Behind Lori Baer, 6

Behind Lori Baer

CHAPTER 6

I didn’t drive to places in a straight line, especially when in the Mustang.  I was a wanderer, a meanderer, and a constant frustration to Beth who wanted to get where she was going by the shortest route, and park in a lot or garage when she arrived — something I was reevaluating in light of Chuck’s death.

I liked nothing more than climbing in the Mustang and driving to any of the four compass points.  This predilection, as Beth termed it, developed the moment I scrunched behind the wheel of my first car, a rust bucket of a ’57 Ford Fairlane, a two-tone, two-door, yellow and black dream with lovely, modest fins.

It was close to noon when I left Ecstasy.  I wasn’t hungry; I could wait until I got home.  Beth wasn’t leaving school until four.  So instead of backtracking the way I came, I jumped off Golf onto Meacham Road heading north.  I flew over Interstate 90, passed the Motorola campus, whose buildings, nondescript on every count, bristled with antennae like very plump, crazy, and angry porcupines. 

Where Meacham crossed Algonquin Road, it became Plum Grove Road.  It was more than a name change; it was a transformation.  The malls and shopping strips, the three-story apartment houses, the light industry — they disappeared, replaced with thick woods, houses set far off the road, and two black lanes that wended their way to the heart of Palatine.

I enjoyed taking the Mustang through the curves.  The scenery was beautiful; the trees still had their color; it all made me forget I was in flatland and that the nearest decent hill was five-hundred miles to the east.  I liked where I lived, but I was like old Isaiah Carr-Johnson; a mountain would have improved the environs immeasurably.

Entering Palatine, my mind drifted from the road to Tony Collucci Senior and the blond.  She was at most forty, young for a man Tony’s age, or mine, for that matter, since I’d tripped over the half-century divide.  I had no doubt what she and Tony were up to in that room.  I admired his virility.  Regardless of what magazines and newspapers proclaimed, most men, and women, too, were winding down, or had completely sprung their sexual springs, at seventy.  Tony was the exception.  Maybe it was time to change Gravedigger to Bull.

I slowed to thirty as I passed through downtown and turned onto Palatine Road.  I headed east to pick up 53.

I wasn’t condoning what the senior Collucci was doing with the blond, who I suspected to be more than his playmate; she was probably his employee, or his son’s.  But I couldn’t help thinking that here was a man who lived his life exactly as he pleased.  I knew he had killed people, had ruined countless lives, probably had even destroyed his son’s, and was likely still involved in crime, regardless of his claim of being a businessman and investor. 

On my way through Palatine, there I saw him, a 3D projection between me and my view of traffic, romping on the bed below the fake window that overlooked the fake landscape with a woman who more than likely was a fake blond, for all he probably cared. 

Bald men tend to make up for their topside shortage with thick tuffs over every other square inch of their bodies.  I didn’t expect that Senior was any different.  In the theater residing on the sweetheart’s windshield, he had mounted the blond and his salt and pepper body hair was damp and matted with sweat, ugly like discarded and drenched mattress stuffing.  I hadn’t seen her legs, but doubtless they were muscular, buffed to a high sheen, and at the moment gliding rhythmically along his sides.  I hated myself for envying him.

The image was scary and I hastily dissolved it.  I concentrated on the wake.  It was a few hours off at McCarry and Cockrin’s in Lake Forest.  I had noticed the location in the morning Tribune.  It had been at the end of a laudatory obit with quotes from Lori about Chuck’s caring nature, Jerdan Marsh, a name new to me and cited as a vice president of Gatewood Graphics, who extolled his business acumen, and Cat Reilly, a Mackinaw racer and buddy, who praised Chuck as a tough competitor.  There wasn’t much about how he died, except this brief sentence toward the end:  “Mr. Gatewood was discovered stabbed to death in his Northside apartment.  Police are investigating.”

I felt a little two-faced about the wake.  On one hand,  I truly was paying my respects to a man who’d been my friend, a man who’d practically enabled me to live in High Hills, provide for Beth and the children, to live as I did at fifty, to do as I pleased without financial concerns.  But I had another motive for attending and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it.  I would be at the wake as a sort of spy nosing around for something to support the family’s suspicion that Lori had a hand in Chuck’s murder.

I stopped by Dominick’s along the way and pulled the Mustang onto our driveway around three.  Before putting her to bed, I performed our ritual — Beth said it was compulsion on my part, pure and simple.

I raised the top, locked it into place, and triggered the remote door opener.  I stepped out of the Mustang and walked a circle around her, carefully inspecting for road bruises and soiling.  After I was satisfied she’d survived another outing undamaged, I went into the garage, found my car duster — it looked like a feather duster Brobdingnags might have used, and dry-cleaned the Mustang.  Then I pulled her into the garage, retrieved the tarp from the shelve, and draped it over her.

I put away the ground round, chili power, and kidney beans.  Now that the cold weather had swept in from the northern tundra, I planned more fiery meals, like my O’Leary’s Open Flame Chili.

I poked my head in my office and checked the answering machine.  It flashed two rapid blinks, paused, flashed rapidly again.  Two messages.  I figured one was from Tommy with news about Vider and the investigation.  The other could have been village business or a call for Beth.

I shuffled over to the phone.  It was on a credenza set under the window that looked out over the patio and into the park.  I’d positioned my desk so the scene was behind me.  The view was too distracting for me, though I don’t want to give the impression my attention had the constancy of a weathervane in a tornado. 

