It's Not a Pretty Sightby Gar Anthony Haywood
When his ex-fiancée is murdered, Gunner vows to take vengeance on Los Angeles
For more than a decade, private detective Aaron Gunner has regretted letting Nina Hillman go. They met on a city bus while he was on his way to the Los Angeles Coliseum for a football game, and by the time they were through talking he had long/b>/i>/b>/b>… See more details below
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When his ex-fiancée is murdered, Gunner vows to take vengeance on Los Angeles
For more than a decade, private detective Aaron Gunner has regretted letting Nina Hillman go. They met on a city bus while he was on his way to the Los Angeles Coliseum for a football game, and by the time they were through talking he had long since missed kickoff. He proposed to her quickly, only to get cold feet and cancel the wedding. After less than a year, she married another man. Eleven years later, Gunner is still alone, and Nina’s house is a crime scene.
The homicide detectives tell Gunner that Nina’s husband has been abusing her for years. They assume that today he simply went too far. As he seeks justice for his long-lost love, Gunner uncovers a citywide chain of domestic abuse that he could have saved Nina from, had he been man enough to marry her. It’s too late to protect her now. Revenge will have to do.
Gunner (You Can Die Trying, 1993) knows everybody who's anybody, and even more people who aren't, and his tour of the battered-wives scene is the high point of this eventful but slackly told story.
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It's Not a Pretty Sight
An Aaron Gunner Mystery
By Gar Anthony Haywood
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1996 Gar Anthony Haywood
All rights reserved.
The first mistake Best Way Electronics made was giving Russell Dartmouth credit. The second was losing sight of him after he'd used it.
In two visits to the store, a converted retail shoe outlet on Central Avenue and 135th Street in North Compton, Dartmouth bought a nineteen-inch color TV, two VCRs, one bookshelf stereo system, and a pair of microwave ovens. Over $2,000 in merchandise, and all Best Way had to show for it was $47.18, the first and only payment Dartmouth ever made on the debt.
The three Best Way bills which followed went ignored, as did numerous phone calls to Dartmouth's residence. Only once did someone at the store actually manage to speak with Dartmouth over the phone. Dartmouth made a host of assurances that some form of payment was forthcoming, then proceeded to completely disregard them. Best Way was never able to contact him again. First his phone was disconnected, then his mailing address went away. Best Way tried tracing him through his employer, B & L Tool and Die in Southgate, only to discover the firm had laid him off six days after he'd made his last Best Way purchase.
That's when Roman Goody called Aaron Gunner.
Goody was the owner of Best Way, and the loss on Russell Dartmouth's account was his alone to bear. As was the embarrassment of having ever allowed the machinist to leave the Best Way premises with so much as a pocket calculator in his possession. Goody had built Best Way's reputation in the community on an all but foolhardy willingness to grant people credit when no one else would, so he was accustomed to getting burned now and then, but people like Dartmouth tried his patience. He could let folks miss a few payments on a four-hundred-dollar washing machine, he said, but there was no way he could allow a customer to take him for two thousand in electronics without completely losing face. Not to mention the two thousand dollars.
"It's a helluva way to make a livin'," the stumpy, fiftyish black man said, "but it works. I can't offer people all the things the major chains can—price, service, selection—but I can sure as hell make it easier for 'em to buy. They appreciate that." He clasped his hands over his belt buckle and threw himself farther back in his chair, making the giant coiled spring beneath its seat groan in distress. "Of course, every now and then, I get taken advantage of."
Goody frowned and shrugged like this last didn't really matter. He didn't have the look of a particularly easy mark, Gunner decided, but he did look like someone you could try to screw over without fear of getting your teeth kicked in. He had the soft, unassuming body of a frog, round and fleshy everywhere, and his hair was an ongoing argument; it was dry and brittle and, against his better efforts, stood up on his head like a flag blowing against a stiff tailwind.
