An hour later, showered and cleaned up but wearing an Adidas warm-up suit—because it's clean and why the fuck not?—Jack cruises across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge toward El Cerrito to find Ralph where he lives. Jack likes the feel of being out of the house, doing something without going to the gym first, and the chill breeze coming in his window. No way he'll catch any visits from Sgt. Hopkins today.
The fact that Ralph's already been up and calling Jack doesn't surprise him. The old Ralph partied till morning four or five nights a week and still made all his meetings, talked the movie dicks blue until his clients got into whatever roles they wanted. Now he'll probably do the same to the Columbian, but Jack's going to be along to make sure it doesn't go wrong. Sometimes things with Ralph did always have a tendency to do that.
In front of Ralph's house, a tan one-family in the middle of a street of tan one-families, Jack sees a white pickup and a green Chevy sedan. Either way, Jack knows why they're using his car. On the lawn Ralph's planted a big "Beware of Dog" sign, but as Jack gets out of the car and walks up to the door, he doesn't hear any barking. Ralph, himself, is probably the dog to beware of.
Jack tries the bell and doesn't hear anything happening for a while, so he knocks twice, waits, then knocks twice again before trying the door.
It opens before he can turn the knob. At a normal person's house this could be weird, but at Ralph's, a place Jack hasn't been in a while, it's not that out of the ordinary. The last time Jack came over, he found the front door unlocked and Ralph tripping his head off on acid in an upstairs bathroom, eating pizza in a bubble bath and listening to Led Zeppelin as loud as his stereo would play it. That was enough to keep Jack away for a while.
Inside, only thin strips of sunlight shine onto the living room furniture through the closed blinds. Jack smells a musty warmth as he steps into the foyer, where he is surprised to see a good-looking mountain bike, something he can't imagine Ralph ever using. "Ralph!" he calls into the house, hears nothing in return.
Stepping up onto the living room rug, Jack hopes he doesn't have to see Ralph naked in his tub again. A big couch dominates the dark living room: a wrap-around sectional, situated in front of an extra-large TV console, with a dark wood coffee table in the middle. TV guides and magazines cover the top of the table, along with some half-finished drinks in various non-matching mugs and cups from various food chains. Jack notices a few magazines on the couch, Stuff and Maxim, a Penthouse. He crosses the living room and enters the kitchen, a small room with a brown linoleum floor and a counter space cut into the wall, one of those gap servers that connects it to the living room. There's a pizza box open on the kitchen table, a single pepperoni slice left in it.
"Ralph, I found your breakfast," Jack yells. "It's ready!"
He steps back into the living room and listens: no sound. He waits, hoping to hear some movement upstairs, Ralph flushing the toilet or walking across the floor. Nothing. No Zeppelin, no bath water, no singing.
Next to the phone in the kitchen, Jack sees a small pad of notepaper with a few names on it: the top one is Tony Vitelli, scratched out; the next is Joe Buddha, an old friend of Jack and Ralph's from the movie days back in Hollywood and the producer on Shake 'Em Down. He'd been one of Jack's chief backers from the start, the guy who took him from bartending on the party scene to movie scripts and let him star in Shake 'Em Down. When it came down to it about the sequel, Shake It Up, Joe Buddha had never backed off; it was the other producers who feared Jack was heading for an explosion, decided to pull out. Joe Buddha's a good guy: short, funny, always smiling, big belly. But his name is also scratched out.
The next and last name on the pad is Jack's. There's no line through it but instead it's been underlined. Seeing his name here in Ralph's house, under these others, Jack gets a soft chill up his spine. He doesn't like the thought of these other names scratched out, his being left.
All the furniture and mess in the living room and kitchen are what Jack would have imagined he'd find in Ralph's house, but through the kitchen window he sees a pool. That's his second surprise: not because Ralph can't afford it, but because Jack can't imagine Ralph ever swimming. And the pool looks new; Jack can't remember it being here on his last visit. But it had been raining, and Jack never went out back. Maybe the point of the pool isn't exercise, Jack considers. Maybe Ralph's got it to show something.
Jack notices a shape outside that's strange, a dark mass under the patio table, something he can't discern: old, dark clothes or a folded up rug. But it looks like it could be something else too.
Jack finds the sliding glass door off the living room open and moves slowly onto the patio, looking under the table. As he gets closer, he can see that it's not old clothes or a rug. Whatever it is is surrounded by a puddle of something dark. He pushes a chair out of the way and moves the table back. He still can't understand—or believe—what he's seeing. Then he gets the whole picture: dark fur.
With the table moved aside, it's clear that the dark shape on the concrete is a dog, was Ralph's dog: a chocolate lab. Now, lying on its side, its head rolled back so its neck and chin face up, it lies in a pool of its own blood.
