An excerpt from Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
The waiter returns to ask if there will be anything else. Hodges starts to say no, then orders another cup of coffee. He just wants to sit here awhile, savoring double happiness: it wasn’t Mr. Mercedes and it was Donnie Davis, the sanctimonious cocksucker who killed his wife and then had his lawyer set up a reward fund for information leading to her whereabouts. Because, oh Jesus, he loved her so much and all he wanted was for her to come home so they could start over.
He also wants to think about Olivia Trelawney, and Olivia Trelawney’s stolen Mercedes. That it was stolen no one doubts. But in spite of all her protests to the contrary, no one doubts that she enabled the thief.
Hodges remembers a case that Isabelle Jaynes, then freshly arrived from San Diego, told them about after they brought her up to speed on Mrs. Trelawney’s inadvertent part in the City Center Massacre. In Isabelle’s story it was a gun. She said she and her partner had been called to a home where a nine-year-old boy had shot and killed his four-year-old sister. They had been playing with an automatic pistol their father had left on his bureau.
“The father wasn’t charged, but he’ll carry that for the rest of his life,” she said. “This will turn out to be the same kind of thing, wait and see.”
That was a month before the Trelawney woman swallowed the pills, maybe less, and nobody on the Mercedes Killer case had given much of a shit. To them—and him—Mrs. T. had just been a self-pitying rich lady who refused to accept her part in what had happened.
The Mercedes SL was downtown when it was stolen, but Mrs. Trelawney, a widow who lost her wealthy husband to a heart attack, lived in Sugar Heights, a suburb as rich as its name where lots of gated drives led up to fourteen- and twenty-room McMansions. Hodges grew up in Atlanta, and whenever he drives through Sugar Heights he thinks of a ritzy Atlanta neighborhood called Buckhead.
Mrs. T.’s elderly mother, Elizabeth Wharton, lived in an apartment— a very nice one, with rooms as big as a political candidate’s promises—in an upscale condo cluster on Lake Avenue. The crib had space enough for a live-in housekeeper, and a private nurse came three days a week. Mrs. Wharton had advanced scoliosis, and it was her Oxycontin that her daughter had filched from the apartment’s medicine cabinet when she decided to step out.
Suicide proves guilt. He remembers Lieutenant Morrissey saying that, but Hodges himself has always had his doubts, and lately those doubts have been stronger than ever. What he knows now is that guilt isn’t the only reason people commit suicide.
Sometimes you can just get bored with afternoon TV.
Two motor patrol cops found the Mercedes an hour after the killings. It was behind one of the warehouses that cluttered the lakeshore.
The huge paved yard was filled with rusty container boxes that stood around like Easter Island monoliths. The gray Mercedes was parked carelessly askew between two of them. By the time Hodges and Huntley arrived, five police cars were parked in the yard, two drawn up nose-to-nose behind the car’s back bumper, as if the cops expected the big gray sedan to start up by itself, like that old Plymouth in the horror movie, and make a run for it. The fog had thickened into a light rain. The patrol car roofracks lit the droplets in conflicting pulses of blue light.
Hodges and Huntley approached the cluster of motor patrolmen. Pete Huntley spoke with the two who had discovered the car while Hodges did a walk-around. The front end of the SL500 was only slightly crumpled—that famous German engineering—but the hood and the windshield were spattered with gore. A shirtsleeve, now stiffening with blood, was snagged in the grille. This would later be traced to August Odenkirk, one of the victims. There was something else, too. Something that gleamed even in that morning’s pale light. Hodges dropped to one knee for a closer look. He was still in that position when Huntley joined him.
“What the hell is that?” Pete asked.
“I think a wedding ring,” Hodges said.
