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Authors: Gar Anthony Haywood

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It's Not a Pretty Sight

It's Not a Pretty Sight
Aaron Gunner [4]
Gar Anthony Haywood
1995 : USA

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.

It’s Not a Pretty Sight

An Aaron Gunner Mystery

Gar Anthony Haywood

A
MysteriousPress.com

Open Road Integrated Media Ebook

For Connie and Cheryl
The Roads Not Taken

summer

1978

“H
E

S GOING TO KILL ME
,” J
OLLY

S WIFE SAID
.

And if it wasn’t true, you wouldn’t know it from looking at her. Her lower lip was busted and there was a bruise just below her right eye that seemed to be turning colors as she spoke. She was a pretty lady, Jolly’s wife, caramel-skinned and nicely built, but she didn’t look pretty today. No one who got into it with William “Jolly” Mokes ever did.

“That’s crazy,” Gunner said.

Because he didn’t think Jolly would go that far, number one, and because Jolly was his friend, number two. Or had been, once, back in the living nightmare that had been the Vietnam War. Long Binh, 1971. A thousand lifetimes ago.

“I’m tellin’ you, he
is
!” Jolly’s wife insisted. Gunner remembered now that her name was Grace.

They had only met once before, out at Jolly’s apartment down in San Pedro. He hadn’t even known Jolly was married. The two men hadn’t seen or spoken to each other since they’d both come home, which was just fine with Gunner, but then Jolly called him at the house one day, out of the blue, and kept right on calling after that. Not from his hometown of Oklahoma City, but from San Pedro, of all places. Two, three times a month the phone would ring, and there on the line would be Jolly, primed with liquor and bursting with melancholy, having nothing to say and taking all day to say it. He must have given Gunner his address a hundred times before Gunner finally agreed to come see him, thinking he was lying through his teeth, until he found himself in the car on the southbound side of the Harbor Freeway, pushing into the stench of freighters flooding the docks just outside Jolly’s front door.

He’d had no idea what he was doing or why he was doing it, but Gunner had gone all the same, to see a man he no longer wanted to know, to reminisce about a time he was desperate to forget. And to meet the wife. Grace. Gunner thought they made a nice couple. Jolly, big, dark, childishly plodding, and Grace, short, big-boned, soft-spoken. The field hand and the chambermaid. A natural combination.

That had been three weeks ago.

Discovering now that all was not well between them—that Jolly had the bad habit of slapping his wife around whenever the spirit moved him—was disconcerting, perhaps, but by no means surprising. Gunner had seen the way Jolly treated women before. Whereas most of the less scrupled grants Gunner knew could be satisfied just having their way with the occasional Vietnamese village girl or two, Jolly always had to throw his weight around, too. It was just his way. Giving him hell about it had been useless, and his COs always looked the other way, consoled by the fact he never seemed to hurt anyone seriously. There were, after all, more pressing matters for them to attend to.

Now, the battle scars on his wife’s face clearly proved that Jolly had brought this predilection for violence against women home with him, where it had probably originated in the first place. Some men needed a war to bring out the devil in them, and some men didn’t. Apparently, Jolly was one of those who could raise hell just fine without.

Not that it was any of Gunner’s business.

Jolly’s wife had a fat lip, and a mouse under one eye, but she wasn’t dead. She was perfectly capable of saving herself from the monster she was married to, if survival was really that important to her. She didn’t need a private investigator like Gunner to run interference for her. All she needed was a bus ticket.

“I can’t do that,” she said, shaking her head at the suggestion. “He’d find me.”

“Not if you did it right,” Gunner said.

“Please. Just talk to him for me. If you tell him to leave me alone, he will. He respects you.”

“Why should he respect
me
?”

“I don’t know. But he does. I can tell by the way he speaks your name.”

Gunner dropped his head and sighed. She wasn’t asking for much, she was just asking the wrong man. He’d had to see Jolly again to remember how little he cared for the man. Jolly had been an oafish, brutal jackass as a GI and he was still one today. What real friends Gunner had made in Vietnam were all dead now, and pretending Jolly had ever been one of them had been a mistake. A mistake Gunner would hardly rectify now by sticking his nose into Jolly’s affairs here at home.

So he told the wife he was sorry, but there was nothing he could do. Get a good lawyer, throw some things in a suitcase, and go see the folks back east, he said. Three times. When the recommendation finally stuck, the lady stood up, tucked her purse under one arm, and walked briskly out of his office.

He never saw Grace Mokes again.

Although he did catch a brief glimpse of her on TV two days later. Just a body under a sheet on a late-night local newscast. A couple of kids had found her under a freeway overpass in Long Beach early that morning and the coroner’s boys were just now carting her away. Jolly was already in custody, the voice-over said, having offered the police more confessions to the crime than the DA’s office would ever need to convict him.

To say that Gunner felt responsible for Grace Mokes’s fate would be an overstatement of the facts. He hadn’t told her to take the vows with Jolly any more than he’d told her to take the big man’s abuse for the two years that followed. She’d been standing in front of that runaway train for a long time, and it wasn’t Gunner’s fault that she’d waited until the last minute to try and get out of its way.

Hell, no.

Showing somebody the palms of your hands when they were looking for a way out of an open grave wasn’t murder. It just felt that way.

As it probably would, Gunner knew, for the rest of his miserable life.

one

T
HE FIRST MISTAKE
B
EST
W
AY
E
LECTRONICS 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?”

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