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The man in the house was going to kill himself. When the man threw his phone into the yard, Talley knew that he had accepted his own death. After six years as a crisis negotiator with the Los Angeles Police Department's SWAT team, Sergeant Jeff Talley knew that people in crisis often spoke in symbols. This symbol was clear: Talk was over. Talley feared that the man would die by his own hand, or do something to force the police to kill him. It was called suicide by cop. Talley believed it to be his fault.
"Did they find his wife yet?"
"Not yet. They're still looking."
"Looking doesn't help, Murray. I gotta have something to give this guy after what happened."
"That's not your fault."
"It is my fault. I blew it, and now this guy is circling the drain."
Talley crouched behind an armored command vehicle with the SWAT commander, a lieutenant named Murray Leifitz, who was also his negotiating team supervisor. From this position, Talley had spoken to George Donald Malik through a dedicated crisis phone that had been cut into the house line. Now that Malik had thrown his phone into the yard, Talley could use the public address megaphone or do it face-to-face. He hated the megaphone, which made his voice harsh and depersonalized the contact. The illusion of a personal relationship was important; the illusion of trust was everything. Talley strapped on a kevlar vest.
Malik shouted through the broken window, his voice high and strained.
"I'm going to kill this dog! I'm going to kill it!"
Leifitz leaned past Talley to peek at the house. This was the first time Malik had mentioned a dog.
"What the fuck? Does he have a dog in there?"
"How do I know? I've got to try to undo some of the damage here, okay? Ask the neighbors about the dog. Get me a name."
"If he pops a cap, we're going in there, Jeff. That's all there is to it."
"Just take it easy and get a name for the dog."
Leifitz scuttled backward to speak with Malik's neighbors.
George Malik was an unemployed house painter with too much credit card debt, an unfaithful wife who flaunted her affairs, and prostate cancer. Fourteen hours earlier, at two-twelve that morning, he had fired one shot above the heads of the police officers who had come to his door in response to a disturbance complaint. He then barricaded the door and threatened to kill himself unless his wife agreed to speak to him. The officers who secured the area ascertained from neighbors that Malik's wife, Elena, had left with their only child, a nine-year-old boy named Brendan. As detectives from Rampart Division set about locating her, Malik threatened suicide with greater frequency until Talley was convinced that Malik was nearing the terminal point. When the Rampart detectives reported what they believed to be a solid location obtained from the wife's sister, Talley took a chance. He told Malik that his wife had been found. That was Talley's mistake. He had violated a cardinal rule of crisis negotiation: He had lied, and been caught. He had made a promise that he had been unable to deliver, and so had destroyed the illusion of trust that he had been building. That was two hours ago, and now word had arrived that the wife had still not been found.
"I'm gonna kill this fuckin' dog, goddamnit! This is her goddamned dog, and I'm gonna shoot this sonofabitch right in the head, she don't start talkin' to me!"
Talley stepped out from behind the vehicle. He had been on the scene for eleven hours. His skin was greased with sweat, his head throbbed, and his stomach was cramping from too much coffee and stress. He made his voice conversational, yet concerned.
"George, it's me, Jeff. Don't kill anything, okay? We don't want to hear a gun go off."
"You liar! You said my wife was gonna talk to me!"
It was a small stucco house the color of dust. Two casement windows braced the front door above a tiny porch. The door was closed, and drapes had been pulled across the windows. The window on the left was broken from the phone. Eight feet to the right of the porch, a five-member SWAT Tactical Team hunkered against the wall, waiting to breach the door. Malik could not be seen.
"George, listen, I said that we'd found her, and I want to explain that. I was wrong. We got our wires crossed out here, and they gave me bad information. But we're still looking, and when we find her, we'll have her talk to you."
"You lied before, you bastard, and now you're lying again. You're lying to protect that bitch, and I won't have it. I'm gonna shoot her dog and then I'm gonna blow my brains out."