So it proved. The plain gold band belonged to Francine Reis, thirty-nine, of Squirrel Ridge Road, and was eventually returned to her family. She had to be buried with it on the third finger of her right hand, because the first three fingers of the left had been torn off. The ME guessed this was because she raised it in an instinctive warding-off gesture as the Mercedes came down on her. Two of those fingers were found at the scene of the crime shortly before noon on April tenth. The index finger was never found. Hodges thought that a seagull—one of the big boys that patrolled the lakeshore—might have seized it and carried it away. He preferred that idea to the grisly alternative: that an unhurt City Center survivor had taken it as a souvenir.
Hodges stood up and motioned one of the motor patrolmen over. “We’ve got to get a tarp over this before the rain washes away any—”
“Already on its way,” the cop said, and cocked a thumb at Pete. “First thing he told us.”
“Well aren’t you special,” Hodges said in a not-too-bad Church Lady voice, but his partner’s answering smile was as pale as the day. Pete was looking at the blunt, blood-spattered snout of the Mercedes, and at the ring caught in the chrome.
Another cop came over, notebook in hand, open to a page already curling with moisture. His name-tag ID’d him as F. SHAMMINGTON. “Car’s registered to a Mrs. Olivia Ann Trelawney, 729 Lilac Drive. That’s Sugar Heights.”
“Where most good Mercedeses go to sleep when their long day’s work is done,” Hodges said.
“Find out if she’s at home, Officer Shammington. If she’s not, see if you can track her down. Can you do that?”
“Yes, sir, absolutely.”
“Just routine, right? A stolen-car inquiry.”
“You got it.”
Hodges turned to Pete. “Front of the cabin. Notice anything?”
“No airbag deployment. He disabled them. Speaks to premeditation.”
“Also speaks to him knowing how to do it. What do you make of the mask?”
Pete peered through the droplets of rain on the driver’s side window, not touching the glass. Lying on the leather driver’s seat was a rubber mask, the kind you pulled over your head. Tufts of orange Bozo-ish hair stuck up above the temples like horns. The nose was a red rubber bulb. Without a head to stretch it, the red-lipped smile had become a sneer.
“Creepy as hell. You ever see that TV movie about the clown in the sewer?”
Hodges shook his head. Later—only weeks before his retirement— he bought a DVD copy of the film, and Pete was right.
The mask-face was very close to the face of Pennywise, the clown in the movie.
The two of them walked around the car again, this time noting blood on the tires and rocker panels. A lot of it was going to wash off before the tarp and the techs arrived; it was still forty minutes shy of seven A.M.
“Officers!” Hodges called, and when they gathered: “Who’s got a cell phone with a camera?”
They all did. Hodges directed them into a circle around what he was already thinking of as the deathcar—one word, deathcar, just like that—and they began snapping pictures.
Officer Shammington was standing a little apart, talking on his cell phone. Pete beckoned him over. “Do you have an age on the Trelawney woman?”
Shammington consulted his notebook. “DOB on her driver’s license is February third, 1957. Which makes her . . . uh . . .”
“Fifty-two,” Hodges said. He and Pete Huntley had been working together for a dozen years, and by now a lot of things didn’t have to be spoken aloud. Olivia Trelawney was the right sex and age for the Park Rapist, but totally wrong for the role of spree killer. They knew there had been cases of people losing control of their vehicles and accidentally driving into groups of people—only five years ago, in this very city, a man in his eighties, borderline senile, had plowed his Buick Electra into a sidewalk café, killing one and injuring half a dozen others—but Olivia Trelawney didn’t fit that profile, either. Too young.
Plus, there was the mask.
But . . .
The bill comes on a silver tray. Hodges lays his plastic on top of it and sips his coffee while he waits for it to come back. He’s comfortably full, and in the middle of the day that condition usually leaves him ready for a two-hour nap. Not this afternoon. This afternoon he has never felt more awake.
The but had been so apparent that neither of them had to say it out loud—not to the motor patrolmen (more arriving all the time, although the goddam tarp never got there until quarter past seven) and not to each other. The doors of the SL500 were locked and the ignition slot was empty. There was no sign of tampering that either detective could see, and later that day the head mechanic from the city’s Mercedes dealership confirmed that.
