And Who Shall I Blame…?
"Morning, Levon, where's LaFiamma? You look like a horse without a saddle."
Lundy grimaced at Annie's analogy, but responded pleasantly, "A friend of his from Chicago flew in last night for a visit, so LaFiamma took the day off to be with him."
"Well, it's about time. Since he can't go to them, you'd think more of his friends would come to see him. Houston isn't that far from Chicago."
"They're probably glad to be rid of him."
"Now, Levon," Annie protested indignantly, "you don't mean that."
"Maybe not right now, he isn't here, but there are times when I do."
Lt. Joanne Beaumont pushed through the swinging doors into the squad room, her eyes focused on the sheet of paper in her hand. Glancing up, she asked, "Levon, where's LaFiamma?"
"That seems to be the question of the day," said Lundy, beginning to feel like a non entity. "You gave him the day off."
"Oh, that's right. Wouldn't you know, the one time I could use some of that Chicago know-how of his."
"What's up, Lieutenant?"
"We just got word from the Chicago Police Department that a man suspected of killing his wife, child, and parents may have caught a plane to Houston."
"I wish Chicago would stop dumping their problems on our door¬step."
Ignoring Lundy's facetious remark, Annie asked, "What makes Chicago think he's in Houston?"
"They found an airline receipt in the car he left at O'Hare's parking lot."
"Does the guy have any relatives in the area?"
"Not as far as we know," said Joanne, shaking her head. "Lundy, I want you to see what you can find out. Did he rent a car at the airport? Does he have hotel reservations? You know the routine."
Picking up a pen, Lundy wrote a few quick notes to himself before asking, "What's the name?"
Lundy dropped his pen; it clattered to the floor. "I know exactly where Vilette is."
"What?!" The lieutenant looked at him in surprise.
"That's the name of the friend LaFiamma took the time off for."
"Well, where are they?"
"I'm not in the habit of asking my partner for an itinerary of his days off."
Not hiding her exasperation, Joanne snapped, "Then where do you think they might be?"
"Considering what a night owl LaFiamma is, I'd say he's still in bed."
"Then what are we waiting for, let's go."
Lundy didn't wait to see the squad room clear out behind him. It appeared that LaFiamma was playing host to a killer and Lundy knew where he belonged at his partner's side.
# # # #
"You see much of Michael and Angela, Tony?" While he stirred the eggs for the omelet he was making, LaFiamma waited eagerly for a reply to his question. Though he freely admitted Houston was now his home, he still missed his family and friends in Chicago. He had known Tony and his wife, Maria, and Michael and Angela his entire life. He and Michael had been in the same nursery at the same time. These were relationships that were not easy to forget.
"To tell you the truth, Joey, I don't see much of 'em anymore. I guess you were the glue that held our little group together. Things haven't been the same since you left."
LaFiamma wasn't sure what to say. Their mothers had been best friends, so it was expected that he and Tony would also become friends. In their infancy through grade school, they had been inseparable. But, when they entered junior high, LaFiamma had sudden¬ly found he was popular, and as the two boys grew older, his interests had diversified. Contrarily, until his marriage, Tony had allowed only one person into his solitary world. Often he chose to stay home if his friend could not accompany him. Even at an early age, LaFiamma had not felt comfortable with this situation. No matter how hard he had tried, he had been unable to expand Tony's horizons. Since the Italian cop's exile, it appeared Tony had crawled deeper into his shell.
Spooning the finished eggs into a frying pan, LaFiamma searched for something to say to break the uncomfortable silence. "How about Maria and Gina? I haven't gotten a letter from Maria in over a month."
"Maria hasn't changed and Gina keeps asking when her godfather's going to come play with her."
Again, LaFiamma felt out of his depth. This visit was not pro¬gressing as he had hoped. When Tony had called to say he was coming down, Joey had eagerly anticipated the visit. Last night, they had gone bar hopping and it felt like old times. But this morning, everything seemed to be falling apart.
