Misery

Page 23

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"I never saw him again," she said.

The fifth victim, Irving Thalman, 58, was a bachelor who lived on the top floor of the building. The third-floor apartment was vacant at the time of the fire. The Carl Wilkes family, at first listed as missing, left the building Tuesday night because of a water leak in the kitchen.

"I weep for Mrs Krenmitz and her loss," Crysilda Wilkes told a Journal reporter, "but I thank God for sparing my husband and my own two children." Centralia Fire Chief Michael O'Whunn said that the fire began in the apartment building's basement. When asked about the possibility of arson, he said: "It's more likely that a wino crept into the basement, had a few drinks, and accidentally started the fire with a cigarette. He probably ran instead of trying to put the fire out and five people died. I hope we catch up with the bum." When asked about leads, O'Whunn said, "The police have several, and they are following them up hard and fast, I can tell you."

Same neat black ink below the clipping. October 28th 1954.

Paul looked up. He was totally still, but a pulse beat rapidly in his throat. His bowels felt loose and hot.

Little brats.

Three of the dead were children.

Mrs Krenmitz's four brats downstairs.

Oh no, oh Christ, no.

I used to hate those little brats.

She was just a kid! Not even in the house!

She was eleven. Old enough and bright enough, maybe, to spill some kerosene around a cheap liquor bottle, then light a candle, and put the candle in the middle of the kerosene. Maybe she didn't even think it would work. Maybe she thought the kerosene would evaporate before the candle burned all the way down. Maybe she thought they'd get out alive... only wanted to scare them into moving. But she did it, Paul, she fucking did it, and you know it.

Yes, he supposed he did. And who would suspect her?

He turned the page.

Here was yet another Bakersfield Journal clipping, this one dated July 19th, 1957. It featured a picture of Carl Wilkes, looking slightly older. One thing was clear: it was as old as he was ever going to get. The clipping was his obituary.

BAKERSFIELD ACCOUNTANT DIES IN FREAK FALL

Carl Wilkes, a lifelong Bakersfield resident, died shortly after being admitted to Hernandez General Hospital last night. He apparently stumbled over a pile of loose clothing, which had been left on the stairs earlier, while on his way down to answer the phone. Dr Frank Canley, the admitting physician, said that Wilkes died of multiple skull fractures and a broken neck. He was 44.

Wilkes is survived by his wife, Crysilda, a son, Paul, 18, and a daughter, Anne, 14.

When Paul turned to the next page, he thought for a moment that Annie had pasted in two copies of her father's obituary out of sentiment or by accident (he thought this latter the more likely possibility of the two). But this was a different accident, and the reason for the similarity was simplicity itself: neither had really been an accident at all.

He felt stark and simple terror steal into him.

The neat handwriting below this clipping read Los Angeles Call, January 29th, 1962.

USC STUDENT DIES IN FREAK FALL

Andrea Saint James, a USC nursing student, was pronounced dead on arrival at Mercy Hospital in North Los Angeles last night, the apparent victim of a bizarre accident.

Miss Saint James shared an off-campus apartment on Delorme Street with a sister nursing student, Anne Wilkes, of Bakersfield. Shortly before eleven P.M., Miss Wilkes heard a brief scream followed by "terrible thudding sounds". Miss Wilkes, who had been studying, rushed onto the third-floor landing and saw Miss Saint James lying on the landing below, "sprawled in a very unnatural position".

Miss Wilkes said that, in her effort to render aid, she almost fell herself. "We had a cat named Peter Gunn," she said, "only we hadn't seen him for days and thought the pound must have gotten him because we kept forgetting to get him a tag. He was lying dead on the stairs. It was the cat she tripped over. I covered Andrea with my sweater and then called the hospital. I knew she was dead, but I didn't know who else to call." Miss Saint James, a native of Los Angeles, was 21.

"Jesus." Paul whispered it over and over. His hand w s a shaking badly as he turned the page. Here was a Call clipping which said that the stray cat the student nurses adopted had been poisoned.

Peter Gunn. Cute name for a cat, Paul thought.

The landlord had rats in his basement. Tenant complaints had resulted in a warning from building inspectors the year before. The landlord had caused a ruckus at a subsequent City Council meeting which had been lively enough to get coverage in the papers. Annie would have known. Faced with a stiff fine by councilmen who didn't like being called names, the landlord had sown the cellar with poisoned bait. Cat eats poison. Cat languishes in cellar for two days. Cat then crawls as close to his mistresses as possible before expiring - and killing one of said mistresses.

