Behind Lori Baer
“Wüsthof, huh?” Tommy said, skating a brown, weathered finger along the flat of the chef knife’s blade, up to the hilt and over the distinctive brand mark. “Sure thing,” he exclaimed in a manner usually reserved for discovering gold or winning a fortune on a game show. Deftly
— for Tommy expertly and gracefully handled all types of weapons and objects employable in confrontations — he fenced the air between us.
His quickness startled me and I hopped back a step from the stove. “Jeez, Tommy, enough with the swashbuckling. Just mince the garlic.”
Mae Chen and Tommy, Colleen and Sal, and Beth and I were in our kitchen preparing Sunday dinner. That is, we men were dicing and slicing, sautéing and boiling, sampling and stirring; the women were at the table sipping Chianti and listening to us. We were making a tomato sauce I called Double-Trouble Garibaldi Garlic Pepper Sauce, the name the result of years in the clutches of the cross-cultural Tomassetti clan.
“Gabe, calm yourself. I’m just getting the feel of it.” He grinned playfully as he repositioned himself at the center island and resumed mincing the garlic. “This is literally against my religion, you know. How many times have I told you? You’re supposed to press garlic. PRESS. You get more flavor by PRESSING.”
Sal looked up from the cutting board on which he was dicing red and green peppers, onions after that, to be followed by black olives. “How about calling a cease fire on the cooking feud and concentrate on the problem.”
At that moment, the feud was more interesting — probably since it was diverting — than the problem, which in plain English was me. The food feud was familiar, comfortable ground. It was as much home as the house. I minced garlic; Tommy crushed it. Who could prove one method superior to the other? This uncertainty made our dispute that much more pleasurable. Neither was right; neither could win; we were guaranteed a happy lifetime of argument. Our disputes revolved around Italian cooking techniques and food; Tommy’s repertoire included adeptness at Chinese dishes that were beyond my culinary ken. Our arguments extended from meats to condiments. I bought flank steak for involtini at the regular supermarkets, Jewel and sometimes Dominick’s. Tommy was adamant that Napoli Brothers was the only place for flank steak and sausage and prosciutto and any other meats known to Italian men and women. Secretly, I agreed, but I wasn’t about to drive forty miles in some of the country’s worse traffic for meat. Napoli Brothers was a mere whistle from Tommy’s home. But how could I tell Tommy and ruin his and my fun?
On the subject of cooking and technique, Beth balanced perfectly on the fence. Apart from shepherding burgers to the grill, heating frozen pizzas in desperate times, and engaging in other pale imitations of cooking, she had retired from this division of Angellini home management. I didn’t mind. After assuming this chore, that’s what it was in the beginning, a dreaded burden, I grew to enjoy cooking. The sacrilegious truth be told, I didn’t even mind cleaning up. I found there was little like it for getting immediate, tangible, and visible acknowledgement that you were accomplishing something.
“You know the rules, Tommy. In my kitchen, we MINCE,” I responded, matching him decibel for decibel.
“What a grouch,” he announced for the benefit of the women. “Turns fifty Friday. Nearly gets himself hauled off on a murder charge Saturday. Turns into a martinet on Sunday.”
I glared at him, as did Beth. “Dad, this is serious,” she said. “That’s why we asked you over today.”
“Okay, I’m mincing. Watch me mince,” he said, putting on a furious two-second Benihana display.
Gathering together on Sundays was unusual for the family. We usually assembled on Saturday night for an after-hours dinner at The Five Dynasties. Not everyone was there every week; but enough showed to fill the round table and keep the lazy Susan built into the center spinning. Q kept the table in the Tang Room especially for this family tradition. Beth and I made these late dinner gatherings once a month. We reserved Sundays for ourselves.
Sal shook his head at his father’s antics, then bent again to his assignment of slicing vegetables. Of Tommy’s three sons, he bore the most striking resemblance to the scion; Q was closest to Mae Chen and the bearer of the Chinese legacy; and Doctor Max was a blend, Beth’s startlingly handsome counterpart.
With Tommy and Sal back at work and the women murmuring softly over their wines, I returned to my Double-Trouble Garibaldi sauce. I had a large stewing pot on the stove. Bubbling lightly in it under a gas burner barely producing a blue glow were the contents of four large cans of crushed tomatoes and four of diced tomatoes. I always liked to add the real thing for the fresh taste and the tangy sloughs of skin the tomato left after reduction. The tomatoes mixed with extra virgin olive oil and a finely crushed whole dried red pepper Tommy brought up from Napoli Brothers.
On another burner I heated a frying pan. When it was warm, I dolloped in a quarter inch of extra virgin olive oil. I watched it for no more than a minute when I asked Tommy if he had finished with the garlic.
