Scapegoat by Douglas Leonard

Chapter 18– Steele Buys a Gun

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Chapter 18Steele Buys a Gun

Steele had never purchased a gun before. Illinois law requires a first-time adult gun buyer to get a Firearms Owner Identification Card, a process that takes 30 days. The law further requires a handgun buyer to present the card at purchase and wait an additional 3 days before taking the gun. In addition, Illinois law prohibits anyone from carrying a concealed gun. Steele did not want to wait. The waiting system was meant to catch bad guys, not him.

It turned out he didn’t have to ask for special treatment, but he did have to smile. A vulnerable young woman in a venerable old pawn shop on the near north side showed him a brand new 9mm Steyr A1 double-action pistol with 1,000 rounds of ammunition, a cleaning kit, and a holster sling. As he looked over the gun nonchalantly, Steele listened to her attentively, he looked into her eyes, and he smiled. She was distracted, attracted, melting around the edges. He complimented her on her shoes because they looked like the most expensive thing she was wearing. And her feet did look sweet in them.

He acted ambivalent about the gun: he should have one, but it was such a big commitment. He asked for her card, as if he was going to postpone the decision for another day. She told him she didn’t have one yet because she was new on the job. Would she write her name and phone number on paper for him? Of course. What if you’re not working when I call, he wondered out loud. She included her cell phone number. Her name was Mary Clare Archer.

He said he’d call her when he was ready to buy. He thought the Steyr A1 pistol would be as good as anything, probably better. He digressed. He told her he was new in town too, had come down from Wisconsin where no one needed a gun for protection—just for hunting.

“Really!” she said with intonation half agreement and half question.

“How about you?” he asked.

“I moved to Chicago four or five weeks ago, from Dubuque. I have a cousin here who works in television. She going to help me break in.”

“I can see you doing that,” he said. “What channel?”

“Nine, WGN.” She eyed him as if that would trigger something in him.

“Really!” Now it was his turn to be impressed.

“That’s the plan, anyway,” she said. “I majored in communication at Upper Iowa University.”

“You know,” he said, looking far away over her right shoulder, “I have a friend at WGN—in sports. He works both TV and radio. He’s like a stat researcher for the on-air announcers for the Cubs and White Sox. Do you mind if I tell him about you? It’s a long shot. You probably don’t need it.”

“Oh, sure I do,” she said. “I need every break I can get.” She opened her hands as if in admission how small she was to possess such a big dream. He was touched and wished he weren’t lying.

“I’d l-l-l-like to do that for you then, Mary,” he said, glancing down at the slip of paper he’d been clutching in his hand.

She laughed. “Most people call me Mary Clare,” she said, “but Mary is fine if you like it better. I could get used to it.”

“Oh, Mary Clare, of course,” he said, feigning embarrassment. He looked at her. This was no longer a customer-sales person relationship. He let a little more silence pass between them, bonding them. He know he could probably kiss her now, but that might alarm her and break the trance.

He said: Let me give you my name and number. In case you want to check up on me.” He wrote Jerry Schmidt—312-210-8652. “You won’t hesitate to call me, will you?

“Sure I will,” said Mary Clare. “By the way, Jerry, what do you do?”

“Oh, I’m like you—in sales. I represent NCR selling cash register systems to major retailers, like Sears. Corporate office is downtown on Wells.” Lying was so easy for him. “You know how much an average system costs?” he asked her.

“I don’t know. A few thousand dollars.”

“Close,” smiled. A few hundred thousand.”

“You work on commission?”

“Base salary and commission ,” she said. “I’m lucky.” He smiled again.

“You sure are….”

“I’m surprised no one else has come in while I’ve been here,” he said. “Is it always this quiet?”

“No, it picks up after 7. Most of our customers are night people. Some seem pretty desperate. My boss will be back by then.”

“When do you get off? May I ask?”

“Of course. Ten.”

“So you’ve got a few hours to put in yet. I’m sorry I need to go.” He moved toward the door but held eye contact.

“It’s okay,” she said, obviously sad to see him go.

“You know,” he said brightly, striding back to her. “You sold me, Mary Clare. It’s not like I need to shop around. If I’ve got the cash, I going to buy those items right now.”

