“Dead By Christmas” by David Corbett

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When his son dies and his wife leaves him, Boghossian immerses himself in solving robberies. He avoids the pain of his personal life by dedicating every ounce of energy to the case of a serial robber. When he discovers the truth about their suspect, however, Boghossian must face the reality of his own turmoil after all.

About the Author
David Corbett, a contributing editor for Writer’s Digest, is the author of five novels (including 2015’s The Mercy of the Night), the story collection Thirteen Confessions, and the writing guide The Art of Character. Patrick Anderson (Washington Post) described Done for a Dime as “one of the three or four best American crime novels I’ve ever read.” George Pelecanos remarked, “Corbett, like Robert Stone and Graham Greene before him, is crafting important, immensely thrilling books.”
Dead By Christmas

I’ll tell you what ruined my marriage, and it wasn’t gambling or drink or chasing skirt. Our son, Donny, was walking home from a friend’s house when a LeSabre blew the stop sign, ran the poor kid down in the street and dragged him twenty yards, then fled the scene.

Seven years old, Donny was. And he fought, or his body fought, half the night, until the ER surgeon came out to talk with Barb and me with that look on his face.

All I remember of the next two weeks is I went on a mission—horning my way into the loop as every department in the valley tracked down the driver, even tagging along when the arrest came down in Apache Junction.

They put two men on me, to make sure I didn’t take my shot as they dragged the guy out. His name was Phil Packer, an insurance adjustor with a DWI sheet ten years long, bench warrants in four counties—he’d been hiding in his girlfriend’s trailer.

After that, every time Packer shuffled into court from lockup for a hearing, I was right there, front row, maddogging him and his wash’n’wear lawyer. None of which made a difference, of course, nor was it anything close to what Barb or our baby girl needed from me. That wasn’t part of the mission.

My wife called me out on all that one night—it was late, she’d had a few, her face streaked with mascara from sitting in the dark with a bottomless cocktail and her son’s ghost. Melodie, the baby, lay asleep in her room. I’d been out in the car, driving around, something I did a lot.

Seeing me there, Barb stood up and tottered closer, into the light. Her eyes were puffy and raw.

“I’m sorry. Do I know you?” She had that tone.

I said, “I had to finish up some work.”

“No. I called. You left hours ago.”

“A CI called, he wanted to meet.” A ready lie. “They didn’t tell you?”

She laughed acidly, inches from my face now. “You’re such a coward.”

Looking back, I think of the things I might’ve done, might’ve said, but all I could come up with in the moment was, “How many have you had?”

“Not nearly enough.” She shoved the glass into my hand, a dare. “You know, Nick, disappearing isn’t the same as dying.”

I remember feeling cold all over. “You’re not talking sense.”

“You’re jealous of Donny.” Her eyes, glistening in the light, turned hard. “Somehow you think staying away is going to make me miss you. The way I miss him. Christ. Are you honestly that pathetic?”

Some scientist should measure the speed at which shame turns into hate. I’ll never forget that sound, never forget the feel of the glass shattering in my hand or the sight of her crumbling in front of me, no matter how much I try. There’s some things “sorry” won’t cure, no matter how many times you say the word, or even how much you mean it.

It’s said that only one in five marriages survives the death of a child, and maybe I should take comfort in the numbers. Regardless, it was my divorce that turned me into a workhorse, not the other way around.

* * * * *

I rotated in to robbery a short while after that, great place to get lost, the numbing paperwork, sixteen-hour days if you want them. There were four of us from different departments—Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale, Mesa—meeting once a week to share intel.

We’d had twenty restaurant takedowns around the valley the previous six months, all the same guy. He came in at closing, when the back door was propped open by the kitchen crew—that’s when they dragged the rubber mats out to the parking lot for the nightly hose-down. Meanwhile, inside, the money was getting counted and bagged for deposit.

The robber wore dark coveralls, gloves, a ski mask, and he always slipped in and out within minutes, which meant he knew the business. Brandishing a snubnose, he’d prone out the manager, tie him up with plastic cuffs, the kind they use for riot control, then snatch the night deposit.

Right before leaving, he’d grab the manager’s wallet, dig out the driver’s license. “You’re gonna say some wetback did this,” he’d whisper. “I know your name. I know where you live.” Even after we found out the guy was white, we still had vics swearing to our faces he was Mexican.