It was my habit to focus on my work and to blind myself to distractions.  My desk at Trumpet had faced into my office, putting Chicago’s skyline behind me.  Those were the days when the phone rang incessantly, and I answered it compulsively, being of the mind that it wasn’t wise to position a phalanx of associates between my clients and me.  As a result, I developed an aversion to phones.  Beth convinced me to bring a phone along in my car with specious logic of telecom advertising.  She had argued, “What if you breakdown in nowhere?  What are you going to do?”  I wanted to retort with, “I plan always to drive in somewhere.”  Instead I kept my lips buttoned, abided the phone company advertising — the stranded-on-the-lonely-road scenario — and tuck a phone in the glove compartment.

I dropped into my wood swivel chair behind the desk, a handsome block of wood, an old, beautifully refurbished banker’s desk from the Twenties. 

I slid back on the lacquered seat.  It was hard, but not uncomfortable.  I had bought it to help me better concentrate on my projects.  These were my darling angels and my pesky demons and they lived in the credenza, constantly at war with themselves and with me for my attention.  They hunkered there and bored hot holes into my back, making themselves impossible to ignore.  I heard them stirring even as I reached to playback the messages on the answering machine.

I depressed the play button and gave into my creative creatures while the machine rewound.  There were the novels, three of them in various stages of incompleteness.  My serious child, a practical tome on what worked and didn’t in advertising was the peskiest of the bunch and the least complete, not past the outline stage.  It should have been the easiest to write, and I was certainly passionate about the subject of effective advertising.  Except I was utterly bored with the business and the subject; and also of the mind that if the damn fools wanted to dump millions upon millions of dollars into the sewer in the name of entertainment, let them.  I couldn’t progress beyond the outline because at each attempt within five minutes the inanity of it lathered me into insensibility.

The machine stopped whirring and a digital voice came on to tell me what I already knew, I had two messages, then whirred again to play them.  The first was from Tommy.

“Gabe, my boy,” he said, tinny and tiny in the small speaker, “I got a hold of Vider this morning.  He didn’t have the lab report yet.  He expected it some time in mid afternoon.  I asked if maybe you could give him a call.  He said sure.  Talk to you later.”

Tommy furnished Vider’s number.  I jotted it on a pad I kept next to the machine.  After a short interval, Tony Collucci Senior hacked and bubbled at me.  “Mr. Angellini, sorry I didn’t see you leave.  Look, if you got a question.  Hey, if you want to try out our place.  Give me a call.  It’s all on the house.  He got our number, Junior?  Yeah?  So, give us a call.  Bye.  Fuckin’ machines, you never know …”

If I had been willing to give myself over to the rutting animal in me, I might have found the offer tempting.  I swung around and fingered off the machine, when the children in the credenza jumped me like Frank and Mae Rose used to when I returned home from the office.

The novels were the real aggressors.  For as much as I disparaged creativity in advertising, I respected it in the arts, and I hoped a tad of it lurked in me.  And there they were, three novels in various stages of incompleteness, like forlorn progeny at various ages, each partially clothed, and the clothes themselves tattered and patched.  The detective novel couldn’t get past the murder which, following the rulebook for such things, I’d placed in the first chapter.  The romantic comedy failed to produce a single steamy scene, let alone madcap silliness.  Well, maybe silliness in its most undesired form.  The science fiction contained too much fiction, too little science.

These were the product of my retirement, and I couldn’t face them, at least not that day.  Retirement was nothing like I had imagined.  My compulsion to write and not writing yielded lots of guilt, which precluded any real relaxation.  I might have rested on the patio twice, and that had been in the first week, before I’d hit the creative wall.  After the first week, I found myself reluctantly wandering into my office, at first around seven-thirty, then later and later, until gradually I was settling in behind my desk around ten.  Instead of one novel already in paperback, I was dodging my little demons. 

Anything was better than novel torture; so I punched in the number Tommy had left on the machine.  I got voicemail at the Chicago Avenue station and tapped in V-i-d-e.  I listened to static and lost count of the leaves falling from the maples before their computer stuttered his extension, suggested I jot it down for future reference, and connected me.  Vider wasn’t in.  His voicemail asked me to leave a message.  I hung up.

I rambled into the kitchen not sure if I was still a suspect, wrestling with the idea that Lori could have arranged Chuck’s death, lambasting myself for wasting time that I could have put to good use checking Lori’s background.  Thoughts of Chuck, his death, my inadvertent part in it, everybody’s suspicion of Lori, the wake, they swirled in my head as I prepared chili for Beth and me, with a surplus in case Tommy or friends wandered by during the evening or the next day.

I put a pot of O’Leary’s Open-Flame Chili together quickly.  I had my spices lined up on the counter near the stovetop like good troopers — crumpled red pepper left over from the stash Tommy had brought up from Napoli Brothers Sunday, black pepper, oregano, salt, and chili powder.  I started by chopping vegetables — green and red peppers, a large onion, an entire garlic bulb, and, of course, a tomato.  I set these aside and quickly pan fried the ground round, then dumped it in a colander and rinsed it.  While it drained and dried in the sink, I put a five-quart pot on the stovetop.  I moistened the bottom with a little extra virgin olive oil and fired up the burner.  I added two large cans of crushed tomatoes, the fresh tomato, the spices, and the ground beef.  While the pot heated to a bubble, I opened and drained six cans of kidney beans, three dark and three light.  The chili was simmering and scenting the house when Beth walked in.

I served dinner an hour later, after Beth had showered and changed.  It was simple: chili, crusty Italian bread, a Genny for me, a merlot for her, and ice water for us both, just in case I had overdone it on the pepper. 

“Did Dad speak to Sergeant Vider,” she asked, as we tucked into our meal.

