Authors: David R. Morrell
Tags: #Fiction, #General
The pistol, a Colt .45 semiautomatic, was capable of holding seven rounds in its magazine. But at the moment, it held only one, which Pittman fed into the firing chamber by pulling back the slide on top of the weapon. The well-oiled metal made a smooth snicking sound. Fourteen years earlier, when Pittman had written his first newspaper story, it had been about a retired policeman who had committed suicide. Pittman had never forgotten a conversation he had overheard, the respectful tones with which two patrolmen at a coffee machine in their precinct headquarters had referred to their former comrade's death.
"Poor bastard, couldn't stand retirement." "Drinking problem."
"Wife left him."
"Went out with style. Used his backup gun-a semiautomatic, Colt .45. Just one round in it."
The reference had puzzled Pittman until he did some research and learned that when fired, a semiautomatic pistol ejected the used empty cartridge and chambered a new one. The hammer re-cocked itself. This feature made rapid firing possible during an emergency. But the retired policeman who had shot himself had evidently considered it unethical to leave a loaded, cocked weapon next to his body after his suicide. There was no way to predict who would find his body. His landlady perhaps, or her ten-year-old son, who might foolishly pick up the gun. So, to avoid the danger that someone might later get hurt, the retired policeman had put only one round in the weapon. He knew that after the bullet was discharged, the slide would remain back, the firing chamber empty, the weapon completely safe.
"Went out with style."
Thus, Pittman, too, put only one round in his pistol. Weeks earlier, he'd applied for a permit to have a firearm in his apartment. This afternoon, after the authorities had determined that Pittman wasn't a felon, had never been in a mental institution because of violent behavior, etcetera, he had been allowed to go to the sporting-goods store and take possession of the pistol, a .45, the same as the retired policeman had used. The clerk had asked how many boxes of ammunition he wanted. Pittman had responded that one would definitely be more than sufficient.
"I guess that means you're just going to keep it at home for protection, huh?"
"Yes, protection," Pittman had said. (From nightmares, he had silently added.)
In his small third-floor apartment, with the door locked, he now sat at his narrow kitchen table, studied the cocked pistol, and listened to the din of evening traffic outside. The clock on the stove made a whirring sound, one of its mechanical numbers changing from 8:11 to 8:12. He heard humanized laughter from a television situation comedy vibrate through the wall behind him. He smelled fried onions, the odor seeping under his door from an apartment down the hall. He picked up the weapon.
Although he had never, been trained to handle firearms, he had done his customary research. He had also read about the anatomy of the human skull, its soft spots. The temples, the hollows behind the ears, and the roof of the mouth were the most obviously vulnerable. Pittman had read about would be suicides who had shot themselves in the head, only to give themselves a lobotomy instead of killing themselves.
Although infrequent, it most often happened when the barrel was aimed toward the side of the forehead. Squeezing the trigger evidently caused the barrel to move slightly away from the temple. The bullet struck and was deflected by the thick plate of bone above the eyebrows. The would-be suicide became a vegetable.
Not me, Pittman thought. He meant to do this completely.
The retired policeman whose example he followed had chosen to place the barrel of his gun inside his mouth-no way of flinching and moving the barrel away from its target-and he had chosen an extremely powerful handgun, a .45.
Pittman had gotten a drink at a bar on the way to the sporting-goods store and at two other bars on the way back home. He kept a bottle of Jack Daniel's in the cupboard next to the refrigerator, but he had not had anything to drink since he had locked his door behind him. He didn't want anyone to think, on the basis of a medical examiner's report, that drunkenness had led him to behave irrationally. More, he wanted to be clearheaded. He wanted to approach his last act with maximum focus.
A question of procedure occurred to him. How could- he justify the mess he would make? By process of elimination, he had decided that his self-inflicted death would have to be by means of a bullet. But here at the kitchen table? His blood on the wood, the floor, the refrigerator, possibly the ceiling?
Pittman shook his head, stood, held the .45 carefully, and walked toward the bathroom. He concentrated to maintain his balance, climbed into the bathtub, pulled the shower curtain closed, sat down in the cold white tub, and now he was ready.
The .45's gun oil smelled sweet as he brought the pistol toward his mouth. He opened his lips, felt a moment's revulsion, then placed the hard, greasy barrel within his mouth. The barrel was wider than he had anticipated. He had to stretch the corners of his mouth. The bitter-tasting metal scraped against his bottom front teeth,' making him shiver.
He had thought about nothing except his suicide ever since he had applied for the permit to buy his gun. The waiting period had given him a chance to test his resolve. He had exhausted every argument for and against. He had been in such emotional agony that every portion of his brain screamed for release, for an end to his pain.
He tightened his finger on the trigger, but the trigger's resistance was more than he had expected. He had to squeeze harder.
The phone rang.
The phone rang again. He tried to concentrate.
The phone rang a third time, Pittman wanted desperately to ignore it, but as the phone persisted, he reluctantly realized that he would have to answer it. This decision had nothing to do with second thoughts, a need to give himself time to change his mind. Rather, it was a need to be thorough. A man of principle, he had promised himself that he would leave no loose ends-no debts unpaid, no favors unreturned, no slights unapologized. His will was in order, his slim assets going to his ex-wife, along with a note of explanation. His work obligations had ended yesterday, the conclusion of the two weeks' notice he had given his employer. He had even arranged for his funeral.
Then who would be phoning him? he wondered . A wrong number? A salesman? What if there was some final detail to which he had not attended? He had done his best to round off his life.
The phone kept ringing. He got out of the tub and went into the living room, grudgingly picking up the phone.
