Story: People don’t Kill People. Guns do.

This is story six from my novel Chimpman Zee. I decided to post it because it conveys my feelings about guns better than any tweet or post I could write. I'm not sure it needs much of an intro, the novel is episodic, so each story stands mostly alone, but the bare bones: Zee is a private detective in the golden age of Hollywood, but one with a difference. He is highly territorial, has certain rules he abides by (each story covers one rule), and has a fantastic origin he, but not the reader, fully understands. He is plagued by an alter ego he calls the animal which forces him to live a Jekyll and Hyde existence. In previous stories he has had several run ins with the LA sheriffs’ department, namely Detective-Sergeant Dulls and Lieutenant Bulkowski, and the LA Syndicate. He spent time as a child in an orphanage, and at Joliet State Penitentiary where he was protected by another prisoner, a self-educated man named Lucius. The story begins with a dream out of Zee's childhood…

It’s always the same.

The ratty tenement. The stained ceiling, sloughing down in cancerous bulges, peeling and blotched. The wallpaper no better, and the walls, holed through and patched, or not, with whatever came to hand; newspapers, old magazines, rags, tin cans. Anything to keep out the cold, and the neighbors. Some of the windows still had glass, but most of them were boarded over, making the place dark and stale with the smells of old cooking grease and sweat.

The bare floor boards were uneven and rough. Whatever dignity they possessed was provided by a pair of thin throw rugs with ragged edges, patched to cover the burns and the stains. But rough as they were the boards were swept and the patched, ragged rugs had the dust beaten out of them.

The furniture was a mixed bag of newly collected cast offs and old residents. There was one new piece, in the corner, a bed like something out of the Sears’ Catalogue, with a bright kid’s duvet cover, and a couple of stuffed animals standing guard over the pillow. It looked slept in, but it was empty now, the covers thrown back. Behind it, hanging off a rail nailed to the wall, were a few sets of kid’s clothes. Little suits, bright play clothes, some pajamas.

The three legged kitchen table was old but well scrubbed, behind that was a tiny kitchen, the range held together by rust, the sink a bare basin with no taps and peeling enamel. Fetch your water down the hall from the washroom. One toilet for the whole floor – when it worked.

It was late and dark, the only light flickered from a bare bulb. It dangled from the ceiling on a slow-swinging line, like a lonely suicide. It was a small, dim light, starved for electricity by shoddy wiring and a corroded socket. Shadows slid across the floor, timed to its oscillation.

Two people stood in the middle of the room, on the ratty throw rugs, next to the three-legged table, under that dim, swinging light. One of them was a young woman. Slim, twenty-five, a shock of white-blonde hair spilling over a black cardigan, wrapped close against the cold. She wore black stockings under a skirt that was too short for the weather, too short to be anything but an advertisement. Her nervous stockinged feet twitched against the rug. The skirt hugged her round hips, her neat waist. Her legs were long enough and shapely, but she wasn’t tall – five two, five three.

The other was a man. A man in a suit, a professional hardness on his face. The face of a man who could beat someone to death without getting personal. His suit was a simple blue pinstripe. Black gloves, nice shoes, he still had a hat on his head, but he’d thrown his overcoat on one of the mismatched chairs. He had dark hair, a middleweight’s build, a tan that was more permanent than he liked.

They were speaking, arguing, in a foreign language. Russian. The girl was shaking her head, her arms wrapped across her chest, hugging her cardigan to hold out the cold, or to hold something else in.

The argument broke down into shouts. The man raised his voice. Emphatic, demanding. But the girl was repeating one word over and over, “Nyet! Nyet! Nyet!”

The man backhanded her, smashing his knuckles against her cheek, leaving four vivid marks against her pale skin. She twisted and fell, landing on her hands and knees. She looked up. Her cheek, flaming red. Her blue eyes shadowed and stung with tears.

And she looks at me. The four year old boy hiding under the bed, peeking out, clutching a one-eyed, stuffed rabbit with my small hands – sick, wretched, stabbed with fear.

I tell myself to do something. Inside I yell and thrash, but it’s always the same. I don’t move. I don’t do anything but watch. I can’t even close my eyes.

He grabs her shoulder and drags her up, pushes her so she’s forced to turn and face him. He still doesn’t see it.