"I would like to believe Mr. Dartmouth made his purchases here in good faith, and merely fell on hard times," Goody continued, "but I'm afraid that's not the case. I think Mr. Dartmouth is a thief, and I want you to find him for me. Before people get the idea our generous credit policy here at Best Way can be similarly abused for fun and profit."
"I understand," Gunner said simply. The disheartening austerity of Goody's office was beginning to get to him a little.
"So. How long do you think it will take?" Goody asked.
The investigator considered the question briefly, and then shrugged. "That's hard to say. How long did you say he's been missing?"
"About ninety days. Maybe a little longer than that. Last bill we sent out to him that didn't get returned went out back in November sometime." He consulted a document on his desk. "November twenty-fourth, to be exact."
Gunner nodded and thought a moment. "It's just a guess, but I'd think I could draw a bead on him in a week or two. Three at the most. Unless, of course—"
"A week of two? Are you joking?"
If it was a joke, Goody wasn't laughing.
"Joking? No, I'm not joking." Gunner could see what was coming with both eyes closed, and it wasn't much fun to look at. "You had some other time frame in mind?"
"You damn sure better believe I did. I was thinkin' more along the lines of three days, not three weeks. Who the hell can afford to pay you for three weeks?"
Gunner started to laugh. Slowly at first, then in earnest. Goody just watched him in silence, until the younger black man finally shook his head, rose up from his chair, and headed for the door.
"Hey! What the hell's so funny?" Goody demanded, calling out after him.
Gunner stopped and turned around, holding Goody's office door open in his left hand. He wasn't laughing anymore, but he still found the round little man's naiveté worth a smile. "Mr. Goody, I couldn't find a lost dog in three days. And a lost dog wants to be found."
Goody just stared at him.
"I tell you what. Keep your money. Maybe Dartmouth will turn up on his own, you never know." He started to walk out again.
"Waitaminute, waitaminute. Hold on a minute! You're gonna need more than three days, is that what you're tryin' to tell me?"
Once more, Gunner postponed his departure to turn and regard Goody directly. "I'm trying to tell you there's no way to predict how much time I'm going to need. Depending on how well Dartmouth's made himself disappear, I could find him next week, or never at all."
"Never at all?"
"That's right. There is always that possibility. Of course, that's not very—"
Goody grunted derisively and, waving his right hand to shoo his guest out the door, said, "In that case, Mr. Gunner, don't let me keep you, please. You obviously need to find yourself a richer client, and I need to find myself a more confident private investigator. No hard feelings."
Gunner raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"You heard me. I am not a fool. I will not pay you to do nothing. My pockets are not that deep."
"I see. I'm trying to scam you, is that what you think?"
"That is my impression, yes. You walk in here and talk about nothing but all the things you can't do for me, instead of all the things you can. And I'm supposed to hire you anyway. Why? If you can't promise me results, why in God's name shouldn't I just go out and look for Dartmouth myself?"
"Because you're not a skip tracer, Mr. Goody. You're a camcorder salesman," Gunner said.
"But if you can't find him any better than I can—"
"I never said that. What I said was that I can't guarantee you anything. There's a difference. Perhaps I should have explained to you what that difference is."
This last comment was designed to make Goody feel stupid, and it achieved the desired effect. The store owner was shamed into silence.
"But look, I'm easy," Gunner went on. "You're right—I'm the detective and you're the prospective client, whatever you want you should get. You tell me what you want to hear, and I'll say it. You want guarantees, I'll give you guarantees. Never mind that I won't be able to make good on any of them. If it's your preference to be disappointed later, rather than now, that's your business, right?"
"It's my preference not to be disappointed at all," Goody said.
"Yes, well, disappointment sometimes comes with the territory, Mr. Goody. Skip tracing is not an exact science, it often takes a great deal of luck to locate a subject. And time. Generally, however, it takes neither. Generally, the man or woman you're looking for turns up rather easily. I'd say the average time invested is about three weeks. Maybe Mr. Dartmouth would turn up sooner than that, who knows? But I'm not going to tell you now that he will, and then have you bitching and moaning to me later when he doesn't. I don't do business that way. I promise what I know I can deliver, and nothing more.
