You would think that being rendered brain-dead would put a stop to a serial killer's career.
If said serial killer is a denizen of Stephen King's novels, not necessarily.
Brady Hartsfield was the titular character of King's Mr. Mercedes, so called because he killed eight people by running them over with one. He returned in Finders Keepers, where (spoiler alert if you haven't read that one) his plot to blow up an auditorium full of tween girls at a boy band concert was foiled when he was beaned with a sock full of ball bearings its owner called the Happy Slapper.
Brady was left in a persistent vegetative state, thanks to the trio of unlikely heroes who pursued him through both books: stalwart retired cop Bill Hodges, odd but brilliant Holly Gibney and brave young Jerome Robinson.
As King's new novel, End of Watch, begins, it has been five years since Brady took that sock to the head, and he's still living in a hospital room. Hodges and Holly are running a private investigation firm, and Jerome, who in the first book worked mowing Hodges' lawn, is now a Harvard student, spending his summer building Habitat for Humanity houses.
The Hartsfield case should be long behind them, but Hodges is haunted by it. For years, he visited Brady's hospital room, telling the unresponsive patient that he knew he was faking, and paying off nurses to feed him information.
He has pretty much stopped visiting, but the bribes have yielded disturbing bits of news. A doctor, Felix Babineau, who seems almost as obsessed with Brady as Hodges is, has been treating him with some unorthodox methods. Not only is Brady beginning to show some limited response and speak a little, but there are rumors that he has unusual powers as well — the blinds and blankets in his room sometimes dance around as if they're alive, and the lights come on by themselves.
What really fills Hodges and Holly with dread is a series of suicides. Brady had driven a relative of Holly's to suicide by hacking her computer in Mr. Mercedes; now, people with varying connections to him are killing themselves. But how could what the nurses on his ward call a "gork" possibly have anything to do with that?
Called to a suicide scene by his old partner, who's still a cop, Hodges and Holly discover a gadget called a Zappit, a handheld video game player that had come on the market and utterly flopped a few years before. Zappits start turning up at other suicide scenes, and a dopey game called Fishin' Hole seems to demonstrate hypnotic powers well beyond those of the average video game.
When Jerome's younger sister, Barbara, has a close call with a Zappit, he comes home to rejoin Hodges and Holly. He'll soon know what the two recently found out, something that adds yet another layer of urgency to their pursuit of Hartsfield: Hodges has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
"Now (Hodges) understands why pancreatic cancer is called the stealth cancer," King writes, "and why it's almost always deadly. It lurks, building up its troops and sending out secret emissaries to the lungs, the lymph nodes, the bones, and the brain."
The question becomes whether Brady, whose rage-filled personality is driven chiefly by revenge, can get to Hodges before the cancer does.
King wrote the first two books of the Hodges Trilogy as straight crime fiction, without major paranormal or supernatural elements. This time around, the powers Brady develops go beyond that realistic territory, to chilling effect. King, who has occasionally been dinged by fans for not offering enough explanation for how some of his fantasy elements work, is careful in End of Watch to walk us through exactly how Brady came to be an even more formidable threat than he was before the brain injury.
It's fantasy, sure, couldn't really happen. But, as always, King creates such a compelling scenario that it will leave you wondering. And maybe rethinking your kid's video games.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.