He demands something. She doesn’t answer. He raises his hand. One hand on her arm, a fierce grip she cannot escape, one hand pulled back over his opposite shoulder, ready to strike. He asks his question again.

She answers.

“Nyet!” and drives the old dull, carving knife into his guts. Dark with rust, almost invisible in the dim light, she’s pulled it from the place inside her cardigan where she’d held it tight against her chest. Now it was free – in and out, over and over. “Nyet!” the knife drives in, “Nyet!” the knife drives in, again and again. He cries out. He stumbles and falls away, blood geysering between clenched fingers. He lands face down, writhing, dragging himself across the floor, leaving a trail of crooked slime like a grotesque snail.

The girl drops the knife, looks down at her bloody hands, looks down at her blood splashed shirt. She lifts her head and looks at the man she has murdered. A man who isn’t finished dying. He reaches the far wall, and rolls over, he inches himself up, up, pushing with his feet, until he is sitting against the wall, holding his butchered belly in with both hands.

She turns away. She does not want to see what she has done. She looks at me instead, at my small face, with it’s wide brown eyes, and protruding mouth, strange small nose and heavy eyebrows.

I yell at myself. Do something! Warn her! Shout!

It’s always the same.

Behind her he pulls out his gun. He lifts it. He does not swear. He does not call her names. He does not gloat, or pity himself or her.

He shoots her four times in the back.

Four explosions. The loudest sounds I’ve ever heard.

But I don’t flinch. I don’t turn away. I watch as her blood splatters against my face, a black rain in that dim light. I watch as she crumples to the ground like a marionette with severed strings, as her head falls at my feet, as her white blonde hair wraps around my face like the surf of a nightmare sea.

I lie and watch and do nothing.

I watch my mother die, her blood lapping at my chin.

I look up and I see the gun. I see his eyes, looking at me. There is no surprise there, no fear. His finger tightens on the trigger. The hammer goes back. He smiles. And faints. And pulls the trigger.

The muzzle flash.

The roaring noise.

The smell of cordite.

The taste of blood.

Her hair against my face.

Everything goes black.


It’s always the same.

I pulled myself out of bed. Someone was hammering on the door downstairs like the building was on fire. The air was sweet enough for LA. The usual brew of exhalations, man and machine. But no smoke. The building wasn’t on fire.

I almost went back to bed, but I haven’t been sleeping so well lately. Too many bad dreams. The animal plays his games, sending me tangled gifts of pain and misery every time I try and close my eyes. So I pulled on pants, a shirt. I threw a jacket over my shoulders. But I didn’t worry about shoes. Damn, I hate shoes. I stretched my toes out, picked up my fatboy razor from the bedside table and started shaving as I went downstairs. Whoever was banging away down there must have a sore hand by now.

I opened the door. Detective-Sergeant Dulls. I tried to slam the door in his face but he got his hoof across the threshold first. I always thought he’d make a better door-to-door salesman than a cop. Actually he’d make a better just-about-anything-you-can-think-of than a cop.

He had a couple of uniformed apes behind him. Did he expect trouble? “You asleep, Chimpman?”

“Like all good citizens this time of night, Dulls.”

He laughed, almost like he was happy. Dulls? Laughing? He looked me up and down. “Get your shoes. We got to be somewhere.”

“Bulkowski send you?”

“You could say that.”

There was something about Dulls that didn’t sit right. Why the laughter? He was too much of a bonehead to be that pleased with himself. Like the cat with a canary dipped in fresh cream he had too much of a good thing.

But for once he kept his mouth shut. In the car as we headed down Sunset, when we stopped in the barrios out east, as we assembled in the cold dark just before dawn. No gloating, no trying to be a wiseacre. Given what was waiting for us inside it was something like a miracle.

Bulkowski was there, sitting on a rickety wooden chair that creaked under his weight, in the back room of an old, vacated two bedroom shack. The whole street was like that. Small, run down houses, all empty, under a huge sign announcing a new public housing development, named Elysian Park. Somebody had a sense of humor. Bulkowski making the journey to the Elysian Fields. That was rich. I remembered hearing talk about forced acquisitions. Something like that.

Whatever they were doing it made for a lot of empty houses. A lot of places you could work a guy over without any need to worry about the neighbors. And somebody had been working Bulkowski over. And over and over.

