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On the fourth day of proceedings in the civil suit of Compton vs. Hernandez being heard in Room 221 of the downtown Los Angeles Municipal Courthouse, a full hour after the lunch break of which he had neglected to take advantage, private investigator Aaron Gunner finally took the stand on behalf of the defendant, Celia Hernandez. He had been on his way to the snack shop down the hall, in search of his second cup of coffee since noon and his fifth overall, when the bailiff called him inside.
Gunner's relief at the summons was only partially due to boredom. While Hernandez had paid him a fair and equitable sum to deal with the circumstances of her case in earnest, he found them laughable nevertheless, and was anxious to have his participation in the litigation come to an end.
Eighteen months earlier, Celia Hernandez had made the acquaintance of Lionel Compton in the dark and empty parking lot of the El Segundo aeronautics tooling firm where they both worked the late shift—she as a keypunch operator, Compton as a machine-shop trainee—and their introduction had not gone well. Gunner's client's description of the incident was attempted rape, plain and simple; Compton saw it as a harmless passing of two young and attractive coworkers in the night. The pair could agree on nothing that occurred during their brief exchange save for the way it came to an end—with two well-placed and highly motivated knees to Compton's groin, courtesy of Hernandez.
It was Compton's contention that the blows had cost him whatever sexual capacity he could have claimed beforehand, and if his police record was any indication, everyone involved in the case admitted, that was a sizable loss indeed, because the twenty-four-year-old black man had a history of sex-related arrests and convictions almost too long for a single machine to print out. It was a background that should have, and likely would have, invalidated his case long before it ever came to trial had Hernandez only been wise enough to press charges against him following their altercation. Sadly, however, Hernandez had not. She had tried to ignore the incident instead, mistaking her assailant's foiled attempt at assault for but an isolated if stupid blunder he would never make again, and Compton was using the abstention to lend credence to his argument that the woman's attack upon him had been as unprovoked as it was damaging.
He was suing for a cool million.
Hernandez's lawyer, a low-rent file-server twice removed from Kenya whose firm operated out of a department-store chain, chose to build his client's defense upon the assumption that Compton's claims of sexual incapacitation were vile exaggerations, if not outright lies, and hired Gunner to prove it. Gunner did. It took five weeks of surveillance and all the film a good Olympus camera could shoot, but the results were unmistakable. The prints were clear and self-explanatory; Gunner's photography was improving.
Compton and a hooker at the Red Robin motel, a Baldwin Hills flophouse on La Brea just north of Exposition.
Compton and two hookers at Compton's bachelor apartment in Hawthorne.
Compton, two hookers, and a male friend at the Red Robin.
Compton, two hookers, and a female friend at the Red Robin.
The eight-by-tens left little to the imagination—Gunner had shot them all outside one poorly draped window or another, his camera armed with a telephoto lens that could have brought the hairs on a fly's hind leg into razor-sharp focus—but his testimony was required to explain them, nevertheless. William Botu, Hernandez's department-store lawyer, asked simple questions, to which Gunner provided simple answers. The three w's—who, what, and where—were covered in great detail; it was a tedious, if painless, affair.
Then Daniel London, the walking oil slick representing Compton, decided to go for broke and cross-examine. It had already been established that his client's only witness—Compton himself—was a highly unreliable source for the truth, and London was hoping the same conclusion could be reached about Gunner, with a little creative questioning.
Compton was dead meat otherwise.
Therefore, the square-jawed counselor in the finely tailored blue suit wandered about before the witness stand, hands behind his back, delaying his first question as long as possible so as to leave the jury with the false impression that he had given it a good deal of thought. Only when the Honorable Theodore J. Spillman, who was hearing the case, voiced his impatience with a dry and hollow stage cough did London abandon the tactic, in order to hand Gunner one of the twenty-seven photographs held in evidence, this one labeled EXHIBIT A-14.
"Mr. Gunner," London said, smiling effusively, "do you recognize that photograph?"
Gunner did the polite thing and glanced at the print before answering. "Yes. Of course."
"Did you take it?"
"Yes, sir, I did."
"At the Red Robin motel?"
"That's right. Outside of Room 11, in the north wing, as I said before. The stenographer can read back the date and time for you, if you missed that, too."
London stopped smiling. Somewhere in the back of the courtroom, a giggle was dying. "That won't be necessary," he said. He started to pace again. "I would, however, like you to take another look at that photograph and tell me, in your own words, what you see. Of my client, Mr. Compton's, anatomy, specifically."
"Your Honor ..." Botu said, rising.
Spillman ordered him back to his seat with a firm wave of his right hand. "Let's see where Mr. London's headed before voicing any objections, shall we, Mr. Botu?"
"Thank you, Your Honor," London said.
