Home > Mr. Mercedes (Bill Hodges Trilogy #1)

Mr. Mercedes (Bill Hodges Trilogy #1)
Stephen King

April 9–10, 2009

Augie Odenkirk had a 1997 Datsun that still ran well in spite of high mileage, but gas was expensive, especially for a man with no job, and City Center was on the far side of town, so he decided to take the last bus of the night. He got off at twenty past eleven with his pack on his back and his rolled-up sleeping bag under one arm. He thought he would be glad of the down-filled bag by three A.M. The night was misty and chill.

“Good luck, man,” the driver said as he stepped down. “You ought to get something for just being the first one there.”

Only he wasn’t. When Augie reached the top of the wide, steep drive leading to the big auditorium, he saw a cluster of at least two dozen people already waiting outside the rank of doors, some standing, most sitting. Posts strung with yellow DO NOT CROSS tape had been set up, creating a complicated passage that doubled back on itself, mazelike. Augie was familiar with these from movie theaters and the bank where he was currently overdrawn, and understood the purpose: to cram as many people as possible into as small a space as possible.

As he approached the end of what would soon be a conga-line of job applicants, Augie was both amazed and dismayed to see that the woman at the end of the line had a sleeping baby in a Papoose carrier. The baby’s cheeks were flushed with the cold; each exhale came with a faint rattle.

The woman heard Augie’s slightly out-of-breath approach, and turned. She was young and pretty enough, even with the dark circles under her eyes. At her feet was a small quilted carry-case. Augie supposed it was a baby support system.

“Hi,” she said. “Welcome to the Early Birds Club.”

“Hopefully we’ll catch a worm.” He debated, thought what the hell, and stuck out his hand. “August Odenkirk. Augie. I was recently downsized. That’s the twenty-first-century way of saying I got canned.”

She shook with him. She had a good grip, firm and not a bit timid. “I’m Janice Cray, and my little bundle of joy is Patti. I guess I got downsized, too. I was a housekeeper for a nice family in Sugar Heights. He, um, owns a car dealership.”

Augie winced.

Janice nodded. “I know. He said he was sorry to let me go, but they had to tighten their belts.”

“A lot of that going around,” Augie said, thinking: You could find no one to babysit? No one at all?

“I had to bring her.” He supposed Janice Cray didn’t have to be much of a mind reader to know what he was thinking. “There’s no one else. Literally no one. The girl down the street couldn’t stay all night even if I could pay her, and I just can’t. If I don’t get a job, I don’t know what we’ll do.”

“Your parents couldn’t take her?” Augie asked.

“They live in Vermont. If I had half a brain, I’d take Patti and go there. It’s pretty. Only they’ve got their own problems. Dad says their house is underwater. Not literally, they’re not in the river or anything, it’s something financial.”

Augie nodded. There was a lot of that going around, too.

A few cars were coming up the steep rise from Marlborough Street, where Augie had gotten off the bus. They turned left, into the vast empty plain of parking lot that would no doubt be full by daylight tomorrow . . . still hours before the First Annual City Job Fair opened its doors. None of the cars looked new. Their drivers parked, and from most of them three or four job-seekers emerged, heading toward the doors of the auditorium. Augie was no longer at the end of the line. It had almost reached the first switchback.

“If I can get a job, I can get a sitter,” she said. “But for tonight, me and Patti just gotta suck it up.”

The baby gave a croupy cough Augie didn’t care for, stirred in the Papoose, and then settled again. At least the kid was bundled up; there were even tiny mittens on her hands.

Kids survive worse, Augie told himself uneasily. He thought of the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression. Well, this one was great enough for him. Two years ago, everything had been fine. He hadn’t exactly been living large in the ’hood, but he had been making ends meet, with a little left over at the end of most months. Now everything had turned to shit. They had done something to the money. He didn’t understand it; he’d been an office drone in the shipping department of Great Lakes Transport, and what he knew about was invoices and using a computer to route stuff by ship, train, and air.

“People will see me with a baby and think I’m irresponsible,” Janice Cray fretted. “I know it, I see it on their faces already, I saw it on yours. But what else could I do? Even if the girl down the street could stay all night, it would have cost eighty-four dollars. Eighty-four! I’ve got next month’s rent put aside, and after that, I’m skint.” She smiled, and in the light of the parking lot’s high arc-sodiums, Augie saw tears beading her eyelashes. “I’m babbling.”

“No need to apologize, if that’s what you’re doing.” The line had turned the first corner now, and had arrived back at where Augie was standing. And the girl was right. He saw lots of people staring at the sleeping kid in the Papoose.

“Oh, that’s it, all right. I’m a single unmarried mother with no job. I want to apologize to everyone, for everything.” She turned and looked at the banner posted above the rank of doors. 1000 JOBS GUARENTEED! it read. And below that: “We Stand With the People of Our City!” —MAYOR RALPH KINSLER.

“Sometimes I want to apologize for Columbine, and 9/11, and Barry Bonds taking steroids.” She uttered a semi-hysterical giggle. “Sometimes I even want to apologize for the space shuttle exploding, and when that happened I was still learning to walk.”

“Don’t worry,” Augie told her. “You’ll be okay.” It was just one of those things that you said.

“I wish it wasn’t so damp, that’s all. I’ve got her bundled up in case it was really cold, but this damp . . .” She shook her head. “We’ll make it, though, won’t we, Patti?” She gave Augie a hopeless little smile. “It just better not rain.”

• • •

It didn’t, but the dampness increased until they could see fine droplets suspended in the light thrown by the arc-sodiums. At some point Augie realized that Janice Cray was asleep on her feet. She was hipshot and slump-shouldered, with her hair hanging in dank wings around her face and her chin nearly on her breastbone. He looked at his watch and saw it was quarter to three.

Ten minutes later, Patti Cray awoke and started to cry. Her mother (her baby mama, Augie thought) gave a jerk, voiced a horselike snort, raised her head, and tried to pull the infant out of the Papoose. At first the kid wouldn’t come; her legs were stuck. Augie pitched in, holding the sides of the sling. As Patti emerged, now wailing, he could see drops of water sparkling all over her tiny pink jacket and matching hat.

“She’s hungry,” Janice said. “I can give her the breast, but she’s also wet. I can feel it right through her pants. God, I can’t change her in this—look how foggy it’s gotten!”

Augie wondered what comical deity had arranged for him to be the one in line behind her. He also wondered how in hell this woman was going to get through the rest of her life—all of it, not just the next eighteen years or so when she would be responsible for the kid. To come out on a night like this, with nothing but a bag of diapers! To be that goddam desperate!

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