Authors: Gar Anthony Haywood
“So that’s how it’s gonna be, huh? You want me to play it the way you laid it out?”
“I want you to make it as easy for me as you can, Ziggy. Keep my time in the joint under ten years and I’ll be more than satisfied with your work.”
“And your license to operate? To carry?”
“Fuck ’em. Unless they go after my license to drive, let ’em have whatever they want.”
Zeigler eyed him again. “You’ve gotta eat, kid,” he said.
“Hey, don’t worry about me. Del’s asked me back in the fold and I’ve told him I’m in, this time for good. We’ve all got to grow up sometime, right?”
Gunner smiled, but not painlessly. It was a difficult thing to do, treating Zeigler like a stranger, fair game for lies. For an old man whose name Gunner had found in the phone book over four years ago, he was a better friend to the black man than any Fairfax district shyster had a right to be.
“I don’t want to see you go out this way, Aaron. Not through the back door with your tail between your legs.”
“Let it go, Ziggy,” Gunner said flatly.
“Somebody’s scared you off. I can see that. I’m not completely blind, yet. You’re heading for the exits because you’re afraid, not because you’re tired of losing.”
“Ziggy, Jesus Christ …”
“You know the first trick a dog trainer teaches a dog?” He took a bite out of his pear. “How to roll over. Not sit, like most people think. No. They teach it to roll over. And you wanna know why?” He leaned over in his chair, resting his elbows on his knees, and smiled complacently. “Because once you teach ’em that, the rest is
Gunner’s phone rang. Zeigler alone reacted, turning. Gunner didn’t move.
“You gonna answer that?” Zeigler asked, taking another bite out of his pear.
Gunner shook his head. “The machine’s on,” he said.
After two rings, the phone fell silent.
“Where was I?” Zeigler wanted to know.
“You were leaving,” Gunner said, getting to his feet. “Unless you have any questions I haven’t already answered thirty times.”
Zeigler stood up, briefcase in hand. “I could help you, kid, if you’d let me. I ever let you down before?”
“Then give me a chance to fight for you. Maybe there’s nothing to be done about your license to carry, but we could maybe get ’em to settle for suspension of your license to operate, we play our cards right.”
Gunner shook his head slowly and opened the front door for him. “Not worth the trouble, Ziggy. Thanks, anyway.”
Zeigler couldn’t understand it, the totality of Gunner’s willingness to quit—but he went to the door without further complaint. Twenty-three years in the courtroom had taught him the difference between a case he could win and one any man would lose.
“I hope you’re not making a mistake,” he said.
Gunner put on a show of confidence, smiling again. “Not this time,” he said.
Zeigler shrugged once and was gone.
As Gunner closed the door behind him the phone began to ring again. He moved to the answering machine atop a tall table in one corner of the living room and turned the volume up to screen the call. For the third time that day, the man on the end of the line was Brother Jamaal, Roland Mayes’s personal video-historian.
“Gunner? You there? This is Jamaal Hill again. Listen, this is no joke. I’ve got something you need to see. Something of Buddy’s. I don’t know what it means, exactly, but I think it explains how he got himself killed, and by who. Understand? Give me a call, we’ll get together somewhere. I want to do the right thing, man. You know what I mean?”
He left his number one more time and hung up.
Gunner pulled the phone jack out of the wall and proceeded to give the same bad soap opera one more chance to hold his attention.
Eleven pounds in three days. The Guilt Trip/Heat Wave Diet, Gunner called it.
What it was, was three days of confinement in the sun-blasted furnace his little house had become with only the beast of self-pity to keep him company. He was better off without the weight, and its absence should have made him lighter on his feet, but he had something more burdensome than body fat to lug from room to room now, and his ability to carry it was fast declining.
Del understood what was happening, as well as he possibly could. He was biding his time, letting Gunner come around at his own pace. He hadn’t called since Thursday, one day after Gunner’s strange hibernation began. Brother Jamaal, on the other hand, had called again today, but only once. Early. He was tiring, finally. Getting it through his head that it was time to quit. Just as Gunner had days ago.
