Behind Lori Baer
But it was noon and my busy morning—at least it had seemed busy to me at the time—had given me a royal appetite. I mulled grabbing lunch at The Five Dynasties, but settled for preparing my own. I had a full afternoon ahead of me and I wanted to be home when Beth arrived. I figured making my own would be faster. Q would insist on chatting, demonstrating his concern for how I was holding up in the shadow of Chuck’s murder.
Some people can’t survive without lunch, either transforming it into a ritual of friendship or settling for utilitarian gobbling at their desks. In my business, I’d had my share of extravagant meals. Looking back, I have to admit to enjoying a mere handful. Business was usually the reason both for the lunch and the lack of enjoyment; the business part was too distracting.
Consequently, I wasn’t the world’s biggest lunch fan. My retirement hadn’t done a thing to arouse my interest. If anything, I liked lunch even less. Unless I was physically active afterwards, sluggishness overtook me and I often napped. The truth of it was disheartening to me: During the previous three years, I’d been seduced into a pattern of eating and sleeping. It was as if I’d reverted to my childhood, when I couldn’t make it through the day without a nap, and then completely reversed myself, raising hellish objection to napping. There I was, old and fussing over the same conflict. Life was a circle, no doubt.
But I was hungry and I did have a big afternoon ahead of me, so lunch it was. Lunch without guilt.
I pulled the fixings from the refrigerator in a single haul. Transporting them to the counter intact required lots of funny juggling.
I started with thick slabs of Italian bread. I slathered mayonnaise on both with a spoon. I liked gobs of mayo and a spoon functioned like a condiment shovel. I laid on romaine lettuce, followed with a slice of Vidalia onion, piled on a couple of slices of tomato, and finished with four slices of turkey. I spooned the perfect accompaniment, a large helping of cole slaw, into a bowl. I returned what I hadn’t used of the fixings to the fridge, and settled down at the kitchen table with my lunch and a diet root beer. Unless it contained alcohol, I always chose a diet beverage. I could not abide drinking calories.
As I ate, I mulled over events. I hoped Vider and Mavic were hard on the trail of Chuck’s killer. I felt grateful to be cleared in their minds of suspicion. I puzzled over the ying and yang relationship between Lori and Marsh. It made no sense to me. I fretted about not having reviewed the agenda for Thursday night’s regular village council meeting. I fought back images of Gravedigger Collucci as fierce killer of men, brutish ravager of women, and virile testament to active living. And I promised to write my Ad Age column Friday morning; I had a Monday deadline. By one p.m. I had cleaned up and was backing the Mustang onto Friendly Fences Lane.
I pulled into the Gatewood Graphics lot a little after two, mildly riled by the horrid mid-day traffic. There simply was no easy, efficient way to get around Chicago’s suburbs. I spent an hour traveling fewer than 30 miles to Elk Grove Village.
Elk Grove was anything but a village. I’d been there many times but had never located the village part of it, though. I had no trouble finding scores of one- and two-story precast concrete buildings.
The Elk Grove industrial scene was sort of a pejorative of Wrightian principle: bland boxes, long, low, and hugging the industrialized prairie. The Gatewood Graphics plant blended in like desert camouflage on a soldier on the Sahara. If I hadn’t been in the plant dozens of times, I’d have been hard pressed to find it. A description—windowless walls, three-quarters of the plant one floor, the other one-quarter rising to two stories—described most buildings in Elk Grove. While the Gatewood plant was large and ideally suited to the printing business, it lacked the character and topsy-turvy charm of the old downtown building where Chuck’s father began the company.
In 1945, Able Gatewood returned from the war with ambition to be more than a pressman. He worked a year more at his trade, while he availed himself of the G.I. bill. He studied business in college at night. By 1947, between his wages and what Anna Gatewood had saved during the war, he had accumulated enough cash to launch his own business.
Able opened his printing shop where others had founded theirs, on Harrison Street. Within five years, he owned the building in which he had started. To the day he died, he called it the ’68 Building.
The ’68 Building stood a stubby four-stories. It was red brick. Cast iron pilasters girded the ground floor and defined the entrance. Boxy windows overlooked Harrison. It had been erected in 1868, Able thought that good enough reason to christen it the ’68 Building. It was a stalwart structure, having witnessed lots of Chicago history. However, location and not its sturdiness enabled it to survive the Great Chicago Fire of ’71 without as much as a scorched brick.
By 1946, servicemen were surging on the shores like a tsunami and their return changed the landscape of America. They joined women as eager as they to jump start interrupted lives, raise families, and improve their living standards immediately. They demanded everything right now—cars, homes, conveniences, gadgets no one had heard of before the war—and they launched instant gratification as defining characteristic of American life. As with most businesses, printing boomed. More kids meant more schoolbooks. More goods meant more advertising. Everybody needed everything and they all needed it yesterday.
