Behind Lori Baer, 3

Behind Lori Baer

Chapter 3

Back in Patroon Manor, New York, where I grew up, I was a Boy Scout.  I wasn’t the best scout.  I don’t know why, since I’d always wanted to wear the brown uniform jazzed with smart splashes of bright red.  Maybe it was because I didn’t have a father or an older brother to show me the ropes.  I started with both, and a mother too; but they died in a car accident for which I continued to feel partly responsible.

On the other hand, my friend Francis McCann was the best scout in the history of Patroon Manor.  With a name like Francis and a diminutive stature, thin and short, he had little choice and buckets of motivation for achieving greatness.  I sometimes envied his name (but never his size), though maybe I just wanted to be somebody other than the boy who lived with his aunt and grandmother, neither of whom seemed quite right. 

The name Francis resting on the shoulders of a boy who appeared recently out of diapers brought out the bully in kids as if the combination of name and size was a red flag.  Usually the tormenting occurred at the start of a school year, after the summer had erased the consequences of the previous year from bully minds.  These fellows — the tormentors — were split brained about McCann’s name.  Brain A types teased Francis by calling him a fat ass runt, the ass being a reference to Francis, the Fifties talking mule of movie fame.  Brain B settled for Francis the sissy, and they weren’t punning the saint. 

Like the great scout he was, Francis McCann was prepared.  He dealt with the boys’ unreasonable behavior by beating their heads flat at the first provocation.  And he grew to enjoy it.  I suppose that led to him becoming a Green Beret.  And why his name’s in Washington, D.C., etched on the Vietnam Memorial.

Anyway, I wasn’t a McCann scout, but I was respectable.  Most of scouting made perfect sense to me, especially its clichéd, but nonetheless true, rule:  Be prepared.  Preparedness had always paid off for me, in school, business, and family life. 

That’s why in the turbulent wake of Chuck’s mysterious and brutal death, my unpreparedness astonished me.  This was even more stunning because, one way or another, people closest to me were associated with law enforcement, and a little of what each knew had rubbed off on me, though maybe too little.

First off, there was Tommy, ex Chicago cop.  He was such a cop, even retired, that he bled blue.  I’m sure Mae Chen had to wonder many times if she or the force was his mate.  Tommy loved the work to the bitter end jockeying a desk at 3150 South Michigan.  His beloved department did everything they legally could to shoehorn him into retirement, but their efforts did nothing to tarnish his love of the CPD and the trenches; the streets remained tattooed on his heart. 

Out of his blues, he steered in a direction completely opposite to that of his contemporaries, most of whom contented themselves with doting away their golden years.  Tommy set up TLA and arranged to get paid for stalking shoplifters in the aisles of department stores and supermarkets.  Equal to his love of action was his desire to impart his wisdom at every opportunity, though he restrained himself, sometimes visibly swelling with the need to release his reservoir of history at meals, a consideration for which his family was grateful. 

Tommy loved to shoot his service revolver, a clunky .38 Smith and Wesson.  Beth and I enjoyed shooting, too, and often we’d invite him up from Coptown, a swatch of Chicago’s Northwest side where cops huddled in miniature houses to comply with the city’s residency rule, to join us at Al Bung’s Gun Shop and Shooting Emporium in Waukegan.  Just holding the .38 conjured images in his mind of experiences he’d had or had heard about from his buddies.  And he poured them forth, nearly stream of conscious, as we waited for shooting time, as I loaded and reloaded my Dan Wesson .357 and refilled the clips for Beth’s S&W .380, and as we rumbled back to High Hills on Route 21, in my ‘67 Mustang when the weather was nice.

Sal was the formally trained legalist, one of Chicago’s top criminal lawyers molded at Kent, who challenged even Tommy’s finely honed sense of justice.  Sal passionately believed it was incumbent upon the state to make its case against anybody it hauled in, including against those discovered waving a smoking gun over the dear departed.  It wasn’t that he relished defending the obviously guilty.  It was that he refused to place stock in the obvious, for his was a world without straight lines, where nothing was black or white, a place where society could hold the hand of the miscreant, guiding him on the righteous path, or whisper like a devil balanced on an ear that execution was the way to go.  He figured if we succumbed to the siren notion of chauffeuring the wicked directly to Stateville, the same zealotry would widen the highway
for us all. 

Then there was Gary Cabot, High Hills’ police chief.  He was a regular bicycling buddy, a friend through our shared interest in intense physical activity even before the people elected me a trustee.  Gary’s world revolved around administration.  He was a CEO of uniformed men and women who reported to a board of certified know-it-alls.  He talked a lot about organization, motivation, and small-time politics.  But just as often, he liked describing investigational procedures, techniques, and innovations employed by his officers. 

So, I should have been prepared when the 18th District’s vanguard presented themselves at Chuck’s apartment ten minutes after 911 had instructed me to wait in the apartment. 

