Chapter 1. Home and Visitors

Locksmith awoke with a start. He was lying on a king-sized bed in a strange room, looking up at the ceiling.
Then he remembered that this was his room now. It still looked strange to him. Everything in it was old — the little brass lamps on the walls, the polished wooden dressers, the faded curtains and tattered wallpaper. The huge bed took up at least half the room all by itself. And of course, the view out the window was completely different.
But the important thing was, it was his own room. No more sharing a room with Bill — he finally had some privacy. It was the smallest bedroom, but, hey, he was the smallest person. Too bad he couldn’t take the lock off the closet door and put it on the bedroom door.
The only familiar things were the cardboard boxes on the floor. Those held all his stuff. For the last week or so it seemed like he, Bill and Mom had been living in a world of cardboard boxes. He’d spent the morning bringing them in and helping set things up. Then he’d decided to lie down for a few minutes… and now the clock on his dresser said it was close to three.
Lock got up and stretched. His jeans and T-shirt had the vaguely crummy feel that clothes get when they’re slept in, but he didn’t really want to go rummaging around in the boxes for a change of clothes. It sounded like something was going on downstairs.
The whole house felt kind of weird. Most of the big, heavy pieces of furniture were still here, but the walls all had those shadowy patches where pictures and things had been taken away. But then a place that had been empty for years after the last owner mysteriously vanished should be kind of weird, right?
In the living room, he saw his mother talking, in her own special mashup of southern and Australian accents, with two women whose accents were totally different. One of the women looked and dressed like she was from India. The other looked like she might be from Southeast Asia or somewhere in China, and was wearing baggy sweatpants and a hooded sweatshirt, even though it was warm outside. They were both small women — shorter than Lock, who was under five foot six. Mom towered over them like a gingery-blonde giraffe.
“This is my son, Lachlan,” she said, pointing to him and pronouncing it Lock-lin. “He’s twelve. Lachlan, this is Sarala Webb and Mari… what was your name again?”
“Bizinjo,” said the woman in the hoodie.
“They’ve asked if I’d like to hire them as cleaning ladies,” said his mother. “They say they knew the previous owner, back before he disappeared.”
“Well… we haven’t really had a chance to make a mess yet,” said Lock.
“I have every confidence that you and Bill will take care of that,” his mother said dryly. “In the meantime… the yard needs a lot of work.” There was no arguing with that. The lawn hadn’t been mowed in, literally, years, and there were bits of litter scattered through the tall grass. Mom had been threatening to make Lock and Bill fix it up. “I’ll take you out to the shed, and we’ll see how you do.”
With his mother and the other two women out back and Bill hogging the Xbox as usual, Lock wondered what to do with himself right now. The TV and computer were still in boxes, along with his books and his iPod, and he didn’t feel like unpacking right now. He’d already explored the house — it wasn’t that big. Maybe he could take a walk. At least Mom had found a house in a neighborhood with decent sidewalks. Just then, there was another knock at the door.
The boy in the doorway was short and fat, with close-cropped dark hair and wire-rimmed glasses.
“Hi,” he said, looking up at Lock nervously.
“Hi.”
“My name’s Gary. Gary Thalberg. We live next door.” He pointed to his right.
“I’m Lock.”
“Lock… Smith?” So his mother had already put the SMITH sign on their mailbox.
“Yeah.”
“Can I come in?”
Lock nodded and opened the door wider. He wasn’t sure what to do next — his mom usually handled guests. He offered Gary something to drink, then opened the fridge and found it was empty. Mom hadn't gone shopping yet.
Gary was looking around the living room.
“It’s funny,” he said. “I’ve lived next door to this place all my life, but I’ve never been inside until now.”
“Well… here it is.” There followed an awkward silence. Lock had never been much of a talker, and lately he’d hardly had anyone to talk to. He’d already said more in the last couple of minutes than he’d said all day yesterday.
“Anyway,” said Gary, “my parents heard there were new people moving in next door and she noticed one of them was about my age, so she sent me over here to say hi.”
Lock nodded.
“She… says I need to get out muh… more…” Gary’s voice trailed off just as Mom came back in the room.
“Hello,” she said. “What’s your name?”
Gary’s mouth worked, but no sound came out. His blue eyes, looking up at her, were suddenly very wide.