"Hello?" It was such an effort to speak.
"Matt, this is Burt." There wasn't any need for Burt to identify himself. His cigarette smoke-ravaged throat made his distinctive voice constantly hoarse and gravelly.
"You took so long, I wasn't sure you were home."
"In that case, why did you let the phone keep ringing?" "Your answering machine wasn't on," Burt said.
"Even when it's on, I'm sometimes home-"
"well, how would I know that if you never answered?"
Pittman felt detached from the conversation, as if drugged "What do you want, Burt?"
"Sorry. Can't do it."
"Don't turn me down till you hear the favor."
"It doesn't make a - - . Burt, we're even. We don't owe each other anything. Let's leave it at that."
"You make it sound like just because you quit, we'll never see each other again. Hey, we'll keep owing each other plenty. Yesterday was your last day, so you probably haven't heard. They gave us the word this morning. The Chronicle will close its doors a week from Friday."
Burt's voice seemed to come from far away. Pittman felt groggy. "What?"
,We realized the newspaper was in bad shape. Not this bad, though. Bankrupt. Couldn't find a buyer. In-depth stories can't compete with TV news and USA Today. So the owners are liquidating. Nine days from now, after a hundred and thirty-eight years, the final issue hits the stands."
"I still don't ..."
"I want you to come back to work, Matt. We were understaffed to begin with. Now ... Look, I've spent thirty years of my life on the Chronicle. I don't want it to go out like it's garbage, Please, come back and give me a hand. It's just nine days, Matt. The obit department's as important as any department we've got. Next to the comics and the sports, that's what most readers turn to first. I don't have time to break in a new guy, and I couldn't find one anyhow, not when we're going to be out of business a week from Friday and some bastards are taking off work, looking for other jobs. Be a buddy, Matt.
If not for me, for the paper. Hell, you worked here fourteen years. You must have some feeling for this place. "
Pittman stared at the floor.
Pittman's muscles cramped from emotional pain. "Matt? Are you there?"
Pittman studied his gun. "Your timing's lousy, Burt." "But will you do it?"
"You don't know what you're asking."
"Sure I do. For you to be my friend."
.'Damn you, Burt."
Pittman set down the phone. In anguish, he waited for it to ring again, but it stayed silent. He set down the pistol, went over to the bourbon bottle next to the refrigerator, and poured himself a drink. No ice, no water. He quickly drank it and poured himself another.
Under the circumstances, it struck Pittman as ironic that he worked in the obituary department of a dying newspaper. His desk, one of many, separated by waist-high partitions, was on the fourth floor, across from and midway between the elevator and the men's room. Although the Chronicle was understaffed, movement and noise surrounded Pittman, people walking, phones ringing, reporters answering, computer keyboards being tapped. Arts and Entertainment was behind him, Home Tips on his left, the Community Service Calendar on his right. He felt a gray haze distance him from everything.
"You look awful, Matt."
"You been sick?"
"What's happening to the Chronicle will make you even sicker. " "Yeah, so I heard."
The tubby man from Business placed both hands on the front of Pittman's desk and loomed down. "Maybe You also heard the damned pension might be in trouble. And ... But how could you have heard? I forgot you quit two days ago.
Saw it coming, huh? Gotta give you credit. Hope you made a deal, a few weeks' extra pay or .
"No. " Pittman cleared his throat. "Actually I didn't know anything about it.
"Then why ... ?"
"I just got tired."
The man looked blank. "Tired. What are you doing back here?"
Pittman was having grave difficulty concentrating. "Came back to help. Only a week from tomorrow. Everything will be over then. " Already the time felt as if it would be an eternity.
"Well, if I were you and I had money in the bank which I assume you must have or you wouldn't have quit. I wouldn't be wasting my time here. I'd be looking for another job."
Pittman didn't know what to say to that.
The tubby man leaned so close to Pittman's desk that his Open sport coat covered the phone, which suddenly rang. In surprise, the man peered down toward the hidden source of the ringing. He straightened.
Pittman picked up the phone.
The call, from what sounded like a middle-aged woman, her voice strained with emotion, was about a seventy-five-year-old man (Pittman guessed it was the woman's father) who had died at his home.
Pittman reached for a form and wrote down the deceased's full name. "Did you wish to specify the cause of death?"
"Excuse me?" The woman sounded breathy, as if she'd been crying. "This has been such a strain. What do you mean specify'?"
"Did you wish to be exact and say why he died, ma'am?
Perhaps you wish to say 'after a lengthy illness.' Or perhaps you don't wish to give any cause of death at all."
"He had cancer."
The statement struck Pittman as if an icy blade had knocked him off balance. Unprepared, he suddenly had mental images of Jeremy. Robust, with thick, long, windblown red hair, playing football. Frail, hairless, dead in an equipment crammed room in a hospital intensive-care unit.
Pittman's throat constricted. "I lost a son to cancer. I'm sorry. " An awkward pause made the line seem to hum.
"A lengthy illness," the woman said. "Don't say he had cancer. "
Other details: surviving relatives, former occupation, time and place for - the funeral.
"Donations?" Pittman asked. "For what? I don't understand."
"Sometimes close relatives of the deceased prefer that, instead of flowers, a donation be sent to a favorite charity. In this case, perhaps the Cancer Society."
"But wouldn't that be the same as saying he had cancer?" "Yes, I suppose it would."
"A lengthy illness. My father died from a lengthy illness. I don't want to get involved in the rest of it. If I mention the Cancer Society, every charity in town will be calling me. Is that all you need? Don't forget to mention he belonged to the East Side senior citizens bowling team.