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Mr. Mercedes, Page 2

Stephen King



  Hodges walks out of the kitchen with a can of beer in his hand, sits down in the La-Z-Boy, and puts the can down on the little table to his left, next to the gun. It's a .38 Smith & Wesson M&P revolver, M&P standing for Military and Police. He pats it absently, the way you'd pat an old dog, then picks up the remote control and turns on Channel Seven. He's a little late, and the studio audience is already applauding.

  He's thinking of a fad, brief and baleful, that inhabited the city in the late eighties. Or maybe the word he really wants is infected, because it had been like a transient fever. The city's three papers had written editorials about it all one summer. Now two of those papers are gone and the third is on life support.

  The host comes striding onstage in a sharp suit, waving to the audience. Hodges has watched this show almost every weekday since his retirement from the police force, and he thinks this man is too bright to be doing this job, one that's a little like scuba diving in a sewer without a wetsuit. He thinks the host is the sort of man who sometimes commits suicide and afterward all his friends and close relatives say they never had a clue anything was wrong; they talk about how cheerful he was the last time they saw him.

  At this thought, Hodges gives the revolver another absent pat. It is the Victory model. An oldie but a goodie. His own gun, when he was active, was a Glock .40. He bought it--officers in this city are expected to buy their service weapons--and now it's in the safe in his bedroom. Safe in the safe. He unloaded it and put it in there after the retirement ceremony and hasn't looked at it since. No interest. He likes the .38, though. He has a sentimental attachment to it, but there's something beyond that. A revolver never jams.

  Here is the first guest, a young woman in a short blue dress. Her face is a trifle on the vacant side but she's got a knockout bod. Somewhere inside that dress, Hodges knows, there will be the sort of tattoo now referred to as a tramp-stamp. Maybe two or three. The men in the audience whistle and stomp their feet. The women in the audience applaud more gently. Some roll their eyes. This is the kind of woman you don't like to catch your husband staring at.

  The woman is pissed right from go. She tells the host that her boyfriend has had a baby with another woman and he goes over to see them all the time. She still loves him, she says, but she hates that--

  The next couple of words are bleeped out, but Hodges can lipread fucking whore. The audience cheers. Hodges takes a sip of his beer. He knows what comes next. This show has all the predictability of a soap opera on Friday afternoon.

  The host lets her run on for a bit and then introduces . . . THE OTHER WOMAN! She also has a knockout bod and several yards of big blond hair. There's a tramp-stamp on one ankle. She approaches the other woman and says, "I understand how you feel, but I love him, too."

  She's got more on her mind, but that's as far as she gets before Knockout Bod One goes into action. Someone offstage rings a bell, as if this were the start of a prizefight. Hodges supposes it is, since all the guests on this show must be compensated; why else would they do it? The two women punch and claw for a few seconds, and then the two beefcakes with SECURITY printed on their tee-shirts, who have been watching from the background, separate them.

  They shout at each other for awhile, a full and fair exchange of views (much of it bleeped out), as the host watches benignly, and this time it's Knockout Bod Two who initiates the fight, swinging a big roundhouse slap that rocks Knockout Bod One's head back. The bell rings again. They fall to the stage, their dresses rucking up, clawing and punching and slapping. The audience goes bugshit. The security beefcakes separate them and the host gets between them, talking in a voice that is soothing on top, inciteful beneath. The two women declare the depth of their love, spitting it into each other's faces. The host says they'll be right back and then a C-list actress is selling a diet pill.

  Hodges takes another sip of his beer and knows he won't even finish half the can. It's funny, because when he was on the cops, he was damned near an alcoholic. When the drinking broke up his marriage, he assumed he was an alcoholic. He summoned all his willpower and reined it in, promising himself he would drink just as much as he goddam wanted once he had his forty in--a pretty amazing number, when fifty percent of city cops retired after twenty-five and seventy percent after thirty. Only now that he has his forty, alcohol no longer interests him much. He forced himself to get drunk a few times, just to see if he could still do it, and he could, but being drunk turned out to be no better than being sober. Actually it was a little worse.

