You Can Die Trying

You Can Die Trying

by Gar Anthony Haywood

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Gunner attempts to set the record straight for a dead police officer with a racist pastNo one in South Central is surprised when Jack McGovern, a brutally racist cop, is accused of gunning down a black teenager in cold blood. But they are shocked when the LAPD actually responds to the charges, firing McGovern and leaving him without badge, pension, or pride.…  See more details below


Gunner attempts to set the record straight for a dead police officer with a racist pastNo one in South Central is surprised when Jack McGovern, a brutally racist cop, is accused of gunning down a black teenager in cold blood. But they are shocked when the LAPD actually responds to the charges, firing McGovern and leaving him without badge, pension, or pride. Eight months later, a thief breaks into a stereo store and encounters the disgraced cop, now a night security guard. McGovern draws his gun and, to the thief’s surprise, shoots himself in the head. Few mourn the suicide, but one citizen is unsettled. A witness to the shooting that ended McGovern’s career, Mitchell Flowers knows the cop wasn’t lying when he said the teenager had fired first. Flowers hires private detective Aaron Gunner to clear the dead cop’s name—pitting Gunner against every civilian in South Central. Soon Gunner tugs on a chain of police corruption that stretches all the way to the top of the LAPD.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the third novel to feature African American L.A. private investigator Aaron Gunner (after Not Long for This World ), a white cop much loathed in the black community apparently guns down an unarmed black kid in a dark alley following a robbery. After being publicly crucified, the policeman puts a bullet through his head and dies unmourned. But then an eyewitness confides in Gunner that he saw the kid shoot twice before the cop fired and asks the PI to investigate. In need of a client, Gunner reluctantly takes the volatile case. He finds the gun (a dummy that shoots blanks) and a Latina policewoman willing to listen to this discomfiting new evidence. Barely pausing for narrative breath, the author adds intriguing elements to his plot: the eyewitness isn't a thoroughly convincing player; his brother is beaten up; another kid involved in the robbery is tight-lipped; the dead boy's uncle is a gambler with big debts; and most people in the black community are ready to let this possible injustice pass, believing a larger justice has been served by the cop's death. Gunner is a rarity in recent detective fiction: soured, yet utterly believable, tough and resourceful without being cartoonishly overblown. This pulsating mystery strengthens an already forceful series. ( July )
Wes Lukowsky
Jack McGovern was a brutal cop with a history of violent racial incidents. He killed a young black male in a dark alley after a convenience-store robbery. Though he claimed the boy fired on him, the evidence failed to corroborate his claim, and McGovern's career was over. A year later he committed suicide. Black private eye Aaron Gunner is hired to prove McGovern's innocence by a witness who did not step forward at the time because he was intimidated by a threatening, anonymous note. All sides impede Gunner's investigation: the cops, who resent anyone looking into their internal affairs; the mother of the dead boy, who seeks to preserve her son's memory; the residents of the neighborhood, who feel McGovern got what he deserved; and the local black activist group, which agrees with the residents. Gunner, ever loyal to his client, plugs on through intimidation, physical violence, and his own doubts about the case. This third Gunner novel is tightly plotted with a satisfyingly tricky conclusion. Most readers will miss the real culprit. Excellent reading.

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Aaron Gunner Mysteries
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You Can Die Trying

By Gar Anthony Haywood


Copyright © 1993 Gar Anthony Haywood
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-5292-5


He was working on the back door. He had little more than a crescent moon overhead to rely on for light, and the tools he was using had not yet made peace with his hands. He was making a lot of noise, picking and scratching on the tumblers of the lock, and he knew he was running out of time.

"Goddamnit," Aaron Gunner said irritably.

He shot a quick glance at his watch, but its face was just a mottled shadow in the darkness on the porch. The windows of the little duplex were still pitch black, but he feared they wouldn't be for long. A pair of dogs had broken into a heated debate a mere three yards away, and they were making enough racket to raise the dead. It was getting more and more difficult to concentrate.

A sharp clicking sound gave him reason to hope he had solved the lock's riddle, but the tumblers still refused to turn. He dropped the tool in his right hand clumsily—a wicked sliver of metal with a sickle-shaped tip—cursed again as he retrieved it, and was attempting to reinsert it into the lock when the door swung open before him and someone on the other side of the threshold pressed the barrel of a pistol into his right eye, nearly blinding him.