Finally, luck stepped in, as it does more times than most cops care to admit.

Two cars responded to a domestic here in Tempe—how’s that for poetic? One cop grabbed the husband, the other took the wife, separated them, different rooms. The wife—eye swollen shut, cracked lip—she bawls to the cop there with her, “You know all the restaurant jobs around here the past few months? That asshole in the next room, he’s the one you’re after.”

The woman wouldn’t swear out a statement, though, so the uniform tracks me down in robbery at the end of his shift, to give me a verbal. I’m Tempe’s case agent on the restaurant spree. You can imagine, he lays out the scenario, I’m cringing a little. Some guy tuning up his wife. Everybody on the force knew my business. Even so, I should’ve been thrilled, right? Finally, a suspect.

The guy was Mike Gallardi, his wife’s name was Rhonda. Together, they ran a hole-in-the-wall called Mike’s Place out on Baseline Road in South Phoenix. You could get a coronary just reading the menu but the place was clean, with a small counter and maybe a half dozen booths.

Here’s the thing: They catered to cops. You walked in, one whole wall was dedicated to fallen officers. Flash a badge, your kids got free sodas with their meals. Come in on duty and no one’s around? Boom, wink, you ate free.

I’d been at their place just once, a couple years before, taken there by a buddy of mine in the vice unit. Rhonda worked the register and counter, a shy, chesty, bleached-out woman in her thirties. Mike was the talker and he came out from behind the grill to toady up, all shucks and gee-whiz.

How to say this—I don’t trust people who backslap cops. They always want something. Not that I made much headway on that point when I broke my news to the robbery roundtable.

“No way Mike’s the suspect.” This from Cavanaugh, the detective from Phoenix. “I can name fifty guys right now, this minute, who’ll vouch for him.”

“His own old lady handed him up.”

“After he batted her around, yeah. Even then, she wouldn’t dec up. Go back, now that she’s cooled off even more, I’ll bet she admits the whole thing’s crap.”

He had a point, of course, domestics being what they are. But something about the way he said it clued me in to what he really meant: What would your wife spill about you, Boghossian, if we gave her half a chance?

* * * * *

Thankfully, the four commanders overseeing the roundtable agreed with me and ordered surveillance. The teams worked in rotation, each department on for three days then making way for the next detail.

Mike was smart, though. He made our guys early and burned them in heat runs, crazy Ivans, every kind of stunt you can imagine to flush them out.

Once he just stopped in traffic, walked back to the unmarked car and said, “Why are you following me? I haven’t done anything.”

I could just picture him, over one of those free burgers or shrimp baskets he doled out, pumping guys for information on tail jobs: C’mon, tell me, I’m just so doggone curious. And cops—hated by damn near everybody, grateful for anyone who gives a rat’s ass—they couldn’t tell him their stories fast enough.

It got to me, sure. We were the ones who’d trained this guy—inadvertently, granted, but he was smarter than he should’ve been because of us. He was pulling out our wallets, whispering our names and addresses. And yeah, like everybody else he’d chumped, I felt ashamed.

Meanwhile, Mike adapted, lying low for a month, wise to how we’d think. And sure enough, the surveillance sergeants pulled the plug, they needed the bodies. Not a week later, Mike hit his next restaurant, and this time he upped the ante.

It happened out in Mesa. The manager saw Mike coming, locked himself in the office, dialed 911. Mike fired through the door—his first use of actual violence, not just threats. The manager, terrified, let him in.

Mike went for the man’s ID first thing, recited the usual, then dug further through his wallet and found pictures.

“Two little girls. You love ’em?”

The rest went fast, Mike barking orders. He was long gone before the responding units arrived. And the manager, he wouldn’t say word one till his wife confirmed by phone there was a squad car stationed outside their house. The next day, no notice, he moved his whole family to Denver. Even left the furniture behind.

“I still don’t buy Mike’s our man,” Cavanaugh said at our next get-together. “But I agree renewing surveillance makes sense—nab him or move on, quicker the better.”

The commanders chimed in, each department adding bodies, with new directions to lie back. They were sick of taking the burns.

Two weeks later, I got a call from surveillance. “Boghossian, get this. Gallardi and his wife locked up their place as usual but didn’t head home. They checked into a hotel on the frontage road along I-10.”

