Authors: Gar Anthony Haywood
Why he cared to be involved in law enforcement at all was a mystery he could explain to no one’s satisfaction. He had no hang-up regarding power of the life-and-death variety; by the first month of a year-long stint in Vietnam almost seventeen years ago, he had killed enough people in the interests of “duty” to grow tired of the thrill forever. And as for the law itself, he was less than enamored by its credibility. Crime and punishment was a fine concept, perhaps, but in the real world he had never seen it work indiscriminately, which was to say he had never seen it work at all.
But something about wearing a badge and attaching himself to the things it represented seemed ideal, once his days in the service had come to an end, and only after months of living with it was he able to recognize the attraction for what it was: a need to
Freshly removed from the cut-and-dried order of war, where everything functioned in a beautifully simplistic either/or system, black or white, Us or Them, he was desperate to align himself with a cause and its following, preferably one diametrically opposed to another. His hunger was not for camaraderie, but for a sense of identity, some specific role to play in the free-for-all chaos that was civilian life.
It would have been convenient to have more than one bipartisan conflict suited to his needs to choose from, but Gunner wasn’t that lucky. He was living in an age in which conviction to causes was out of vogue and apathy was often confused with open-mindedness. If people took up sides at all, they didn’t talk about it, an abstention that left the world virtually impossible to dissect into finite philosophical factions. The only line drawn between men that remained indelible was the law. Corruption was blurring that line more every day—money
talk, and everyone, it so often appeared, was listening—but the illusion of just men waging war against the forces of darkness was still intact in the realm of law enforcement, and for Gunner the lost lamb, an illusion seemed good enough.
He took his rude rejection by the LAPD badly, but moved quickly on to a junior college education spread out over two short years and four different schools that eventually earned him a private investigator’s license, a cheap piece of paper that entitled him to play a few grown-up games with the state of California’s blessings. He set to work enthusiastically, as motivated as he could hope to be toward a trade that only emulated the real thing, but it was a lost cause almost immediately. He had no feel for the work, no natural aptitude for its nuances. His delusions of self-worth and identification with something tangible were short-lived.
He didn’t have to spend many nights in motel parking lots, waiting for one client or another’s stray spouse to cut an incriminating pose for his Polaroid, to understand what he had become and where he was headed: nothing and nowhere, respectively. His authority had no teeth; he could quote the law but not defend it. He was just a man with a dime store ID card in his wallet, a cardboard “pig” you could use for a target range without fear of repercussions, a Peeping Tom who had the right to ask questions no one had to answer. Even when business was good, and it was never good for long, it was bad; his successes were devoid of accomplishment and his failures only confirmed his growing sense of impotence. Efficiency was hard to come by on the heels of perpetual insecurity.
And yet it had taken Al Dobey to make Gunner quit.
Dobey had shown up at Gunner’s door at a bad time, the height of a famine that had seen the detective pour his meals from a cornflakes box for nineteen days and nights. Dobey was a pimp with a weight problem, a coke-head and compulsive liar. But any man with a proposition was someone Gunner had to hear out, like it or not, and Dobey seemed genuinely desperate to pay for the investigator’s services. He had a fourteen-year-old daughter who had taken off without warning, left for school one day and never come back, and he wanted Gunner to find her. She was his only link to decency, he said, and to illustrate his fatherly grief, he dried his eyes with the palms of his hands like an old woman at a funeral.
It was a performance Gunner didn’t buy for one minute, knowing Dobey’s well-earned reputation as a prince among scumbags, but he thought about his last bowl of cornflakes and took the pimp’s retainer anyway.
Audra Dobey was supposed to be a wild and rebellious kid, too much like her father for her own good, but when Gunner turned her up six days later, he couldn’t see the family resemblance. She was a cute, frail little thing hiding out in a duplex on Wilton near Slauson with a girlfriend and the girl’s older brother. If she needed a good reason for running away, she had the best: she was four months pregnant and showing from every angle. It would have been smart to ask her how she got that way, but Gunner was feeling more hungry than smart at the time; he kept out of sight and tipped Dobey to her whereabouts by phone.
Two weeks later he was back on the streets all over again, this time looking for Dobey and his fee. The pimp’s was suddenly a cold trail, save for a single newsflash that eventually made the rounds to the angry black man he had left behind like a bloodhound off the scent: Audra was dead. Her father had forced her into a discount abortion and somebody’s hand had slipped. There were cops combing the neighborhood in Gunner’s wake suggesting she had been carrying Dobey’s child. It wasn’t such a far-fetched idea.
Gunner managed to live with the guilt for four days. Parked across the street in the wee hours of a Thursday morning, he was watching the assistant manager of an ABC market on Vernon and Vermont load a few frozen turkeys into the trunk of his car when the futility of Gunner’s existence finally touched the wrong nerve and the detective knew he had had enough.
In eleven years he had learned to wade through the pus of humanity for money, to pocket a few dollars and scrape the earth for garbage his clients weren’t willing to touch, but he had never once done it for free. He let the turkey thief go about his business and drove home, where he finished off the last remnant of Dobey’s forty-five-dollar retainer—a fifth of Wild Turkey—in record time.
He had been an electrician ever since.
His cousin Del had been offering to take him on as an apprentice for years and had welcomed Gunner aboard with open arms. There wasn’t much excitement in running wire through a maze of conduits, twisting one’s body to fit into cramped crawlspaces where mice often kept you company, but regular meals were part of the deal and the work took no toll on the human spirit. Gunner’s days of waiting for something to happen were over. The false expectations and unrealized drama of private investigating were behind him, and the lies of time-honored pulp novels were now for other fools to believe.