"Why don't you come on in and make yourself comfortable," the big man with the gun said, stepping gingerly out onto the porch.

He was grinning, infinitely proud of himself. He was a dark-skinned black man with a head full of yellow hair and a face as square as a cinder block. He was taller than Gunner, by at least three inches, and that put him somewhere in the neighborhood of six foot six or six foot seven. He looked like a bank vault walking. It was nearly midnight, but he didn't seem to know it; he was still fully clothed and his eyes were bright, not at all indicative of a man who had just been stirred from sleep by a prowler at his back door.

Gunner came up slowly from the crouch he'd been found in and held his hands out and away from his sides, dropping the tools he'd been using on the lock without having to be told to do so, but the big man wasn't impressed. He kept the nose of his revolver right where it was, up against the soft flesh of Gunner's right eyelid, apparently as unwilling to speak as he was to move.

"The gun's a nice touch," Gunner said.

"Yeah. I thought you might think so."

"There wouldn't actually be any bullets in it, I hope."

"Bullets? I don't know, partner. Let's see...."

He cocked the hammer back on the gun and Gunner slapped it away from his face with his right hand, stepping quickly aside. The big man stumbled backward and broke out laughing, tickled by Gunner's reaction.

"You're not a funny man, Fetch," Gunner said, watching the big man fall all over himself at Gunner's expense. "Don't ever let anyone tell you that you are."

"Ain't no bullets in the fuckin' gun, man," Fetch Bennett said, holding the revolver forward for Gunner to inspect. "Check it out."

Gunner snatched the gun out of the big man's hand and said, "Kiss my ass," before walking past him into the house. He turned the lights on in his kitchen and immediately went to the refrigerator, setting Bennett's revolver on top of the box in order to withdraw a pair of cold beers. He sat down in a chair at the kitchen table and Bennett finally stepped inside the house to join him.

"You were too damn noisy," the big man said, twisting the cap from his bottle. He was still grinning.

"I couldn't see a fucking thing out there. I told you I needed a light."

"You're not always going to be able to use a light. Besides, you're going to need two hands free to do most of the locks you're going to find out there."

Gunner nodded his head in silence, his mouth full of beer.

The private investigator was paying Bennett thirty-five dollars a lesson to tutor him in the fine art of breaking and entering, and every time the big man opened his mouth, Gunner became more convinced that he had picked the perfect man for the job. Bennett's given name was Bill, but everyone on the street called him Fetch, because his was the sterling reputation of a good hunting dog. There wasn't anything you could send him off to get that he couldn't retrieve, once he had the scent. As near as anyone could tell, he had been out of the burglary business for years—his last stint in the joint had ended back in '85—but everyone who knew him had no doubt that he still had the touch, and would probably use it again if the right set of temptations ever came along.

"You notice I never turned on any lights? That's because most people won't. They're smart enough to know better. What you want to do is listen up when you're working on a door. Worry about what you're hearing inside a house, not what you're seeing. You wait around for somebody to turn on a light before deciding to take off, you're going to get caught with your pants down around your fucking ankles, just like you did tonight."

"You didn't give me enough time, Fetch," Gunner complained halfheartedly.

"For that sorry-ass lock you got on that back door? A minute and a half should've been plenty."

"Another twenty seconds and I would have had it," Gunner said.

Bennett shook his head, suddenly very serious. "You don't learn to do a lock quieter than that, you're not gonna get half the time I gave you. There's a lot of light sleepers out there, man, and one out of every ten's got a loaded twelve-gauge waiting in the closet, or under the bed." He used the index finger of his left hand to point to a spot on his right arm where a huge chunk of flesh appeared to have been removed from his biceps with an ice cream scooper. "Take it from me."

Gunner took another swallow of beer and nodded his head, slightly taken aback by the big man's mood swing.

"That the doorbell?" Bennett asked shortly, reacting to a muffled buzz emanating from the front of the house.

"Sounds like it, doesn't it?" Gunner looked at his watch. It was twelve-thirty in the morning. "Somebody must've got the wrong address."

"Maybe it's a lady friend," Bennett said. "Lookin' for a little late-night action." The thought made him grin again.

Gunner got up from the table, taking his beer with him, and said, "Maybe you've had too much to drink."