Gunner gave Exhibit A-14 a thorough evaluation, said, "His head, in profile; his right leg and both feet; both arms, but only one hand, his right. Oh, and his joint."
"I beg your pardon?" London said.
Gunner pointed. "His joint. His penis. Right here."
London snatched the photo from his hands and pressed his nose to it. "Are you trying to tell the court that Mr. Compton's joint—I mean, his penis—is actually visible in this picture?"
"Well," Gunner said, shrugging, "I admit it's not that easy to see—I recall hearing the girl on the left there saying something to that effect, in fact—but it's there, all right. That sure as hell isn't a marital aid."
"He's lyin'!" Compton roared, leaping to his feet indignantly. "Shawanna never said nothin' like that! Shit, she couldn't get enough!"
"That will be all, Mr. Compton!" Judge Spillman shouted, trying to be heard over the din of the suddenly excited courtroom audience and the pounding of his own gavel.
"Your Honor," a red-faced London said, before the laughter in the room had fully subsided, "I submit that these photographs prove only that Mr. Compton shared a room with some friends on four separate occasions, and that they do not in any way indicate an ability on his part to experience or maintain an erection!"
"I didn't say anything about 'maintaining,'" Gunner said. "You asked me to tell you what I saw in the photograph, not how many micro-seconds I had to photograph it."
Laughter again exploded throughout the room.
"He's a goddamn lie!" Compton cried at the top of his lungs, once more on his feet. Glaring at Gunner, he snapped, "I can outlast you any day of the week, motherfucker!"
Gunner just smiled.
London lowered his head like a beaten dog and returned to his seat beside Compton as Spillman's arm swung his gavel again and again, hammering out an order of silence that, London knew, was not soon to be obeyed.
"That was quite a performance in there," someone said with obvious amusement.
Gunner turned to find an attractive brunette in a pinstriped suit standing beside him, joining the crowd waiting for an elevator out in the second-floor courthouse hallway. The suit was a beige linen-blend number of little distinction, common and ordinary, but the same could not be said for the woman inside it. She was in her mid-twenties, Gunner guessed, and tall—an easy five ten—with a light mane of golden brown hair and a dark European face that was wonderfully ambiguous: large brown eyes and a full mouth, complemented by an understated, angular nose.
"My name is Kelly DeCharme, Mr. Gunner," she said, offering the black man her hand. "I'm with the Public Defender's office. The gentleman who answered your office phone—Mickey, I believe his name was—told me I could find you here."
Gunner accepted her hand without comment, silently cursing Mickey Moore—whose barbershop in Watts he had recently started using as an "office"—for making his itinerary a matter of public record. Then he waited for the catch. There was always a catch when someone from the Public Defender's office went out of their way to introduce themselves, especially when they looked like DeCharme.
"You put on quite a show in there, as I said. Compton's goose is as good as cooked."
"You really think so?"
"Please. The man absolutely crucified himself. You pushed all the right buttons, and he did the rest."
"You flatter me, Ms. DeCharme."
"Granted, Judge Spillman struck Compton's outbursts from the record, and warned the fine men and women of the jury to disregard his comments, but I think we both know how much good that's likely to do. Don't we?"
An elevator arrived. Gunner and DeCharme allowed it to fill and depart without them. The public defender had the kind of naughty-girl smile on her face that was, in the detective's experience, often best erased with a kiss.
"I'm afraid I no more know what that jury will do than I know the reasons for our discussing it," Gunner said.
"Which is your way of asking me to get to the point, I believe."
"Yes. As a matter of fact, it is."
"Would you mind very much if I did so over a drink?"
"That's right. A drink. In lieu of a bribe. Or can't you be taken advantage of when properly intoxicated?"
She tried the smile on him again, and Gunner returned it with one of his own, openly intrigued. "Now you're pushing all the right buttons, Ms. DeCharme," he said.
* * *
They jaywalked across Grand Avenue to the Los Angeles County Music Center's three-theater complex and found a table at the bistro that lay directly opposite the courthouse, snuggled into the eastward base of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The place was dark and languid, as full of life as a Christmas tree on the third of January. DeCharme ordered a Corona in the bottle, while Gunner stuck with his old standby, Wild Turkey on ice, confident that DeCharme would not tolerate any attempt on his part to pick up the check.
They drank in a delicate silence until DeCharme grew tired of it and asked, "Does the name Toby Mills mean anything to you, Mr. Gunner?"
Gunner decided it didn't, after some deliberation, and said so.
"How about Darrel Lovejoy? You ever hear of him?"
This time Gunner nodded. "He was the anti-gangbanger who was murdered a few weeks back. The one the press made such a fuss over about a year ago. A couple of kids shot him in a drive-by, supposedly."
