The first Albert hears of Dale's disappearance is a late afternoon call from Lucy, the receptionist in the Sheriff's office. This call is heralded by Gordon's voice in the doorway booming that there's been a disturbance in DC and, say, isn't Dale still up in that weird little town?
The facts are these: Dale has disappeared from the Great Northern Hotel with a head injury. Doc Hayward spends the night picking glass out of his scalp, then Truman takes first watch. The buffoon steps outside to grab a coffee. When he comes back, Dale's bed is empty. Nobody sees him leave. He doesn't pass the desk, and the lone camera at the front entrance – a recent installation and a sign of the changes in Twin Peaks – captures nothing. He doesn't pack, and he doesn't leave a note.
Albert's voice blisters down the phone line. How is it that Coop just keeps getting hurt in this place? He is startled when Lucy bursts into tears and hangs up on him.
Details are coming in from the Hoover Building now. Security have picked up an anomaly: an agent identified as Dale Cooper has been sighted on camera, though nobody can remember seeing him in person. Somehow he bypasses every entrance into a secure building. He's seen at the elevator bank, walking with great purpose and a wide smile, then he isn't seen again. He never checks in. He leaves without passing any security points.
(He walks past Fox Mulder in a busy corridor, and pauses for a moment. Mulder looks back over his shoulder – did that agent just sniff his hair? – then he's distracted by the files he's reading. This is before Mulder has learned to see the extraordinary in the mundane, before he learns what lives in shadow. And though that boy smells great, BOB has better things to do today.)
By the time the Sheriff's Department has messed around with search parties, it's twelve hours since Dale was last seen. Albert is going back to that hick village. He doesn't have an explanation, beyond the assumption that whatever is going on in Cooper's head – PTSD, psychosis, physical trauma – Twin Peaks will function as a magnet for that psychology. Gordon accepts the hypothesis with a nod, which is worrying in itself.
"REMEMBER, ALBERT!" Gordon bellows over the desk. "YOU DON'T HAVE TO BECOME THE HUNTER TO FIND THE PREY. WATCH YOUR BACK. AND KEEP ONE EYE ON YOUR REFLECTION. IF IT ISN'T ACTING RIGHT, YOU TAKE TEN STEPS BACK AND CALL ME."
Gordon is the king of stupid metaphor, but Albert is grateful for the expedited plane trip.
Albert's hire car doesn't even raise eyebrows; the town has changed since Laura Palmer's murder. Albert chooses to view this as a good thing, basically. There was such a thing as too innocent, and in his opinion that closed-minded thinking contributed to the violence this town has seen.
The meeting with Sheriff Truman goes no better and no worse than Albert would have predicted. Truman has a coolness and a possessive pride that Albert could do without, but to be fair, the man is worried about Cooper. The troubling thing is that Truman's concern for Dale seems purely base and physical to Albert. This brings a disturbing realisation home: Albert's concerns are spiritual. With no evidence and no reason, Albert is afraid for Dale's soul.
Albert hates – would hate with his last breath – the idea of acting on intuition. He stands on the main street alone, and watches a fire truck zoom past. Dale's soul is vast and kind, and Albert cannot imagine it gone from the world. The siren wails, and the skin on Albert's neck goes chill.
Dale's arm is numb, but he is running like a deer. No, he is a lion bounding overland. He laughs with the joy of it, with the heat and the power of it, and he runs. There is blood, of course. Blood and flesh and bone – all scissor together in perfect connection, and every breath is ice in his chest. Tiny parts of him are pulsing blue and red like flashing lights, but he is flying now and he doesn't care to listen.
For some reason, Truman insists that Albert visit the bedside of Dale's girlfriend.
"They were together in the woods," he explains in that maddeningly slow voice. "Maybe you'll see something that we didn't."
Albert conducts an examination of the unconscious girl. As the perfectly competent – if unimaginative – attending physician has diagnosed, there's a compressed fracture of the skull and a series of deep slashes across the face. It's going to scar, he thinks, as he peels the bandages back and takes in the wide slice across the cheek, the broken, swollen nose. She's in an induced coma to prevent swelling of the brain, and her long, blood-soaked hair is a past memory. Albert isn't sure if she'll survive long enough to grow it back. The injury went very deep.
Truman lurks in the corner, alternately whispering into his radio or watching Albert warily. The man is clearly nearing his limit. So is Albert.
"What? Spit it out, Sheriff. I don't have the time or the patience that Cooper did, so just give it to me. You can't possibly be concerned for my sensibilities."
Truman leans a little closer. "Is there any chance that this" – he indicates the girl in the bed – "this is something Dale could have done?"
Albert shakes his head pityingly. "He lived here, you worked side by side for months. And you think that's possible?"
"It was a hell of a night, Doctor Rosenfield." Truman's expression seems to indicate that anything was possible at this juncture.
Over hill, over Dale, as we hit the dusty trail...
His hand is numb, but there is something clutched in his fist. It flutters in the wind.
"Shopping list," says a voice that is his own. "Gotta break a few eggs if we're gonna make an omelette."
The glass is broken in radiating circles. It's a pattern Albert recognises from a dozen ugly domestic violence scenes.
"You see that, and you think he fell?" Albert's voice is incredulous. "Someone took him by the back of the head, you moron, and they rammed his head against the mirror. Cooper wasn't alone in here."
Sheriff Truman crosses his arms. "We cleared the room. There was me, Doc Hayward and Coop. That's all."
Albert spends the rest of the afternoon scraping between the tiles on the bathroom floor. There has to be a trace. Nobody appears out of nowhere. Unfortunately, the yokel babushkas who clean this place have worked ruin on any remaining biological material. There's little trace of Dale, let alone a stranger.
The fat burns off like cheap fuel till there's nothing left but the bones. It's time to break the new boy in. This one bucks like a wheel on a bad road when BOB sets him to the task, but they're soon working together.
Albert bags the toothpaste tube – Dale never squeezes from the middle – and as an afterthought adds the toothbrush. If this has anything to do with Windom Earle, Albert won't be surprised to find other DNA on Dale's toothbrush. Windom's fascination with Dale is intimate and perverse, and his attacks aimed at Dale's centre of being. That centre, for Dale, is ordered living.
