26. HOT DALE-ON-DALE ACTION
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: December 28th, 2010.
Dale remembers something.
He remembers just a fist — his own fist, attached to a different version of himself — that smashes into his nose and everything goes bright and miserable, and as his sinuses turn to concrete and his eyes go wet with tears, he remembers that night in the alley. Finding the Box. A device held fast in the hands of two men. Homeless men. Twins, Dale thought at the time.
They were not twins. They were the same. One a deviant variation — a version, or diversion, of the other. Both clutching the Box. Hands like frozen spiders wrestling over a Rubik’s Cube.
Fighting over it.
Just as Dale is doing now.
He came back. But Other Dale was ready.
His head rocks back from the hit. The two struggle, four hands clutching one Box. Like the two corpses in the alley. Suddenly, Dale is wondering: _Is Other Dale thinking the same thing right now? Is he remembering the two frozen corpses in the alley, too? Is he wondering if I’m remembering? _
Are they the same, or are they different?
He staggers. Pulls back. Thinks that he needs to stop thinking about all this other bullshit and concentrate on the task at hand: not getting his ass beat and, in return, beating Other Dale’s ass.
Dale wonders: WWDD? What would Dale do?
_I fight like a clumsy animal. _
Pinwheeling fists and clubbing arms.
So: fight differently.
Other Dale does exactly what’s expected of him — he holds onto the Box with one hand, and the other he turns into a fist. He raises that fist like a fleshy hammer and starts trying to bring it against Dale’s head and face. But Dale, he fights differently.
He lets go of the Box. It’s hard to do that. Crazy hard. But here he is, dropping down, hands off the prize—
One hand curls into a fist.
And pistons into Other Dale’s crotch.
Other Dale wails. Staggers back.
Dale stands up, wipes blood off his nose, then reaches out and takes the Box as Other Dale backs up against the wall.
“It’s time,” Dale says, pulling out the syringe. “You knew this was coming.” Of course, that’s the problem, isn’t it?
Other Dale scowls. “I thought I was the one. I’m the one who goes in there, gets the names, pushes the buttons. I’m the killer. Not the killed.”
“We don’t have time.”
“You don’t have time. I have plenty.”
Dale lunges with the syringe—
But Other Dale fakes left, then jerks right.
And then he runs.
27. FIRST FOUR
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: December 27th, 2010.
Dale and Dave sit at a little breakfast table he bought at Ikea.
Temporary furniture, he thinks of it. Swedish junk for tiny apartments. Small flowers for a dinky lilypad.
Soon he’s gonna hop to a new one, and here’s how.
“Play the ponies,” Dave slurs, his mouth covered in sticky raspberry jam — a dark, earthy red smeared around his lips. That, coupled with his sleepy, unfocused eyes, gives him the look of a zombie that just chowed down on some poor bastard’s face and head. “Pray the bonies, flay the phonies.”
Dale frowns. “How was your sandwich?”
Sublime. Not a word he’d use. But Concussed Dave over there, he’s been using words that Dale wouldn’t use. And some Dale doesn’t even know. What was it Dave said the other day? Incredible? No, Dale knows that one. Incredulous! That’s what it was. Dave said of Dale’s plan to woo back Susannah: “Of that, old chap, I am incredulous.” When Dale asked him what it means, Dave just laughed and fell asleep. Then woke up three minutes later with a start. “Myoclonic twitch,” was what he said. Then laughed again.
Dale doesn’t know what a myoclonic twitch even is.
He figures Dave is just watching a lot of TV, picking up words there.
Maybe the head wound made him like a sponge. Soaking up stuff.
“Good,” Dale says of Dave’s sandwich enjoyment. “And yeah. I’m gonna play the ponies. Tomorrow.”
“Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It’s superfecta.”
“Yep. I’m betting a superfecta.” Pick the first four horses in correct order, you can win big money. But the chances of that are incredibly slim — unless you’re a guy who can go back in time ten minutes. “Big money.”
“Big money pig honey dig sunny.”
“Shut up, Dave.”
“Where’d you hear about that? The fooper-secta superfecta.”
“I Googled it.”
“Modern-day oracle, that Google.” Dave licks his dry lips. It sounds like sandpaper rubbing.
“High odds. Hard to calculate. But I know things. Or will.”
“Howzit gonna work? How you gonna do it this time?”
“I just told you. I go in. I find out who wins. I come out. Press the button. Then go back in and place a bet before the bookie closes and…” He snaps his fingers. “Instant riches, just add the Box.”
“Nah, I mean, how you gonna _off _yourself this time?”
Oh. That. Dale feels his heart rate increase. This is the part he doesn’t like to think about, much less discuss.
“I’ve got a syringe.”
