The knock at the door came just as Alec had put the toast to his mouth. It sounded tentative at first and for a moment he thought it likely a kid had played a prank, but it was followed by a succession of hammer blows so thunderous he began to worry someone was breaking in.
Ronnie, who’d settled into the easy chair in the corner of the room, tie unclipped, collar unbuttoned, brushed the crumbs from his moustache and shrugged.
“Best go and see. Somebody wants yer attention.”
Ronnie gathered up his uniform as Alec opened the doors to the vestibule. It was only as he drew the bolts on the outer doors that he realised he still had a plate in one hand. And so it was, as the door swung open to a bright summer morning, he presented buttered toast like a waiter to a well dressed middle aged woman with lilac hair and a pearl necklace. She stared up at him, face pale and drawn.
“You need to come, my nephew has shot himself.”
Alec had expected some kind of emergency, the persistent hammering had been clue enough, but nothing like this. He’d enough presence of mind to put the plate on the shelf that held the crime prevention leaflets and was about to ask the lady inside when Ronnie appeared beside him, uniform buttoned, hat in perfect alignment and carrying Alec’s tunic, hat and tie.
“Please lead the way.”
The woman walked away and Ronnie fell into step by her side. Alec was still trying to get his head into gear. Someone had been shot. And it’d just happened. Didn’t that make it a firearms incident? Images of armed response vehicles and tactical firearms units rose up in his mind as he wriggled into his uniform. Maybe the guy with the gun would be waiting for them. Maybe it was a trap. Such concerns did not appear to trouble Ronnie who was rapidly disappearing down the street with the woman. Cursing, Alec buttoned his tunic, tipped his hat onto his head, closed the doors of the police box and set off in pursuit.
The police box. That’s what Ronnie had called it as they’d left the muster. Alec had pictured a blue Tardis, like the ones dotted around the sub division, but when Ronnie led him along the canal to this obscure part of their beat it was to a tiny brick-built building with a flat roof, a report writing room, kettle, toaster and toilet. Built on the periphery of a 1930’s housing scheme and across a busy road from an industrial estate, it was a place intended for the prevention of unnecessary trips back to Corsair Street.
Once inside, Ronnie had introduced a new custom, the morning tea and toast, a ritual to be enjoyed before the day began in earnest. One where the probationer fetched bread and milk from the local shop and made breakfast. Except that the day had now started early and very much in earnest.
Alec caught up as Ronnie and the lady entered a small cul-de-sac, at the end which was a large wooden gate. She led them through the gate and down a narrow lane to the towpath of the canal. At its end she turned onto the path and there, overlooking the canal, stood a row of whitewashed cottages, each with a well tended garden. It was half past seven on a Friday morning in the final days of August. The sun was rising and Alec felt it’s tentative warmth on his face. As peaceful a scene as you could hope to see and as he gazed down the canal, it’s still waters thick with reeds and ducks, he wondered if the woman was mentally unwell, that the whole thing was a result of a fevered imagination, or some well-meaning misunderstanding.
By now she had walked up the gravel path of the middle cottage and was about to open the front door when Ronnie grabbed her arm.
“Before we go in. Tell us what you heard.”
The woman pursed her lips and shook her head. She looked on the cusp of crying, but Ronnie was resolute.
“If there’s a gun involved, we need to know what we’re getting into.”
She nodded and took a breath.
“This’s his mum’s house – she’s my oldest sister. He moved in last week – lost his job and split from his wife. They’ve got two wee boys…”
The aunt’s voice trailed off and Ronnie nodded sympathetically but Alec could see that he wanted something more up to date.
“What happened this morning?”
“I come every day, make breakfast, do things round the house. She’s got dementia. I’m making tea when I hear a big bang upstairs.”
The lady looked up and Alec followed her gaze to an upstairs bedroom window, it’s curtains firmly closed. Ronnie pressed on.
“How long as he had a gun?”
“I didn’t know he had a gun. But I’m sure that’s what I heard.”
“Hear anything after that?”
“Did you look?”
The woman began to shake, her eyes wide.
“I don’t want to see what’s in there.”
It occurred to Alec that he’d not heard the man’s name.
“What’s your nephews’ name?”