Dale's possessions are meticulously arranged, and Albert offers an apology to him as he rifles through them. There are no notes, of course, but Albert can ask Diane for transcripts of his tapes. Dale's ring is missing again, and that rankles. Why, amidst this mystical show of smoke and mirrors did Dale stop to pick up his ring? Not his weapon. Not his damn tape recorder. Albert sets his jaw and bags the possessions one by one. As he does, he labels each bag with the name of the victim. This is work, not friendship. Albert knows he is a much better investigator than he is a friend, and he can do his best for Dale this way.
(The ring arrives in the mail three weeks after the explosion, after Agent Cooper vanishes from her father's hotel. When the Sheriff gives it back to her, Audrey turns it over and over in her hand, and examines every nick and scratch in the gold. Then she slips it onto a chain that she wears around her neck. Talismanic, it takes away the hurt that Dale would leave without saying good bye. The envelope in which it arrived – cartridge yellow, the address written haphazardly across the surface in blue ink that has smeared – she stores carefully in a ziplock bag. It's the first clue. She knows there will be others. Bobby, still schmoozing her father, finds her a lockable toolbox, big enough for the rest that she knows will follow.)
A week later the footage from the Hoover building comes in, properly analysed and dissected. Albert checks the time stamps and shakes his head. He draws timelines, maps distances. It doesn't make sense. He doesn't doubt that Cooper had many opportunities to slip away from the hotel, though he can't think of a sane reason for him to do that. Even so, there's not enough time for him to travel between Twin Peaks and DC. Even if he left the hotel and got straight on a private plane, even if that plane took off from the smooth green lawn outside and not the local airstrip thirty minutes away, he couldn't have been caught on camera in the Hoover Building. It's not physically possible. Conclusion: Dale wasn't physically there. It's easier than Albert expected to make that jump, and for the first time he is grateful for all Dale's spiritual clap-trap. He turns over the page, and starts a new list: what would Dale do? The first thing he writes under that heading is 'Talk to Annie'.
The brakes slam on in Rapid City, and Dale emerges blinking into the future. He's in a greasy spoon café, looking down at a plateful of eggs messy with ketchup. He pushes the food around with a fork and realises he is desperately hungry. There's not much else to think about until he's swabbing his plate with a piece of bread and looking around for more. His gaze catches on the curve of a cheekbone, the swell of a lip. It's a kid at the counter buying a milkshake. He's maybe sixteen, maybe seventeen, half shucked out of his overalls already. Dale feels a moment of dread. He's allowed a few precious seconds to claw at the Formica, sending his plate to the floor. Then BOB burns right through him and steals the wheel.
The bandages are off now. Albert can see for the first time how much Annie resembles Laura Palmer, and that's troubling enough. She's unconscious, still, but breathing independently. The doctors are hopeful she'll recover well.
He checks the corridor – nobody but the slack-jawed deputy to catch him doing something undoubtedly stupid – then he sits beside Annie and takes her hand.
"Hello, Annie." Albert can't help feeling idiotic, or worse, like he's walking in Dale's uncomfortably narrow shoes. What should he say? What would Dale say? Dale knows what to say: the perfect non-sequitur to break the ice, how to loosen a suspect's tongue, or put a witness at ease. Albert is better with the bones and the blood. He sighs. Time to be frank. The girl can't hear him. Best just to say what puts his own mind at ease.
"Annie, I am trying to find Dale. Can you help me?"
Whatever he had been expecting, it wasn't cardiac arrest. It's decades since his intern years, but Albert is clearing an airway and bellowing for a crash cart before he realises it. The duty nurses and the on-call doctor shoulder him out of the room and he stands in the corridor feeling oddly invested. Annie is important to Dale. He would want to be by her side, to make her feel safe. Albert doesn't know where to start.
They clip a bird's wings in Soap Lake. She ain't gonna fly again in a hurry. BOB lets the new boy bark a little as they run onward. You gotta let them breathe or they don't last. And BOB wants to ride this one a long, long way.
"Think of a colour," says BOB, as they're running. Dale won't play this game. He thinks of water, clear and clean, falling endlessly against rocks. Water is colourless, he thinks triumphantly. Water is pure.
"Too bad. I like pink." BOB crouches by the bushes, watching the girls in their bathing suits and wondering how the gravel will feel against their skin.
Twin Peaks has been worse than useless. Twin Peaks was always the problem. Albert can't clear his head of the sound of breaking glass, of stupid things Dale has said to him in the past, of the thought that his imperfect fact-bound investigation has missed something vital.
It's time to go home, reassess the situation. He can't help Dale, not here.
"Look at me, I'm Johnny Appleseed." BOB stands astride the small form crumpled in the grass. "We'll come back later, pick some fruit. This is my little tree now."
Dale reels, tries instinctively to block the sensory flood from what just happened, then lets go, gazes down with his eyes clear and focused. That he hates himself is a given now. That he is concerned for his own protection and not that of the child lying in the mud, that he can consider shielding himself when he can't shield her, these things are loathsome. But he has been learning these past days. He lists the things he has discovered, while the child whimpers in front of him: don't try to deflect or distract BOB from a target, BOB will strike with more vehemence than before. Don't try to hide what you fear, that's as good as shouting it out loud. Don't look away, BOB will hold your eyes wide open while he teaches you, until your eyes are burning. So he watches and he accepts and he does not fight. But he's learning. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. These are the first notes in a new song of hope. BOB does not recognise them, because for BOB, surrender is a weakness.
Back in the familiar haze of Pittsburgh smog, Albert assigns himself to the missing person case file with Gordon's blessing.
"CAN'T THINK OF ANYONE BETTER QUALIFIED," says Gordon, and the side-table holding the phone trembles. "KEEP IT UNDER YOUR HAT, THOUGH, ALBERT. IT'S NOT S.O.P. AND REMEMBER: WATCH YOUR BACK. THIS ONE'S GOING TO GET ROCKY BEFORE WE HIT THE SMOOTH."
Albert pushes friendship to the back of his mind. This is a case: there is a victim, there is a perpetrator. Begin at square one.
The ring was always a message, and Dale uses it as such when he mails it to Audrey. He is beginning to see that he no longer communicates in the same way. Words are mythic tools that sweep through a conversation; he wonders how he did not see it in Leland's odd turn of phrase. Sometimes the words are BOB's, mocking the world by dangling the answers right in front of people. Just as often, it's Dale trying to warn people that he is dangerous. The ring is a message, and he will send that message to Audrey Horne.
