Surf City, Long Beach Island, New Jersey: July 15th, 2011
It’s midnight and Dale stands on the beach in bare feet, wet sand sucking at his toes. A little further down the shoreline sits a circle of kids playing guitar and sloppily banging on bongos as they laugh and sing and smoke weed. Closer in the other direction is a couple laying there on a rumpled towel—he’s on top of her with his hands planted on the ground like he’s doing push-ups, and she’s writhing and scratching his back with fingernails long enough and sharp enough to remove the grout from between bathroom tiles. His hips move against hers. He grunts. She squeaks.
Dale clutches the box to his midsection. In part to hide his erection.
The box. The red box with the black button.
Moonlight catches in the box’s shiny metal edges.
He picks a jetty and walks out onto the stone as the gray surf claps against it, the white churn splashing and sliding between rocks back out to the great wide hungry mouth that is the Atlantic Ocean.
Dale goes out as far as he can before the jetty is swallowed by the sea.
He knows what he’s gotta do.
But then he hears it:
Footsteps. Behind him. The wet slap of bare feet. Walking confidently, as if the person already knows the contours.
Dale grits his teeth. “Lemme do this. It’s bad mojo. It has to go.”
“It’s a mistake,” comes the voice. The voice is wet, throaty, and the man coughs. “I almost died going after it. The undertow got me. I was able to hit the button before it sucked me out to the big blue nowhere. We need it.”
“Shit. Shit.” Dale winces, cocks his arm like he imagines a Major League pitcher would. “I’ll throw it. I’m gonna throw it.”
Dale tenses, starts to whip his arm—
The bang of a gun.
The feel of something punching through his heart.
A cloud of gunsmoke, the stink of sea brine.
The box drops out of Dale’s hands as he tumbles forward into the surf.
2. THE PUMPKIN PATCH
Bucks County, Pennsylvania: October 20th, 2011
Detective Walter Bard throws open the front door of his sedan and plops down into the seat, his rain slicker already shedding water—all of it soaking into the upholstery—but at this point he doesn’t give a good goddamn. He’s hungry and twitchy and itchy and the day dragged on into night and the rain is a just a fist pounding the field into an apocalypse of greasy mud. He hasn’t eaten in six hours and his blood sugar’s wonky. And he needs a cigarette the way a baby needs milk.
Into the glove compartment with a shaky hand.
Egg salad sandwich. Maisie made it. Good. Fine. He pops the Ziploc, fishes out a half-finished cigarette from the cancer stick porcupine that is the Chevy’s ashtray and screws it between his lips.
He turns the key. Pushes in the sedan’s lighter with a thumb.
Outside, through the rain-slick windshield, the night is bright and smeary. Floodlights illuminate human shapes that work tirelessly through the night. Men sinking up to their knees in muck. His own pants are ruined. His socks, full of mud. He’ll have to burn these shoes, probably, just to get them dry again.
He’s suddenly queasy thinking about it. The egg salad sandwich in his hand gives off that eggy stink. His guts twist up like a bunch of snakes.
This isn’t the case he wanted to catch. Other detectives would’ve popped a nut trying to get this case. They want the fame. Bard wants the numbers. His name on the board with twenty unsolved murders? That’s no gift. The other dicks are cocky. They think, I’ll solve this, get my name in the papers—though now these days who really gives a wet fuck about the newspapers—and make a career off catching a serial killer. Because that’s what this is. A serial killer. But the reality is, these ego-fed fatheads won’t solve squat. Which means their names will be staple-gunned to a major unsolved serial killer case for the next hundred years.
He looks down at the egg salad sandwich.
It smells like dead bodies to him, even though he knows it really doesn’t.
Still. He needs to eat.
The passenger side door pops open, about gives him a heart attack. It’s Timpkins, the praying mantis-looking forensics geek. The nerd wrestles with an umbrella as he tries to get in the car.
Timpkins, out of breath just from the effort, slides into the seat, the now-bent umbrella in his lap. He uses his long thumbs to squeegee rainwater from his shop teacher glasses. Squeaaaaak.
“Timpkins, can a guy get a minute? I’m—” Instead of finishing his sentence, he holds up the sandwich and shakes it.