"Shit," Jack says. He stumbles back a few steps and collides with one of the cheap plastic chairs that go with Ralph's table, almost falling backward. He catches himself on the chair, holding it underneath him, but then its legs buckle and he falls slow and sideways down onto the deck. Eventually, he's down the chair wedged between his legs, suspending one of his feet up in the air.
He rolls himself off it and sits up on the concrete. From here he sees the dog's wet belly, too close, and he pushes back, moving onto his hands and feet, and stands into one of Ralph's hedges. It's just a big green guy, no prickers, but the small branches scratch at his skin through the sweat suit.
But he's on his feet.
Jack moves forward and, with the toe of his sneaker, rolls the dog over to see her other side. Completely wet, the fur matted in crimson, Jack can't see what happened, but the result is clear. He sets her back down, closes the dog's eyes. He pats her head a few times, hoping to send her some good wishes into the doggie afterlife.
"Jesus," Jack says. He walks over to the house, puts his head through the patio door and calls out, "Ralph, what the fuck you been doing here this morning? You taking your fuck-up pills again?"
But now when he doesn't hear a response, part of Jack knows something's wrong. Back inside, he calls Ralph's name out loud into the house. No answer. "Ralph, I know you're tripping hard core up there somewhere, but we're going to get you out of this. I know you've got some popsicles in the freezer and when I find you we'll sit down and have some. They'll really calm you down."
Jack listens, unsure whether he's yelling for himself now, to calm his nerves, or if he really thinks he'll see Ralph on the stairs and hear him say, "Shit, Jack. I did a really fucked up thing to my dog this morning."
Jack knows that's not going to happen. Even if he's gone over the edge himself a few times, passed out in a bad way—needed a friend to pull him off his bedroom floor and shove him into a cold shower—he's never done anything like this. It's because of those times though, and those friends, that he feels an obligation to find Ralph and see what's going on.
Jack follows the carpeted stairs up to the second floor, to where Ralph's bedroom and bathroom are. He starts down the hall, calling Ralph's name into the quiet house as he moves. On his right, the first door opens onto Ralph's office: a bright room with a black computer and a flat screen monitor on the desk, bookshelves of plastic-jacketed comic books. Jack can see clearly that Ralph's not here.
The first door on the left is locked. From what Jack remembers, this is the bathroom where Ralph had his bubble bath. He knocks and re-tries the handle: still locked. At the end of the hall, Jack finds Ralph's bedroom and a big waterbed, the sheets on it strewn about like a couple of Mavericks waves rolled in overnight. A skylight cut into the ceiling illuminates the room with sunlight, what probably woke Ralph this morning.
The place is a love-nest: Ralph has it all set up in here: big TV, DVD, surround-sound speakers mounted high up on the walls. The place even has zebra-print wallpaper and a thicker shag carpet to complete it. Jack would have to give Ralph a little credit if it weren't for another open pizza box—this pizza half-eaten—and a crumpled pair of tighty whities in the middle of the floor.
Then, when Jack walks into the bathroom, he forgets it all: everything that Ralph didn't clean and the drugs he took and everything good that happened last night. The first thing he notices is a red spray against the wall, some kind of discolored mess in the center of it that Jack knows isn't vomit. Then he sees Ralph, fully clothed, lying face down in his Jacuzzi with a good chunk of his skull missing. And Jack knows Ralph won't be sleeping on that waterbed anymore.
Jack moves a little closer, sees the white of bone and something else, something gray that might be Ralph's brain, through the back of his head. His face in a puddle of red. Ralph's been dead for a while.
The mess on the wall must be a spray of blood from where Ralph was standing when they—whoever it was—shot him. If he'd been facing the wall, then slipped down onto the bottom of the tub, he'd leave a trail down the wall and its side like Jack sees now, a big enough spray to cover what's here if they shot him from close range, held the gun to his head and told him whatever it was they wanted him to hear last in this life before they blew off the better part of his head.
Jack stumbles to the toilet and brings up this morning's corn flakes, holding himself up with one hand against the wall and one hand on the back of the john. He's seen enough; he stumbles out of the bathroom and into the bedroom, tripping over the thick rug and falling on the floor. He's got a feeling in his stomach like it's just been lined with metal. and he can still taste the steel in his mouth. On the floor, he looks up, realizes he's got his hand on the underwear and throws them across the room. He sees the edge of the bed just inches from his head, is glad he didn't hit it and knock himself out—then they'd find two bodies here in the house and he'd be fucked.
"God damn," Jack says.
Jack looks up at Ralph's ceiling and the blue sky through the skylight. He takes a few breaths. Mercifully, Ralph let the zebra wallpaper stop at the walls and left the ceiling plain white. Jack covers his eyes with the heels of his hands, presses against his face and irons his forehead smooth with his palms.
