There’s this book I’m never going to write. It’s about this serial killer in a small town. He keeps killing people who are in locked rooms. No one knows how he’s getting in and out of these rooms undetected.
How does he do it? Everyone wants to know. Except, obviously, the Deadbolt Man himself.
Oh, yeah. I didn’t tell you that. What they call him, this killer, is “The Deadbolt Man.”
That’s the cool part. The name. That was going to be the title of the book, too:
THE DEADBOLT MAN
“Deadbolt” is the worst possible word for the thing it represents. Nothing about this word inspires confidence.
The point of a lock is to keep you safe. But just say that word—deadbolt—and you feel a little less safe.
It’s like how, when you put up billboards all over the place warning people how dangerous it is to smoke cigarettes, cigarette smokers just smoke more. Not because they’re suicidal—some of them aren’t—but because just saying “don’t smoke” makes you think about smoking. And then you want to smoke.
The Deadbolt Man operates in a small town in Texas. About ten thousand people live in this town. Not a big place. Not a scary place. When you hear about a murder out there, out in the middle of nowhere, it’s always the same story.
Some guy gets jealous of some other guy. Maybe the other guy has the first guy’s ex-girlfriend with him, or the other guy is just better than the first guy at talking to some girl who they both want to get with. They get in a fight. The guys do, and the girl maybe does nothing, or maybe tries to break it up, or maybe picks which guy she likes better and takes his side. The first guy is maybe drunk, or maybe short-tempered, or maybe the other guy did something to incite the violence. The violence escalates. There’s a lot of variations, but the basic equation is:
guy + other guy + (girl × girl’s attractiveness level) × perceived insult = violence
And if the girl is attractive enough, and the perceived insult is severe enough, the violence could escalate to murder.
That’s how it goes.
I’m bored just typing it.
But the Deadbolt Man, he’s not like that. He’s killing people just, you know, to do it. No fit of passion involved. The opposite. Serious planning involved.
And every month, he kills someone new.
What is he doing it for?
No one knows.
There’s a deadbolt on my apartment door. Every time I come home, I lock it. And I put up the chain, too. Just in case.
Sometimes the door gets stuck and I have to put some pressure on it. I feel the whole thing warp, like it’s just a sheet of cheap tin, like the old dead wood would cave in to the pressure of my living body. If I needed to, I could take the door down. It wouldn’t be that hard.
The chain wouldn’t break. But the weakest link in the chain isn’t in the chain. It’s the old screws clinging to the wood of the doorframe, the ones that are like a kid’s loose tooth, wiggling around if you touch them with your fingertip.
But I lock the door. I always lock the door. And it makes me feel safer for some reason.
Statistically, in a town of ten thousand people, where one is being murdered every month, you’re pretty unlikely to be the next one to die. You’re more likely to be next than you are to win the lottery (lottery jackpot odds: 185 million to one), but you’re way more likely to die of lung disease, which kills 1 in 40 adults in this little town. This is because of reasons we won’t get into here.
Still. It could be you, and that’s enough to ruin everything.
That’s enough to break down a community.
Just that one question.
Who is the killer?
Who is the Deadbolt Man?
Look, if you’re from this town, you’re part of a tribe. You went to the same school as everyone else. You remember the tornado in 1999 that took out pretty much all of the courthouse. You’re all going for the Cowboys to win the Super Bowl.
That’s how it’s always been around here.
But now there’s an alien in your midst. The Deadbolt Man. Who is he?
What about Doug the Locksmith, who got your keys out of your car when you locked them in there? He could get into a locked room.
What about your boyfriend, who has the spare key to your apartment? You text him and ask him if he’s still got it, and you’re definitely not breaking up with him but you kind of want that key back.
Or what about Jerry, that creepy guy who goes to your church, who has a collection of old swords like from Lord of the Rings? Yes, it’s a stretch—but he’s a creepy guy and he has swords.
If you come from a big city, you think like this already. All the time. The serial killer is not necessary. But these poor backwards hicks, they’re not used to this kind of tension. They’re used to having friends and family, talking to people in the grocery store, leaving doors unlocked all night without even thinking about it.
You know. Backwards.
Last night, I heard something crash outside my apartment. I heard voices raised. The walls here are membranes of plaster. I hear everything. I was on the sofa reading a book at the time. The floor trembled at the crash. I put a bookmark in my book and got up, holding still and listening.
The voices were not distinct. I heard the kind of words that people often regret later, and spoken at high volume.
I went to the door and looked through the peephole.
The door across the landing was open.
My heart was pounding. My ancient ancestors heard sounds of violence and were anxious, because they would have to fight or be killed, if something violent was coming their way. Just because things are different now doesn’t mean my body knows it.
I went out onto the landing. There were broken pieces of railing on the stairs. There was shouting, more of it, but it had gone downstairs and outside.
These aren’t my people, they aren’t my tribe, I didn’t go to school with them, I don’t even know their names.
I went inside.
I locked the deadbolt.
They catch the Deadbolt Man.
He’s a contractor. How he got in and out of locked rooms was with boring old locksmithing. His name is Will Roberts and everybody in town knows him.
They’ve had him in their houses.
They’ve paid him to fix their broken things.
In a way, it’s a relief to have the killer gone.
In a way, it’s worse than ever.
The Deadbolt Man was a magic trick. A magic trick, a really good one, fills you with amazement and wonder. And fear. Wow! How did he do that?
But then you figure it out. And what do you feel? You don’t feel resolution. You feel disappointed.
You realize there was never any magic at all.
The community is a magic trick. Once you see through it once, it’s over. You see that there was never anything there at all.
Once the Deadbolt Man arrives, he never goes away.
If it could be someone, it could be anyone.
I was away this afternoon, and when I came home there were two little girls playing in the grass in front of my building. I walked by on the sidewalk. Their eyes got big and they scattered like birds.
I looked around to see what had scared them, and there was just me.
If it could be someone, it could be me.