There are two reasons that he chooses her: the tenuous spiritual connection that somehow had forged between then, and because she is one of the few people who mean little to BOB. BOB snarls and snickers through Dale's mind as the faces flow through his memory. Dale did not want to know these things about his friends, the hideous, intimate things that BOB delights in. When it comes to Audrey Horne and few others – Harry Truman, Hawk, Margaret the Log Lady – BOB does not react.
In the post office, BOB muses on the way breath moved over Laura Palmer's skin while Dale scrawls the address of the Great Northern Hotel. The pen is heavy and unfamiliar in his hand. His calluses are peeling away from his fingertips, where dirt draws fine lines in the whorls and ridges. He presses a ten dollar bill to the envelope and shoves it at the women behind the glass. Then he stands there, head tilted while BOB assesses her reaction to Dale's appearance.
"You need a bath, boy." BOB walks him, stiff-legged, out of the post office while people whisper and point. "You're no good to me filthy."
In the morning, in a motel room that smells of cigarettes and sex, Dale wakes clean with skin rubbed raw. There's a file on the bed, stamped with the Bureau crest.
They get a break when Dale flashes his badge at a crime scene, and someone with more brains than your average hayseed calls it in. Albert is on a plane to Soap Lake, his briefcase jammed between his knees on a seat in coach, teeth set and shoulders rigid. This is not his job. There's no murder victim here to investigate, only the ruin of a childhood. The irony is clear and sharp: Dale could help this kid if he weren't the main suspect. And Albert knows he's only going to do more harm.
It's the first time that he truly believes that he's dealing with evil of some metaphysical quality.
The hospital at Soap Lake could be politely described as rudimentary. It barely bothers Albert. His focus is elsewhere now. As long as nobody is actively obstructive, his temper stays neatly in check. Maybe this is the thrill of the chase, he thinks, as he navigates the warren of tiny wards.
The victim is twelve. There's still blood in her hair. Her lip is split, and her eyes are burning cold and angry. It's not an expression Albert ever wants to see again.
The girl, dwarfed by the bed, doesn't recognise Dale, denies that she's ever set eyes on him. Her parents hover, anxious. They've already identified Dale from his Bureau photograph, and now they're confused and afraid. Albert thinks he should probably say something to reassure them, but the girl's eyes are on him and there's something not right there. He doesn't know what makes him slide the sketch of BOB onto the hospital blanket. He's woefully inexperienced with living victims, and cannot engage the compassion he knows he has with the dead. So, instead, he pulls the sketch from the file in his briefcase.
He's actually okay with the vomit, though the girl's parents – still clinging to social rules that don't now apply to their family unit – are mortified. He's had his shots; he's in no danger here. And to be honest, he's less frightened of bodily fluids than he is of the girl's expression.
In the cheap motel, he sits on a plastic chair and rests his head in his hands. Every time he thinks he has accepted the supernatural aspect of this case, there's another challenge to which he must rise. His previous rationalisation was of BOB as a psychic construct to help Dale solve a vicious series of murders. He tries to understand that BOB is real, but all he can hear is the sickening crunch of Leland Palmer's skull as he stoves in his own head.
Fact: Dale Cooper is possessed.
Fact: If the entity possessing him becomes trapped, it will destroy Dale's body as it leaves.
Proposal: Albert will capture Dale, and (somehow) force the entity from his body before it has that chance.
After processing this information, Albert sleeps like a dead man. When he wakes, there's a new sighting to follow.
In summer, the people wander by the lake like fat chickens waiting for the fox's jaws. BOB roams among them, sated on the terror of a Milwaukee man as he plunged towards an oncoming train. He's not hungry, no matter how sweet and tempting the meat here. He's got something special in mind. He goes to the place where the youth congregate, under a bridge, far away from barbecue grills and watchful parents.
Dale has no idea what city this is – who could tell that from the dark and heat under a cross hatching of girders? BOB is searching for a boy. Dale has the file clutched in his fist. Inside, a photo captures a small suburban triumph: a sandy-headed child hoists a modest trophy skyward with a wide and gap-toothed grin. The colours in the photo are blurring together, with rain, and humidity and the moisture from BOB's tongue. They've been hunting this one for a while now, and BOB's done playing. With his hunger stilled, BOB can wield Dale's badge with a mild expression and a gentle, inquisitive nature. He laughs with the children, shows them his badge. They tell him the boy rides his bike here most afternoons, with a group of friends his own age. They poke at the piles of garbage with sticks or light fires in empty drums, the kind of things boys do. Dale squirms as BOB rifles through his memories of summer holidays.
BOB waits, patient and terrible, in the shadow of a wall plastered with graffiti.
"Hey, mister. They said you were asking about me?" The boy's face is open and unafraid, and it's all BOB can do to keep his tongue in his mouth. When BOB steps out of the dark, though, the boy's eyes widen. Dale notes it down: as with the other children they have stalked, this boy sees BOB, not the body BOB wears. The boy backs away, turns and bolts, but BOB is ready with both arms stretched out. He catches the boy, wraps himself tenderly around that narrow chest and hauls him into the darkness. There, Dale forces himself to watch as BOB wheedles and coaxes his way into the boy, with a constant whisper of promises and sweet dreams of the future, back home in Chicago.
Chicago, thinks Dale. Chicago. He thinks of the city, the skyline, random facts about Illinois, anything to stop himself shuddering at what has just happened. He cannot change anything, he could not help that boy, even though every muscle yearned to save him, even though BOB relished Dale's suffering as he inflicted suffering on that child. Perhaps the boy will be safe for a while? Leland had a comfortable life, a lucky streak in business, a beautiful family. And then – oh, stop, stop, stop, don't think this – then, one day, Dale will be able to come back and make it right.
"Make it right?" BOB throws back his head and laughs, his mouth wide and happy. He reaches inside his jacket, slips a pair of latex gloves onto Dale's hands. "If you're in the mood for salvation, I've got the tools." He's hungry again, and as dark gathers, the homeless are moving in under the bridge. There's nothing Dale can do. He curls inwards, find his centre, pictures a mandala and lets himself fall. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, accepting hardships as the pathway to peace.
Six weeks later, Albert is strung out, wired on coffee and running a mild fever. He's smoking a pack a day now. That, and the bitter winds off the Great Lakes are hitting his lung function hard. He cannot get a break in this damn goose chase.
At Milwaukee Station, Dale is fleetingly sighted in the crowd just before a man is trisected by the 7:10 Chicago-bound train.