“Gary Thalberg,” said Lock. “Lives next door. He’s… um… how old are you?”
“Tuh… twelve,” he said. “But — but I’ll be thirteen in a few weeks,” he added quickly, as if twelve might be the wrong age.
Lock didn’t blame Gary for being nervous. His mother had a way of intimidating people without even trying. Maybe it was her eyes, which were deep-set and light brown. When she got mad, those eyes got a look that was freeze-in-your-tracks, crap-your-pants scary. The fact that she was six feet tall in her socks didn’t hurt either.
“My name is Lee Smith,” she said. “Please, sit down.” I was supposed to ask him to do that, thought Lock.
Then she quizzed him about what the schools around here were like. With every question, he seemed to have a little more trouble finding his voice.
Finally she let him go. “Lachlan, hon,” she said, “why don’t you show your new friend around the house, and I’ll check on how they’re doing out back.”
Lock wanted to say He’s not exactly my friend yet, I mean, we just met and he already looks like kind of a geek, but somehow he didn’t think this would go over well with either one of them, so he just nodded.
Lock took Gary upstairs, trying to think of something to make conversation about.
“Your mom and dad have bunk beds?” asked Gary, looking into Mom’s bedroom.
“Um…” Lock didn’t like talking about this, but there didn’t seem to be any way around it. “Dad’s dead, actually.”
“Oh… sorry.”
There followed a very awkward silence.
“The beds were like that when we got here,” Lock said. “Anyway, this” — he pointed to a nearby door — “is my room.”
Gary looked in.
“How come you’ve got two dressers?”
“I don’t know,” said Lock. “They came with the room like everything else.”
“Your bed’s enormous.”
“Yeah.”
Gary squinched up his mouth.
“You know what?” he said.
“What?”
“The old people who used to live here — I bet they slept in this room and put the kids in the other two rooms.”
Lock thought about it. He’d never heard of parents picking out the smallest bedroom for themselves, but it would explain a lot.
“Know anything about them?”
“Not really,” said Gary. “Mr. Kemp disappeared when I was five or six, and I think his wife died before I was born.” He looked at the closet door. “The lock on the door looks newer than anything else in here.”
Lock looked at it again. Sure enough, the closet door was old, with worn edges and chipping brown-black paint, but the lock might have been installed yesterday.
“You got a computer?”
“Yeah, but it’s still in the box,” said Lock. “Just a laptop. It’s got those parental controls on everything.”
“I can show you how to get around those.”
“Cool.” Maybe Gary would be a good guy to have for a friend after all. Lock sat down on the bed.
“Say, Gary,” he said, “any idea what happened to this Kemp dude?”
“Not really. Like I say, I was little when it happened, so I don’t remember that much of it. One night the cops showed up, and they said he was missing. His car was still parked, and none of his stuff was missing. People went around town looking for him, but they didn’t find anything. They think he just wandered off and… died… somewhere, but… well…”
“But what?”
“I met him a few times. He was kind of old but he was in pretty good shape — not, you know, senile or feeble or anything. And there was one other thing.”
“What?”
“The day the cops came, but before they showed up, I saw a strange guy coming in and out of this house.”
“What’d he look like?"
“I don’t know — kind of big. I remember he had this ring on his finger. It had these rubies on it that caught the light. He came in in the morning, and he left around dinnertime, and after that the cops came. I told my parents. They said he must have been the guy who reported Mr. Kemp missing.” Gary thought for a moment. “But he sure took his time about it. I mean, how long does it take to search one house?”
Lock nodded.
As they were going downstairs, Gary asked, “Where’s your mom from?”
“She grew up in Australia,” said Lock, “but we lived in Georgia a long time. You noticed her accent?”
“Yeah."
“She tries not to talk like that. She’s a prosecuting attorney, so she has to sound really, like, professional. But sometimes she’ll say ‘g’day’ instead of ‘hello’ or ‘hi.’”
“Whatcha doooo-in’?” came a voice from the second-floor hall.
“That’s my brother, Bill. Ignore him,” said Lock, starting down the stairs to the first floor.
“What are you two up to?” Bill persisted. Lock said nothing.
“Wow, you must have been doing something really embarrassing if you don’t want to talk about it,” said Bill, following them. Just then, there was yet another knock on the door. This house was turning out to be a happening place.