“Done, Gabe, my boy,” he answered floridly, swinging the cutting board under my nose. The aroma wafted up into my nostrils, down to my stomach, where it triggered rumbling. Everything goes better with garlic.
I plucked a sliver from the board. I dropped it in the rippling oil. It crackled and browned instantly. I nodded. Tommy scooped the garlic and sprinkled it into the oil, carefully separating the slices so they wouldn’t clump. Sal was right behind him with red and green peppers and yellow onions. When he added them, a plume of fragrant steam billowed toward the ceiling. The exhaust vent, which I cranked up to high for a brief moment, sucked the steam up and out into the atmosphere of High Hills.
With their jobs done, Tommy and Sal joined the women at the table, but not before Tommy grabbed three cold Genesee Cream Ales from the refrigerator. He cracked them open. He gave one to Sal. As he handed me mine, he said, “Careful, Gabe, cooking and drinking don’t mix.”
To which I issued two loud guffaws, coming off like a horse with a feather up its rump. I sipped and sautéed — quite safely, thank you very much, Tommy.
When the garlic and vegetables were slightly browned, shimmering in their jackets of oil, I admixed them to the sauce with a wooden spoon. After depositing the frying pan in the sink, I went to the refrigerator and pulled out a bowl of sausage that earlier I had cut into thumb-size chunks and lightly pan-fried. I dumped them into the sauce. I stirred the concoction for a minute then placed the lid on the stewing pot.
I grabbed my Genny and joined the others at the table, dropping in the armless Windsor chair beside Beth. We faced Sal and Colleen. Tommy and Mae Chen sat in the Windsor chairs with arms at each end of the table, positions always reserved for them at each of their children’s homes.
“Salvatore,” said Mae Chen. Her voice was soft, gentle and warm, but firm, as we all knew. Her gossamer voice took people by surprise the first time they heard it because it was unexpected as it issued from a tallish woman, nearly five-eight. “Please, we value your knowledge. What do you say about Gabriel’s situation?”
Over the years, Mae Chen had adopted many American habits and mannerisms; however, familiarity, even among family, was not one of them, except with Beth. I was forever Gabriel.
I cringed visibly, hunching my shoulders, studying my bottle of ale, and imaging the Rochester craftsmen who brewed its contents. There was nothing subtle about my discomfort, and I didn’t have the good grace — the spirit, really — to hide it.
Mae Chen smiled at me. “Have I in some way offended my son-in-law?”
With Mae Chen, truth and sincerity stood paramount among the virtues, and by force of her good presence, she compelled them from each of us. If we slacked into an occasional subterfuge, it did not slip past her, for she possessed the uncanny ability to detect the smallest falsehood; she was as sensitive to these as a seismograph was to slight tectonic shifts. “That word, ‘situation,’ it rubs me the wrong way,” I confessed.
“Why would such a bland word cause rawness?”
Mae Chen smiled benighly and everybody glanced off in different directions, except for Beth, who slipped her arm into mine. I had chosen the wrong path.
“Well,” I stuttered, touching Beth’s arm, “it reminds me of … of something I’d rather forget.”
“So,” Mae Chen said, satisfied the lesson continued to have rank in my mind, “we will not speak of situations. We will simply have Salvatore provide his studious opinion on this murder investigation that involves Gabriel.”
“I’ve seen worse,” Sal said in the echo of her words. “Many coincidences and more circumstantial evidence than red peppers in that sauce of yours, Gabe.” He shook his head. “Really, it’s hard for me to believe somebody could walk into such a mess. The time factor is the worst of it. Gabe was there either at or just after the time of Chuck’s death.”
“Wait a minute, Sal,” Beth interjected. “Dad, isn’t it true no pathologist worth her salt would establish time of death in such a narrow timeframe? Maybe two hours, maybe if she was adventurous? Most likely four hours? You’ve said so yourself.”
“True,” he said, washing down the words on a river of Genny, winking a scintillate eye. “Of course, that’s for the record. They give the detectives a little more. Tony Vider’s well liked. Respected.”
“Push comes to shove, I’d make a big deal out of the timing,” Sal said. “But you can’t get around the reality that Chuck was still dripping blood — not bleeding, Gabe, oozing, so don’t jump out of your chair. Chuck Gatewood was oozing blood when Gabe found him, and that substantiates the fact he died pretty much when Gabe appeared on the scene. The point is, the cops — Vider in particular — are suspicious.”
“Can’t blame him,” Tommy said, his eyes flashing in mirthfully crinkled flesh.