Timpkins thrusts out a folder.
“It’s a folder.”
“Timpkins, Christ, I get that it’s a folder. You really think I’m that bad a detective I can’t identify basic fucking objects?” Before the geek can answer, Bard continues: “What’s in the folder?”
“I—we got back the dentals on eight of the bodies so far.”
“The first eight?”
“The first eight, yes.”
“So? Whadda we got?”
But Timpkins, he looks shell-shocked. That’s normal enough—he’s got those big eyes and everything. Usually, though, his mouth is a tight little butt-pucker. Now it’s hanging open like he’s got something to say but he doesn’t know how to say it.
Fine. Whatever. Bard flips open the folder. He’s greeted by teeth. X-Rays. Polaroids. Teeth labeled 1 through 32.
All of it runs together. He flips pages. He’s not seeing anything. It’s not like dental records are magic. They’re not fingerprints. Teeth aren’t put into some kind of International Dental Database. You can find out some things through dental records: bite pattern, identifying marks like cavities or discolorations, and if you have an idea who the victim is, you go to the guy’s dentist and you ask to see some X-Rays to match ‘em up.
“I feel like I’m looking at one of those Magic Eye paintings,” Bard says, “but I’m not seeing the damn dolphin. Do me a solid and tell me what I’m supposed to learn here.”
“They’re the same.”
“The same. I don’t follow.”
“The same teeth.”
“Every tooth in your head is different, Timpkins.”
“No. The teeth of each of the victims. They’re the same.”
“The teeth in each corpse are identical to every other corpse. It’s the same bite pattern—slight underbite, a depression of the upper canines, a wearing down of the lower bicuspids. Filled cavity in the third upper molar on the right. Sealant stain on the lower molars and premolars.”
“That’s not possible.”
“No,” Timpkins says.
“Siblings, maybe? Like, ahhh, octuplets.”
“With the same cavities and stain, I don’t know…”
“Well, they can’t be the same person.”
Timpkins stares. “Of course. You’re right.”
Then: bam bam bam—a fist pounding on the driver’s side window.
Bard grouses, rolls down the window—sheets of rain come hissing in before Officer Gardulo sticks his head in.
“What is it, Gardulo?”
“We got two more bodies, doc. Thought you should know.”
And then Gardulo’s gone. Back into the rain. Into the mud. Into the pumpkin patch to dig up and haul out more corpses.
“They can’t all have the same teeth,” Bard says, his voice quiet, his voice hoarse. “All twenty, I mean.”
“All twenty-_two_, now.”
He looks down at his egg sandwich. “Shit.” He chucks the food back in the Ziploc and flings it into the back seat. “Back to work.”
3. THE WATCH
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: December 16th, 2010
Bill’s standing out in the slush when Dale comes out of the meeting. Bill’s got a big ski jacket open at the front, a t-shirt underneath. Wearing shorts despite the weather because, hey, that’s Bill.
Bill’s voice booms: “Hey, little bro-dog.”
Fat thumbprint snowflakes land and melt on Bill’s Phillies hat.
“Hey, Bill.” Dale gives a flip wave. “Been a while.”
Dale’s brother thrusts a meaty paw into his pocket, returns with a black box. He grabs Dale’s hand and slaps the box into it.
“Merry Christmas,” Bill says.
“Whaddya mean what’s this? Open it.”
Dale cocks an eyebrow, pops the box.
It’s a watch. A gold Seiko. The front face scratched up, as if by a little cat. A scent of something familiar comes off it—cologne. Stale cologne. Old Spice if it had been in a nightstand drawer for the last ten years.
“It’s a watch,” Dale says.
“It’s a watch!” Bill says and pumps his fist. “A gold watch.”
“A gold-_plated _watch.”
Bill looks stung. “That’s one of Dad’s, dude.”
“I can smell that, yeah.” He takes another sniff. His father used to slather that cologne on his face, his neck, behind his ears, beneath his underarms. Probably used to brush his teeth with it in the mornings or mix it with vodka in the evenings. “But I’m sorry, why?”
“Dad wanted you to have it. He’s proud.”