An irony worthy of Paul Harvey, Paul Sheldon thought, and laughed wildly. I bet it made his daily newscast, too.

Neat. Very neat.

Except we know that Annie picked up some of the poisoned bait in the cellar and hand-fed it to the cat, and if old Peter Gunn didn't want to eat it, she probably rammed it down his gullet with a stick. When he was dead she put him on the stairs and hoped it would work. Maybe she had a pretty good idea her roommate would come home tiddly. I wouldn't be a bit surprised. A dead cat, a heap of clothes. Same M.O., as Tom Twyford would say. But why, Annie? These clippings tell me everything but that. WHY?

In an act of self-preservation, part of his imagination had, over the last few weeks, actually become Annie, and it was now this Annie-part that spoke up in its dry and uncontradictable voice. And while what it said was perfectly mad, it also made perfect sense.

I killed her because she played her radio late at night.

I killed her because of the dumb name she gave the cat.

I killed her because I got tired of seeing her soul-kissing her boyfriend on the couch, him with his hand shoved so far up her skirt he looked like he was prospecting for gold.

I killed her because I caught her cheating.

I killed her because she caught me cheating.

The specifics don't matter, do they? I killed her because she was a cockadoodie brat, and that was reason enough.

"And maybe because she was a Missus Smart Guy," Paul whispered. He threw back his head and donkeyed another shrill and frightened laugh. So this was Memory Lane, was it? Oh, what a variety of strange and poisonous flowers grew beside Annie's version of that quaint old path!

No one ever put those two freak falls together? First her father, then her roommate? Are you seriously telling me that?

Yes, he was seriously telling himself that. The accidents had happened almost five years apart, in two different towns. They had been reported by different papers in a populous state where people were probably always falling downstairs and breaking their necks.

And she was very, very clever.

Almost as clever as Satan himself, it seemed. Only now she was starting to lose it. It would be precious little consolation to him, however, if Annie were to be finally brought to bay for the murder of Paul Sheldon.

He turned the page and discovered another clipping from the Bakersfield Journal - the last, as it turned out. The headline read MISS WILKES IS NURSING SCHOOL GRADUATE. Home-town girl makes good. May 17th, 1966. The photo was of a younger, startlingly pretty Annie Wilkes, wearing a nurse's uniform and cap, smiling into the camera. It was a graduation photograph, of course. She had graduated with honors. Only had to kill one roommate to do it, too, Paul thought, and donkeyed his shrill, frightened laugh. The wind gusted around the side of the house as if in answer. Mom's picture chattered briefly on the wall.

The next cutting was from the Manchester, New Hampshire, Union-Leader. March 2nd, 1969. It was a simple obituary which seemed to have no connection with Annie Wilkes at all. Ernest Gonyar, age seventy-nine, had died in Saint Joseph's Hospital. No exact cause of death given. "After a long illness," the obit said. Survived by his wife, twelve children, and what looked like about four hundred grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There was nothing like the rhythm method for producing all descendants great and small, Paul thought, and donkeyed again.

She killed him. That's what happened to good old Ernie. Why else is his obituary here?This is Annie's Book of the Dead, isn't it?

Why, for God's sake? WHY?

With Annie Wilkes that is a question which has no sane answer. As you well know.

Another page, another Union-Leader obit. March 19th, 1969. The lady was identified as Hester "Queenie" Beaulifant, eighty-four. In the picture she looked like something whose bones might have been exhumed from the La Brea Tar Pits. The same thing that had gotten Ernie had gotten "Queenie" seemed like that long-illness shit was going around. Like Ernie, she had expired at Saint Joe's. Viewings at 2:00 and 6:00 P.M. on March 20th at Foster's Funeral Home. Interment at Mary Cyr Cemetery on March 21st at 4.00 P.M.

Ought to've had a special rendition of "Annie, Won't You Come by Here", sung by the Mormon Tabersnackle Choir, Paul thought, and did the Donkey some more.

There were three more Union-Leader obits on the following pages. Two old men who had died of that perennial favorite, Long Illness. The third was a woman of forty-six named Paulette Simeaux. Paulette had died of that common runner-up, Short Illness. Although the picture accompanying the obit was even grainier and fuzzier than usual, Paul saw that Paulette Simeaux made "Queenie" Beaulifant look like Thumbelina. He thought her illness might have been short indeed - a thunderclap coronary, say, followed by a trip to Saint Joe's, followed by... followed by what? Exactly what?

He really didn't want to think about the specifics... but all three obits identified Saint Joseph's as the place of expiration.