“He doesn’t know Gabriel as we know him,” Mae Chen said. “Perhaps if you were to speak to him, dear husband, he would see the situation with more clarity.”
Tommy pushed up and navigated the few steps to the refrigerator. “All in good time, dear wife,” he said, opening the door and snatching another Genny. “I plan on talking to him.”
“Thanks, Tommy,” I said sincerely.
“I suppose it can’t hurt,” Sal said, with timbre of uncertainty that disturbed me. “We won’t have news on the prints for a day or so, but I don’t expect much.”
“Won’t they show Gabe had nothing to do with Chuck’s murder?” Beth asked, untwining from me.
“They probably won’t find any prints on the weapon. At least not any they can use.”
“Smudges mostly,” Tommy added. “Killers don’t stop what they’re doing to give us good guys a break.”
“So, that’s bad news,” I said.
“It’s what I expect. It’s probably what Vider and his partner expect, too. I’d say it’s neutral news. Of course, you didn’t have to identify the weapon down to the brand name.”
“I was being helpful,” I said defensively.
“Sometimes you can be too helpful. Anyway, I don’t think you have much to worry about, at least for a couple of days.”
“And then what?” Beth asked.
Sal and Tommy glanced at each other a bit too furtively for my taste. Tommy said, “Nothing if their investigation turns up another suspect or two. Like your embezzler.”
Tommy uttering “another” released a cloudy funk into the kitchen. “And if it doesn’t? If they don’t find whoever it is who’s embezzling?” I asked.
“They’re going to pay closer attention to motives they know about,” Sal said. His eyes flitted around the room, finally settling on his ale bottle. “I’m dry,” he said, pushing up and out of his chair and heading to the refrigerator.
“Okay,” I asked Tommy, “what are Vider’s next steps?”
“Either last night or this morning, but most likely last night, he interviewed Mrs. Gatewood.” He dabbed at a water circle, residue of his sweating ale bottle. Mae Chen noticed and said, “Salvatore, please bring your father a napkin.” Sal tore off a paper towel on this way back to the table. As he lowered onto the chair, he handed it to Tommy.
“Thanks,” said Tommy. “Mrs. Gatewood is the most likely suspect in a murder of this sort. You’d be surprised how many loving couples murder each other. I guess being too much in love doesn’t pay.” He winked at Mae Chen, who demurred by casting her eyes down. “He’ll check her story thoroughly, you can bet on that. Next, since, Gabe, you said there’s embezzlement here, he’ll start investigating the company, especially anybody who has access to company’s funds and makes decisions. He’ll also check with your friend’s lawyer, that fellow you mentioned.”
“Bertie,” I reminded him.
“Birdie,” he repeated, squinting over a name too cute for any righteous man. I let it pass.
Beth allowed Tommy to swig his Genny. “Then what, Dad?”
“Then it depends. If his investigation uncovers something interesting — read incriminating, he’ll pursue it like a hound dog on its first hunt. If not …” He stopped and blew a hurricane of a breath.
Beth said over it, “They come back to Gabe.”
“Afraid so,” Tommy said. “Gabe has a motive, of sorts.”
“That’s the problem here,” Sal said. “If Vider and his partner dig up nothing else, the circumstantial evidence and the other thing begins to look very good, very tempting.”
“He’ll want to close the case. That urge, it can be like a monster. I mean, it can wrap itself around a cop and squeeze out whatever commonsense and curiosity he has,” Tommy said.
Sal agreed. “More than one man’s gone to prison because of it. All it takes is being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
I knew the shiver galloping up and down my spine didn’t come from the Genny, which I had ignored until it was too tepid to enjoy.
“I wouldn’t start worrying now,” Tommy said, observing my tremble. “Tony’s sharper than your average cop. He’ll pick up a lead.”
“Well,” said Beth, “there’s not much mystery in my mind about who did it.”
We all looked at her expectantly, though I had no doubt who was number one on her wanted list.
“Lori Gatewood, of course. You said so yourself, Dad. The spouse is the most likely suspect.”
“In the presence of a motive,” he said.
Suddenly the rumble of a small eruption filled the kitchen.
“What the H was that?” Tommy said, swinging to look behind at the source of the noise. “Garibaldi blew his top,” he exclaimed.
I had placed the lid on the stewing pot earlier. The sauce was steaming hot. It had bubbled and built up enough pressure to pop the lid up and off, sending it clattering on the stovetop, then bouncing into freefall and crashing like a clashing cymbal.
I dashed to the stove and lowered the flame, thanking nothing and nobody in particular for gas. With electricity, I would have waited until tomorrow for the pot to cool. But the bubbling slowed instantly, enough to stop the sauce from boiling over. I picked up the lid and set it in the sink. Then I took the wooden spoon and stirred the sauce.