“A syringe.” Way he mumbles it: _sha-rinj. _“Wuzzinnit?”
“Tasty and nutritious. What’s the plan? I mean, the murder-suicide _and _body-ditching part, not the make lotsa chits and ducats part?”
Chits and ducats? Where is he getting this stuff?
“I have a bunch of locations in mind where I can hide, press the button on the Box and… wait for myself to come along, then…” Dale mimics attacking someone with an imaginary syringe. “As for the body, there’s an unfinished bathroom on the lower level. Hide the body there. Return later and — I bought a janitor’s jumpsuit from a uniform shop near Penn. I’ll put that on, then down there they have these big industrial trashcans? Put the body in there, get it out to the car — which I’ll park around the back, toward the service exit — and then take it to the pumpkin patch.”
“Lot of places that can go wrong.”
“It’ll go fine.”
“You’re your own worst enemy.”
“It’s worth it. The payout’s going to be big. Life-changing money.” Susannah-getting money. Her mixologist boyfriend — god, what’s he bring home? Thirty grand a year? Forty? That’ll be peanuts.
Dave snorts. “Throw a pebble, you make ripples. Throw a boulder, you make waves. Press the button on the Cochineal Box…”
“Shut up, Dave.”
“Lemme — lemme ask you one more thing. Then I’m gonna—” He burbles and bubbles with laughter. “Then I’m gonna take a nap.”
“When you walk in there to do this thing?”
“How will you know?”
“How will I know what?”
“If you’re the killer or the to-be-killed?”
28. THE GOOD NEWS AND THE BAD NEWS
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: December 28th, 2010.** **
A half-a-million bucks.
Just shy of it, anyway.
That’s what he won. Coulda been more. Shoulda been more. But one thing he didn’t understand was that you’re not betting against the track. You’re betting against the other bettors. What they put into the pool is what you can win — and he drained that pool. The odds payout should’ve been more. Almost twice the takeaway.
But still. Still.
That’s the good news.
Bad news is, he’s still out there somewhere.
Other Dale. That asshole.
The realization came with the punch to the nose that he can no longer plan these things. He cannot execute the 10-minute time travel through premeditation. Because what he knows, Other Dale knows, too. Other Dale knows the plan. The hiding places. The options. If Dale is armed, so is Other Dale. At the casino, with the roulette, pulling that off was a fluke. Dale wasn’t really prepared and so neither was Other Dale.
But this time, he had it locked down.
Which meant so did his alternate version.
(A small voice asks him if he is the deviation.)
(He shuts that small voice up with a heavy mental boot.)
So now, Other Dale — OD — is out there. OD’s like a dick flapping in the wind — you never know if you might get piss in your eye. He’ll want the Box back. Because the Box is the power. Dale’s just this minute getting handed a check for $478,642. And he wrestled the Box back from OD.
Which means OD is going to want those things.
Which means OD is going to come for him.
That flips the equation. Kicks the table over.
Dale heads down to the lower level. It’s empty down here. Unfinished. Go one way, that’s where the jockeys gather. Go the other way, it’s just concrete and rebar, wiring and exposed pipe. He doesn’t know what they plan to do with this space: a restaurant, maybe. Extra parking. No idea.
He passes by the bathroom. The unfinished one. Closed off with nothing but a swatch of yellow tape.
He ducks under the tape. Thinks, Maybe I’m in here.
What a weird way to think. He corrects himself: Maybe OD is in here.
He pokes around. The stalls are up. With doors and toilets. Sinks aren’t in. No urinals, either. Over there’s a space carved out of the concrete for a blower, or maybe a towel dispenser.
Dale steps into one of the stalls and he gets that thing where it’s like, Okay, you’re faced with the opportunity to piss and now you have to piss even if you didn’t before. He identifies immediately that this is a childhood thing: his father always telling him before any car trip, “You gotta piss, you piss now, because otherwise we ain’t stopping.” And that was true, too. If Dale or Bill had to go, Pop wouldn’t care. He’d just keep driving. Toss an empty soda or beer bottle into the backseat, tell the boys, “You gotta go, go in there.” It’s hard to whizz in one of those things. And he was always afraid of getting his wiener-tip stuck in the mouth of the bottle.
Plus, if you splashed any on the seats, you’d catch a beating.
Well. Bill never caught a beating.
So now, he’s got a compulsion. Thinking about urinating means having to urinate. Even if it’s only a few drops going bloop bloop bloop.
No water in this toilet. What’s it matter?
He unzips. Drains the proverbial dragon. Gives it a shake and—
Outside, a scuff of a shoe. The whisper of the tape blocking the door.
Dale winces, hops up on the toilet.