As the doorbell rang again, he entered the living room of his little duplex and squinted into the peephole on his front door, cursing himself for being disappointed when he found a man he didn't recognize standing on his front porch, appearing to stare right back at him. Bennett's comment about a lady friend had been made entirely in jest, but Gunner had allowed it to get his hopes up all the same. The fact that Claudia Lovejoy had been making herself scarce around his home lately didn't seem to matter. Some small, sadistically optimistic part of him had sold him on the idea that this midnight caller might be her, looking to renew their suddenly stagnant affair, and now he was slightly devastated to learn that an idea was all it was.


Gunner opened his front door abruptly and the middle-aged black man standing beyond it froze, caught in the yellow glow of Gunner's porch light as he was reaching for the doorbell one more time.

"Can I help you?" Gunner asked.

The man put his outstretched arm down and straightened up, trying to make a good first impression. He was a black Joe Average: medium height, medium build; conservatively dressed and groomed. The hair just above both ears was Christmas-card white, but that was about all anybody would be able to remember about him if he ever took to robbing banks. Gunner guessed he was an ex-navy man with a wife and four kids and a garage full of Chevys who did all of his shopping at Sears.

"I'm looking for the Aaron Gunner residence," the man on the porch said.

Gunner looked at him for a long moment before saying anything. "I'm Aaron Gunner."

"Mr. Gunner, we spoke on the phone this morning. We were supposed to meet in your office tomorrow afternoon, but I've decided that might not be such a good idea. Discussing what I have to discuss with you over there, I mean."

"Your name is Flowers?"

"Mitchell Flowers. Yes." He held out his hand for Gunner to shake, and his grip was something to be proud of. "I know it's late, but I'm afraid this was the earliest I could get over here. I had to pull some overtime out at the plant and I only got off about an hour ago. You mind if I come in?"

Gunner was ushering him inside when Fetch Bennett appeared from the kitchen, his sizable curiosity apparently aroused by his host's extended absence. Flowers appeared to be unnerved by the sight of him.

"You have company. Maybe we should do this some other time." He started to back toward the door.

"Hey, no, no, no," Bennett said, heading the smaller man off. "I was just leaving, brother, really."

"Fetch, this is Mitchell Flowers," Gunner said, trying to ease the three of them out of the sudden awkwardness of the moment. "Mr. Flowers is thinking about hiring me to do some work for him."

"Fetch Bennett. Pleased to meet you," Bennett said as he shook Flowers's hand, then opened the door to let himself out. "We still on for Thursday?" he asked Gunner.

"Same time, Thursday, yeah. Thanks for everything, Fetch."

"Any time, partner. Nice meeting you, Mr. Flowers."

Flowers dipped his head in reply and Bennett was gone.

"My piano teacher," Gunner explained after closing the door, deciding to answer the question before Flowers could think to ask it. He showed the other man to a seat in the living room and found one for himself, then pretended not to notice as Flowers's eyes wandered across the room, searching for a piano that wasn't there.

"Can I get you a beer, Mr. Flowers?" Gunner asked, putting the finishing touches on the one he had started earlier.

Flowers shook his head. "No. Thank you."

The doorbell rang again.

It was Bennett, the picture of embarrassment.

"Forgot my gun," the big man said sheepishly, trying to tone his cannon-shot voice down to a whisper.

Gunner laughed, told him to hold on a minute, then left for the kitchen. He could feel Flowers watching him as he returned to the door with the revolver at his side, not wanting to make the weapon any more conspicuous by trying to hide it.

Bennett took the gun and said thanks, then disappeared again.

Gunner rejoined Flowers in the living room and said, "When Fetch tells you how he wants a piece played, he only tells you once."

It was a lame joke, but it didn't deserve the cold shoulder Flowers gave it. He looked at Gunner like someone had just told him his shoelace was untied.

"There somebody watching my office I don't know about, Mr. Flowers?" Gunner asked him, writing off levity for the remainder of the night.

"Excuse me?"

"You said you didn't think our meeting there in the morning would be such a good idea. I'm wondering why you think so."

Flowers paused, choosing his words with care so as not to inflict any further injury upon his host. "Your office is a barbershop. Isn't that right, Mr. Gunner?"

Gunner didn't see the relevance of the question, but said, "That's right. Mickey's Trueblood barbershop. I lease a little space in the back. That a problem for you?"

"No, no. Please. Don't misunderstand." Flowers used both hands to wave off any unintended insult. "I'm sure it's a fine place to conduct business, in general, but ..."