Sure thing, just like I’d be prepared for a mugger on Michigan Avenue at high noon.

One of the uniformed cops was fat, the other skinny, and it seemed to me they were an appropriate pairing, like Oliver and Hardy. 

“You the caller?” Hardy said in that clipped tone cops employ when they’re unsure if they’re addressing friend or foe and assume, for safety’s sake, they’re drawing a bead on a disaster looking for a place to happen.

I said I was, and Hardy asked me to show them Chuck; he called Chuck the body.  I led them to the study.  They gazed on the carnage for a minute, cupping their hands over their noses to fend off the odor accumulating in the study, hemming and hawing through their fingers.  Finally, Oliver towed me into the corridor, leaving Hardy to secure the crime scene.

Oliver parked me at the entrance of the neighboring apartment.  He stepped to the elevators, where he radioed there was a murder to investigate, and they were in the process of securing the scene and interviewing the caller.  Then Oliver questioned me.

I was effusive to a fault.  Partly it was my nature to talk.  The other part was I hadn’t had a conversation since breakfast with Beth.  I described events in detail, from the meeting at my birthday party, to my search of the apartment and fear that Chuck may have suffered a heart attack, to my discovery of his body and my suspicion that whoever was embezzling from Gatewood Graphics probably murdered Chuck to cover up the crime.  As my amateur deduction tripped off my lips, a snatch of Tomassetti wisdom nagged me:  “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.”  Tommy’s no geometrician but he’s found this law usually proved out.  I thought the line led directly to the thief.  The police were looking for a shorter line.

Oliver wrapped up the interview -– that’s what he called it, deliberately, an interview, as opposed to half-a-dozen other types of quizzing — as the first shift of the evidence team trundled off the elevator.  When the second team rolled off, Hardy appeared and stationed himself with me.  Oliver greeted the new arrivals, diligently writing their names in his notebook, then chased after the first batch.  Standard procedure, I knew, done to eliminate wild goose chases and wilder conjectures based on a renegade fingerprint.  Things were getting off to a professional start.

When the elevator next glided up, the doors opened on two EMPs who proceeded to shoulder a gurney into the corridor.  Neatly folded on the center of it was a black body bag.  Seeing it nearly overwhelmed me.  I imagined them dropping Chuck in it for his final exit from the apartment.  I hoped I wouldn’t have to witness that.

Before they could finish, Hardy halted them.  An elevator door goosed the EMP straddling the threshold, while the other door nudged the gurney, before both sprung open against the resistance.  Hardy directed them back down to the lobby.  He told them that the medical examiner, who hadn’t yet arrived, had to complete his inspection, and the photographer had to finish chronicling the scene.  The EMPs grumbled as they retreated into the car with the gurney.

The elevator returned almost immediately.  Two men and a woman in street clothes stepped off.  They lingered in front of Chuck’s apartment, speaking softly among themselves.  Fragments of their conversation drifted my way in the hushed corridor.  I gathered two were detectives and the third was the medical examiner.  Accompanied by Oliver, who had resurfaced, they disappeared into the apartment.  They emerged a half hour later, by which time I was prepared to offer anything for a chair or at least a pair of Tommy’s rubber-soled brogans.  “Comfortable shoes,” he claimed, “are an overlooked secret to a happy life.”  I believed him.

As the two detectives watched the elevator doors close on the medical examiner, Oliver checked with Hardy to see if anybody slipped in while he had been occupied.  No one had.  Then Hardy positioned himself at the front door of Chuck’s apartment, while Oliver went inside.  The detectives strolled over to me.

They introduced themselves as Sergeant Tony Vider and Detective Anne Mavic.

Vider was my age, give or take a year or two, and my height, six feet.  But he was a granite block, entirely gray, and grizzled to boot.  His hair was chopped into short pewter spikes.  His eyebrows were wild:  hairs jutted in a dozen directions.  His eyes were shiny gray.  His long sharp nose sloped and bent in the manner of fractured rock, leaving no doubt that it had been broken more than once.  His thin fissure of a mouth slashed a jagged line above a broad chin that stuck out like scrub-dotted outcropping.  Rectangles and squares composed the rest of him.  His body looked as if it was fighting its way out of the gray suit that squeezed it.  And the suit appeared to have been snatched off the floor that morning.

“Mr. Angellini, thanks for your patience,” he said in a voice devoid of inflective wrinkles, more monochromatic than his suit.  It was downright boring and deceptively lulling.

He couldn’t have helped notice my discomfort.  I’d been standing in the corridor for an hour and had resorted to a couple of tactics to prevent my legs from cramping.  I shifted from foot to foot for a while, then leaned against the wall for a while.  Neither did much good.  My legs and feet ached like hell.  Vider had addressed me in mid shift.

“How about we see if there’s a place in the apartment to sit?”  He swung his glistening eyes to Mavic.  Mine followed his.