He’s no ninja. It makes a sound.
He hears his own voice echoed back to him:
“You in here?” OD asks. “I want the Box. I want the money.”
Dale grits his teeth. Don’t say anything. Don’t let him know you’re here. Maybe he’ll think you’re a rat. Or a leaky pipe.
He reaches into his pocket. Quiet as he can muster. He finds the syringe. Pulls it out…
Another footstep. Then a third.
But then: another voice.
Heavy Philly accent. Voice wet like he’s got a half-chewed sandwich in the back of his throat. “Hey. You’re that guy.”
“The guy that just drained the pool.”
“Drained the — what? I don’t think so.”
Now, a third voice. Higher-pitched, still male, still Philly. “There he is. Mister Moneybags. Mister First Four himself.”
OD: “I don’t know who you—”
Then, a sound: thwip click click click click!
OD makes a sound, too: a grunting squeal. Nnnggghheeee!
A body hits the porcelain.
High-Pitch: “Pick him up.”
Throaty Guy: “I’m not picking him up all myself. Youse pick him up. I got back issues.”
High-Pitch: “Back issues. You’re gonna have fuckin’ breathing issues when I shove your cock and balls in your mouth.”
Throaty Guy: “I got a slipped disc.”
High-Pitch: “I got a slipped disc. Jesus, you sound like my fuckin’ aunt. How’s this: we’ll do it together.”
Throaty Guy laughs. “I don’t wanna ‘do it’ with you, Morty. I mean, I like you and all, but—”
The sound of a smack.
Throaty Guy yelps.
High-Pitch, AKA Morty: “Shut the fuck up, Pete. No homo, okay? Help me pick this dick-cheese up.”
The rasp of fabric on a floor. OD whimpers. Throaty Guy — Pete — grunts. Morty says through a moan: “You got him?”
“I got him.”
“Now let’s go. Jimmy Pick is gonna wanna talk to this jabroni.”
Dale waits a while, then runs like fire through a haystack.
29. WALTER AND SUSANNAH
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: October 23rd, 2011.
Susannah. Her apartment in boxes. Black marker labeling each: KITCHEN. BOOKS. BEDROOM. DISHES. Second box marked BOOKS. A third. Walter feels good about her. Anybody who reads can’t be all bad.
He paces in the kitchen, trying to call Dale’s phone. It just goes to voicemail, but he hears the man’s voice for the first time:
“Dale here. Leave a message.”
Walter hangs up.
Then dials it again. And again. Getting the message each time, all the while the girl sits in the other room, sniffling and occasionally looking his way. He knows he shouldn’t but on the fourth call he leaves a message:
“Dale. You are a puzzle I intend fully to solve.”
Then he hangs up and goes back to Susannah.
“You’re looking for him,” she says.
“Why?” She looks up through eyes that shine like wet glass.
“Because he’s wanted in connection with…” The words wither in his mouth. “Because there’s a great deal about Mister Gilooly I do not understand and at this point I’ve picked and poked the hangnail enough I have to rip it down to the root or it’ll drive me mad. You ever have anything like that? Anything or anyone that’ll drive you mad?”
She sighs and laughs. Not a happy sound. “That’s Dale for me, too. Dale will drive you mad. Drive anyone mad. Drove himself mad, maybe.” She winces, pinches the top of her nose. “No. That’s not really right. He’s not crazy. But he’s broken. Some things you can put back together, some things you can’t. Dale’s like a dropped mirror. Big shards and little shards and seven years of bad luck. It’s not his fault, but still.”
“Not his fault?”
“He’s had it rough. Bad Dad. Not much of a family. Trouble in school. Turned to drugs. Met me. Did more drugs. I got clean. He did, too, I guess, but something stayed with him. Some empty space he just can’t fill. I don’t know if he’ll ever get right. I want to feel bad for him. I want to reach out and make him better. But comes a point where it doesn’t matter how you were raised or what happened to you because there you are, in the world with everybody else. They don’t know you. They don’t care. All they know is how you keep inflicting yourself on them, you know? Just over and over again. That’s Dale. Inflicting himself on others. I feel bad. But at the same time, we’re all sharing the same air.” She sighs. “I need a cigarette.”
“I don’t have one.”
“I don’t either. Quit years ago.”
“You ever… see Dale with anybody else that… looks like Dale?”
She stiffens. “I don’t understand the question.” Her fingers curl back into her palms, forming half-fists. Is she nervous? Put off by the question?
Does she know something?
“Never mind,” he says. “It’s probably nothing. You know where he is now, where he might be—”
His phone rings.
It’s him, he thinks.
But it isn’t. It’s work.
It’s Timpkins. “Walt. Walt. We found another body.”
