Authors: David R. Morrell
The Hundred-Year Christmas
The Brotherhood of the Rose
Rambo (First Blood Part II)
The Fraternity of the Stone
The League of Night and Fog
The Fifth Profession
The Covenant of the Flame
(complete and unaltered) (1994)
John Barth: An Introduction
Copyright © 1994 by David Morrell
All rights reserved.
Warner Books, Inc.
Hachette Book Group
237 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10017
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First eBook Edition: September 2009
To Mel Parker,
who is what every author dreams of:
a talented editor who is also a friend.
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.”
“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 recocked 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, et cetera, 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’s. 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 dehumanized 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
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
. So the owners are liquidating. Nine days from now, after a hundred and thirty-eight years, the final issue hits the stands.”