Behind Lori Baer, 1

Behind Lori Baer

CHAPTER 1

I leaned against a wall in the party room of my brother-in-law’s restaurant, The Five Dynasties, clutching my second Bombay martini.  Everybody was having a grand time, except the guest of honor.  That was me, it was 1990, and this was my fiftieth birthday party, a surprise plotted by Beth, my loving, sensitive wife, and executed by her, aided and abetted by her gang of conspiratorial Chinese-Italian parents and siblings, my cherished clan of in-laws.

I studied my drink, amazed at my predicament, hoping that, like the Delphi, I could conjure in the crystal liquid the solution to the riddle I hadn’t been able to escape, or unravel, for days: “How the hell did I end up fifty?”

It had crept up on me, a silent thief, robbing me of more than my youth; it stole the idea that I was blessed with abundant time to do the things I’d dreamed about.  Part of the reason was I’d thought of so many things — writing a novel maybe, running for higher elected office, perhaps state senator.

I had fifty on the brain, huge granite figures, like Rushmore carvings, cast in hot red from the sun setting immutably on life.  This number, I imagined, was the great divide between the possible and the hopeless.  And here I was at a party celebrating what I regarded as the great chasm in my life.  I wasn’t happy.

I was going on like that, gazing on the party like a visitor who had accidentally dropped in, nearly crying in my prophetic cups, when Tommy Tomassetti, my father-in-law, weaved in front of me.  He clutched a Sam Adams in one hand and a red wine in the other.  Ask Tommy why God gave us two hands and he’d answer without pause, for who had to reflect on obvious wisdom, “To get it down faster, boy.  I thought you advertising wizards knew it all.”  It was straight out of the Tomassetti Book of Wisdom.

“We’re having a g.d. party, Gabe, and you’re the guest of honor,” he said.  Tommy never swore outright; Mae Chen would not allow it.  Over the years, he discovered and invented words to vent his feelings, each following the letter of the law laid down by my mother-in-law.  “You’re supposed to be whooping it up.  And here you are happy as a hermit at Disney World.  Come on, don’t look so darn glum.  You can be glum when we’re whooping it up at your funeral.”

He studied me with brown eyes watery from too much beer and smoke, but still as sharp as the day he shot down his last Zero over China.  He had lived at full-throttle, going from the air war over the Pacific to trench war as a cop on the streets of Chicago.  He was seventy and retired from the CPD, which meant he worked a mere forty-hour week as chief and sole investigator for TLA Security, Inc.  TLA stood for Tough Luck Asshole, perfectly expressing his opinion of outlaws.  He always used the abbreviated name, conveying our shared knowledge of TLA with a wink, as if we were little boys in a secret club.  I often thought Tommy might have ended up burned out and embittered, like many ex-cops who took the job seriously, had it not been for Mae Chen.

I gave him a weary smile. “Better?”

Tommy squinted at me, leaving no doubt he didn’t empathize with my apprehension.  “Just remember,” he said, “fifty ain’t the end of the world.  Wouldn’t mind being fifty again myself.  You seen Mae?”  I pointed into the room.  He cranked around and sighted along the line of my finger.  “She’s over there, with Beth,” I said.

“Thanks.”  He lurched a step, braked, twisted back to me.  He was still slim, straight, and agile.  He aimed the wineglass in my general direction, sloshing the contents but not spilling a drop.  “If you drink it instead of staring at it, you might feel better.”

I bowed, saluted and sipped.  “Tomassetti wisdom, acknowledged and appreciated.”  I broke a real smile, warmed by my good fortune at being a member of the Tomassetti fold.

“You youngsters today are spoiled.  That’s my job, the wise elder.”  He winked and tottered into the party.

Who was I to ignore the advice of the wise elder?  I knocked off half the drink and discovered he was right.  It blasted my birthday doldrums where only astronauts roamed.  Who knows, another and I might again believe I was immortal.  I snickered at my fanciful thought and praised God for the delusive power packed in a few ounces of ninety-proof gin.

Thin as it was, the idea must have preoccupied me.  I didn’t notice the big hand until it gently squeezed my shoulder.  I turned around and looked up into the sun-crinkled face of Chuck Gatewood.

