Behind Lori Baer
I was flat on my stomach; eyes shut tight but wide awake. I yanked the pillow from under my head and clapped it firmly around my ears to muffle the clock radio.
Beth rolled onto her back and murmured. Her head lolled in my direction, sending her little pompadour lopping onto her forehead. I hoisted myself up on an elbow and fluffed it back in place with a finger. I pecked the vacated real estate for good measure. She smiled and pursed her lips lazily. I brushed her lips with mine, quashing the temptation to do more.
Quietly, I slid out of bed and padded into the bathroom. I stood in front of my portion of the vanity and inspected the image in the mirror, wondering for a second who it was that was staring back at me. I’d come to realize that most of us sail through life with certain conceptions about our appearance. I’d always viewed myself as thirty-two. Thirty-two appealed to me. It was young enough to be viral, young enough to have the majority of your life ahead of you. At thirty-two, life was ramping up and you knew something about living. But I wasn’t facing me at thirty-two; me at fifty sized me up, and he was displeased.
“Tough,” I said to him, shifting the faucet lever to hot. “Live with it, pal.” I watched the water hiss from the faucet and waited for the hot to kick in. When steam rose from the sink, I bent over and scrubbed away the sleepiness and my preoccupation with age. I switched back to cold water and brushed my teeth.
Back in the bedroom, I picked underwear, white socks and old pug-gray sweats from my dresser. I grabbed my plastic running watch and dressed in the hallway so as not to disturb Beth.
Downstairs, I fixed a small pot of Colombian. While the drip coffee maker burbled, I went into the mudroom, removed my running shoes from the storage cube where we kept our sports and gardening shoes. I put them on and entered the garage, tapping the automatic door opener as I went. I strolled outside in search of the Chicago Tribune and the Daily Herald, the suburban paper. I found the Trib in the shrubs bordering our street, Friendly Fences Lane. The Herald deliveryman had a stronger arm and had pitched that paper in the middle of the lawn.
In the garage, I slid the papers from their plastic sleeves and scanned the front pages. The Trib reported the usual mélange of international mayhem, political blustering, and street warfare. I slipped it under my arm and ran my eyes over the Herald. Two stories jumped out at me. I walked quickly into the house to read them at the kitchen counter with a coffee.
The first, just below the masthead, proclaimed, “High Hills Trustees Aren’t Ecstatic.” I didn’t much care for the headline. Reporters and ad writers these days couldn’t bring themselves to say anything straight out. They felt compelled to dress up their messages with clever phrasing, and in the case of advertisers, heavy-handed, obscurantist art. Why bother showing the product when a Daliesque scene was, well, fun? Never mind that the approach resulted in an utterly confusing bramble of babble. The creators glowed in the aura of their genius. It was one reason I sold Trumpet; I was sick and tired of catering to the creative aspirations of the miscast; worn-out explaining we were in the business of selling, not entertaining; exhausted sputtering my threadbare advice, “Go West, young creative, to Sedona or Hollywood.”
Once I got past the headline, I found the story was reasonably accurate, and the reporter spelled Angellini correctly, always a plus in my book. He wrote that a ring of us trustees led by me were throwing up the barricades against Ecstasy. We were protecting benighted residents from the ancillary evils of this hedonistic pleasure palace. He was a bit purple, but essentially he had it right. We suspected Ecstasy offered more than Pilates, spinning, Taebo, and massages to put members into healthful states of nirvana. The proprietors, Carmine Collucci Senior and Junior, countered that they ran a classy fitness facility and salon. They claimed some of the best-heeled people in the area as members, citing a few local celebrities as examples. They invited everyone and anyone from High Hills to visit and experience Ecstasy for themselves. At the end, the reporter editorialized that perhaps the spirits of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards were alive and thriving on the village board of High Hills. “At least your parents got real value for that education of yours,” I said to the toaster.
The second article, which began in a bar on the lower left of the page, announced, “More Schools Dismiss Daily Math.” I scanned the piece over a second coffee. Two schools had decided to replace Daily Math with a traditional program, the kind requiring kids to memorize math facts, solve problems, and come up with a single answer, the correct one. Deep in the story, High Hills’ experience was recounted, but Beth’s name didn’t appear. I didn’t think that would disappoint her. I knew that she would be gratified that other districts were finally seeing the light she’d turned on at no small emotional cost to her and me.
