer?" Beatrice asked. "I don't want
to be up all night again."
Lockerbie spoke up. "No, things should be happening quite
soon." He looked at Patrick expectantly.
as I was saying," Mr. Kellogg continued, "Our stories
spoke to a murderous urge in all of us, an urge ironically repressed
in the age of world wars, but perhaps those of us who lived in
such times saw murder as a thing too real to be treated lightly.
We lived in fear of it. Perhaps that's why our manners were always
so much better than those of young people today."
little hacks, all of them," said Mr. Doctrow. "Now he's
got that girl mixed up in it as well."
please," Mr. Lockerbie said. "Just a touch of patience
will go far."
it's taking too long," Bill Doctrow said. "I want to
see the little felon get what's coming to him."
expression turned from one of confusion to growing anger. "Oh
my God," she said, twisting in her seat. "Patrick, what
are they getting at?" She joined the other guests in staring
eyes moved warily from one geriatric guest to the next. While
a few were absorbed in nonchalantly studying their dinnerware,
most were staring straight back at him, their eyes clouded with
age but nevertheless bright. "All right, I see it now."
Patrick said, taking his napkin from his lap and putting it on
his plate. "Fine, the game is up. I did it. I did it in the
study, with the typewriter. Satisfied?" He took another long
drink of wine. "If it's money you're after, I didn't make
much at this. I still have my day job, for Christ's sake."
One of the old ladies pouted at his blasphemy. "Look, whatever
you had in mind inviting me up here, I have a better idea. Now
that the whole 'mystery has been solved,"he said this
in a mocking voice and waved his fingers in the air"let's
get down to business."
Mr. Lockerbie asked. "What business could we have, my boy?"
isn't it obvious?" Patrick replied. "Here you guys are
trying to get your work published, but you're not able to because
you're too old fashioned. I can't seem to come up with any really
original ideas for my stories but I can take your ideas
and make them modern. I can get them published." He leaned
forward and his voice took on a conspiratorial air. "It just
makes sense. We all work together and everyone gets what they
want." There were several impatient sighs from around the
table. Bill Doctrow looked at his watch.
stood up, threw her napkin down on her plate, and said, "Patrick,
you're a dick." She began to walk to the front door.
I'm a dick." Patrick said. "Let's go." He set his
hands on the table as if to rise. "How was I to know they
were all still alive, never mind still reading pulp fiction, for
course we read the journals," Beatrice said. "What else
are we going to do with our time? The murder mystery has always
been our lives. We can't be expected to give it up simply because
we are no longer being published. "
Patrick tried to rise but found that he hadn't the strength.
He looked towards the door and was surprised to see Karen folded
up into a small mound on the floor. He had not even heard her
said George Lockerbie. "Each of us has spent countless hours
imagining the deaths of othersmore often than not a lingering
death, I might add. These murders may seem gentle by today's standard,
How did our young guest phrase it?" He rested
a finger against his pale lip.
Bill Doctrow said with obvious disgust. "He called our work
thank you, Bill. Quaint was the word he used," said Mr. Lockerbie.
"Still, I imagine that our killings seemed gentle because
you were not experiencing them. Being poisoned or struck on the
head by an ornamental vase may seem less brutal than being cut
up by a chainsaw, but I imagine that all of these sensations remain
slumped in his chair, a strange non-sensation traveling steadily
up his arms. He could still see, could still feel, but his limbs
were quickly moving beyond the reach of his mind.
all had our favorite ways, Patrick. Mr. Kellogg was devoted to
the knife; his tales would always entail a good stabbing, while
our lovely Beatrice preferred the blunt object." Beatrice
nodded slightly, the folds of her wrinkled neck creasing in an
unflattering way. "Mr. Doctrow, by contrast, favored death
by gunshotpowerful handguns exploding in a cloud of blue
smoke, bullets tearing through flesh, all that sort of thing.
Harriet usually schemed her victims into enough liquid to drown
them. Quite ingenious, really. Now I myself," he put a modest
hand on his chest, "I have always been an enthusiast of the
silent death; the victims in my stories were almost always
killed through poison, usually taken through ingestion. How was
your wine, by the way, Mr. Kershaw?" Mr. Lockerbie looked
at Patrick and saw that the younger man was disoriented. He snapped
his fingers loudly several times in Patrick's direction, and Patrick
swung his head slowly to face him.
you see, Mr. Kershaw, your grand idea, as with your writing itself,
lacked a certain originality. We have been plagiarized before.
In response to this, we always offer the scoundrel an award, and
they always accept. Do you know what your reward is to be, Mr.
Kershaw?" Patrick could still move his eyes, and he watched
as the brutish young man in the cook's whites arranged knives,
guns, vials and other sinister objects along the dining room table.
"We are going to invite you to be one with our study. Each
of us has a different method, Mr. Kershaw, and with Mr. Cook's
help, we are going to share our talents and inspiration with you.
In short, Mr. Kershaw, we are going to take turns." He smiled,
revealing his long smoke-stained canines once more. "First
with you, and then the young lady you so generously provided us."
The light that had glowed in Mr. Lockerbie's eyes when he first
saw Karen shone there again. "But you first, Mr. Kershaw,
you first. Mrs. Finn, you have the honor."
Finn, smiling through her stroke-ravaged face, gestured, and the
young man in the stained apron lifted a large silver candlestick
from the table. As Patrick watched, he tossed the candlestick
in his hand, flipping it so the heavy base hung from his hand
like an ornate silver club.
did his best to beg forgiveness, but his body was wholly rigid
now and the words would not come.