“Dear, Gabe,” he said, “pleased to see you accepting your jubilee year with your usual noble aplomb.”  He transferred his grip to my free hand, pumped it heartily in the fashion of a salesman catching the scent of a deal.  “Speaking on behalf of the entire senior set, welcome.”  He stopped pumping, grasped my elbow, guided me closer, adjusted his expression to signal that divine guidance was about to spill from his mouth.  “Heed the advice of one who’s been there.”  He ticked off his points with the fingers of his unoccupied hand.  “Join the AARP the instant your invitation arrives.  Enjoy your ten-percent discount at every occasion.  Depart this wonderful party early.  Make love to the beautiful Beth immediately upon returning home.”  He veiled his speech in mock patrician pretense.  “After all, opportunities are dwindling.”  Then he barked a laugh.  “In short, Gabe, happy birthday and many more.”

Chuck Gatewood and I had known each other longer than most people had been alive, which had given me a chill.

Chuck and I were business colleagues at one time.  He owned and ran Gatewood Graphics, among the largest printing companies in the Midwest.  Gatewood Graphics did work for Chicago’s major ad agencies and brand name companies, such as Kraft, Helene Curtis, and others.  Trumpet, my ad agency, was an important account of his.  Gatewood Graphics was also a client of Trumpet’s.  As a result, he and I saw each other twice, sometimes four times, a month.  We filled in with telephone conversations.  It went on like that until I sold Trumpet three years ago.

Staring into his watery blue eyes, I struggled to remember the last time we had spoken, let alone gotten together.  A year ago seemed right.  There was nothing particularly personal about the meeting.  It was a Chicago ad club luncheon I spoke at.  Though I no longer ran Trumpet, I kept myself involved in the industry, writing an occasional piece on advertising for the Chicago Tribune and a monthly column for Advertising Age.  Sometimes, too, I accepted out-of-town speaking engagements, though I limited myself to no more than four a year, which I liked to time with Beth’s school vacation breaks.  I wasn’t a fan of public speaking, but I enjoyed having the spotlight on me from time to time.  Who doesn’t, I supposed?  I couldn’t think of anyone who elected to slip into obscurity.

When we’d met at the luncheon, I was expounding on how to transform vendors into allies, a skill I had learned from Chuck.  He came up to me after I’d finished and we chatted for a few minutes.  Nothing monumental, just catching up, sprinkled with promises to get together.

Of course, nothing came of our promises.  People rarely seemed to follow through on those little off-the-cuff pledges, unless they shared an overpowering bond.  Chuck and I had that once, but no longer.

Besides, we were both busy, too busy to tend a friendship that had revolved around business.  Without the business part, I supposed we had no reason to see each other.  I understood.  After all, our relationship wasn’t like those I had with Beth’s family, or people we knew around High Hills.

Sure, I could have called him.  I don’t know why I hadn’t.  I always enjoyed Chuck’s company, always found him honest and a pleasure to do business with.  Not to mention that I owed him an immense debt of gratitude for helping me launch my business.  I guess I was too occupied as a High Hills trustee, writing, speaking, and chasing aspirations that seemed very distant that night.  And maybe because of Lori Gatewood and Beth.

He could have called me.  But I know how it is, having run my own shop.  Business gets in the way, when you’re serious about it.  And I always found him to be serious about his.

Chuck’s grip was as strong as the first time he’d taken my hand and nearly crushed it.  He had the grip of a workingman earned on the presses in his plant, and on Lake Michigan sailing his boat.  His hands were thick, rough, and indelibly stained around the fingernails from his days as a press monkey for his father, who started Gatewood Graphics just after World War II.

He didn’t look his fifty-six years.  He more resembled one of those early-forties models that advertisers liked to disguise as seniors to hawk products that were supposed to keep guys like me feeling young.  He owned a mane of golden hair, still bright and untarnished by the years.  He stood tall and trim, still a thirty-four waist, if I was any judge.