I told her about Tommy’s message and my visit with the Colluccis.  Her take was Ecstasy was hosting something pretty much like a prostitution ring.  She said Tony Senior sounded sinister to her and Tony Junior came across as a simp.  I couldn’t argue with any part of her assessment.

“Senior made me wonder if Chuck somehow got himself involved with the mob.”  I was casual, but nonetheless intensely interested in her response.

“Probably Lori Gatewood is somebody’s moll.”  She wasn’t smiling.  But she wasn’t serious either.

“Molls went out in the Thirties, maybe the Forties at the latest.”

“Perhaps Mrs. Gatewood is resurrecting the fashion.  It seems just her style.”  There wasn’t so much as a hint of mirth anywhere on her face. 

I shrugged and allowed Beth her feelings about Lori.  Looking back, I saw there was a slim thread of truth to her snipes. 

“Sometimes,” I trudged on, once Beth’s animosity toward Lori appeared satiated, “businesses turn to the mob to bankroll them.  I can’t believe Chuck would do something like that, but I haven’t really talked to him in over three years.  He might have changed.  It sure sounded like he put a lot of money into the business.  If he was overextended, maybe the mob was his last resort.”

“You think it wasn’t embezzlement he wanted to talk to you about?  But why wouldn’t he come right out and tell you the truth?”

“I don’t know.”  I thumbed the Genny label.  “Could be he didn’t want anybody to overhear.  He was acting — I hate to say this about Chuck because I always thought he was an upstanding person — but he seemed to be acting suspiciously, looking around and all.  I got the impression he was making sure nobody was near us, that nobody could hear us.”

“Well, maybe somebody will say something tonight.”  She stood and began clearing the table.  I rose to help, but she said, “I’ll do this.  I’ve got to work off some steam.  You’ve got me all fired up.”  I gave her a squeeze, and considered ratcheting down the thermostat; she was hot enough to heat the place by herself.  It could have been product of Open Flame; it could have been Lori Gatewood; but what was certain was that I didn’t have the time to staunch the fire.  So I bussed her cheek and disappeared upstairs.

I grabbed a quick shower and a fresh shave.  I put on a dark blue suit, white shirt, and blue shantung silk tie.  I still had a considerable wardrobe from my Trumpet days. 

Downstairs, I paraded myself for Beth, who was curled on the sofa reading.  She put her book down and got up and eagerly inspected me. 

“Gabe,” she purred, running a finger up and down the sleeve of my jacket, giving every indication that her flame still kindled, “will I have to die to get you to dress for me again?”  She came close and slid her hand inside my jacket and along my chest.  She ran it around to my back, urging me tight against her.

I bent and kissed Beth lightly.  “Dressing for you isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.”

She roughly pushed back with a kiss.  “I don’t know if you’re in any condition to see Lori Gatewood.”  She practically melted into me.  “After all, tumescence isn’t usually welcomed at a wake.”

I hurried into the garage, climbed into the Jag, and got on my way to Lake Forest.

* * *

McCarry and Cockrin’s Funeral Home was on Vine, a block west of the commuter line that ran between Chicago and Kenosha.  It was a stately Victorian pile, large by High Hills’ standards, but a pipsqueak in the vernacular of Lake Forest estates that lined the Lake Michigan palisades just to the east.  A porch wrapped around the front and sides of the house.  People milled on it in front of the entrance door.  Most of them were smoking.

I nestled the Jag between a Mercedes S600 and BMW 750 iL Protection.  The Jag looked like piker’s transportation, or, more correctly, a little runabout for the son or daughter of a Lake Forest aristocrat.  Not that I cared or was intimidated.

I strolled across the lot, locking the Jag remotely and receiving a honk and a blink in acknowledgement.  It paid to be cautious, even in the high tone burbs.

The lot was a testament to American affluence and our insistence on shipping our cash overseas.  The only mar on this exhibition of steel perfection was an old pickup truck I glimpsed in the corner of the lot.  It wasn’t a scare or valuable model, so I didn’t pay it much attention, except to think McCarry’s should pay its employees better.

I climbed the porch steps into a cloud of smoke, dense and gray like storm clouds, and maybe as menacing.  I didn’t find the smoke the least offensive.  In fact, I instinctively tapped the breast pocket of my suit jacket, upset for having forgotten to bring along a cigar.

A dozen New England rockers ran side-by-side the length of the front porch, six on either side of the entrance; but the smokers stood.  They gave the impression they were laying a claim to good health despite their habits as they busily befouled any fresh air that might have found its way onto the porch. 

The ad crafter stirred in me.  How the anti-smoking crowd would drool over this scene:  Smokers anxiously puffing their way into the funeral home.  I gave the group a quick once over before passing into the foyer; none of them rang a bell with me. 

A tall man thin enough to send a runway model scurrying in desperate search of a fad diet greeted me.  He wore a tailored charcoal-gray suit and quietly patterned dark blue tie.  “You’re here for Mr. Gatewood?” he asked.  He inflected oddly, closer to someone who originated in the lower Mid-Atlantic States than the Midwest.  Except for a few peculiarities, such as our proclivity at pronouncing roof as ruff, we Midwesterners represented the purest form of spoken American English, the brand in demand by broadcasters.  This fellow wasn’t pure.

“Yes,” I said. 

“Please follow me,” he said, leading.  Trailing him, it occurred to me that the two recent times I had called on Chuck, I had had a guide. 

He led me to the right, past a discrete marquee placard that announced the wakes in progress.  McCarry’s, which I doubted was unique among funeral homes, reminded me of a multiplex movie theater:  twenty viewings, no waiting.  Before proceeding to the room, Icabod indicated a guest book on a lectern.  I examined it, counted two-dozen signatures, and recognized half.  I added mine.  I didn’t bother prefacing my name with Mr. and Mrs., realizing Gabe Angellini alone would be Beth’s preference. 