I folded the paper neatly for Beth and set it on the counter with the Trib. I loaded my cup in the dishwasher and walked out onto the patio.
We lived on the south side of town in a large New England saltbox clad in cedar clapboard. Shrubbery partially hid the house from street traffic. Flowerbeds surrounded our walkways, the foundation of the house, and the patio. The patio extended the full length of the back of the house. French doors opened onto it from the kitchen and the family room. The east side of my study also overlooked it. It was brick and enclosed by a low, decorative fieldstone wall upon which Beth liked to arrange pots of whatever flowers were in season.
From the patio, our property sloped gently downward for nearly an acre, ending at Milk Run Park, High Hills’ largest. Milk Run Park ran the length of the village. Beyond it and in full view of our house were a field and a bit south the Carr-Johnson Woods. It was a beautiful setting in every season of the year and the reason we settled in High Hills over twenty years ago, just before the birth of our first child, Frank.
I started my warm ups, drinking in the October air, and took in the view. The air was warm, though with a hint of coolness that harbingered the cold a month off. Though the sun had been up for an hour, remnant purple still streaked the horizon. Dew glistened on our lawn, magnifying the green. Our three towering maples, set deep on the property near the park, glowed bright yellow in full autumn bloom.
When I finished with my stretches, I paused for a moment. This scene was like a postcard and never failed to impart to me a comforting sense of serenity and pleasure. That is, until events revolving around Chuck and Lori Gatewood played to a shattering conclusion there, forever tainting its bucolic quality for me.
I trotted down the lawn into the park and onto the paved pathway. I headed north, easing into my run by jogging the first quarter mile. After that I cranked up to full speed, which for me is a seven-minute mile.
By the time I reached the High Hills’ recreation complex, I was at full throttle. I passed the baseball diamonds, soccer fields, the swimming pool, closed since Labor Day, and the recreation center, which contained a health club and basketball court.
My run continued under High Hills’ main drag, Village Parkway. High Hills Mall was west of me, along with other smaller malls and shops, and The Five Dynasties was just east of me. I zipped out of the underpass, then past the schools, including High Hills Primary, where Beth taught. There the path turned west, circled North Lake, and headed up toward Libertyville. I departed the path and ran into Old High Hills, taking Third Street to Main.
Old High Hills was the site of the original town, founded in the 1820s and incorporated in 1848. The most influential family in the area at the time, Carr-Johnson, named the settlement. Isaiah and Samala Carr-Johnson had emigrated from Vermont in the 1820s in search of flat, fertile farmland. They found an abundance of it in northern Illinois; however, they never lost their love for the mountains of Vermont. When the settlement had grown large enough to incorporate, those in the area decided the town needed a better name than 40-Mile Depot, a reference to its distance from Chicago. Isaiah offered High Hills, homage to what he and Samala had sacrificed for their new and prosperous life in the west. Everyone agreed, since Carr-Johnson controlled the most land in the area and shipped more corn through the town than any five other farms combined.
Old High Hills was our historic district, and like others I’d seen around the country, it possessed the right degree of kitschy quaintness. For the most part, the buildings were small brick-fronted commercial structures dating from as early as the 1890s. Shops selling baskets, candles, antiques, and Christmas goods occupied them. There also was a general store, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor with a fountain, and an art shop packed with hunting and nostalgic scenes. All were closed when I trotted through.
I jogged along Main to its junction with Route 45. I ran along the highway until I came to the entrance of The Farm, our subdivision. There I slowed to a jog and followed Long Pasture Road to Friendly Fences Lane, puffing to a stop on our patio. I checked my watch and discovered I’d completed the circuit in an hour and five minutes. That worked out to about nine miles, better than my promise. I patted my sides and imagined my handles considerably diminished.
I grabbed a glass of water in the kitchen and gulped it down as I kicked off my shoes. Then I went upstairs to shower and dress.
Beth was on her belly sleeping. She had shimmied the covers down, exposing acres of shimmering back. I was tempted for the second time, but was too tired and sweaty to act. I went into the bathroom, stripped and showered.
In the bedroom, I clumped around pulling on underwear, socks, a plaid sport shirt and khaki slacks; and this serenade of familiar morning clatter gradually brought her to consciousness. She rolled on her side, wedged her head up with an arm, blinked and yawned as I wiggled my feet into a pair of boaters.