“How hard would it be for someone to slim-jim a window?” Hodges had asked the mechanic. “Pop the lock that way?”
“All but impossible,” the mechanic had said. “These Mercs are built. If someone did manage to do it, it would leave signs.” He had tilted his cap back on his head. “What happened is plain and simple, Officers. She left the key in the ignition and ignored the reminder chime when she got out. Her mind was probably on something else. The thief saw the key and took the car. I mean, he must have had the key. How else could he lock the car when he left it?”
“You keep saying she,” Pete said. They hadn’t mentioned the owner’s name.
“Hey, come on.” The mechanic smiling a little now. “This is Mrs. Trelawney’s Mercedes. Olivia Trelawney. She bought it at our dealership and we service it every four months, like clockwork. We only service a few twelve-cylinders, and I know them all.” And then, speaking nothing but the utter grisly truth: “This baby’s a tank.”
The killer drove the Benz in between the two container boxes, killed the engine, pulled off his mask, doused it with bleach, and exited the car (the gloves and hairnet probably tucked inside his jacket). Then a final fuck-you as he walked away into the fog: he locked the car with Olivia Ann Trelawney’s smart key.
There was your but.
She warned us to be quiet because her mother was sleeping, Hodges remembers. Then she gave us coffee and cookies. Sitting in DeMasio’s, he sips the last of his current cup while he waits for his credit card to be returned. He thinks about the living room in that whopper of a condo apartment, with its kick-ass view of the lake.
Along with coffee and cookies, she had given them the wideeyed of-course-I-didn’t look, the one that is the exclusive property of solid citizens who have never been in trouble with the police. Who can’t imagine such a thing. She even said it out loud, when Pete asked if it was possible she had left her ignition key in her car when she parked it on Lake Avenue just a few doors down from her mother’s building.
“Of course I didn’t.” The words had come through a cramped little smile that said I find your idea silly and more than a bit insulting.
The waiter returns at last. He puts down the little silver tray, and Hodges slips a ten and a five into his hand before he can straighten up. At DeMasio’s the waiters split tips, a practice of which Hodges strongly disapproves. If that makes him old school, so be it.
“Thank you, sir, and buon pomeriggio.”
“Back atcha,” Hodges says. He tucks away his receipt and his Amex, but doesn’t rise immediately. There are some crumbs left on his dessert plate, and he uses his fork to snare them, just as he used to do with his mother’s cakes when he was a little boy. To him those last few crumbs, sucked slowly onto the tongue from between the tines of the fork, always seemed like the sweetest part of the slice.
That crucial first interview, only hours after the crime. Coffee and cookies while the mangled bodies of the dead were still being identified. Somewhere relatives were weeping and rending their garments.
Mrs. Trelawney walking into the condo’s front hall, where her handbag sat on an occasional table. She brought the bag back, rummaging, starting to frown, still rummaging, starting to be a little worried. Then smiling. “Here it is,” she said, and handed it over.
The detectives looked at the smart key, Hodges thinking how ordinary it was for something that went with such an expensive car. It was basically a black plastic stick with a lump on the end of it. The lump was stamped with the Mercedes logo on one side. On the other were three buttons. One showed a padlock with its shackle down. On the button beside it, the padlock’s shackle was up. The third button was labeled PANIC. Presumably if a mugger attacked you as you were unlocking your car, you could push that one and the car would start screaming for help.
“I can see why you had a little trouble locating it in your purse,” Pete remarked in his best just-passing-the-time-of-day voice. “Most people put a fob on their keys. My wife has hers on a big plastic daisy.” He smiled fondly as if Maureen were still his wife, and as if that perfectly turned-out fashion plate would ever have been caught dead hauling a plastic daisy out of her purse.
“How nice for her,” Mrs. Trelawney said. “When may I have my car back?”
