35. TANGLED SHEETS
Surf City, Long Beach Island, New Jersey: July 11th, 2011.** **
The sheets braid the space between their tangled legs. Susannah rolls off of Dale and runs her hands through sweat-slick hair and this laugh bubbles up out of her, this kind of mad, wind chime in a tornado cackle, and that sound makes him laugh, too. Soon they’re braying and panting and then wheezing and eventually the laughing jag winds down like a car overheating on the highway. Then they’re left together, quiet but for the sound of gulls calling and the dull bass of a car down the main drag and kids playing somewhere on the street. Everything is sun and breeze and the lingering smell of suntan lotion and sex.
It hits him, then: he won. This is it. This is the dream.
Susannah and he are back together.
It wasn’t easy. She didn’t trust him, of course. Why would she? But here they are. Time-tested. Universe-approved.
“I didn’t think I’d ever get back together with you,” she says, feeling around the bedside table for a tube of chapstick. She thumbs the cap off with a pop, then circles her lips with it. The smell of chemical pomegranate suffuses the air and Dale wants to roll around in that smell the way a dog wants to roll around in a puddle of mud.
“I always knew we’d crash together again,” he lies.
“Crash together. That’s a telling phrase.” She doesn’t say it in a mean way — no coldness there. A wry twist to her tone.
“That’s how we came together the first time. Just sorta… collided.”
“We did.” She draws deep through her nose. “It wasn’t good.”
“It was great.”
“It was. But I mean, it was bad for us. Bad times, bad tidings.”
“Yeah. It was the pills.”
“It wasn’t the pills. It was us.”
“We were addicts—”
“That’s my point.” She sits up. Now, maybe, a little worry in her voice. “Guns don’t kill people — people with guns kill people. Pills don’t just fall into your hands and mouth. We put them there. Because we were hungry for something bigger and better than what we had but we didn’t want to work for it. It was a cheat. Always a cheat with addicts.” He’s about to say something but then she says, staring off at the wall: “And it’s not the past tense, Dale. We were addicts and we still are addicts.”
She reaches over to the nightstand and palms a cigarette, then screws it between her lips. She fumbles around for a lighter, can’t seem to find one.
“I haven’t popped a pill since… I can’t even remember.” He sits up.
She offers a soft, sad smile. Around the unlit cigarette she says: “That’s the thing. You need to remember. It’s been one year, three months, seven days for me. We’re afflicted. This is a disease without a cure. Like cancer, you’re always wondering when it’s gonna come back, you know?”
“I don’t buy it,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a disease anymore than any other bad habit. It’s chemical, maybe, but you can shake it. I shook it. I don’t know if I buy all that shame and burden that’s _supposed _to come part and parcel with the Twelve Steps. Feels like they want to keep you feeling bad about yourself. Looking back instead of forward, you know?”
“I thought that’s what brought you back to me. Making amends.”
“It was.” He smiles. “Hey, I like _some _of the Twelve Steps.”
“You’re not just addicted to me, are you?” she asks him.
“Maybe.” He says it to be playful, but he realizes how it sounds. Then this look crosses her face. Worry, like lightning flashing in the gunmetal sky above slate-gray seas — and for a moment he feels like he’s looking at someone piling a heap of bad feelings atop a the head of a pin. Untenable balance. But then it all topples and suddenly she’s smiling and moving her mouth to his. Her tongue across his teeth. Her hands parting the sheets, grabbing ahold of his cock. They tumble and tussle and fall back into it.
36. BITE DOWN
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: December 29th, 2010.
Dale stands, half-drunk, in a room full of bodies.
One of them he does not know.
One of them is Dave, who is still alive, and who is babbling.
Two of them are him. Or versions of him made by the Box.
“Blah blah blah,” Dave says. Literally, that’s what he says. Then: “Floo-dee-doo. Bippity-boppity-boo.” Sing-songy. Then, in a cold, almost scientific voice: “We’re going to have to fix this, Dale.”