No sooner had he opened the door than a big man in a navy-blue suit pushed his way past Lock and stepped into the living room. Two other men in suits followed him, carrying cardboard boxes labeled LEGAL PAPERS.
“Is your father here?” said the man.
Didn’t I already talk about this once today? thought Lock.
“Either of your parents?” The man had a stern, jowly face and a streak of gray in his hair. The only other thing that caught Lock’s eye was a ring on his right index finger. It was silver, studded all around with rubies.
“Who are you?” Lock finally said.
“My name is A.J. Hance,” the first man replied, “and I own this house.”
What?!? thought Lock.
“Let me handle this,” said Bill. He stepped forward, elbowed Lock aside and… stared blankly at the intruder, having no more idea of how to deal with him than Lock had had.
“I’ll go get Mrs. Smith,” said Gary.
“Who are you guys?” Bill finally asked, looking at the other two men.
“We’re his attorneys,” said one of them, a fat, shaved-headed man whose suit was much too small for him. He sat down on the couch, and there was a distinct sound of ripping fabric.
“Yeah. Attorneys,” said the other, a gaunt man with shoulder-length hair dyed dull black, whose suit hung on him like a muu-muu. “We’re from… like… a big… D.C. law firm. Real big.” He sat down next to his friend.
Even to Lock, who wasn't good at reading situations like this, everything here just smelled wrong. The fat man had a goatee and an ear stud, the other one — the one whose hair was dyed the color of fresh-laid asphalt — was wearing sneakers, and both of them looked like they weren’t sure what they were supposed to be doing here. Lock had seen lawyers, and these guys didn’t look like lawyers. If they’d come yesterday, he would’ve thought this was some kind of April Fool’s Day prank.
And then there was this Mr. A.J. Hance. What did he mean, he owned the house? He and his little posse were sure acting like they did. And that ring on his finger… what was it Gary had said?
After a long silence, Gary came back with Mom. Under her stern gaze, the two lawyers or whatever they were shrank down as if trying to squeeze themselves between the sofa cushions. Mr. Hance, on the other hand, stood up to meet her. They were both about the same height (although Mom was maybe half as wide) and just for a moment it looked to Lock like they were about to start doing kung-fu on each other.
“As I was saying,” said the man, “I am A.J. Hance, I’m the son-in-law of the late — probably late, anyway — Roger Kemp, and if you check his will” — he pulled a folder out of his briefcase and handed it to her — “you’ll find he left this house to me.”
“So he did,” Mom said, glancing through the folder, “but right now I’m the one with the deed. I bought this house by public auction. How did you come to lose it?”
“Divorce settlement. The judge ordered us to sell the house and split the money. That decision is currently under appeal, however, so—”
“I doubt that.”
“The sale was not legitimate. I have plenty of legal documentation verifying my claim to this house,” he said, pointing to the two boxes his friends were holding.
“Well, good. Let’s see it."
“These are very complicated legal briefs. I wouldn’t expect you to—”
“Mr. Hance, I am a lawyer myself.” (When she said this, all three men looked as though she had just pulled out a gun.)
“In fact, I’ve just been hired by the county D.A.’s office,” she added, pronouncing it D.I. She turned her eyes onto the two “lawyers,” like a lioness checking out a couple of scrawny zebras. “Hand them over. Now.”
The two men held up their boxes of papers. From the looks on their faces, they might have been handing over their own signed death warrants.
“Careful, it’s heavy,” said the thin one. She sneered a little, then put one hand under each box and lifted them like they were empty. Then she handed one of them to Bill and started looking through the other one.
“These aren’t briefs,” she said. “They’re invoices… credit card statements… phone bills… office memos… What did you blokes do, stuff these boxes full of random papers hoping I’d be too scared to look inside?” They both nodded.
“And I see you filled this one out with old magazines… Briefs — hmmph. No briefs at all on these sheilas…” At this point, all three men started whispering at once.
“You said to bring a whole bunch of paperwork—”
“Dude, I don’t think this is gonna work—”
“Shut up! Shut up! Everybody just shut up! Let me handle this!”

Meanwhile, Bill had opened his box and started looking through it. Mom handed back her box, then grabbed the other one out of Bill’s hands and gave it back.