Ronnie nodded. He’d had enough, it was time to go in. The aunt led them into
the hallway. At the far end, a door opened into a tiny sitting room where Alec saw an old lady rocking back and forth in a high backed chair. The aunt pointed up a stairway to a landing and a white door.
“That’s where the bang came from.”
Without another word she walked into the sitting room and closed the door.
Ronnie led the way up the staircase. When they reached the bedroom he turned around and held out his hand as if to say ‘after you’. Alec knew the drill and listened at the door, but there was no sound inside. Perhaps Fergus was injured and needed help, or maybe lying there with the gun waiting for them to step inside. It seemed only right to check.
“Fergus? It’s the police. You ok?”
Nothing. Time to grasp the nettle. Alec took a deep breath, reached for the handle and turned it clockwise. The door opened a little, but reluctantly, as if there was an obstruction on the other side. He put his shoulder to the door and applied more pressure. The door opened a little more and it was then he saw it. A grey smear on the carpet. Wet. Like fish paste. The paste widened into an arc as the door opened further and Alec was so troubled by the sight that he stopped to point at it.
Ronnie shook his head.
Alec had no idea what the substance was but reluctant to push the door wider he squeezed into the room through the small gap he’d created. As he crested the leading edge of the door he looked down and saw what had been resisting his attempts to enter.
Pinched between the thick nylon carpet and the bottom edge of the door, sat an intact human brain.
Alec felt detached from reality. The sight of the brain had stunned him, so much so that he forgot his earlier worries about guns. There was no sense of revulsion or horror. The sight of the brain, a bloody stem trailing behind it, was so abnormal that there was no emotion in his arsenal to draw upon. It looked cartoonish, but, at the same time just as he’d imagined a brain would look like, complete with folds and lobes, wet with blood and fluids. If anything, it was smaller than he’d expected, but then he’d smeared some of it across the carpet.
Ronnie’s head appeared and Alec pointed to his discovery. Ronnie arched his eyebrows but said nothing. They were both struck dumb. Alec stepped back to let Ronnie into the room and turned to see what else lay in store for them.
Beside him was a single bed, it’s scalloped headboard pressed flat against a papered wall of roses and bluebirds. A chintz duvet cover and pillows matched the chintz curtains at the window. There was a faint smell of Parma Violets. It was the bedroom of an elderly woman. Quite at odds with the dead man lying there. Alec was pretty certain it was a man, but it was hard to be sure given the catastrophic destruction to his head.
The body lay on top of the duvet, feet splayed at the bottom edge. A pair of shoes sat side-by-side on the floor. Alec’s eyes traveled over the body from the black socks on its feet to the dress trousers on its legs. Resting between the knees was the carved butt of a double-barrelled shotgun. A silver plate above the trigger guard was engraved with hunting scenes and the ornate script of the gunmaker. It looked new and expensive. At the trigger guard hands had fallen away, one to each side, fingers curled inwards. The gun barrels lay across a smart business shirt, muzzles resting against a thick and swollen neck.
Up to this moment the only shotgun that Alec had seen was the one an angry farmer had pointed at him when he was a boy. It was obvious they were deadly. He’d watched enough films to cement the fact that guns killed, but he’d no comprehension of their real power until he looked at what remained of the man’s head.
The deceased had done his research. He’d thrust the muzzles under his chin and sent the contents of both twelve-gauge cartridges through his mouth and up into the centre of his head. The explosive power had not only blown the top off his skull, it had forced jaws, face and anything behind it outwards. It looked like someone had pumped up the man’s head until it’d finally burst. Except that the result had been as instantaneous as it was catastrophic and Alec had no doubt he’d died instantly. The exiled brain was testament to that.
Ronnie looked stunned and Alec wondered if despite his own feelings of serenity, this was how he looked too. He returned his gaze to the dead man and wondered what it had felt like in those last few seconds before he pulled the trigger. What had it felt like when the superheated shrapnel had shredded flesh and bone? What could drive someone to do this? He remembered the priest at Sunday Mass, a long time ago, banging on about suicide. It was a sin, an act of selfishness. Life was a gift he’d said.