“Yeah, but I’m kind of the _keeper _of Dad’s… spirit, now.”
“You were made executor of the will. You were made the keeper of Dad’s stuff, not his spirit.”
“Right. So—look! The watch.”
Dale sighs. “Bill, I haven’t seen you in a year. Dad’s been dead for two. And when it came time to honor his will, I didn’t end up with shit and—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, Cheryl and I—and the law! And the law—knew that if we gave you any money we all knew where it would go. Which is why you’re here, now.” Bill flips a glib finger toward the door behind Dale. “But everybody sees how you’re getting all fixed up and we’re all proud of you and it’s Christmas and, you know…”
“So, I get a watch.”
“One of Dad’s… hundred different watches.”
“Thirty, but yeah. He was punctual as shit, dude. He always said, If you’re on time—”
Dale helped him finish the sentence: “—you’re already late.” Snow melts on the scratched-up watch face. Dale claps the box shut. He holds it up and says, “Thanks, Bill. Merry Christmas.”
“Hey, hey, hey, let’s go get a drink. Cheryl’s not expecting me home for a while and there’s a bar around the corner—”
“Yeah, but you were addicted to pills, not booze.”
Dale leaves the alley, leaving his ill-dressed brother alone in the snow and the muck. He looks at the watch one more time and thinks:
I’m going to go get high now.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: December 17th, 2010
It’s just past three in the morning and the Philadelphia sky has taken on that chemical burn color: like someone painted the night with spray tan from a can. The snow falling only seems to magnify the infernal glow.
He is not yet high.
He wants to be. He wants to be so fucking bad.
But nobody’s holding. Or he can’t get in touch with them. It’s been a year since he’s even tried to get the hook-up—and now all the old roads are closed, all the past bridges burned and fell into sobriety’s river.
As he walks past a row of pawn shops not far from Temple, he thinks, I’ve got one more option. _It’s a bad option. The _worst option. An option he’s already considered given that his feet have carried him here.
But if there’s one thing to know about Dale, it’s that he is not the King of Good Decisions.
So: he pulls out his phone. He bites his own teeth, wincing like a man who’s about to have a bullet pulled out of his shoulder-meat with a pair of forceps and not one lick of anesthetic.
And then he dials.
It rings for a while.
It’s late. Too late. She’s not going to answer.
And then she answers.
It almost _physically _hurts him when he hears her say hello.
“It’s Dale,” he says.
Susannah sighs. A lot going on in that sigh: a tangle of disappointment and disgust, but maybe, _just maybe, _a little thread of pleasant surprise, too. Or is that just wishful thinking, Dale wonders?
“Dale—” she starts, but he cuts her off.
“Hey, I’m in the city, and I thought, we… haven’t talked for a while and I know it’s late but we could get together, I dunno if you’re hungry—”
“Dale I’m with somebody.”
Boom. A chair through a plate glass window. A steel beam through a wall. Building collapse. Nuclear bomb. It shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t hurt him the way it does—an ice pick shoved right in the space between his heart and his stomach—but it does. They’ve been apart for—god, how long has it been? Since before he got sober.
All he can say is: “Oh.”
“So I’m gonna go.”
Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it—
He says it.
“You have any Oxy?”
This one contains no such thread of pleasant surprise.
“You’re an ass,” she says. “You call me up after all this time and you just want to get high. I thought you were getting sober.”
“I was. I am—”
“I don’t do that anymore. I’ve changed. You ought to think about it, too. Changing. Because you’re a mess, Dale. You’re like a car crash that keeps rewinding and replaying, rewinding and replaying.”
“It was just an excuse,” he lies. “I just wanted to see you—I really am sober, I’m good, I’m really good.” Lies layered on lies layered on lies: a spongy lie cake with creamy lie icing. “I’ve got a job.” Lie; the coffee house fired him three days ago for being late again. “I’m thinking of starting the band up again.” Lie; he sold his set a year ago to make rent and hasn’t played drums in a lot longer than that. “My Dad died.” This, not a lie, but the way he says it makes it sound like maybe this just happened, and he knows even as he says it it’s a cheap, shitty bid for sympathy.