“Sure,” she said. It had surprised her. He kept his eyes on her. She was nervous as she handled the transaction. He pulled out a wad of hundred dollar bills and counted out eight of them. He smiled as he handed them to her. She did not make him show an ID or fill out any forms. She put the holster sling in a paper bag along with the cleaning kit that came with them. She rang it up and gave him a ten and some coins in change. Just then an elderly lady came through the front door, setting off a loud chime.

“I see you are going to be busy now,” he whispered to her as he took the bag. “I’ll call you soon, Mary Clare.”

“Bye, Jerry.”

Of course he felt guilty about it, but he felt it was necessary. He had to have a gun immediately and now he had one. He drove north on I-94 toward Milwaukee. He stopped at Wal-Mart and bought some 9mm bullets for the gun. He didn’t see why he’d need hollow pointed bullets, so he got the regular. The sales guy told him the hollow points would do a lot more damage. He tried to picture what the sales guy was imaging when said “more damage.”

Steele crossed the state line in about an hour, then took an exit for a county road heading west. He was trying to find a deserted place where he could shoot the gun unnoticed. Within ten minutes he came upon a sand and gravel pit that had no gate. The place was deserted. It looked as if it were always deserted, though there were some tracks of heavy machinery still visible in the sandy road.

He found a low bank of sand and stopped the car. He had a six-pack of bottled water in his trunk. He set them up on the bank. Then he loaded his gun with 15 bullets, clicked off the safety, and fired. The first one hurt his hand when it kicked back and the sound rang in his ears. He straightened his arm all the way and shot again. Better, but still loud. He aimed at the water bottles. He missed his first ten shots. But by the time he’d shot 100 rounds, he found could hit the bottles pretty consistently. The sand was wet beneath each bottle. Now that they were empty he could really make them jump. He liked the way the pistol felt in his hand.

That night he brought the gun home and cleaned it thoroughly at his kitchen table. He loaded it fully and hung it from a chair next to his bed. He practiced pushing the safety on and off. The next day he put on the holster sling over his shirt, placed the loaded gun into it, and put on his navy blue blazer. He put himself between two mirrors and studied his back for a tell-tale bulge. The gun was nestled right in the small of his back. He saw nothing through the jacket that looked suspicious. But he did notice a new confidence in his eyes. He intended to carry the gun at all times.

What would he do with the gun if the circumstances called for it? He would shoot Schram in self-defense. He pictured what that would look like. Strange. It was like he was preparing to shoot an old friend. Schram had changed physically. He might have to put some bullets into the new Schram to stop his attack. The old Schram was inside the new Schram. Steele remembered Schram listening to him sympathetically when he told him about his strange mother (grandmother) and sisters (aunts). Steele told Schram how he had learned to isolate himself emotionally from his grandmother and aunts. Steele told Schram how he went from reacting to them to acting on his own. He looked inside himself and discovered who he was and what he wanted. He took control of his destiny. Steele made a conscious choice to channel everything that was painful and shameful into productive behaviors. He gained new energy to study and apply to colleges. He had thought doctor at first, but in the end he was drawn toward psychology.

That’s how he got Schram talking to him. Now it was his turn to listen sympathetically while Schram talked to him about his life at home. Schram told him more about the beatings he had received from his mother. Irrational attacks on a young boy by a drunk woman. Then sometimes Schram told Steele about the ways she drew him into bed with her and touched him and rolled onto him, open and moaning. He said he hated her for this more than for the beatings.

Steele listened sympathetically. He tried to help Schram realize that he himself was not to blame for his mother’s behavior. He convinced Schram that a clear memory and self-awareness would help him undo the damage she’d done to him. Schram responded to him as a role model and mentor for escaping a bad youth. He wanted to do what Steele had—control his destiny. More than just survive, he wanted to escape and transcend and prosper. Steele felt that in this way Schram had been his brother and his friend. Now he had to be ready to blow him away.

But Schram had that dark side. Steele had seen it very clearly. He’d never been able to do much to help Schram reign in the anger. He had a hair trigger. He could go into a revenge rage at any time. He hated women. He said it was easier for Steele to gain control over himself because he was good looking. True, Schram was not good looking, but Steele convinced him that he could be attractive to women and have a healthy relationship with one. Unfortunately, Steele ran out of time for therapy when they sent Schram to Robinson Correctional Center.

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