We came through the front door into the main room. Dulls, first, me following, then his pet apes. Anything in that house that was worth a penny had been stripped out. Bare floorboards, bare walls, bare ceiling. They’d even taken the windows. The place was like a picked clean skull with nothing to show but holes for eyes. Another uniform was sitting on a chair by the door. He had a cigarette in his mouth, the chair tipped back so he could lean his head against the wall. He nodded to Dulls as we came in, stood up and handed over two big flashlights. Dulls gave me one.

“Left it all there for you, Sarge. No one’s been inside since we got the tip and Johnson found him.”

Dulls nodded. He opened the door, “After you, Chimpman.”

I had to wonder what kind of surprise Dulls had planned for me. The place had an odor about it, but he wasn’t going to show me a pile of melted flesh that used to be a human being. I would have smelled that from the street. The place stank of old latrines – stale, musty, with an acrid underlay – not open graves.

No, he had fresher meat in mind. He wanted to show me Bulkowski. Sitting on his chair in the Elysian Fields. Bulkowski gone to his final reward.

It looked like he went unhappy.

The room was empty otherwise. Just Bulkowski, the chair. He had a gun in one hand. A neat hole surrounded by powder burns on one side of his head, a gaping hole on the other. His brains a bowl full of oatmeal thrown against the wall by a snot-nosed kid who wanted pancakes for breakfast instead.

“You came and picked me up first, Dulls? I’m touched.”

He laughed. He was so good natured tonight. It was making my skin crawl. “So what do you think, Chimpman? Bulkowski’s conscience finally get the better of him? Think he came out here to do the department one last favor? Like one of them Jap officers committing hari-kari in the war?”

“Suicide? Bulkowski?” I had a closer look at him, his lifeless eyes, his hanging jowls, like a pig at the wrong end of a slaughterhouse, nothing left to do but wait for the butcher. He wouldn’t have to wait long, the coroner would have him on a slab soon enough with his scalpels and his bone saws and all the other cheery instruments of autopsy to hand. I put my light on his gun hand and bent over for a closer look. “I think we can rule out suicide.”

“How’s that, Chimpman? You wanna confess?”

I clicked the flashlight off and stood up. “All the fingers on his right hand are broken.” That got Dulls interested. He came over and had a good look for himself. “Same on the other side. He’s got rope burns around his wrists.” I lifted up the cuff of his pants and clicked my light back on. “His ankles as well.” Bulkowski was barefoot. Not by choice. All his toes were smashed to jelly.

Dulls took off his hat and scratched his head a while. Maybe it helped stir the gray matter. You could hope anyway. “I don’t get it? Why the suicide gag? Any kid straight out of the academy could see the guy’s been worked over. No one’s gonna believe Bulkowski smashed all his own toes, broke all his own fingers, beat the shit out of himself, and then put a bullet through his brains. It ain’t logical.”

“Somebody’s sending a message.”


“They made it up to look like suicide. But it wasn’t suicide. So what’s the message?”

“You got me, Chimpman.”

“Think about it a minute.”

“No use both of us sweating.”

I sighed. So that was why Dulls had dragged me out of bed. I had to wonder if he wasn’t thinking of pinning the murder on me. Everyone in town knew Bulkowski and I had our little disagreements. He wanted to run Hollywood like his own private fiefdom. I didn’t want to let him. Hence, conflict. But Dulls wasn’t trying to do what Bulkowski never could, he wanted my eyes and my brains, not my hide. Not this time anyway. “It’s the Syndicate, Dulls.”

“The Syndicate?”

“Sure, the Syndicate. They thought Rand had taken over their operations out here in sunny, friendly LA. But when Rand had that accident out at Le Brea they got wise. They fingered Bulkowski as the real boss. And they got to him. In the worst way.”

“So why the suicide?”

“They’re sending a message. Making it all obvious. So anyone can play.”

“Yeah, anyone. So why don’t you stop chewing it over and tell me already.”

“Taking on the Syndicate is suicide.”

Dulls stopped scratching his head. He nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense. So now what?”

