Behind Lori Baer, 5

Behind Lori Baer

CHAPTER 5

I was up at five on Monday, two hours earlier than usual.  The Gennys were responsible.  “Don’t forget your age, Gabe,” I grumbled, torquing the knots tight on my running shoes, demonstrating to no one that I still possessed a little of the old stuff, whatever that was.  I was dressing at the top of the stairs so I wouldn’t disturb Beth, who began rising at six to appear dazzling for her second graders at seven-thirty. 

I loped down the stairs and at the bottom stretched toward the ceiling.  “Wasn’t long ago you could drink and sleep through the night as soundly as Frankie after an afternoon at the playground,” I said softly as I patted the hall wall in search of the light switch.

I stopped before I found the switch.  “Isn’t talking to yourself a symptom of something?  Senility, maybe?”

I found the switch and flicked it on.  “Stop it.  Stop talking to yourself.”  I obeyed me, but it was an effort until I was outside and on my way down familiar trails.

I returned while Beth was in the shower and got in right after her.  Working on her face at the vanity, she told me she’d get her own breakfast.  “Fine,” I yelled.  Beth never spent more than five minutes on make up in the morning; she didn’t need to waste even that time.  She inherited eternal youth from Mae Chen.

On her way out of the bathroom, she peaked in at me around the shower curtain.  “Thanks for last night,” she said, making me wish we had more time and she wasn’t wearing her white terry robe.

Instead, I lowered my hands below my waist and hunched slightly like a startled virgin.  “Preserve my modesty, woman.”  She giggled and left me to finish.

It was a beautiful day, already sunny and promising pleasant warmth.  Perfect top-down Mustang weather.  I dressed in khakis and a short-sleeve pullover.  I prepared myself a light breakfast of cereal, toast, and black coffee.  I cleaned up and was ready to roll by eight-thirty.

Before I went into the garage, I called Tommy.  He picked up on the second ring and sounded like he’d been up for hours, which he had.  Unlike me, Tommy never lost the habit of leaping out of bed — he did leap, joyful to be up and at it — in the dark.  His dedication to predawn rising would shame an Amish farmer.

“Did you phone Vider?” I asked, after we had bandied the normal pleasantries.

“He wasn’t in.  I’ll give him a try in an hour or so.”

I told Tommy I’d be home by noon.  He said he’d leave a message as he had to be at the Kmart on Harlem in Norridge by ten.

I hung up and gave the kitchen a quick inspection to ensure I hadn’t left anything on that should have been off.  Then I lifted the Mustang keys from the catchall rack near the door and stepped into the garage.

Beth and her BMW were long gone.  My Jag looked like it might have missed it.  Next to the Jag under a soft blue tarp lined with felt was the second great love of my life — my ’67 Mustang.  If it had been a woman, it might have rivaled Beth for my heart. 

I poured hours into this beautiful lady, completely restoring her myself, except for the paint job, which I had done by Lincoln Luxury Car Restorations, the finest repair operation on the entire North Shore.

I gently removed the tarp and revealed her slowly, like I always did.  I was never in a rush with her, until we got on the open road.

She could have been straight off the Rouge plant production line; that’s how pristine she was; that’s how perfectly I had recreated her.  She was Springtime Yellow, her original production color.  She had a spotless black top and a limpid Lucite split rear window designed to fold time and again without cracking.

Under the hood — a long, sleek sweep of lacquered metal that gave the impression of floating on and on to where the road ended — under that graceful cloud of yellow was an eight-cylinder 289 cubic-inch engine equipped a with power-boosting four-barrel carburetor.  It was capable of 271 hp at 6000 rpms.

I folded the tarp and placed it in its box, which sat on a shelf in the back of the garage.  Then I walked back to the driver’s door, opened it, and dropped into the driver’s black vinyl bucket seat.  I grasped the wood steering wheel reverently, stroked the steel spokes that sported die-cut holes, and stared at the stallion logo on the wheel hubcap.

I remembered the first time I had seen this car.  Not this exact Mustang, but its sibling.  I saw it in a TV commercial that, like a taser, stunned me from head to toe and left me a zombie with only Mustang in my vision.  It was love, young man and his coveted machine; and it remained unfulfilled for years, while I worked to support my grandmother and aunt; while I scared up dollars in the mad, vain hope that I might, just might feather enough of a nest egg for a down payment; while I used the little I saved for the things that didn’t fall under the blanket of my Northwestern scholarship; until I was working at Lakeside Publishing. 