Mavic appeared short and doughy, but really was of average height and only a bit on the stocky side.  Her clothes, a manly short coat and pleated wide flannel slacks, imbued her with bulk.  She had blond hair, which might have been attractive if she hadn’t hidden it in a bun.  Her skin was mildly redolent, probably from soapy scrubbing, the scent of which wafted off her.  She tried to affect age with doughty gold-frame glasses.  Rebellious buggers, they tended to ride down her nose in delightful torment.  Slippery glasses or not, she still looked to be on the sunny side of thirty.

She responded to Vider with an Appalachian twang, taking his request as a command.  She scurried into the apartment and was gone for a minute.  But it was one of those interminable minutes that Vider — apparently not willing to start without her — and I filled by milling in awkward silence.  “They’ve finished with the dining room,” she said, startling us with her a voice pitched higher than a banjo.  “We can use it.”

Vider took a step to lead, then stopped with a grunt.  Moving jolted the water that had been welling in his eyes out onto his cheeks.  Muttering, he yanked a wadded paper towel from the bulging inner breast pocket of his jacket.  He sopped up the tears and swiped his eyes dry.  “Allergies,” he said, flourishing the towel as he returned it to the pocket.  “Usually better in October, but not this year.”  He gestured for Mavic and me to follow him.

Filing into the apartment, Mavic warned me not me not to touch anything.  I confessed sheepishly to having pretty well pawed the place.  She glared at me like a scolding nun.

In the dining room, Vider arranged three of the flame-patterned chairs so that Mavic and he faced me.  Sitting, I discovered inches separated our knees, which I found uncomfortable and vaguely intimidating.  Once settled, Vider and Mavic produced identical pocket notebooks with dark blue covers.  They were the cheap tiny spirals that barely held ten words to the page.

Leafing through his, Vider commended me on the thoroughness of my statement.  I succumbed to the seduction, decompressing and gestating a liking for him.

“This shouldn’t take long,” he said, casually, as if we were buddies hunched over beers.  “Your statement was thorough, Mr. Angellini.  Better than we usually see, right Detective?  There’re just a few points we’d like to clear up.  For the record, you understand?” 

“I like tidy,” I said.

He struggled with cranking his lips apart to smile, but he couldn’t quite manage it.  “You stated Mr. Gatewood told you somebody at his company was embezzling.  He mention confiding in anybody else?”

“No,” I said.  I replayed the conversation I’d had with Chuck in my mind to be sure.  “As a matter of fact, I asked if he’d informed Bertie Sloane.  That’s his attorney.  He said he hadn’t.”

“That’s a new one.”  He glanced at Mavic, who occupied herself with her glasses.  “Not running off to a lawyer.  Usually people can’t wait to get their lawyers involved.  Especially people in Mr. Gatewood’s class.  Why don’t you get contacts?” 

“Too much trouble and too uncomfortable,” answered Mavic, sharply jabbing her glasses up onto the bridge of her nose.

Vider shrugged.  “Mr. Gatewood give a reason?”

“He said he wanted to be absolutely sure before he began accusing anybody.”

“Oh,” he said, “he wasn’t sure about being embezzled?”

I shook my head.  “He was sure.  Chuck simply wanted to dot the ‘Is’ and cross the ‘Ts.'”

He squinted skeptically.  Tears sluiced from the corners of his eyes.  He dragged out the wadded paper towel, wiped, then pocketed it.

“Can’t pop for a package of those little tissues?” Mavic  jabbed.

“Too much trouble and too small.  Now, Mr. Gatewood was wearing a wedding ring.  I assume he was married?”

I nodded.  “Yes.  His wife’s name is Lori.”  Both scribbled in their identical little notepads.

“Do you know were Mrs. Gatewood is?”

“At home, I suppose.  This is their city apartment,” I volunteered.  “They live in Lake Forest.”

Vider mumbled, “Nice,” then clearly, “What was Mrs. Gatewood’s reaction to the embezzlement?”

I shook my head.  “I don’t know.  She wasn’t with him.”

“But she knew,” he said.

“I don’t know.  Chuck didn’t say.”

“Mr. Gatewood in the habit of attending his friends’ birthday parties without his wife?”  He arched a woolly eyebrow, indicating to me his code of marital conduct didn’t accommodate the privilege of independence. 

Fighting the sudden urge to fidget my legs, a bad habit that annoyed Beth, I said, “He said she was ill.”  I hoped it would satisfy him.  Under the circumstances, explaining my association –- I thought association, not relationship — with Lori was the last thing I wanted to do.

“Well, we’ll speak with Mrs. Gatewood when we …”  He allowed his words to trail off in the clatter of the evidence technicians.  I understood.  Nobody enjoyed playing messenger of death, though Vider seemed to have the perfect demeanor for the role. 

“You married, Mr. Angellini?”

I nodded.  “Yes.”

“Did you tell your wife about the embezzlement?”