But Chuck wasn’t perfect.  Who is, as I was discovering, when he’s in his fifties?  Creases etched his face, mostly around his eyes and mouth.  He earned them racing to Mackinaw every June sailing the Doreen Dream, bought and named for his first wife when she living.  I figured sailing, his daily gym routine, and Lori, the second Mrs. Gatewood, kept him fit.

I found myself envying him.  Not that I was in bad shape for a freshly minted fifty.  I had all my hair.  Sure it was graying, but with fashionable distinction at the temples.  My face was generally unlined.  My nose was big.  Big noses ran in the Angellini family.  Beth called it a Roman nose.  She liked kissing it, then tweaking it the same way Italian aunts liked pinching the cheeks of nieces and nephews.  Like Chuck, I had a thirty-four inch waist, though handles had sprouted within the last year.  To tame them, I had increased my morning run from five to six miles.  No, when I considered the condition I could have been in, the disrepair many people Chuck and I had known as young men were in, my assessment was, “Not bad.”

“I appreciate the sentiment, Chuck, but I’d have preferred a gift.”

“Beth mentioned you’re feeling decrepit when I RSVPed.  I visited Lake Forest Medical Supply today.  They had a run on everything codgers like you need.  Perhaps I should special-order something for you?”

“Don’t bother.  Beth’s number-two brother, ER Max, gave me a walker.  Even has wheels for my spry days.”  I swiped my forehead.  “What is it?  Am I branded?  Something that says I’m fifty?”

“Fifty’s nothing,” he said.  “Presently, I could think of a dozen things worse.”

I finished the martini and shook his hand.  “Good to see you, Chuck.”

“Wouldn’t have missed it, Gabe.  Though Lori’s under the weather, I told her she’d have to make do on her own while I stopped by your party.”

Maybe Lori Gatewood was why Chuck and I had lost touch.  Beth felt nothing but enmity toward Lori.  Lori for her part probably could have cared less about Beth’s feelings.  And Chuck, early on when Lori became more than an account executive to him, expressed amusement at my wife’s one-sided feud.  He simply could not envision me in an extra-curricular love affair.  He was right.  I couldn’t be.  And I wasn’t.

The Incident, Beth’s label, occurred five years ago.  At the time, Trumpet was expanding and I was searching for another experienced account executive.  Lori Gatewood — she was Lori Baer then — applied for the position.  Her résumé was right on the money:  graduate of the University of Illinois, business major, media job in Champaign after graduation, assistant account executive at Jacobs and Morrison, a top Chicago agency.  I knew Larry Jacobs, president of that agency.  I respected him, his staff, and their work.  So I called her in for an interview.

Lori arrived in a navy blue business suit, of which the only standard feature was the color.  The jacket was cut short, nipped to a V at the waist, accenting the start of hips that were subtle in the style of a girl athlete, perhaps a swimmer.  The skirt covering them was equally short, finishing three inches above her knees.  Her shoes matched the suit and raised her up nearly three inches.  She wore a white blouse with a shawl collar.  The collar sloped languidly and framed an ample patch of skin before being joined somewhat tentatively an inch above her breasts by a cloisonné brooch.  It was a big challenge for the small brooch, but the piece did a regretfully good job of keeping Lori decent.

Watching her was like anticipating that a romantic movie would run off track into eroticism; I simply had to pay attention so as not to miss the event.  Her hair, blond, coiled into a bun, secured by a gold stick that threatened to slip out and send the entire mound cascading down her back, heightened the sensation.  She wore little makeup, but enough to enhance the sensuality she projected.

She handled herself professionally, acting cool, contained, deliberate.  She buzzed with the right words and demonstrated ambition by ticking off a list of accomplishments without hesitation.  I verified them with Jacobs and Morrison the morning of the next day.  I didn’t bother checking with the University of Illinois or her employer in Champaign.  I rarely checked school credentials if a candidate had relevant prior experience.  Experience, I’d found, was everything.  I hired her in the afternoon.  Beth thought I was being shallow when I told her about Lori over dinner that night.  I countered that I was just being honest.  I gave Beth my advertising-worships-attractive-people argument.  Beth dismissed it as rationalization, pure and simple.  Then and there I should have known never to mention Lori Baer in the Angellini house again.

