ANY UNIT IN THE VICINITY OF 2116 LAUREL LANE. BURGLARY IN PROGRESS.
LaFiamma lifted the hand mike with a reluctance that was uncharacteristic for him. He loved being a cop. The opportunity to put another perpetrator behind bars generally filled him with satisfaction, but this was Christmas Eve, a time for joy and anticipation not fear and destruction.
For the last month, a burglar had made the Houston area his home. Unlike other criminals of his kind, he preyed on the poor as well as the wealthy. Taking what he wanted, he would destroy what he didn't. Family photos, books, records, toys - nothing escaped his destructive hand. For those on limited incomes, his visits were particularly devastating. The press had started calling him The Destroyer, a name taken from the action novels created by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir.
Flicking the switch on the mike, LaFiamma reported, "9215 responding to the 460 on Laurel Lane. ETA, three minutes."
The red light was flashing on the roof before the call had been completed. The old Buick jumped like a racehorse coming out of the gate when Estaban pushed the gas pedal to the floor. "We may be able to make it in two minutes, amigo," the Mexican cheerfully observed.
"Let's just make it there alive," pleaded LaFiamma gripping the dashboard with bloodless hands.
"No need to worry, my friend," Estaban soothed, "I could qualify for the Indy 500."
The car crested a hill. Metal scrapped the pavement as they bounced over to the other side. When he had gotten his breath back, LaFiamma disgustedly regarded his temporary partner. "You might qualify, but this car wouldn't. Tomorrow, we either get transportation out of the motor pool or we walk."
"Hey, man," Gutierrez protested, "this car is a classic."
"Then put it in a museum," LaFiamma advised.
If someone had told the Chicagoan a few months ago that he would actually miss Levon Lundy - he would have laughed in their faces. Though he liked and respected Estaban Gutierrez, as hard as it was to believe, he did miss the Texan. So much so, he almost regretted refusing Mother Minnie's and Lundy's offer to spend the holidays in Lombard. His refusal had not been for selfish reasons - as he had been accused by his partner. He knew this would probably be the last Christmas Lundy would celebrate with his Grandmother. Unless there was another remission, death would claim the elderly woman in the new year. What little time they had left should be spent together, not entertaining a guest.
The Buick slued to a stop in front of a house where red and green lights chased each other around the roof of the single story dwelling. LaFiamma exchanged a puzzled glance with Gutierrez. The Destroyer had never invaded an obviously occupied home before. A feeling of unease settled over the Chicagoan like a wet blanket as he led the way up the neatly trimmed sidewalk to the front door.
They were only a few steps away when the door suddenly swung open. LaFiamma's brain had barely registered the fact that the man blocking the doorway had a gun before he felt a burning pain in his chest. His ears were still ringing with the echo of a shotgun blast when his legs turned to jelly beneath him.
Sirens filled the air drowning out Estaban's command to the shooter to drop his gun. Unable to move, LaFiamma stared up at the sky. Estaban's anxious plea to hang on seemed to come from a long distance. Hearing the pain in the other man's voice, LaFiamma desperately tried to reassure his friend, but none of his muscles would respond to his commands. Above him, a shadow crossed the moon. Though he could no longer see clearly, he was sure it was Santa Claus flying through the night on a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer.
* * * *
"I still don't understand why Joe didn't come with you," Minnie complained, throwing the last of the tinsel on the tree.
Though he really hadn't understood, either - which had resulted in a fight the two had not reconciled before the Texan left for Lombard - Lundy relayed the excuse his partner had given him, "LaFiamma had already volunteered to work over the holidays. He didn't feel it would be fair to pull rank and back out at the last minute."
"That's my Joey." The elderly woman smiled wistfully. "I wish he'd have come, though."
Lundy was grateful when the telephone rang interrupting the lament. He hadn't liked his partner when they had first been teamed, but he had respected him. From that first day until the present, his emotions had run the gamut, from anger to frustration to caring. He had never expected the latter to occur, making him feel uncomfortable. There had never been a person in his life who could make him so furious one minute and so contented the next. He was emotionally alive for the first time since Caroline's death.
Lifting the receiver of the old phone, he placed it against his ear. "Lundy residence."
