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End of Watch: A Novel (The Bill Hodges Trilogy Book 3), Page 3

Stephen King

  “Oough,” Holly says.

  The first tech says, “There’s a shower chair, but it’s in the corner with extra towels stacked on the seat. Looks like it’s never been used.”

  “They would have given her sponge baths,” Holly says.

  She still looks grossed out, either by the thought of continence pants or shit in the bathtub, but her eyes continue to flick everywhere. She may ask a question or two, or drop a comment, but mostly she’ll remain silent, because people intimidate her, especially in close quarters. But Hodges knows her well—as well as anyone can, at least—and he can tell she’s on high alert.

  Later she will talk, and Hodges will listen closely. During the Saubers case the year before, he learned that listening to Holly pays dividends. She thinks outside the box, sometimes way outside it, and her intuitions can be uncanny. And although fearful by nature—God knows she has her reasons—she can be brave. Holly is the reason Brady Hartsfield, aka Mr. Mercedes, is now in the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic at Kiner Memorial. Holly used a sock loaded with ball bearings to crush in his skull before Hartsfield could touch off a disaster much greater than the one at City Center. Now he’s in a twilight world the head neuro guy at the Brain Injury Clinic refers to as “a persistent vegetative state.”

  “Quadriplegics can shower,” Holly amplifies, “but it’s difficult for them because of all the life-support equipment they’re hooked up to. So mostly it’s sponge baths.”

  “Let’s go in the kitchen, where it’s sunny,” Pete says, and to the kitchen they go.

  The first thing Hodges notices is the dish drainer, where the single plate that held Mrs. Ellerton’s last meal has been left to dry. The countertops are sparkling, and the floor looks clean enough to eat on. Hodges has an idea that her bed upstairs will have been neatly made. She may even have vacuumed the carpets. And then there’s the continence pants. She took care of the things she could take care of. As a man who once seriously considered suicide himself, Hodges can relate.


  Pete, Izzy, and Hodges sit at the kitchen table. Holly merely hovers, sometimes standing behind Isabelle to look at the collection of photos on Izzy’s iPad labeled ELLERTON/STOVER, sometimes poking into the various cupboards, her gloved fingers as light as moths.

  Izzy takes them through it, swiping at the screen as she talks.

  The first photo shows two middle-aged women. Both are beefy and broad-shouldered in their red nylon Home Helpers uniforms, but one of them—Georgina Ross, Hodges presumes—is crying and gripping her shoulders so that her forearms press against her breasts. The other one, Yvonne Carstairs, is apparently made of sterner stuff.

  “They got here at five forty-five,” Izzy says. “They have a key to let themselves in, so they don’t have to knock or ring. Sometimes Martine slept until six thirty, Carstairs says. Mrs. Ellerton is always up, gets up around five, she told them, had to have her coffee first thing, only this morning she’s not up and there’s no smell of coffee. So they think the old lady overslept for once, good for her. They tiptoe into Stover’s bedroom, right down the hall, to see if she’s awake yet. This is what they find.”

  Izzy swipes to the next picture. Hodges waits for another oough from Holly, but she is silent and studying the photo closely. Stover is in bed with the covers pulled down to her knees. The damage to her face was never repaired, but what remains looks peaceful enough. Her eyes are closed and her twisted hands are clasped together. A feeding tube juts from her scrawny abdomen. Her wheelchair—which to Hodges looks more like an astronaut’s space capsule—stands nearby.

  “In Stover’s bedroom there was a smell. Not coffee, though. Booze.”

  Izzy swipes. Here is a close-up of Stover’s bedside table. There are neat rows of pills. There’s a grinder to turn them to powder, so that Stover could ingest them. Standing among them and looking wildly out of place is a fifth of Smirnoff Triple Distilled vodka and a plastic syringe. The vodka bottle is empty.

  “The lady was taking zero chances,” Pete says. “Smirnoff Triple Distilled is a hundred and fifty proof.”

  “I imagine she wanted it to be as quick for her daughter as possible,” Holly says.

  “Good call,” Izzy says, but with a notable lack of warmth. She doesn’t care for Holly, and Holly doesn’t care for her. Hodges is aware of this but has no idea why. And since they rarely see Isabelle, he’s never bothered to ask Holly about it.