“No harm done,” I said to the others as I skidded the spoon along the smooth bottom of the pot.
When I retook my seat, Mae Chen, her hands folded and resting on the table, observed, “Have we been visited by an omen?”
“Gabe’s inattention, if you ask me,” Tommy said.
Colleen, who had fallen silent when we began discussing Chuck’s murder, shook in her seat. She could tolerate talk of murder; married to Sal, she’d been weaned on it. She herself was the product of a cop family. Hers differed from the Tomassettis in that her father entered the ranks of officers killed in the line of duty when she was twelve. But for whatever reason, maybe spooky secrets she held about her father, she couldn’t abide anything remotely connected to the supernatural.
Sal draped an arm over her shoulder as she complained, “Isn’t murder bad enough, we have to bring omens into it too?”
Mae Chen flourished a sienna hand and gave a low, dry laugh. “Forgive me, daughter-in-law. I joked very poorly. I apologize profusely.” We, including Colleen, knew her as intimately as she would allow in-laws to and recognized this for what it was, politeness, for we appreciated half, if that, of what she said was aimed at tickling our funny bones. Mae Chen believed in forces that she herself could not define. She perceived things, disturbances to places and objects, we missed. Her second sight was even keener than Tommy’s, who possessed senses honed on the whetstone of his police experience. She spied patterns that bright razor-eyed people, including the savants at teasing organization and purpose from human chaos, mistook for happenstances and jumbled messes.
“I for one agree with Mother,” Beth said with a trace of bitterness diminished little by time, which surprised me since I was under the impression I had fully replenished our trust fund. “Lori Gatewood had something to do with Chuck’s murder. I can just feel it.”
Bubbling Double-Trouble was the only sound as Lori and Chuck and his murder roiled in my brain and in those of the others, if their eyes were clear windows. These Tomassettis had long memories. Sins might be forgiven, but they were never forgotten. Sometimes they cropped up years later. Lori Gatewood was a sin, my personal sin, an affront not just to Beth, but to the family. Forgiven but not forgotten, as Mae Chen had made clear just moments earlier.
“Come on, Dad, you said it yourself. The wife’s the first suspect. Why not now? I mean, we know that Lori is duplicitous,” she announced as she stared intently in my direction.
“Beth,” I said, maybe a little to pedantically, since she interpreted her name as condescension and reared up at it like a feisty cat. I loved this quality of hers: I don’t take anything so don’t try dishing it out. But I didn’t care for it at that moment in front of an audience who recalled half a decade ago as if it was last night.
“Gabe,” her volume up a notch, “what do you know about her? Really, what do you know, except she was a pretty good account executive for you?” Chuck’s death was transfiguring into an uncomfortable resurrection for me.
“You’re dwelling on the past.”
She stared at me. Pain and concern emanated from her eyes. “Gabe, I’m not talking about that past. I’m talking about Lori, about how her life before us might be affecting us here and now. What do we know about her, really, except that she worked for you and she married Chuck? I’m not being vindictive, so don’t take it that way, but I didn’t trust her the way you …” She stopped and swallowed hard. “I trust her even less today than the day you first told me about her.”
Mae Chen lowered the heat, as I had on Double-Trouble. She lifted her glass of Chianti and focused her piercing black eyes over the rim. I could sense the message as physic Morse code raced through the air. We are family; and we are here to help Gabriel, who is less than perfect. But, then, who among us is perfect? We do not wish to dredge up the past. If I led you to believe otherwise, I beg your forgiveness. It was a lot to say with a pair of eyes, but they weren’t ordinary eyes.
Tommy asked, “What do you know about Mrs. Gatewood, Gabe?”
I dug deep, but really couldn’t tell him much, though before that moment I had thought I had possessed a substantial biography of her. “She grew up downstate in corn country, went to the University of Illinois, did pretty well, and came to Chicago. Just like thousands of others every year.” After recounting this, I felt as if I’d hit a wall abruptly dropped in front of me. My eyes glazed over. I peered inward, into a dark neglected recess of my mind. It was as if I had changed the bulb in an old broom closet jammed with junk facts I assumed true, only suddenly to discover them scanty and thin. I realized I didn’t know the things I’d just strung in a litany about Lori to be true, and didn’t know much more than them either. I knew the Chicago young woman Lori, but not the girl from Downstate. My history of her was what she professed it to be, which could have been fact or fiction concocted for its ring of veracity.
“You look like Beth kicked you a good one under the table,” Tommy said, feigning to look.
“She may as well have,” I said. “Maybe she did.” Their eyes were on me, waiting. I turned to Beth. “You’re right. I don’t really know Lori Gatewood. I never checked her college record. I didn’t call her referrals. For all I know, she could be a Martian.”