"But it's a barbershop. A place where old men generally go to talk about everybody's business but their own. You understand what I'm saying?"

Gunner did, of course, though he had never given the matter much thought until now. There might be other places of business besides a barbershop where a man's secrets could take flight on the neighborhood gossip wires faster, but there weren't many. For all the disparaging things men had to say about the way personal confidences were scattered to the far winds by the ladies seated under the dryers at any corner beauty shop, a men's barbershop was usually just as bad, if not worse, and Mickey's was no exception. If the barber's bombastic crew of regular customers wouldn't be able to report what, specifically, Gunner and Flowers had to say to each other behind closed doors, it would at least be within their power to make Flowers's very presence in Gunner's office a matter of public record, and maybe that alone was the kind of indiscretion Flowers was looking to avoid.

"Okay," Gunner said, shrugging. "I guess you've got a point. If confidentiality's critical, we could be better off here. So ..." He looked at Flowers expectantly.

The older man shifted about on the cushions of his chair uneasily, buying time, and then said, "I want you to set something right for me, Mr. Gunner. Something I did—or something I didn't do, actually—that I just can't live with anymore." He pulled in a deep breath and, without waiting for Gunner to urge him on, said, "One night last September, I saw a cop shoot a kid in an alley near my house. A bad cop, an evil one, a white man's been busting black heads in our neighborhood for years. You know the kind I mean. This cop, he caught a pair of kids trying to rob a liquor store over on Vernon and Third Avenue, chased one of 'em for six blocks down into this alley, then shot him dead. Just a twelve-year-old kid, named Lendell Washington. Maybe you remember hearing about it."

The name and the story did ring a faint bell with Gunner, but he chose not to say so, preferring for the moment to let Flowers's story run its natural course.

"Anyway, the cop tried to say he'd shot the kid in self-defense. That's what they always say, right? He said the kid had fired on him first. Only, three people came forward at the scene to say he was lying. They said he was the only one who had fired a weapon. Now, you and I both know, Mr. Gunner, that three people—three black people, especially—aren't usually enough to get a cop slapped on the wrist for jaywalking, let alone murder. So everybody figured the cop was going to walk. Only, he didn't. Not after the police came right out and admitted that all the evidence proved the cop was lying."

"This cop you're talking about. His name was McDonald, or McGovern.... Something like that?" Gunner finally asked.

Flowers nodded. "McGovern. Jack McGovern. Then you do remember."

Gunner shrugged. "Vaguely. He was a real ball-buster, supposedly. The kind of foulmouthed, bigoted jackass that used to be all the rage in law enforcement twenty, twenty-five years ago."

"That was him. Shocked the hell out of a lot of people how they handled his case, didn't it? No excuses, no denials—just a quick board of rights hearing, then his immediate dismissal. A fast and dirty firing—something we don't see a lot of where the police down here are concerned.

"Of course, most people were able to read between the lines. Chief Bowden had been in charge of the LAPD for less than a year, and the riots were still fresh in everyone's mind. Crucifying McGovern was obviously just the chief's way of trying to show the black community there was a new sheriff in town, one we could all count on to be sensitive to the community's needs."

Flowers paused, seemingly having trouble getting to the point.

"You see something wrong with that?" Gunner asked him.

Flowers picked restlessly at the foam stuffing peeking out of a hole in the left armrest of his chair as he considered the question. "I shouldn't," he said in time. "I have a wife and three kids to worry about, Mr. Gunner. I should be as happy as anyone to see that madman off the street."

"But you're not."

"Not entirely, no."


"Because McGovern didn't murder Lendell Washington," Flowers said simply. "I told you I was there the night the kid was shot, remember? I saw the whole thing. And McGovern was telling the truth when he said the kid had fired on him first. I saw and heard him do it. It all happened exactly the way McGovern said it did."

"But you never went to the police to tell them as much."

"No. I never told anybody I was there that night." He smiled a halfhearted smile and shrugged, apparently not knowing what else to say.

"Any chance you're simply mistaken? Your eyes can play funny tricks with you at times like that."

"I know what I saw, Mr. Gunner. The Washington boy fired twice at McGovern before McGovern fired back. I'm sure of it."

"You said there were other witnesses," Gunner said.


Excerpted from You Can Die Trying by Gar Anthony Haywood. Copyright © 1993 Gar Anthony Haywood. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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