“That’s not up to us, ma’am,” Hodges said.
She sighed and straightened the boatneck top of her dress. It was the first of dozens of times they saw her do it. “I’ll have to sell it, of course. I’d never be able to drive it after this. It’s so upsetting. To think my car . . .” Now that she had her purse in hand, she prospected again and brought out a wad of pastel Kleenex. She dabbed at her eyes with them. “It’s very upsetting.”
“I’d like you to take us through it one more time,” Pete said.
She rolled her eyes, which were red-rimmed and bloodshot. “Is that really necessary? I’m exhausted. I was up most of the night with my mother. She couldn’t go to sleep until four. She’s in such pain. I’d like a nap before Mrs. Greene comes in. She’s the nurse.”
Hodges thought, Your car was just used to kill eight people, and only eight if all the others live, and you want a nap. Later he would not be sure if that was when he started to dislike Mrs. Trelawney, but it probably was. When some people were in distress, you wanted to enfold them and say there-there as you patted them on the back. With others you wanted to slap them a hard one across the chops and tell them to man up. Or, in Mrs. T.’s case, to woman up.
“We’ll be as quick as we can,” Pete promised. He didn’t tell her that this would be the first of many interviews. By the time they were done with her, she would hear herself telling her story in her sleep.
“Oh, very well, then. I arrived here at my mother’s shortly after seven o’clock on Thursday evening . . .”
She visited at least four times a week, she said, but Thursdays were her night to stay over. She always stopped at B’hai, a very nice vegetarian restaurant located in Birch Hill Mall, and got their dinners, which she warmed up in the oven. (“Although Mother eats very little now, of course. Because of the pain.”) She told them she always scheduled her Thursday trips so she arrived after seven, because that was when the all-night parking began, and most of the streetside spaces were empty. “I won’t parallel park. I simply can’t do it.”
“What about the garage down the block?” Hodges asked.
She looked at him as though he were crazy. “It costs sixteen dollars to park there overnight. The streetside spaces are free.”
Pete was still holding the key, although he hadn’t yet told Mrs. Trelawney they would be taking it with them. “You stopped at Birch Hill and ordered takeout for you and your mother at—” He consulted his notebook. “B’hai.”
“No, I ordered ahead. From my house on Lilac Drive. They are always glad to hear from me. I am an old and valued customer. Last night it was kookoo sabzi for Mother—that’s an herbal omelet with spinach and cilantro—and gheymeh for me. Gheymeh is a lovely stew with peas, potatoes, and mushrooms. Very easy on the stomach.” She straightened her boatneck. “I’ve had terrible acid reflux ever since I was in my teens. One learns to live with it.”
“I assume your order was—” Hodges began.
“And sholeh zard for dessert,” she added. “That’s rice pudding with cinnamon. And saffron.” She flashed her strangely troubled smile. Like the compulsive straightening of her boatneck tops, the smile was a Trelawneyism with which they would become very familiar. “It’s the saffron that makes it special. Even Mother always eats the sholeh zard.”
“Sounds tasty,” Hodges said. “And your order, was it boxed and ready to go when you got there?”
“Oh no, three.”
“In a bag?”
“No, just the boxes.”
“Must have been quite a struggle, getting all that out of your car,” Pete said. “Three boxes of takeout, your purse . . .”
“And the key,” Hodges said. “Don’t forget that, Pete.”
“Also, you’d want to get it all upstairs as fast as possible,” Pete said. “Cold food’s no fun.”
“I see where you’re going with this,” Mrs. Trelawney said, “and I assure you . . .” A slight pause. “. . . you gentlemen that you are barking up the wrong path. I put my key in my purse as soon as I turned off the engine, it’s the first thing I always do. As for the boxes, they were tied together in a stack . . .” She held her hands about eighteen inches apart to demonstrate. “. . . and that made them very easy to handle. I had my purse over my arm. Look.” She crooked her arm, hung her purse on it, and marched around the big living room, holding a stack of invisible boxes from B’hai. “See?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Hodges said. He thought he saw something else as well.