"So here's the deal: I charge you a fair fee for my time, and then I charge you again for the results of that time, if and when there are any. If you still think that sounds like some kind of a rip-off ..." He shrugged. "Then I guess you were right the first time. You need to find yourself another private investigator, and I need to find myself another client."
Gunner struck a confident pose and waited for Goody to make up his mind.
Which apparently required the store owner to do little but return the investigator's stare and twiddle his fingers, both in complete and unnerving silence. Gunner watched the fingers work to keep from going insane, meaty little stubs of flesh rolling about one another in a furious ballet of concentration. It was almost fascinating. But not quite.
"I'll pay you for ten days," Goody said at last, his voice weighed down by the humiliation of concession. "And if you haven't found Dartmouth by then ..." He didn't bother to complete the sentence, knowing he didn't have to. His meaning was clear.
"Fair enough," Gunner said.
He closed Goody's office door and sat back down.
There was a pay phone just around the corner from Best Way, outside a liquor store on Manchester Boulevard. In fact, there were two, but only one was working; the handset on the other was hanging from its shredded cord like the victim of a lynching, which, in a way, it was. Stripped of both its receiver and transmitter, it was only a plastic shell now, just one more slice of inoperative blight for the people of South-Central to get used to. The working phone, meanwhile, was in use, providing the means for a dark-skinned, fat woman with a thousand pink curlers in her hair to relate the story of her life to a girlfriend who, as near as Gunner could tell, never had a word to say of her own.
Fortunately, Gunner had no interest in the phones themselves, but in the directories that dangled beneath them. All but the lower third of the cover on the White Pages was missing, but what remained was enough to identify the volume as a relatively new one. Gunner opened the book and started flipping through it, hoping the page he needed would not be among those previous users had ripped out and walked away with like so many coupons in a neighborhood flier.
Three Dartmouths were listed in the book: Dartmouth, L.; Dartmouth, William B.; and Dartmouth, R. R., as in Robert, or Richard, or ...
Life was not supposed to be this good to anyone, but every now and then it honored Gunner with a gift, all wrapped up in fancy paper and tied with a bow. Go figure.
He snatched the page out of the book and rushed back to his car before the Fates could change their minds.
"You gonna tell him?" Howard Gaines asked, several hours later.
"Who? My client?"
Gaines nodded and grinned. Gunner knew damn well who he was talking about.
"Tell him what? That I've found an 'R. Dartmouth' in the phone book?" Gunner shook his head. "I don't think so. I've gotta check it out first, make sure the 'R' doesn't stand for Rodney, or Rachel. Something like that."
Gaines laughed, risking the loss of what few healthy teeth remained anchored in his mouth. "Shit. You know what it stands for. You just tryin' to keep the man on the clock a few more days, that's all." He gulped down the last of his beer—by Gunner's count, his sixth of the night—and slid the empty bottle across the bar, toward the huge black woman in the dirty apron standing behind it. "Ain't that right, Lilly?"
Lilly Tennell grunted, offering her usual response to most things said about Gunner. She and the investigator were friends of many years, but this was obvious to no one, least of all the two of them. The Acey Deuce was the lone point of commonality between them. Gunner liked to drink here, and Lilly liked having him do so. Not because she needed his business, exactly, but because her customers seemed to find him entertaining. Hell if she could figure out why.
Gunner, meanwhile, liked to think of Lilly as an overweight, overbearing, humorless example of Afro-American sisterhood wearing too much red lipstick. Other than that, she was great.
As was the Deuce itself—for a dump. The South-Central bar was ice cold in the winter and a steambath in the summer, as inviting to strangers as a lumpy mattress in a cheap motel room. Its mirrors were cracked and its chairs all listed to one side or another, and there wasn't a red vinyl booth in the entire house that wasn't coughing up balls of foam padding somewhere. But it felt like home. Everything about the Deuce was as dirt poor and bone tired as the people it shared the neighborhood with, so walking through its doors into the stifling despondency of its ambiance had a certain comfort to it.