  The show returns. The host says he has another guest, and Hodges knows who that will be. The audience does, too. They yap their anticipation. Hodges picks up his father's gun, looks into the barrel, and puts it back down on the DirecTV guide.

  The man over whom Knockout Bod One and Knockout Bod Two are in such strenuous conflict emerges from stage right. You knew what he was going to look like even before he comes strutting out and yup, he's the guy: a gas station attendant or a Target warehouse carton-shuffler or maybe the fella who detailed your car (badly) at the Mr. Speedy. He's skinny and pale, with black hair clumping over his forehead. He's wearing chinos and a crazy green and yellow tie that has a chokehold on his throat just below his prominent Adam's apple. The pointy toes of suede boots poke out beneath his pants. You knew that the women had tramp-stamps and you know this man is hung like a horse and shoots sperm more powerful than a locomotive and faster than a speeding bullet; a virginal maid who sits on a toilet seat after this guy jerked off will get up pregnant. Probably with twins. On his face is the half-smart grin of a cool dude in a loose mood. Dream job: lifetime disability. Soon the bell will ring and the women will go at each other again. Later, after they have heard enough of his smack, they will look at each other, nod slightly, and attack him together. This time the security personnel will wait a little longer, because this final battle is what the audience, both in the studio and at home, really wants to see: the hens going after the rooster.

  That brief and baleful fad in the late eighties--the infection--was called "bum fighting." Some gutter genius or other got the idea, and when it turned a profit, three or four other entrepreneurs leaped in to refine the deal. What you did was pay a couple of bums thirty bucks each to go at each other at a set time and in a set place. The place Hodges remembered best was the service area behind a sleazy crab-farm of a strip club called Bam Ba Lam, over on the East Side. Once the fight card was set, you advertised (by word of mouth in those days, with widespread Internet use still over the horizon), and charged spectators twenty bucks a head. There had been better than two hundred at the one Hodges and Pete Huntley had busted, most of them making odds and fading each other like mad motherfuckers. There had been women, too, some in evening dress and loaded with jewelry, watching as those two wetbrain stewbums went at each other, flailing and kicking and falling down and getting up and yelling incoherencies. The crowd had been laughing and cheering and urging the combatants on.

  This show is like that, only there are diet pills and insurance companies to fade the action, so Hodges supposes the contestants (that's what they are, although the host calls them "guests") walk away with a little more than thirty bucks and a bottle of Night Train. And there are no cops to break it up, because it's all as legal as lottery tickets.

  When the show is over, the take-no-prisoners lady judge will show up, robed in her trademark brand of impatient righteousness, listening with barely suppressed rage to the small-shit petitioners who come before her. Next up is the fat family psychologist who makes his guests cry (he calls this "breaking through the wall of denial"), and invites them to leave if any of them dare question his methods. Hodges thinks the fat family psychologist might have learned those methods from old KGB training videos.

  Hodges eats this diet of full-color shit every weekday afternoon, sitting in the La-Z-Boy with his father's gun--the one Dad carried as a beat cop--on the table beside him. He always picks it up a few times and looks into th
e barrel. Inspecting that round darkness. On a couple of occasions he has slid it between his lips, just to see what it feels like to have a loaded gun lying on your tongue and pointing at your palate. Getting used to it, he supposes.

  If I could drink successfully, I could put this off, he thinks. I could put it off for at least a year. And if I could put it off for two, the urge might pass. I might get interested in gardening, or birdwatching, or even painting. Tim Quigley took up painting, down in Florida. In a retirement community that was loaded with old cops. By all accounts Quigley had really enjoyed it, and had even sold some of his work at the Venice Art Festival. Until his stroke, that was. After the stroke he'd spent eight or nine months in bed, paralyzed all down his right side. No more painting for Tim Quigley. Then off he went. Booya.

  The fight bell is ringing, and sure enough, both women are going after the scrawny guy in the crazy tie, painted fingernails flashing, big hair flying. Hodges reaches for the gun again, but he has no more than touched it when he hears the clack of the front door slot and the flump of the mail hitting the hall floor.

