Which story is better?

Lights Out

In one of the more bizarre incidents of my entire career, I’m interviewing a dangerous character named Joker Mendoza. This is at Chino State Prison in their secure housing unit, which holds their toughest inmates.

This guy has committed at least a half dozen murders on behalf of Nuestra Familia. He’s in for murder. He might be willing to flip, to turn state’s evidence. He’s already locked down because he’s in a jam with the rank and file members of the Nuestra Familia, a very violent gang. His brother, gangster Mendoza, had contract to murder me because of my involvement in this federal investigation. My son had already been followed home from school in Fresno area.

Joker, an unusually large Hispanic of about six feet, is a weightlifter. He’s got a denim shirt on, which he’s torn the sleeves off like a tank top, denim pants torn off ragged-edged, flip flops, tattoos all over, a very tough looking character.

Entering with me is an officer from the Department of Corrections internal gang unit.

As we introduce ourselves, Joker turns to me and says, “I’ve heard of you. I’ll talk to you. But I won’t talk with this motherfucker in here.”

The guys turns to me and says, “It’s up to you, Byron.”

“If you don’t mind, I’ll talk to him by myself.”

The guy says okay, excuses himself and walks out, leaving joker and myself in this very isolated room at the end of a hallway with the door locked from the outside. About ten minutes into the conversation there is a power failure. The lights go out and we’re plunged into total darkness. Dead silence follows.

It seems like hours go by, but it’s probably thirty seconds. For some reason I start laughing. And then in the darkness, he starts laughing . At one point I hear his chair shuffle.

He says, “You know, you’re in deep shit.”

In the darkness I say, “well, you don’t know what’s pointed at you right now.” We’re in a standoff. Then we both laugh again.

I say, “I guess we’re both in deep shit.”

He says, “Yeah.” And we start talking.

In about forty five seconds, which seems like hours, I see rays of light, and hear guards running down the hall, anticipating a scene of total carnage, that joker has ripped me physically limb from limb. They crash through the door, light us both up with the flashlights, and we’re laughing. I’m kicked back with my feet on the table, and joker’s over in another corner with his feet up.

These guys are befuddled. The lights come back on. Joker tells them to get the fuck out of there.

I have no idea of why I started laughing. I guess to him that was a sign of bravado. You revert to some basic instincts, like smell and taste. You almost become a predator.

It’s Going To Smash Me

I walk up there in the routine way, careful, notebook in the left hand to leave right hand free, knock on the door and stand by the side.

A woman answered the door. “Oh hi. You came.”

“What’s the problem?”

“It’s my husband. He’s been drinking. He didn’t go to work this morning.”

I get her name, her age, the name of her husband. “Has he got any guns in the house?”

“No.”

“Knives of any sort? Swords?”

“No.”

“Where’s he at?”

She says, “Oh, take it easy on him. He obeys the law. It’s just when he’s drinking.”

“OK. Sounds good. You wait here.” Now I start walking down this long hallway. And as I’m walking down the hallway, my gun’s unsnapped, still in the holster. I see an alcove built into the wall. I remember looking into this room, then to the alcove. He’s standing there with a gun.

Mid-step it was, bonk! I said, “Oh, how you doing, man?” We are within a foot or two of each other. I remember looking at him and thinking, “Oh fuck!” Everything is slowed down. I remember looking at the gun barrel, thinking, I don’t know how he’s able to hold that with one hand. That’s a huge gun. The bullet is going to smash me. I felt every breath I took I could feel every molecule of air. I started to perspire. It felt like every drop was an ice cube.

I said, “Man, why don’t you put the gun down. You haven’t got problems now. Why don’t you just put the gun down?”

He said, “Fuck you! I’ll kill you and her.”

“Oh boy,” I says. “Buddy, you don’t want to do that. Put the gun down, and let’s end it right here. Because if you don’t, you’re going to die.”

He says, “I’ll kill you!”

Suddenly the gun went down in size and I remember calculating, “That’s a .22 or a .25. If he doesn’t get me in the head, it’s going to take some time for me to die. Well, I’ll be able to kill him because I carry a .38 special.” My gun was half way up, still in the holster.

I says, “I’ll tell you what buddy. You’ve got your chance. Put it down, because I’m going to count to four. When I reach four, you may as well goddam shoot, because I drawing and I’m killing you. I’m not going to die right way. OK? One… .”

And he put the gun down. I was going to draw on two.

He goes, “Aw fuck!” All I remember is his arm reaching all the way to the floor. He must have bent over, but I didn’t notice.

“OK,” I says, “let’s grab the wall.” I put the gun in the waste can, handcuffed him.

The wife said, “Oh, my god! I didn’t know he had that!”


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