Zeigler was doing a good job of making Gunner’s improbable account of the events leading up to Stan Ferris’s death hold water, and it looked as if the black man might spend the greater part of the following year on stiff probation rather than behind bars. Matt Poole had been no more awed by Gunner’s testimony than Zeigler had, but he liked the straightforward way in which Gunner had laid the works out on his table, calling him in before Ferris’s body was cold, and the homicide detective was doing his part to make things go a little easier for him. Anything not to have to hassle playing cat to someone else’s mouse.
The TV was on twenty-four hours a day now, but it was just an excuse to have his eyes open. Gunner’s mind was turned inward, locked in a closed loop. It was introspection of the most deadly order, a perpetual replay of limited images: fat Stanley Ferris falling to his living room floor, clutching a hole in his chest he could not believe was there; a tall man laughing behind a black silk mask; Denny Townsend in the dumpster he’d been tossed in, dead eyes aimed pointlessly skyward.
It was tearing him up from the inside out, making a mockery of his consciousness. Crushing his manhood down to size like a ball of tin foil in an iron fist. He had been used again, once more with fatal consequences; the game of make-believe he insisted on playing had exploded in his face anew. But this time there was a twist. This time he was helping.
Because that was better than being dead.
That was the important thing. He was alive. Haunted by shame and consumed with self-hatred, but alive and wiser for the experience. Better prepared to accept his limitations, both as a private investigator and a man. He had no business fucking around with incendiary men and institutions, political or otherwise. Small-time hoods and teenage punks were more in his league; against anything else, he was outmanned and outclassed.
Prudence, then, demanded that he quit while he still had his health, if not his pride. He would move on and learn to forget. He would persevere and seek peace of mind. Not because peace of mind would make him whole again, but because the only way to regain anything more for himself required that he strike back. Retaliate. Mere rationalizations would not work. He would have to resolve to shed blood and find some joy in it.
That was the catch.
He was convinced he had done all the killing he could do. In ’Nam or at home, directly or indirectly, it was all the same: dead was dead, and he was accountable. Viet Cong by the score, lying face up, face down, some with no faces at all: men, women, and children alike. A fourteen-year-old black girl named Audra Dobey, left butchered on a cot somewhere by an amateur-hour abortionist. Denny Townsend, blown open at the waist by a bullet from the detective’s gun. And Stanley Ferris, last but not least, taking a header with an empty gun in his hand, the front of his shirt staining fast with blood, loser of a rigged duel.
They had all left spirits behind, and their spirits needed no company. His self-respect was simply not worth another ghost. And so his rage, what there was of it, would be stillborn; the human sacrifice it would take to resurrect his dignity would not take place.
He would survive, and leave it at that.
Survival was, after all, the most he felt he truly deserved.
Del’s patience finally ran out on Monday, the fifth straight day of Gunner’s self-imposed exile. He came to the door around four in the afternoon and wouldn’t stop ringing the bell until Gunner answered it.
“You’ve got mail all over the porch,” he said, handing over a stack of miscellaneous bills as he stepped inside.
The house was dark, the soft white face of Gunner’s still-running TV set notwithstanding. A dirty sheet was falling from the couch to the floor, converting it from a broken-down piece of living-room furniture to an unkempt bed. The remains of several days-old meals stood drying on plates and dishes at various locations, the scent of bad luck bourbon hovering in the air like a black cloud with no silver lining.
Del took a moment to examine the wreckage, then turned his eyes of stone to Gunner and said, “Enough’s enough. What the fuck’s goin’ on?”
It was a rhetorical question; he didn’t wait for an answer. “I spoke with Ziggy this morning. To see if he could tell me why your phone’s been out of order for the last two days. You know what he said? He said you’ve pulled the plug. On your
“Ziggy’s been working too hard,” Gunner said.
Del moved a plate of petrified lasagna and sat down in the room’s one good chair. “You don’t bullshit your attorney, Aaron. You tell him the truth, whatever the truth may be, and help him make a case out of it. That too much for Ziggy to ask?”
“I’ve told Ziggy what happened. A thousand times. If he chooses not to believe it, that’s his problem.”