“I’m sorry about the mix-up with the paperwork,” said Hance. “I’m just trying to take care of this now, so you don’t have to do too much unpacking for nothing.”
“Very thoughtful,” she said. “Now leave. If you have any real briefs to support your case, mail them to me and I’ll look them over.”
Mr. Hance protested for a little longer, but eventually left. As he went out the door, Lock got a closer look at his ring. The jewels in it were a surprisingly dark red. His two henchmen, or whatever they were, stayed behind for a moment.
“You worthies want something?” said Mom grimly.
“We just… wanted to say we’re sorry if there was any trouble,” said the fat man.
“Yeah, there was nothing, like, personal or anything.”
“Why were you pretending to be lawyers?”
For a moment, they looked surprised that she had seen through them. A very short moment.
“He paid us two hundred bucks each,” said the fat man.
“And he loaned me this suit. I know it doesn’t really fit, but…”
“He’s just some guy we know. We didn’t really know what it was about, we were just supposed to stand around and look… ‘imposing,’ I think was the word he used."
“Uh-huh. Well, you know what?” She stepped in closer, looming over them with all her authority and personal menace. “I… don’t… like… bullies.”
“Sorry,” whispered one of them — Lock couldn’t see which one it was.
“If you ever do anything like this again” — she pronounced it a-gain, like a poet reaching for a rhyme — “you’ll be in more trouble than you can possibly imagine. Now go.”
They almost crashed into each other getting out the door. The fat one held open the door with one hand while using the other to hold the rip in the seat of his pants shut.
“Well… that was interesting,” said Mom.
“We’re not gonna have to move, though, right?” said Bill.
“No, hon. He doesn’t have a leg to stand on, legally. If he did, he wouldn’t have had to dress those clowns up like lawyers.”
“If it helps any,” said Gary, “the dude with the ring… I’m pretty sure he’s the same guy I saw when the old man disappeared."
“You think he killed him or something?” said Lock.
“I don’t know. If there’d been any bloodstains or fresh holes dug in the ground or anything, people would’ve noticed. Wouldn’t they?”

When the two women returned from the backyard, not only was everything that didn’t look like a flower neatly clipped, but Mrs. Bizinjo was carrying a plastic bag full of old beer cans and other trash from the teenagers that had hung out there. Mom said that they had gone above and beyond the call of duty, and she was taking them out to dinner.
And so, the five of them (Gary had gone home) were sitting at a restaurant table.
“By the way, Lachlan, you did very well with Gary,” said Mom.
“Thanks.”
“Lachlan’s a little short on social skills,” Mom explained to the two women, as if they’d asked. Lock gave her a dirty look, which she, as usual, didn’t stoop to notice.
Over dinner, the two women told the story of how they’d come to America. This turned out to be a lot more interesting than Lock was expecting.
Sarala Webb was the daughter of a very poor family who had been living hand-to-mouth in Jaipur, minding their own business, when — about eighteen years ago — along came a strange American named Roger Kemp. He spoke perfect Hindi in the local accent, seemed to know all about them, and was apparently rich even by U.S. standards. He spent a couple of months making friends with them, and handed them useful gifts and $20,000 in rupees just as “tokens of good faith.” Finally he offered to pay their passage to America, get them citizenship status and English lessons and set them up in business, and all he asked in return was that they leave India behind and come.
They’d been very suspicious, but the police had already looked up the man’s history and found nothing illegal. So, but having no better prospects, they accepted. After all, if it turned out there was something wrong, they could always use the money he’d given them to pay their way home.
Mari Bizinjo — her name had been Mari Kandun at the time — had been a peasant girl on one of the smaller islands of Indonesia, whom no one outside her village, and not many people in her village, had ever heard of. Once again, this Roger Kemp had come out of nowhere, bearing gifts and speaking flawless Indonesian, to offer her family a similar deal. The Kanduns, however, had been happy where they were and didn’t trust this weird stranger. They hadn’t even touched the money. Mari, (who at this point was very young) was quite taken with Kemp, this rich and exotic foreigner who had come out of nowhere with a personal interest in her. So, after a rather bitter argument with her own family, she went back to America with him. She was very disappointed to learn that he was already married.
In both cases, Kemp had been as good as his word. English lessons, citizenship, help finding work… he’d done it all for them. Naturally, they were still nervous, because they’d thought sooner or later he’d ask something drastic in return — and at this point, how could they say no?