McCarry’s was waking Chuck in a large square room.  Lemon-yellow paper lined with vertical satin ribbons decorated the walls.  Sofas and stuffed chairs in deeper tones of yellow marched down the walls perpendicular to Chuck’s coffin.  I thought it was kind of gay for a waking room; but I granted that McCarry’s, exercising financial acumen, was simply keeping in step with the American spirit of fun, fun all the time.  Americans demanded to be entertained even at death.

I left my guide and lowered myself onto one of the padded folding chairs that were arranged like auditorium seating.  They filled the center and faced Chuck’s coffin, a burnished pewter tube that must have cost a fortune.  Floral wreaths bearing various assembly-line declarations of love and bereavement surrounded it.  Off the flowers wafted a load of bad memories that momentarily diverted my attention from Chuck.  I was with my grandmother and aunt and they were insisting I attend my parents and brother’s wake.  They demanded that I sit through the entire affair from start to finish.  What few pennies the two possessed they pooled to ensure the room was filled with flowers.  It was the respectful thing to do, they said.  Never mind that it meant they would subsist on thin soups of whatever happened to remain in the fridge or they could scrape from the meager garden they kept. 

I bowed my head, as much to forget them as to pay my respects silently and sincerely to Chuck.  Once again, in the hope that there might be something beyond life and that he would hear my plea, I apologized for my tardiness Saturday.  I told him that while I could not roll back time and save him, I could help find his killer.  And in that place and that moment, I was glad Tommy and Beth and the rest of the family had set us off on our crusade.  Then I got down to business.

I had few neighbors in the folding chair section.  These were older folks who I took for relatives, mainly because they were too aged to be friends or business associates.  Most of the younger people and those in and around my age had congregated in groups, the largest of which chattered in the back corner near where I had entered the room.  Lori wasn’t in that group; she was talking avidly to a small clutch of people in front of Chuck’s coffin.

I wasn’t quite ready to confront Lori, so I idled in the chair and searched for familiar Gatewood Graphics’ faces.  I spotted one about the same time he saw me.  He was standing with another man not far from Lori’s group and the coffin.

It was Turk Terrell.  Seeing me, he touched the arm of the man with whom he was conversing and darted in my direction.

Turk was a barely five-foot two, and I suspect he only reached that height when he wore elevator shoes, always vehemently denied by him and a raging sore point.  But the truth was, he wouldn’t show up any place outside of Gatewood not in them.  He suffered from a congenital defect of some sort that stunted his growth but otherwise wasn’t serious.  He wasn’t quite as perfect as a midget or as distorted as a dwarf.

He trundled over on kiddie legs and grabbed my hand.  There was nothing small about the power in his callused mitts and strapped steel arms — he had started out on the shop floor repairing presses and the building’s mechanicals.  For the second time that day I nursed an aching hand.

He started on me immediately, reacquainting me with his profane, yet hardly unlovable, style.  “It’s a goddamn shame about Chuck.  When they find the son of bitch who killed him, they ought to string him up by his balls and give me a chance to bat the bastard around, see if the motherfucker splits open like a piñata.”

“Nice to see you, too, Turk,” I said.

A bitter mixture of anger and spite glazed his eyes and he acted as if time had not intervened since we’d last seen each other.  “Son of a bitch, anyway.  Now with Chuck gone who knows what’s going to happen to Gatewood Graphics.”

“I’m just fine.  The family is, too.  Glad you asked.”

“I’ve put in thirty-five years.  Worked with the old man first.  I don’t look forward to getting aced out by some twerp asshole.”

“Sit, Turk, and slow down, will you?  I don’t want to be visiting you in another room down the hall.”

He hoisted himself onto the chair next to me and dangled his legs like a nine-year-old.  “Christ, Gabe, sorry.  This thing’s got me singing out like a fanatic in a church.”

“I can see.  And you’ve lost your manners as well.”

“Manners?  Manners?  Shit, Gabe, what are they, like the clap?  Who do you think you’re talking to?  Manners.  I’ve never had them and never will.  It’s part of my charm,” he said with a wink.

His full name was Terrell Nolan Terrell. He had confided that to me toward the end of a Gatewood Christmas party nearly two dozen years ago, when we both were pretty well potted and relegated to the fringes of the affair, me by Beth and he by Doreen, acting as his distaff, as Turk was spouseless. 

The Gatewood city kitchen had been a warm and cozy retreat filled with the aromas of security and comfort.  Turk and I were hunched over coffees, preparing for the drive back to our respective suburbs (though Beth took the reins of our six-cylinder steed that night).  With every conversational topic chewed to a tired curd and the trough empty, I asked how he had come by such a peculiar name. 

He sputtered that his father had inflicted it on him intentionally.  He had expected Turk to be twice the man as any Terrell.  Laughing derisively, he spit a string of profanities.  The net of the tirade was that he turned out to be half the man his father had expected.  It was the first of many ways Turk disappointed this father, who derided him ironically and piteously as TNT.

He scooted close to me.  “I hear you found him.”

“You heard right,” I confirmed, bending to match his conspiratorial attitude.

“How was it anyway?”

“How do you think?”

He regarded me with painful eyes.  I thought I could see the scars of his life in them.  “Yeah, sorry.”  He drew uncomfortably closer.  “Any idea who did it?”

“No.  But I intend to find out.”

“Shit,” he spat, “if I thought he had the guts, I know a son of a bitch who could have.”

My ears pricked up.  “Who?”

