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Fear of the Dark
By Gar Anthony Haywood
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Gar Anthony Haywood
All rights reserved.
It was an explosion that finally brought Aaron Gunner around.
An explosion of the doorbell, one or the other, the black man couldn't say for sure which. Perhaps it had been both.
He was recuperating from a losing bout with two bottles of Chivas Regal—not his brand of booze, why the hell had he bothered?—but Gunner found a working nerve ending and peeled one eye open. His bedroom window was open and a wave of glaring white sunlight, unimpeded by a pane of dusty glass, quickly rendered him blind.
He opened his other eye, blinking, and glanced at the digital clock on the nightstand beside his head. It was well past two in the afternoon. While he waited for more explosions he gave the day of the week some thought, decided it was Monday, reconsidered and settled for Tuesday, then rolled his 208 pounds out of bed, yawning.
He stood there in his bare feet, scratching himself, and concluded that the doorbell was not going to ring again, if it ever had in the first place. He then limped to the bathroom and ran his hand over the barren landscape of his scalp, out of habit combing hair that had been gone for years. He thought of himself as an old man getting older, and to prove it he appraised himself in the mirror on the medicine cabinet door while urinating and suffered the usual disappointments. The tired lines beneath his sharp brown eyes were still there, and the stubble that grew overnight along the soft angles of his chin was getting harder to see every day—because it was white, as in gray, as in dying a slow death. Gunner was not an old man, but his was a face of charm worn down by thirty-four years of exhaustion, a handsome parchment of flesh he carried like a ledger filled with dreams that had died hard and hopes he had never coaxed off the ground. He smiled at it and watched a new wrinkle appear across his left cheekbone, yet another channel carved from his youth that he would have to learn to get used to.
He brushed his teeth at the sink, scrubbing the flavor of low-grade rocket fuel from the walls of his mouth, and headed for the kitchen, pausing to toss on a blue terry cloth robe that was draped over a chair in the hall. His home was like an oven but the robe was part of a ritual he couldn't find the energy to break; his elbow peeked out of a hole in the left sleeve.
The front of the little duplex was almost completely without light: all the shades were drawn, defending its inanimate tenants—a few pieces of fire-sale furniture and a refurbished hotel television—from the glare of the day outside. Dust particles danced silently in the rare strands of sunlight that broke through the cracks at windows and doors.
Gunner turned into the kitchen, yawning again, and reached for the handle of the refrigerator door. For once he didn't have to grope for it; it was caught in a band of bright light that shouldn't have been there, but the thought of a cold beer was fresh in his mind and the door was open in his hand before he could register the aberration.
"Don't move, Mr. Gunner," a cool voice warned him, lacking nothing in sincerity.
It was an order he had heard before, more than once. In the beginning, he liked to react to it according to his given mood, on some occasions following it to the letter, on others ignoring it altogether—but now he was older and wiser and less likely to survive internal hemorrhaging, and so he kept his hands where they were and closed his eyes, making no attempt to turn around. He knew without moving that he wouldn't recognize the lady that went with the voice, in any case.
"Are you alone?" he was asked.
"Yeah. You got a gun?"
"No girlfriends back there? A boyfriend, maybe?"
"No. I'm alone. Have you got a gun, or what?"
"What do you think?"
"I think you'd better have one. That's what I think."
He turned around. Old habits, like rituals, died hard.
His visitor started slightly. She was standing in the middle of the tile floor, thrusting the elongated snout of a revolver forward for his inspection. She was tall, but not too—five-eight, maybe five-ten—and black; her hips followed the telltale curve, and the fingers around the pistol's hilt were bronze, barely discernible from the dark metal of the weapon itself. He could see how she had come in: the door leading from his utility room was open behind her, giving him a clear view of his backyard lawn baking in the dry heat of yet another sweltering day.
"I told you not to move," she said, shaking.
He was trying to gauge her competency with firearms, but her stance was a mass of contradictions that made the task difficult, at best.
"There's thirty-three dollars and some change on a dresser in the bedroom, and a Timex watch on the coffee table in the living room. You might find a checkbook laying around somewhere, but the account's been closed for nine months."
"This isn't a rip-off," she said, by all indications insulted by the very idea. And yet she didn't go on to clarify exactly what it was.
"Amway, the Herald, or Encyclopedia Britannica?"
She shook her head. "I'm not selling anything, Mr. Gunner. I'm buying."
"Buying? Buying what?" Gunner asked.
"Do you ever answer your phone? Or come to the door when people knock? I've been trying to reach you for four days. I've left notes in your mailbox, on your answering machine ..."
"You were the one?"
"Too Sweet said you were good, that you knew your shit. He said you'd be a hard man to catch up with, but he didn't say you'd make it impossible."