"What the fuck?" he asks. He can feel his heart pumping fast, faster than it does on the treadmill, faster than when he's lifting weights or jogging in the morning. It's racing too fast, and Jack breathes deep breaths, trying to slow it down. "Fuck," he says.
An image of Ralph's body in the bottom of the tub flashes across his mind's eye. He shakes his head, trying to clear it, sees the dog, its wet side. Then Jack struggles onto his feet, holding the bed for support, and tries to keep breathing deep breaths. He sits down on the edge of the waterbed, careful to keep his weight on the hard frame—not wanting to wash away—and holds his hand over his heart.
"Shit," he says, gasping for air. He's never had an asthma attack before, but he feels like people do in the descriptions he's heard: like he's breathing through a straw, only able to get small tastes of air. He feels his heartbeat in his fingers.
In a minute or two, when his heart stops racing, Jack sits up and looks around the bedroom. He knows he needs to leave, that whoever killed Ralph could come back or the cops might show up and find him in a crime scene, the house of a dead guy, but he can't move. The thick shag carpet is actually pretty nice, he decides. Sure, it's the kind of thing you can trip over and don't see anymore since the 70s, 80s at best, but when you're down on your hands and knees, it's good stuff. He looks around the edge of the room, past the TV and the chair piled with clothes. He looks past the bathroom, doesn't need to see more of Ralph.
From the fast look he already got, Jack knows Ralph had on a different Hawaiian from last night and tan shorts, short ones that look like he might have been planning a swim. It's a good way to cure a hangover, Jack's heard. Maybe that's why Ralph got the pool. But Jack knows Ralph hadn't planned on going out of the house in that outfit, not with those shorts.
He looks at the dresser and to the nightstand: there's a big bottle of ibuprofen, a roll of condoms hanging out of a drawer. The clock blinks 12:00. Ralph's wallet is next to the clock: a thick leather job that only Ralph could fit into his back pocket. Ralph's keys are on top of the dresser with a pile of change, next to a few credit cards, which seems odd. Why not keep these in his wallet? Jack gets up to look at the wallet, takes a few tissues from the nighttable and uses them to pick it up. It's full of cash. Ralph has a stack of papers, receipts that must date back to the 90s, and a wad of green that could finance strip club trips for a week, even at last night's pace. He looks through the rest of the wallet, but only finds more credit cards, so he's still not sure why the others are on top of the dresser. He pushes them apart so he can look: a Discover card and a MasterCard are on top, both in the name Izzy B. Strong. Fucking Ralph.
With the tissues on his hands, he opens the dresser drawers, starting at the bottom. In it, with a few pairs of Ralph's underwear on top, Jack finds four clear plastic baggies of white powder. These are large bags, keys, Jack would guess, though he's never seen this much quantity before. They called them keys in his movie, in others he's seen, so he guesses they're keys. Without touching too much of what's here, Jack moves a few pairs of big, Hawaiian-print boxers to the side—what was it with this guy and Hawaiian prints?—and on the bottom of the drawer, to the side of the blow, finds a snub-nose .38 revolver, pearl handled, with a six-shot cylinder.
"Ralphie boy," Jack whispers, "What the fuck were you doing?" He takes the gun and tucks it into the back of his pants, thinks about taking the keys and decides against it. Protection he can use, keys of coke he doesn't need now. He closes the drawer gently with the tissues and with a quick look finds just clothes, T-shirts and socks, some more swim trunks, in the other two. As he closes the top drawer, he gets a chill like someone might be watching, and all of a sudden he doesn't feel like he's alone in the house.
On the way out of the bedroom, he drops his tissues in the garbage can, noticing a few porno DVDs on the bottom shelf of the TV stand next to it. There's a clump of what looks like Ralph's hair in the garbage, something that may be weird or could maybe also be just Ralph dealing with his normal life, cleaning out a brush.
The phone rings. Jack starts, actually jumps and does a half turn toward the bedside table. "Shit," he says. The ring comes again: loud and long in the empty house, shocking Jack into realizing that he should definitely get the hell out before someone finds him here with a dead man and his dead dog.
By the third ring, Jack's down the stairs, headed around the couch in the living room for the door. Then the machine picks up and there's a pause. Jack freezes. He hears Ralph say what he says, something with soft music playing in the background and low talking, something about how he's indisposed and will get back to you. Then a beep and a thick-accented voice comes on, says, "Ralphie. The meeting is this afternoon. At the wharfs, near the Bay. I will meet you there at three-thirty, but not if I do not hear from your call. Remember. Today is the day for you." The machine clicks off.
Jack stops for a second to look around, making sure he hasn't left anything of his. He scans the living room again for anything that looks out of place, anything he'd notice and remember. Then he goes to the kitchen and rips off the top page of the notepad, the one with his name at the bottom. On the kitchen divider, he sees the phone and its Caller ID box with a phone number blinking on its screen. He writes it down on the paper in his hand. Just in case.