In short, it was a hot spot, if any place so far south of Wilshire and east of La Cienega could be called such a thing. It had personality, it had a loyal following, and some nights, like this one, it even had a crowd. Despite all of Lilly's smart-ass, sarcastic grunting.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Gunner asked her.
"It means Mr. Goody better sell himself a mess of TVs this week, he wants to pay the bill you're gonna send 'im," she said. She glanced at Gaines and winked.
"Who's 'Mr. Goody'?" Gunner asked, trying to sound as if the name were new to him. He hadn't mentioned who his client was, just that he was a local businessman looking for a credit holder named Russell Dartmouth.
"Brother, you must forget what I do for a livin'," Lilly said. "I knew it was Goody you was talkin' 'bout the minute you opened your mouth."
Gunner thought about asking her how, but decided he might be better off not knowing. Lilly was scary enough as it was.
"You workin' for Mr. Goody?" Gaines asked. "Over at Best Way?"
"That's confidential," Gunner said, discreet to the bitter end.
"Man, don't play Mr. Goody like that. He's all right. I buy stuff over at Best Way all the time."
"Don't play him like what? I'm not 'playing' anybody."
"But you found the man he told you to find, an' you ain't gonna tell 'im."
"I found a name in the phone book, Howard. That's all."
"You found his name in the phone book."
"I found a name similar to his in the phone book. You don't listen."
"Look. I'll make a deal with you. I won't tell you how to sweep floors, if you won't tell me how to run a skip trace. All right?"
"How to sweep floors?"
"That's right. You think it's funny, accusing me of trying to cheat somebody, but if the wrong people ever heard you—"
"What wrong people?"
"—I could lose my goddamn license. Then you and I would have to go somewhere to do something about your mouth. You understand what I'm saying?"
"Hell no, he don't understand," Lilly said, breaking in before Gaines could say another word. "And neither do I. Why the hell you goin' off on him like that? He didn't do nothin' to you!"
"The hell he didn't. He said—"
"Look here, Gunner. Enough is enough. Every time you come in here lately, you lookin' for a fight with somebody, an' I ain't gonna have it no more. You hear what I'm sayin'?"
"You heard me. Every man in this place got some kinda woman trouble, but you the only one waits till he comes through my door to decide he wants to get pissed off about it. You need to grow the hell up!"
Gunner had no immediate retort for that. What she was saying was basically true: He was looking for a fight. And Claudia Lovejoy was the reason.
Gunner's on-again, off-again relationship with Lovejoy had finally come to an end, less than a week ago, and the investigator was not dealing with it well. Twenty-one months of trying, and the pair still couldn't synchronize their levels of commitment. For the most part, Gunner had been the one ready to go forward, Claudia the one holding back. Being careful for them both, she called it. Like the two of them together were a bomb that needed defusing, or something. Gunner had hung in as long as he could, hoping she'd lose her reluctance to trust him with time, but she never did, and worse, gave him no reason to believe she ever would.
So he finally pulled the plug.
It would have been a painful thing to do in any case, but the way Lovejoy reacted to it only added insult to injury. No tears, no heavy sighs, no words of regret; just relief masked over by a thin layer of melancholy.
Still, after all this, Gunner had thought he was doing a pretty good job of being cool about it, keeping his confusion and resentment to himself. He didn't think anyone would be able to read what really lay below the surface. He didn't think anyone knew him that well.
Leave it to Lilly to prove him wrong.
"Come on, Lilly, damn," Gaines said, throwing an arm around Gunner's shoulders. "Leave the man alone. He didn't mean nothin'."
Excerpted from It's Not a Pretty Sight by Gar Anthony Haywood. Copyright © 1996 Gar Anthony Haywood. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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