“I told Beth — that’s my wife — I was meeting Chuck.  But, no, I didn’t tell her the reason.”

“Why not?”

“Chuck asked me to keep it between the two of us.”

“Because he didn’t want to make rash accusations, right?”

I nodded.

“Many people at your birthday party?”

“A pretty good crowd.”

“Anybody happen to overhear you and Mr. Gatewood?”

The Five Dynasties Qing room was vivid in my mind; the last place and last time I saw Chuck alive.  He and I were alone, I recalled, against the wall a fair distance from the guests.  Nobody was within earshot.  The room was noisy with conversations everywhere and a top tone of dusty rock tunes.  “No, I don’t think so.”

“So to the best of your knowledge only you knew about the embezzlement.  Except, of course, for Mr. Gatewood.”

I spread my hands in acceptance.

“Sounds as if you two were pretty close.  I mean, if he decided to tell you and nobody else.”  He tapped his notebook, allowing the remark to hang in the air for a few seconds.  I sat quietly.

“Maybe you could fill us in on your relationship?”  The towel was out and back in the pocket in a flash.

“Be happy too.  Chuck and I have been friends –“  I stumbled to a stop realizing I was talking about someone who was dead, and had been alive up until a few hours ago.  “Sorry,” I said, weakly.

“Don’t be,” Vider said, tilting his big head toward me in acknowledgment.  Mavic’s eyes darted to catch his, as if she attached some significance to my halting speech.  He ignored her and she went back to working her glasses up and down on her nose.

“We were friends and did business with each other for almost thirty years,” I continued.  “I was ad manager at Lakeside Publishing when I met him.  He was trying to sell me on using his company.  He was a few years older than me, but not enough to make a real difference.”

“How old was he?”

“Then?”

“Now.”

“Fifty-six.”  I waited until he and Mavic finished scratching Chuck’s age in their notepads.  “So, he was older, but not that it showed.  And he was already vice president of Gatewood Graphics.  I remember that putting me off a little.  You know, I thought he was a one-week wonder — v.p. because he was the boss’ son.  I don’t often misread people but I was way off base about Chuck.  Almost didn’t give him a chance for that reason.”  I paused as I remembered how I vacillated about Chuck, juxtaposing him the little rich boy to my poor boy raised by eccentric women who behaved as if the means of making money had yet to be invented.

“You were saying?” prompted Vider.

“Sorry.  Well, I needed a printer I could count on, and Chuck seemed to fit the bill.  Going with Chuck was probably the best business decision I’ve ever made.  Chuck was weaned on ink; he did great work for me.  It was later, when I knew him better, that I learned he had apprenticed in every part of the business.  He had started as a press monkey when he was twelve.  Real scut work, cleaning presses, gathering and disposing of scrap — stuff nobody else wants to do.

“We became friends.  Then a few years later I decided I’d had enough of working for somebody else.  It was time to strike out on my own.  I went to him for help.  I explained I was starting a new ad agency.  He considered it for, oh, about ten seconds, if that long.  Then he signed Gatewood Graphics on as my first client.  He even suggested the name, Trumpet Advertising.” 

I paused to see their reaction to the name.  “We get it, Mr. Angellini,” Vider said.

“Well, what Chuck did, that would have been enough.  But not for him.  He recommended me to his customers.  I can’t think of anybody, except for Beth, of course, who did more to help me get my business going.  Thanks to Chuck I made a profit the end of my first year.  I had forty people by the second.”

“I should be so lucky to have friends like that,” he said, glancing at Mavic.  “I take it while all this was going on you saw each other a lot?”

“Yes, for meetings, that sort of thing.”

“Socially?”

“Yes, Beth and I went out with Chuck and his wife, went to their parties.”

“About how often would you say you two met for business?”

“Oh, at least once a month, sometimes more, until I sold Trumpet three years ago.  Then irregularly.”

“How irregularly?”

“Well, to be honest, the last time we got together was a year ago.”

“Long time.  Any reason for the dry spell?  I mean, it sounds like you two were pretty good buddies, in and out of work.”

It must have been the word “dry,” but suddenly I was overtaken by a thirst only a drink as wide and deep as Lake Michigan could quench.  “I could use a glass of water,” I said.

Vider rocked back in his chair and glanced toward the kitchen.  “Detective, why don’t you see if they’re finished in the kitchen.”

Mavic hoisted herself up and was back within a minute with the water.

I thanked her and drank down half the glass.

“Better?” Vider asked.

“Thanks.  Fine.”

“Good.  So, you and Mr. Gatewood hadn’t seen each other in a year.  Any reason?”

“Business, I guess.  Or lack of it to be exact,” I said, rolling the glass between my hands.  “For the most part we met to discuss jobs we were working on.”

“And you know Mrs. Gatewood.  You’re friends with her.”

“It was a different Mrs. Gatewood.”