“Good morning,” I said, bending, planting a kiss in her hair, allowing my eyes to wander down to her breasts.
She sat up, stretched, yawned again, and pulled the wayward covers up over her chest. Her pompadour flopped onto her forehead. “You know, Gabe, during our first year, I thought you woke up cheerful because you were glad I said yes.” She scooted the runaway hair home with a flip of her finger. “But over the years I’ve discovered — it’s a genetic defect.”
“I love you, too,” I laughed, strapping on the Hamilton tank watch she’d presented to me on our wedding day, and which I’d worn every day since. “Breakfast in half an hour.”
“It better be good.”
It was good as it gets. I prepared giant Angellini omelets, stuffed with Canadian bacon, mushrooms, red and green peppers, and sliced black olives. I coated lightly toasted wheat bread with blueberry jam. And I brewed a second pot of Colombian, extra strength.
Beth shuffled into the kitchen as I placed the omelets on the large oak table situated near the French doors. She wore her red silk lounging pajamas piped in black, the blouse of which hung revealingly loose, secured by a button near the bottom.
I set a coffee in front of her and offered her the Herald.
“You’re in the paper again, I see,” she said, focusing on the Ecstasy story.
“Go to the bottom of the page,” I directed, at my place and already chomping down on a healthy slice of omelet.
Her eyes sparkled and a broad smile cut across her face.
“I thought you’d like that,” I commented around a hunk of toast.
We finished our breakfast in silence as she finished the Daily Math article. While I cleaned up, she leafed through the rest of the Herald. When I rejoined her at the table, I noticed her lingering over the obits. She rarely read them; I couldn’t pass them up.
“Anything I should know about?” I asked.
She stared at me, very serious. I had begun to think someone we knew had died. Tapping the paper, she said, “Good news. You’re not in them today.”
I smiled sheepishly. “Okay, I might have blown the birthday thing a tad out of proportion.”
“A left-handed apology if I ever heard one. But it’ll do. Anyway, I’ll be at the mall later this afternoon. You going to Schaumburg?”
“I was, but I’ve pushed that back to Monday. Chuck Gatewood asked me to stop by his place this afternoon.”
She arched an eyebrow.
“Just Chuck and me at his city apartment. I should be back by five.”
“How’s he doing? I saw him to say hello but didn’t have an opportunity to chat with him.”
“Oh, he’s fine,” I said, casually.
This may have come from working with second-graders, but Beth had an uncanny ability to detect ulterior meanings in the simplest statements. “Is there a problem?” she asked.
“Problem?” I mimicked, checking my shirt cuffs.
“Yes, as in, did he finally wake up and see his wife for what she is?” She squinted at me in the Tomassetti style.
“Everything’s fine between them as far as I know. Actually, he would like my advice on a business matter. He’s been expanding and has run into a glitch,” I said, confident I wasn’t violating the promise I’d made to Chuck.
“What kind of glitch?” she asked, turning the pages of the paper, as if her interest were merely idle chatter.
“Sounded like cash flow.”
“Oh. Sorry to hear it. I always liked Chuck and Doreen.”
“Bad girl,” I said, reaching over and stroking her hand. Then to end the fishing, I asked, “Did I mention I ran nine miles this morning?”
“Impressive for someone on the brink.”
“Me vigorous,” I said, standing and thumping my chest.
“Hmm,” she smiled, folding the paper and tossing it on the table, “care to prove it?”
* * *
Chuck Gatewood’s condo was located on North Lake View Avenue, adjacent to Lincoln Park. I wheeled my Jag S-Type in front of his building around 12:30. Since I was a half-hour early and Beth wasn’t with me, I decided to scout for street parking, no mean feat, especially on Saturday. Every Chicagoan and half the suburbs seemed to want to be in the park on the weekend, and every single one of them drove, or so it appeared by the traffic clogging Lake View, Stockton, and every side street within reasonable walking distance of the condo building.
If Beth had been with me, we would have been in a garage within five minutes of arriving. She didn’t agree that a spot on the street was as close to driving heaven as you could get in the city. “Life’s too short, Gabe,” she’d say, or shout, depending on how long I’d been prowling or how late we were for one of Chuck and Doreen’s parties. “Park in a garage. We can afford it.”