In a prison in Shakopee, Minnesota, a woman takes her bible class hostage, demanding that the prison staff clear the place of demons. Dale's badge number is recorded in the visitors' log.
At a gas station outside Thief River Falls, Dale is caught on camera filling up the tank of a battered green pick-up. Shortly after he leaves without paying, the attendant douses himself in gasoline and drops a match.
Albert is torn between relief at seeing Dale alive on camera and frustration at his inability to find a pattern in his appearances. Dale Cooper, even possessed by a demonic entity, could never be random. Albert knows there's a pattern. If he can decipher it, if he can get one step ahead of Dale, he has a chance.
In Chicago, there's a riot under a railway bridge and a homeless man is torn to pieces. Dale's badge number is on record at the precinct handling the case. A diligent desk sergeant checks with the Bureau and discovers that the number is flagged, but it's too late. Dale is gone, and there's a small fire in the evidence locker which destroys a number of unprocessed rape kits.
Albert lies on the lumpy double bed in an ugly motel room, counting cracks in the plaster to avoid thinking about the evidence that fire erased. That night, he dreams of Leland Palmer, and of letters scrawled on tattered cloth. Fire, walk with me.
In the end, it's Diane who cracks the code. Working at home and in her lunch-break, she compiles tiny fragments of data, correlating sightings and diner receipts. Up and down the Great Lakes, each sighting occurs within five miles of a diner where Dale has ordered food in the past. Methodically, with a box of pushpins and a map, Diane creates a list of possible locales.
Albert is a little ashamed; he has never treated Diane kindly. She was always an obstruction to Dale's attention, the gate-keeper. Now, she may have saved his life.
Of the locations, he chooses Bemidji, Minnesota, where Dale once ate a tuna fish sandwich and a slice of blackberry peach crunch. The town is large enough to furnish a hospital and a good bureaucratic infrastructure, but small and diffuse enough that it will appear appetising to the foul being driving Dale. As if to spite him, Dale makes an appearance in Antrim County, close enough that Albert could drive there in a night, but Albert stays put. Dale will have moved on by the time Albert makes it over. Though he's sorry, desperately sorry, for the harm Dale will be doing there, Albert will not catch Dale by chasing him. The only way to save him is to set a snare.
Albert hones his tools as he prepares. He flashes his badge around like a cowboy, appropriates equipment here and there, and sets up shop in a closed down meat-processing plant. From photos, he estimates Coop's body surface area as he calculates dosages. Dale has lost muscle mass since his last physical, and with dosage margins as narrow as this, Albert needs to be exact. He tests the restraints on the table, makes sure the gel pads on the electrodes are fresh and new, and maintains the charge on the defibrillator. He has been trained with the living, and he is routinely surrounded by death, but he's never pushed a person from the former to the latter.
It's going to be wild.
He knows the day has arrived when he wakes to find Sheriff Truman leaning on the hood of a rental car. The deputy – the quiet brawny one, not the anencephalic – is in the passenger seat, feet propped on the dashboard.
"Margaret sent us," Truman says. Albert tries to remember which charmingly creepy villager the sheriff is referring to. He decides it doesn't matter. The point is that Dale must be close now.
With three of them, they can scope out all entrances to the township. Truman may be a dunderhead but he can organise a stake-out. Hawk loads them with pie from the local diner where Dale ate three years ago, and they settle in for the day.
Albert will never tell anyone that he fell asleep on a stake-out, and he doesn't really understand how it happens, since he's humming like a dynamo fuelled by coffee and nicotine. One moment he's warm and dry in the cab of his rental. The next, he's standing on a cliff top, stung by pelting rain. A young woman runs past him at top speed, head down and legs pumping, so full of confidence and acceleration that Albert forgets for a moment that he's standing on the edge of the cliff. There's a flash of lightning and she's flying, then the dark is all around and she is gone. He waits for the thunder, feels it rumble through his body. Another brilliant flash of light and Dale stands in front of him, mouth open, hair plastered flat to his skull. Albert's heart rolls in his chest, then the lights go out. You'll never get another chance, he says in his dream, and he lunges forward. Dale's body is warm and wiry under him as it thrashes. The thunder will call in a minute, Albert reminds himself. Don't get a fright. Just hold on and don't let go.
There's a thumping of knuckles on glass, and Albert jerks awake. It's Dale, and he's tapping on the driver's side window. Albert stares. He's surprised that they're both not soaked to the skin on an imaginary cliff top somewhere in dreamland.
Dale gives him a wave and a smile, and steps back to let him out. Albert takes a deep breath, checks surreptitiously that he has his weapon, and undoes his safety belt. This isn't Dale, but Dale is in there somewhere. He must take care.
"Coop?" His voice is suitably astounded – that part doesn't need faking at least.
Dale smiles a broad smile. "Albert! I saw you parked on the side of the road, and I thought to myself, 'I haven't seen Albert in an age!' There's a great diner down the road, did I ever tell you about the peach pear crunch I ate there?"
It was blackberry peach, you sly bastard. You want to know if I'm checking up on you. "Where the hell have you been? On the Oregon Trail? Selling real-estate? We've been worried, you moron." It turns out that anxiety and anger are also convincingly easy to call upon.
There's a sleek black Porsche parked beside his rental, and Albert looks at it askance. He can't think of a vehicle Dale is less likely to drive, apart from perhaps a unicycle.
Dale shrugs. "You know how it is. The call of the open road, the beauty of solitude. I just had to get away for a little while after..." He pauses, and affects an expression of distress that makes Albert want to gag. "Windom's dead, Albert."
"I went to his funeral, Coop, where the hell were you? We had to put him next to Caroline." It was stipulated in Earle's will and there was nobody with authority to contest it. At the time, Albert was still grounded in scepticism and believed that it would hurt nobody. Now, with a better idea of the desecration that act has entailed, he wants to drive to Virginia and exhume poor, long-dead Caroline. Put her somewhere safe.
"Well, Albert, I'm here now." Dale slowly spreads his hands wide, and Albert has to suppress a shudder. "Here, let me take you for a spin!" He throws open the passenger door of the Porsche. The upholstery is a pale cream. Albert knows exactly how the blood will soak into the leather.