"Levon, it's Joanne."
The Lieutenant's voice cracked slightly. Lundy knew it wasn't caused by static on the line. Even as he asked the question, he knew what the answer would be. "What's wrong, Joanne?"
"LaFiamma's been shot."
Lundy fought to control the emotions that had been so recently reawakened. "How bad?'
"He took a shotgun blast in the chest."
Wishing he could shut out the pain as easily as he could close his eyes, Lundy announced, "I'll be there in a couple hours."
"I'll see you then." Her voice softening, Beaumont added, "He's been taken to Memorial."
It took several tries before Lundy was able to place the receiver back on its cradle. His eyes were blurred with tears, and with the memories of a partnership he had never wanted - but wasn't sure now he could live without.
With an outward control that years on the police force had instilled in him, Lundy turned to his grandmother. Easing her into a chair, he took her work-callused hands in his. "That was my lieutenant, Mother Minnie. LaFiamma's been shot."
"What're we sitting around here for?" the elderly woman demanded, pulling her hands out of Lundy's and pushing to her feet. "We've got bags to pack."
"Mother Minnie, I don't think your doctors would approve of you gallivanting around the state in your condition," Lundy chastised.
"Joe needs me." Gently caressing her grandson's cheek, Minnie added, "And you need me."
* * * *
How many times, Lundy wondered, had he sat in a hospital waiting room as a battle between life and death took place beyond the swinging doors? Though not physically alone, he was mentally isolated from the comfort his grandmother had tried to administer. Staring at the floor tiles, he wasn't seeing the dirt and dried blood imbedded in the cracks; he saw a square face laughing joyfully as he dumped peanuts out of his cowboy hat.
A hand on his shoulder made him jump. Looking up, he had to blink several times before his eyes could focus on the handsome face of Estaban Gutierrez. Rage at the other man's inability to keep his partner safe, and at his own feeling of helplessness, brought Lundy to his feet. Grabbing the lapels of the smaller man's jacket, he partially lifted the Mexican off the floor as he pushed him up against the wall. "Where the hell were you? You were supposed to watch his back."
"You can't blame me more than I blame myself," Gutierrez whispered, staying quiescent in the other man's grip.
Pulling Lundy off her subordinate with a surprising strength, Joanne chided, "Levon, it wasn't Estaban's fault."
"I know." Dropping his hands, Lundy apologized, "I'm sorry, Estaban."
Keeping a firm, but comforting grip on her ex-partner's arm, Beaumont explained, "LaFiamma and Gutierrez were responding to a 460 on Laurel Avenue. When they arrived at the address, they found the house blazing with lights. Now, you know as well as I do that no self respecting burglar is still going to be hanging around. They were walking up to the house to interview the occupants when someone came out shooting. Joe took the first bullet in the chest. A second grazed his shoulder. Estaban managed to disarm the assailant before he could reload."
"Who was the gunman?" demanded Lundy in a voice devoid of emotion.
"James John Peterson," Joanne announced after a slight hesitation, "owner of the house."
Lundy turned to regard his lieutenant in amazement. "Why would he shoot a cop that was there to protect him?"
"He says he thought Joe and Esteban were the burglars," explained the young woman. "He says he was protecting his property."
A foot lashed out, kicking a chair across the room. "That's supposed to be our job," Lundy unnecessarily pointed out. "Why did he even bother to call the police if he was going to take care of it himself?"
There was no answer to his question - Lundy hadn't expected one. Irrational behavior by victims as well as perpetrators would continue to plague law enforcement agencies as long as illogical humans were involved. Crossing the room, he picked up the chair he had vented his anger on, and put it back where it belonged.
"Is there family here for a Joseph LaFiamma?"
Blocking the door, a white-coated man moved aside to let a woman in a wheelchair enter the room. A stethoscope around his neck and the clipboard in his hand identified him as a doctor.
His eyes resting first on Mother Minnie, then Esteban and Joanne, and finally the newly arrived Annie Hartung, Lundy proclaimed, "We're his family, the only ones he's got in Houston."
"I'm Dr. Claymore, I was one of the surgeons involved in Mr. LaFiamma's operation."