Walter tries not to harrumph. He fails. “Add it to the tab.”
“No, you’re not understanding me, Detective. A different body. Not one of the… duplicates.”
“Who is it?”
“Not sure yet. Trying to pull prints. Teeth. Smaller body. Male, definitely male. Far end of the patch. Not deep, but away from the others.”
Walter doesn’t really understand — in fact, every new piece of this puzzle seems to rob two more off the table, like the answers to questions are subtractive instead of additive — but he knows it makes his guts tighten. Knows that somehow this means things have changed. How, he doesn’t know. He just knows that the story has shifted, somehow.
He hangs up the phone, turns back to Susannah.
“Everything okay, officer?”
“No, nothing is fine. I’m tired.”
“I’m tired, too.”
“You’re too young to be tired.”
Then he says, “I need an address. For Dale.”
“He has an address. Down the Shore — a beach house a few blocks from the beach. I’ll write it down for you. Surf City.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
She gets up, goes to the kitchen, gets a pen. “You know, I hope you can help him. That’s what he really needs. Help. Help from himself. He’s his own undoing. Dale is Dale’s biggest problem.”
“Maybe we’re all like that.”
She nods, pops her lips. “Possibly so.”
“Jeez, you really are a detective.” Her words hurt him. He doesn’t expect that. He’s getting old and soft, now. Like a tree rotting at the stump — even a stiff breeze makes him wobble. She apologizes, suddenly. “Sorry. I can be a bitch sometimes. Dale just ratchets me up.”
“What did he come here for?”
“To try one last time,” she says. “But we had our second chance and he blew it. We blew it. And I’m not one who believes that nonsense about how the third time is a charm. Make a mistake three times, you start to think it’s not a mistake at all. That’s not me. I’m not Dale.”
“He’s why you’re moving.”
She nods. “I just can’t do it anymore.”
30. BODY COUNT
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: December 29th, 2010.
The clock clicks over to midnight, and Dale enters the bar.
It’s been a long day and a long night and he’s a bit sauced on fancy cocktails. Drinks with ingredients he doesn’t even understand. Egg foams. Grapefruit bitters. Crème de violette. Elderflower. All of it sweet and sticky and clinging to the inside of his mouth like a swallow of some grandmother’s cheap perfume. He’s got a spill on his shirt. His hair is a-muss.
It’s the third speakeasy — place called Nolasco’s — where he finds what, or rather who, he’s looking for. He chats up the bartenders at each until at Nolasco’s he meets a young Mister Hearne. Kevin Hearne.
Kevin with the curl of ravensblack hair around his elfin ears. Kevin with the little waxy mustache. Kevin the hipster mixologist.
Kevin the boyfriend of Susannah.
They talk for a while. Dale finds out the score.
And then he writes Kevin a check for fifty thousand dollars.
“You’re going to dump her,” Dale tells him. Words slurring a little as he swirls the gin fizz. “You’re going to kick Susannah out. Poof, gone, goodbye. And if you don’t do that, I’m going to put a stop payment on that check and claim you stole the money. Get the cops involved. Go to the bank in the morning and they should tell you the check is good. Then you do the deed. You understand me?”
“I love her.”
“She worth fifty grand to you? Because she is to me.”
“Fine. I got some cash, too. Here’s something up front—” He puts a thousand dollars in hundreds down on the bartop. “Consider that a tip for a job well done. You’ll do it, then, loverboy?”
Kevin stares, unblinking before finally nodding.
“Good. Take this away. It tastes like scrambled eggs and lemonade.”
And then he’s staggering backward, almost knocking over the stool.
He finally decides to head home. He hasn’t been back there today. Not yet. As he walks, he wonders what happens next. The mob guys — assuming that’s who they were — will probably break bad on OD. Thus cleaning up Dale’s mess for him, to his great pleasure and surprise. Then Kevin tomorrow morning will break up with Susannah and then—
His future awaits. A future once thought left to disrepair. Once unfixable and thoroughly fucked. Now soon to be blissfully unfucked.
He goes back to his apartment.
Fumbles with the keys.
Opens the door.
It’s the blood he sees first. The bright red. Dark and wet. Like the red of a firetruck, it’s hard not to see.
A man lays face down on the floor. Oiled back hair matted with a crater of red decorating the back of his skull. A crater rimmed with curly gray meat, like rain-bloated nightcrawlers.
Next to him, a second body: Dale.
Then: a third body. Concussed Dave. Still alive. Not shot. Bound up to the chair, turned over on the floor.
Finally, standing over them all: another Dale. Gun in his hand.
A stain on his shirt. Hair a-muss.
“Welcome to the party, pal,” Drunk Gun-Toting Dale says, and laughs.