A sudden loud pounding at the door made both men jump. "LaFiam¬ma, you in there, boy?"
The familiar voice and demand made LaFiamma smile. "It looks like you're going to meet my partner earlier that I thought, Tony."
As LaFiamma started walking to the door, Tony pulled a gun. "That's far enough, Joey."
"What the hell are you doing, Tony?"
Before Tony could reply, the same loud pounding repeated, "Answer me, boy."
"Hold your horses, Lundy. I'll be right there."
"You won't, you know," Tony calmly stated. "You tell your partner to back away or you're dead. I think he'll believe you."
He was still confused, but LaFiamma recognized the look in his friend's eyes. It was a look he saw far too often in his profession. "Back off, Lundy, Tony's got a gun on me."
"I won't be far away."
LaFiamma didn't need to see Lundy to know what course his next actions would take. With all hostage situations, nearby buildings would be evacuated and the SWAT team called in. In his mind, Joe could see the cars circling the building, protection for the cops stationed there, guns drawn and eyes focused on one target. It felt very strange being the object of that concern.
# # # #
LaFiamma couldn't remember when he had felt more uncomfortable. Tony had handcuffed him hanging from his balcony railing with the detective's feet dangling a foot below the deck. He had long ago lost all feeling in his hands and arms. While the blood had not run out of his legs, they had been unused for so long, he knew they would be next to useless if a chance to escape ever presented itself. His face itched from a two-day growth of beard; he was hun¬gry, thirsty, and his pants were wet. Lundy had said he wouldn't be far away. To LaFiamma's bleary eyed stare, the door and the salvation waiting behind it seemed to be receding to an impossible distance.
"Tony, don't forget we're willing to talk any time you want."
The southern drawl amplified by the bullhorn was familiar to LaFiamma. The doctor had been a great deal of help to him when a serial killer had tried to assume his identity. LaFiamma desperately hoped the man's expertise would help him again.
"Since you won't talk to me, Tony, why don't you talk to the Doc? He helped me once, maybe he can help you." LaFiamma was alarmed to discover that it was becoming more difficult to talk. Lack of water and almost continual talking these past two days he knew were to blame. After Tony had torn the phone out, their only contact with the outside world, LaFiamma had been forced to act as an amateur psychia¬trist. A role he knew he was far from qualified to perform.
"I told you to shut up, Joey."
"Or what?" snapped LaFiamma in an uncaring anger. "You'll shoot me? Well, then damn it, do it, and let's end this bullshit."
"You don't think I can do it, do you Joey? Poor, wimpy, Tony can't do anything without Joseph LaFiamma."
"That was what you wanted, not me, pal."
"I didn't need your pity then and I don't need it now."
"I'm hurt, I'm angry, and I'm scared, but I do not feel any pity," the detective returned.
"It's all your fault, you know."
"What's my fault?" asked a puzzled LaFiamma.
"Everything! You should have been my friend."
Happy he was finally getting Tony to communicate with him, Joe pointed out, "I was your friend."
"Then why did you leave?"
LaFiamma nervously watched Tony pace a short distance in front of him. "You know why I left. I had no choice; it was stay and die, or leave and live."
"You chose to live, but in the process you killed Maria and Gina."
"What are you talking about? Maria and Gina are your wife and daughter, how could my leaving kill them?"
"Don't you say that! Don't you dare say that! You know I married damaged goods."
Hoping to calm the increasingly agitated man, LaFiamma soothed, "Tony, why don't you let me down, then we can sit and discuss this in detail. We'll even call Maria if you'd like."
"That's a laugh; you always were a funny guy, Joey."
"Whaddya mean?" asked LaFiamma suspiciously.
"I mean," Tony sneered, "that you nor anyone else will every talk to Maria again."
LaFiamma had been a cop long enough to know what Tony wasn't saying in his explanation. "You killed Maria," he whispered in stunned realization.
"Give the man a kewpie doll. Everyone was always saying Joseph LaFiamma would go places someday."