He moved close enough to climb in my pants with me.  He jerked his hand, which he held close to his chest, sharply but surreptitiously at the people near Chuck’s coffin.

“The skinny one, there.  The one with his back to us.  Wouldn’t be a bit surprised if that son of a bitch killed Chuck.  Wouldn’t be surprised about a lot of things,” he said, nudging me in the side.  It sounded as if he were referring obliquely to Lori; or maybe it was just that I had her on my mind. 

“Who is he?”

“Jerdan Marsh.  The son-of-a-bitching controller.”

“Jordan Marsh –“

“Jerdan.  An E.  The fucker’s too good for a plain old O.”

“Jerdan,” I repeated, reflexively looking at the knot of people.

“Do me a favor and don’t stare at the bastard.  I don’t want him coming over here.  I’ve had enough of sucking up to him tonight.”  I turned back and concentrated on Turk, who looked like he’d been prodded with a sharp instrument.  “Here I am, sucking up to the guy who’s doing the job I should be doing.  I should have gotten that job, Gabe.  It was only fair.”  Pouting adult males aren’t pretty pictures, and Turk was a particularly ugly sight.  “He started three years ago.  Vice president of finance.  That was supposed to be me, my job.”  He vibrated a little when he said it and his hangdog countenance dissolved to anger.  The bitterness in his words was palpable.  “I wasn’t good enough.  No, when my turn came, we needed a big-time vice president, not a shrimp like Turk.”

Chuck valued loyalty and believed in rewarding it.  He was like his father in that way.  “Chuck hired him?” I asked, keeping my tone free of incredulity. 

“Yeah, who else.  Not fuckin’ me.”

“Did he give you a reason?”

“Sure.  Chuck always had a reason for everything.  He said he thought we needed somebody who knew the ins and outs of capital markets.  You know, he needs lots of money for his precious expansion.  Business wasn’t good enough for him.  It was good, mind you, just not good enough for him.  Well, he got what he wanted.  We grew pretty fast, too fast if you ask me.  We grew right out of our britches, if you ask me, which nobody did by the way.”

“What do you mean?  You thought the expansion was … ill considered?”

“Gabe, you aren’t doing that advertising thing any more, are you?”

“Gave it up,” I said with a smile, mildly mystified by the abrupt change in direction, but also thankful for a chance to lighten up with the acerbic cherub.  “It was bad for my health.”

Turk, though, wasn’t ready to climb out of his cups.  “Just wanted to know.  Kind of hard to break the habit, huh?”

“What habit?”

“Fuckin’ equivocating talk.  Shit, man, the word is reckless.  You know, like a goddamn drunk taking the old S curve on Lake Shore Drive at a hundred.  Downright insane, if anybody had asked me, which nobody did.”

“That doesn’t sound like Chuck.”

“It was him,” Turk said, jerking a shoulder toward the group in which Jerdan Marsh was holding court to the delight of all.  They made it feel more like a cocktail party than a wake.  “It was an old idea.  So old the old man, Chuck’s dad, had heard it.  He had the good sense to laugh the guy who offered it right out of the office.  You know it; you got to spend money to make money.  Build up your share of the market now, then when you control things take your profits.”

Contrary to Turk’s diatrabic depiction, this was a common and sometimes successful approach.  Though I had to agree with him; it was completely out of character for Gatewood.  Chuck was a duplicate of his father in many respects; financial conservatism was certainly among of them.  Though Chuck did seem to be operating differently in other regards.  Turk’s situation was testament to that.

“Chuck was right about me,” he said, quietly.

“How so?”

“I couldn’t think big like Marsh.  Chuck would never have got that advice from me. 

He’d said enough and I had nothing more, so we sat side by side in silence, gazing at Chuck’s coffin, and the flowers, and the people who straggled in and by his body in singles and pairs.  After a while, I looked around.  The crowd had doubled since my arrival.  The knots of conversationalists had increased.  Lori had moved to a new group closer to the center of the room.

“Well, look,” Turk said, “good seeing you again, Gabe.  I’m leaving.  Had enough for one day.  Sorry about unloading on you like I did.”

“How’s Lori holding up,” I asked absently, as I glanced in her direction.

Turk craned around and snorted.  “You can see for yourself.  It’s like a party.  The first Mrs. G would be acting proper.  She was a real lady.  Chuck was a different man when she was alive.”  He shook his head and waved at the room.  “Shit.  See you around, Gabe.”

No doubt Lori had changed Chuck’s life, for good and for worse.  It was the yin and yang of life, of a relationship.  Perfection was for the next life.  Turk had his opinion, and it wasn’t positive.  Could Lori really have changed Chuck dramatically in three years?  And could her values be as opposed to his as Turk purported?  Could she have undone habits carefully built over decades, layered on each other to work smoothly like the drive gears of a press, to produce Chuck, the man I cared about then, and now? 

Chuck hadn’t seemed any different to me Friday night.  His humor about my age and my phobic reaction, his playful suggestiveness regarding Beth as tonic for my years, these were familiar, gentle, and gentlemanly Chuck.  But he had been different.  Maybe not in huge, global ways, but he acted differently nevertheless.  For one thing, he’d been circumspect about Lori’s absence.  The old Chuck wouldn’t have hesitated telling the truth; he would have turned The Incident into a joke, exposing it for the silliness he believed it was. 

I stared at Turk leaving without seeing him, or the clots of gabbers, the colors, the room.  How could I have missed that about Chuck, the essential Chuck Gatewood?  He was a man who didn’t skirt or shirk unpleasantness, shortcomings, or mistakes, whether of his own making or caused by others.  He addressed them forthrightly.  Sure, sometimes he made fun of them, but only to make a point or relieve tension, often residue of the truth.