Talley waited. It was important that he appear calm and give Malik the room to cool. People burned off stress when they talked. If he could reduce Malik's level of stress, they could get over the hump and still climb out of this.
"Don't shoot the dog, George. Whatever's between you and your wife, let's not take it out on the dog. Is it your dog, too?"
"I don't know whose fuckin' dog it is. She lied about everything else, so she probably lied about the dog. She's a natural born liar. Like you."
"George, c'mon. I was wrong, but I didn't lie. I made a mistake. A liar wouldn't admit that, but I want to be straight with you. Now, I'm a dog guy myself. What kind of dog you got in there?"
"I don't believe you. You know right where she is, and unless you make her talk to me, I'm gonna shoot this dog."
The depths to which people sank in the shadowed crevasses of desperation could crush a man as easily as the weight of water at the ocean floor. Talley had learned to hear the pressure building in people's voices, and he heard it now. Malik was being crushed.
"Don't give up, George. I'm sure that she'll talk to you."
"Then why won't she open her mouth? Why won't the bitch just say something, that's all she's gotta do?"
"We'll work it out."
"Say something, goddamnit!"
"I said we'll work it out."
"Say something or I'm gonna shoot this damned dog!"
Talley took a breath, thinking. Malik's choice of words left him confused. Talley had spoken clearly, yet Malik acted as if he hadn't heard. Talley worried that Malik was dissociating or approaching a psychotic break.
"George, I can't see you. Come to the window so I can see you."
"STOP LOOKING AT ME!"
"George, please come to the window!"
Talley saw Leifitz return to the rear of the vehicle. They were close, only a few feet apart, Leifitz under cover, Talley exposed.
Talley spoke under his breath.
"What's the dog's name?"
Leifitz shook his head.
"They say he doesn't have a dog."
"OPEN YOUR GODDAMNED MOUTH RIGHT NOW OR I'M SHOOTING THIS DOG!"
Something hard pounded in the center of Talley's head, and his back felt wet. He suddenly realized that illusions worked both ways. The Rampart detectives hadn't found Malik's wife because Malik's wife was inside. The neighbors were wrong. She had been inside the entire time. The wife and the boy.
"Murray, launch the team!"
Talley shouted at Murray Leifitz just as a loud whipcrack echoed from the house. A second shot popped even as the Tactical Team breached the front door.
Talley ran forward, feeling weightless. Later, he would not remember jumping onto the porch or entering through the door. Malik's lifeless body was pinned to the floor, his hands being cuffed behind his back even though he was already dead. Malik's wife was sprawled on the living room sofa where she had been dead for over fourteen hours. Two tac officers were trying to stop the geyser of arterial blood that spurted from the neck of Malik's nine-year-old son. One of them screamed for the paramedics. The boy's eyes were wide, searching the room as if trying to find a reason for all this. His mouth opened and closed; his skin luminous as it drained of color. The boy's eyes found Talley, who knelt and rested a hand on the boy's leg. Talley never broke eye contact. He didn't allow himself to blink. He let Brendan Malik have that comfort as he watched the boy die.
After a while, Talley went out to sit on the porch. His head buzzed like he was drunk. Across the street, police officers milled by their cars. Talley lit a cigarette, then replayed the past eleven hours, looking for clues that should have told him what was real. He could not find them. Maybe there weren't any, but he didn't believe that. He had blown it. He had made mistakes. The boy had been here the entire time, curled at the feet of his murdered mother like a loyal and faithful dog.
Murray Leifitz put a hand on his shoulder and told him to go home.
Jeff Talley had been a Los Angeles SWAT officer for thirteen years, serving as a Crisis Response Team negotiator for six. Today was his third crisis call in five days.
He tried to recall the boy's eyes, but had already forgotten if they were brown or blue.
Talley crushed his cigarette, walked down the street to his car, and went home. He had an eleven-year-old daughter named Amanda. He wanted to check her eyes. He couldn't remember their color and was scared that he no longer cared.