In short order, I knew I’d made the right decision about Lori.  She was an excellent account executive filled with ideas, and she was a marvelous bridge builder among the various agency departments and her clients.  And the clients I assigned her — including Chuck Gatewood — adored her.

After a few months, I paid her the high compliment of bringing her on our new business team to help us prepare to pitch a large prospective client.  New business meant extra work and longer hours — in addition to the sixty normally put in by account executives and assistants.  But it also promised the glory competitive people craved, and the swift promotion that went with it.  She dived in enthusiastically, supercharging the project with fun and excitement.  I wasn’t alone in recognizing her contribution; the others who worked with her agreed that she was a valuable addition to the team.

I was feeling pretty good about having hired her.  I was so high on her that I talked her up to Beth late one evening while we got ready for bed.  I praised Lori’s accomplishments, said her work on the new business pitch was great, patted myself on the back for recognizing her talent.  My timing was worse than a rush-hour bus scheduler at the Chicago Transit Authority.

Beth was leading a campaign to oust Daily Math, a bright idea hatched at the University of Chicago, from High Hills Primary School.  The past three months had been grueling for her, what with teaching her second-grade class, working with her disparate coalition of revolutionaries, and meeting with the school board, concerned citizens, and teachers.

Beth’s fellow teachers were her biggest challenge.  While many of them agreed the program wasn’t living up to expectations, just two crossed the line to join her.  The others accused Beth of betraying the profession.  Educational decisions were the purview of the knowledgeable elite, they said.  Well, maybe they said it a bit differently, but they weren’t shy about attacking her on the issue in public venues and in calls to the house at night.  The union even got involved.  During those months, I watched as the pressure, applied day and night, wore on her, making her edgy, irritable, and distant, like the world, including me, was against her.  I tried to help her, but Beth insisted that this was her battle and she could fight it on her own, thank you very much.

The night I chose to sing Lori’s praises, Beth had dragged in from a long, acrimonious public meeting, with more than a few of her disgruntled colleagues in attendance.  She was as pleasant as an eight-year-old at bedtime.

“Gabe,” she snapped, “don’t you see I’m in the middle of a war here, and you’re gushing over this Lori, as if she was a miracle worker.  You like her so much, why don’t you pack up and live with her?  I’m out of miracles tonight.”

Beth’s temper didn’t flare often, but when it did you’d swear you fell into a furnace stoked by the devil himself.  It was her Italian half.  Usually her Chinese side, steeped in Confucian and Taoistic traditions, held it in check.  Too bad it was vacationing that night.

She charged out of the room.  It took me a minute to realize what I’d done.  I chased after her to the front door, opening it in time to watch her thump her BMW out of the driveway and screech down the street.

I waited up in the study, catnapping until dawn.  Before I left for the office, I called over to Tommy and Mae’s.  Tommy answered.

“Gabe, my boy, don’t you realize wives don’t want to hear about another woman, especially girls not much older than your daughter?”

I mumbled something along the lines of I wasn’t thinking.

“Mae calmed her down.  Don’t worry.  It wasn’t just you.  This school thing’s got her mighty upset.  She’ll probably be fine tonight.  Just be sure you’re good to her.”

I asked if she was there.  He said she’d left early for school.  I said I’d call her during the day and thanked him and Mae.

The rest of the day at the office was agony.  I phoned the school half-a-dozen times.  She was perpetually in class or meetings.  I wanted to drive to the school and tell her I was sorry.  I should have.  But the new business pitch hung over my head and I allowed it to keep me from her.  We were going after Motorola’s two-way radio business.  If we won, Motorola would be our second largest account.  The presentation was two days away and preparations demanded my attention.  Besides, I felt she was treating me unfairly and that maybe she should be the one calling me.

Pitching a new account was an arduous affair.  Regardless of how much you did beforehand, final preparation was hell and often went down to the wire.  It was past seven.  I was at my desk waiting for a final piece of information.  There’s always that last little shred, the last bit of intelligence about the prospective client or the competition, the last creative idea, the last draft of the presentation you’re convinced will make the difference between winning and losing.  For the life of me, I can’t remember what this precious information had been, though the rest of that night was seared into my memory.