I knew the strip, we all did: a line of restaurants flanked that part of the freeway.

As I drove on over I thought about Rhonda’s tagging along. It surprised me, I’ll be honest. Maybe Cavanaugh had been right—I should’ve gone up to her early, asked her to confirm what she’d said that night Mike trashed her. And even though I knew that would’ve tipped our hand, now she wasn’t just keeping mum, she was joining in. I felt responsible, like there’d been a point in time when I could have saved her. No surprise, I felt like that a lot back then.

I met the team at the hotel and, sure enough, after eleven, Mike came out of the room in dark coveralls, a daypack around his waist. He walked down a side street to the parking lot of an Applebee’s, then hunkered down in a patch of oleander to watch the kitchen crew do its thing. The radios started to buzz—we had our man, no more doubts. After a half hour, Mike eased out of the bushes, retraced his steps and slipped back into his and Rhonda’s hotel room.

The next day, when I called the robbery roundtable together to report, Cavanaugh went from looking like he’d lost his dog to acting like he meant to kill somebody.

“Okay,” he said, “I’m in. If Mike Gallardi’s our guy he’ll get no favors from me.”

I volunteered for surveillance at Applebee’s, even though it meant staying alert for hours on end with the windows rolled up in hundred degree heat, drinking warm Coke and pissing it all back into the empty cup.

At nine, our eyes at Mike’s Place reported that Rhonda had left, heading toward home. An hour later, Mike locked up and followed suit. A collective moan went out over the radio. He’d called it off.

Then, not long after, we heard that Mike and Rhonda were on the move again, leaving the house together. They were on their way toward us.

The voices on the radio perked back up—this was the night, we could feel it. And we knew we’d have to watch the whole thing play out, let him go in, rob the place, or it’d come apart in court. But what if he sniffed us out? What if he took a hostage?

Rhonda drove down one of the side streets and parked, then Mike hopped out, headed for the parking lot. I slouched in my seat, a drunk snoring off a bender. Through slit eyelids I watched him saunter toward the back of Applebee’s, and for an instant he looked straight at me. It was dark, some serious distance separated us. Even so, I sat stock still, wondering if I’d been made.

He turned away and ducked inside the concrete dumpster enclosure. Two other men with eyes on the door reported they had visual, and we had a man out front, too, in case Mike tried to run that way. Surveillance units got in position to take down Rhonda when the time came.

At half past eleven, the kitchen crew trooped out, propped the back door open and dragged out their slimy black mats, sudsing them up, hosing them down.

I kept up my ruse, dripping with sweat but not moving, sipping air through the window crack. Mike stayed put, too, even after the kitchen crew vanished again, leaving the door open as they mopped the floors. After midnight they humped on out again, collected their mats and dragged them back inside.

A whisper crackled on the radio, “What’s he waiting for?”

Another whisper snapped back, “Off the air.”

We were all raw from the heat, testy from sitting still so long.

Over the next hour, the employees came out in ones or twos, lingering for a smoke before driving away. Finally, the manager trudged out, locked up, not carrying a deposit bag—he’d left it in the safe—then got in his car and left.

Mike waited another fifteen minutes before sliding out of the dumpster enclosure. Hands in his pockets, he meandered across the parking lot, shooting one last glance my direction. Minutes later, surveillance confirmed that he and Rhonda were headed back home.

We waited in place another two hours. Mike might come back, I thought, try to burglarize the place, clip the trunk line on the alarm, pop the safe. Finally, I called in to Rooney, the graveyard sergeant, to report. “I want everybody to stay put, Roon. The money’s all there, he’s coming back in the morning when they open up.”

“I’m calling it off,” Rooney said. “Your guys have been stuck in their cars for six hours. It’s still what, ninety-five degrees outside? Besides, from the sound of it, you got made.”

“The sound of what? You’re not sitting here.”

“I need a team to report to the rail yards. Call just came in. Somebody made off with two dozen cases of Heineken.”

I almost spit. “You’re pulling my guys off because a pack of kids rifled a boxcar?”

“We’ve got a squeaky victim.”

“Meaning who?”

“Meaning the Westbrook family.”