I found her in the local Penney Saver and bought her from a fellow who didn’t know he owned a treasure.  He couldn’t see past the cracked windshield, the tattered seats, the corroding body, the engine that choked and coughed and died ten seconds after he turned the ignition key.

Beth and I had a bungalow on the northwest side not far from Tommy and Mae Chen at the time.  It was tiny and old and fusty and we adored it because it was ours; it was our stake on life.  I really loved it because it had what I considered essential — a garage.  It wasn’t big, in keeping with the house, but it did accommodate one car and a tool chest the size of a bedroom dresser.  And it was wired and electrified.  It was home and hospital for the second love of my life.

I was her doctor and nurse and ministered to her rips and drips, her cancers and arthritic moving parts — actually non-moving until I conducted replacement surgery.  I treated her through Frank’s conception and birth; through his progression from baby to toddler; and through the coming of his radiant sister, Mae Rose.  And then on the very day of Mae Rose’s baptism, two hours before we held our baby over the tough, I affixed a refurbished rearview mirror to her windshield, leaned back in the new black vinyl driver’s seat, and sighed deeply.  I was done and she was reborn whole and pristine.  I drove Beth, Mae Rose in her arms, and Frank to the baptism in her.

I pressed the remote door opener clipped on the visor and threaded the key into the ignition.  She turned over on the first try, as she always did.  She growled quietly, almost daintily teasing with a hint at her power, and vibrating with soothing restraint.  It was like pulling the bit back on a thorough bred eager to break free and burn up the track.  With cruising on my mind, I lowered the top.

I shifted into reverse and eased up the clutch.  It grabbed tightly.  I slowly backed down the driveway and onto the street.  I closed the garage door and zigged the shifter into first.  The Mustang burbled down Friendly Fences Lane demonstrating her cultivated manners and admirable pedigree.

I decided to take the scenic route to Route 53 and Schaumburg.  I glided over to Route 83 and navigated south past Prairie Paths Golf Course and into Long Grove, a village diffused over dozens of square miles in five-acre estates.  Long Grove was ordered, architected, landscaped, terraformed, manicured lawn sprawl; the last item tended to twice daily, or so it seemed.  Which immeasurably increased the appeal of the farm — a real farm operated by a man in coveralls, with crops and livestock and a rickety truck in which he hauled his harvest to consolidators.  It was large and rambling, and as far from disciplined as a wild mustang.  It climbed up hill from the highway to a ramshackle white house wrapped by a porch.  I imagined on fine fall evenings the farmer put up his feet, pulled deeply on his pipe, and cherished how damn lucky he was to live off the land like the first Illinoisans. 

I ruminated on this until I came to Robert Coffin Road.  I turned right onto it and was in Old Long Grove inside a minute.  I drove through the town slowly inhaling its migrated Colonial spirit and appearance.  Old Long Grove’s historic district differed from High Hills’ in that Old Long Grove’s buildings were formerly residences converted into quaint shops; while ours were brawny brick mercantile structures erected to serve farmers and their families. 

Not that I’m a sentimentalist on this, but running through our old town and driving through Old Long Grove set me to pining for a time and place, a people and culture, long gone.  If granted my wish, I would probably find them as alien as if I was plopped on another planet.

The rest of the drive to Schaumburg epitomized my time.  Schaumburg and all roads leading to it was what I was trying to avoid in High Hills.  Development and nature coexisting was my motto.  Literally.  I had used it in my last two trustee campaigns and it had served me well.  It helped that I actually believed in the ideal.

From Old Long Grove, the Mustang and I leapt onto the super-sized Route 53, six lanes of blacktop dividing the north and south sides of towns like a river torpid with black silt, until it emptied into two massive Interstates, 294 and 355.

We roared down 53 using every lane the State of Illinois provided us, blowing past the most inconsiderate motorists, kindly but misguided drivers who decided to hold the speed limit in the left lane, the very lane reserved for the disciples of lightening motion, the masters of fast mass, the lords — and ladies, too — of luscious locomotion.

For all too short a time I forgot the inescapable and visible fact — Illinois was a flat place; it defined the idea, and others related to it, like featureless, monotonous, boring, and dull.  These were particularly unattractive flatlands, because they were woefully deficient in trees and grass.  The very things that would have lent a natural shine to the land were vanished:  People had replaced nature with all manner and style of houses that, once modern, were now dated.  These houses in three sizes, small, smaller, and tiny, charged up to 53’s barrier of asphalt and steel, nipping at it like yappers. 

