Horror master Stephen King is back — and his tense, jittery new thriller, Mr. Mercedes (out June 3), pits and ex-cop against a sociopath scheming to murder thousands. Below, read an excerpt, which first appeared in the May 16 issue of Entertainment Weekly.
Back in his roomy basement workspace, Brady speaks another word. This one is chaos. On the far side of the control room is a long shelf about three feet about the floor. Ranged along it are seven laptop computers with their darkened screens flipped up. There’s also a chair on casters, so he can roll rapidly from one to another. When Brady speaks the magic word, all seven come to life. The number 20 appears on each screen, then 19, then 18. If he allows this countdown to reach zero, a suicide program will kick in, scrubbing his hard discs clean and overwriting them with gibberish.
“Darkness,” he says, and the big countdown numbers disappear, replaced by desktop images that show scenes from The Wild Bunch, his favorite movie.
He tried apocalypse and Armageddon, much better start-up words in his opinion, full of ringing finality, but the word-recognition program has problems with them, and the last thing he wants is having to replace all his files because of a stupid glitch. Two-syllable words are safer. Not that there’s much on six of the seven computers. Number Three is the only one with what the fat ex-cop would call “incriminating information,” but he likes to look at that awesome array of computing power, all lit up as it is now. It makes the basement room feel like a real command center.
Brady considers himself a creator as well as a destroyer, but knows that so far he hasn’t managed to create anything that will exactly set the world on fire, and he’s haunted by the possibility that he never will. That he has, at best, a second-rate creative mind.
Take the Rolla, for instance. That had come to him in a flash of inspiration one night when he’d been vacuuming the living room (like using the washing machine, such a chore is usually beneath his mother). He had sketched a device that looked like a footstool on bearings, with a motor and a short hose attachment on the underside. With the addition of a simple computer program, Brady reckoned the device could be designed to move around a room, vacuuming as it went. If it hit an obstacle—a chair, say, or a wall—it would turn on its own and start off in a new direction.
He had actually begun building a prototype when he saw a version of his Rolla trundling busily around the window display of an upscale appliance store downtown. The name was even similar; it was called a Roomba. Someone had beaten him to it, and that someone was probably making millions. It wasn’t fair, but what is? Life is a crap carnival with s — prizes.
He has blue-boxed the TVs in the house, which means Brady and his ma are getting not just basic cable but all the premium channels (including a few exotic add-ins like Al Jazeera) for free, and there’s not a damn thing Time Warner, Comcast, or XFINITY can do about it. He has hacked the DVD player so it will run not just American discs but those from every region of the world. It’s easy—three or four quick steps with the remote, plus a six-digit recognition code. Great in theory, but does it get used? Not at 49 Elm Street, it doesn’t. Ma won’t watch anything that isn’t spoon-fed to her by the four major networks, and Brady himself is mostly working one of his two jobs or down here in the control room, where he does his actual work.
The blue boxes are great, but they’re also illegal. For all he knows, the DVD hacks are illegal, too. Not to mention his Redbox and Netflix hacks. All his best ideas are illegal. Take Thing One and Thing Two.
Thing One had been on the passenger seat of Mrs. Trelawney’s Mercedes when he left City Center on that foggy morning the previous April, with blood dripping from the bent grille and stippling the windshield. The idea came to him during the murky period three years ago, after he had decided to kill a whole bunch of people—what he then thought of as his terrorist run—but before he had decided just how, when, or where to do it. He had been full of ideas then, jittery, not sleeping much. In those days he always felt as though he had just swallowed a whole Thermos of black coffee laced with amphetamines.
Thing One was a modified TV remote with a microchip for a brain and a battery pack to boost its range…although the range was still pretty short. If you pointed it at a traffic light twenty or thirty yards away, you could change red to yellow with one tap, red to blinking yellow with two taps, and red to green with three.
Brady was delighted with it, and had used it several times (always while sitting parked in his old Subaru; the ice cream truck was far too conspicuous) at busy intersections. After several near misses, he had finally caused an actual accident. Just a fender-bender, but it had been fun to watch the two men arguing about whose fault it had been. For awhile it had looked like they might actually come to blows.