The Westbrooks, wholesale distributors throughout the state, in-laws at the statehouse, a cousin in Congress. Somebody asks you what it’s like to be a cop, I thought, tell them this story.

I got home to my apartment about three, showered the sticky grit off my skin and crawled into bed. I still wasn’t used to sleeping by myself back then and I lay awake awhile, puzzling the whole thing through.

Get a cop alone, find him on a day he wants to be honest, he’ll tell you the cases that bothered him most always involved a suspect who someway, somehow, reminded him of himself. And I knew Mike Gallardi pretty well, I thought.

Down deep, where it mattered, he was weak. That’s why he liked power, not just over Rhonda but the people he robbed—gunpoint, the terror in their eyes. Do what I tell you. Like a cop, or his bent idea of one: a guy who gets what he wants, even hammers his wife, and never pays.

I was going to change that. I’d be the one who finally made sure Mike Gallardi suffered, if only for the chance to tell myself I was different. I was better.

Eventually, I drifted off and dreamed I stood in the doorway of a house off in the desert somewhere. A wounded dog limped toward me through the moonlit chaparral. As it drew close, I looked into its eyes, and saw my son looking back at me.

Next thing, the phone was ringing.

It was Rooney. “I don’t know what to say, Nick. Appelbee’s got hit this morning, eight o’clock.” Some throat-clearing. “Just like you said.”

I rubbed my face, checked my watch. Eight-thirty. “How much?”

“Twelve grand.”

Hardly a take worth risking your freedom for, I thought. But this wasn’t just about money. I wondered if Mike had driven back alone, or if he’d dragged Rhonda along with him again. And maybe she didn’t feel bullied at all. Maybe, for the first time in a long, long while, she felt married.

* * * * *

“We’re never gonna catch this guy without a wire.” I was laying out my case to John Tally, the county attorney. “He’s getting cocky, cocky crooks get sloppy and that’s when people get hurt.”

Tally tented his hands, rocking in his chair, sunlight flaring in the windows behind him. An ASU man, politician to the bone, he was tan and fit, pompous, cutthroat.

“I’ll approve a wire,” he said finally. “And a task force, but I want hard numbers on bodies.”

“Phoenix and Tempe’ll pony up ten men apiece,” I said, guessing. “Scottsdale and Mesa half that each, an even thirty.”

“You’re lead agent,” he said pointedly. “Team up with Tom Kolchek for the wire affidavit. And don’t be fooled by his looks. He’s the smartest guy I’ve got.”

I stood up to leave. “I want to call off the surveillance, make the target think he’s in the clear.”

Tally glanced up, like I’d already become a bother. “I told you,” he said. “You’re lead agent.”

Tally was right, Kolchek looked like your Uncle Monty—thick all over with thinning hair and sad-sack eyes—but he was one of the sharpest cops I ever worked with.

The affidavit came to a hundred pages and was airtight, detailing every job, how Mike came to be our suspect, the ensuing surveillance, the continuing robberies, everything. We argued that, given Rhonda’s new accomplice role, phone communications between the house and the restaurant could prove fruitful.

The judge granted us thirty days for the wire, with a re-up possible for another thirty if the need arose, which would carry us through the holidays. But if we didn’t have results by then, tough. We’d have to bag up and go home.

We notified the phone company of our target lines and anticipated start date, so they could build the parallel circuits for the wiretap. Two days later, they called back to tell us Mike had disconnected his home phone. He’d done it the same day we submitted the affidavit.

Kolchek hung up and sat there, thinking it through. Finally, in an oddly sunny voice, he said, “We’ll bug his house.”

“You don’t get it,” I told him.

“I get it,” Kolchek said. “So? We tighten the circle of who knows what, rewrite the affidavit, wire up his house. Maybe we’ll get lucky. You get any better ideas, let me know.”

I didn’t get any better ideas, of course. And every time I tried to imagine who might be tipping Mike off, I could never convince myself I had the right man.

Cavanaugh was the first and obvious choice, given how long he’d stuck up for Mike, but he was a hard cop and I’d seen the betrayal in his face before the Applebee’s job. Besides, like he’d said, fifty cops would vouch for Mike in a heartbeat—any one of them could be our leak.

Kolchek and I reworked the affidavit, kept the wire on the restaurant phone and asked for three transmitters for the residence—one in the living room, one in the dining room, one in the bedroom—sensitive enough, at ten thousand dollars a pop, to catch voices throughout the house.