So the lady on the floor of his kitchen was flat out of luck. No matter what his friends had told her—they just couldn’t see him as an electrician for long—he was through beating holes in his shoes playing shadow to unfaithful wives and larcenous employees, runaway adolescents and killers of left-wing militants, and he wasn’t going back for anybody or anything. It made no difference what she did to his libido, what she was willing to spend, or how far she was prepared to go to hire him. He wasn’t interested. He wasn’t tempted.
Signs of life—a shifting of the left arm, the rearrangement of feet—began to appear before Gunner’s eyes.
The beauty on his kitchen floor, the sister the press apparently didn’t know Buddy Dorris had, came around at last and sat up, testing the joint of her jaw for function. Gunner gulped down the last of his third beer and tossed the empty can across the room to get her attention.
“You got a name?” he asked.
“Fuck you,” she said.
“Hurts pretty bad, huh?”
“If you broke it, I’ll kill you. I swear it.” She started looking around on the floor for her gun.
“It’s over here,” Gunner said.
He let her see the .22, the same end she’d offered him to view only minutes ago. Its threat was clearer since he’d parted the curtains on the little kitchen window, but she didn’t seem to mind.
“You made your point, all right? You don’t need my business.”
“Maybe it wasn’t your business I objected to. Maybe it was the fucked-up way you went about presenting it.”
“You got a name?” he asked again.
Her hands fell away from her jaw, slowly. “Verna.”
“Verna Gail. G-A-I-L, Gail. Are you going to help me, or what?”
“That your married name, ‘Gail’?”
“Where is Mister Gail right now?”
“Safe from the demands of alimony. Meaning he’s dead. You didn’t answer my question, Mr. Gunner.”
Gunner made her wait a long time for an answer; she had done all the interrogating she was going to do in his house. “I don’t remember ever hearing that Buddy Dorris
a sister,” he said.
“Who have you been talking to?”
“No one, yet. But it bears looking into, don’t you think? I mean, one wouldn’t necessarily have to be related to Buddy Dorris to want a piece of the man who killed him. Would one?”
“I told you. Buddy was my brother.
Would you take my case if I could prove that?”
“I don’t know. Possibly. I haven’t heard what happens to the white man once I find him, yet. You haven’t gone to all this trouble just to get him off the street.”
“No.” Her eyes were suddenly cold, fixed on a target only she could see. “I haven’t.”
“You intend to kill him, or just bust him up real good?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t made up my mind, yet.”
“You have somebody lined up to take care of that end? Or were you counting on me to do it?”
“Hell, I don’t see why not. Accessory to murder, murder, it’s all the same thing to the D.A. What’s another life sentence tacked on to the first?”
He laughed at her blank reaction to that, the mute surprise of a spiteful little girl with a serpent’s eyes and an angel’s face. He watched her bite her lower lip, waiting for him to go on, until it became apparent that he wasn’t going to oblige.
“You think I should just let the police have him. Is that it?”
Gunner didn’t say anything.
“They’d only try him and let him go. You know that.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. But I’ll tell you what I do know: I’m getting tired of this asinine negotiating. So I’m going to make it as simple for you as I can:
won’t set him up for you.
He either belongs to the Man once I find him, or you can find him yourself. Or grab a copy of the Yellow Pages and start looking for someone else who will.”
His eyes were fixed upon her, but following his gaze, she realized it was not deliberate: she had opened her blouse generously in her sleep, and the soft arc of ample cleavage was exposed to the open air. She watched him avert his eyes as she made repairs and said, “You act as if I need you more than you need me.”
Gunner grinned, trying to hide his embarrassment. “Don’t you? Or has some other soul brother opened up shop in the neighborhood I don’t know about?” He laughed again, painfully. “Worries I’ve got, sister, but competition’s not one of ’em. I’ve seen the phone book, I know.”
“So you’ve got the market all to yourself,” she said. “So what? Supply reflects demand. If you’re the only P.I. on the black-hand side of the world, it’s probably only because there’s not enough work out here for two. I’ll bet mine’s the first offer you’ve had in
“That doesn’t mean I have to take it.”
She glowered at him coldly, her body completely motionless. “You’ve got as much choice as I do.”
Gunner didn’t argue.
“I want the man who killed my brother, Mr. Gunner. And you want me. Isn’t that right?”
She was staring at the mound a new erection was forming with the folds of his robe. He hadn’t been with a woman in her class for a long time, and the memory of what it had been like wouldn’t go away.
“I won’t set him up for you,” he told her again, swallowing hard.
She smiled, assuming all the control he could sense himself relinquishing. “All right. Turn him in, if you want. It won’t change anything.” She laughed. “I’ll get my crack at him, sooner or later. At the trial, maybe.”
“If I can find him.”
“You’ll find him. You’re supposed to be cheap. Not incompetent.”
She laughed again, resting her head on one shoulder, as Gunner watched her in restless silence, fully regretting what he was about to do.
“You get what you pay for, Verna Gail,” he said dryly, flipping her empty gun through the air toward her. “Remember that.”
She caught the gun awkwardly, sensing his abrupt change of mood, and through doleful eyes watched as he came up slowly from his chair to approach her, allowing his robe to open as it pleased.
unner said, “I won’t be coming in today, Del,” and left it at that. His cousin would know what to make of the silence that followed, even over the phone.