"Thank you, I choose not to die plastered against a tree. That thing is a death trap." Albert takes particular pleasure in the double meaning of the words. "Lock it up, and I'll give you a lift to the diner. This is a nice little town, we can grab some lunch. Maybe you can help me with the case I'm working." Slowly, carefully, he opens his own door and slides into the driver seat. Dale prowls around the front of the car, watching him with a measured gaze. Albert stares back through mirrored shades, daring him to take a chance.
"Why not?" Dale walks with casual grace to the passenger side and slides in.
The moment he pulls out on the highway, and sees Hawk following at a distance on his motorcycle, Albert understands that the stakeout was exactly that. Sheriff Truman staked him out like a goat for a tiger. Dale could never have resisted stopping to peek at Albert, to try to find out why he was here. And now Albert had him in the car. He darts a glance sideways. Dale is thinner than he was before he vanished, and there are wings of silver in his hair. His hands are clean, but the nails are chewed to the quick. His face appears relaxed, until you see the hollow eyes and the terrifying intensity burning there. Albert can easily believe there are two people fighting for dominance in that body.
Dale catches him watching. For a horrible, painful second, the facial muscles relax and Albert can see an expression of utter despair on that face.
"We could just stop here," says Dale, and he is pleading with Albert to listen. "We could just stop, take a walk by the side of the road. You and me. We could just stop. Please. Stop."
Albert tightens his hands on the wheel and scrabbles for something to say that won't let on, something that will reassure the Dale within without alerting the beast that holds him. He's flying blind on this now, with no scientific grounding, and it is terrifying. He must help Dale. It is the imperative.
"Coop, – " and it feels so good to say his name "– it's going to be okay."
Dale is spinning, fluttering, the small control that he has worked so hard to acquire shredded. BOB drinks it in, feasting on panic/shame/fear/relief.
"Let's keep one. I'll let you choose." BOB turns the emotions over one by one, to see what squirms underneath. "Bet you pick the one you fucked."
Dale's muscles spasm, and he folds forward in his seat. Then there's a warm hand on his back, and another at the pulse point of his neck, and there's nothing he wants more than to stay there in the stationary car with Albert's arms around him forever.
"You're okay, Coop. You're okay."
BOB shows him what they're going to do with the knives. Dale recoils, and in the shock of it, loses his hold. As darkness rushes through him, he is sure he will wake up covered in blood.
Instead, he wakes up strapped to a table, metal cold against his skin and a cool wash of fluorescent lights above him. Albert is there, gloved, hands held clear of his white coat. Behind him, hand on his weapon, stands Harry. There's a tension in the air, a feeling of a conversation suddenly hushed. They're all looking at him, faces aghast.
"Don't believe anything I say." His throat is burning; he's obviously been shouting. Bruises bloom above and below the leather shackles holding his wrists to the table. Weirdly though, this is the safest he's felt for a long time. He tilts his head back, feels a raised metal edge against his skull, and realises it's an autopsy table. An uncomfortable thought occurs to him. "Am I dead?"
"Not yet," says Truman. Albert gives a bark of laughter, a familiar sound that makes Dale's head swim.
Dale waits, stares up at the ceiling. There's a blissful emptiness to this, the kind of satisfaction that comes when an itch has finally been scratched and lies quiescent. BOB seems far away. It's peaceful.
Albert takes his hand, and folds the fingers over his own as if he means to raise it for a kiss. Dale is confused but tranquil. There's no romance in the way Albert palpates the veins in the back of his hand. There's a cold wash of alcohol and, mouth grim, Albert slides a needle under the skin then snakes a cannula into the vein. Dale watches the blood swirl in the tubing. With neat, skilful movements, Albert retracts the needle and tapes the IV in place. Even through the gloves, Dale can see the yellow of nicotine on Albert's fingertips as he connects and checks the lines.
"Albert, those cigarettes will be the death of you," he says with calm detachment. He doesn't know what will happen, but there is peace in this room, and he is so tired. Nothing could be worse than what has already passed.
"Promise you won't be the death of me, and I'll quit." Albert works quietly as he talks, connecting regulators to the tubing, hanging a bag of fluid, arranging loaded syringes on the tray beside him. "How are you doing in there?"
Dale sighs. "Surprisingly relaxed."
Harry looms over the table. "Anything you can tell us about it?" He nods towards Dale's chest, as If that is the place where BOB nests. Albert shoulders him aside, presses electrodes to Dale's skin.
Dale shakes his head, tries to move his arm; the shackles rattle against the steel of the table and the two of them standing over him jump, startled. "I think he's watching you, trying to figure out what you're doing." His mouth goes dry. "Harry, Albert, I don't know how to ask this, but if your plan goes awry…" He moves his hand again, slowly this time, to demonstrate his helplessness. "I can't be free. I've tried to stop, I've tried to end it, but he won't let me."
Albert turns sallow, and steps away from the table to switch on the monitor which merrily beeps out stats on heart rate, body temp and oxygenation.
Harry nods. "That's what I'm here for, Coop. I won't stand down."
Dale tries to say thank you, to show Harry that he accepts his fate, but BOB is roaring back and the words shrivel on his tongue.
The creature swears at them, spits and foams. He tells Truman things that make little sense to Albert, but which turn the sheriff white and silent. Hawk drags the man aside for a breather, and talks to him in a low voice. Albert starts infusing the beta blocker, and watches as Coop's heart rate starts to slow. When he looks back at the table, Cooper is watching him, intent. The monitor beeps an alert; his body temperature is rising, degree by degree.
"I'll burn through him," it says with Cooper's mouth. "I'll burn through like a hot coal, till there's nothing but ash, and then I'll fly free."
Albert ignores him, and slings a bucket of ice into the table. They're going to need it anyway, to reduce the effects of hypoxia on the brain. The cubes rattle in the steel bay of the table, and Cooper's body temp swings down again.
He stands at the end of the table. "You are in my arena, now. And I am going to kill you."
"Okay, Albert!" Cooper tilts his head and smiles at him with a coy expression. "I'll play chicken with your boy. Let's rock!"
By the time Hawk and Truman return, Coop's unconscious and past shivering point. Albert injects the potassium chloride. He doesn't think he'll even need the paddles, but he wants to do it right, to minimise damage to the myocardium. He checks the charge, clears the area and gives Coop a tiny jolt. Dale's heart stops. The monitor shows the flat line of asystole. Albert starts the timer, then steps back from the table. It's that easy to take a life.
"Now what?" Truman speaks, but they're both turning to him for direction.