  Nothing of importance comes through the mail slot in these days of email and Facebook, but he gets up anyway. He'll look through it and leave his father's M&P .38 for another day.


  When Hodges returns to his chair with his small bundle of mail, the fight-show host is saying goodbye and promising his TV Land audience that tomorrow there will be midgets. Whether of the physical or mental variety he does not specify.

  Beside the La-Z-Boy there are two small plastic waste containers, one for returnable bottles and cans, the other for trash. Into the trash goes a circular from Walmart promising ROLLBACK PRICES; an offer for burial insurance addressed to OUR FAVORITE NEIGHBOR; an announcement that all DVDs are going to be fifty percent off for one week only at Discount Electronix; a postcard-sized plea for "your important vote" from a fellow running for a vacancy on the city council. There's a photograph of the candidate, and to Hodges he looks like Dr. Oberlin, the dentist who terrified him as a child. There's also a circular from Albertsons supermarket. This Hodges puts aside (covering up his father's gun for the time being) because it's loaded with coupons.

  The last thing appears to be an actual letter--a fairly thick one, by the feel--in a business-sized envelope. It is addressed to Det. K. William Hodges (Ret.) at 63 Harper Road. There is no return address. In the upper lefthand corner, where one usually goes, is his second smile-face of the day's mail delivery. Only this one's not the winking Walmart Rollback Smiley but rather the email emoticon of Smiley wearing dark glasses and showing his teeth.

  This stirs a memory, and not a good one.

  No, he thinks. No.

  But he rips the letter open so fast and hard the envelope tears and four typed pages spill out--not real typing, not typewriter typing, but a computer font that looks like it.

  Dear Detective Hodges, the heading reads.

  He reaches out without looking, knocks the Albertsons circular to the floor, finger-walks across the revolver without even noticing it, and seizes the TV remote. He hits the kill-switch, shutting up the take-no-prisoners lady judge in mid-scold, and turns his attention to the letter.


  Dear Detective Hodges,

  I hope you do not mind me using your title, even though you have been retired for 6 months. I feel that if incompetent judges, venal politicians, and stupid military commanders can keep their titles after retirement, the same should be true for one of the most decorated police officers in the city's history.

  So Detective Hodges it shall be!

  Sir (another title you deserve, for you are a true Knight of the Badge and Gun), I write for many reasons, but must begin by congratulating you on your years of service, 27 as a detective and 40 in all. I saw some of the Retirement Ceremony on TV (Public Access Channel 2, a resource overlooked by many), and happen to know there was a party at the Raintree Inn out by the airport the following night.

  I bet that was the real Retirement Ceremony!

  I have certainly never attended such a "bash," but I watch a lot of TV cop shows, and while I am sure many of them present a very fictional picture of "the policeman's lot," several have shown such retirement parties (NYPD Blue, Homicide, The Wire, etc., etc.), and I like to think they are ACCURATE portrayals of how the Knights of the Badge and Gun say "so-long" to one of their compatriots. I think they might be, because I have also read "retirement party scenes" in at least two Joseph Wambaugh books, and they are similar. He should know because he, like you, is a "Det. Ret."

  I imagine balloons hanging from the ceiling, a lot of drinking, a lot of bawdy conversation, and plenty of reminiscing about the Old Days and the old cases. There is probably lots of loud and happy music, and possibly a stripper or two "shaking her tailfeathers." There are probably speeches that are a lot funnier and a lot truer than the ones at the "stuffed shirt ceremony."

  How am I doing?

  Not bad, Hodges thinks. Not bad at all.

  According to my research, during your time as a detective, you broke literally hundreds of cases, many of them the kind the press (who Ted Williams called the Knights of the Keyboard) terms "high profile." You have caught Killers and Robbery Gangs and Arsonists and Rapists. In one article (published to coincide with your Retirement Ceremony), your longtime partner (Det. 1st Grade Peter Huntley) described you as "a combination of by-the-book and intuitively brilliant."