“The Box has already played its part.”
“Yeah. Yes. Right.” He blinks. “The cops—”
“Are going to come.”
“I can’t — I have nowhere to go. I… what am I supposed to do, they’re going to know it was me because somebody is going to call—” But then it hits him. Somebody is going to call, indeed. Him. He’ll do it. “I’ll call,” he says suddenly, his voice still slurring but his mind sharp as a tack stuck in the soft meat of a man’s foot. “I’ll call. Say I heard a shot somewhere in the building. They won’t suspect me. Not at first. It’ll buy me some time. I’ll do it from the lobby. I’ll meet them there. They won’t know where the shot came from — maybe someone else will call but I’ll say it came from, uhh, came from a different floor and misdirect them and — and then when they’re gone I can deal with…” He surveys the corpses at his feet. “With all this.”
Dave looks up. His eyes are clear. Lucid, even. Gone is that hazy, glazy nowhere stare. “You’re doing good, Dale. You’re almost there. You’ve got money. You’ve got a plan. Soon you’ll get the girl. Everything is almost tied up like a nice pair of expensive sneakers. Soon everything bad will lie behind you. Everything good will lie ahead. It’s all sky from here, Dale-my-boy, big blue skies with endless potential.”
Dale swallows. “Thanks, Dave.”
“You’re welcome, Dale.”
37. NO FISH, ALL BOOT
Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania: October 23rd, 2011.
Timpkins calls with a hit on the dental record.
“Guy named Mortimer Capelli,” Timpkins says.
“Capelli? Like, the Mob?” Walter asks.
“Nephew to Arturo Capelli. Has quite a rap sheet. Long as my leg. Mostly little things. Parking violations and speeding tickets. Resisting arrest. All the felonies failed to stick. He squirmed free thanks to one of the Capelli family lawyers.”
“And we got his body?”
“It would appear so, Detective.”
Walter Bard looks out the windshield of his car. He’s parked in the driveway of a two-story stone colonial. Springhouse out in the back. A few spare grapevines strung up between posts along the side of the house — the leaves on them are starting to darken with autumn’s kiss.
This is the address. That Susannah gave him.
This is Dale’s house.
“Where are you at?” Timpkins asks after a long stretch of silence.
“You haven’t been in for days.”
“I’m chasing this thing down.”
Timpkins clears his throat. “I don’t think this… thing is ours anymore, Walter. Philly Mob? We have to bring in the Philly PD on this. Maybe even the FBI, you know? This is really, uhh, this is very outside—”
As the lab tech rattles on, Bard is thinking, _Who cares? Shut your trap, Timpkins. _But then it hits him, and he interrupts: “You tell all this to the Chief already?”
And then the phone rustles like it’s changing hands. Fabric against the receiver. Suddenly: Chief Danny’s on the line.
“Bard, Bard, Bard-o. Walt. Hey. Danny here.”
“I got that much.”
“You need to bring it back home. Reel it in.”
Bard grumbles. “I don’t have a fish on the line yet, to go with that metaphor. And I’d like to keep—”
“No fish, all boot. Bait’s gone. Listen, we’re fishing in waters that aren’t ours anymore, Walt. You feel me? Philthy Mob? Come on. This is out of our league. Yanno, I’m happy about this. I am. Because we don’t have the manpower to crack this mystery and if the Feds want in, I’m pleased to—”
“We don’t need manpower,” Bard says. “We need one man. One mind. That’s how mysteries get solved.”
“That’s how they get solved in the books. Not in real life.”
They sit on the phone for a while. Everybody quiet. Danny’s doing something, though: tapping a pen or clacking his teeth.
Finally, the Chief says: “Bard-o. You’re a Bucks County dick. You handle… I mean, we don’t get the big cases. Not Philly cases. Wrap it up. Come home. Go see your wife. She out of the hospital?”
“She needs you.”
This case needs me.
“Okay,” Walt says.
“You’re coming back?”
“I’m coming back.”