But he never did. He never asked anything from any of them. Mari had found a Pakistani man and was now helping him run the local 7-11, along with their three sons and two daughters. Sarala had married an American named Randall Webb, and they had four daughters. And then, as mysteriously as he had appeared, Kemp had disappeared — not just from their own lives, but from the world. They didn’t know where he’d gone, they didn’t know where he’d come from, and most of all they didn’t know why he’d chosen them out of all the billions of poor people on the planet.
This was part of the reason they had offered their services as cleaning ladies — they’d been hoping they could learn something from the house’s new owners. (The other part was that they both had big families and could use the extra cash.) Mom had to tell them that she knew even less about him than they did.

One more thing happened on the first day in their new home. At the foot of the stairs, about to go up to bed, Lock thought he heard a noise coming from… somewhere around his room. Mom and Bill were in the kitchen, talking, and the two women had been dropped off at their homes. He told himself he was imagining things, but all the same, he slipped out of his shoes and crept upstairs very quietly.
In the upstairs hall, Lock heard movement again, for certain this time. And it was definitely coming from his room… and through the crack under the door he could see a light moving around, as if someone in there was waving around a flashlight.
About this time he realized he was doing something really stupid. For all he knew, he’d just cornered a dangerous burglar, and there was nothing he could use as a weapon. And from the sound of things, Mom and Bill were still in the kitchen.
For several very long seconds, Lock just stood there, wondering what to do next. Then, with no better ideas, he turned the hall light on.
Nothing happened.
Lock felt like an idiot.
Then came hurried footsteps, and the thump of something heavy being dropped.
Then the door flew open and a large man burst out. He wasn’t wearing his suit jacket or tie, but the ring still glittered crimson on his right hand, which was holding a plastic flashlight and, between his thumb and index finger, a metal ring with two little brass keys on it.
His left hand was holding a claw hammer. Oh crap, I’m dead, thought Lock.
Hance ran down the stairs, elbowing Lock aside. The front door slammed behind him while Lock stood paralyzed at the top of the stairs.
Less than fifteen minutes later, Lock was talking to a cop. He wasn’t crazy about cops after that business with Troy last fall, and this one, a Detective Luther Joyce, wasn’t doing anything to relax him. He was short and thickset, with old acne scars you could grate cheese on, and his eyes were scanning every inch of Lock’s face as if looking for some sign of deception. Mom and Bill looking at him over the cop’s shoulders only added to the pressure.
“He was holding the hammer, yes,” said the detective in a gravelly voice, “but did he make any threatening moves with it?”
Lock thought for a bit.
“No,” he said. Mom glowered at him.
“He didn’t hold it like he was about to hit you, or wave it in your face?”
“He was just… sort of… holding on to it.”
Joyce sighed. “Well, there went the assault charge,” he said, looking over his shoulder at Mom.
“Sorry,” said Lock.
“No, you told the truth,” she said. “That’s the important thing.” But the expression on her face did not soften.
“So it’s down to breaking and entering?” she asked the detective.
“Not even that — he didn’t break anything, he used a key. We can still get him on unlawful entry, but that’s about it.
“You’re right… dammit.”
“For what it’s worth, after this and what happened earlier we can probably get a judge to put a restraining order on him — yeah, I know, restraining orders don’t, but at least it’s something we can hit him with when he starts acting up again.”
“You think he will?”
“Well, this is kind of an unusual case… but yeah, that’s how I’d bet. You got a nutjob on your hands. I’ll stop by his place and take him into custody for the night, but if I were you, I’d change the locks tomorrow.” On that note, he left.
For a moment after he left, nobody said anything. Then, without warning, Lock’s mother grabbed him around the shoulders and squeezed him like a car crusher.
“My baby,” she said softly, jamming his head into her chest as if she thought he was going to take up breast-feeding again. “My little boy.” Lock could do nothing except stand there, feeling his now-hidden face burn red with embarrassment and wishing there was a trapdoor under his feet that he could fall through and get away from this. He couldn’t see Bill’s face right now, but he was sure his brother was wearing that derisive grin of his.
When he could finally come up for air, he was surprised to see that Bill was looking away. In a way, this scared him. His brother never missed a chance to sneer at him unless things were really going to hell. Had he really had a brush with death in the upstairs hall?
