Last of the Great Gorilla Men

© Ross E. Lockhart

I pressed the black and red buttons on the tape deck, watched the numbers on it count from zero-zero-zero to zero-zero-five, made sure that we were past the leader. I nodded to the witness, indicating that she should start talking, start making her statement. She bit her full, red lower lip, as if carefully considering what she was going to say, then began.

“So you’re recording me now, right? Is it cool if I have a smoke while we talk, I could really use a smoke, y’got one?” Parker, the detective in charge of the investigation, pulled a red and white package from the inside breast pocket of his jacket and handed her one. “Thanks,” she said, then looked at him expectantly. The counter on the tape deck continued, zero-one-four to zero-one-eight. She spoke again, “Got a light?” Parker tossed her a pack of matches. “Thanks,” she lit the cigarette, took a drag, exhaled. “Damn, I know some day these things will kill me but, oh well.” She took another drag, held it for a few seconds as she composed her statement.

“Okay, so where do you want me to start? At the beginning? Let’s see, I guess it was a week ago, y’know, Tuesday when we had that effin’ killer rain goin’ on. Seemed like the whole city was about to be washed away, some cosmic baptism, y’know? Not like anyone would notice.”

“Anyway, that was the night that Cal killed Johnny.” She hesitated. Numbers sped past on the counter, zero-two-six, zero-two-seven, zero-two-eight. She looked down at the table, then closed her eyes. Zero-three-zero, zero-three-one, zero-three-two. Eyes still closed, brow furrowed, she continued, “I was at his, that is, Johnny’s place when Cal came over with a couple of his boys. I’d been staying with Johnny since right after my whole scene blew to hell. That was about three weeks, a month ago. We’d hooked up at this bar down on Sixteenth, and at first he was just someone to be with, a warm body, someone who could score, y’know, but these things, they happen, and we fell in love.” She looked up, and for the first time, I noticed her eyes. Cool blue, the kind of eyes you could swim in, drown in. She continued, “Not head over heels, lost in your eyes, crappy seventies soft rock love, but real love, watch out for each other love. Kick the habit and get real lives, get out of this effed-up city kind of love. Anyway, when Johnny answered the door, I was in the can putting on my makeup or something. I heard them come in, I heard Johnny start to make with the small talk, but it all felt wrong.”

She took another drag from her cigarette, held the smoke deep within her from zero-four-nine to zero-five six, exhaled, the smoke just hung in the air of the dim little conference room, giving everything a hazy soft focus sheen. She continued, “I was listening at the door, listening to Johnny start to tell Cal he was out of the business, that we were gonna split, when Cal freaks out, starts yelling in Spanish, starts calling Johnny a faggot, starts hitting him. I opened the door a crack, looked out, and there was Johnny on his knees on the floor. Cal had his gun in Johnny’s mouth, like he’d shoved it in hard, and Johnny was gagging on it.” She started to gesture, becoming more animated, saying as much with her hands as her mouth.

“Cal’s all ‘You ain’t gonna effin’ quit on me, you faggot son of a bitch. I’ll effin’ kill you before I let you effin’ quit on me.'” She said this with a graveled, streetwise tone in her voice, clearly imitating the notorious drug dealer, but just as quickly returned to her own soft husky voice. “I wigged, grabbed some cash out of the pocket of Johnny’s pants that were hanging on the inside of the door, and started to climb out the window. I was halfway out when I heard Cal’s gun go off. You know how gunshots echo in movies, big as the world? This was small, a champagne cork, a popgun, but I knew Johnny was dead. I think I started crying then, half in, half out. Half alive, half dead. I don’t know how long I hung there, but when I heard the doorknob move, it brought me back to life. I bolted, but they saw me, started chasing me.”

“I must have run in the cold rain for blocks, for hours, no shoes on, not even feeling my feet on the pavement.” Parker asked why she hadn’t called us. She paused, measured her answer, then looked him in the eye with fierce determination. “Why didn’t I come to you guys first? C’mon, you’re the cops, one less junkie, one less problem, right? I know how it goes. Besides, I didn’t know who or what to trust, I just ran and ran until I couldn’t run any more. I even fell a couple of times, skinned up my knees, my hand.” She held up her palm, as if to show us some invisible scar tissue. “Finally, I stopped down on Fourth, stood there, my hand against one of the store windows, catching my breath. I looked up at my reflection. Between the rain and the tears, my makeup was all down my face, all stained. I looked positively ghoulish. I glanced around, knew that I’d ditched Cal, but for how long. I needed to go somewhere, and that’s when I noticed what it said on the door next to the shop.” Parker started to interrupt, but she stopped him in his tracks, anticipating his question. “Yeah, that’s right, it was Charlie’s place. ‘Charlie Simean, Private Detective,’ it said, chipped gold paint on the frosted glass door. It was like a little light went on in my head, showed me the way. I ran up, turned the knob, and went in.”