The Mustang and I snacked on the road until the prairie megalopolis of Schaumburg hulked up before us, giving every indication it was a crop experiment gone horribly wrong, a mutation of glass, steel, and stone. 

I aimed the Mustang down the three-lane highways Schaumburgogians misguidedly labeled streets on their maps.  The one I was on was Golf Road and I was navigating past Woodfield Mall, in the shadows of gleaming office towers that had transformed Schaumburg into one of the new breed of mini-cities erupting in the shadows of nineteenth-century industrial capitols, past strip malls jammed with cleaners, donut shops, auto supply stores, and Chinese restaurants, into the land of standalones — McDonald’s, Workbench, Jiffy Lube, and finally to the edge of town where empty land, doubtlessly slated for development, took over until yielding to the bedrooms of Mount Prospect.  But before it did, there was Ecstasy.

Tony Collucci, Jr. had submitted a sketch of Ecstasy II along with a site map to the High Hills real estate committee; it had made its way to the council.  Not excited at the idea and even less so when I saw the rendering, I let slip a phrase the council twittered over whenever the name Ecstasy came up:  Big Box ‘O Fun.

The building that filled the Mustang’s windscreen, like its scion in the drawing, was a very large box pasted with decorations, not unlike an enormous sheet cake buried under scrolling and buds and script.  It was schizophrenic, bounding on an extremely rough sea of office park utilitarianism and filmmaker Roman historical via the Chicago White City model, but without any of the latter’s charm and hardly any of its good effect.

The Colluccis had planted a stone Roman, who might have been Julius Caesar or Tiberius or, as I fancied, Caligula, in the center of a pleasant garden that was in a modest turning circle around which ran a driveway over the building side of which stretched an ample porte-cochere held up by Roman Doric columns.  Banquet hall came to mind as the Mustang and I traced our way around the driveway in search of a visitor’s parking place.

As with a hotel, guests could stand their autos temporarily under the porte-cochere.  I parked the Mustang behind a ’79 Caddy Eldorado, a two-door land yacht in cherry-apple red with a white landau roof and vanity plates that declared “Pits,” which got me to wondering and suspecting who owned it.  I wasn’t enamored of GM cars, the exception being the ’67 Corvette Stingray, but I admired anyone who appreciated and cared for classic autos.  If who I thought owned this car, I was inclined to think he possessed a glimmer of good — if it was only superb taste in motor transportation.

I left the Mustang’s top down.  The weather was fine and I doubted anybody would harm her since she was near the Eldorado.  I did lock her after I climbed out.  Force of habit. 

I surveyed the area around the building.  I saw plenty of green, not what I expected in a parking lot.  Unfortunately, we suburban dwellers are in the habit of blacktopping our world and breaking up the monotony we create with slashes of yellow or white, depending on the color preference of the proprietor.  The Colluccis — judging by the Caddy, I was fairly certain Senior was heavily involved in the enterprise — were either environmentalists, or attempting a good neighbor policy, or just liked green.  They had planted islands of scrubs in the lot, imparting a sensation of being in the country and happening on a huge concrete box and wondering how and why it got there.  Respect for our auto heritage and a penchant for greenery — maybe there was something to like about these Colluccis.

I entered the Box ‘O Fun through double glass doors mounted in bronze jambs.  Instead of the usual high reception barrier staffed by a man or woman clad in multi-tone nylon, I encountered a sleek table-style desk under which were displayed two very long female legs, the color of soft walnut.  I followed them up over a red silk dress to an exotic face.  She was done up as if she was waiting her turn to swagger in that wholly unreal way models flaunt on fashion runways.

“You must be Mr. Angellini,” she said, scanning a leather appointment book open in front of her.  I had arranged the meeting last week, when I was younger; when I had a friend I saw infrequently named Chuck.

“Yes,” I said with a courtly nod.  I’m a sucker for exotic good looks.  Take my wife.  This girl’s were already working their magic on me.

“Here for a tour, isn’t that right?”  Her voice was light and melodic.  Her question danced over the desk to me, pinging like the high notes of a piano.  I detected traces of an accent.  Jamaican it sounded like.

“You wouldn’t be in charge of tours by any chance?”  I grinned broadly.  I couldn’t help myself.

“Oh, no,” she sung, “usually Ms. Johnson conducts the tours for the ladies and Mr. Patterson for the gentlemen.”  This was a girl who didn’t appear to be a day over eighteen, but she spoke as if some force had hurtled us back to the ’50s.  Strange, I found myself thinking, my grin transforming into a broad smile, but thoroughly charming.  If I’d had an appointment with Mr. Patterson, I wouldn’t have cared if he took a year fetching me. 