“Affording is hardly the point,” I’d sniff. “There’s a principle at stake here. Why should I pay for air?”
Scanning the rows of cars butted so tightly sunlight couldn’t sneak through, I though she might have a point. I checked my watch. I had squandered my half-hour. Maybe it was time to garage the Jag up on Clark.
Then at that very moment, fortune smiled on me. I was heading south on Lake View when a Taurus darted directly in front of me, leaving a spot large enough for the Jag. I hit the brakes hard to avoid him and hoped whoever was tailing me had quick reflexes. Amid incensed honking, I slipped into the slot in two quick turns. I was a block from Chuck’s place and only ten minutes late. I clocked another minute sitting in the car basking in the glares of jealous passing hunters.
After locking up the Jag, I walked quickly to Chuck’s building. It was a handsome Twenties dowager done in neogothic style, sort of a cathedral to the moneyed class of the time. The skin was red brick, patined to deep rust by the decades. The windows were vertical, filled with leaded glass set in concrete casings and pointed skyward at their apexes. The double doors were immense and varnished to a high luster. Each contained a wrought iron viewing grate.
And they were heavy. I nearly popped a muscle opening one. I stepped into a small vestibule and faced two modern glass doors. I pushed on one and it didn’t budge.
“Good afternoon, sir,” said a trebly voice.
“Good afternoon,” I replied to a small speaker I saw recessed the in the ceiling.
“How may I be of service?”
“I have an appointment,” I said, again to the ceiling speaker, “with Charles Gatewood.”
The doors buzzed and automatically parted inward. I walked in and up to the man at the lectern. He was short and stout with a round face and glossy pate fringed with gray hair. He wore a perfectly tailored blue suit, crisp white shirt, gold and blue regimental tie, and a pair of practical black Rockports. Except for those Rockports, he could have passed for a banker. He looked up from the appointment book he was studying.
“Whom may I say is calling?”
I told him. He checked his book and said, “Mr. Gatewood left a request that you go up immediately. The elevator is this way, sir. Allow me to assist you.”
He led me, glancing over his shoulder to be sure I didn’t wander off.
The lobby was as I remembered it. Walls paneled in rosewood. Black marble floor polished to mirror brightness. No furniture outside of the doorman’s lectern. A no-loitering sign couldn’t have done a better job of discouraging people from congregating in that lobby.
I followed behind him to the rear of the lobby. The elevator control panel was barely visible. The doors themselves blended into the paneling. He pressed the call button and two paneled doors slid apart. He stepped over the threshold and gestured me onto the car. As I boarded, he reached in and depressed the button for the twentieth floor.
“Mr. Gatewood is in Twenty A, sir. You will find that to your left as you exit,” he said, releasing the button and gingerly removing himself from the elevator.
The car, paneled in the same rosewood as the lobby, ascended swiftly and quietly. I moved to the rear and sat on the leather-cushioned bench, an amenity peculiar to a more genteel age. I imagined famous people reclining on that bench. I’d heard a contingent of the Field family of Marshall Field’s renown kept an apartment in this building. I looked around the car, noticing that it was immaculate as the lobby. I supposed the doorman would be sweeping away my presence the moment it dropped into his domain.
The elevator opened onto a corridor lit miserly by sconces positioned just above eye level. Richly patterned Axminister wool carpeting covered the floor. The corridor terminated at two polished rosewood doors, one to the right, one to the left. I turned left.
Twenty A was discretely etched into the hinge ball of a burnished brass knocker. Above it was a brass placard of equal sheen inscribed in script, “Mr. and Mrs. Charles J. Gatewood.”
I banged the knocker and while I waited I idly shifted my eyes down a second, narrower corridor that ran perpendicular to the front and rear of the building. It separated the elevator core and Chuck’s condo. There was a second door at the end, I recalled, opposite a service elevator room. This entrance opened into the kitchen of the apartment. It was another throwback to different times when residents maintained staffs who received delivery people out of sight. Staring down the dim corridor, I thought I saw a knife line of light from the kitchen door, but ignored it, turning my attention back to the knocker.
I lifted the knocker a second time and glanced at my watch. I was now half an hour late. I hammered, wondering if Chuck had given up on me. I wouldn’t have blamed him. But that didn’t make much sense, I reasoned. If Chuck had left the building, the doorman wouldn’t have allowed me up.