And it works. “I’m sorry about your father.” But not for long, because then she says: “But that doesn’t excuse your behavior. Or your life.”
“And by the way,” she says, “calling me up at three in the morning just to get high is low, even for you. There’s an etiquette to addiction, you know.”
“Wait, wait, wait—”
And she’s gone.
Somewhere, a car alarm blares.
It feels like the air has been sucked out of him: shoomp.
And then the monkey fills the void: the monkey of need, the monkey of want, that chattering primate with his bug-eyes and his loud cymbals and a little fez filled with Oxy and Vicodin and Ritalin and all the other magic little pills and the monkey screams and the monkey hoots, daring Dale to grab the fez, scarf down all the pills, gobble gobble gobble, ook ook ook—
He needs to get high so bad he can feel it in his skin.
Every dermal cell. Thirsty for the fix.
One last shot.
He’ll have to find a street dealer.
5. WAKEY WAKEY
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: October 8th, 2009
The phone rings and Dale’s foot spasms at the sound of it, kicking a beer bottle and sending it spinning across the room, thudding dully into the leg of the coffee table. He peels his face off the hardwood—the drying spit on his lips and cheek sounding like Velcro pulling apart—and he paws at the floor like a blind dog looking for a rawhide chewy. He knocks a few empty pill bottles out of the way until his fingers find the phone.
It wasn’t ringing. It was a text message.
It’s from Susannah.
All it says is: I DID IT.
He makes a small, sad sound at the back of his throat. Like an animal in a trap. He looks at the time on his phone.
Morning. Holy shit. It’s morning.
That can’t be right, it just can’t be—
Another text comes in, also from her:
WE’RE DONE NEVER CALL ME AGAIN
And that’s that.
6. THE BOX
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: December 17th,2010
Colder, now. Snow falling heavier. Winter’s bite in the early morning nibbling away at his marrow—replacing it with ice. Should’ve worn a heavier jacket. Shoulda woulda coulda.
Dale creeps into the alley—heaps of black trash bags mar both sides of it, the bags frozen into lumpy black snow-dusted boulders. The alley runs the length of a short block. Nobody here.
But there should be somebody here.
Used to be. Back when he was using.
Way it worked was, there’d be a kid—10, 12 years old—and you’d go up to the kid and you’d hand him your money and he knew what you wanted because all the corners around here were single-serving corners, like a food stall that serves hot dogs and just hot dogs. You give this kid the money, he knows you’re buying Oxy whether you like it or not. Then the kid is gone—poof, just walks away, and you think suddenly, I got screwed, but then the kid would go to the mouth of the alley and make a hand gesture: nothing fancy, just a mailbox flag falling, a karate chop kiyaa, and then you’d go across the street and a guy would drop a bag on the ground and you’d pick up the bag and—
Well, that was the deal.
But now? No kid. No dealer. No anybody.
Which meant no Oxy.
He’s tired. That revelation should bring his kite crashing down. It should make him want to just get on SEPTA and go back to the grim, dreary-ass apartment he calls home. But it doesn’t. The monkey just screams louder. Biting at the cage bars until its teeth are bloody.
Dale pops the top of the watch box. The Seiko says it’s 3:05 in the morning.
He walks down the alley—maybe he’s missing something, maybe it’s not this alley anymore but the next one—
His ass goes up as his head goes down. Dale’s shoulder cracks hard against the stretch of black ice running the center length of the alley.
Pain blooms like an ugly flower.
He curses under his breath, then plants a hand and tries to get up.
But when he lifts his head, he stares into the eyes of a dead man.
The eyes are frozen: crystallized pearl onions bulging behind frost-rime sockets. Above the eyes sit wild, thorny freezer-burn eyebrows, eyebrows that match the unkempt Charlie Manson beard dusted with salt-white snow.
Dale stumbles backwards and crab-walks in reverse, putting some space between the body—
Not one body.
Two what look to be dead homeless men.
They lay frozen together in what Dale thinks first might be some kind of entwined embrace—but then he realizes it’s a struggle. Like they’re… wrestling over something. He stands and creeps forward, careful not to take another tumble on the ice. And one more realization awaits—
The two men are twins.