“Different?  How so?”  His words were flat, colorless, offering no view into his mind.  But though he spoke them matter-of-factly, they stuck me as ominous.

“It was the first Mrs. Gatewood, Doreen.”

“So the current Mrs. Gatewood, she’s number two?”

“Yes,” I said, warily.

“Her name?”

“Lori.”

“Lori and Doreen,” he said, as he added the names to his notepad and shifted his eyes to Mavic, probably to see if she was following suit.

“You and your wife as friendly with the second Mrs. Gatewood as the first?”

As with all his questions, Vider asked this one casually.  It was if we were two friends at that bar chewing over our lives along with peanuts and pretzels.  Nothing special, just another aspect of living with people, another question.  But I felt the question like electricity coursing through my spine, feeding out to my limbs in a galvanic crackle of … guilt and fear.  Guilt about The Incident, and fear about how it would play to this pair of suspicious homicide detectives.

“So, Mr. Angellini, what about it?”

“No,” I said, hoping Vider would move on, and understanding that he wouldn’t.

“Was there a problem between you and the second wife?” asked Mavic, pointedly.  “Lori, was there a situation?”

“Situation?” I repeated, like this was a new word I was considering adding to my vocabulary.  I sipped some water and wondered if bending the truth a little would yield milder consequences than what they’d surmise from the truth.  Mulling this, I noticed that her glasses had miraculously cemented themselves on the bridge of her nose.

“Yes, situation,” she said, her hill country accent, pitchy and grating.  “How did the missus get on with Lori?  Was there a situation between them?”

“They don’t care for each other,” I admitted.

“No?  Why not?” she asked.

“Beth doesn’t trust her.”

“This second Mrs. Gatewood do something to your wife to make her feel that way?”

I drank again and the water went down hard.  I started worrying my mouth with a finger and chewing on the inside of my cheek, another bad habit.  “I don’t think it will sound very good.”

“Try it, Mr. Angellini.  I guarantee you whatever it is, the Sergeant and I have heard it before.  Right, Sergeant?”

Vider nodded.  He was in the middle of another attack on his allergic eyes with his paper towel.

My face was hot.  I didn’t need a mirror to tell me it was bright red.  “She thought Lori was trying to seduce me.  It happened a long time ago.”

“Was she right?  Did the second Mrs. Gatewood have her sights set on you?”

“No, of course not.”

“There was nothing between you and the second Mrs. Gatewood?”

“No.  Absolutely not.”  My denials were even giving me the impression there might be substance to Beth’s suspicion.

“Your wife imagined it?”

“She saw Lori massaging my shoulders.  She drew conclusions.”

Vider sniffled and said, “I’ve got to admit, I’ve never had a friend’s wife massage my shoulders.  Never even offer.  Care to elaborate, Mr. Angellini?”

If I thought I’d had a choice, I would have told him to move on.  I related The Incident.

“I could see where your wife would have cause for suspicion.  It sounds funny to me,” Mavic said.

“What are you implying?” I said, a bit less defensive, a little more offended.

“Nothing,” she said, “except it rings funny.”

Meantime, Vider had gotten his eyes and nose dry.  He watched Mavic and me intently, while drumming his legs with his long, square fingers.  Then he focused on me and transformed from bar buddy to cop and said, “Forgive me, Mr. Angellini, but there’s something I can’t put together.”  I braced myself, certain he was about to ground me down with the affair that wasn’t.  “Why would somebody you haven’t seen in a year single you out to tell about an embezzlement?”

“What?” I blurted, blindsided.

“Why would he tell you?  You know, you and him not being so close any more.”

“He thought I could help him.”  My tongue wobbled in my mouth.  “I’m good with details.  He thought I could help him with his books … prove whoever he suspected was embezzling him.”

“That’s why you were meeting him today, to go over financial records?”

“Yes.”

Mavic said, “You’re sure Mrs. Gatewood is in Lake Forest?”

“I suppose she is.  I don’t keep tabs on Lori.”

Vider piled on with, “Any idea what these records were supposed to look like?”

“No.  I assumed they’d be printouts, maybe a computer disk.”

“Did you happen to see them when you found Mr. Gatewood?”

They ceased peppering me and allowed me to think about the question.  I reconstructed the scene in Chuck’s study.  I remembered his desk with the overturned lamp, the phone receiver off its cradle.  But I didn’t recall any papers.  “No,” I said.

“Neither did we.  No printout, ledger, computer disk, not even a computer.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Join the club, Mr. Angellini,” Vider said.  “We don’t either.  If the purpose of your meeting was to examine financial records, where are the records?”

“Well, maybe whoever murdered Chuck took them with him?”

“Him?” Vider said sharply.  “Mr. Gatewood told you the embezzler was a man?”

“No,” I said quickly, “he didn’t say whether it was a man or a woman.”

“When you inspected Mr. Gatewood did you find any papers on him?”