"I don't think they had Houston in mind when they said that," said LaFiamma, fighting his own anger and despair, emotions he knew he could not let his friend detect or they would both be dead.
"You're a regular comedian, Joey. But if you notice, I ain't laugh¬ing, and neither will Maria or Gina or my mother or my father ever again."
Even though there was nothing in his stomach, LaFiamma felt like he was going to throw up. "Gina was your daughter, Tony. She was only four years old. What could she have done to make you kill her?"
"As if you didn't know. She wasn't my daughter, she was yours."
"That's not possible . . ."
"Don't lie to me, Joey. Maria told me everything. When I mar¬ried her, I knew you wanted her, that was why I had to have her. I had to have something you wanted."
"Maria was never my girl, Tony. We were friends, that's all."
Seeming not to hear, Tony continued his unrelenting pacing. "I wondered why we eloped and three weeks ago, I found out why. Maria missed you so much, that's when I knew. Gina isn't my daughter, she's yours."
"Is that what Maria told you?"
"She didn't have to; she told me I wasn't the father so I knew you had to be."
"I'm telling you, Tony, it wasn't me."
"I never thought I'd hear the great Joseph LaFiamma lie to save his life. Now who's the one to be pitied?"
Realizing there was no way he could make the man he used to call a friend listen, LaFiamma snapped, "I would've been proud if Gina had been my daughter. But it's just not possible. I never slept with Maria. We were friends; that's all."
"I don't believe you."
"I know," said LaFiamma, "and you never will. So, why the hell don't you end this charade now?"
# # # #
The directional speaker they had set up was easily picking up the conversation inside the apartment. While it explained a number of things, it didn't offer a solution to the immediate problem--ending the hostage situation.
Lundy held his breath as silence filled the small van. The echo of a gun firing was the next sound he expected to hear. He could understand his partner's frustration and desire to have this over with one way or another, but LaFiamma's lack of patience was making him angry. "Dammit, boy, keep him talking. You know that's the only way you're going to get out of there alive."
"What do you think, Doc?" Lt. Beaumont turned to the psychia¬trist. "Should we go in?"
"You're dealing with a man who has a high persecution complex. He's blaming his own inadequacies on the people who tried to help him the most. But, he also appears to have a certain capacity for self-preservation. That is the one thing that has kept LaFiamma alive. Vilette knows if he kills Joey, he'll die as well."
Lundy slammed his fist against the side of the van. "We know all that, Doc. That doesn't answer the lieutenant's question."
"The man hasn't had any sleep in two days. I think he no longer cares what happens to him."
"So you think he's about to shoot LaFiamma?" snapped Lundy, an¬noyed by what he saw as technical double talk.
"There are no absolutes when you're dealing with a disturbed per¬sonality."
"Do you think he's about to shoot my partner?" Lundy reiterated.
"I'll take the door, Lieutenant," shouted Lundy, already on his way out of the van. "Give me five minutes to get in position."
Knowing Lundy's fierce loyalty, Joanne ordered, "Don't take any unnecessary chances, Levon."
His gun already pulled, Lundy joined two SWAT officers outside the only door leading to LaFiamma's apartment. He knew there were men in position outside the front window and the upstairs window. For him, the five minutes felt like five hours.
# # # #
LaFiamma knew he was a good cop. It was a job that necessi¬tated not only training and skill, but also instinct. An ability that can't be learned or taught. Instinct had made him a detective while most of his contemporaries were still partnered with experienced offi¬cers. It had also saved his life more times than he cared to count. He knew Tony was on the edge, and he knew Lundy and Beaumont realized it as well. If he didn't do something, quick, it wouldn't matter any longer how good his instincts were they couldn't stop a bullet.
"Come on Tony, you're my friend, man. I don't want to see you hurt. Give it up."
"Your friend!" laughed Tony. "That's funny; you've got a helluva way of treating friends, Joey. I don't think your definition of the word and mine are the same."