They’re identical. Each with the gnarly eyebrows, each with the big long beards. Each is a long, narrow man with the body shape of a bent coat hanger. Their frozen corpses bound up with one another.
Between them is a box.
A red box, by the look of it. Big as a Rubik’s Cube. Each grabbing it with filthy, arthritic fingers. Dale’s heart judders in his chest at the sight of it.
He reaches in—
No. No. What the hell is he doing? Go. Leave. Call the police.
But the box…
It’s red like the color of rose petals—but metallic, too, with a sheen that catches the meager light of the back alley and turns it to liquid. He leans forward and can’t see any machiner’s marks, either—not even along the corners or edges, all of it smooth, as if sculpted in a single go.
And is it humming?
Just a little. A faint vibration that he can feel in his teeth.
He wants it.
Nobody will know. C’mon. These guys don’t need it. He can take it. Can still call the police. Can still find… justice or whatever passes for it.
He’s going to take it. He knows he shouldn’t but he’s already pushed past that, well aware of the guardrails and police tape inside his mind—and equally well aware that he’s jumping right over them. As he always does.
Dale reaches in. Pries back fingers—
They crack like biscotti breaking.
The sound causes him to recoil.
But the box causes him to lean back in and keep trying.
He peels back the fingers one by one. Skin splitting, frozen blood the color of cranberries beneath the fleshy rifts. Dale closes his eyes, curls his own hands around the box—it’s warm and he feels the vibration in his fingertips—and yanks.
Dead fingers break.
The box comes free. He almost falls again, his heels skidding out from under him—but he manages to stay standing.
Dale regards the box.
He feels it—smooth. No hidden lines. Like it’s all one piece. He turns it around like a chimp with an iPhone, marveling at it even though it’s really nothing special, just a faintly humming cube…
With a button.
A black, shiny button. Not raised above the surface but flush against it.
The button is the size of a quarter.
He wants to press it—
Dale jerks his head up, sees some rangy tweaker loping down the mouth of the alley, one hand flipping and flapping in the air like a butterfly on a leash—
The other hand has a gun.
Every inch of the tweaker’s body is trembling, twitching—unsteady as a Tasered epileptic, but that gun hand is straight as an arrow.
Dale says, “Whoa, hold up—”
“This my fuckin’ alley, you prick. I do my business here. I eat my lunches here. I take my shits here. You here fuckin’ with my spaces like you paying rent but I don’t see you paying rent Mister Company Government Man, do I? Do I?”
“I’ll go,” Dale says. “I’ll turn and go, it’s all cool.”
“It ain’t cool!” the tweaker screams—eyes wide, mouth flecked with froth. “It ain’t. You gottta pay a toll now, man. Whatcha got there? I see a couple of boxes. Huh. Huh. What’s with the boxes—?”
“These, ahhh, these aren’t anything. Empty boxes—I came here looking for a hook-up and I keep my stash in here—”
“Then gimme your stash!”
_Shit! _“No, I mean, I used to, but there’s no stash to steal—”
“Steal? Steal?” Again the guy’s eyes go big as moons and he bares his teeth like he’s trying to take a bite out of the world. “I said this was a toll situation, you sneaky motherfucker fuck you fuck you you best hand over both them boxes right damn now—”
Thoughts ricochet around Dale’s head. He thinks, Just give over the boxes and go. Who cares? The red box is, well, he doesn’t even know what. And the black box has the gold—er, gold-_plated—_Seiko in it. Just a stupid old watch that stinks of stupid old cologne and—
And he wants it.
It would be the only thing he has of his father’s.
And as for the red box with the black button—
It hums up into his elbows.
The button seems to tingle. As if giving off an electrostatic discharge.
He wants both of these boxes. (Needs them.)
He’s about to start bargaining—he doesn’t have squat to offer but he thinks maybe the guy will take the few bucks Dale has in his wallet or maybe the sneakers off his feet—
But then it becomes clear that he’s run out the clock.
The tweaker’s gun arm flies up—it stiffens—
The tweaker shrieks like a widow’s ghost—
And that’s when Dale knows he’s dead.
The gun goes off just as his thumb presses the black button.