Then he ends the call, and gets out of the car.
38. TWO BOXES
Surf City, Long Beach Island, New Jersey: July 12th, 2011.
They’re like cats, rabbits, horny teenagers. They’ve barely been to the beach. They’ve barely left the beach house. They go at it in the bedroom. In the tub. In the living room where the neighbors can see. No kitchen, yet. But now they just finished up in the bathroom. Susannah’s palms flat against the fogged-up mirror. Her head cooling on the top of the faucet. She pants. Dale presses in against her, his own forehead against the middle of her back, against the bumps of her spine. He licks his lips. Kisses her back. She reaches back and runs her fingers through his hair. They twist toward each other and kiss even as their bodies disentangle. They press in together. Fingers mesh.
“I didn’t… expect that,” she says, giggling.
“I just—whoo, wow, man.” Everything is sound effects inside his head. Whizz-bang and ding-dong and bells tolling and fireworks whistling. “I just saw you there getting ready in the mirror…”
“And I saw you coming up behind me.”
“Kismet. Serendipity. The ahhh, ahem, the big bang, even.”
“Nice one,” she says. “But I fear we’re gonna be late for dinner.”
“Nah. It’s a short walk. Nice night.” Last night it rained like the heavens were breaking apart and crashing to earth. They made love in the bedroom, beneath the skylight as it hammered the glass. “They’ll hold our reservation.” He made sure of it because he paid them well.
They share one last kiss before changing into their dinner clothes.
They both get dressed in silence. Him in a light blazer and jeans. Her in a red dress — short, bright, not the color of blood (he needs no more of that), but the color of Indian paintbrush.
“I was meaning to ask you something,” she says.
“What’s this box?”
She opens the cabinet underneath the bathroom sink and pulls it out.
Not just a box, but the Box.
The button black as lava glass. The rest of it red — yes, indeed, red like blood, which suddenly he wonders if that’s appropriate.
He hears himself making a sound but offering no words.
“I found it under there when I was looking for paper towels.”
“It’s, ahh, well—”
“What’s the button do?”
She moves to press it.
He quick snatches the Box out of her hands. Aggressively. Too aggressively, as if there was any other kind of aggression.
“Hey, jeez,” she says.
“Sorry, sorry. It’s just — ahh. You weren’t supposed to find that.”
Not a lie.
“I gathered that. And what is it, exactly?”
“It’s… a gift box. A gift box for you.”
Curiosity twinkles in her eye. He knows it: the addict’s gleam. “Well, then, can I have it back?”
“At dinner,” he says.
“At dinner. Oh. Well. Then. We’d better hurry up.”
“We’d better,” he says, forcing a smile.
He has a gift for her, of course — that part’s not a lie. And it really is a box. Or, in a box.
A ring box, as a matter of fact.
39. CHECK YOUR CORNERS
Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania: October 23rd, 2011.
First thing Bard thinks is: This fella has expensive tastes.
In Bard’s house, the decor is some combination of Wal-Mart and Target, with a little bit of Marshall’s discount and Bucks County flea market sprinkled in for good measure. Maisie does all the buying and all the decorating (and, in fact, all the hanging as she’s something of a stickler with getting stuff to sit on the wall just so), and Bard mostly just grunts his assent or shares his dislike with a grumpy, non-committal shrug.
This place, though — he doesn’t know how much this stuff costs, but he knows you damn sure can’t buy it at Wal-Mart. Everything’s got this rustic, antiquey vibe — copper lights and paintings painted on squares from an old red barn and wrought iron accents. Big beams of dark wood above his head. Stone walls. Yet everything has clean lines, too — the old world given a modern arrangement.
He creeps into the living room — no gun out because at this point, why bother? He’s not a man given over to violence, and he’s not sure he really even has much jurisdiction here. Mostly he just wants to stick his shovel into the earthy loam of this mystery and see what lies at the bottom of the hole.