I swung my eyes down the corridor again and studied the light. Maybe he was in the kitchen whipping up lunch for us and couldn’t hear me knocking. I shrugged and ambled toward the kitchen door. As I got closer, I saw it was ajar, leaking a sliver of light across the carpet. I rapped on it, but Chuck didn’t answer.
Putting my mouth to the jamb, I called, “Chuck, it’s me, Gabe. Sorry I’m late.”
Still he didn’t answer. I stood for a minute puzzled. He wouldn’t leave with the door unlatched. I guessed he was in his study. It was in the back of the apartment. If he was there, he might not be able to hear me.
I pushed the door open and peeked my head inside. “Chuck, it’s me, Gabe,” I called louder. “I’m late, but I’m here.” My voice echoed in the kitchen.
I edged in and for a second I thought I might have the wrong apartment. I didn’t recognize this kitchen. It was completely changed from my last visit, which must have been more than three years ago. It bore the signature touches of a high priced decorator. The walls, floor, cabinets and appliances were a monochromatic blend of grays and blacks. The last time I’d seen it, flowered paper, periwinkles on a white background as I remembered, was on the walls. The cabinets were oak. The counters where white. The linoleum, a brick pattern, was worn. It was a used kitchen cluttered with copperware dangling from ceiling racks and piquant from hundreds of meals prepared by Doreen.
The new kitchen was sterile, spotless, slightly antiseptic. Only a partly opened draw gave evidence that the room had been used recently. Three incandescent lamps, set in a row and suspended on gray metal stalks, were on. They bathed the room in sallow light.
It had to be Lori’s work, her attempt to wipe away the memory of Doreen and mark this as her territory. It certainly exhibited her penchant for orderliness, reflecting perfectly the way she had kept her cubicle at Trumpet clear of everything but the business at hand.
I pulled the door closed behind me and stood in the center of the kitchen. I glanced in the open draw, saw cutlery and fingered it shut, just as I would have done in my own kitchen.
“Chuck, it’s Gabe,” I called. “The kitchen door was open, so I let myself in. Hope you don’t mind.” More silence.
While it appeared Chuck had left, it made no sense to me. Last night, he said we would be working here today. Even if I was late, it stood to reason that he would be checking over whatever it was he wanted me to help him with. If he did leave, he’d certainly close the door. He’d switch off the lights. And, anyway, why would he leave by the kitchen door? Unless he had a reason to take the service elevator.
A shadow of uneasiness crept over me. When Chuck left me last night, he looked haggard, as if this embezzlement affair was getting the best of him, wearing him down like water does stone. Chuck was a hardy, robust man, but situations can get the best of anyone. I read about it everyday in the obits. Seemingly healthy men in their fifties and sixties keeling over in their offices, on business trips, at home, done in suddenly by grueling schedules. I’d decided long ago I would not allow that to happen to me; it was another reason I sold Trumpet when I did. But Chuck wasn’t like me in this regard. His work was as vital to his life as his blood.
Eyeing the cutlery drawer I’d closed, I was sure Chuck must have been in the kitchen. Perhaps he’d been in here getting a little lunch and something had happened. Maybe he thought he was having a heart attack. Even athletes have had sudden heart attacks. Didn’t that runner Jim Fix have a heart problem? If it could happen to him, why not people like Chuck and me? I’d thought about the possibly many times while running around High Hills, especially recently.
Chuck could have been opening the drawer when he suddenly felt a constriction in his chest. I surveyed the room and saw a black wall phone. I went over to it and picked it up. It was working. But that doesn’t mean anything, I told myself. He could have panicked. Anybody could panic in a crisis. If he had, he might have attempted to get downstairs for help. And if he had been in the kitchen, going for the service elevator would have been logical.
I rushed from the apartment and into the service room. It was a large area of block walls coated in white enamel with a rusty red enameled floor. Every inch of it was empty. I checked the elevator’s floor counter. It registered twenty-two. If Chuck was in the middle of an emergency, I figured he wouldn’t go up. If he wasn’t here and not on the elevator, he had to be in the apartment.