DeCharme nodded her own head, spilling a wisp of brilliant chestnut hair before her face. "That's him. Founder and CEO of the L.A. Peace Patrol, one of the most successful anti-gang community-service organizations in the inner city. He and the Reverend Willie Raines ran the program together. He did some good work and turned a lot of bad kids around before he was murdered, but he pissed off just as many in the process, so you can imagine how thin the ice was he'd been skating on. Any one of the hundred or so youth gangs presently operating in the South-Central area could have 'done' him, as they say, and been thrilled to admit it.
"Ordinarily, sorting through them all to find the gang actually responsible for his murder might represent a monumental task for the police to undertake, but this time around they've had some rather unusual help. It seems they've found a witness who's positively identified the killers as members of the Imperial Blues, a local Cuz set active in the neighborhood in which Lovejoy was killed. Not far from your own neighborhood, if I'm not mistaken."
The observation didn't seem to mean much to Gunner. "I believe so. Yeah."
"Then you are familiar with the Blues."
Gunner shrugged. "I know only what I can't help but know. I bump into a few kids flashing their colors every now and then, and come across their spray-paint artwork from time to time." He stopped short, making the connection belatedly. "This Mills kid was supposed to be a Blue, wasn't he?"
"He's the one they have in custody? The trigger man?"
"The alleged trigger man. Yes. His prints were among several found on a weapon the police turned up a few days after the murder, but that doesn't make him the one who used it on Lovejoy. There's only the testimony of Tamika Downs to imply that, and for my money, that kind of evidence leaves plenty of room for doubt."
"Downs is the witness?"
DeCharme finished off her beer and nodded again. "She's an unemployed barroom dancer with four kids to support and no past history of humanitarianism to speak of, yet she's appeared out of nowhere to voluntarily identify Mills and a second Blue by the name of Rookie Davidson as the pair in the car. Which either makes her a very special lady or a very dishonest one, because I just can't see it. I mean, since when do unwed welfare mothers of four like Downs put their asses on the line for a dead man?"
"As a rule?" Gunner asked. "Never. But maybe she's a special case."
DeCharme waited for him to explain.
"You live in that part of the world—and I assume Downs does—you learn pretty fast that cooperating with the police in a murder case—especially one dealing with a gangbanger—is no way to enhance one's life expectancy. But"—he shrugged and took a sip of his drink—"every now and then you come across somebody with no interest in the odds. Somebody who's been hit too close to home and has decided they've had enough. Lovejoy was an unusual man. If Downs was among his many fans, her sudden show of good citizenship could figure."
DeCharme gave that some thought, momentarily forgetting to hold up her end of the conversation.
"Maybe," she said eventually, not sounding at all sold on the idea.
Gunner tossed another generous shot of Wild Turkey down his throat and said, "I take it you're either Mills's or Davidson's court-appointed attorney."
DeCharme rewarded his insight with a woefully hollow smile. "Give the man a cigar," she said.
"Mills is your client?"
She shook her head. "Davidson doesn't need a lawyer—yet. As of this morning, he's still at large. Which, you'll no doubt be happy to know, finally brings me around to that point I promised almost an hour ago I'd get to."
She pushed her empty beer bottle aside to clear the space between them and leaned forward on her elbows to take advantage of it. "Toby Mills wasn't in that car the night Darrel Lovejoy was murdered, Mr. Gunner. If Rookie Davidson was driving, he was playing chauffeur for someone else."
"Uh-huh. And who says that? Mills?"
"That's right. Says Mills. And I believe him. Don't ask me why."
"No. I don't think I will."
"He was out in his mother's driveway changing the oil in his sister's car when they arrested him, for Christ's sake. That doesn't sound like a guilty man to me."
"So if the gunman in the car wasn't Mills, who was it?"
"That's where you come in. Because Mills doesn't know. He can drop some names and make a few guesses, but that's not going to buy him much, is it?"
"You need Davidson."
"At this point, yes. He's supposed to be something of a weak sister, just a junior flip; Mills says the police'll have no trouble getting the truth out of him once he turns up."
She passed a photograph across the table toward him. It was a blown-up mug shot of Rookie Davidson, as the name across his chest advertised. He was a dark-skinned kid with a jheri-curl haircut and a frail goatee who looked about fifteen years old. If he had posed for such photos before, he had yet to harden from the experience; the expression on his face was the kind a man generally wore just prior to wetting his pants.
"And if he doesn't turn up?" Gunner asked.
"We just need a name, Mr. Gunner. Proof of the real gunman's identity. If you could manage to get that without Davidson's help, that would be fine, of course."
Gunner smiled dourly. "Of course."
DeCharme saw the smile and said, "I say something wrong?"
Excerpted from Not Long for This World by Gar Anthony Haywood. Copyright © 1990 Gar Anthony Haywood. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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