The judge signed off and Kolchek introduced me to a tech for the county attorney’s office named Pritchard, who’d go in and actually set things up.

“I’ll go with,” I told Kolchek.

“No, I will,” he said. “I’m a pretty good lock pick and we only need two men inside.”

“What about the dog?”

Kolchek cocked his head. “Dog?”

“A white shepherd,” I said. “It’s in the surveillance reports.”

“Right. I remember. What’s your point?”

“I used to work canine. The white ones are unpredictable, you don’t want to go in there alone.” That was mostly crap, but there was no way I wasn’t going with them. I wanted a look inside that house.

The next day, when Mike and Rhonda were at the restaurant, Kolchek walked up their front walk and took a Polaroid, then went to the hardware store, bought an identical door and set it up in his office, practicing till it took only forty-five seconds to pop both locks.

Meanwhile, I scoped the neighborhood for the best spot to place the undercover van. Mike and Rhonda lived in a maze-like community of townhouses grouped in quads, and the geometry of the place was all wrong; there was no place within a hundred yards of their unit to park the van and not stand out.

Then I saw there was a unit for rent one quad over. We could set up the wire room in there, as long as we kept a low profile.

I hit up Tally’s office for the rent and two days later, when Mike and Rhonda and most of the neighbors were off to work, we moved our guys in. Me, Kolchek, and Pritchard headed over for our entry to plant the bugs, while a ram car took up position on the street in case Mike or Rhonda came back while we were still inside the house.

When we got to the front porch, though, we found a brand new security gate with two additional locks, barring access to the door. Kolchek just stood there, staring, holding his lockpick tools. “This isn’t happening.” He glanced at his watch and swallowed hard. Inside, the dog was barking like the place was on fire.

I started heading for the back of the house. “Bet you’re glad you brought me along now.”

There was a privacy wall around the patio in back and I scaled it, dropping down onto the pavers. A sliding Arcadia door led inside, with an insert for a doggy door. I got down on the ground, reached through and flicked aside the dowel lodging the door in place. The dog realized what was happening then, and as I slipped inside he turned a corner and charged toward me, hackling up, fangs bared.

I reached frantically in my pocket for the syringe of Isoforine I’d brought along to knock him out, only to sink my thumb into the needle. I played air banjo with my hand for a second, saying something original like, “Goddamnmotherfuck,” then glanced up and saw I wasn’t the only one to miscalculate.

As his paws hit linoleum, the dog lost traction, sliding toward me helplessly. Stepping forward, I caught him under the jaw with a kick so fierce he cartwheeled backwards.

“Get in the god damn bathroom!”

The dog sulked off, mewling, as I checked my thumb, hoping adrenalin would ward off any grogginess. Suddenly, I remembered my dream from weeks before—the lonely house, the wounded dog.

A chirp from my radio broke the spell.

I clicked on. “Yeah?”

“We heard that, detective.” It was one of my guys in the wire room. In the background, laughter. “Punt the pooch—that what they teach you in canine?”

I switched off my radio and searched out the front door. When I got there I found out the security gate was locked from inside, requiring a key. “This nails it,” I told Kolchek through the grating. “Somebody’s tipping this guy off.”

“We’ll talk about it later,” Kolchek whispered, standing exposed with Pritchard on the porch. “Get us inside.”

Kolchek lacked the physique to scale the privacy wall, so I found a window in a small utility room near the back for the two men to crawl through. Once everybody was inside, we headed to the living room to set up shop. Kolchek got busy taking pictures of the room on his phone so we could put it back the same way we found it.

“Look at this,” I said, pointing to the couch. There were sheets, blankets, a pillow. “Christ, she’s kicked him out of bed. They’re in the middle of another fight.”

“Get to work,” Kolchek said. He was testy and pouring sweat. It dawned on me then that, despite a first-rate mind, Kolchek lacked any serious operational experience. The glitch with the locks had rattled him.

Pritchard hooked up his transmitters to the phone lines. Even though the service had been cut off, the wires still held voltage. We set them up in the three different rooms as planned, and Pritchard asked me to contact the wire room to see if we were live. Only then did I realize I hadn’t switched my radio back on after that crack about my dropkicking the dog.