“So now the Syndicate is going to do whatever it takes to get back control of the streets. So now they’ve let everyone know what’ll happen to anyone who gets in their way. If they weren’t scared to take down Bulkowski, they sure as hell ain’t scared of taking down anyone else this side of the mayor.” Dulls turned a little pale. Even he knew what that meant. A lot more late night call outs. A lot more back rooms with nasty surprises inside. And if he was unlucky running gun fights in the streets.

LA. It’s all flat until it’s not. Mile after mile, flat, flat, flat. And then bang. Hills, canyons, arroyos. Steep-sided, dangerous places where dumb kids get into trouble climbing where they shouldn’t, cut by roads that twist and wind like a drunk on New Year’s.

I was getting a good look at one of them. And not from the usual perspective.

“I’m gonna shoot him.”

“You ain’t putting no holes in my car. Forget about it.”

“We can’t just leave him up there.”

“Put your goddamn gun away. It ain’t necessary. I’ll shake him on the next couple a bends.”

“One shot, that’s all it needs. One lousy hole.”

“I just got this jalopy, and you ain’t putting no holes in the goddamn roof. Put it away.”

I had a quick look.

Hard to see in the dark with the wind making my eyes water but it looked like there were only two of them.

“Goddamn creep’s looking at us!”

“You ain’t shooting up my car.”

“Fine. What a fucking cry baby. Jesus. I’ll go out the window. Will that make you happy?”

“Only if you knock your fat block off.”

The Buick was moving fast. Too fast for the roads we were on. Too fast for the dark of a moonless night. To fast for me, hanging on to the roof with an ever shrinking collection of fingernails.

I had to wonder what was going to finish me off first. The driver doing sixty down a bad road in the middle of the night with nothing but rough scrub clinging to solid cut on one side and a big scenic drop into the empty dark on the other, or the guy who was winding down his window so he could get a shot at me without mussing the upholstery.

The car swerved around another bend, rubber leaving blacktop as the car heeled over hard.

I let myself slide a little and tried to make a small target. A gun popped over the edge of the roof and went off under my nose. The animal twitched. He’d had enough. I couldn’t blame him. Things were getting more exciting than I cared for myself. But that didn’t mean I liked letting him loose.

I’d been doing my best to keep him wrapped up tight the last few weeks. Trying to wind him down, so far down he disappears. But he wasn’t going easy. He was always up for a fight. He’d been dancing through my skull, night after night, showing me things I didn’t want to see, taking me places I didn’t want to go. Back to Chicago. Back to the orphanage. Back to Joliet. Every time I closed my eyes. He was waiting.

Now he took his chance. He shrugged me off. He knew I needed him. He knew when it was a choice between him and dying I’d alway choose him. He knew when my grip on the leash went slack. The animal always takes his chance.

His lips curled back as the gun reappeared. He held on with one hand and lashed out with the other. His hard fingers closed around the gun. They played a little tug-o-war. The animal tired of that quick enough. He sank his fangs in the hand holding the gun, deep, ripping. A splash of blood. The crunch of green bone.

The gun clattered on the roof and slid off into the night. But the animal didn’t stop biting. He has strong teeth. Relentless, endless hatred. He bit and ground, deeper and deeper. The man in the car was screaming. Kicking at the dash. Punching the roof. The animal’s lips pulled back a little more, he was enjoying himself. He kept right on biting.

“What? What the fuck is it?”

“He’s biting me! Get him off me. Get him the fuck off me!”

The driver went for his gun. “Can’t you shake him?” He was still worried about the upholstery.

“Shoot him. Shoot the goddamn motherfucker!”

The driver sighed. “Brand new car. Stupid asshole. Should a let me shake him off.” He fired twice.

Two arrows of light poked up through a pair of neat holes next to the animal’s head. He pulled his teeth out of the mangled, bloody flesh he’d been gnawing and screamed. The animal. Always such a drama queen. While he was screaming I got us rolled off the roof and put our feet against the rear side window.

“Did I get him? Is he gone?”

The passenger had snatched his mangled hand back inside the car. He nursed it, sobbing, swearing, and rocking. He pulled out a handkerchief and started wrapping the wounds. They were nasty, and deep, more like his hand had been caught in a piece of machinery than the mouth of a man. He’d be lucky to shoot right-handed again. Not that he was going to live that long. Not if the animal had his way.