“I didn’t inspect Chuck,” I said testily.

“No?,” he snapped, thumbing pages in his notepad, stopping when he found what he wanted.  “Didn’t you state that you checked Mr. Gatewood’s pulse by touching his neck?  And didn’t you also state that the murder weapon was a Wüsthof knife, a Wüsthof chefs knife to be exact?”

“Yes,” I admitted cautiously, “but I didn’t rifle his pockets, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”

“Mr. Gatewood’s hands were wrapped around the knife, Mr. Angellini.  You couldn’t see any markings on the knife.  So how could you be so specific about the weapon if you didn’t inspect him?”

Beads of perspiration blistered my forehead.  I fought the urge to wipe them away.  “Look,” I protested, “I don’t know what you’re implying, but I don’t like it.”

“Calm down, Mr. Angellini,” Vider said, reverting to his buddy demeanor.  “Have another drink of your water.  I’m just trying to understand how you could identify the knife when it wasn’t clearly visible.”

“I have a set at home,” I said.  “I like to cook and I use Wüsthof knives.  I recognized the handle.”

“Good knives?” he asked.

“Yes, very good,” I said, settling.  “Carbonized stainless steel.  Strong and they hold an edge.”

“Okay, see, that was easy.  Me, I would have never guessed the brand in a million years.  Now a can opener, maybe.  That’s my kitchen tool of choice.”  His words trailed off into a smile.

“Yeah, gourmet night at the Vider apartment — Dinty Moore by Rival,” chimed Mavic.

Vider glared at her, but it was exaggerated and plainly playful.  Neither spoke for a minute, probably waiting for me to relax.  Vider broke the boycott with, “From what you said about the dripping blood and condition of Mr. Gatewood, the medical examiner figures he died about the time you found him.”

I nodded uneasily.  I had concluded that when I saw Chuck grasping the knife.  He wasn’t bleeding, meaning his heart wasn’t beating.  And because I knew that would reinforce what they were already volleying in their brains

“But your statement said nothing about looking for the killer.  Now if it were me, I’d look around for the killer, pronto.  I wouldn’t want him or her sneaking up on me.”

“I knew the murderer wasn’t in the apartment,” I said, adding hastily, “since I’d been through the place already searching for Chuck.  Instead, I called nine-one-one immediately.”

Vider’s attention drifted to the glass of water in my hands.  “I guess that makes sense.  But here’s something that baffles me.  Maybe you have an idea about it.”

I listened as I drained the glass.  “The doorman came on duty at eight this morning.  Mr. Gatewood showed up at around nine, give or take a few minutes.  He gave your name to the doorman.  Between then and the time you visited Mr. Gatewood, nobody went up to his apartment.”

The water didn’t help quell the tension constricting my muscles, closing my throat, causing a dull headache to start over my eyes, bulging the sweats beads into marbles. I fought the urge to jump up, pace, flail my arms, do anything physical to work it off.

“You all right, Mr. Angellini?” Vider asked.  “Would you like a refill on that water?”

“No, I’m fine.  I’m just not use to feeling … “

“Feeling what, Mr. Angellini?”

“Nothing,” I said, waving away any help he might have had in mind.  “Look, it’s possible somebody got up without the doorman’s knowledge,” I offered, reining in legs that wanted to respond to the tension by bouncing spastically.

“Anything’s possible,” Vider said. 

“Like the Sergeant’s going to cook tonight,” Mavic laughed.

“That’s more possible than somebody wandering up here unnoticed.  In this place strangers don’t stroll onto the elevator without the permission of a resident.  And this morning, there were no strangers, no deliveries, nothing.  Just residents going to and fro on a pleasant fall morning.”  Leaning forward, notching down his voice, Vider added, “You were the only stranger between eight and the time we arrived.”

“Come on,” I said, swinging on a pendulum between terror and indignation, “you don’t really believe I murdered an old friend, one I saw last night for the first time in a year?  It doesn’t make sense.  If I did, which I emphatically did not, why would I announce myself to the doorman?”

Mavic, whose glasses hadn’t budged a centimeter since she’d first piped in, rasped, “Passion, Mr. Angellini.  After all, the murder weapon was one of opportunity.”

“Happens all the time,” Vider confirmed.

“Maybe,” Mavic said, “you and Mr. Gatewood had a falling out, oh, say a year or so ago.  Last night, for whatever reason, he confronted you at your birthday party.  To avoid a scene, you suggested the two of you settle it here, today.  You didn’t intend to kill him, but the situation got out of hand.  Instead of leaving the apartment, you went into the kitchen and grabbed the knife.  A type of knife, incidentally, you’ve used before and that you knew would be up to the task.  You returned to the study and –“

The muffled trundling of the gurney interrupted her recitation.  I looked across to the living room and stared silently as the EMPs pushed and pulled the gurney upon which rested Chuck’s body, shrouded in the bag.  Ignoble, I thought, knowing what a noble man he’d been, in a bag like trash.  I watched until they where out the door.  I wanted time to mourn; I realized I hadn’t paid him that simple human respect of a tear.  But Vider and Mavic’s flitting eyes and undisguised shifting on their seats were summoning me.  Angrily, I turned on them. 