“I’d seen detective movies before, y’know, the old ones, all black and white. I expected wooden file cabinets, one of those old gunmetal fans, a black candlestick phone, big maple desk and matching chair. Instead, this looked more like a shrink’s office. There was a desk alright, but it was like something from an IKEA catalogue. There was a computer on it, and a camera with a really big lens, one of those professional kinda things. A couple, no, three folding chairs at the desk, too. One on the sitting side, the other two on the talking side. There was a couch, well worn, on the other side of the room, couple of pictures on the walls. Door opposite the one I came in. Maybe not a shrink, maybe an insurance agent’s office, something like that. I looked around, didn’t see anybody, thought about getting the hell out when the other door opened.”

“The man that came through, that was Charlie. My first thought was about how big he was, not like he was fat or anything, more built like a truck, like a huge upside-down triangle, y’know.” She took another drag from the cigarette. “Of course you know, I forget you guys know Charlie.” She was right, we all knew Charlie. One of the good guys, not quite cop, but just as trustworthy in a pinch. “Oh, God, I hope he’s okay. Have you heard anything yet? Yeah, I know, you said you’d let me know just as soon as the hospital calls.” Her voice had risen a bit sincerely worried, but took another hit, and composed herself. “Anyway, there he was, big as day, Charlie Simean. He reminded me of my dad for some reason, only without the pain and the belt and the yelling, even though he looked nothing like the old man, maybe he made me think of what my dad should have been or something. He comes on all business like, all ‘Can I help you?’ I shoved the wad of bills I’d taken from Johnny’s pocket into his hand, asked him to protect me, then I guess I must’ve passed out.”

“When I came to, I was on the couch in the office. Charlie was there, sitting in one of the folding chairs. It was like he’d been watching me, keeping an eye on me. I was starting to feel all junk sick, it felt like forever since Johnny and I had a taste that morning. We’d been decreasing, trying to kick, but I was still sick as all hell. I think Charlie knew. He started talking to me, introduced himself, told me I was safe there. I could tell he meant it. Johnny and Cal and the rest of the world seemed a thousand miles away. If the knots in my stomach would just go away, I’d feel better. Charlie took my hands in his, it seemed so sweet at first, his hands felt so soft, but then I realized he was checking my arms. ‘How long you been shooting?’ he asked me. I couldn’t lie. I told him everything, about Johnny, about Cal, about the gunshot. He asked why I hadn’t called the cops, why I came to him. I told him I didn’t know. I guess sometimes things just happen, y’know?”

“I told Charlie my whole story, and he told me his story, too. How he’d been a ‘gorilla man,’ one of the best, the last of a dynasty.” I’d been absent-mindedly watching the numbers roll past on the recorder, but this caught my attention. I looked up at her, met her steel gaze. “You didn’t know this? Oh, man, his grandpa had started it back in the silent movie days. Anytime they needed a guy in a gorilla suit, they’d call Charlie – that was his name. Charlie is actually the third Charlie in a row, did you know that? Anyway, Gramps worked in the Charlie Chan movies, worked with the Three Stooges, if you saw a monkey suit in any old movie, odds are that it was him. He passed on the name and the suit to Charlie’s dad, Charlie Junior. Dad did a bunch of TV in the fifties, Ed Sullivan, that kind of thing, always in the suit.”

“Eventually, he passed the suit to Charlie. By this time, though, there wasn’t really much call for a guy in a gorilla suit anymore, what with special effects and all, so he worked down at Funland, back when they were still doing the whole carnival boardwalk thing. He was doing a strong-man, or is that strong-monkey gig, bending poles, lifting weights, you know, that kind of thing. Then one night, maybe fifteen years back, there was a fire. Charlie said it was the one that closed the place down. A kid, like six years old, was trapped up on top of one of those big ‘Zipper’ contraptions, and he was going to die if someone didn’t do something. There went Charlie, into the fray, monkey suit and all, climbing up to rescue the kid. He gets to the top, grabs the kid, but on the way down, slips, puts his hand where some rube had left too much grease or something. Charlie and the kid fall to the ground, the kid on top of him. They’re both pretty hurt, Charlie’s back, the kid’s legs were broken, but they got out okay. Charlie quit show business, hung the gorilla suit up in his closet and became a PI, making money by taking pictures of cheating husbands. He kept in touch with the kid, too, until about five years ago. The kid grew up too fast, then went and OD’d. I think that’s why he took me in, helped me clean up, helped me get straight.”