The living room is big — leather couches and a sharp-angled pellet stove in the corner. He steps off one of the hallway carpet runners and the floor beneath his boot makes a hard creak. Then he hears another creak, and for a half-a-second he thinks, that’s a strange echo, but of course it’s not an echo and by the time he realizes it, his last thought before being knocked to the floor and beaten unconscious is: I really wish I were a better detective.
40. ONCE YOU SEE THE RING
Surf City, Long Beach Island, New Jersey: July 12th, 2011.
French bistro meets beach bungalow. It’s not as nice as Dale had hoped but it’s still damn nice — nicer than what he’s used to, to be sure. He’s always been a man with dreams of expensive tastes but also a man who ended up goofy on pills and eating ramen noodles out of a WORLD’S FAVORITE GRANDPA mug, so it’s nice now to hold a menu with words like lobster tagliatelle on it. It’s even nicer to hold that menu across from the woman he loves, a woman he thought he’d lost, a woman he’s determined to never lose again. And so they laugh and drink — martini for her, microbrew for him. She has a beet salad and the two of them share yellowtail tartar. They both get the lobster tagliatelle, and part of him loves how in-sync they are, another part of him thinks how cute it would’ve been to get two different dishes and share them.
She’s beautiful. He didn’t clean up so bad, either. Whatever hard living the two of them have done — and let’s be honest, they’re two white people in America who paid money for fancy pharmaceuticals rather than sucking off strange men for heroin — is no longer evident.
They laugh and tell stories. His are safe; he fears taking the mood down strange roads. Hers are bold and ballsy — she talks about how her father used to yell and scream and throw things at her mother and how her mother once drove their Subaru into Lake Wallenpaupack on a camping trip. Dale worries they’re getting too far from the mood, straying away from safety. Leave the walkway and jump the fences, and suddenly the ground is unstable. The ground can’t be unstable, not here, not tonight, and so Dale tries to fishhook it back to steadier territory—
But then Susannah reaches across and holds his hand and says, “It’s good we can talk about this stuff. It makes me feel closer to you. We didn’t used to talk about this kinda thing. It’s good that we can have all that—” And here she lowers her voice. “—sweet monkeylove and all, but honestly, we did that before when the two of us weren’t too stoned to get it together. I’m happy that we have more than that this go-around.”
“It’s good,” he agrees. “It’s perfect.” And it is perfect — that’s no lie, Jack, because he realizes suddenly that the door isn’t only open, but the sun is shining through the open space and all he has to do is walk through it into forever warmth. He reaches into his pocket and he pulls out the ring box. He turns her palm upward with a gentle touch, then places the ring box in it and opens it first toward him on accident, then he turns the open-mouthed box toward her with a laugh. The ring inside glitters. Princess cut. Tacori platinum band. It catches the light of the candle.
And then he laughs again and quick hurries down to his knee.
“No.” And she laughs, too, but it’s not a happy laugh, it’s an awkward, bewildered laugh. No smile. Eyes staring so hard at the ring he’s afraid her gaze alone will split the diamond. And then she’s shaking her head vociferously, like she’s trying to undo something that’s been done, as if she just saw a car crash and wants to jar it from her mind. “No, no, Dale, it’s not — we’re not — we just started this journey and already you want to end it, I can’t — we can’t—”
And she keeps talking but it feels like every word is a fist punching the air out of his middle. The words keep coming. The fists keep landing. And suddenly he’s reaching over for her purse, and she’s asking him what he’s doing, and everything is slow and echoey and his head feels like he’s in the middle of a big-ass bell as it’s struck again and again—
He pulls the Box out of her purse.
He barely remembers putting it in there. Tucking it in on the way out. A tiny thought in his mind: Just in case. Same thought he used to have when he’d pocket a pill bottle on the way out the door. I won’t need these. But just in case. She’s protesting, now, taking her purse away, and she asks him why he’s acting this way and, oh, hey, why was that Box in her purse?
And he has no answer for her.
All he says is, “Sorry.”
And then he punches the button.