“I don’t know, I don’t know. Ah god my hand. My poor fucking hand.”

The animal was through screaming. He kicked out on the next bend, his fingers digging into the chrome rain sluice. It bent, but held. As the car came back to the straight the momentum sent him feet first through the back passenger-side window.

A black shape flying into the car in the middle of a swarm of glass shards, flickering in the dashboard lights.

“Jesus!” The driver fired blind into the back seat. Shattering the rear windscreen and putting two holes in the leather. The animal rolled down into the floor well. The passenger was too busy clutching his mangled hand to do anything but sob. The driver was whipping his head around. Trying to watch the road. Trying to see if he’d hit anything.

“Stop, you gotta stop. I gotta look at my hand, stop so I can get out. Stop the goddamn car!”

The driver slowed down. But not because his buddy was crying. “I think I got him.” The car pulled over to the shoulder. He needed to see who was in the back seat. To see if they were dead. To get them out of his brand new car before they got blood all over everything. He turned for a good look as the car stopped. His colt forty-five was up ready to fire.

The animal struck. His long lanky arm shot up and grabbed the gun. He forced it up and got to his feet in one motion. The gun went off, and again. Two more holes in the roof. The animal punched the driver in the face with his free hand and then locked his arm. They struggled as the animal slowly bent the driver’s arm back on his elbow. There was a crunching, tearing noise like a hyena dismembering a corpse. The driver’s elbow bent the wrong way. He screamed. The passenger pulled himself up and went for the gun. It went off, taking his brains out the side window as it shattered.

The animal shoved the driver’s grotesque, misshapen arm into his face. Shoved the hot gun barrel into his screaming mouth. Squeezed his hand until the bones began to crack.

The knuckles snapped one by one. The driver’s hand convulsed. One last bullet spat out, smashing through the top of his head, spraying the car with blood and brains.

“Too bad about the upholstery.”

The animal dropped the driver’s limp body. Put the car in neutral, and climbed out of the cabin. He walked to the edge of the road and looked down into the long dark. We were still high in the hills. He went to the back of the Buick and put his shoulder to it. The car rolled across the road, picking up speed until it tipped and fell, smashing it’s way hundreds of feet to the bottom of the canyon.

The animal watched it all the way down.

And then he screamed at the light poisoned sky.

Blood. Vengeance. Victory.

He was edgy. Rampant. But there was no one else to fight. He threw some rocks down at the wreck far below, but it was no good. He’d had his fun. Playtime was over. I began the slow process of winding him back. Locking him in his cage, grinding him down, snapping the leash back around his neck. He fumed and he raged. Like always. But the Professor had taught me all the tricks. I knew how to rein him in. I knew how to put him back in his box. I wound him down and down until I had him safe. Safe enough. Safe as he ever was.

But I knew I wouldn’t sleep easy that night.

I don’t intimidate. Don’t get ideas – it’s not like I’m immortal, or I don’t have the sense to be scared. Shoot me and I fall down. Throw me in the deep end of a swimming pool and I sink like a rock. I’ve got a tough hide, hard bones, and I’m too strong for a guy three times my size. But I can die. When the mob knocks on my door, when the Syndicate comes calling, I know what could happen. I know when I’m supposed to be scared.

But I still don’t intimidate. Call it plain old fashioned pigheadedness. I’m stubborn. I’m stubborn to the point of stupidity. Always have been. I’m not likely to change.

That’s how I ended up on the roof of that car while a couple of murderous jerks used me for target practice. That’s why I stand toe to toe with the animal every night in my head. That’s why I will never tell Jane I love her, that I always have.

Stubborn. Pigheaded. Recalcitrant. I’m the kind that digs in heels and hangs on no matter what. So I lie down. So I close my eyes. Knowing he’s there waiting for me. Knowing he’s going to pay me back with a loansharker’s interest piled on top.

Just once I’d like to go to sleep and dream of Jane.

But I don’t dream about Jane. The animal wouldn’t like it. He wouldn’t be having any fun. And the animal likes his fun.

So I dream black dreams, dark dreams. Dreams I don’t want to dream. Dreams of suffering and hate. Dark food for the soul of a creature consumed with malice. Dreams as a pure expression of resentment and hate...