Whatever it was, Lori brought it to me.  I didn’t see her enter my office because I was stealing a nap, my head buried in my arms.

She came up behind me and began kneading my shoulders.  I awoke startled, wistfully imaging I was home and the hands belonged to a repentant Beth who had returned to admit she was wrong.  Lori’s voice surprised me.  I jumped and she urged me down with a gentle nudge and a soft, soothing lullaby:  “It’s only me.”  I’d noticed, passing her cubicle frequently, that she had a way of lowering her voice and chanting, like she was a lonely child comforting herself, as if nobody else would.

“You’re tense, Gabe.  These muscles, they’re very tight.  Now doesn’t that feel better?”  She spoke tenderly, melodically.  “Do you want me to keep going?”

“Yes,” I said, drawing out the word as her fingers worked up to my neck.  I turned back toward her, plumbed her inviting blue eyes.  “You’ve got a great touch.”

She smiled.  I can’t say what was running through my mind, though whatever it might have been was innocent.  But it has vanished without a trace, like spring fog burned off by the rising sun.  What I remembered, clearly, immortally, was that neither of us heard Beth enter the office.

She could have observed us for a second, a minute, I don’t know.  She made her presence known by cooking my ancestry in a ragout of Chinese, Italian, and English.  She carried a bag of Chinese takeout.  She flung the bag at us.  It exploded on my desk, drenching my copy of the presentation in red sweet-and-sour sauce, splashing up onto me, peppering my shirt, landing in my hair, flying over my head, spotting Lori’s blouse like splatter the result of a gunshot.

I caught Beth at the elevator.  She was crying, muttering, kicking the door.

“Beth, it’s not what you think,” I pleaded, reaching for her.  “Give me a minute to explain.”

She pulled away and glared at me, raced her reddened eyes up and down me, daring me to try and touch her again.  She sucked in air and pushed it out in a raspy, razor-edged rebuke:  “I don’t want to hear a word from you, Gabe.  Not one word.  You can just pack your bags and get a room at … at the Ohio House.  When I’m through with you, that’s all you and your girlfriend will ever afford.”

In a hellish flash, I saw myself slogging in and out of the Ohio House Motel on Ontario Street in unison with transients and lunchtime tricks trapped in Sisyphean repetition.

I did try to grab her again, but by that time the elevator had arrived and the doors were closing on her.

It took a week, the intercession of Frank and Mae Rose, our children, liberal self-deprecation on my part, and a healthy withdrawal from the Angellini marriage fund of mutual trust to convince her of the truth — I was innocent, at least in deed.  And while I didn’t hold to the same standard as Jimmy Carter, I was pretty solid in the coveting department too.  Eventually, I convinced her that what she witnessed, while foolish and incriminating, was simply a young woman acting with kindness and consideration.  I said I knew in my heart nothing would have happened.  I loved her too much and I couldn’t live with the guilt of betraying her.  Whether she found out or not wasn’t the point, wasn’t important.  I would know, and that I could not have borne.

Beth would have none of it.  Even if I was the purest lamb, which she doubted, she insisted Lori was a wolf drooling guile.  Typical male, she said, I was too blind to see it.

Beth put me in an awkward position.  I couldn’t defend Lori without damning myself.  I couldn’t accede to Beth’s demand to fire Lori.  Nothing had happened.  Nothing would ever happen.

In the end, after another prickly week, I persuaded her that firing Lori would be unfair.  Lori had been a loyal and enthusiastic employee.  How would firing her appear to Trumpet’s other employees?  Would I reward their loyalty in the same fashion?  I put a management supervisor between Lori and me and promised to have no contact with her.  Beth grudgingly settled for the arrangement, but from then on she never trusted Lori.

Four months later, Lori announced she was leaving the firm.  Within two months of that event, she married Chuck.  Their wedding, which I attended alone, came six months after the death of Doreen.  It sealed Beth’s conviction about Lori.  Beth was certain Lori had turned her attention to Chuck after her attempt at me had failed, catching him in a time of vulnerability, when Doreen was seriously ill, toward the end unable to recall anything of her life with Chuck or recognize him as death drew near.