“Then that’s where we start,” Tommy declared. “We get to know Mrs. Gatewood better than her mother does.”
I was incredulous. “We’re not detectives.” He twisted his face, then squinted at me. “Okay, Tommy, you’re a detective. I meant we’re not,” I said, swirling my finger in a U to encompass everyone at the table, excluding Tommy.
Frowning, Beth chorused with me, “You don’t think Sergeant Vider will do a thorough job?”
Tommy shrugged. “Like I said, Tony’s a good detective, a good guy. But he’s got a job to do. Besides, cops believe in straight lines.”
I knew what that meant and Beth did too, judging by her attempt at finding a straighter and shorter line.
“Insurance,” Beth speculated. “Like that movie you like, Gabe. You remember the one, with the ‘My Three Sons’ guy.”
“Fred McMurray,” I said, “’Double Indemnity.’”
She reinforced her point with an elbow to my ribs. “She killed Chuck. Or she had somebody do it. I can feel it.” She jabbed at her chest with a finger and I was grateful she wasn’t poking it into mine. “Right here I feel it. We’ve got to try, Gabe.”
Truth was, I was torn between acting and letting things run their natural course. Beth had surfaced doubt in me about Lori; it revolved around what I hadn’t bothered to find out about the woman. It wasn’t sufficient to make me think Lori was capable of murder, even the remote control variety suggested by Beth. So I didn’t want to start a witch-hunt. But Chuck’s death and the idea that but for an idiosyncrasy I might have prevented it tugged at me. I owed it to a friend to find his killer. I could let the police do their job, but how would that pay the debt I felt toward Chuck?
Mae Chen asked, “May I offer an idea?”
“Please,” I said.
“I do not pretend to be a detective. That is the province of my good husband. The evidence is circumstantial and it is a problem. Now, Gabriel, we love you. We know you are not capable of such horror as murder. Unfortunately, to Detective Vider, you are another face in the crowd and no more.”
“I am the son-in-law of The Priest,” I smiled.
“Yes, but even this Priest, who more closely resembles a saint –” Tommy threw up his hands in deference, but Mae Chen ambled on as if she hadn’t noticed his signal, “– even he has known days that have excised the compassion from his heart. This Sergeant Vider cannot be very different.”
Dislodged from Olympus as quickly as he had been installed, Tommy nodded in concert with my mother-in-law’s sentiment.
“Thank you, my husband. We have no recourse. We must conduct our own investigation. We must undertake this with dispassion,” she said, catching my eye. “The police will, and we can do no less than they. We cannot allow our emotions, whether they are good or bad, divert us from our task. And that is to gather the evidence that will show Gabe for what he is, innocent.”
Tommy thumped the table with his thick hands to the seat-leaping startlement of us all. “We’ll make an unbeatable team.” I nearly dropped over when he didn’t produce a flag and wave it like George M. Cohan on the Fourth of July.
Beth put her arm through mine and closed down tight. Under the pressure, I resigned to the investigation. “Where do we start?”
“What are your plans for tomorrow?” Tommy asked.
“I’m going to Schaumburg to tour Ecstasy. Then in the evening I thought we’d go to the wake.”
“You,” Beth said sharply, “are going alone.”
Before I could protest, Mae Chen said, “Better you pay your respects alone, Gabriel. Mrs. Gatewood might be more agreeable to speaking with you. Perhaps she will reveal secrets.” To Beth, she added, “I believe Gabriel has sufficient reserves of commonsense to avoid trouble.”
I nodded. Beth grunted.
“Tomorrow,” Tommy said, “I’ll call Vider and renew old acquaintances. I’ll see what happened over the weekend and if he’s gotten any of the forensics reports.” I had no doubt he’d obtain this information, and more.
“What do you want us to do?” Sal asked.
“I want you to stay off the golf course and keep your phone on. We might need you fast and we don’t want to be cooling our heels while you score a fishie –“
“Birdie,” Sal corrected. Tommy was no fan of golf, disparaging it by twisting the game’s terms into infantile pejoratives.
“Whatever. You get my point. And, Colleen, your job’s to make sure he does his job. Now, let’s get this dinner done and on the table.”
Grateful to be escaping Chuck’s murder, I went to the stove. I lifted the lid off the stewing pot and breathed in the succulent aroma of tomatoes, garlic, peppers, and oil. Tommy, behind me, leaned over my shoulder and took a whiff. He squeezed my shoulder. “Ah, cooking, now there’s a great way to spend your next fifty years.”