Turk was gone when I remembered the embezzlement and the desire to quiz him about it.  It would have to wait for when I got down to Gatewood Graphics.

It was in that instant of realizing my investigative neglect that Lori got my attention with a flash of her blue eyes, a real twinkle like what writers and dreamers have always wished starlight to be.  Deftly, she extricated herself from mourners who encased her as if she was a pearl to be nourished and protected; maybe better, like Botticelli’s damsel hatching and floating to supremacy over the muck of life.  The realization came on me in such a rush it nearly sweep away whatever sensibility I retained at the moment:  Lori Gatewood was a DANGEROUS woman.  Not a murderess, but dangerous in a way that knocked murder down a couple of notches to a minor position in the panoply of offenses to God and wives.

She approached with a smile and something else.  It was magnetism and it was penetrating me, hunting and finding emotions I never knew I had, or perhaps had denied possessing after I’d seen the effect they could have on the one person I truly loved and on me as her lover, deflected for a moment from the singularity of my adoration.  I hadn’t seen Lori in years, three years; and it was as if I’d shared a coffee with her that very afternoon.  It couldn’t just be me, I hoped; she had to have that effect on everyone. 

She was dressed for sorrow in her own quirky manner.  She wore a simple black dress that touched her knees, but transparent stockings that imparted an urgent vision of nudity.  Modest diamonds adorned her ears, but a wacky pin that looked cartoonish the nearer she drew was attached just under the black thing’s insubstantial scoop neckline.  She was a different woman; her hair was shorter, cut in a bob that hung to her jaw line.  The cut accentuated her perfectly proportioned neck.  But everything else was the same, and she was young.  And that made me feel every one of my years.

When she was in front of me, she reached and grasped my arm.  She urged me closer.  I resisted.  She tugged gently and smiled.  I gave in and bent to greet her.  She brushed my cheek with her lips.  My skin she had touched ignited and the rest of me flushed. 

“I’m glad you’re here, Gabe,” she said, sweetly.  She remained close to me, waiting, staring, touching and holding onto the sleeve of my jacket.  “It must have been horrible.”  She stuttered.  “I mean, finding him the way you did.  I know how close you two were once.  That doesn’t go away, that closeness.”  She tightened her hold on me. 

I didn’t know what to say; I didn’t know what was going on.  I nodded for want of something to do.

“I don’t think I could have stood it,” she said.  Her eyes moistened.  “The police have questioned me twice about Chuck’s murder.”  She released me and moved a step away.  She hugged herself, shivered slightly, and rubbed her arms.  “How could anybody think I had something to do with Chuck’s … with it?  I loved him, Gabe, and he loved me very deeply.”

This declaration was like hearing the real Queen respond to Hamlet’s inquiry as to her liking of the pretend monarch’s speech:  It was too much like protest.  Watching Lori affecting a degree of beguilement, I began to see Beth’s point and think she might be right about this woman.  Maybe Lori wasn’t capable of anything more than grand calculation.  However, I didn’t remember her that way.

But there we where.  We hadn’t spoken or seen each other in years.  And the only pleasantries she managed had to do with cursory abhorrence at my discovering Chuck dead.  She was in defensive mode and was putting me ill at ease at record speed.

“How have you been, Lori?  Marriage to Chuck seems to have agreed with you.”

She regarded me as if she didn’t understand a word I’d said.  Then the moisture in her eyes turned to full-fledged tears and leaked an iridescent trail down her cheeks.  I patted pockets for a handkerchief, a vestigial reaction for who carried them anymore?  Through legerdemain, she produced a tissue and dabbed away the tracks. 

“I’m sorry, Gabe.  It’s just that I’m very upset.  Chuck died so … so suddenly.”  The tissue proved no match for the new tears that flowed uncontrolled.  I looked around for a box of the stuff; tissue boxes where usually as plentiful at wakes as flowers, though they were in short supply at McCarry’s.  But I wasn’t the only watchful one; the accent drifted from behind me, followed by a bony hand clutching a box of Kleenex.  Apparently, it was personal service only at McCarry’s.  Lori pulled out a couple and muttered a thank you.  The hand disappeared and Mr. Icabod was halfway across the room before I could turn and add my gratitude.

She staunched her tears and said, “I had to put together this affair by myself.  And all the time the police have been hounding me.” 

I cringed a bit at the reference to affair, but she didn’t notice.  She was onto her next protestation,  “And now even one of my best friends thinks I’m callous.”

Maybe I did, because I was wondering what the police had asked her, and what she had answered.  I wondered if Vider and Mavic were the cops and if they peppered her with pointed questions, or if they had been circumspect in deference to her new widowhood.  But I restrained myself, though I didn’t disabuse her of the notion that I might be callous about her situation, though I wasn’t entirely certain what her situation was.  “What are your plans?” I asked.

She stopped crying and balled the tissues using both her hands.  She was thinking.  When she’d compacted the tissues to walnut-size balls, she said, “I haven’t any.  Maybe I’ll get away for a while, after the police finish.”

“What will you do about Gatewood Graphics?” I asked, reminding her that there was more too it than what Lori wanted.  People, like Turk, were depending on her.  I was assuming a lot, like she knew what was going on at the company and she had some authority; that she was still like the girl who had worked for me.

“Nothing for now.  I really don’t know much about the business.”  The clouds lifted, the rain ceased, and there were nothing but bright blue eyes horizon to horizon. 