"You've been talking to Too Sweet? Too Sweet Penny?"
The woman nodded.
"You're not looking for a private cop?"
She nodded again, gesturing with the gun, careful to remember why she was holding it. "Would I need this to hire an electrician?"
Gunner lowered his head and emptied his lungs with a weary, drawn-out sigh.
His friend didn't seem to notice. "I thought about coming without it," she said. "Taking this cat burglar approach to running you down seemed foolish enough as it was—but I'd heard some rather disturbing things about your temperament that led me to bring it along, just in case. I was afraid if I came empty-handed, you'd kill me before I could explain why I'd broken in this way."
"You mean there's a reason?"
"You didn't leave me much choice, did you? I've been trying to reach you for nearly a week, and for what? It was beginning to look like you might be dead, and I had to know if you were. Because I don't have another four days to waste, Mr. Gunner."
"Right. You're in a hurry."
"But obviously, you're okay."
"And you're an experienced investigator, like Too Sweet says. You can walk on water, et cetera, et cetera."
"No. Could you put the gun down, Miss..?"
"No, what? No, you can't walk on water, or no, you're not experienced?"
"No, I'm not a cop. Experienced, or otherwise. The gun, sister, please."
"I don't understand."
"How about a cold beer? Or a cup of coffee?"
"You're telling me Too Sweet lied?"
"Can he do anything else? Of course he lied," Gunner said, exasperated. "Too Sweet's a boozer with good intentions but no common sense. He probably thought he was doing us both a favor, referring you to me, but he made a mistake. I'm out of the business. Have been for some time."
The girl held her ground, disoriented. "I don't believe you," she said firmly.
Gunner shrugged. "Apparently, neither does Too Sweet. But the fact remains, you're out of luck. Sorry."
He held his arms up in a gesture of regret, hoping some false sympathy would wash, but she pulled the hammer back on the gun with a long-nailed thumb, deliberately, making a sound that was impossible to misinterpret.
"You haven't heard me out, yet," she said.
Gunner watched her weapon float in an unsteady hand and said nothing. He still wasn't sure she knew how to use it but she was working from a range that made expertise pretty much irrelevant. If she could pull the trigger, she could get the job done, and if she had ever watched ten minutes of prime-time television, she could pull the trigger. In her sleep.
"All right," Gunner said, finally. "Say what you came to say and then get the hell out of here. I'm thirsty."
She paused, shifted on her feet, took a small step backward, and said, "I want you to find someone. A white man, with a bad left eye."
Gunner wasn't sure he had heard her right. "What?"
"He murdered my brother. Shot him in the face in a bar on 109th and Vermont, two weeks ago."
Gunner's eyes left the gun to meet hers. "The Acey Deuce."
"The Acey Deuce, right. He got the bartender there, too. A fat man named J.T. Tennell. You read about it, I guess."
The black man nodded, his mind wandering for a moment. It was a small world. Up until a year ago, the Deuce had been Gunner's primary hideout, and there was no reason to think his patronage would not have continued had his case load not begun the disappearing act that eventually prompted J.T. to pull the plug on his credit. To Lilly's great chagrin, J.T. had carried Gunner for four months, an astonishing length of time to be owed money for a bartender who, as his customers liked to say, poured a mean glass of water.
"Your brother was Dorris? Buddy Dorris?"
The girl nodded, bowing her head but once. "He was only twenty-two. Just a kid. Not much to brag about, maybe—he was shit to be around, really—but he didn't deserve to go like that. Splattered all over that wino's hole in the wall ..."
She fell silent for a moment, resisting the urge to explode, then smiled a strange, jagged smile of remorse. "The mortician asked for three grand to put his head back together, but I didn't have it. So he put Buddy in the ground with a Baggie full of pieces tucked neatly under his pillow. Funny, huh?"
Gunner shuddered, involuntarily. He was gradually edging his body between the refrigerator and its open door, and the cold breath of the box was cutting through the pores of his robe to chill his back.
"That's rough," he said, meaning it.
"Yeah. Not a very popular guy, Buddy."
"The papers say the cops are looking for a Klansman."
The girl shrugged. "I guess that's a halfway logical place to start. Buddy was an outspoken individual. What you might call active in community affairs. That may have gotten him in trouble with some people, I suppose."
"'Some' people? Or just white people?"
"White people, primarily, sure. Hell, Buddy was a racist, why deny it? He started rallies and made big speeches long before that sort of behavior made its big comeback. Distributed pamphlets, the whole bit."
"For the Brothers of Volition."
"Yeah. That may not mean much today, but it would have eventually. Remember the Panthers? The Brothers were going to be bigger. Buddy was going to see to it."
Gunner didn't bother to refute that, just said, "Maybe they still will be. They've still got Roland Mayes."