And if we looked at the nurses" register for March 1969, would we find the name WILKES? Friends, does a bear go cockadoodie in the woods?

This book, dear God, this book was so big.

No more, please. I don't want to look at any more. I've got the idea. I'm going to put this book down exactly where I found it. Then I am going into my room. I guess I don't want to write after all; I think I'll just take an extra pill and go to bed. Call it nightmare insurance. But no farther down Annie's Memory Lane, if you please. Please, if you please.

But his hands seemed to have a mind and a will of their own; they kept on turning the pages, faster and faster.

Two more brief death notices in the Union-Leader, one in late September of 1969, one in early October.

March 19th, 1970. This one was from the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Herald. A back page. NEW HOSPITAL STAFF ANNOUNCED. There was a photo of a balding, bespectacled man who looked to Paul like the type of fellow who might eat boogers in secret. The article noted that in addition to the new publicity director (the balding, bespectacled fellow), twenty others had joined the staff of Riverview Hospital: two doctors, eight R.N."s, assorted kitchen staff, orderlies, and a janitor.

Annie was one of the R.N."s.

On the next page, Paul thought, I am going to see a brief death notice for an elderly man or woman who expired at Riverview Hospital in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Correct. An old duffer who had died of that all-time favorite" Long Illness.

Followed by an elderly man who had died of that perennial bridesmaid, Short Illness.

Followed by a child of three who had fallen down a well, sustained grievous head injuries, and been brought to Riverview in a coma.

Numbly, Paul continued to turn the pages while the wind and rain drove against the house. The pattern was inescapable. She got a job, killed some people, and moved on.

Suddenly an image came, one from a dream his conscious mind had already forgotten, which thus gained the delphic resonance of deja vu. He saw Annie Wilkes in a long aproned dress, her hair covered with a mobcap, an Annie who looked like a nurse in London's Bedlam Hospital. She held a basket over one arm. She dipped into it. Brought out sand and flung it into the upturned faces she passed. This was not the soothing sand of sleep but poisoned sand. It was killing them. When it struck them their faces went white and the lines on the machines monitoring their precarious fives went flat.

Maybe she killed the Krenmitz kids because they "were brats... and her roommate... maybe even her own father. But these others?

But he knew. The Annie in him knew. Old and sick. All of them had been old and sick except Mrs Simeaux, and she must have been nothing but a vegetable when she came in. Mrs Simeaux and the kid who had fallen down the well. Annie had killed them because - "Because they were rats in a trap," he whispered.

Poor things. Poor poor things.

Sure. That was it. In Annie's view all the people in the world were divided into three groups: brats, poor poor things... and Annie.

She had moved steadily westward. Harrisburg to Pittsburgh to Duluth to Fargo. Then, in 1978, to Denver. In each case the pattern was the same: a "welcome aboard" article in which Annie's name was mentioned among others (she had missed the Manchester "welcome aboard" probably because, Paul guessed, she hadn't known that local newspapers printed such things), then two or three unremarkable deaths. Following these, the cycle would start again.

Until Denver, that was.

At first, it seemed the same. There was the NEW ARRIVALS article, this time clipped from the in-house newspaper of Denver's Receiving Hospital, with Annie's name mentioned. The in-house paper was identified, in Annie's neat hand, as The Gurney. "Great name for a hospital paper," Paul told the empty room. "Surprised no one thought of calling it The Stool Sample." He donkeyed more terrified laughter, all unaware. Turned the page, and here was the first obit, cut from the Rocky Mountain News. Laura D. Rothberg. Long illness. September 21st, 1978. Denver Receiving Hospital.

Then the pattern broke wide open.

The next page announced a wedding instead of a funeral. The photo showed Annie, not in her uniform but in a white dress frothing with lace. Beside her, holding her hands in his, was a man named Ralph Dugan. Dugan was a physical therapist. DUGAN-WILKES NUPTIALS, the clipping was headed. Rocky Mountain News, January 2nd, 1979. Dugan was quite unremarkable save for one thing: he looked like Annie's father. Paul thought if you shaved off Dugan's singles-bar moustache - which she had probably gotten him to do as soon as the honeymoon was over - the resemblance would be just short of uncanny.

Paul thumbed the thickness of the remaining pages in Annie's book and thought Ralph Dugan should have checked his horoscope whoops, make that horrorscope - the day he proposed to Annie.

I think the chances are very good that somewhere up ahead in these untumed pages I am going to find a brief article about you. Some people have appointments in Samarra; I think you may well have had one with a pile of laundry or a dead cat on a flight of stairs. A dead cat with a cute name.

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