I didn’t believe that.  As Lori Baer, account executive, she’d known every detail of Gatewood Graphics, from concrete floor to steel rafters.  Chuck must have liked that, since Doreen had been his behind the scenes confidant; he liked his women smart and strong.  Maybe Lori had slacked off playing wife and lover.  But having known her as a tenacious businesswoman, I couldn’t believe that.  Had Beth been with me, she would have screwed up her eyes at me and pursed her lips; and I would have whispered, “You’re winning.”

“The Tribune obit said you have a new controller.”

“Jerdan Marsh,” she said flatly.  “Chuck brought him on about a year ago.”  She scanned the room and I followed her eyes until she stopped on a tall, thin man well turned out in a charcoal gray suit cut American style.  His tie struck me.  It was like one of those self-advertising billboards, the kind that make the news when the hounds are hard up for a feel-good story.  It was cobalt blue against a white shirt.  I admired it, but not as wake attire.

“What’s he like?”

She turned her eyes on me quickly.  She clipped her words.  “Nice enough.  He’s not your typical number cruncher.”

“He and Chuck get along?”

She stared at me for a second.  “Why wouldn’t they?  Chuck hired him.”

“I’ve hired people only to find I couldn’t stand them after a while.”

She crossed her arms and cocked her head.

“Present company excepted.  You know what I mean.”

“Gabe Angellini, you can’t possibly think Jerdan murdered Chuck.”

Two things about her answer bothered me.  She used his first name and in a familiar way.  If she was familiar with him, she probably knew something about the business.  I didn’t want to think she was having an affair with this Marsh; but it was in the realm of possibility.

The other thing was she was specific.  She said “murdered.”  She didn’t use vagaries like “it,” or “arranged.”  I like specificity; it tells me that the person speaking knows of what they speak.  I hoped this truism of mine was at work in Lori’s case.

“Chuck’s death has taught me one thing:  Everybody’s a suspect in a murder.”  I didn’t think it was time to tell her I was a suspect too.  I didn’t want to get sidetracked.

She rolled her eyes.  “Tell me about it.”

“So, you know Marsh well?”

She leveled her eyes at me.  “Remember, I never really got involved in Gatewood Graphics business.” 

“What became of the account executive?”

“I retired her when I married Chuck.”  I noticed she was fingering her wedding band and a diamond I judged around three carats. 

“Marriage changes people.  You should know that, Gabe.”

I watched her refold her arms.  “Beth wanted you to know she’s very sorry about Chuck.”

“I can see,” she said curtly.  “Thank her for me, won’t you?”

I felt myself shuffling under her glare. 

“So, would you like to meet Jerdan?” 

“What should I ask him?”

“How should I know?  You’re the inquiring reporter.  I just do the introductions.”

“Like a hostess.”  I wanted to run after those words and retrieve them.  “Sorry.  That wasn’t fair of me.”

She waved me off and wiped away a tear with the ball of tissue.

“Chuck told me something at the birthday party.”

“Ah, the fiftieth birthday party.  Somehow, I can’t imagine you fifty.  You sure there isn’t a mistake?

“I wish.”

“I wanted to be there, you know, but a sudden attack of nausea prevented it.  I think something disagreed with me.  What did I miss?”

“He said someone is embezzling from Gatewood Graphics.”

“The police wanted to know about that too.  Chuck first told me about it a month ago.  I told him to go to the police.  He said he couldn’t.  He wasn’t sure.”

“About who was doing it?”

“Yes.  I suggested he talk to Bertie — you know Bertie?”

I nodded.

“No, he didn’t want to do that either.  Same reason.”  She shrugged.  “He who helps himself, you know.  So I told him I didn’t want to hear anymore about it.  If you ask me — and I guess you are — there never was an embezzler.”

That set me back on my heels.  It was all I could do to hide my surprise.  Calmly, I said, “You’re saying Chuck was stealing from himself?”

She shook her head.  “I’m saying I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  It was all in Chuck’s head.”  She tapped hers for emphasis.

“Then why would Chuck tell me somebody was stealing from him?”

“Why does anybody do anything?” 

My doubt showed through in a frown.  I wondered how cops kept their poker faces, like Tommy, who could carry on a conversation for hours without betraying a single emotion. 

She noticed and said, “Sorry.  It’s the shock.  First finding out Chuck’s dead, then learning he was murdered, then the police.”

I watched her closely and saw things I hadn’t seen earlier.  I saw pain in her eyes.  She had strain lines around her mouth.  And she stooped slightly, not enough to notice at a perfunctory glance.  She was feeling pressure and at the time I assumed it was because she was the object of police suspicion.

We were standing there, I silently watching her, she staring off past my shoulder, when a mellow, talk-jock voice said, “An old friend, Lori?” 

Either I was preoccupied to distraction with Lori, or this man was a master of stealth maneuvering.  She was as surprised; she jumped and emitted a low cry.

“Jerdan, you scared me.”

Jerdan Marsh’s face was long, angular, and dark, like a shear rock cliff on a moonless night.  His eyes were black and his brows jutted lending his sockets a sunken forbiddance.  He also had a bad case of five-o’clock shadow.  His struck me as a face created for cruelty.  The smirk leaking from the corners of his mouth did nothing to dispel my assessment.

“Gabe,” Lori said.  I switched my gaze to her.  She was smiling, but there was nothing natural about it.  Her face was drawn, as if she was struggling to be congenial.  Her arms were folded over her chest, not lightly in a manner suggesting lounging or ease; they were drawn tight, like a cinched slipknot.  “This is Jerdan Marsh.” 

He extended a hand.  I had to decide consciously to take it and shake. 

“I’ve heard you mentioned often, Mr. Angellini.”

“Where, and how?”  I was being smart, but I couldn’t help myself.

He studied me.  I was sure kind thoughts about me weren’t rattling around inside his skull.