“Thanks for the reminder,” I said, feeling actually grateful for an ordinary concern, as I replaced the lid and lit the flame under the frying pan already piquant with garlic and oil.
“My pleasure. Ready for another beer?”
Tommy got Gennys for Sal, himself, and me, and refilled the women’s wine glasses.
I filled a five-gallon pot with cold water, sprinkled in three pinches of salt, and put it on the back burner to boil.
“How’s your Ecstasy thing coming along?” Tommy asked from the table, launching into another of my predicaments.
I added two pounds of thick spaghetti to the water, brought it back to a rolling boil, and stirred to prevent sticking. As I worked, I elucidated the council’s civil war over the spa, at the conclusion of which Tommy observed, “Why you ever wanted to be an alderman, I’ll never know.”
“I’m a trustee,” I corrected, a dollop of affected snootiness in my tone. What was that? The thousandth time I drew the distinction for him. “You know, Tommy, trustees in this town are as far from being aldermen as we are from the age of lords and fiefdoms.” But, of course, he would have none of it.
“At least you know where you stand with a king.” Turning his attention to Mae Chen, he added, “And a queen.” And back to me. “Anyway, you’re right about this place. Just another excuse for prostitution, drugs, who knows.”
I swigged my Genny and stared into the frothing water. I harbored a similar ill feeling about Ecstasy. It had nothing to do with the business. Beth and I belonged to a spa and health club. Neither of us ever noticed a prostitute prowling the place. We never saw members shoving straws up their noses and sucking up lines of cocaine in the locker rooms.
I stirred the pot again. The spaghetti was firm against the spoon. I donned a pair of oven mitts and transferred the stewing pot to the sink, where I emptied the contents into the colander I had waiting.
Tommy and Sal jumped up to help, suspending talk of Ecstasy while we prepared for dinner. Tommy cleared and wiped the table, after which he set it with condiments, napkins, glasses, and silverware.
Sal took the salad bowls and dinner plates out of the cabinet. He stacked the plates near me, placed the bowls on the table, and retrieved the salad from the refrigerator. He put the bowl on the table, along with two loaves of bread Tommy and Mae Chen had brought up from Napoli Brothers.
Using a spaghetti ladle, I filled each plate with a heaping mound of the steaming pasta, completely covering the blue carp on each plate. Beth and I always used this set of dishes when we had family for meals. Everybody in the family used blue carp dishes when guests dined. Even Q used them at The Five Dynasties. The carp represented good luck and we all agreed we couldn’t have too much of that, though it seemed to have bypassed me the past couple of days. Maybe things would be different if I’d served Saturday’s breakfast on the carp dishes.
As I finished ladling sauce onto each dish, Sal took it from me and placed it in front of someone, until only I was left. I carried mine to the table and the second I touched down everybody dug in.
We had just started in on quotidian affairs when the doorbell tweeted. I excused myself and went to answer it. Before I could finish navigating through the hallway to the front door, the little bird tweeted again. It was supposed to be the call of the spring robin, a heralding of renewed life, but the sound could have been the squawk of any small bird. I remember searching throughout High Hills, the north suburbs, then Chicago for a doorbell that tweeted like a robin. I settled for any bird and found the doorbell, oddly given our intent, in a hunting catalog.
Mae Rose was the impetus behind the robin doorbell. She was an adult now, living in New York City, completing her medical internship at Bellevue. Fifteen years ago she’d been a fourth grader studying birds. The lesson made an impression on her and one day she arrived home insisting on a pet bird. Beth and I are not pet people and we demurred.
Mae Rose, unimpressed and undaunted by our rejection, hatched a plan to obtain a bird on her own. Each day after school she would shred half a loaf of Wonder Bread –- Mae Rose and Frank insisted on the spongy stuff when they were young but have come around nicely on this to prefer crusty Italian. She’d sow the backyard with the pulpy shards and wait. Birds of all stripes flocked to our yard. They seemed to consume more bread than our entire family, and succeeded in consternating our neighbors, good people who liked nature as well as anyone but who — and Beth and I were in complete agreement with them — enjoyed the wild served up via remote control, preferably on the Discovery Channel.
Mae Rose didn’t capture a bird, let alone the robin of her dreams. After a week, she tired of the exercise. When I saw how disappointed she was with the birds, us, and herself, I offered an alternative. To this day, Mae Rose chimes the doorbell whenever she visits and breaks into a beaming smile. So do I because I’m seeing her the way she was when she was a budding ornithologist.
It was Gary Cabot at the door. He appeared as he always did — desperate for a meal. Gary was tall and lanky in a robust athletic way. Nothing was skinny or anemic about him, though he was thin. His arms and wrists were thick and roped with muscle. His face was full, his eyes brown and bright. His hair was his only deficiency; it was as sparse as grass in a dessert. He’d lost pretty most all of it when he was in his thirties.