When I flipped the button, a voice came through almost screaming. “Jesus, Boghossian, where’d you go? We’ve been trying to contact you for ten minutes. The wife’s on her way, just west of Pepperwood. You’re lucky she stopped for smokes. Move!”

We rushed to test the transmitters through the wire room and got an all-clear. Kolchek’s hands shook so bad from nerves he couldn’t screw the plates back on the phone plugs, so I took the screwdriver from him, told him to pack up with Pritchard, I’d close up.

They scrambled out the utility room window and I locked it behind them. Turning back to finish up, something caught my eye, something I’d overlooked before.

On a shelf near the door, a small daypack rested among some other odds and ends.

We had no warrant to search the house or its contents, but I took the daypack down regardless and opened it up: A ski mask. A pair of black garden gloves. A .38 snubnose and a dozen plastic cuffs.

There was a desk in the room and I laid the contents out, took out my phone and snapped a picture. This was a trophy, not evidence—I wouldn’t even tell anybody about it, let alone show them the snapshot. The whole investigation might vanish down a hole if guys started jabbering.

I packed everything up again and put the daypack back where I’d found it, but then my curiosity got the best of me and I searched the desk. In the bottommost drawer, I found a photograph—Mike with Cavanaugh, up in the mountains somewhere. They were hunting together, carrying shotguns, the best of friends from their smiles. Rhonda, I guess, had snapped the picture.

I took out my phone again. This too, of course, wasn’t evidence, and I told myself it didn’t really prove anything. It was just a reminder—my reminder—of what I might be up against.

I ran back to the dining room and was just about finished putting things back in place when the voice came through my radio again: “Boghossian, she’s at the corner.”

I barked into the mouthpiece, “Ram her!”

I was making one last check when I heard the collision outside. It was about fifty yards from the house, some undercover cop plowing into Rhonda’s back end at the stop sign.

I opened the bathroom door and told the dog to stay, then headed toward the patio, fit the doggy door insert into place and reached through and slipped the dowel back onto the runner.

Through the glass of the sliding door, I saw the large white dog slink into view. Our eyes met. He flinched a little, tail lodged between his legs. Ashamed, like everybody else.

It was up to the boys in the wire room now. I checked in as often as I could, but the days went by, nothing. Mike knew we’d been in there—tipped off by Cavanaugh, I supposed, something I had to keep to myself.

Besides which, just like I’d thought, Mike and Rhonda were in a tiff, the two of them seldom speaking.

As time passed, though, I felt strangely encouraged. I knew the dynamics of the simmering fight. I heard the cues—the caustic one-liners, the icy silences. Somehow, some night, something would set them off. And the words would come boiling out, things they’d regret forever.

As it turned out, that night came right before Thanksgiving. And the somehow and something of it proved, to my way of thinking anyway, too apropos.

The surveillance team trailed Mike to a porno arcade near the airport. We’d watched him visit smut shops and strip clubs all over the valley, not sure if he was casing the places or had just grown tired of not getting any at home. This time, though, according to the cop watching from the parking lot, Mike came out wobbly.

“I may be wrong,” the radio voice reported, “but I think our boy just had himself a little love.”

When Mike got home he wasn’t inside five minutes before he launched into Rhonda—a fight over nothing, but so blistering everybody in the wire room shuddered. When one of the cops reached out to turn off the recorder, though, honoring the minimization guidelines, I told him, “Wait.”

We’d gotten our first lead in this case after a brawl between these two. I could justify listening on the grounds there was a reasonable expectation that, in their fury, one of them would say something useful. Accusing.

The voices kept rising, more and more shrill and cruel. And sexual. One Mormon on the wire crew blushed, but everybody kept listening, each of us wondering what we should do if, at some point, one of them tried to kill the other.

And yes, finally, we heard scuffling.

I reached for the phone to dial dispatch as I heard Rhonda stammer oddly, “M-Mike, n-no. No!” The yelling turned to muffled cries, then rhythmic, whimpering moans. Gradually it dawned on us that Mike had decided on a little show’n’tell, to demonstrate for Rhonda what had happened earlier that night, during his encounter at the porn hole.

“One good pipe cleaning deserves another,” somebody cracked.