I returned to the kitchen with trepidation: Something had happened, but what? I crossed to the restaurant style double doors. I peered into the dining room through a diamond-cut porthole in the right door. Lori and her minimalist designer had struck there too. It had been a formal room dressed in satin moiré burgundy wallpaper that dropped to a white chair rail. Ribbon paper had run to the floor. The table and chairs had been Sheraton and a large breakfront had displayed Doreen’s collection of Barvarian china. It had been a warm room lighted by dozens of candles, peopled by guests who had talked loudly, drank liberally, and carried on as if parties at the Gatewood’s would go on until Lake Michigan decided to reclaim the shoreline.
It was vanished now, replaced by stark white walls and a glass top dining table that floated on an ersatz rock molded from plaster. Stuffed chairs with high rolled backs and dressed in muted beige and white flame cloth were tucked under the glass. A huge black lacquer breakfront glittered with gaudy crystal.
Through the archway, I could see the living room — once cluttered with easy chairs and two oversize sofas covered in rich jacquard weaves of burgundy, green and white, and mahogany tables piled with books and magazines — was now a lackluster shade of white and nearly empty in comparison to what had gone before. A sectional covered in a white nubbed cloth snaked from wall to wall. A large brass and glass coffee table nestled in its curve. Four plush club chairs in the same white fabric ringed the table. The only color came from a colossal oil on the long free wall to the right, a crazy swirl of primary colors, like a Pollock.
I pushed through the doors and nearly jumped when they thumped closed behind me. I passed through the dining room into the living room. An archway was off to the left. It led to the apartment’s three bedrooms.
I lingered in the archway, glancing down the hall. The hallway was empty. The doors were closed.
“Chuck,” I said, “it’s Gabe. Are you in your office?” My words bounced back at me. I didn’t expect an answer, but I was hoping. I decided to work my way down to his office by looking in each bedroom. I don’t know why; I was probably delaying, wishing he would barge from his office and say he’d played a good one on me.
I went to the first door and opened it slowly, afraid of what I might find. I poked my head in. It was the master bedroom. It was a huge room, white like the rest of the apartment, dominated by a kingsize bed with a cushioned backboard, flanked by nightstands holding reading lamps and a cordless phone. Lori’s taste. Everything brand-new, like anything old offended her. There was a little color by way of a peach settee, peach curtains, and throw pillows in various melon shades.
I closed the door and moved on to the second room. I opened the door and ducked my head in. It was smaller and arranged as a guestroom. It contained a double bed and a long, low dresser. Same absence of color.
Approaching the third bedroom, I saw that the door was open. I stood in the jamb and surveyed it. It was set up as a study and was the only room Lori and her designer hadn’t changed. Chuck must have thrown up the barricades here and declared his domain. Good for you, Chuck, I thought.
Mahogany bookcases fronted with leaded glass doors lined the left wall. Low mahogany storage cabinets, crowned and joined with a countertop, ran along the right. The usual assortment of office machines — printer, small photocopier, fax — were arranged on the counter. A large wooden desk with modesty panel faced the door. Two small red leather club chairs were parked in front of it. A high-backed wing chair was behind it, swiveled to the window. A sickroom smell fouled the air.
“Chuck, are you in here?” I said, timidly. My mouth was suddenly dry and I wanted to be back in the kitchen.
I edged toward the desk and noticed the green-shaded banker’s lamp toppled and shattered on it. A black telephone was turned over, the receiver out of sight, the cord indicating that it dangled on the window side of the desk. My stomach churned. The odor was stronger, unmistakably excrement. Nausea clogged my throat. I wished I had a cigar to mask the smell.
I approached the desk, raised an arm and considered spinning the chair around, but I hesitated. I was afraid of what I’d find.
I sidled around the left of the desk. That’s when I saw the foot. It was clad in a brown tasseled loafer, the style and brand I recalled Chuck preferred. I gripped the edge of the desk, fearing to move closer, thinking that I had been right about the heart attack.
I fought the desire to turn and flee to the kitchen and dial 911. Maybe I could do something. Maybe he was still alive.
I came around the desk and saw Chuck on the floor. He lay on his left side. His right leg, the one I’d seen, extended straight out. His left was pulled up, knee nearly touching his stomach. His hands clutched his chest. His head and shoulders curled toward his knee. As I reached down to check for a pulse, I saw his hands grasping the hilt of a knife. I recognized the brand, Wüsthof. Blood still oozed from between his fingers and puddled on the floor.
I held my left hand over my mouth and nose as I crouched down and fingered his carotid artery with my right. His skin was tepid, but he had no pulse.