  “Have you got a close-up of the grinder?” Holly asks.

  “Of course.” Izzy swipes, and in the next photo, the pill grinder looks as big as a flying saucer. A dusting of white powder remains in the cup. “We won’t be sure until later this week, but we think it’s oxycodone. Her scrip was refilled just three weeks ago, according to the label, but that bottle is as empty as the vodka bottle.”

  She goes back to Martine Stover, eyes closed, scrawny hands clasped as if in prayer.

  “Her mother ground up the pills, funneled them into the bottle, and poured the vodka down Martine’s feeding tube. Probably more efficient than lethal injection.”

  Izzy swipes again. This time Holly does say “Oough,” but she doesn’t look away.

  The first photo of Martine’s handicap-equipped bathroom is a wide shot, showing the extra-low counter with its basin, the extra-low towel racks and cabinets, the jumbo shower-tub combination. The slider in front of the shower is closed, the tub in full view. Janice Ellerton reclines in water up to her shoulders, wearing a pink nightgown. Hodges guesses it would have ballooned around her as she lowered herself in, but in this crime scene photo it clings to her thin body. There is a plastic bag over her head, secured by the kind of terrycloth belt that goes with a bathrobe. A length of tubing snakes from beneath it, attached to a small canister lying on the tile floor. On the side of the canister is a decal that shows laughing children.

  “Suicide kit,” Pete says. “She probably learned how to make it on the Internet. There are plenty of sites that explain how to do it, complete with pix. The water in the tub was cool when we got here, but probably warm when she climbed in.”

  “Supposed to be soothing,” Izzy puts in, and although she doesn’t say oough, her face tightens in a momentary expression of distaste as she swipes to the next picture: a close-up of Janice Ellerton. The bag had fogged with the condensation of her final breaths, but Hodges can see that her eyes were closed. She also went out looking peaceful.

  “The canister contained helium,” Pete says. “You can buy it at any of the big discount stores. You’re supposed to use it to blow up the balloons at little Buster’s birthday party, but it works just as well to kill yourself with, once you have a bag over your head. Dizziness is followed by disorientation, at which point you probably couldn’t get the bag off even if you changed your mind. Next comes unconsciousness, followed by death.”

  “Go back to the last one,” Holly says. “The one that shows the whole bathroom.”

  “Ah,” Pete says. “Dr. Watson may have seen something.”

  Izzy goes back. Hodges leans closer, squinting—his near vision isn’t what it once was. Then he sees what Holly saw. Next to a thin gray power cord plugged into one of the outlets, there’s a Magic Marker. Someone—Ellerton, he presumes, because her daughter’s writing days were long over—drew a single large letter on the counter: Z.

  “What do you make of it?” Pete asks.

  Hodges considers. “It’s her suicide note,” he says at last. “Z is the final letter of the alphabet. If she’d known Greek, it might have been omega.”

  “That’s what I think, too,” Izzy says. “Kind of elegant, when you think of it.”

  “Z is also the mark of Zorro,” Holly informs them. “He was a masked Mexican cavalier. There have been a great many Zorro movies, one starring Anthony Hopkins as Don Diego, but it wasn’t very good.”

  “Do you find that relevant?” Izzy asks. Her face expresses polite interest, but there’s a barb in her tone.

  “There was also a televi
sion series,” Holly goes on. She’s looking at the photo as though hypnotized by it. “It was produced by Walt Disney, back in the black-and-white days. Mrs. Ellerton might have watched it when she was a girl.”

  “Are you saying she maybe took refuge in childhood mem­ories while she was getting ready to off herself?” Pete sounds dubious, which is how Hodges feels. “I guess it’s possible.”

  “Bullshit, more likely,” Izzy says, rolling her eyes.

  Holly takes no notice. “Can I look in the bathroom? I won’t touch anything, even with these.” She holds up her small gloved hands.

  “Be our guest,” Izzy says at once.

  In other words, Hodges thinks, buzz off and let the adults talk. He doesn’t care for Izzy’s ’tude when it comes to Holly, but since it seems to bounce right off her, he sees no reason to make an issue of it. Besides, Holly really is a bit skitzy this morning, going off in all directions. Hodges supposes it was the pictures. Dead people never look more dead than in police photos.