The building’s on fire. Dark shapes run past the bars making them flicker like images in an old fashioned zoetrope. I’m in Joliet State Penitentiary and there’s a riot on.

The men in Joliet like a riot. They riot when it’s too hot. They riot when it’s too cold. They riot when it’s just right. They riot when the wind blows the wrong way and the soot from the steel works pours into the east facing cells. They riot when the food gets so bad even the phagomaniacs won’t eat it. They riot every third Wednesday for the hell of it.

But no matter the cause Lucius B wouldn’t let me participate.

“Easy, Zee. Easy, now. It ain’t nothing but some foolish boys exercising the devil that’s in them.”

He could see the animal, writhing there, under my skin, busting to get out and join the fun. Eager to sink his teeth into anyone, anyone at all, even Lucius. But Lucius wasn’t scared. He knew how to tame wild animals.

He stood there, in the dark, looking down at me. A spotlight swept across the outside of the building, penetrating the narrow window, lighting his face, his massive chest and broad shoulders, his powerful arms, and his dark, unblemished skin, his bald dome of a head. His face was calm, but crossed with genuine concern. Concern for me. Lucius was the first person to give a damn that I was alive since my mother died.

I never knew why, we couldn’t have been more different, but he’d adopted me soon after my arrival. Made the warden bunk me in with him, started teaching me to read. His little Russian comrade. His huge, black frame and bald pate, against my small, wiry, white hairiness – it didn’t make any sense. Perhaps it was his fine tuned sense of injustice, his terrible enthusiasm for the underdog. Whatever it was I had the good sense to latch on to Lucius with everything I possessed. I followed him like a kid brother. Or a stray dog.

There was no chance the animal was biting Lucius. I forced him down.

When I was steady enough I sat up, swung my legs over the top of the bunk and let my feet dangle. Lucius clapped me on the shoulder. He knew I had the animal back on the leash. He sat down on the bottom bunk, making it creak under the weight of all that muscle. We maintained a companionable silence, as much as you could with the riot guns going off in the yard, the yelling and the screaming. The sound of batons on skulls. The triumphant roar of prisoners getting their hands on a guard they hated. But it seemed like the riot had passed this part of the prison by. We’d be safe enough as long as we stayed alert.

My feet twitched, swinging back and forward, jittering like they wanted to dance.

Lucius started to speak. He often told me stories. Tales of famous men, men who had striven against adversity, of slaves who had raised their hands to the overseers, from Moses to Spartacus to Toussaint, Washington to Bolivar. But this time he had a different story in mind.

Perhaps he guessed what was coming. Perhaps in some corner of his soul he knew Bill Lanston had a gun and meant to use it. Knew the power of the thing would make Bill crazy, would turn him away from an easy escape, and lead him back into the prison, back to a dark twisted place, a hypnotism of death and stupidity.

The words spilled out of him like brown molasses, smothering me in the dark. “This isn’t the first time I’ve had to hide from angry men in the dark, Zee. No, not by many, many times. How many times did the white man come to our neighborhoods, with his ropes and his flaming brands, roaring like a lion, seeking for whom he could devour? The fruit was strange in those days. Strange black shapes dangling from the broad-leaf trees of the green, green south. Tied and strangled and burnt beyond hope of recognition. Strange the women who gathered around those abominable crucifixions. Those black Marys. Those dark Magdalenes. How they wept when they cut down their men from those blood-sated trees. How they prayed for resurrection. But three days brought them no empty tombs, only hollow hearts reamed clean by tears and grief.

“The first time I hid I was nothing but a small dark child with no notion of the evils that burned in the blood of men.

“A white woman had whelped a mulatto child, and faced with the incontrovertible evidence of her liaison claimed rape. Claimed rape against the black man. Not a black man, for in cases like this all black men were held accountable. Their supposed insatiability for white flesh was a deathless fantasy in the minds of those men. All black men were guilty. Every negro was blamed.

“The woman said her shame at this terrible ordeal had closed her mouth as if her lips had been sewn together by needle and packing thread, but now the evidence of the foul deed was out for all to see she told all.