Afraid to hear the answer, Lundy asked, "How is he?"
"He's listed in critical condition," the doctor admitted. Lifting the glasses off his eyes, he studied the notes attached to the clipboard as he clarified, "We had to remove part of his left lung, and replace a damaged section of the left coronary artery. We've done what we can; the rest is up to Mr. LaFiamma."
Putting an arm around Lundy's waist, Mother Minnie prompted, "Is there anything we can do?"
"Go home, get some rest, and try to enjoy the holiday," urged Claymore. Turning away he was partially out the door when he called back a distracted, "Merry Christmas."
* * * *
Lundy paced the small living room. As soon as they had gotten home, he had insisted that his grandmother get some sleep. After settling her in the spare bedroom, he had gone to feed Fooler, his horse. When he had returned to the house, he had had every intention of getting a few hours shuteye himself, but he had been unable to clear his mind of distractions. So, instead of some much needed rest, he was wearing a hole in his carpet.
Realizing that what he was doing was a waste of energy, he took pen and paper in hand and wrote a note explaining where he had gone. Placing it on the kitchen table where his grandmother would see it, he quietly left the house. With only his own morbid thoughts for company, he drove faster than normal through the deserted streets of Houston.
Reisner was unusually quiet, even for a holiday. Two uniformed officers exited the Major Crimes Unit leading a hooker wearing a skintight brown bodysuit with a headband that looked like reindeer antlers. Her Christmas spirit obviously didn't extend to the men holding her arms. The obscenities she was screaming at the top of her lungs made even Lundy cringe.
Entering the almost empty room, Lundy's heart twisted painfully as his eyes rested on his partner's vacant chair. Averting his gaze, he took a deep breath before continuing on to his own desk. The only other occupant of the room was Estaban Gutierrez. The Mexican sat staring at his paperwork with unseeing eyes.
An unfamiliar folder lay on the top of Lundy's blotter. Knowing he had cleared his desk before leaving for Lombard, he was confident the file would be a detailed report of the shooting. Opening the folder, he studied the papers with a detachment that had nothing to do with police training. The disassociation was for his own emotional stability. Without it, he couldn't function effectively - and he was determined to see that this case wasn't thrown out of court due to unlawful procedures.
"He's going to get off, you know. LaFiamma may die, but he won't spend one day in jail," a lightly accented voice announced.
Lundy turned disbelieving eyes on the Mexican cop. "Who?"
"James John Peterson." Estaban continued to stare at the papers strewn across his desk.
"He shot a cop!" Lundy rose to his feet and crossed to the Mexican's side. "In some states, that's an automatic death penalty."
Esteban lifted his bloodshot eyes until they rested on the taller man's face. "Peterson didn't know we were cops. We never got a chance to tell him."
"That shouldn't make any difference," Lundy angrily denounced.
"It will," insisted an unhappy Esteban. "He'll say he was defending his property. There's a law that gives a homeowner that right."
Lundy shook his head in disbelief. "You and LaFiamma were approaching his house by the front sidewalk. You weren't in back trying to jimmy open a window."
"Apparently the way the law is written there is no distinction," Esteban explained, dropping his head in his hands.
"This is crazy! LaFiamma could die and Peterson'll end up with a slap on the hand," cried Lundy. Taking his anger out in action, he swept his arm across his desk. Papers that had been neatly stacked went flying, followed by a dictionary, a stapler, and a coffee mug. Slivers of ceramic glass flew around the room.
"It's a helluva a job we got, amigo."
* * * *
Dust floated up from under his feet coating the green grass. It had been an unusually dry winter. At the top of a low ridge, Lundy gazed across the field. Row upon row of headstones cast a gloom upon the land - and on his heart.
He had made his peace with Caroline months before, after he had finally put the man responsible for her death behind bars. He still mourned her, but he would learn to live and love again. LaFiamma had shown him the way. Would he get lost again without the Chicagoan's support?
Glancing around, Lundy wasn't surprised to see that the cemetery was practically deserted. Christmas was a time of hope and gladness. The pain of a loved ones absence was already difficult to endure. There was no reason to amplify it by visiting the grave, today of all days.