“Turn off the machine,” I said, knowing we’d get nothing of any use now. Adding insult to injury, Mike moved back into the bedroom that night. So that’s how you make your marriage work, I thought, hating him even more.

The first thirty days played out, no results. We got an extension but none of the departments would pony up the manpower like before. They put rookies on the line-of-sight details. Once, after letting one tail car pass him, Mike chased the cop all the way down Central Avenue, flashing his brights, just to embarrass the kid.

Meanwhile the wire crew was going batty listening to nothing and more of nothing. We were back where we’d started—we’d never catch Mike Gallardi except red-handed, coming out the back of a restaurant. And everything we knew about him said, if that happened, he’d make us kill him.

“The man’s gonna be dead by Christmas,” someone quipped, and it became the unofficial slogan of the whole operation, until I told everybody to knock it off.

“If you’re right, and we take him out, you don’t want to have to explain that little mantra to Internal Affairs.”

Given where we stood, though, I decided it was time to tickle the wire. I went to Tally again, told him we needed to put some pressure on the couple, inflict a little fear.

I showed up at Rhonda’s front door when surveillance confirmed Mike was at the restaurant alone. I came in a marked unit, the strobe spinning out at the curb, and the uniform who’d driven stood with me on the porch. No more avoiding the neighbors—we wanted their attention now.

Inside, the dog went off when the doorbell rang, then went still, dropping his tail, when he saw me beyond the grating.

Rhonda deadpanned, “Gee, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you and the dog knew each other.”

I pulled the subpoena from my jacket pocket and gestured for her to open the security gate. “Rhonda Gallardi, you’re to appear before the grand jury on December 5th. You’re not to discuss your scheduled appearance or the subject matter of your testimony with anyone except your lawyer—not even your husband. Understood?”

She looked taken aback but hardly stunned—some fright in her eyes, but a baiting grin too. I wondered if that was how she looked right before Mike hit her.

“What if I don’t open the door?”

“I’ll just set it down on the porch here. Either way, you’re served.”

The grin faded a bit, her fear quickening into anger as her eyes checked the cop behind me, then slid back. “This is harassment.”

“Guess how many times a day I hear that.”

“Because you’re a prick?”

I nodded for the cop to head back to the car. Once he was out of earshot, I said, “Know what I think? You’ve been trying hard for a long time to make things work—your restaurant, your marriage. I admire that. But the point where things were gonna change is gone for good.” I stuck my hands in my pockets, to look harmless. “You want to turn that around, now’s the time.”

Women who’ve been hit more than once have a look—sad and yet defiant, almost mocking, but defeated all the same. Come on, I thought, invite me in, talk to me. I knew, given the chance, I could open her up, end this thing. But her eyes turned hard and faraway again. “Leave your papers on the porch,” she said, then shut the door.

In the wire room, we listened when Mike came home that night. Apparently, what I’d said registered, at least a little, because the good wife unloaded.

“No more! I’m done.”

“Shut up, Rhonda.”

“I’m not gonna lie under oath for you! I never wanted—”

“I said shut the fuck up, Rhonda!”

The sound of scuffling came again. I grabbed the phone to dial dispatch. But a minute later, they were outside the house, walking the dog. The perfect couple—Mike with his arm around Rhonda’s shoulder, holding her close, loving, protective, whispering into her hair.

Rhonda got coached well for her grand jury appearance. All her answers reduced to: I don’t remember. I’m not sure. I don’t think so. I don’t know.

“He beat us,” I told my guys afterward, like I was confessing to some crime of my own.

A week later we went in to pull the wires, and I was hardly shocked to see they’d put a three-piece console in front of the wall socket where we’d planted the living room transmitter. They’d been a step ahead of us the whole time. Took us an hour, though, to take the knickknacks down, drag the big thing away, claim our bug then push the monster back and make sure all the junk was in the right place again, even smoothing the carpet so you couldn’t tell anything had moved.

The operation got bagged, departments couldn’t justify the manpower any more. We went around to restaurants, schooling them on smarter ways to close up at night—it was all we could do at that point. Maybe Mike would decide his luck had played out. Or maybe he’d get reckless, hurt somebody, and the whole thing would heat up all over again.

On Christmas Eve, I visited Barb and our daughter for the annual holiday torture—unwanted presents, forced smiles. And no talk of Donny, as though the only thing that could keep the pain at bay was a punishing silence.