“Who can say? Perhaps she spoke the truth. A black man is still a man, as riven with evil desire as the white, or the yellow, or the red. But there was no justice in such a case in those days or these. Rare is the black man brought to trial for rape before a jury of his peers in the deep South. The mere accusation was enough to set the lynch mobs howling, spilling into the streets, marching into black neighborhoods looking for some ‘nigger buck’ to be the example of their revenge.

“And so it was that the mob came to my house, Zee. The woman spoke one lie, of that I am certain. For she named my father as the man who had done this wicked thing. Likely it was the only black man’s name she knew. Likely it was forced from her by the anger of her men. But whatever the reason it was a terrible blasphemy to name an innocent man.

“For my father was innocent. He was a fine man, tall and strong and proud. He worked hard. His labor was valued at the labor of two ordinary men. He built our lives from nothing. Everything we owned was the product of his sweat, of the strength of his back.

“I know this not because I knew my father. I know because my mother told me. He died that night. Long before I knew him. Long before I had my chance to be a son to that man.

“The mob came to our house. They demanded my father come out to them. They demanded it. They spoke furious words. They said they would burn the whole family alive if he did not come out. He had no warning of the coming of the mob, and his first thought was for his family. He hid us, I know not where, but I remember it was dark and close and had the scent of terror in it.

“And then he put his hand to the door. My mother pleaded with him. She tore at his arm. But he knew the character of the men outside. He knew they would bar the windows and the doors and do as they had promised. He would not allow his family to be made a bonfire. So he went with them. A giant amongst them. A head taller than the angry men who took his mighty arms and bound them. They put a noose around his neck and dragged him behind a horse to the tree where they lynched him. They cut off his manhood while he yet lived. And then they set a fire under his corpse and watched him burn as they drank strong liquor and mocked his memory. They would not let my mother cut him down and bury him until he had hung there a week. A grim advertisement of their hate.

“This was my childhood, Zee. In some ways better than yours, in some ways worse. Both of us have seen a beloved parent die. Both of us have the fire of that agony burning within us. But you must be a better man than me, Zee. You must not let your anger lead you astray. You must escape this place and use that fire to light some good in the world. To set some blaze that will never be extinguished.”

As Lucius spoke these words Bill Lanston appeared. He was a thin, white man, with sparse brown hair and a bad temper. But that description would cover half the men in Joliet. He was nothing special. Not a friend, not an enemy. He was only Bill Lanston. He had blood on his face and his bottom lip was split, but for all that he had a grin on his face. He’d got hold of a riot gun. It was making him a grim kind of happy.

How he’d managed to get the gun was a mystery. Why he didn’t use it to get the hell out of Joliet was a bigger one. But Bill didn’t choose to escape. He’d fallen for the fool’s promise guns make the unwary. Instead of escape he chose to come back.

“I been watching you a lot of years now, Lucius.”

Lucius threw his feet to the floor, sitting up. “Is that so, Bill?”

“Yeah that’s so. It always riled me.”

“I’ve never done anything to rile you, Bill.”

“Oh, nothing deliberate. But then you never did nothing deliberate to make me your friend neither.”

“I didn’t know you wished to be my friend.”

“I didn’t. I ain’t got no truck with niggers.”

“I’m sorry if I upset you, Bill. Why don’t you tell me what I did so I can make amends.”

Bill laughed, “There ain’t nothing you can do to make amends. You riled me up just by being you. No man here dares stand up to you. Hell, even the warden gives you what you want. Got you that little freak stowed in here where you could use him however you like,” he said looking at me with contempt.

“I’m not that way inclined, Bill.”

“Stop saying my name. No one’s that way inclined, at first, but you get over it. Anyhow. Hear me out now.”


“I said you riled me up by being you. And you did. I watch you walk through the yard, all manner of men giving way to you, white, black, killers, thieves, it made no matter. Guards talking to you with respect. Ain’t not one of them called you ‘boy’ in years, I bet.”

“You want respect, you must give it, Bill. That’s all I do. I give respect. The golden rule.”

Bill sneered, “Now that’s the other thing that damn well shits me about you, Lucius. You talk so goddamn smart.”

He raised the gun. And Lucius knew then that Bill meant to kill him and there was no hope of changing his mind.