Caroline's headstone was small in comparison to those around it, but it had an elegance that Lundy knew his wife would appreciate. Even living in the city, she had kept her small town ideals. Lundy crossed his legs and dropped to the ground facing the engraved letters that substantiated the young woman's existence.
"It ain't fair, Caroline. Just when I think it's all right to start feeling again, someone pulls the rug out from under me."
A single tear crept down the tanned cheek. "That boy can be right annoyin', but he makes me feel alive. Somethin' I ain't felt since you left me. He don't deserve to die, not this way. Not at the hands of the public he was trying to serve."
* * * *
A cold glass of lemonade in her hand, Minnie walked out onto the porch, her ears straining for the first sound of her grandson's return. She knew he was hurting. In an attempt to spare her his pain, he had built a wall she couldn't hope to scale. It was already almost as high as the one he had constructed after Caroline's death.
Minnie had been in remission for almost a year until recently when the cancer that was eating away the cells of her stomach had returned. She was grateful for the year she wasn't expected to have. It had given her time to get to know the boy who had given her back her Little Levon.
When she had first been told she was going to die, she had not been scared for herself, but rather for her grandson. Could he bear the loss of another loved one? Then she met Joseph Anthony LaFiamma and she was no longer frightened. He had a heart that wasn't afraid to feel and he was strong enough to support them all, yet, sensitive enough to know when his strength was no longer needed - or wanted.
The roar of a car engine echoed through the late afternoon air. Putting her lemonade on the porch railing, Minnie hurried down the stairs. Ignoring the dust swirling around her, she crossed to the driver's side of the stationary vehicle.
Guilt etched on his tired face, Lundy turned off the ignition and threw open his door. "I'm sorry, Mother Minnie, I was gone longer than I said I would be."
"That nice young officer, Estaban Gut . . ." Minnie paused as she tried to remember the last name.
"Gutierrez," Lundy impatiently supplied. "What'd he have to say?"
Putting her hands on the tense shoulders, Minnie gently explained, "The hospital has upgraded Joey from critical to stable. He's going to be all right, Little Levon."
Crushed against Lundy's chest, Minnie felt tears of joy wash her face, but she wasn't sure if they were her own or her grandson's. The heart beneath her hand beat with a satisfying steadiness.
* * * *
For the first time since the shooting, Lundy found himself alone with his partner. Though still pale, the familiar face before him glowed with life. Moving a chair closer to the bed, Lundy turned it so he could straddle the seat. "You scared the hell out of me, boy."
"It hasn't been a lot of fun for me either, Lundy," LaFiamma indignantly protested. "Especially if Peterson gets off without any jail time."
Laying his arms across the top of the chair, Lundy noted, "The DA has finally decided to prosecute, but she doesn't hold out much hope for a conviction."
"I know the Bill of Rights gives a citizen the right to bear arms," LaFiamma observed, trying to scratch an itch caused by the healing wound. "But I don't think this was what our Forefathers had in mind."
His gaze resting significantly on his partner, Lundy pointed out, "Some people think we're still living in the Wild West."
"You mean we're not?" An ingenuous smile lit LaFiamma's pale features.
Laying his head on his hands, Lundy allowed himself to relax. It was the first time he had done so since Christmas Eve. The memory of what had happened that night released a frustrated anger he hadn't realized he had buried so deep. "You know, LaFiamma, all this could've been avoided if you'd have come to Lombard with me."
"Now, I wish I had," the Chicagoan ruefully admitted. "But I knew this would be your last Christmas with Minnie. I wanted you to enjoy it."
"You didn't think we could do that with you there?" Lundy crossly demanded, raising his head off his hands.
Embarrassed, LaFiamma defended himself, "I thought I'd be in the way."
"If we thought you'd be in the way, we'd never have invited you," snapped Lundy, rising to his feet. "Of all the stupid ideas LaFiamma, this takes the cake."
Before the injured man could protest his innocence, Lundy continued, "I'm tellin' you right now, the day the doctors give the okay, you're comin' to Lombard. Then we'll have the Christmas we missed."
"I'd like that," LaFiamma sheepishly admitted.
His head bowed as if in prayer, Lundy whispered, "So would I, partner, so would I."