Said Duke, “Your drop dead moment, we got it.”
He focused those almost-living eyes on me. They were still blue, the color of a lake on a brilliant day, but missing some of the old sparkle.
“You want to know?” he asked.
“Let me think about that.”
“This is your business. You got to believe in the product.”
“How do you know? Why?”
“Lot of questions,” Pimlipper said. “We know. Case closed.”
“You want a partner in the dark?”
“Preferably, yeah. Too bad they’re so hard to find.”
“Here’s the deal, Fatman,” said Duke. “I keep saying this. The sun comes up in the morning. Why? Who the hell knows? You drop something, it goes up instead of down. Could go the other way, but that’s not the world we live in. There are explanations, science, but if everything was topsy-turvy there’d be explanations for that. Reasons why water runs uphill, why the clouds are green and the grass is white. The world could be any damn thing but it happens to be what it is.”
“That doesn’t explain why you know when I’ll die.”
“I think it does,” said Duke. “It happens to be true. There’s your explanation.”
“What, there’s a list? You look it up in a book? You dial into the main office and give them a Social Security number? How does it work?”
“You want a demonstration?” said Duke. “Would that make you happy?”
“Happy, knowing when someone is going to die? No. That wouldn’t make me happy. But if I believed you could actually do it…”
“You got a piece of paper?” Duke asked.
“Jesus, enough with the twenty questions! Get me a piece of paper.”
I grabbed a tablet from the shelf and handed it to Duke. He yanked out a sheet and tore it in six pieces, then slid a piece in front of himself and his dead pals. “Pick somebody you know. Tell us the name. Give us a minute. We’ll each write down his expiration date. Compare and contrast. Though I can tell you already, there’s not going to be anything to contrast.”
“I don’t want to know when anybody’s going to die.”
“Get over it. We’re all dead. You’re all going to die. No mystery there. A year here, a decade there, it all comes to the same thing. Dead. Disappeared. Forgotten. Except to your buddies in the underworld.”
“Think of somebody you don’t care two cents worth. Maybe that makes it easier,” Pimlipper said.
“I’m questioning the whole premise.”
“It’s too late for that. Who delivers your newspaper?”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Just tell me his name.”
“Artie Schmachel. Delivers papers in his Mercedes. Limps. War injury, he says. I think he was a Nazi. He’s eighty-five if he’s a day.”
“We just need his name, not his biography.”
“You guys ready?” Duke asked. “Artie Schmachel.”
They closed their eyes. I thought I heard a faint hum.
“Got it?” Duke said to the dead.
He took a pen from his shirt pocket, scribbled something on his scrap of paper and passed the pen to Pimlipper. They took turns making a note.
Duke swept them into a pile and pushed them toward me. “What do they say?” he said.
They each read, January 15, 2021.
“I wouldn’t have guessed Artie had that long,” I said. “But how do I know you’re right?”
“We’re never wrong.”
“Everybody thinks they’re never wrong.”
“We can make it happen.”
“How are you going to prove that?”
“Artie could hang on until 2021. But Mister Doubting Thomas, because you don’t believe, Artie is going to keel over tomorrow morning between his car and your porch.”
“You can’t do that!”
“Ha. We can. Come on, let’s go,” he said to his companions. They pushed back their chairs and walked single file back to the portal in the coal bin. Without saying another word, they closed the door and were gone.
Tomorrow: Artie’s last delivery