Bill spat on the floor. His finger tightened on the trigger of the riot gun. Lucius leapt off his bunk and closed the distance between them. Lucius was quick for a big man. Bill was surprised, the sneer dropped off his face. He jerked back hard on the trigger as Lucius’s hands closed around his head. Those huge black hands swallowed him up. And they turned and they turned and they turned, and as the roar of the gun faded it was replaced by the cracking of bone and the snap of tendons breaking under unbearable strain.

The two men fell apart, Lanston collapsing, his head twisted and hanging, stretched and loose at the neck like a pulled chicken, and Lucius still upright, but sagging back against the bunks, breathing in heavy gasps. I saw it then, the blood pouring out of him. The blood flooding down his front to cover his feet.

I leaped down off the bunk, pressed my hands against his belly but it was no use. My hands were too small, they couldn’t even cover the hole. They pushed inside him, pushed on his living organs, torn and shredded as they were.

And then I looked up to his face. But he was gone. The life had drained from him with the blood, death starting from his crown and swallowing him down, a bite at a time like a ghastly serpent until it reached his bloody feet. There would be no smile. No last words. Nothing but a hollow, gaping mouth and a pair of empty eyes staring into the dark.

He stood there wedged against the bunks, standing but twisted and dead. Murdered by a gun whose other victim lay at Lucius’s feet. His neck a purple, stretched obscenity. The mocking gun still in his hand, lying snout down in a pool of blood.

Lucius was gone.

And I was alone in Joliet State Penitentiary.

Nice dream.

Fucking animal.

A moment’s peace in the endless black.

Guns, guns, guns. Why does every two bit kid think he’s a man just because he’s got himself a firearm? Why do thugs and mobsters and stick up artists think they’re safe just because they’ve got a few pounds of steel in their hands? How many people have to die holding a gun before they get the message?

Guns kill people.

And not always the people they’re aimed at.

Picking up a gun is like picking up a live snake – it’s as likely to bite you as the next guy. Some people never learn. Probably because when the lesson comes it leaves most of them dead. Maybe that’s why so many corpses look so goddamn surprised. They can’t believe they bought the hype. The false promise every gun makes when you pick it up. That somehow it’s always going to be the other guy. That somehow holding death in your hand makes you immortal, instead of making you that much closer to being dead. To joining the cold stiff set down at the morgue, waiting for the coroner’s bone saw and scalpel to lay bear every secret, to make a pauper of your dignity.

Like Bulkowski. Lying there. Chest open to the light. All those rude, primitive pieces of a man laid out on trays, weighed and measured and found wanting.

Dulls had picked me up. Dragged me along to the ghoul show. He seemed real chummy Dulls, now Bulkowski wasn’t busting his chops anymore. Maybe he thought I’d enjoy seeing Bulkowski carved up like a slaughterhouse steer. Maybe not. Maybe Dulls was just Dulls. A kicked puppy that still fawned on your leg for attention. And maybe that was what got Bulkowski killed – his lousy choice of tools. Rand, Dulls, the boys he set up to sell dope on my streets. He kept reaching for steel hammers and picking up rubber mallets.

Bulkowski. I couldn’t say I was going to miss him. I couldn’t say why I tracked down the two boys who did this to him. Why they were lying at the bottom of a canyon, torn up by metal, bullets and teeth. I couldn’t say it would make any difference. That it would make me sleep easier. That it would stop the Syndicate moving back into LA. What’s two dead New Jersey killers slowly turning to ooze at the bottom of a canyon? There were a hundred more waiting to take their place. Gun in hand, as sure it made them immortal as the last guy. Until the day they meet someone else with a gun and the same idea. Or worse, the animal. Then they’d find out different. Or not.

Some people never learn. A simple secret so obvious, so true, so unwelcome, we ignore it right up to the moment it costs us our lives. Not until the bullet is punching through us. Turning us in to meat for the butcher blades of the coroner. Then, only then, do some people learn.

But sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes we learn young. Sometimes we learn the hard way, but not the hardest. Sometimes we don’t have to take a bullet to know. We learn like I did, in that ratty tenement. Back in Chicago. Watching my mother fall at my feet, her blood on my face. Something I learned when that Russian pimp leveled his gun at me, fainted and missed. Something I learned when I walked over to him, picked up his gun, put it to his head and pulled the trigger.

A few of us know. The hard, bitter truth no one wants to recognize.

People don’t kill people

Guns do.

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