Alec felt drawn to the face of the dead man despite the horrific damage. It was the eyes that affected him most. Displaced by the force of the explosion, they dangled over the grossly swollen head, held in place by the gelatinous strands of their optic nerves. It was like the joke shop glasses of his childhood, with their pop-out eyeballs. This wasn’t funny either. The sockets, empty and bloody, were grotesque but they paled in comparison to the broken rim a few inches above them. Here, a row of jagged bone formed a perfect circle like a crown of white thorns. Within the shallow bowl of bone that was left a small pool of blood had gathered. The rest had been obliterated. If anyone had wondered what the contents of the human head looked like, it was there for all to see, from the remains of the skull, the brain on the floor and the huge arc of blood, skin and splintered bone that adorned the headboard and wall above it.
He looked up to see bits of brain, bone and skin peel away from the wallpaper. Other pieces slid down the wall leaving red snail trails across the bluebirds and roses. He tried to express his disbelief but found that he’d lost his power of speech.
Ronnie cleared his throat. It was the first sound either of them had made for several minutes and Alec turned to see that Ronnie was now looking at him with an expression of the gravest solemnity.
“You want to try mouth-to-mouth, or will I?”
It was like pulling the stopper from a champagne bottle. Despite the inappropriateness, or perhaps because of it, Alec found himself trying in vain to stop laughing. It caught hold of Ronnie too and as they stood at the foot of the bed, shoulders shaking, half laughing, half crying, snorting with the effort to bottle it up, Alec felt confused and ashamed. But he was powerless to stop it. It was a catharsis, a reaction to the horror on the bed. Had it not been for the querulous voice on the stairway it might have continued for a minute more, but the sound of the aunt brought them back to their senses and Ronnie, wiping his eyes, called back that he’d be down shortly. He turned to Alec.
“Pull yersel together while I go and break the news. Look around and see if there’s a note or anything suspicious. But don’t touch anything.”
Alec felt the hysteria ebb away. He’d thought the very least he could do was provide Ronnie some back up for such a horrible task and offered to go with him, but Ronnie was adamant.
“It’s ok. The mammy won’t have a clue. The aunt knows fine he’s dead and I need to radio this in. Soon as I do, the circus’ll come to town.”
Alec nodded. The death would be regarded as suspicious until the casualty surgeon and a post mortem put it beyond doubt. The CID would be called out and then Uncle Tom Cobley and all would descend on the cottage. But looking at the corpse and the long arms stretching down, it was clear that the dead man had managed to pull the trigger just fine.
After Ronnie left, Alec made his way to the other side of the bed. There, on a small dresser, among bottles of perfume and hairbrushes, lay three envelopes, one addressed to a female, the others for two males. There was an empty bottle of whiskey and a note written in a barely legible scrawl. It was addressed to ‘Whoever Finds Me’ and as that was undoubtedly him, Alec began to read.
He’d expected suicide notes to be poetic, or at the very least dramatic, but here was a calm explanation, expressing remorse for what was about to follow. The redundancy the aunt had mentioned and sorrow for a marriage long finished. The revelation of an illness. Symptoms that had began as flu and ignored until the appearance of ulcers and swollen lymph nodes. Of a hidden sexuality and a secret lover who’d passed on something fatal.
Alec looked back to the corpse. So, he had AIDS. The government campaign was still running on the telly. The most feared disease on the planet. Poor bastard had been given a death sentence. Alec looked at the sprayed arc of fresh blood and worried if there was a chance he’d catch the disease from it. He examined his hands and though he hadn’t touched anything other than the door handle, rubbed his palms down the sides of his trousers.
The dead man finished by summing up the shame he’d bring to the family and the worry that he’d passed something to his wife. To Alec’s surprise there was concerns aimed at whoever would find his body. For the trouble he would cause. For the distress his mangled remains would create. For being unable to find a less messy way out. The note scrawled to its end, the writing increasingly shaky, finishing with the hope that someone would pray for him.
It had been a long time. The last had been at his mother’s funeral and he was out of practice. At first he couldn’t find the words, but in the dim light of the tiny bedroom Alec said a prayer for a man he never knew.
He’d just whispered a quiet Amen, when Ronnie reappeared at the door.
“Cavalry on its way.”
“Better tell them our man had AIDS.”
Ronnie’s eyes widened and he left the room to pass the word.
Alec began taking notes and statements. Ronnie’s prediction was all too accurate as first the Inspector and Sergeant, and then the on-call CID descended on the room. Cops from the shift were detailed to stand at either end of the row of cottages, some to do door-to-door. Scenes of crime arrived, taking photographs and measurements from various angles. Swabs were taken with the greatest of care. To Alec’s surprise the sub-divisional Superintendent arrived.