Walking to my car, though, I heard the front door click open behind me. Turning, I saw my daughter—she was five then—running toward me in her red velvet dress and green tights. Behind her, Barb waited in the doorway, a silhouette.

Melodie scooted up, gripped my hand and pulled so I’d bend down. In a solemn whisper, she said, “Don’t be sad, okay? It’s Christmas.”

“I’m not sad,” I lied, but she’d already dropped my hand, spun around and fled back toward her mother who let her back in, then closed the door.

Later at my own place, drinking scotch as I flipped through the channels, I got the call from dispatch. A steak house up in Paradise Valley got hit right at closing. I was on my way to the scene when the second call came in. Shots fired. The address made my stomach drop.

By the time I got to the condo the place was alive with cops, strobes spinning around the complex, mingling eerily with the Christmas lights. I got out of my car and pushed through the crowd of neighbors outside. The cop with the entry/exit log took my name and badge number, then waved me in.

Techs and detectives ambled about. A spindly tree stood in the living room, sagging with ornaments and tinsel. One of the guys from homicide pointed me back to the kitchen.

In the breakfast nook, I found a uniformed cop standing guard over Cavanaugh, who sat gripping his head. He glanced up just long enough to catch my eye, his gaze frantic with calculation.

To the uniform, I said, “Do everybody a favor and stand back a little. He makes a grab for your gun, you may both wind up dead.”

From the kitchen I made way toward the utility room. A body sheet covered a sprawling form on the floor, a pool of drying blood trailing out from underneath. Spray patterns hazed the walls. An eerie handprint smeared the doorframe.

In the bedroom, wearing an undershirt and cargo shorts, Rhonda sat with hollow eyes, stroking the shepherd, who lay at her feet whimpering. A female officer stood guard, one hand on her sidearm, as though she intended to shoot the dog if it so much as moved.

It took a second for Rhonda to sense I was there in the doorway. Glancing up, she blinked, took me in. Her hair was a mess. She looked ashen and lost.

Cavanaugh would take the fall, pleading out to manslaughter. His story—I can’t say whether it’s true or not, though I tend to believe more than I doubt—was that he and Rhonda, his cop-crazy buddy’s wife, were lovers. The night Mike found out, he knocked Rhonda around a while, then went out, got coked up and took down his first restaurant. He’d been pumping Cavanaugh for information on robberies for ages, claiming he just wanted to know how to protect his own place.

Mike came back from that first job in an odd heat, feeling invincible—the man he was meant to be—and told Rhonda that, if he ever went down, he’d hand up her lover as the man who’d taught him everything. Cavanaugh had to protect him then, to protect himself, protect Rhonda. He began tipping Mike off on the robbery investigations, staying away from Rhonda once the surveillance began but getting messages through by using the guy who washed dishes at their restaurant as a go-between.

That went on until Rhonda’s grand jury appearance, after which she told Mike she’d dime him out herself if he didn’t stop, she didn’t care who got hurt. And Mike obliged her—until Christmas Eve.

He missed it, that nervy heat when he slipped in, pointing the gun. The fear. The begging.

As soon as he left the house for Paradise Valley, Rhonda picked up the phone, dialed Cavanaugh, told him she was leaving for good, she’d had it. He told her to wait, he’d be right over. They meant to be gone by the time Mike got back but—here again I’m not sure what to believe—he surprised them, slipping into the house unnoticed. It was self-defense, if you looked at it right, though Cavanaugh knew better than to take that to trial.

But all of that was yet in the telling as I stood there in the bedroom doorway. The dog ignored me for once, still whimpering, its ears pricked up. It was Rhonda who stared right at me.

“You’re the one whose wife walked out,” she said finally. She left the rest hanging, but her voice was accusing. She wouldn’t be gloated over, not by the likes of me.

I don’t know how to explain it. Despite her contempt, despite everything, I felt for her. And I could afford to be gracious, not because I was different or better or even because it was Christmas. I remembered my daughter’s words, whispered in my ear: Don’t be sad, okay? I had a piece of something back I’d thought was lost for good.

“My wife had good reason to leave,” I said, thinking: Why lie?

But Rhonda just turned away. With a soft, miserable laugh, she said, “Like that’s all it takes.”


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