“But, Mr. Angellini, I see by my book that you are receiving a special tour today.”  She appeared impressed and smiled at me, it seemed to me, dreamily.  Maybe she figured I was famous.  “Mr. Collucci himself will be conducting it.”

“You know, you’re being very unfair to me.”  I reversed the corners of my mouth into a small pout.

She regarded me with big eyes, clearly perplexed, and obviously not accustomed to giving customers anything less than an exhilarating experience.

“You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

“Oh, Mr. Angellini, I’m so sorry.  Jasmine.”

“Very … fragrant,” I drawled.

She giggled and unconsciously fanned the pages of her appointment book.

This wasn’t right, I realized, but I couldn’t help myself.  Even after the evil eye from Mae Chen I was still at it.  What could I say?  How could I explain this to Beth and Mae Chen, to anybody?  I loved Beth.  I wanted only Beth.  The one time flirtation got me into trouble I wasn’t the flirter.  But it had been exciting and I had enjoyed the thrill.

I reined myself in and asked, “Junior or Senior?”

She scrunched her pencil-lined brows, staring at the page for the longest time, as if she’d forgotten how to read.  Finally, she said, “It doesn’t say.”  She looked back up at me and blinked.  “But I assume it will be Mr. Collucci Junior.”

She regarded me expectantly, a smile glimmering at the corners of her mouth.  The air between us was quiet and in less than a minute she inferred that I had taken my ball and gone home.

“It will be a few minutes,” she said, still lilting but with undertones of business curtness.  “Would you like to have a seat?”  She extended a palm toward a small area off to the right. 

It was pleasant space under soft lighting emitted by long, narrow cans suspended on thin tubing from the ceiling.  Four black leather Barcelona chairs, two facing two, flanked a Constructionist rug in bold reds, blues, and golds.  Pilasters slapped to the walls were the only signs of Roman splendor.

I picked the chair affording me the best view of the reception desk and Jasmine.  Traffic was light and consisted mostly of women who came in all ages and descriptions.  A few looked as if they camped out in the place, but most seemed to have only recently discovered the Appian path to Ecstasy.  On the whole, everything seemed in order; I wouldn’t expect flocks of men during what were working hours for most people.

I felt as if I’d been in the chair for ten minutes at least, but a quick glance at the Hamilton told me it had been no more than two.  I occupied myself by staring at Jasmine, then chattering with her.

“So, Jasmine, do you work out here?”

“Oh, yes, of course,” she said brightly, as if she had been eagerly waiting for me to toss the ball back onto the field.  “It’s a real privilege.”  She spoke with the awe of ardent belief.

“You take massages here?”

“Yes,” she said ratching up her intensity.  “I adore them.  They’re so relaxing.  You know, our masseuses are the best.  We have two and they’re from Europe.  If you have the chance, you really have to try one.”

“So, how does it work?  Women massage men and men women?”

She giggled like she might have been embarrassed by the suggestiveness of the idea, but that wasn’t it at all.  “No.  It’s entirely your choice.  If you prefer Enrique, he will give you your massage.  If you prefer Hekki, then it is Hekki.  You choose at Ecstasy.”  She was sounding like an advertising pitch.

I rustled in my Barcelona.  I could see this playing well in High Hills as well as I could see a tall, muscled, shirtless, sweaty Enrique kneading oil into Beth’s bare shoulders, and elsewhere.

I caught my breath and asked, “Are there other amenities you think I’d like?”

Before she could answer, the entrance door opened and two men stepped out.  There was no doubt these were the Junior and Senior Colluccis. 

Junior was in his late thirties.  He was short and thin and his three-button Armani suit draped nicely on him.  His looks were less than average, not helped by the sense he gave off of being used in some indefinable way.  His head was round, odd on a short, thin fellow, like a bowling ball on a broomstick.  He was nearly bald and self-conscious about it, compensating for his follicle deprivation by growing his side and back hair long and gathering it into a ponytail that he secured with an elasticized band of gray fabric tied with a small bow.

Senior, on the other hand, was younger in appearance than I expected and anything but worn out; he exuded vitality, as if seventy, which must have been his age, was a mere halfway point in his life.  He was short, like his son, but husky, a thick guy who looked like he chopped a cord of wood a day, or at least attacked Ecstasy’s free weights daily.  He was dressed purely American in a two-button blazer, pink button-down open at the collar, tan wool slacks, and wingtip Johnston and Murphy loafers.  A gold chain peeked out his open collar.  When he moved, I could see two cigars tucked in his shirt pocket.  Passing him on the street, I would have taken him for an ad executive (actually he dressed better than some ad execs), or a retired businessman who couldn’t quite give up the habit of dress up.  What he didn’t look like was a man who buried people alive.