Superintendent Currie was a bull necked man who could be heard most days roaring at any hapless cop of who happened to pass his office in Corsair Street. The more savvy found ways of navigating the various floors without passing his door, but here he was quiet and formal, just a nod as he made his way up the stairs and he stood patiently while Alec entered his details in the notebook. Currie had an unflinching stare and a face like stone, so it was a surprise when he spoke with a degree of compassion.
The initial shock had worn off and Alec was keen to show that he was on top of it, especially to someone as senior as Superintendent Currie.
“Good lad. Not easy these things, but you’ll get used to it.”
Currie squeezed his barrel chest into the room and exited a minute later as a subdued and white faced man who gave a short nod with glassy eyes. He passed Alec on the landing and descended the stairs without a word.
The hours passed quickly. The casualty surgeon came and went, muttering that any damned fool could see that the man was dead. Evidence was gathered and bagged. Sergeant Munro, tired looking and grey arranged for someone to stand-by the body so that Alec could be transported to Corsair Street and the report submitted on time. A car was waiting for him in the cul-de-sac.
Alec stepped blinking into a sunny afternoon. On the other side of the canal was a housing estate and an access road that followed the line of the canal. There, leaning over a hedge on the opposite towpath were two men in raincoats. One had a camera and was taking pictures.
“Didn’t take them long.”
Alec recognised them. There was something cliched about the way they dressed. Like they had a uniform too.
“How did they know?”
Ronnie looked surprised.
“You didnae listen on the radio when ye were wee?”
Of course he had, scanning for the police frequencies, picking up the odd garbled message.
Ronnie nodded in the direction of the journalists.
“These guys have professional kit, listening all the time. There before us sometimes – it’ll be in the glove compartment of their car.
Alec felt an instant dislike. A pair of creeps feeding off bad news stories, who’d be knocking on the old woman’s door after the cops had gone.
“Should be a law against that.”
“The scanning? There is, but it isnae worth yer while. They’ll run a shite story about you and make yer life a misery.”
“Still doesn’t make it right”
The now obligatory shrug from Ronnie.
They returned to Corsair Street. There were phone calls to make, facts to check and the command and control system to interrogate before words could be committed to paper and the report submitted. Alec found a quiet corner and wrote the story of the day while Ronnie lodged the gun and the suicide note. It was a story shorn of emotion, a description of a life pronounced extinct in clinical language, brief and to the point. There would be a post mortem, though one aspect of that had been performed by the deceased already. An overworked Procurator Fiscal would ask some routine questions and that would be that. There would be a quiet funeral for a man named Fergus who would be forgotten by everyone except two small boys and an ex-wife worried about her own fate. Alec finished the report and handed it to Munro who put it in his tray and sent him home. It was three in the afternoon.
Alec checked in with Ronnie, anxious to make sure that he hadn’t left him with things still to do, but Ronnie was being sent home too and so they left together. As they walked across the car park Ronnie patted him on the back.
“That’ll be yer first sudden puddin’”
Alec was taken aback by the expression. Another one to add to his ever expanding vocabulary of police speak.
“Went to the city mortuary last week of training. A few bodies, but nothing like that.”
“I doubt you’ll see anything as bad as that again.”
Alec hoped not. The human carnage was one thing, but it was the words of the dead man that weighed most on his mind, that someone could think there was no option but to blow their head off. He swore to himself, no matter how bad life got he’d hang on, right to the bitter end.
He drove home through streets that pulsed with the stop-start of rush hour traffic. Kids, fresh out of school, tugged at the arms of harrased mothers, who focused on forging a path through groups of liberated office workers. A billboard advertised a beer that refreshed parts that others couldn’t reach, while a newspaper seller held aloft the Evening Times and shouted something incoherent about the headline of the day. It wouldn’t feature a shotgun suicide. Not until tomorrow.
Alec arrived at the flat dog-tired. Only then did he realise that he hadn’t eaten. The toast would still be on the shelf. He sagged onto the sofa and despite his hunger succumbed to sleep, his last thoughts, Ronnie’s words of reassurance that at least he’d seen the worst of it. No matter what the rest of the week brought, he would never have to deal with anything as brutal as that again.