“Instead of trying your damnedest to pin this on me, you should be working on the embezzler.  That’s who you want, and the more time you waste on me, the less likely you are to catch him or her.”

“Spare us, Mr. Angellini,” Vider said sternly.  “We aren’t trying to pin anything on you.  In our place you’d be suspicious too.  Look at what we’ve got.  An old friend who you haven’t spoken to in a year suddenly appears.  He tells you he’s being embezzled.  Probably could have, probably should have, told a dozen others, but he picked you, the long lost friend.  He doesn’t bother reporting the crime — we already checked that out.  He doesn’t inform the most logical people, his wife and lawyer.  No, he comes to you, the friend he hasn’t seen in a year.  And waits until your birthday party no less.”  He paused and rubbed his moist eyes.  They were red and looked itchy.  “One more thing.  This is the friend whose wife had an interest in you.”

I pushed forward, nearly off the chair. 

Vider held up a hand the size of a stop sign.  “Hold on.  Don’t you see you’re surrounded by cops?” 

I stopped mid lunge and perched on the edge of the chair.

“Sensible.  So you’re in the apartment, by your own admission, within minutes of his death.  We search the place top to bottom and find nothing remotely resembling the financial records that you claim you’re here to examine.  You even identify the knife down to its type and brand.

“If that’s not enough, you’re the only stranger to enter the building between the time Mr. Gatewood arrived and was murdered.”  Crossing arms as thick as my thighs, Vider said, “Now, Mr. Angellini, what would you expect us to think?”

I wanted to offer half-a-dozen options but I came up empty.  Well, not quite.  I was recounting, in vivid detail, every recent news report of poor slobs railroaded to Stateville and other scenic Illinois holding pens, intentionally or out of careless police and defense work, and recently released after sacrificing decades for crimes committed by others.  Fortunately, I was literally saved from reserving a cell for myself by the electronic chirp of the telephone.

Beth came to my rescue in the hand of a uniformed cop.  He appeared holding the cordless phone I’d seen in the master bedroom as Vider finished his litany.  The cop idled, lips curled in amusement, until Vider skewered me with the question.  Then he whispered in the detective’s ear.  Vider scowled, as if the cop had dribbled spit on his lobe. 

“You must have been busy while you waited for us,” he said, shoving the phone at me.  Glancing at Mavic, he said, “Mr. Angellini’s lawyer’s on the line.”  That unglued her glasses and sent them sliding down to her nostrils.

“Do you mind?” I asked, holding up the cordless and nodding at it.  “A few minutes of privacy?”

Vider grunted, “Okay,” and the two of them got up to stretch their legs in the living room.  They were close enough to read my lips and other cops and evidence technicians surrounded them.  This was about as private as it was going to get.

“Sorry, Gabe,” Sal said, sounding anything but, “but I had my phone off.”

“Beth tell you where I am?”

“Yes.”

“How long before you’re here.”

“Two hours.  I’m in Grayslake, at Brae Loch.”

There he was, forty miles north of the city, golfing, when I needed him most. 

“Sal, can you get me out of this long distance?”

“Beth was sketchy.  Tell me what happened.”

Quickly, I related what I’d told the police, and summed up the situation with Vider and Mavic.  I was fast but thorough.  I kept my panic down, coming across as mildly worried and irritated. 

While I waited for him to say something, I listened to the tingle of glass and tableware coming through the phone.  Looking over and seeing Vider and Mavic eyeing me, I asked impatiently, “Well, Sal?”

“You talk too much, Gabe, but I guess you know that.  Well, the good news is, things could be worse.  The bad news is, I don’t know by how much.  My best advice is shut up.”  And before I could sputter an objection, he said, “Put the lead officer on.  What was his name?  Vider.”

I motioned Vider back to the dining room and handed him the phone.  He listened to Sal for a few minutes, injecting a few “I sees” into the receiver and two “Now counselors.”

I knew they were finished when Vider pushed the phone at me.  “He wants to talk to you.”

Sal asked me point blank, “Was there something between you and Mrs. Gatewood I should know about?  And don’t belch brimstone at me.  Just answer yes or no.” 

I said, “No, absolutely not.” 

Before I yelped a proper protest, he said, “You do talk too much, Gabe, telling them about that thing.  Don’t say anything.  Just listen.  You’re pretty close to making a trip to Chicago Avenue.  So don’t say another thing to them.  They’re going to ask you for a set of prints.  It’s okay to let them print you.  Everything they have is circumstantial, so the prints, assuming they don’t match those on the knife, if there are any on it, which there usually never are, should get you out of there under your own steam.  Got all that?”