  A nice compliment!

  If it is true, and I think it is, you will have figured out by now that I am one of those few you did not catch. I am, in fact, the man the press chose to call

  a.) The Joker

  b.) The Clown


  c.) The Mercedes Killer.

  I prefer the last!

  I am sure you gave it "your best shot," but sadly (for you, not me), you failed. I imagine if there was ever a "perk" you wanted to catch, Detective Hodges, it was the man who deliberately drove into the Job Fair crowd at City Center last year, killing eight and wounding so many more. (I must say I exceeded my own wildest expectations.) Was I on your mind when they gave you that plaque at the Official Retirement Ceremony? Was I on your mind when your fellow Knights of the Badge and Gun were telling stories about (just guessing here) criminals who were caught with their pants actually down or funny practical jokes that were played in the good old Squad Room?

  I bet I was!

  I have to tell you how much fun it was. (I'm being honest here.) When I "put the pedal to the metal" and drove poor Mrs. Olivia Trelawney's Mercedes at that crowd of people, I had the biggest "hard-on" of my life! And was my heart beating 200 a minute? "Hope to tell ya!"

  Here was another Mr. Smiley in sunglasses.

  I'll tell you something that's true "inside dope," and if you want to laugh, go ahead, because it is sort of funny (although I think it also shows just how careful I was). I was wearing a condom! A "rubber"! Because I was afraid of Spontaneous Ejaculation, and the DNA that might result! Well, that did not happen, but I have masturbated many times since while thinking of how they tried to run and couldn't (they were packed in like sardines), and how scared they all looked (that was so funny), and the way I jerked forward when the car "plowed" into them. So hard the seatbelt locked. Gosh it was exciting.

  To tell the truth, I didn't know what might happen. I thought the chances were 50-50 that I would get caught. But I am "a cockeyed optimist," and I prepared for Success rather than Failure. The condom is "inside dope," but I bet your Forensics Department (I also watch CSI) was pretty darn disappointed when they didn't get any DNA from inside the clown mask. They must have said, "Damn! That crafty perk must have been wearing a hair net underneath!"

  And so I was! I also washed it out with BLEACH!

  I still relive the thuds that resulted from hitting them, and the crunching noises, and the way the car bounced on its springs when it went over the bodies. For power and control, give me a Mercedes 12-cylinder every time! When I saw in the paper t
hat a baby was one of my victims, I was delighted!! To snuff out a life that young! Think of all she missed, eh? Patricia Cray, RIP! Got the mom, too! Strawberry jam in a sleeping bag! What a thrill, eh? I also enjoy thinking of the man who lost his arm and even more of the two who are paralyzed. The man only from the waist down, but Martine Stover is now your basic "head on a stick!" They didn't die but probably WISH they did! How about that, Detective Hodges?

  Now you are probably thinking, "What kind of sick and twisted Pervo do we have here?" Can't really blame you, but we could argue about that! I think a great many people would enjoy doing what I did, and that is why they enjoy books and movies (and even TV shows these days) that feature Torture and Dismemberment, etc., etc., etc. The only difference is I really did it. Not because I'm mad, though (in either sense of the word). Just because I didn't know exactly what the experience would be like, only that it would be totally thrilling, with "memories to last a lifetime," as they say. Most people are fitted with Lead Boots when they are just little kids and have to wear them all their lives. These Lead Boots are called A CONSCIENCE. I have none, so I can soar high above the heads of the Normal Crowd. And if they had caught me? Well if it had been right there, if Mrs. Trelawney's Mercedes had stalled or something (small chance of that as it seemed very well maintained), I suppose the crowd might have torn me apart, I understood that possibility going in, and it added to the excitement. But I didn't think they really would, because most people are sheep and sheep don't eat meat. (I suppose I might have been beaten up a little, but I can take a beating.) Probably I would have been arrested and gone to trial, where I would have pleaded insanity. Maybe I even am insane (the idea has certainly crossed my mind), but it is a peculiar kind of insanity. Anyway, the coin came down heads and I got away.

  The fog helped!