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Dead Before Dying
by Deon Meyer
Little, Brown, 2006

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IN THE AFTERNOON HUSH of the last day of the year, Mat Joubert thought about death. Mechanically his hands were busy cleaning his service pistol, the Z88. He sat in his sitting room, leaning forward in the armchair, the parts of the pistol lying on the coffee table in front of him among rags, brushes, and an oil can. A cigarette in the ashtray sent up a long, thin plume of smoke. Above him, at the window, a bee flew against the glass with monotonous regularity, in an irritating attempt to reach the summer afternoon outside, where a light southeaster was blowing.

Joubert didn’t hear it. His mind wandered aimlessly through memories of the past weeks, among chronicles of death, his bread and butter. The white woman on her back on the kitchen floor, spatula in her right hand, omelet burnt on the stove, the blood an added splash of color in the pleasant room. In the living room, the boy, nineteen, in tears, 3,240 rand in the pocket of his leather jacket, saying, over and over, his mother’s name.

The man among the flowers, an easier memory. Death with dignity. He recalled the detectives and the uniformed men on the open industrial site between the gray factory buildings. They stood in a circle, knee-deep in the wildflowers thrusting up yellow and white and orange heads. In the center of this judicial circle lay the body of a middle-aged man, small in stature. An empty bottle of meths was gripped in one hand, he was facedown, cheek against the soil.

But his eyes were closed. And his other hand clutched a few flowers, now faded.

It was the hands that Mat Joubert remembered most vividly.

On Macassar beach. Three people. The stench of burning rubber and charred flesh still hanging in the air, the group of the law and the media forming a barrier downwind against the horror of multiple necklace murders.

The hands. Claws. Reaching up to the heavens in a petrified plea for deliverance.

Mat Joubert was tired of living. But he didn’t want to die like that.

Using thumb and forefinger, he placed the fifteen stubby 9 mm bullets into the magazine one by one. The last one flashed briefly in the afternoon sun. He held the bullet at eye level, balanced between thumb and forefinger, and stared at the rust-colored lead point.

What would it be like? If you pressed the dark mouth of the Z88 softly against your lips and you pulled the trigger, carefully, slowly, respectfully. Would you feel the lead projectile? Pain? Would thoughts still flash through the undamaged portions of the brain? Accuse you of cowardice just before the night enveloped you? Or did it all happen so quickly that the sound of the shot wouldn’t even travel from gun to ear to brain?

He wondered. Had it been like that for Lara?

What was it like—her light being switched off and watching the hand on the switch? What did she think about in that last fleeting moment? Life? Him? Perhaps she felt remorse and wanted to give a last mocking laugh?

He didn’t want to think about it.

A new year would start the following day. There were people out there with resolutions and dreams and plans and enthusiasm and hope for this new era. And here he sat.

Tomorrow everything at work would be different. The new man, the political appointment. The others could talk about nothing else. Joubert didn’t really care. He no longer wanted to know. Either about death, or life. It was simply one more thing to survive, to take account of, to squeeze the spirit out of life and lure the Great Predator even closer.

He banged the magazine into the stock with the flat of his left hand, as if violence would give his thoughts a new direction. He thrust the weapon into its leather sheath. The oil and the rags went back into the old shoebox. He dragged on the cigarette, blew the smoke in the direction of the window. Then he saw the bee, heard exhaustion diminishing the sound of the wings.

Joubert got up, pulled the lace curtain aside, and opened the window. The bee felt the warm breeze outside but still tried to find a way out through the wrong panel. Joubert turned, picked up an oily rag, and carefully swiped it past the window. The insect hovered briefly in front of the opening, then flew outside. Joubert closed the window and straightened the curtain.

He could also escape, he thought. If he wanted to.

Deliberately he let this perception fade as well. But it was enough to have him make an impulsive decision. He’d walk across to the neighborhood barbecue this evening. Just for a while. For the Old Year.

Excerpted from Dead Before Dying by Deon Meyer. Copyright © 2006 by Deon Meyer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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