They spotted me and sauntered over.  Senior reached me first and extended his hand.

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Angellini.”  He didn’t wait for me to get my hand up fully, but grabbed and crushed it.  I had to glance down to check if his paw was a prosthetic.  “I’m Tony Collucci.  This is my boy.”  He released me, for which I was tempted to thank him.  Then he hiked his arm like he was hitching a ride.  He angled his thumb back in the general vicinity of Junior.

On cue, Junior thrust his hand into mine.  It was moist and bony.  When he let go, it was all I could do not to rub my hand on my pants.  I liked the khakis too much, so I refrained.

“Angellini, a good Italian name,” Senior said, stretching it like a concertina, testing each syllable as if he was measuring Angellini against a list of certified names.  “Abruzzi?”

“Napoli.”

“Very good.  It’s very good they sent an Italian.  We understand each other, yes?”  Senior had a thick, waxy voice, a bit wet, as if each word came coated with a little phlegm.  My grandmother and aunt croaked out words with the same sticky consistency, the result of years of cigarettes and maybe a carafe too much of Dandelion wine, one of the few “foods” they made.

“You be the judge later,” I said more tersely than the question warranted.  But I resented being buttered up like I was a goomba. 

Heading off conflict before it could develop, Junior jumped in.  “My father,” he said, dropping an Armani arm on his father’s shoulder, “everything is the old world with him.  Hey, this is nearly the Twenty-first Century, I tell him.  He doesn’t listen.  Your parents still with you, Mr. Angellini?”  He was the polar opposite of Senior, as if he had been hatched and raised in another family, which, I suppose, he had been.  His syntax had overtones of Tailor Street, but his speech was studied, stilted like an academic’s.  He came across as stuffy, embarrassed, and worst of all, disrespectful.

“My son, here, the big businessman.  Big college boy.  Maybe he’s a little too wise.  What do you think, Mr. Angellini?”  He shrugged of Junior’s arm and gave him a fatherly cuff on the back of the head.  I imagined him doing the same with a baseball bat on Disantis’ noggin.  I rubbed my head in sympathy to a man a half-century past pain.

“They can be a handful, that’s for sure,” I agreed.

Junior was down a peg with only a wilting collar to show for the discipline.

Senior regarded me closely, holding my eye as if steel cable connected us.  When I didn’t break the connection, he said, as lightly as he could manage with that voice of his, “I’m going to be straight with you, Mr. Angellini.  You impress me as a serious man.  I gave my boy here seed money to get himself started.  This spa thing, it sounded like it might be a good idea.  He did up this thing, this whatchamacallit …”

“Business plan,” interjected Junior.

“Right, business plan.  Lots of pictures.”  Senior rolled his large shoulders.  “The pictures, they weren’t so interesting to me.  The dollars, now they looked pretty good.  He figured we could do it a little better than the others and make more money.  Now me, I’m not big on spas and gyms and that kind of stuff.  Waste of time, if you ask me.  Dig a ditch.  Plant a garden.  Build a garage.  Do something like that and you get something to show for the work, you know what I mean?”

I knew exactly, but didn’t sympathize with the view.  The Mustang parked a few feet from where we stood was my testament to physical labor and what I had to show for my work.  I could see plainly what Senior had to show for his — huge shoulders, arms the size of legs, wrists with the circumferences of oak branches.  Performing resistance exercises with a baseball bat and human bone did wonders for a mobster’s physique.  I was happier to have people condition themselves and burn off their frustrations in gyms. 

“But I figured this was a good idea.  And he’s my kid.  If a kid can’t get help from his father, well that’s pretty lousy.  You got a boy, Mr. Angellini?”

“He’s grown and out of the house.”

“Like mine.  Such a shame.  These years, they get away from us.”  He clapped Junior’s back.  “So, I put some money in the business.  I come by occasionally just to check up on my investment.”

“You’re telling me you don’t run Ecstasy?”

“Right.  I’m just an investor.  Like investing in GM.  Like that.”

I wanted to ask, Who does your laundry?  Who carts your garbage?  How much are you skimming off the top?  And how are you doing it?  I had no doubt he was, regardless of his claim to passive investor status.  And in that second I saw him using his ham hock hands to finagle dollars out of Ecstasy and into his pockets, Gatewood Graphics leapt forward in my mind.  I didn’t know what the connection was, or if there was a connection.  But I wondered, wondered what Chuck might have gotten himself into as he expanded his business, as he came up short on cash.