Back in his room, he found a crowbar on the floor where it had fallen between two cardboard boxes. That had to have been what Mr. Hance had dropped. Between that, the hammer, the flashlight and the key, his hands must have been really full.
So what had he been planning to do with it? A crowbar and a hammer seemed like the wrong sort of weapons to try to use on three people, especially for a guy who didn’t exactly look built for speed. If it came to it, Lock was pretty sure he could have outrun Hance, and he thought Mom and Bill probably could, too… assuming Mom didn’t just grab a knife from the kitchen and fight back, which Lock could easily picture her doing. Anyway, all he’d done was run. Maybe he wasn’t that dangerous.
“The first thing I’m going to do tomorrow morning is have the locks changed,” Mom was saying.
“While you’re at it,” said Lock, “could you get them to take the lock off my closet door so I can put stuff in there?”
“Certainly I can do that. This is my house, after all. Those curtains have to go.”
“Fine with me,” said Lock, in case she suddenly started caring about his opinion of how his room should look.
“And that wallpaper is looking a mite ratty,” she continued. “I think eventually I’ll rip it all off and repaint… and speaking of repainting, what were they thinking when they did this trim? I’m going to make a list…”
Once he’d found a T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, Lock changed into them and got into bed. His first day of school here — his first day of school anywhere in a while — was tomorrow. He would’ve liked a little more time to get situated, but at least he’d meet a few new people. Mom was always after him to make new friends, even though when he did, she didn’t always like them. She seemed to like Gary, though Lock wasn’t sure that was much of a recommendation.
Lock had never moved before. This bedroom still felt like a hotel room, or a guest room in somebody’s house. He wondered how long it would take for it to feel like home.
And even when it did, it wouldn’t be the same. Back in Georgia, he couldn’t look at the door of the bedroom without seeing his father silhouetted in it, telling him and Bill to go to sleep. But Dad had never set foot in this house, and, obviously, never would. It should have been a relief to have a place to sleep with no memories attached to it, but instead Lock felt a little guilty — he had the feeling he should be trying to miss his father, not trying not to.
The bed was warm and comfortable. He stretched out under the sheets, enjoying the space, all by himself in a bed built for two. Just for a moment, he thought of his cousin Caitlin… and then he heard it. Somewhere behind the closet door, something was scratching.
Lock looked up at the door, and the sound went away. Had he imagined it? Except for a couple of times when he was home and Bill was away, he had never slept alone in his life. He’d been so looking forward to it.
He stared at the closet door, as if expecting to see something there that he hadn’t seen before. Like the door to the hall, the windowsill and the trim Mom had complained about, it was that brown-black color that, right now, looked completely black. Both of the doors had those old-fashioned glass doorknobs that were kind of diamond-shaped. The whole room might have looked kind of retro and classy during the daylight, but now it just looked spooky. If this place wasn’t haunted, some ghosts somewhere were really missing out.
I better stay cool, thought Lock. I don’t want Mom or Bill thinking I can’t handle this. There’s nothing here that wasn’t here during the day.
Lock shut his eyes and listened again. He heard Mom taking a shower, his brother listening to music, cars going by somewhere outside, a dog barking… somebody was revving a motorcycle somewhere…
And then the scratching began again. It was soft — in fact, gentle — but unmistakable. Something was moving back and forth across a wooden surface. And the sound was definitely coming from inside his closet.
There’s no way anything could be alive in there, thought Lock. It hasn’t been opened in years. But alive or not, something was moving around in there.
Determined not to chicken out on his first night in his own room, Lock forced himself to get out of bed, move toward the closet door and press his ear against it. It didn’t sound or feel like anything was rubbing against the door itself. It was scraping something inside the room, as if sharpening a claw… stop that, Lock told himself. There’s nothing in there. You are way too old to believe in closet monsters. The scratching continued, as if it didn’t care whether he believed in it or not.
Lock curled up in bed and pulled the blanket over his head. It felt stupid… but, for some reason, weirdly comforting. One of the perks of having his own room was that there was no one around to see him at times like this.

Here's what "I Write Like" thinks of the above:
I write like
Cory Doctorow

I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

Take it for what it's worth.

Main Page