I examined his face. His eyes were clouded and vacant. His lips stretched over his teeth in a cruel grimace. Rusty sputum spotted them. It flashed in my mind. This had just happened. He’s been dead for no more than a few minutes. And I could have prevented this, if I’d arrived on time, if I’d parked in a lot. I might have banged on the door just as the killer was assaulting Chuck. I might have scared him off.
I touched his lifeless shoulder and whispered, “Sorry, Chuck.”
I stood and edged to the front of the desk, putting Chuck’s body out of my view. I pulled the phone up by the cord and braced the receiver to my ear with my left shoulder. I pumped the switch hook until I got a dial tone. I punched in 911. When the dispatcher answered, I told her there’d been a murder. I thought I was calm, but she asked me to repeat the address, the phone number, even my name a couple of times. Sure, I was calm and in control. But my right hand had a terrible case of St. Vitus.
She ordered me to wait; officers would arrive in a few minutes. I dropped the receiver in the cradle and backed away from the desk. I couldn’t bear staying in the room with him, so I retreated into the kitchen, as far away from Chuck as I could get without leaving. I nearly wore the shine off the floor pacing.
My mind sped like a racecar on an oval speedway, expending plenty of energy but getting nowhere. The idea pounded in my head: I might have saved Chuck if I’d arrived a few minutes earlier. Instead I had to placate my atavism over a parking place. I leaped from thought to thought, like a frantic rabbit scurrying left and right, back and forth, frightened by instinct. Who would tell Lori? What was she doing now, completely unaware that her husband was here in their apartment with me, dead? Was Chuck’s killer nearby, maybe still in the building? Was that why the service elevator was up on twenty-two? Was the killer the person Chuck suspected of embezzling? When would the police get here, and what would they make of this?
Nervously, I checked my watch. Five minutes had passed and no police. I needed to talk to somebody, and the only person who came to mind, the only person who would understand, was Beth. She said she was going shopping in the afternoon, but she had said later.
I picked up the kitchen phone and dialed home.
“Hi, Gabe,” she said drowsily. I thought how lucky I was to have her and how much I wanted to be with her in our family room on the sofa, her beside me, doing anything, even if it was just gazing out the window at the lawn and trees and everything familiar and safe.
“How’s Chuck?” she asked. I heard papers rustle and the television drone low in the background. I pictured her in the family room tucked in the corner of the sofa with an afghan thrown over her legs, school papers beside her, doing two things at once.
I groped for a way to tell her about Chuck, but there was no other way than flat out. “He’s dead, Beth.”
“Just a minute, Gabe,” she said, papers soughing through the line, “let me lower the TV. I don’t think I understood you.”
“There, that’s better,” she said. “Now, what about Chuck?”
“He’d dead, Beth,” I said dully.
“Oh, no,” she answered, a hitch of shock in her voice. “He looked fine last night.”
“Somebody murdered him.”
“Murdered? That can’t be.” No, it can’t, I thought. People we know aren’t murdered. Murder was something we read about in the paper and saw on the news; it was something Hollywood concocted to amuse and thrill us; and when it happened, it was in distant places, on dark streets, in the shadows of hulking blown out towers, in night shrouded alleys; bodies surfaced in gutters, in dumpsters, in deserted three-flats; anywhere but places like Lake View and Friendly Fences.
“Gabe, are you all right?”
“Sure, fine,” I said distantly, miles from being fine, questioning if I would ever be fine again.
“Who would murder Chuck?” she asked haltingly, in a tone I took for bewilderment.
“I don’t know,” I stammered, “maybe whoever was embezzling from his business.”
“Gabe, what are you talking about? Embezzlement? You never told me anything about that.” Her words had an edge too them along which skated the faintest hint of indignation. I could see the question lurking in her mind. Didn’t we agree to share everything about the Gatewoods, since The Incident with Lori?
“Chuck told me last night. He asked me to keep it between ourselves, Beth. He didn’t want to expose the person before he was absolutely sure.”
“And who’s that person — Lori? Somehow she’s got her fingers in his business now?”
“No, it’s not her. He didn’t say. He was going to tell me today. But I’m sure it wasn’t her.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure, Gabe,” she said, cooling, letting it go. “Where’s Chuck?”
“He’s in his study. The killer used a Wüsthof on him.”