“As for hurrying—no. There was no need, since the dinners need to be heated up, anyway.” She paused. “Not the sholeh zard, of course. No need to heat up rice pudding.” She uttered a small laugh. Not a giggle, Hodges thought, but a titter. Given that her husband was dead, he supposed you could even call it a widdertitter. His dislike added another layer—almost thin enough to be invisible, but not quite. No, not quite.
“So let me review your actions once you got here to Lake Avenue,” Hodges said. “Where you arrived at a little past seven.”
“Yes. Five past, perhaps a little more.”
“Uh-huh. You parked . . . what? Three or four doors down?”
“Four at most. All I need are two empty spaces, so I can pull in without backing. I hate to back. I always turn the wrong way.”
“Yes, ma’am, my wife has exactly the same problem. You turned off the engine. You removed the key from the ignition and put it in your purse. You put your purse over your arm and picked up the boxes with the food in them—”
“The stack of boxes. Tied together with good stout string.”
“The stack, right. Then what?”
She looked at him as though he were, of all the idiots in a generally idiotic world, the greatest. “Then I went to my mother’s building. Mrs. Harris—the housekeeper, you know—buzzed me in. On Thursdays, she leaves as soon as I arrive. I took the elevator up to the nineteenth floor. Where you are now asking me questions instead of telling me when I can deal with my car. My stolen car.”
Hodges made a mental note to ask the housekeeper if she had noticed Mrs. T.’s Mercedes when she left.
Pete asked, “At what point did you take your key from your purse again, Mrs. Trelawney?”
“Again? Why would I—”
He held the key up—Exhibit A. “To lock your car before you entered the building. You did lock it, didn’t you?”
A brief uncertainty flashed in her eyes. They both saw it. Then it was gone. “Of course I did.”
Hodges pinned her gaze. It shifted away, toward the lake view out the big picture window, and he caught it again. “Think carefully, Mrs. Trelawney. People are dead, and this is important. Do you specifically remember juggling those boxes of food so you could get your key out of your purse and push the LOCK button? And seeing the headlights flash an acknowledgement? They do that, you know.”
“Of course I know.” She bit at her lower lip, realized she was doing it, stopped.
“Do you remember that specifically?”
For a moment all expression left her face. Then that superior smile burst forth in all its irritating glory. “Wait. Now I remember. I put the key in my purse after I gathered up my boxes and got out. And after I pushed the button that locks the car.”
“You’re sure,” Pete said.
“Yes.” She was, and would remain so. They both knew that. The way a solid citizen who hit and ran would say, when he was finally tracked down, that of course it was a dog he’d hit.
Pete flipped his notebook closed and stood up. Hodges did likewise. Mrs. Trelawney looked more than eager to escort them to the door.
“One more question,” Hodges said as they reached it.
She raised carefully plucked eyebrows. “Yes?”
“Where’s your spare key? We ought to take that one, too.”
There was no blank look this time, no cutting away of the eyes, no hesitation. She said, “I have no spare key, and no need of one. I’m very careful of my things, Officer. I’ve owned my Gray Lady—that’s what I call it—for five years, and the only key I’ve ever used is now in your partner’s pocket.”
The table where he and Pete ate their lunch has been cleared of everything but his half-finished glass of water, yet Hodges goes on sitting there, staring out the window at the parking lot and the overpass that marks the unofficial border of Lowtown, where Sugar Heights residents like the late Olivia Trelawney never venture. Why would they? To buy drugs? Hodges is sure there are druggies in the Heights, plenty of them, but when you live there, the dealers make housecalls.
Mrs. T. was lying. She had to lie. It was that or face the fact that a single moment of forgetfulness had led to horrific consequences.
Suppose, though—just for the sake of argument—that she was telling the truth.