“Lori tells me you’re controller.”

He nodded and intensified his smile until it became decidedly unctuous and sent it in Lori’s direction.

“Gabe was just saying Chuck told him somebody was embezzling from the company.”

He shifted his eyes to me slowly.  “I don’t know whether Lori told you –“

“I didn’t have a chance, Jerdan,” she abruptly.

“Chuck came to me with that over a month ago.  I was very disturbed, Mr. Angellini.”  He paused.  I think he was scouting for permission to call me Gabe.  I wasn’t forthcoming, and he continued.  “If anybody was stealing money from the company, they had to be in my department.  Well, if that was true, you can see how it didn’t say much about me.”

I guessed what was coming next, and it arrived without disappointment.

“I conducted a departmental audit.  We reviewed every piece of paper, every contract, every account transaction.  Our audit turned up information that angered Chuck.  And, frankly, it surprised me too.  Made me wonder what kind of organization I had signed onto.”

He made me wait for the rest.  It wasn’t long, but he wanted to be sure I knew who was in control.

“Gatewood Graphics was losing money, legitimately, the old fashioned way.  We weren’t charging enough to cover our costs.  It was pretty simple and straightforward.  We misforecasted sales and a lot of our new space and new machinery went idle.”

Had I received news like this about my business, I would have been shocked.  To hear this had been Chuck’s plight, if Marsh was to be believed, was distressing.  But it didn’t tally against the kind of businessman I had known Chuck to be; nor did it agree with what he had said at my birthday party.  I looked appropriately somber.

“You don’t look surprised, Mr. Angellini.”

I glimpsed Lori.  She was chewing her upper lip, pressing it against your teeth with her thumb.

I said to him:  “Little surprises me any more.”  And I meant it.  “But I don’t understand why he would lie to his own wife, do you?”  It was a stark, startling statement, as I intended it to be.  I wanted to jar him and Lori.

He responded quickly and smoothly.  “I really can’t say.”  He glanced at Lori. 

“Chuck asked a favor of me the night before he died,” I said.

Marsh stared at me.  His lips were still twisted in a smirk.

“He asked me to look into the embezzlement with him.”

“And you would like to fulfill your obligation?”

I nodded.

“Well, by all means, Mr. Angellini.  You’re welcome at Gatewood Graphics anytime.  I’d be more than happy to work with you.  Of course, if that’s agreeable to Lori.  After all, she owns the company now.”

“You’re assuming, Jerdan,” she said tersely.  She was agitated, eating her lip with reinvigorated ferocity.  I feared she might soon draw blood.

I puzzled over the source of her disturbance.  It was possible Chuck had presented her with a prenuptial agreement.  Then again, who else would he have left the business to? 

Chuck and Doreen had had no children.  This vacancy in their lives had been their great sorrow, and an especial hardship for Doreen.  She had been an only child and occasionally spoke of how she had hated the loneliness of her childhood, of always being in the company of adults who were impatient with the energy and antics of children.  She had wished for a large family.  In a manner, she had fulfilled part of her wish.  She entertained frequently, and she treated her guests as if they were her family. 

Chuck did have his sister Margaret and her husband Herb.  He might have left them a piece, maybe all of the business. 

Jerdan responded lightly, as if there was nothing unusual in Lori’s deportment, as if she always looked and acted bow-tight around him, “Right.  We have to wait for the reading of the will.  But I think it’s safe to assume the company’s yours.”

“Whatever,” she said, laying off her lip finally to my relief.  “If Gabe needs my permission, okay, he has it.”

“Fine,” Marsh said.  “Call anytime, Mr. Angellini.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on my way.”

“I have to be leaving too,” I said.

Marsh walked away first.  She sagged with relief.  I took her hands in mine.  “If you need anything,” I said.

“I know,” she said softly, squeezing gently.

I leaned forward and kissed her cheek lightly.

Before leaving, I went up to Chuck’s coffin for the last good-bye.  I knelt, but didn’t bother with the rituals of crossing myself and praying.  I was there just to look at him for a final time, to burn his face into my memory, to be sure I wouldn’t forget what he’d done for me, and how inadvertently, but for sure, I had failed him when he required me the most.  I wanted this memory to be vivid, important, immutable, in hopes of never repeating such a failure with somebody else. 

Lori — at least I assumed it was her doing — had Chuck laid out in a dark blue suit.  Probably he wore polished black shoes, too, though the closed lower coffin hid that part of him.  He appeared as he usually had at the office.  Had he been able to choose for himself, I expected I’d be gazing down on a man dressed in a colorful tee, cutoffs, and topsiders.  Chuck, old friend, you could use a day at Ecstasy.  I smiled and didn’t care if anybody saw me. 

The folks had cleared off the veranda when I stepped outside.  The night was crisp but pleasant.  Ambling to the car, I speculated about Marsh and Lori’s relationship.  There was no doubt they had one; and it was anything but normal.  She feared him.  Her behavior around him made it apparent.  But why?  Did Marsh know something about her, something she’d rather not have public knowledge?  How long had they known each other and how had they met?  Did their knowing each other have anything to do with the embezzlement — if that was what Chuck really had wanted to talk to me about?  I had plenty of questions, enough to last me a year, I figured.  What I needed were answers.

I thought the Jag was happy to see me.  I gave it a pat, unlocked the door, and then jumped and froze like a frightened deer; the loud pop had startled me that much.

The second pop wasn’t as nearly loud, not as sharp and raw as the first.  I looked around and saw the pickup truck roll out the lot.  I caught only a glimpse, but it was enough to tell me the owner wasn’t fastidious about regularly scheduled maintenance.

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