Thing Two came shortly afterward, but it was Thing One that settled Brady on his target, because it radically upped the chances of a successful getaway. The distance between City Center and the abandoned warehouse he had picked as a dumping spot for Mrs. Trelawney’s gray Mercedes was exactly 1.9 miles. There were eight traffic lights along the route he planned to take, and with his splendid gadget, he wouldn’t have to worry about any of them. But on that morning—Jesus Christ, wouldn’t you know it?—every one of those lights had been green. Brady understood the early hour had something to do with it, but it was still infuriating.
If I hadn’t had it, he thinks as he goes to the closet at the far end of the basement, at least four of those lights would have been red. That’s the way my life works.
Thing Two was the only one of his gadgets that turned out to be an actual moneymaker. Not big money, but as everyone knew, money isn’t everything. Besides, without Thing Two there would have been no Mercedes. And with no Mercedes, no City Center Massacre.
Good old Thing Two.
A big Yale padlock hangs from the hasp of the closet door. Brady opens it with a key on his ring. The lights inside—more new fluorescents—are already on. The closet is small and made even smaller by the plain board shelves. On one of them are nine shoeboxes. Inside each box is a pound of homemade plastic explosive. Brady has tested some of this stuff at an abandoned gravel pit far out in the country, and it works just fine.
If I was over there in Afghanistan, he thinks, dressed in a head-rag and one of those funky bathrobes, I could have quite a career blowing up troop carriers.
On another shelf, in another shoebox, are five cell phones. They’re the disposable kind the Lowtown drug dealers call burners. The phones, available at fine drugstores and convenience stores everywhere, are Brady’s project for tonight. They have to be modified so that a single number will ring all of them, creating the proper spark needed to detonate the boom-clay in the shoeboxes at the same time. He hasn’t actually decided to use the plastic, but part of him wants to. Yes indeed. He told the fat ex-cop he has no urge to replicate his masterpiece, but that was another lie. A lot depends on the fat ex-cop himself. If he does what Brady wants—as Mrs. Trelawney did what Brady wanted—he’s sure the urge will go away, at least for awhile.
He grabs the box of phones, starts out of the closet, then pauses and looks back. On one of the other shelves is a quilted woodman’s vest from L.L.Bean. If Brady were really going out in the woods, a Medium would suit him fine—he’s slim—but this one is an XL. On the breast is a smile decal, the one wearing dark glasses and showing its teeth. The vest holds four more one-pound blocks of plastic explosive, two in the outside pockets, two in the slash pockets on the inside. The body of the vest bulges, because it’s filled with ball bearings (just like the ones in Hodges’s Happy Slapper). Brady slashed the lining to pour them in. It even crossed his mind to ask Ma to sew the slashes up, and that gave him a good laugh as he sealed them shut with duct tape.
My very own suicide vest, he thinks affectionately.
He won’t use it…probably won’t use it…but this idea also has a certain attraction. It would put an end to everything. No more Discount Electronix, no more Cyber Patrol calls to dig peanut butter or saltine crumbs out of some elderly idiot’s CPU, no more ice cream truck. Also no more crawling snakes in the back of his mind. Or under his belt buckle.
He imagines doing it at a rock concert; he knows Springsteen is going to play Lakefront Arena this June. Or how about the Fourth of July parade down Lake Street, the city’s main drag? Or maybe on opening day of the Summer Sidewalk Art Festival and Street Fair, which happens every year on the first Saturday in August. That would be good, except wouldn’t he look funny, wearing a quilted vest on a hot August afternoon?
True, but such things can always be worked out by the creative mind, he thinks, spreading the disposable phones on his worktable and beginning to remove the SIM cards. Besides, the suicide vest is just a whatdoyoucallit, doomsday scenario. It will probably never be used. Nice to have it handy, though.
Before going upstairs, he sits down at his Number Three, goes online, and checks the Blue Umbrella. Nothing from the fat ex-cop.