Wondering if he really had treated his friend so badly, LaFiamma sighed. "I'm sorry, Tony, you're probably right. In fact, I have a partner who would most likely agree with you. But don't kill your¬self because I don't know how to be a friend. I'm not worth it, man."
"What difference does it make?" asked Vilette, rubbing his bloodshot eyes with one hand and waving the gun around the room with the other. "They'll kill me anyway for killing Maria, Gina, and my par¬ents."
"You don't know that." LaFiamma was finding it increasingly more difficult to think straight. He had long ago moved from mere discom¬fort to actual physical pain. It took a great deal of effort to concentrate on his friend's needs. "I know from experience a good lawyer can work wonders."
His face becoming expressionless, Tony said, "Wonder boy, that's what Mama used to call you."
"That's because I used to eat all your bread." LaFiamma smiled reminiscently.
"No," Vilette disagreed, "it was because she thought you were wonderful. She kept asking me why I couldn't be more like you."
Aching from the pain he heard in the raspy voice, LaFiamma said, "Tony--"
"Why I didn't laugh as much as you?" continued Vilette, seeming not to hear the apology in his friend's voice.
"Why I didn't have as many friends as you? I couldn't live up to the wonder boy."
Closing his eyes, LaFiamma let his head drop to his chest. "I'm sorry, I didn't know."
"She probably thought I wouldn't die as well as you, either." Raising he gun, Vilette finished, "Goodbye, Joey."
Expecting the next sound he heard to be a gunshot, LaFiamma's head came up sharply at the sudden crash of splintering wood. He wasn't surprised to see Lundy come through the door first. But never in the entire two day ordeal had he felt such fear as when he saw Tony's gun aimed at his partner. "Tony, no!"
The cry was enough to throw off Tony's aim so that the shot went slightly wide into a nearby lamp. Covered in broken glass, Lundy fired at the same time as the SWAT officer who had followed him in.
Sinking to his knees, Vilette let the gun fall from nerveless fingers. Turning vacant eyes to his friend, he spoke through the blood pooling in his mouth. "You always win, Joey."
As he watched his childhood friend fall forward, LaFiamma shook his head, "Not always, Tony . . . I just lost a big one."
# # # #
Lundy put the stack of folders he was carrying on the desk in front of his superior. "There, my paperwork is up to date. Have a good weekend, Joanne."
"Levon, wait." Rising from her chair, Beaumont crossed her office and closed the door. "How's LaFiamma doing?"
Wondering why they needed privacy to discuss his partner's health, Lundy cheerfully explained, "The doctors are real happy with his progress. He's almost got full use of his arms back and they've taken him off the IV. If he keeps improving he'll get to go home on Monday."
"I know he's doing fine, physically, what about mentally?"
"You know LaFiamma, Lieutenant, he feels things. He's almost too loyal for his own good. He'll snap out of it."
Crossing to her desk, Joanne pulled open the top drawer. Taking out a small cassette tape player she put it on the desk in front of Lundy. "Levon, after you left the van, LaFiamma tried talking to Vilette again. There were a few things said that I think you should hear. I'm not so sure LaFiamma's going to 'snap out' of this one. Not without a little help. And, in my opinion, there is only one person in Houston who can give him that help."
"Yes, ma'am," said Lundy, reluctantly picking up the cassette player.
"I know you two have had your differences, Levon. But," Joanne pointed out, "LaFiamma's a good cop. I want him back."
Without a word, Lundy walked out of the office. His state of mind was such that he barely noticed the other members of the squad rushing past him. Some on their way home, others working diligently on a case. Finally reaching the sanctuary of his truck's cab, he allowed himself to relax and let the pain he felt show on his face. He had noticed the changes in LaFiamma, but had chosen to ignore them. He had been acting like a child, hoping if he pretended they weren't there, they would go away. It wasn't because he didn't care; it was because he didn't know how to help his partner.
Reluctantly, he punched the play button on the recorder. As he listened to the short conversation, he allowed his head to rest against the steering wheel. All sound had long since ceased before he finally reached over and hit the stop button. Rewinding the tape, he played it again before resolutely putting the key in the ignition and starting the truck.