“It’s nothing serious, Gabe,” Chuck said.  “Nothing to be concerned about.  I’m certain Lori will recover in time for her golf date or whatever it is she has planned for the morning.””Sure,” I said, shaking off the memories.

He jammed his hands in his pockets and fidgeted.  “Listen, I wonder, would it be possible for us to get together tomorrow?  I know it’s short notice, but I have a situation I’d like to discuss with you.”

“Tomorrow?”

“If tomorrow’s inconvenient, perhaps Sunday.  I wouldn’t press you, Gabe, unless this situation was delicate and urgent.”  He swept the room with his eyes.

I zipped through my calendar that these days fit comfortably in my head, not like in the Trumpet days when my Daytimer dwarfed War and Peace.  I had earmarked the afternoon for a quick drive to Schaumburg, the suburban megasprawl due south of High Hills and west of Chicago.  I wanted to peek at Ecstasy, a day spa petitioning to expand into High Hills.  Our zoning committee had recommended it for approval by the board of trustees, of which I was a duly elected member.  Two other trustees and I were dubious of Ecstasy.  Investigating it was also an opportunity to lower the top on my yellow ’67 Mustang and open it up on Route 53.  In the evening Beth and I planned to catch a movie, followed by an after-hours dinner with the family at The Five Dynasties.  I shuffled my calendar, bumping the Schaumburg jaunt to Monday, praying for another day of sunny autumn weather, an iffy proposition.

“Tomorrow’s fine,” I said.  “I can drive over to Lake Forest in the afternoon.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d prefer meeting at my city place.  As I said, it is delicate.”

His city place?  That struck me as odd.  I’d been to the condo many times when Doreen was living.  Chuck always referred to it as their city place.

“Are things all right at home?” I asked, wondering if Beth had been right about Lori all along, and that somehow she was the source of Chuck’s problem.

“No, no,” he said quickly, “it’s a business matter.”

I stared at him.  We hadn’t conducted business in years.

“I forget to pay a Gatewood Graphics invoice?”

Slowly, he pulled his hands from his pockets, used them to fiddle with his collar, then dropped both to his sides and drummed his legs.

“Forgive me.  You’ve been on the sidelines for a while.”

“Three years,” I said.

“That long?” he remarked, absently, as if my retirement had just occurred to him.  Then earnestly, as if we were again tucked in a booth facing each other over coffee at the Cambridge Restaurant on Ontario, one of a thousand cookie-cutter Greek-run joints littering the city, he said, “Our growth’s been nothing short of astounding in that time, Gabe.  We’ve added Brunswick, Stein Roe, and other major accounts.  Sales are up dramatically.”

“You could always sell, Chuck,” I complimented, my tone bright with admiration.  “You know, I’ve always appreciated your guidance.  I couldn’t have built Trumpet without you.”

“Thanks, Gabe.  But I’m beginning to doubt myself.”

“Sales are up.  That doesn’t sound like a problem to me.”

“Yes, sales are through the roof.  Trouble is, we’re losing money.  Gatewood Graphics has always been profitable, until recently.  Admittedly, we’ve expanded quite aggressively.  We built new space, purchased two new six-color presses — real monsters, hired more people.  But you know me, Gabe.  I’m like my father.  I don’t believe in buying market share at the cost of profit.  I’m Old World, old economy, that way.  This expansion was no different.  I had the company budgeted for profit.  And everything appears in line.  Our expenses are precisely what we had anticipated.  And sales are better than we expected.”

“How’s cash flow?  Any rise in delinquency?  Maybe you aren’t pushing hard enough in that department,” I said eagerly.  I was practically sprinting from the sidelines onto the field.

“No.  I’m afraid that’s not the problem.”

“Any ideas?”

“Unfortunately, yes.”  He shifted his eyes from me to the room, then back.  He started to speak, then paused.  He gazed at his feet.  His face colored.  Finally, he looked at me and said softly, “I think somebody is embezzling funds.”