Albert's hands are steady; he holds them out in surprise. "Now we wait him out."
Two minutes in, there's a brief and improbable seizure. Dale's heels rattle against the steel of the table. His mouth is open, teeth bared, jaws wide, as if he is screaming. Or snarling. Then there is silence again.
Four minutes in, and Albert is starting to sweat. The feeling of unreality is crawling all over him. He can see the headlines: men capture Federal Agent, electrocute him, stand around and watch him die.
Halfway into the fifth minute, Dale's eyes open, his face relaxed and open. "Albert?" His voice is tremulous, but it sounds like Dale. "Albert, are you there? I think it's over."
Albert takes a step towards the table, relieved and ready to release Dale. He'll want to get some oxygen into him before they move him to the hospital for a full assessment. Hawk stops him with an arm across the chest and points to the heart monitor. There's no sinus rhythm. If Albert hadn't deliberately disabled the alarms, they'd still be shrieking.
"Tell me how he's doing that, without a heartbeat." Hawk's demand is rhetorical but it brings Albert back to reality. He looks more closely at Dale. The expression is so very nearly right: a quizzical eyebrow and a slight smile, the expression of surprise that Dale wears as he accepts the thing the universe has sent his way.
Seven minutes. It's over. Albert feels something give inside him, and he accepts that Dale is never coming back.
Dale watches them all greedily, drinking in the pain and the grief with a wide grin. Then, quietly, he lets the body go slack. There's a rustle, dry and feathery, that echoes up to the ceiling and fades away. Suddenly Dale's body is just a body. Albert wonders how he couldn't see the difference before. This is Dale.
"Now," says Hawk, and pushes him towards the table.
"It's too late," Albert explains, though his hands are clearing the ice from Dale's chest. Somehow he can't stop himself from trying. He reaches for the adrenaline, checks the timer and picks up the count again, despite the futility. Nine minutes.
Hawk stands over him. "What can I do?"
"Oxygen," Albert says, shortly, nodding towards the tank and the mask. His gloved hands are on Dale's chest, feeling down the ribs to the fourth intercostal. Ten minutes.
Hawk has the mask over Dale's nose and mouth, squeezing the bulb at regular intervals. Truman hasn't taken his hand off his gun. Albert eases the needle between Dale's ribs, feels the tough ventricular wall bite at the steel, and delivers the adrenaline.
Eleven minutes. There's a tick on the monitor, a hiccupping spasm of heart muscle. Then there's another, and another. It's a heartbeat of sorts. Dale is trying. Albert's hands move quickly: now the paddles, now the atropine. The monitors pick up a rhythm. It isn't a good sinus but it will do for now. Dale's oxygen saturation is starting to climb.
Thirteen minutes in, Albert thinks he should probably stop counting now.
There was a tearing, and oh, god, it hurt.
"I was in a place!" Dale gasps, and he's not even sure who is listening. The room is white, just white: no red and no black. The window is crosshatched with wire, and he falls asleep dreaming of birds.
A month later, the hospital cafeteria has become their boardroom. Albert, Gordon, Denise and Hawk gather around a table to drink anaemic coffee and try to plan the future.
"WE NEVER PULLED WINDOM BACK FROM THIS. IT'S BEST TO CONSIDER THE LONG TERM CONSEQUENCES. WE DON'T WANT ANOTHER CHESS GAME ON OUR HANDS." Gordon's voice reaches every corner of the room, but nobody cares. It's a psych hospital, after all.
Albert taps his fingers on the Formica. The curtain of cigarette smoke at the front doors of the hospital, and the desperate, desolate faces of the smokers getting a fix have convinced him to quit. It's a perverse decision, and one that he could have planned better; he's laminated with nicotine patches and they itch. "Windom was never okay, Gordon. He was a cracked pot long before BOB got to him, and you know it. Dale is different."
"The BAU is in on the assault cases," says Denise. "The profilers are in the area and they've linked three of the assaults." She toys with the paper cup in front of her. "We all know, the minute he's back on his feet, Coop's going to hand himself over to them."
"No," says Albert. "That's not an option." Privately, he's sure Dale has a more permanent solution in mind. He's seen it during the occasional lucid period, in the way that Dale talks about the children and restitution and peace.
Hawk is propped on the edge of the table, where he can watch the rest of the cafeteria. "We need to clarify our positions here, or we're not going to be able to work together. Dale is a victim, here. As much as those kids, even if we can't prove it legally. Is that something we can agree on?"
Albert looks around the table. Denise's jaw is set, but she nods. Gordon? Gordon is actually considering the matter, staring into space with a thoughtful expression. Albert can't stand it anymore. He pushes his chair out, and walks away.
Hawk catches him at the elevator bank. "They're on your side. Gordon's a big picture guy, he just wants to cover all eventualities. But we're all Dale's friends. We all want him to be safe."
"Yeah?" Albert's fingers twitch for a cigarette. "Where's your pal Truman, at this critical time?"
"Harry took himself out of the equation for his own reasons, not because he thought Dale was anything other than a victim."
Albert nods wearily while the elevator lumbers downward. Truman helped them get Dale to the ER, pressed his badge into Hawk's hand, and drove away. That was the last Albert saw of him. "We all have our limits, I suppose."
Hawk clasps Albert's shoulder, and it's a measure of the things they've been through that Albert doesn't shrug his hand away. "Go sit with him. I'll talk to the others, make a plan."
The elevator doors rumble open, and Albert steps inside. His stomach drops as it climbs upwards.
The light is strange in this place, cool blues and purples, the palette of the fading spread of bruises across his chest. Dale's room has a window, but he forgets to count the rise and fall of the sun.
When he wakes, he finds Albert is asleep in the chair next to the bed, head tilted back against the white-painted wall. In the colourless room, Albert is vivid, despite his rumpled clothes. In one hand is a newspaper, folded and refolded so that he can read each page without taking up space, as one would on a bus. His clothes – suspiciously casual for Albert – are clean but creased. He's living out of a suitcase. Albert must hate that.
Dale watches him sleep for a while. Albert is so present in the room, even with his mouth open a little and a grizzled five o'clock shadow. The nurses and doctors he sees daily are sleekly professional, as if they are painted in slick, easy-to-clean white enamel like the walls of his room. Albert is real and rumpled and close, so bright that watching makes Dale's heart thump.