This episode almost on top of their own recent disagreement over LaFiamma's fraudulent appropriation of two thousand of Lundy's hard-earned dollars was what was affecting his partner. Lundy almost smiled as he backed the truck out of its parking spot. He didn't know all the answers, but, at least now, he had a place to start looking.
# # # #
Forcing himself to appear more cheerful than he actually felt, Lundy determinedly entered his partner's hospital room. "Afternoon, LaFiamma, they give you the good news yet? All being well, you'll be going home Monday."
"Yeah." LaFiamma nodded, showing no emotion. "They told me."
"Well how about a little more enthusiasm here, boy. That kinda news usually calls for at least a yipee."
"Yipee," said LaFiamma flatly.
Realizing this was going to be a little harder than he had origi¬nally thought, Lundy asked, "When's your date with that pretty little blonde nurse I saw in here yesterday?"
"You mean you haven't asked her out yet? I don't believe it. You are sick, maybe I better tell the doctors they should keep you a mite longer."
"Get off my case, Lundy."
"You ain't seen nuthin yet, boy."
"What's that supposed to mean?" demanded LaFiamma, showing the first real signs of emotion since his ordeal.
"It means, partner, that before I leave this room, one Joseph LaFiamma is going to be playing a different tune."
Turning his head away, LaFiamma ordered, "Go home and shovel shit, or whatever it is you do with it."
"I'd rather do it here."
"I'd rather you didn't, and it's my room."
"But I'm the healthy one." Lundy smiled.
"What do you want from me?" LaFiamma snapped. "An apology, an explanation, what?"
"All I want is my partner. That may be hard to believe, but it's true."
"Your partner makes a lousy friend," said LaFiamma sadly. "I'm not sure I'd trust him if I were you."
"That's one opinion, it doesn't happen to be mine, though."
To emphasize his argument, LaFiamma faced Lundy, "What about the time I borrowed that two thousand dollars and invested it in the stock market without your permission?"
"We settled that, remember?"
"But it shows what a bad risk I am."
"Who you trying to convince here, LaFiamma, yourself or me?"
Looking close to tears, LaFiamma shook his head. "They're all dead because of me."
"Damn you, LaFiamma, you're not your brother's keeper. What those people did, they did to themselves. You were just an innocent by¬stander."
"The only truly innocent person in all this was Gina. Lundy, she was only four!"
Levon could hear the pain in his partner's voice. "I know, man, it's not right that she had to die because her parents and grandpar¬ents couldn't admit their failures."
"I swear to you, Lundy, Gina wasn't my daughter. I wouldn't have minded if she were, but it's not possible. Maria and I never slept together, we were just . . ."
Lundy finished as LaFiamma hesitated, "You were just friends. You can say it, partner, it's not a dirty word."
"It is to me." Closing his eyes, LaFiamma let his head fall back against his pillow. "I don't know what to do."
"You might try forgiving yourself," Lundy suggested.
"That's easier said than done."
"It's also only the first step."
"What's the second?"
"You go see the doc. You may not believe this coming from me, but you're not as bad as you think you are."
"You're right." For the first time in days, LaFiamma smiled. "I don't believe it."
Finally feeling like he had made some progress, Lundy said, "Here's something else you're not going to believe. Your landlord and the other tenants in your building weren't too happy about being homeless for two days--"
"Don't tell me, Lundy," LaFiamma interrupted.
"What don't you want to hear? That your landlord broke your lease or that your stuff is sitting in my barn?"
LaFiamma sat up in his bed. "Your barn?!"
"Well, I gotta go feed the animals. See ya tomorrow, LaFiamma." Smiling, Lundy crossed to the door, his partner's anguished voice following him.
"Lundy, you come back here. So help me if you're telling the truth, you'll be sorry they ever made you my partner."
As the door closed slowly behind him, only partially muffling the demand of his partner, Lundy whispered, "That's something else you wouldn't believe, LaFiamma, I'm not sorry."