He didn’t look a bit like a cop, except for the nine-millimeter Beretta he wore all the time. He secured it on his hip in a clip-on holster emblazoned with his gold shield. Gary, a veteran of the Chicago streets, and though mainly an administrator now, believed in being armed and ready at all times, and he insisted on the same from those in his corps. The truth, as he revealed it one Saturday halfway through a quarter-century bike, ride was that he had never fired his weapon during his ten years in Chicago. He had pulled it fewer than a dozen times. But preparedness was his motto and packing a weapon day and night was the first commandment in his enforcement bible.
“Not disturbing you, Gabe, am I?” he sniffed.
“We just sat down to dinner, Gary. If you’d care to join us, please,” I said, ushering him into the house.
“I don’t want to be a bother.”
I brushed off his politeness by the time we reached the kitchen, where everybody greeted him as if we had been waiting on him.
“Sit, Gary,” Beth said, up in a bolt shooing Sal and Colleen over. “Gabe will get you a chair.” I borrowed one from the game table in the family room and placed it next to Sal, who patted it.
“Margie expects me home with the two Hs,” Gary said, dropping onto the chair. We smiled at his deference to Mae Chen and Tommy.
Beth set a plate of Double-Trouble Garibaldi before him and we all tucked in.
“What brings you around this fine Sunday?” Tommy asked, forking a spool of spaghetti into his mouth, then talking around it. “Eager to get a look at a real big city criminal?”
Beth shot Tommy her “Dad, please” glare, which he shrugged off.
“Sorry to hear about your friend, Gabe,” Gary said.
Before I could thank him, Tommy asked, “You got a call from our friend Tony Vider?”
Gary nodded. “He said the weather’s fine in Chicago. Tommy, you know that’s all I can say.”
“That’s what’s wrong with these suburban cops,” Tommy taunted playfully, jerking a thick thumb in Gary’s direction. “They never heard of professional courtesy.”
Ignoring him, Gary said to me, “I got the background on the Colluccis.”
“Why don’t you eat, Gary?” I said. “We can talk about them later.”
“Why are you two interested in Collucci?” Tommy asked, leaning forward over his plate.
“This Collucci, is he related to Gravedigger Collucci?” Beth asked.
Gary looked at me and Beth followed his glance. “So, what about him?” I asked coolly, realizing this wouldn’t wait until later.
“One sorry SOB if you ask me,” Tommy said. “Why, I could write a book about that SOB.”
“I don’t know if we have time for a book tonight,” I said. “How about Gary gives us the Cliff Notes version.”
Gary had nearly cleared his plate by the time he ran his napkin over his lips and drew a police report and a yellow legal pad page awash in symbols as meaningful to the average person as hieroglyphics, “Now, jump in, Tommy, if I overlook anything. He was born Antonio Tiberius Collucci.”
“It sounds like his parents had high hopes for him,” Colleen, who’d been next to silent the entire evening, said. “Naming him after a Roman emperor.”
“Doubt it,” said Gary, “the old man was Mafioso.”
“Maybe they figured he’d grow up to be a godfather,” Tommy quipped.
Gary continued, “He grew up around Taylor Street. He got a record when he got his eighth grade diploma at St. Xavier.”
“What he’d do? Strong arm the sisters?” Tommy sneered.
“Almost. He extorted lunch money from the smaller kids. They got him for putting one kid in the hospital. For punishment, his old man made him go to Catholic high school. De La Salle Institute. Actually, he was a pretty good student.”
“What we need more of,” Tommy said, a hint of bitter edginess, “educated crooks.”
“Well, it must have worked for him. He was clean, except for truancy, until he turned twenty. Then they got him for something really big,” Gary said, hitting “big” with the flourish of a budding thespian. “Chicago hauled in him and two others for Louis DeSantis’ murder.”
“He was a bookie with flypaper fingers,” Tommy said for the benefit of those of us deficient in mob lure.
Gary glanced at this empty glass. I got up and fetched him another Coke.
“Trouble was Frank Nitti didn’t think it was a good quality in a bookie. They found him a foot under in a cornfield west of Cicero. Nitti wanted his body found. DeSantis was an example. So the cops found it. Tony and his playmates hog tied the poor …” He paused and cleared his throat. “They beat him pretty bad, but not enough to kill him outright. They had other plans,” he said, picking up and sipping the soda I placed in front of him. “They buried him alive. He saw each and every shovel full raining down on him. Hence Tony’s moniker, Gravedigger.”