Albert knows what he did to those children. Albert chased him down like a bloodhound and made him stop. Somehow, though, Albert's gaze doesn't burn the way it does when Hawk or Gordon look down on him in his bed.
Dale wants to tell him things – say "I thought about you when I was sure I was dead" or "When I saw you by the side of the road, I tried to run to keep you safe" – but the words won't come. Disappointment and anger swell, and he falls back on the pillows. He is so wrong, so ill-shaped for this universe now. He knows what he has to do to put it right. As soon as he has the energy.
Albert opens his eyes with a start, and Dale jumps. Did he speak? Sometimes his mouth moves by itself, and he is surprised at the things that come out.
Albert presses fingertips into his eyes, stands, stretches, then takes Dale's hand. Dale watches the place where skin meets skin, fascinated by the warmth and the pulse that is not his own. The closeness of the contact stops the endless circle of thoughts, and he sighs.
"Stay with me, Coop." Albert's voice is hoarse with sleep. "Stay, and we can put this back together. You've run the hardest leg already. You're on the home stretch now, and you don't have to do it alone."
"I think this will go more easily if we had a prognosis of some sort." Denise is wearing sombre grey today, the only colour a flash of red silk at her neck.
Everyone's eyes turn to Albert, of course, because he's the one with the medical degree. "It's not something you take a course of penicillin for, okay? I can't tell the neurologist that what appears to be organic brain damage comes from someone living inside his head for two months. I can't explain to the psychiatrist the difference between schizoaffective disorder and actually being controlled by a demonic force. The psychologist really wants to know the source of the emotional trauma she's treating. Nobody has the full story except Coop, and we're the only ones who will believe him." And I'm not too sure about you, Gordon, he added silently.
"COOP WAS NO FRAGILE FLOWER, BUT YOU DON'T COME BACK FROM THAT KIND OF SQUAREDANCE WITH YOUR HAT ON STRAIGHT."
Albert has a strong urge to punch his boss in the face for referring to Dale in the past tense. "Can we be realistic here? I don't think this conversation is about when Dale is going back to work."
"It is about keeping him safe," says Hawk, ever the peacemaker. "I'm hoping we've finished BOB off for good, but if we haven't, then I'm betting Cooper will be first on his list of people to revisit. And if we can keep BOB away, Dale will be our best resource for intelligence on how BOB works."
"Coop's going to have to fall off the radar." Denise steeples her fingers, presses perfect nails together. "I don't know about the spiritual aspect, but physically hiding him is probably a good start. I can organise something with Witness Protection."
Albert's head is throbbing. Witness Protection is an ordeal, and Dale has been through enough. Albert can imagine how long he'll last inside the legal system, once they've cut him off from everyone he knows, and given him a job stacking paint cans in Florida. He points to Denise. "Organise the paperwork, but don't put him in the program. I'll go talk to him about what he wants."
Gordon is surprised, which tells Albert all he needs to know: Gordon thinks Dale is done, something with as much will and determination to live as a potato. Hawk is okay, he thinks: at least he understands that this is a complex situation with more than one answer. And Denise is a powerhouse, she'll organise whatever they need. She doesn't understand the situation, but she knows it. Albert can work with that.
Albert has a few phone calls to make. By the time he's finished, Dale should be done with therapy and in the rec room with the other potatoes.
The rec room is a worrying place for Dale. The TV hisses and pops angrily as he passes, and everyone around him seems to loom from a great height. He knows and tells himself that it's his perception only, but he's lost so much trust with the world that he cannot quite believe that.
The seizures have stopped. He's glad of that. He no longer wakes with an aching neck and shoulders from arching upwards in his sleep. "Sometimes my arms bend back," he tells the therapist. She frowns, scribbles it down in his history, and Dale can hear her wonder what the hell happened to him. He's not sure either.
It's noisy in the rec room, and the terrycloth of his robe feels horribly alive against his skin.
Is this the place they put Windom? After, before, when Caroline was alive. Before – no – after the knives. Dale sits on a chair that is just too low for comfort.
He could do something with his time, if his hands weren't so heavy. There's a checkers board, but he's had enough of red and black. An orderly gives him a deck of cards, smooth and round-cornered like children's scissors. He doesn't say this. You don't talk about scissors or blades or anything dangerous here. Dale spreads the cards out on the chipped laminate, and turns the court cards face down. They wink, and he doesn't want to wink back.
"Jesus, Coop, they've got you playing solitaire?" Albert's voice isn't loud but it does carry. He has one arm inside his coat as if it were in a sling. "Things are bad when you're playing with yourself in public."
A hush falls over the room, and the other patients gaze at Albert in awe and fear. Dale's not sure if it's because he made a joke about public masturbation, or because there's steam coming from under Albert's collar. He glances from side to side to see if other people can see it too. Apparently, yes.
"Come on," Albert throws open the door to the enclosed garden. "I'm risking third degree burns here."
Dale looks to the orderly, confused. The man nods his head, so Dale stands, unsteady, and walks to the door. "We're not supposed to go out here."
"It's okay," says Albert, with a tranquil expression. "He thinks I'm a doctor."
Dale nods and follows Albert to the stone bench in the tiled garden. A thought occurs to him. "Albert, you are a doctor."
"For god's sake, keep it quiet. That orderly likes to talk about his haemorrhoids a little too much." Albert opens his coat. Dale can see he's hiding two cups of coffee in there, stacked one on top of the other. "Here. I bought contraband."
Dale takes tentative mouthfuls of coffee. It's milky pale, but hot. He remembers coffee, black and scalding over his tongue. Was that before? He thinks it was. Time is starting to settle, like a coating of iron filings over a magnet. Fuzzy lines, but straight.
"So," says Albert, conversationally. "I quit my job."
Dale sputters. For a moment, the glass windows of the building swell and buckle like melting sugar, then they snap back into flat planes. Hallucination, his mind tells him.
Albert takes a big mouthful of coffee and swallows with relish. "It's about time I went into academia anyway. Trained up a whole generation of genius pathologists."
Dale's therapist taught him an exercise for when reality seems to be shifting around him. He checks and double checks. This isn't an hallucination. "What will you do?"
"Boston University Medical wants to build up a decent forensic pathology syllabus." Albert swaps his empty cup for Dale's fuller one. "I've taught at Quantico. I've got a big name. They've got a big offer." He sips Dale's coffee with satisfaction. "Very generous, actually."