It was stunning news.  Had I ever discovered an employee stealing from Trumpet, soft-pedaling the knowledge to a friend would not be on my list of actions.  And while Chuck was patrician in many regards, as a businessman, I’d always known him to be tough.  Fair but tough, and not afraid to move forcefully.  I thought there had to be more to the situation than ordinary thievery, something impeding the decisiveness I knew him perfectly capable of.  Maybe his quiet manner, which struck me as almost verging on defeat, involved someone close to him.

“Any idea who?” I asked.

“I have someone in mind.”

“Who?”

“I’d rather not say just yet, not here.”

“Have you spoken to your attorney?”

“No.  At the moment it’s speculation.  I’ve nothing really firm.  Bringing Bertie in at this point might damage reputations unnecessarily.”  He took another peek at his feet, signaling this wasn’t easy for him.  “That’s why I’m asking for your help.  I respect your discretion as well as your sharp eye for detail.  I thought if you and I examined the records we might uncover solid proof supporting my suspicions.”

“Of course, Chuck, I’ll help you any way I can.”

“I’m grateful, Gabe.  If you don’t mind, I have an additional request.  Please refrain from mentioning our conversation to Beth.  It may be embezzlement or simply an elementary case of poor management.”  He shrugged.  “I wouldn’t want to tarnish the reputation of someone if it was merely a matter of stupidity.”

“I won’t say a word,” I said, as I immediately speculated about who might be the person he had in mind.  It had to be someone known to both Beth and me.  How many Gatewood people did she know?  How many did I know now, three years after doing daily business with Gatewood Graphics?  Not enough to fill a matchbook cover.

He sighed.  “Wonderful.  I’ll see you at, say, one?”

“Count on it.”

“Well then,” he said, clamping a big hand on my shoulder and squeezing, more like the man I’d known, “I’d love to linger, but I have to check on Lori.  Tell Beth I enjoyed the party and regret not saying good-bye personally.”

I nodded farewell and watched him wend his way out the room.  Maybe it was the dim light, the smoky haze, or knowing the weight he carried, but he appeared slightly bent, a man saying so long to his prime.

Two martinis in me and I was cold sober, but on the plus side, I’d nearly forgotten my melancholy over turning fifty.  I was storming to the defense of a friend and feeling pretty good about it.  I wouldn’t have wished embezzlement on Chuck Gatewood, but I was grateful he had turned to me for help.  And I couldn’t wait to start playing white knight.

“Damn it,” I sputtered, squeezing my glass.  “I need another drink.”

“Jeez, Gabe, Beth said you were down about your birthday.  But slip it into neutral, man, or else Max’ll be defibrillating you with a couple of spoons and a car battery.  And believe me, I haven’t had nearly enough to witness that.”  It was Sal, Beth’s number-one brother, attempting stand up.

“Exactly when did you lawyers start dispensing medical advice?”

“The day folks like you invited us into the OR.”

“Didn’t know criminals were in operating rooms,” I said.

“Shows how sheltered your life is up here in suburbia, Gabe.  They’re there constantly, and not always on the table.

“Oh, for a second, I thought you were branching out, adding ambulance chasing to your letterhead.  Well, if it’s okay with you, Sal, I’ll write my own prescription.  Bombay Sapphire martini straight up, two olives, ice cold.  Lead me to the bar, Counselor.”

“Simply concerned about your health, Gabe, given your age and all.”

I showed Sal my appreciation by scowling at him and turning abruptly for the bar.

Chuck’s predicament and the prospect of rushing to his rescue left me too riled and ornery to properly lubricate myself.  All for the best, anyway, since I’d just wake up useless.  I settled for nursing my third martini until the party shut down.

My spirits were up by the time Beth and I packed my gifts, small treasures like the “You’re 50” toilet paper with a joke on every sheet, the five-o necktie with a flabby fellow swinging from a noose looped over the top of the five, and Max’s wheeled walker.  We thanked Q, Beth’s number-three brother, for the use of the Qing room.  In the parking lot, Beth lugged the box and I trundled the walker to her BMW.  I startled and delighted the party stragglers with a couple of walker wheelies, enhancing the show with prepubescent sound effects.  What the hell, I had the entire year to act my age.