"Roland Mayes, yeah." She laughed, seemingly more at Gunner than the thought. "He's the founder of the Brothers, and all that—their charismatic leader and focal point of what little press they get—but it was Buddy who made it all work, who supplied them with their drive and energy. I'd imagine that's why he was killed. The white boy probably understood—although Roland would never admit it—that Buddy's death will likely close the Brothers down sooner or later, and change the course of millions of lives in the process."
Gunner took a moment to bite his cynical tongue, then said, "That sounds like something a Sister of Volition might say."
She smiled. "It does, doesn't it? Must be indoctrination by osmosis. I've dropped in on the boys from time to time to hear what they have to say, of course, but that's as far as it goes. That political activism bit demands a certain level of commitment I haven't been able to attach to anything. So far."
Gunner turned a shoulder toward the gun in her hand and said, "You look pretty goddamned committed to me."
She shrugged again. "I need help. The police are working on Buddy's case the way you'd expect them to for a troublesome nigger. They're fucking around. So for some semblance of satisfaction, I thought I might turn to the private sector. Heroes for hire, mercenaries, whatever you want to call them. People like you. People with a price."
He watched her rub some imaginary bills between the thumb and forefinger of her free hand, the pistol listing slightly in the other, its muzzle never leaving the barrel of his chest for long. He was getting more acclimated to the kitchen's darkness, and the light pouring out of the refrigerator didn't hurt, but trying to make out the weapon's caliber was still about as easy as reading the sports page lining his garbage can several yards away. It was either a .22 or a long-nose .38, that much was safe to assume; she could graze his cheek with a slug from the latter and put him away with the concussion alone, but she'd have to find a major artery with the toy-like pellets of the former to do any real damage before he could reach out to wring her neck. Unless she went head-hunting at the last second ...
"Look sister, I don't have a price for what you want. You could've rolled in here in a Brinks truck and I'd have had to tell you the same thing: I'm retired. Finished. No longer active in the investigative field."
"That's bullshit. You want to haggle about your fee, haggle. Whatever you think your time is worth, I'll pay. But don't try to tell me four days later I've come to see the wrong man."
"You want the Gospel truth? I couldn't find the guy who killed your brother if he were standing under a lampshade in my living room. Butt naked."
He was looking at the woman before him hard, only now seeing her clearly for the first time. She was smooth and brown, a living masterpiece of balanced angles and curves that stirred the wrong emotions in a man lately accustomed, and grimly resigned to, a celibate existence. Beauty was a relative commodity, a gift of the flesh often difficult to measure, but hers was the kind you could see just fine in the dark, at close or distant quarters.
"I mean, for Chrissake, look around! Does this look like the home of a winner to you?"
He poked his jaw at the shambles of his estate, trying to take his mind off the erection growing rapidly beneath his robe.
The girl with the gun put her teeth on display in a slanted grin and laughed again. "It looks like the home of a man who could use the gig," she said.
Gunner's left hand dove over the refrigerator door and grabbed her right wrist, pinching the nerves there in a vise.
The gun went off once, harmlessly; the .22-caliber bullet hit the thick wall of the old refrigerator's door at an awkward angle and bounced off in the direction of some grease stains on the wall above the stove. Staying behind the door in relative safety, Gunner threw a straight right hand at the girl's jaw and didn't miss. Her gun reached the linoleum floor before she did, but it was a close race down.
Gunner took possession of the revolver, dropped its shells into the pocket of his robe, and watched the woman at his feet sleep. He had been afraid that, once the time came to make his move, he would instinctively pull his punch, succumbing to his incurable flair for chivalry despite the lady's hostile posture, but her crack about his living quarters had made throwing a loaded right hand something to look forward to. He wasn't coping with the quality of his life very well these days.
Pulling a beer out of the refrigerator at last, he kicked a kitchen chair to the center of the room and sat down to wait for the late Buddy Dorris's pushy sister to come around. What he should have done was dump her body at the curb out front, to make a point and reach a quick decision, but he let her stretch out on his kitchen floor instead, and took the next few minutes to reconsider his retirement, to question his judgment, just one more time.
Introspection, as always, was a walk down the road to nowhere.
The problem was, he was lousy.
He had been lousy at the beginning, and was lousy in the end. He gave private investigation everything he had, but it had always been, and always would be, a compromise profession.
When the LAPD booted him out of its cadet academy for rearranging the face of an overzealous self-defense instructor in October of 1974, going into private practice seemed like the only logical alternative. It lacked the glamour and drama of legitimate police work, but a badge and an ironclad gun permit came with the territory and that made it the next best thing.
Excerpted from Fear of the Dark by Gar Anthony Haywood. Copyright © 1988 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.
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