Okay, let’s suppose. But if we were wrong about her leaving her Mercedes unlocked with the key in the ignition, how were we wrong? And what did happen?
He sits looking out the window, remembering, unaware that some of the waiters have begun to look at him uneasily—the overweight retiree sitting slumped in his seat like a robot with dead batteries.
The deathcar had been transported to Police Impound on a carrier, still locked. Hodges and Huntley received this update when they got back to their own car. The head mechanic from Ross Mercedes had just arrived, and was pretty sure he could unlock the damn thing. Eventually.
“Tell him not to bother,” Hodges said. “We’ve got her key.”
There was a pause at the other end, and then Lieutenant Morrissey said, “You do? You’re not saying she—”
“No, no, nothing like that. Is the mechanic standing by, Lieutenant?”
“He’s in the yard, looking at the damage to the car. Damn near tears, is what I heard.”
“He might want to save a drop or two for the dead people,” Pete said. He was driving. The windshield wipers beat back and forth. The rain was coming harder. “Just sayin.”
“Tell him to get in touch with the dealership and check something,” Hodges said. “Then have him call me on my cell.”
The traffic was snarled downtown, partly because of the rain, partly because Marlborough Street had been blocked off at City Center. They had made only four blocks when Hodges’s cell rang. It was Howard McGrory, the mechanic.
“Did you have someone at the dealership check on what I was curious about?” Hodges asked him.
“No need,” McGrory said. “I’ve worked at Ross since 1987. Must have seen a thousand Mercs go out the door since then, and I can tell you they all go out with two keys.”
“Thanks,” Hodges said. “We’ll be there soon. Got some more questions for you.”
“I’ll be here. This is terrible. Terrible.”
Hodges ended the call and passed on what McGrory had said.
“Are you surprised?” Pete asked. Ahead was an orange DETOUR sign that would vector them around City Center . . . unless they wanted to light their blues, that was, and neither did. What they needed now was to talk.
“Nope,” Hodges said. “It’s standard operating procedure. Like the Brits say, an heir and a spare. They give you two keys when you buy your new car—”
“—and tell you to put one in a safe place, so you can lay hands on it if you lose the one you carry around. Some people, if they need the spare a year or two later, they’ve forgotten where they put it. Women who carry big purses—like that suitcase the Trelawney woman had—are apt to dump both keys into it and forget all about the extra one. If she’s telling the truth about not putting it on a fob, she was probably using them interchangeably.”
“Yeah,” Hodges said. “She gets to her mother’s, she’s preoccupied with the thought of spending another night dealing with Mom’s pain, she’s juggling the boxes and her purse . . .”
“And left the key in the ignition. She doesn’t want to admit it—not to us and not to herself—but that’s what she did.”
“Although the warning chime . . .” Hodges said doubtfully.
“Maybe a big noisy truck was going by as she was getting out and she didn’t hear the chime. Or a police car, winding its siren. Or maybe she was just so deep in her own thoughts she ignored it.”
It made sense then and even more later when McGrory told them the deathcar hadn’t been jimmied to gain entry or hotwired to start. What troubled Hodges—the only thing that troubled him, really—was how much he wanted it to make sense. Neither of them had liked Mrs. Trelawney, she of the boatneck tops, perfectly plucked brows, and squeaky widder-titter. Mrs. Trelawney who hadn’t asked for any news of the dead and injured, not so much as a single detail. She wasn’t the doer—no way was she—but it would be good to stick her with some of the blame. Give her something to think about besides veggie dinners from B’hai.
“Don’t complicate what’s simple,” his partner repeated. The traffic snarl had cleared and he put the pedal down. “She was given two keys. She claims she only had one. And now it’s the truth. The bastard who killed those people probably threw the one she left in the ignition down a handy sewer when he walked away. The one she showed us was the spare.”
That had to be the answer. When you heard hoofbeats, you didn’t think zebras.