* * *

We pulled into our garage around midnight.

As I cracked open the BMW’s door, Beth laid her hand on my arm and said, “Gabe honey, why don’t you putter around downstairs and give me a few minutes.  I have a surprise for you, but I need about, oh, ten minutes.”

“How about if I putter in the kitchen?”

She playfully chewed her upper lip for a second.  “You’ve been a good boy tonight, Gabe, but be careful.  Kitchens can be dangerous places.”

We dropped the gifts in the family room.  I walked her to the stairs, where we embraced and kissed.

“Does this have anything to do with the surprise?” I asked, pulling her as close as I could, feeling her breasts flatten against my chest, nestling my chin on her shoulder.

She wiggled free and flew up the stairs saying,

“It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if I told you, now would it?”

I heard the bedroom door latch closed and strolled into the kitchen.

Our kitchen was my favorite room.  I liked to cook and Beth loved that I liked it.  It was a big room, a long rectangle lined floor to ceiling with bright white cabinets.  The counters were a deep gray granite.  The refrigerator was a Sub Zero and the range was a Viking.  Beth wanted to go to Sears when we refurbished the kitchen, but I put things in perspective for her.

“Beth,” I said that day as we zoomed by the mall and the Sears store, “why do you drive a BMW?”

She stared at me, confounded, I thought, by my brilliant logic. She swatted my arm. “Gabe Angellini, you don’t play fair.”

I gave my Viking a pat on my way to the Sub Zero.

Even a few drinks send me prowling for anything rich and spicy.  It made me wonder why alcoholics weren’t a population of blimps.  I rummaged around in the Sub Zero, popping lids off Tupperware until I found the Bolognese lasagna I’d prepared the other night.  I debated the merits of brewing a small pot of Colombian versus cracking open a Genesee Cream Ale.  I choose the coffee in deference to Beth’s promise of a surprise and the day I had ahead of me.

I ate the lasagna cold from the Tupperware and replayed what Chuck had told me.  I knew his key people from the days when he was both a client and a supplier of printing services to Trumpet.  I couldn’t picture any of them as embezzlers.  But then I knew them through business, not personally.  And it had been three years since I had seen any of them.  Perhaps for some reason — gambling debts, family problems, drugs, who knew — one of them was desperate for money and would risk everything.  Chuck had mentioned hiring new people.  Maybe it was one of them.  But how could that be, since I got the impression he was concerned about Beth learning the identity of the person he suspected?  Whoever it was, whatever the reason, Chuck and I would nail the person in the afternoon.

I finished, rinsed the Tupperware, fork, and coffee cup and deposited them in the dishwasher.  I switched off the coffeepot.  I hankered for a cigar, a long, rich Hoyo Corona, but it was already twelve-thirty and Beth was waiting.  I checked the doors, doused the lights and climbed the stairs.

Except for a shaft of light spilling from the bathroom across the neatly turned-down bed, the bedroom was dark.  I stepped over to the bathroom.  Beth stood in front of her part of the double vanity.  She studied herself in the mirror.  I leaned against the jamb and watched her.

Beth was a beauty.  She was forty-eight going on thirty-five.  She was a perfect blend of Chinese and Italian.  Her skin was citrine, lustrous and unblemished.  Her hair was coal black, naturally black without a hint of gray.  She wore it cropped as short as a boy’s with a hood’s pompadour in front.  Her eyes were ebony and shined from slight almond orbits.  Her nose was small.  Her lips were full.  Her neck was long and flowed into broad shoulders.  Her back, cleaved by an exquisite valley, tapered to a trim waist.  She was medium height, most of which were legs.

A black camisole hung from her shoulders by spaghetti straps.  It barely covered her round breasts.  It didn’t cover her flat stomach or the flair of her hips.  She perched on black satin slides.  She looked just as she did that first morning twenty-eight years ago.  This was the surprise.

I tried to whistle but it came out as a loud whoosh.  She turned and smiled.

My birthday ended, happily.

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