Guys like Tony Collucci were in legitimate businesses.  They wanted us to believe they were legit; but they just needed new ways to launder profits from their traditional enterprises.  I knew they were involved in many of the industries that serviced establishments like Ecstasy and The Five Dynasties.  Q had a run in with them over linen service; but High Hills had no tolerance for racketeers, whether blatant or puppeteer types.  In the city, though, anything seemed to go.  And I began wondering if there had been more to Chuck’s problem than a simple case of embezzlement. 

“Why don’t we get on with the tour?  I’m sure Mr. Angellini’s time is limited.  He must have other things he’d like to do today,” Junior said, angling toward the entrance door.

“Good idea.  You’ve never seen a place like this.  The people up in High Hills are going to love it.”

“I thought we’d start in the gym,” Junior said, holding the door for Senior and me, “and work our way through.  What do you think, Pop?”

The old man nodded and I could see that Junior’s deference pleased him.

They led me into a gym not unlike the one Beth and I belonged to, except this one held enough machines to qualify as a warehouse.  It also had side walls mirrored floor to ceiling and a window for a back wall.  Steel mullions divided the glass into a pattern of squares much like a bank of television screens.  It gave a view of the parking lot and the field beyond.  The lot was exceptional for the suburbs, as it was landscaped to hide the parking stalls and give the effect of gazing into a forest.

“Very nice,” I said, almost involuntarily.  Senior and Junior didn’t disguise their delight.  “But where are the people?” I asked, bleeding down their smiles.  A handful of women were working out on the stair machines, tread mills, and bikes, intently watching Oprah whose face filled a score of monitors suspended from the beamed-exposed black ceiling.

Junior spieled, as if he’d memorized his own sales brochure, “Our peak times are early morning, lunch time, and all evening after four.  Mid morning’s slow.”

We passed through the men’s locker room.  It was large, clean, and featured full-size lockers.  Members could hang their clothes and they could shower in individual stalls.

Next on the tour were the “wet areas,” as Junior called them.  The pool was impressive, even if I didn’t consider the double Roman columns terminating either end.  This was no Baths of Caracalla, but it had eight twenty-five yard lanes.  The lanes were wide enough for two swimmers to share without turning rhythmic exercise into a blood sport. 

Tucked behind the pool was an area that instantly got my attention and drew outsize cartoon grins from the pair.  They called it the grotto and it certainly looked like a carved cove straight from the highlands around Rome, or maybe Door County up in Wisconsin.  It was lighted to simulate twilight.  The hue was rich, golden, and alluring. 

The temperature was noticeably higher in the grotto, and it was noisier than the rest of the club.  Water trickled in some spots and in others rushed over ledges and splashed into green pools, frothing them.  Greenery and flowers landscaped the place and also divided it into three discrete sections.  These were secluded shelters that provided a degree of privacy.  I didn’t admit this in front of the two, but I found the grotto appealing and wondered what Beth and I could do here on a slow Monday morning.

We definitely wouldn’t have to worry about anybody intruding on us.  As with the gym and pool, the grotto seemed empty.  It seemed desolate until we three sojourners entered the last area where I espied three people.  Two appeared to be older men, though it was hard to be certain as draped and dripping fronds partially hid them.  The third member of the party was a woman who could have been in her early thirties, but at any rate, even at this distance and in the low light, I could tell was much younger than the men.  She wore a skimpy bikini.  It amounted to two slashes of yellow, very bright and very ill-placed yellow. 

“Great place for parties,” I said, having trouble pulling my eyes away from the scene.

Senior smirked and croaked a gooey laugh.  Junior fumbled around for words, acting like an out-of-practice tightrope walker who’d forgotten the arty part of his business.  He ventured, “We designed this as a retreat.  You know, a quiet area removed from the daily grind, a place to relax and think in peace.”  It was elegant talk with a back of Tailor Street, new age salespersonship filtered through desperation for an explanation.  He knew what I was thinking. 

Junior fixed a quick glance at Senior to gauge how this had gone down with the old man.  For his part, Senior seemed to be in a pleasant torpor, his eyes firmly locked on the woman in the scraps of yellow.

As they guided me out of the grotto, I said to Junior, “It reminds me of Hugh Hefner.”

His face was at once blank and concerned.  He was silent as we tramped on.