His face is ridiculously smug. "Give me that," says Dale, and reaches for the cup. For a moment, it feels the same as before, with the banter and Albert's utter certainty in his own abilities. Then, exhaustion sweeps back over him. It will never be like that again, because of the things he has done. He knows that.
Albert watches him drink, and this time waits for him to swallow. "Come with me."
Dale blinks. "Albert, I'm dangerous. I have to stay here." No, no, no.
"Windom was dangerous. You're only a danger to yourself. And you're not going to get better here, where all you do is beat up on yourself and think lovingly about suicide."
Dale flushes. His secrets are his own. There is so little of himself now that he guards what is left jealously. "That's not fair, Albert."
Albert snorts. "I'm done with playing fair, Coop. What happened to you wasn't fair, either. Have you thought about that?"
"Gordon is right," says Dale. "He's been through this before."
"Look, Coop. Gordon's an up-front guy but he's trying to tidy you away, make you fit into his Blue Rose case file. He can't see past that world view of his because he didn't come with you. I was there, I watched you fight this thing. I'm not going to let them lock you up and throw away the key when you do not deserve it. Come with me. You don't have to do this alone. You can have an ally. You're allowed to feel safe, Dale."
Dale counts paving stones all the way to the ivy-covered wall. "I doubt they'll just open the gates and let me go, Albert." It frightens him, the way he wants to think about this. Hope is dangerous. Hope gets people killed.
Albert shrugs. "About the only good thing about everyone keeping this thing quiet is that technically you're checked in voluntarily. You can check yourself out. Hawk's on my side in this. Denise is cooking you up a new identity." He leans across the seat, puts a hand on Dale's arm. "Doesn't make you sane, of course. And I'm serious: when we're settled in Boston, you need to find yourself a good doctor."
"This is crazy," says Dale, and almost laughs, because he knows for crazy.
"We're in the right place for it, then."
"Windom…" Dale can't even finish the sentence. He will not become Windom. He has plans for that, at least. As soon as he has the energy. As soon as he sees the first sign. Did Windom make that promise too?
Albert makes an explosive hissing noise, and Dale jumps. "Stay here, Dale. Let Gordon bury you. I guarantee that's the fastest path for you to follow Windom. As far as a person like you ever could."
"What kind of person is that?" Dale honestly has no idea. His existence has been stretched thin, a brittle glaze over something he doesn't recognise anymore.
Albert takes the cup from Dale's hands, and turns it around and around in his own. "A good person."
Dale checks himself out in the evening, after Gordon has left the hospital for the night. Nobody questions his decision. The nurse who helps him pack tells him how nice it is that he's feeling better, and he stares at her for a moment for before deciding that, despite the banality of the statement, she's right. He is feeling better. Not well, and not the same, but better.
The pharmacist gives Albert a huge bag of medication and a complicated chart. Albert rolls his eyes – as if he needs things spelled out for him – but tucks it away inside his coat.
Denise waits for them by the car, with an envelope, the standard ID package for Witness Protection. Dale is touched that she left his middle name as Bartholomew. She wraps her arms around him and gives him a squeeze. "Glad you're still with us, Coop. Take care."
He shakes Hawk's hand. "Can you give Harry my thanks, when you see him again?"
"He'll come home, eventually," says Hawk. "We all do." Dale nods, and settles into the front seat with a sigh.
The car is quiet and comfortable, and Dale dozes for a long time. When he wakes, it's dark, and there's a light mist of rain across the windshield.
"You going okay?" Albert's hands are relaxed on the wheel, and he speaks without taking his eyes off the road, as if he enjoys watching the car eating up miles.
Dale nods, then remembers to speak. "Yes. Tired, but yes."
Albert nods, pleased. "We'll find a place to stay soon. Don't want to overdo it."
Dale looks around the car, at the suitcase and the bag of laundry, the pile of receipts on the dash. Albert is a fastidious man: it must have been hard to live out of a sedan for months. He should feel guilt or responsibility, but right now, the euphoria of running away with Albert is overwhelming.
Albert darts a look sideways. "What are you grinning about?"
Dale's face hurts, it's been a while since he smiled so easily. "You busted me out of the asylum."
"Damn straight," says Albert, and Dale can tell he's smiling too.
The motel is kitsch and floral, and the mattress on the old king sized bed is lumpy. There's a fold-out, too, sagging downwards in a sad, old smile. The place is clean, though, and the water pressure outstanding. Dale stands under the hot water and realises it is a luxury to decide when and for how long he will wash.
Albert dispenses medication and water with brutal efficiency. "You okay if I have a shower?"
Dale nods, towelling his hair. He's run out of words, but he's calm, lulled by the long journey and the hot water.
Albert hesitates, then scoops up the bag of medication and takes it to the bathroom. Dale lays out his pyjamas, and stares into the glowing fields of the cheap Kinkade print on the wall. Then he realises. Albert is worried Dale will overdose while he's in the shower. He's left the shower door ajar, too, presumably to keep an ear out. A little rummaging amongst their bags – he can still search the room like a Bureau man even if his badge is long gone – and it's clear that Albert has the car keys, too.
Dale wonders if this should make him angry, or defensive, or even if he can feel these things right now. Mostly he's sad that Albert needs to be so guarded. Dale doesn't know that he won't do what Albert is afraid of – sometimes it seems the only logical option – but he knows that he doesn't want to hurt Albert any more than he has already.
Albert emerges in a cloud of steam, clad in sweats and a t-shirt. Dale is sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed.
Albert takes in the blue comforter and Dale's pale green pyjamas. "What are you? A lily pad?" he says. They have not discussed sleeping arrangements.
Dale stands up carefully. The sleeping meds are kicking in, and though they make him unsteady, they soften the edge of fear. He puts a hand on Albert's chest. "I'm here. I don't want to go anywhere. I'm sorry." Is that enough? He doesn't know, he's still relearning the connection between words and feelings. Albert hasn't moved, and his expression is stricken.
"I thought," says Dale, slowly, because his tongue is threatening to trip him up. "I thought, we could share this bed, then we'll both know where we are. Does that make sense?"
Albert closes his eyes, and puts his arms around Dale, then pulls him close. "That makes as much sense as anything I've heard lately."
Later, when it's dark, and Albert's arms are still around him, Dale rests his head against Albert's chest. Thank you, thank you, thank you, he thinks to himself. To whatever watches over things of the light. He can't say it to Albert, not yet, but he is glad to be alive.