He fingered his shirtsleeve back and peeked at his watch and relaxed. “Think you could spare a little more?” he asked, touching his plate.
Beth extended her hand and he passed it to her faster than a cannibal about to dig into a fat man. He tracked her with his eyes for a second, then turned back to us. “The authorities knew Gravedigger and his crew probably did the job, but they couldn’t prove it, even then, when proving things was easier. Besides the cops, his pals knew. He was pretty proud of it, a real peacock about it. So his pals gave him the name. It stuck, probably because Tony made no mistake that he loved it. Anyway, Gravedigger disappeared until the early Fifties. He made a grand appearance at the Kefauffer hearings. Sort of like a coming out party, letting the world know he had risen to capo.” While Gary talked, Beth slid his refilled plate in front of him.
“I remember that. I was starting out,” Tommy said. “I remember thinking this guy had a little something extra compared the rest of the sleaze balls he hung out with.”
“Bobby Kennedy’s kiddie law brigade flushed him out next. Really POed old Gravedigger, too. He was like a sunfish to the kids. They tossed him back. He should have been grateful, but Gravedigger never liked being thought of as a small fish.”
Gary paused to show delight. “God, this is so good,” he said around a mouthful of spaghetti and sausage. “Gabe, I’d have you show Margie how to cook, except I’d spend the rest of my marriage in the doghouse. So that’s pretty much it. Gravedigger went on doing his thing. Word is he stepped back from the business about five years ago. Word also is that the son, Tony, Jr., is legitimate.”
Beth twisted in her seat. “Excuse me, Gary, but what does that have to do with anything?”
“Everything. Junior owns Ecst –“ I stopped him with a glare. I hadn’t yet gotten around to telling Beth about this association of a mobster’s son with my town council project. I meant to. In fact, I planned to mention it Saturday, but then I found Chuck dead and things spun out of control. Not that she would be particularly upset about me seeing a gangster’s son; she knew Gravedigger wouldn’t be laying me low on my first visit. But I hadn’t told her exactly why I was meeting with Chuck; that omission upset her. She was of the mind, and I was usually in full agreement, we should not hide things from each other. It had to do with the Angellini family trust, which as I’d said until tonight I thought I had pretty much recapitalized.
“Gabe,” she said, her sharpness muted to an undertone but still detectable to my attuned family.
Tommy barked a laugh that was somewhere between funny and derisive. It broke her focus on me. “Tempting fate once isn’t enough for our Gabe,” he chuckled. “Now he wants to do it again with the biggest bag of garbage I know.”
“I’m not seeing Tony, Senior. I’m seeing the son. I have to do this. I’m the one who made this an issue.”
“Probably nothing to worry about, really,” Gary said, moving his words through a mouthful Double-Trouble Garibaldi. “Larry Collins, the chief in Schaumburg, claims it’s a clean operation. They’ve never had a problem. No complaints, either, which is more than you can say for most businesses. Collins says he gets more calls about the Victoria Secret’s at Woodfield.”
Tommy shook his head and pushed the last of his dinner around his plate, reading the remains like a shaman reads entails. “If that place is legit, it’s a miracle. But you’ve got to hand it to Gravedigger. He sure has a knack for running low to the ground.”
“I’m done,” Gary said, shoving away from the table. He attempted to move his plate to the counter, but Beth stopped him. Gary thanked us and I showed him out.
In the kitchen, everybody pitched in and finished the clean up fast. The family left after Beth put the last plate in the cabinet.
* * *
“I doesn’t seem like much, tonight, when I think about it.”
“What?” Beth asked, lifting her head off my shoulder to probe my eyes. We were in the family room, on the sofa, aimed at the TV, which was turned so low the voices came to us like annoying insect conversation. We’d lowered the lights, too, until the room was bathed in a soft, warm yellow reminiscent of a freshly stoked fire.
In that room, at that moment, I felt safer than I had in days, safer and more content, more accepting of myself and what was happening to me. With Beth next to me, I felt shielded, nearly invulnerable to the turmoil and danger that had invaded our quiet lives on Friendly Fences Lane.
“My fiftieth,” I said.
“I hate to say it, Gabe, but I told you so.” She jabbed me lightly with a long, clear-tip finger. “I’m chilly. Hold me closer.”
I held her as closely as I could without us merging into one person. We nestled that way for a long time, an hour maybe, not sleeping, but together in a peaceful netherworld of security.
After, she asked me for a glass of water. I untangled from her and fetched it from the kitchen.
When I returned, Beth had unbuttoned her blouse. It hung away, revealing the swell of her breasts which glowed with a fine patina of moisture.
I left the water on the kitchen table, and she didn’t seem to miss it the entire night.