“When I was a kid, I liked Playboy.  Heffner had that mansion on State, remember?”  Junior was still a whitewashed wall on this, but Senior registered a lopsided grin.  It was cynical and knowing, hinting that maybe through some back alley way he might have personal experience in Hef’s grotto.  Could have been he was mulling over the meal he planned to make of me.  It was probably Heffner.  “I always wondered what went on in that place.  You know, really wondered,” I said, giving every indication that I had an accurate idea.

“There’s nothing to wonder about here,” Junior said, panicky like a kid nabbed existing the 7-Eleven with stolen gum tucked in his jeans. 

“How about the massage area?” I asked, letting the subject fall fallow.  “Where is it?”

Junior hurriedly indicated a glass door obscured by mist from the grotto.  He led the way in with Senior bringing up the rear.

The room sprawled under a ceiling with a large translucent skylight that suffused the sunlight and gave the room a milky and somewhat antiseptic dullness.  There was a space for manicures and pedicures and other services I could only guess at, things Beth occasionally mentioned –- facials, wraps, waxings, other things that I couldn’t keep straight in my head. 

One masseuse was at work on a woman who looked like she might have been the sister of the woman in the grotto.  The masseuse was young, in her mid-twenties I estimated, tall, around five-seven, fair skinned, with the whitest blond hair I’d ever seen.  She was dressed in white like a stylish Nightingale.  White short-sleeve blouse that barely made it to the top of her skirt.  White skirt that barely made it to mid thigh.  She stood in white clogs that actually seemed appropriate to her trade.  Masseusing, that is.

“Hekki,” Senior said, managing to keep his annunciation to a quiet rattle, “meet Mr. Angellini.”

She raised her hands to show me they gleamed with oil. 

“Best massage around, and I mean bar none,” Senior gurgled with enthusiasm that suggested more than simple skin patting and idle banter.  Hekki’s face assumed the shade of an August sunset, and Senior’s next endorsement further stoked her cherry glow.  “You got to let her do you -–”

“Pop, I’m sure Mr. Angellini has other things planned for today.” 

I was speculating to myself about whether Hekki was blushing due to innocence or guilt, while I observed Senior contain himself, which required a good deal of muscle flexing and facial contortion.  Mercifully, he managed himself and I didn’t have to witness filicide. 

The temperature in the room dropped and Hekki returned to her pale, cool, beautiful self.  The three of us watched quietly and admiringly as she worked over her client, who was long, slim, and toned like her masseuse.  These women had been exchanging glances during Junior’s outburst, as if they were friends, or at least familiar.  Where was it written that a masseuse and her client could not be friends? I asked myself.  Nowhere was the answer, but I didn’t believe me.

My eyes wandered to the back of the room, where they settled on a small stone-effect placard.  It warned in elegant gold that that beyond the door was, “Private.” 

“What’s back there?”  I asked, tossing an arm in the direction of the door.

Junior shuffled and, by my guess, fabricated an answer before a description close to the truth could spill from Senior.  “More massage rooms.  We have members who insist on absolute privacy.” 

I had no doubt that there were people in this world who wouldn’t appreciate a gaggle of onlookers as they mewed and moaned under the expert ministrations of the likes of Hekki.  Though I wondered, considering what was going on in airports — people submitting, in public, to neck rubs, and exhibiting expressions most decent folk would keep confined to their bedrooms.

I glanced around the room we were in again in case I missed something.  It seemed private to me, if massages where Hekki and Enrique’s business.  I noticed tracks in the ceiling and curtains pushed against the wall.  The masseuse could draw a curtain when there was a second session in the room, or a manicure or other beautification in process.

I stepped over to the door and asked, “Do you mind?”

“No, not at all,” Junior said, allowing me to take the lead.

We entered into a narrow corridor lined with four doors, two on each wall.  Each bore a small sign in the same toned down gilded style as that on the entry door.  These were imprinted with the numbers one through four in script.  At the end of the corridor was another door.  It looked like a standard fire door, but it was peculiar; instead of a bar opener, it had a knob and a deadbolt lock.  A bright green exit sign glowed over the door.  And there was another thing that struck me:  location.  It was possible to enter and exit this area without passing through the club, without anybody noticing you.

Junior opened the first door and waved me in.  Senior followed behind me.

It was an unremarkable room, except that it was so much like motel accommodations I thought for a moment I had been transported from Ecstasy to Motel 6.  There was an armchair, a runt desk — the type that’s not good for much more than holding an overnight bag, a nightstand with scrolled legs — a feeble Roman sop, and a double bed from under which peeked a padded stool, also in ersatz Roman style.  I assumed Hekki or Enrique knelt on it when they applied themselves to delighting members, but I thought a massage table would be easier on the giver and receiver of massages.  I gazed expressionless around the room under the watchful eyes of Junior and Senior.  They showed more attention to my reaction to this small nondescript room than they had at any time during the tour.