“I got it,” I said.  “Let them print me and button my lip.”

“Perfect.  Beth said you’d be calling when you leave.  I’ll check with her later.”

I handed the phone and the empty glass over to Vider who placed them on the dining room table.  I told him to print me and he wasted no time having Mavic herd an evidence technician our way. 

“A final question,” Vider said, as I wiped the ink from my fingers with a moist towelette.

I put my index finger to my lips and smiled.

Vider smiled back.  “Just curious.  It has nothing to do with this thing.  How do you know Sal Tomassetti?”

I didn’t see the harm in telling him, despite Sal’s admonishment about silence.  “He’s my brother-in-law.”

“You mean Tommy Tomassetti’s your father-in-law?”

I nodded.

“The Priest.”  He divided this attention between Mavic and me.  “Best damn cop I ever served under.  He was my commander when I started in homicide.  Tough.  Relentless.  But always fair to us guys and the bad guys too.”

“Why you’d call him The Priest?” Mavic asked.

“He never swore.  Something about his wife not liking it.  Now I feel better letting you walk, Mr. Angellini.”

I didn’t wait for a second invitation to leave.  Vider’s words caught me on the way out the door.  “Say hello to The Priest for me.”

“Will do,” I said.

“And do us a favor, Mr. Angellini.  Don’t take any vacations.”  I assumed he wasn’t making a request.

* * *

It had been a long time since I had heard anything quite as reassuring as the heavy wood entrance door latching behind me.  I was outside and free and my instinct was to run up the street as fast as my legs would carry me, in case a sudden reversal of heart seized Vider.

I walked briskly to the Jag.  I’d been in Chuck’s apartment for several hours and evening was setting in.  Nothing had changed on Lake View or in the park.  Cars still searched for parking and people still played.  And the cars parked behind and in front of me were the same, probably fixtures that would be missed by the locals if disturbed, something like street art.  In the city, people didn’t move their cars unless absolutely necessary, which was great for the city’s air quality.

In the Jag, I pulled a cell phone from the glove compartment and punched in my home number.  As it rang, a Mercedes stopped beside me.  The driver leaned toward the passenger window and glared at me as if I was trespassing on property deeded to him.  He moved on only after the honking had become so thick it could have propelled him down the street.

Beth picked up on the second ring. 

“Gabe,” she said, “thank God.  How are you?  Are you on your way home?  Sal called and said you’d dug yourself into a pretty deep hole.” 

I outlined what had happened and ended with, “Nothing to fret about.  I can’t wait to get home.”

“I’m waiting,” she said in a way that made High Hills seem as distant as Venus.

I pushed “end” on the cell phone and held it for a few seconds, feeling close to Beth and not wanting to lose the sense that she was in the car with me.  Then I tucked it back in the glove compartment, started the Jag, and eased into traffic.  Immediately, a Chicago beater — it might have been a Chevy once — slipped into the space.  In my rearview mirror, I watched a young man with a ponytail slap his steering wheel in undisguised delight.  I smiled at that kindred spirit.

Creeping to the corner, I ruminated on what Vider had said about me being the only stranger in the building.  How could somebody have gotten in unseen?  Nobody was invisible after all.

Then, I had a hunch, and at the corner I turned right onto Fullerton.  I traveled a few hundred yards and made another right into the alley that ran behind the buildings fronting on Lake View. 

Chicago apartment buildings have faces for the street graced in a myriad of pleasing architectural details.  But the rears, these are usually masses of nondescript tenement brick; garages; sheltered wood porches that sometimes collapsed under the weight of revelers; illegally parked cars; and mountains of garbage, much not hygienically sealed in bags; cans or dumpsters with rats that ran free like city versions of mustangs on the Montana range, without the majesty. 

As far as Chicago alleys went, this was fairly typical.  It was wide enough for a blue Chicago garbage truck with room to spare for half a car, if such existed.  It was pitted with potholes.  Beth and I used to joke that when a pothole died, its final resting place was an alley.

I found the back of Chuck’s building before the Jag’s suspension gave out.  The cat shuddered with gratitude as I stopped next to the ramp descending to the garage door.  The door was a rusty red metal windowless affair emblazoned with the usual Lincoln Towing warning. 

The door had no handle.  It appeared to open only with an automatic opener similar to the one in my car.  I recalled hearing that door openers shared a handful of frequencies.  In theory, you could open a door other than your own with your device.  I reached up and tried it.  The door didn’t budge. 

That didn’t prove anything.  If I knew how, perhaps I could adjust my opener to this door’s frequency.  There had to be people who knew how to do this kind of stuff.  Tommy would probably know something about this.

There was a service door to the left of the garage door.  From where I sat, it didn’t look as if anyone had jimmied it.  I thought about getting out and inspecting it, but it was late and really the only thing I wanted to do was get home to Beth.

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