“A what?” Beth wasn’t up on kitchenware. Once she was, but not since our youngest went off to college and she retired from domestic duty.
“A kitchen knife. It looks like the killer stabbed him dozens of times.”
“Where are you now?”
“In Chuck’s apartment. In the kitchen.”
“Are the police there?”
“Any minute. I called a few minutes ago.”
“What did you touch, Gabe?” she asked, calmly, almost methodically, revealing her Tomassetti side; the little girl who quizzed her father on crimes and procedures the moment he crossed the threshold; and my wife, who knew me better than anyone, and who accepted my pesky habits, like fingering everything in sight as if I was a kid in a toy store the week before Christmas.
“Yes, the front door knocker, kitchen door, counters. Lots of things. God, Beth, I didn’t know he was dead when I walked in. The study phone too when I called nine-one-one. This
phone — ”
“Did you disturb the body — I mean Chuck?” She sounded like Tommy, the intonation brisk, ticking off items on a procedural checklist.
“No. I checked for a pulse, but didn’t move him.”
“Well, stay where you are. Don’t touch anything else. Be sure you let the police know what you did touch.”
I nodded and said, “Yes.”
“Are you okay?” she asked tenderly. “Should I come down?”
Yes, I wanted to say. Jump in your BMW and fly down here, Beth, because I’ve never needed you more than at this very moment. “No, I’m fine,” I quavered. “Shaken, but fine.”
“Have you called anybody else, besides the police I mean?”
“No. Who would I call?”
“You didn’t call Lori Gatewood I hope. Because she –”
“No, of course not,” I said, stiffening, not wanting to battle over Lori, not wanting to consider if she could be the one, as Beth seemed to intimate. Lori couldn’t do that to Chuck, not the Lori I thought I knew.
“Gabe, honey, I didn’t mean anything by that. But I know you. Better a friend breaks the news than a stranger. That’s you, Gabe.”
“Sorry, it’s just that …”
“I understand.” The line was quiet for a minute, then she said, “I think I should call Sal.”
“It’s prudent, Gabe. I didn’t live in the Tomassetti house for twenty years without learning a thing or two about cops. They’re paid to be suspicious. I’ll give Sal Chuck’s number. What is it?”
“You think I need a lawyer?”
It was then that it struck me: I had to be a suspect. I was here with the body. It wasn’t unknown that a killer would be found with his victim, not out of the realm of experience that a killer would himself call the police. Tommy had on occasion related such tales. Murder by passion, and when the blinding red heat had subsided, when reality thundered back, remorse followed hard on. Amateurs, Tommy called them, unintentional killers who didn’t have a clue about what to do next; who were too scared to run; who were frozen by their own runaway wrath.
She sighed. “I think it doesn’t hurt to listen to an expert. The number, Gabe.”
I gave it to her, convinced now that every cop who tramped through the door would see me as the suspect; the killer who was too dumb to get out when he could.
“Gabe, I love you. Call me the minute you leave.”
I let her hang up first, hoping that she wouldn’t. I wanted us to talk for hours about the weather, her kids, the color of the maples. Reluctantly, I hung up the phone on dead air.
I checked my watch again. Eight minutes had passed since I had called 911. The city that worked didn’t seem to be.
I looked around for a place to sit, and noticed for the first time that there wasn’t so much as a stool in the kitchen. Doreen had squeezed a small table and four chairs in the room. She enjoyed chatting with people in the kitchen while she busied herself at the counter. It was another difference between her and Lori.
I decided to wait in the living room. I couldn’t do more harm than I already had. I wandered behind the sofa and gazed out at Lake Michigan and down twenty floors to the street. Lake View and Stockton were jammed with cars inching through the park. People strolled along the sidewalks and pathways. A few walked dogs and carried baggies or scoopers that looked like carpet sweepers. Joggers, bicyclists, and rollerbladers zigged and zagged around the walkers. A group of young men and women flung a Frisbee around. Just a typical Saturday in Lincoln Park.
Except that one of my oldest friends was dead, murdered by a party or parties unknown. It didn’t take a pathologist to conclude he hadn’t been dead long. Blood seeping through his fingers told the story. The death wounds were freshly inflicted. I couldn’t escape the knowledge that had I arrived on time, Chuck and I would be pouring over financial records.
Staring far out where the sky and lake met, my sole consolation was the day couldn’t get worse.