“Nice view,” I said, staring at the trompe l’oeil window.  It was decorated with curtains, adding to its realism.  Not only was I no longer at Ecstasy, I was out of Schaumburg and Illinois and in Colorado, looking out on a meadow in the foreground of a tall fir forest that climbed and disappeared into a white peak.  I looked puzzled, wondering what this had to do with Rome.

“We have different scenes in each room,” Junior said.  “You know, city view, suburban, that kind of thing.  No windows, of course.  They wouldn’t be private.”  He allowed me a few seconds to respond, and I would have asked him about Rome, but I’d seen enough.  “That’s about it,” he said.  “Except for the business office.  If you’d care to have a look –“

“No, I’ve seen what I came to see,” I replied evenly. 

We left the room and headed to the door leading into the main spa when it swung open of its own accord.  Attached to it was a tall bronzed blond in pink and baby blue nylon workout togs, looking like she’d just hopped off a tanning bed, or just detoured off the Vegas strip.  She flashed us a big, bright smile — her teeth were the whitest I’ve ever seen on a living person, high white like paint on a colonial house.  She squeaked as if her vocal cords were stretched tighter than a wire ready to snap, “Excuse me, but I thought you where finished.”

Senior leered and she showed her appreciation by turning up the wattage on her smile.  If Junior and I hadn’t been between him and her, I’ve no doubt he would have had her in room one faster than I could accelerate to sixty in my Mustang. 

I looked at Junior.  His face was contorted in extreme unhappiness, with every feature in a sad and shocked droop.  I discovered myself a bit sympathic and gave him a little shoulder scrunch and a fast flinched frown that said, “You can’t take the bad out of bad boy.”

Junior and I returned to the lobby pretty quickly.

“I hope you don’t have the wrong impression, Mr. Angellini,” he said, as Jasmine looked over and flashed a big smile.

“What’s the wrong impression?” I asked, winking at her.  Talk about a bad boy, I was picturing her in the Mustang, like a multicultural Barbie buddy.

When I snapped back to reality, I was turning into Junior’s face, which was solemn and perplexed.  It was evident he wasn’t able to find words to weasel a suitable answer. 

“You mean, I shouldn’t think your father’s flat on his back in the Mountain Glade room getting the two hundred dollar rubdown?”  I shook my head.  “Then, no, I don’t believe that.  Feel better?” 

There wasn’t anything else to say except, “Good-bye.”  And, of course, flashing Jasmine a tiny smile.

* * *

The Mustang sparkled in the late morning sun, its yellow taking on a lemon tint.  I circumnavigated her once to be sure Senior hadn’t fooled me and had passed up a tickle for a few warning whacks at my sweetheart.

I climbed in, got her growling, and inserted us in the flow of traffic on Golf Road.

The next council meeting was tomorrow night, but Ecstasy wasn’t on the agenda.  We had slotted it for the following week to give us dissenting trustees sufficient time for our investigation.  I didn’t need a clock’s tick more time. 

Besides, I had important things on my mind.  Chuck’s funeral was one.  I didn’t cherish the idea of attending alone, but I understood Beth’s feeling.  And the family’s opinion that she might talk freely to me without Beth made sense, if she felt compelled to say anything, which I doubted.  Contrary to them, I didn’t believe Lori had any part in Chuck’s murder.

I hopped onto 53 and aimed north to High Hills. 

My visit to Ecstasy got me thinking that Chuck might have fell in with the wrong people, mob people who would think nothing of killing him over money.  Not that it made sense to me that Chuck would deal with mobsters.  It didn’t.  But it made as much sense as his death, the victim of murder, a crime that simply didn’t befall people like Chuck Gatewood.  And it made more sense than Lori as the guiding hand behind his death.  As far as I knew — and granted I had been out of touch for a long time — Lori loved Chuck.  And it wasn’t as if Chuck was sickly or a burden in any way, not that these conditions would justify murder, just explain it.  Chuck was as vital as a man in his thirties.

My visit with the Colluccis had given me another angle on Chuck’s death.  I don’t know how the likes of Tony Senior were connected, but I had a hunch there was more to Chuck’s death than simple embezzlement.  There was something else and I could probably figure it out if I just thought hard enough about it.

I was right — and wrong.

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