  She wanders off to check out the bathroom. Hodges sits back, hands laced at the nape of his neck, elbows winged out. His troublesome gut hasn’t been quite so troublesome this morning, maybe because he switched from coffee to tea. If so, he’ll have to stock up on PG Tips. Hell, buy stock. He’s really tired of the constant stomachache.

  “Want to tell me what we’re doing here, Pete?”

  Pete raises his eyebrows and tries to look innocent. “Whatever can you mean, Kermit?”

  “You were right when you said this would make the paper. It’s the kind of sad soap-opera shit people love, it makes their own lives look better to them—”

  “Cynical but probably true,” Izzy says with a sigh.

  “—but any connection to the Mercedes Massacre is casual rather than causal.” Hodges isn’t entirely sure that means what he thinks it means, but it sounds good. “What you’ve got here is your basic mercy killing committed by an old lady who just couldn’t stand to see her daughter suffer anymore. Probably Ellerton’s last thought when she turned on the helium was I’ll be with you soon, honey, and when I walk the streets of heaven, you’ll be walking right beside me.”

  Izzy snorts at that, but Pete looks pale and thoughtful. Hodges suddenly remembers that a long time ago, maybe thirty years, Pete and his wife lost their first child, a baby daughter, to SIDS.

  “It’s sad, and the papers lap it up for a day or two, but it happens somewhere in the world every day. Every hour, for all I know. So tell me what the deal is.”

  “Probably nothing. Izzy says it is nothing.”

  “Izzy does,” she confirms.

  “Izzy probably thinks I’m going soft in the head as I approach the finish line.”

  “Izzy doesn’t. Izzy just thinks that it’s time you stop letting the bee known as Brady Hartsfield buzz around in your bonnet.”

  She switches those misty gray eyes to Hodges.

  “Ms. Gibney there may be a bundle of nervous tics and strange associations, but she stopped Hartsfield’s clock most righteously, and I give her full credit for it. He’s zonked out in that brain trauma clinic at Kiner, where he’ll probably stay until he catches pneumonia and dies, thereby saving the state a whole potful of money. He’s never going to stand trial for what he did, we all know that. You didn’t catch him for the City Center thing, but Gibney stopped him from blowing up two thousand kids at Mingo Auditorium a year later. You guys need to accept that. Call it a win and move on.”

  “Whew,” Pete says. “How long have you been holding that in?”

  Izzy tries not to smile, but can’t help it. Pete smiles in return, and Hodges thinks, They work as well together as Pete and I did. Shame to break up that combination. It really is.

  “Quite awhile,” Izzy says. “Now go on and tell him.” She turns to Hodges. “At least it’s not little gray men from The X-Files.”

  “So?” Hodges asks.

  “Keith Frias and Krista Countryman,” Pete says. “Both were also at City Center on the morning of April tenth, when Hartsfield did his thing. Frias, age nineteen, lost most of his arm, plus four broken ribs and internal injuries. He also lost seventy percent of the vision in his right eye. Countryman, age twenty-one, suffered broken ribs, a broken arm, and spinal injuries that resolved after all sorts of painful therapy I don’t even want to think about.”

  Hodges doesn’t, either, but he’s brooded over Brady Hartsfield’s victims many times. Mostly on how the work of seventy wicked seconds could change the lives of so many for years … or, in the case of Martine Stover, forever.

  “They met in weekly therapy sessions at a place called Recovery Is You, and fell in love. They were getting better … slowly … and planned to get married. Then, in February of last year, they committed suicide together. In the words of some old punk song or other, they took a lot of pills and they died.”

  This makes Hodges think of the grinder on the table beside Stover’s hospital bed. The grinder with its residue of oxycodone. Mom dissolved all of the oxy in the vodka, but there must have been plenty of other narcotic medications on that table. Why had she gone to all the trouble of the plastic bag and the helium when she could have swallowed a bunch of Vicodin, chased it with a bunch of Valium, and called it good?