“Anyway, that night, Charlie let me crash back in his bed in the room behind the office. He slept out on the couch. Never said or did anything kinky. Over the next couple of days he took care of me, junk sick and all, as I kicked it, cold turkey. All last week, he hit the pavement, checked out my story. Yesterday he finally found out where Cal was, and that he had something big going down that very night. A big shipment, pounds of shit, was coming in, and they’d taken over some abandoned buildings in Funland where they were going to sort and cut it. He suggested calling the cops right then and there, but said he’d leave it up to me.”

“I don’t know what I was thinking, though. Instead of listening, doing the right thing, I decided to go down there and take care of Cal myself. For me, for getting people hooked, for Johnny. I wanted to end the cycle then and there. I made some lame excuse and split.” She crushed the life out of her cigarette in the well-used ashtray. “Hey, you got another smoke?” Parker fished out another one, and one for himself. She lit hers and continued. “Thanks. Where was I? Oh, yeah, right. Anyway, I did a damn fool thing, I went and got a gun from an old friend, called in a favor, you know, and headed down to take out the effin’ bastard that killed my Johnny.”

“I got down there about eleven o’clock last night, found the place. Cal was there with his lackeys, half a dozen Mexican guys. They were unloading a truck, boxes after boxes, and taking them inside. I crept around, took aim at Cal and fired. I missed. Next thing I know, a couple of his guys are on top of me, dragging me inside. One of them put a rag over my face and then everything went black.” I made a mental note. Chloroform, I’ll bet, nasty stuff, migraine city.

“After that, the first thing I was conscious of was the darkness, surrounding me with all the comfort of a warm bed. Music was playing, but it seemed strangely foreign. That lasted forever, but not long enough. I began to become aware of other things. The smell of gasoline mixed with something else, something sickly-sweet, came first. Next came the pain in my wrists, my arms, my back. I tried to move, but realized I was sitting upright, my wrists bound behind me, probably in a hard backed chair.” She stuck her hands behind her back for emphasis, then held them there as she continued.

“The music, I began to realize, wasn’t music at all, but the voices of men talking, speaking Spanish. One voice stood out. I guessed it was Cal, the way he barked orders at the others. I started to say something, but couldn’t. They’d stuffed a gag in my mouth, probably to keep me from screaming. I opened my eyes, and gradually things came into focus. Cal was there, his soldiers working on the junk, cutting it down to redistribute. It was everywhere, huge boxes, kilo bags, scales, the works. A junkie’s wet dream. I could taste it in the air, smell it. I was craving it, water in the desert, you know. A million dollars in pretty white crystals, enough poison to hook a whole city.”

“Cal saw me looking around and sauntered over, all mean and cocky. He brandished his pistol in his right hand, the same one he’d killed Johnny with. ‘You’re that little bitch Johnny’s effin’ puto whore, right?’ he said to me, waving the index finger of his left hand in my face. ‘You know you’re gonna die, bitch, right?’ He had one of his men untie me, then forced me to my knees in front of him.” She closed her eyes, as if it hurt to recall, then opened them. “He raised the pistol, pressed it against my chin, forcing my head back. I felt its cold kiss as I stared up at the sky. I thought it was funny that I could see the moon, all full and round, through the cracked skylight. If that’s the last thing I ever see, I thought, that’s enough. Just then, as I listened to Cal cock back the hammer of the pistol, the moon was covered by a dark cloud, a dark man-shaped cloud.”

“What happened next, wow. The skylight imploded, bang, a rain of glass and noise, and swinging down on a rope came this hairy black beast, like some sort of infernal avenger. Fists flying, he pummeled Cal’s men into submission, then beat his fists against his chest, and started to advance towards Cal, who was standing there with his jaw against his chest. The shaggy ape swung a mighty roundhouse punch, knocking Cal a good ten feet, knocking the pistol from his hand. It fired as it hit the floor, the bullet piercing a metal tank of who knows what, and erupting into flame.”

“In a heartbeat, I watched as everything slipped into slow motion. Like some sort of cliché action movie climax, both man and ape, lit by the red and orange flicker of the flames, dove for the gun. Cal grabs the gun first, brings it up, points it at the magnificent beast, sneers, then fires it into his chest. He crumples, Cal gloats. I scream ‘No!’ then wheel around, grab the wooden chair, and swing it, connecting with Cal’s face. Teeth scatter and the gun flies from his hand.”

“Into the flames it slid, and they devoured it greedily. I ran over to the fallen ape, and pulled the mask up to reveal Charlie’s tired face. I kissed him on the forehead, told him that he’d be okay. I wrapped my arms around him, and dragged his massive frame from the burning building, surprised that I was able to. As we lay on the ground outside the burning building I held him, and together, we listened to the sweet music of the sirens approaching.” She crushed out her cigarette, looked from Parker to me, then back to Parker. “That’s it. Think I can go check on Charlie now?”