“He’s not stupid, man. He’s been working for you for four years, you don’t think he can tell when you’re being straight with him and when you’re not?”
“He’s my lawyer, not my mother! I tell him what I want to tell him, goddammit!”
He was beginning to feel sick. The bile he had managed to suppress for four days was coming to the surface, and he was oddly relieved to sense it.
“And what about me?” Del asked. “That go for me, too?”
“It goes for everybody. Ziggy knows what he needs to know; you know what you need to know. I killed a man before he could kill me, and I’m through as a private investigator. The page has turned. I’m ready to go to work for you now, full time. What more do you want?”
“I want to believe you’re making the break clean. That you’re choosing this moment to get out and go in with me because that’s what you want, not because you’re afraid. Afraid of what you’ve done, or what you might do again, if you don’t.”
“Look. It’s time, that’s all. You don’t think it’s time?”
think doesn’t matter. If you think it’s time, then it must be. But don’t kid yourself, and don’t kid me—you can’t turn your back on ten years’ work out of fear and expect to make it stick.”
Gunner laughed. Del could usually be relied upon to see through a man with disarming precision, but this time he had it all wrong. Gunner was afraid, that much was true—but not
“I say something funny?”
Gunner kept laughing, unable or unwilling to stop. He had a bottle of Lord Calvert in his hand and was pouring himself a drink, a large one in a dirty glass.
“You overestimate me, cousin,” he said, grinning, before tossing the bourbon down in a rush.
Del took a good hard look at him, already fast at work on a second drink, and said, “Maybe I do.”
He went to the door and opened it. Terry Allison was standing on the other side, out on the mail-strewn porch, getting ready to ring the bell. They both did a double-take, surprised.
“I’m looking for Aaron Gunner,” the blond said stiffly, breaking their shared paralysis first. She was wearing a light cotton summer dress in pastel blue, sleeveless and scoop-necked to expose all the perfectly bronzed flesh she could legally afford to display. The garment itself was innocent; the firm, lithe body beneath it was not.
Del turned to Gunner for help, at a loss for words. Gunner walked his fresh drink over to the door and greeted Allison with a crooked smile, going out of his way to make her feel cheap and out of place.
“Well. Will wonders never cease.” He turned to his cousin and said, “Del, this sweet young thing is Ms. Terry Allison, right-hand lady of would-be Congressman Lew Henshaw’s right-hand man, Larry Stewart. Say hello to my cousin Del, Ms. Allison.”
Allison nodded and took Del’s hand, making a feeble attempt to shake it.
“Ms. Allison thinks Lew Henshaw is just what her district needs, Del. Maybe, somewhere down the road, just what we all need. If you know what I mean.”
“That’s not why I’m here, Mr. Gunner,” Allison said, blushing, tainting her tan with a faint crimson glow.
“Ah. You must’ve heard about your pal Ferris, then. You want to ask me not to waste any more of your delivery boys, I guess.”
“No! If you’d just listen to me for a second—”
“Waitaminute, waitaminute. I’ve got it. If it’s not Henshaw, and it’s not Ferris, then it must be something kinky that brings you all the way out here, into the
You want to know if what they say about us is true, right? You want to find out first-hand whether or not we’re just as good in the sack as we are on the dance floor.”
“Aaron, Jesus, man,” Del said.
Gunner wouldn’t take his eyes off the girl. “Hey, no problem. I can spare a few minutes. Del was just leaving. Weren’t you, Del?”
Allison ran off. She fumbled her way into a late-model white-on-white Toyota Supra parked at the curb out front and peeled some tread off its tires pulling away. Gunner stepped out onto the porch to watch her go and laughed, his voice ringing more with melancholy than amusement.
Del came up beside him and said, “Up until a few minutes ago, I was only guessing. But now I’m sure.” He paused. “Whatever it is you’re trying to forget, it’s not going to go away. It’s going to fuck with you until you die, or until you deal with it. One or the other.” He shook his head. “You’re not ever going to be able to outrun it.”
Gunner grinned and finished off his drink. “Watch me,” he said.
He went back inside the house and closed the door behind him.