  “Frias and Countryman were the sort of youngster suicides that also happen every day,” Izzy says. “The parents were doubtful about the marriage. Wanted them to wait. And they could hardly run off together, could they? Frias could barely walk, and neither of them had jobs. There was enough insurance to pay for the weekly therapy sessions and to kick in for groceries at their respective homes, but nothing like the kind of Cadillac coverage Martine Stover had. Bottom line, shit happens. You can’t even call it a coincidence. Badly hurt people get depressed, and sometimes depressed people kill themselves.”

  “Where did they do it?”

  “The Frias boy’s bedroom,” Pete says. “While his parents were on a day trip to Six Flags with his little brother. They took the pills, crawled into the sack, and died in each other’s arms, just like Romeo and Juliet.”

  “Romeo and Juliet died in a tomb,” Holly says, coming back into the kitchen. “In the Franco Zeffirelli film, which is really the best—”

  “Yes, okay, point taken,” Pete says. “Tomb, bedroom, at least they rhyme.”

  Holly is holding the Inside View that was on the coffee table, folded to show a picture of Johnny Depp that makes him look either drunk, stoned, or dead. Has she been in the living room, reading a scandal sheet all this time? If so, she really is having an off day.

  Pete says, “Have you still got the Mercedes, Holly? The one Hartsfield stole from your cousin Olivia?”

  “No.” Holly sits down with the folded newspaper in her lap and her knees primly together. “I traded it last November for a Prius like Bill’s. It used a great deal of gas and was not eco-friendly. Also, my therapist recommended it. She said that after a year and a half, I had surely exorcised its hold over me, and its therapeutic value was gone. Why are you interested in that?”

  Pete sits forward in his chair and clasps his hands together between his spread knees. “Hartsfield got into that Mercedes by using an electronic gizmo to unlock the doors. Her spare key was in the glove compartment. Maybe he knew it was there, or maybe the slaughter at City Center was a crime of opportunity. We’ll never know for sure.”

  And Olivia Trelawney, Hodges thinks, was a lot like her cousin Holly: nervy, defensive, most definitely not a social animal. Far from stupid, but hard to like. We were sure she left her Mercedes unlocked with the key in the ignition, because that was the simplest explanation. And because, on some primitive level where logical thinking has no power, we wanted that to be the explanation. She was a pain in the ass. We saw her repeated denials as a haughty refusal to take responsibility for her own carelessness. The key in her purse, the one she showed us? We assumed that was just her spare. We hounded her, and when the press got her name, they hounded her. Eventually, she started to belie
ve she’d done what we believed she’d done: enabled a monster with mass murder on his mind. None of us considered the idea that a computer geek might have cobbled together that unlocking gizmo. Including Olivia Trelawney herself.

  “But we weren’t the only ones who hounded her.”

  Hodges is unaware that he’s spoken aloud until they all turn to look at him. Holly gives him a small nod, as if they have been following the exact same train of thought. Which wouldn’t be all that surprising.

  Hodges goes on. “It’s true that we never believed her, no matter how many times she told us she took her key and locked her car, so we bear part of the responsibility for what she did, but Hartsfield went after her with malice aforethought. That’s what you’re driving at, isn’t it?”

  “Yes,” Pete says. “He wasn’t content with stealing her Mercedes and using it as a murder weapon. He got inside her head, even bugged her computer with an audio program full of screams and accusations. And then there’s you, Kermit.”

  Yes. There was him.

  Hodges had received an anonymous poison pen letter from Hartsfield when he was at an absolute low point, living in an empty house, sleeping badly, seeing almost no one except Jerome Robinson, the kid who cut his grass and did general repairs around the place. Suffering from a common malady in career cops: end-of-watch depression.

  Retired police have an extremely high suicide rate, Brady Hartsfield had written. This was before they began communicating by the twenty-first century’s preferred method, the Internet. I wouldn’t want you to start thinking about your gun. But you are thinking of it, aren’t you? It was as if Hartsfield had sniffed out Hodges’s thoughts of suicide and tried to push him over the edge. It had worked with Olivia Trelawney, after all, and he’d gotten a taste for it.

  “When I first started working with you,” Pete says, “you told me repeat criminals were sort of like Turkish rugs. Do you remember that?”

  “Yes.” It was a theory Hodges had expounded to a great many cops. Few listened, and judging by her bored expression, he guessed Isabelle Jaynes would have been one of those who did not. Pete had.