Halfway through his second decade in business, Able outgrew the ’68 building. He promptly scooped up the two properties east of his and replaced the small buildings that had stood nearly as long as his ’68 Building with the quintessential sixties blight—two floors of rambling steel, salmon brick, and baby blue wallboard. It resembled a school and was a building only Able could love.
More success followed. Then Chicago exploded in riots. Able and Chuck, who had recently entered the business, realized a different and troubling world was upon them. Racial division, angry youth, used up real estate, expanding ghettos, fleeing whites taking their businesses with them—this was the new world of the sixties.
Though it all, Gatewood father and son persevered. Their business grew, until they were bursting out of the new building. Faced with remaining in the city or taking the path blazed by their contemporaries, they reluctantly decided to follow into the suburbs. Many printers had congregated in Elk Grove Village, and Able and Chuck saw the advantage of being in the same pew.
Able, however, refused to make the ultimate commitment to relocation. He and Anna maintained their residence in the city until they both passed away. Only then did Chuck sell the home and buy the condo, the city apartment where he died. Much later, after Doreen and he had lived in the city apartment for years and Doreen was pregnant (later to lose their son to a miscarriage), they bought their Lake Forest home.
I strolled through the main entrance and pressed the elevator button. Here was the first peculiarity of the Gatewood building. Whereas every other suburban printer I’d visited had constructed one-story plants, Able Gatewood insisted on a second floor suite. Which led directly to peculiarity number two. The executive offices overlooked the pressroom. Typically, customers had to wend through a maze of offices to the back, through an ordinary door, to gain access to the pressroom. Not in Able’s plant. He was a printer who saw his work as more than a business. He loved watching presses operate and never ceased marveling at the power of the press to transform paper and ink into ideas capable of changing the world.
Chuck had pleaded for a practical one-story building. Rumbling up, I recalled Chuck telling the story. He always thunked his head when he did, indicating his father was a hard head. Chuck appreciated his father’s love of the business; he shared it. But, he would relate, there was more to Able’s action than a mere affection for impractical industrial architecture. After thumping his head a couple of times, his hand would wander down to his heart. “The old bastard’s nostalgic for the ’68 Building. He can’t come to work without riding an elevator.” And I could see in the way Chuck’s eyes deflected down almost imperceptively he knew there was something wonderful in the old man’s attachment to tradition.
The elevator deposited me in peculiarity number three, the reception room. I’d found printers possessed an inordinate fondness for either Scandinavian furniture, usually in rust tones, or leather, the leather being the smooth type stretched over sofas with languidly curving arms and backs. That’s when printers chose to furnish the reception areas. Many didn’t bother with that amenity.
Able respected the power of the press, the knowledge it produced, and the better, richer life it bestowed on mankind. He believed the people who filled the presses with work, whether advertising or work of more merit and duration, deserved the comforts of a gentlemen’s fine and stately library.
Which is what I stepped into. It was a large rectangular space longer than deep. It was lifted from Able’s memory of the thirties, or, probably more correctly, Hollywood’s version of stately English libraries. Walnut panels graced the walls. Oak floorboards framed thick hand-woven Iranian rugs. Deep burgundy and blue whirled in tribal patterns, the significance of which I never discovered. Two leather chesterfields faced each other. Leather wing chairs flanked the chesterfields on four corners. Sofas and chairs were burgundy, too, with muted swirling blacks adding character. All were varnished to a brilliant gloss. A Rumford hearth and ceiling-high bookcases dressed the short walls. There was a door in the center of the long wall. Situated before it was an ornately carved pedestal desk. Seated at it was a handsome woman. Her name was Louise Hollister. She had white hair. She harmonized with the season in a rust-toned business suit flecked with black. The room hadn’t changed in the three years since I had waited in it; neither had Louise.
“Hello, Mr. Angellini. It’s good to see you again.”
“The same, Ms. Hollister. You’re as lovely as ever,” I said. I meant it, too. She must have been sixty, but she could have passed for a woman in her mid forties. Even her white hair, which had a silvery sheen to it, did nothing to reveal her true age, as it did on many women. I hoped I’d be as fortunate in ten years.
I glanced around the room, breathed in the rich leather fragrance. I thanked Chuck for honoring and preserving the spirit of his father, and wondered how or if Lori would alter what had evolved from generation to generation to solidify Gatewood tradition. She seemed to have had no compunction about sterilizing the city apartment.
Swinging my eyes back to the desk, I glanced approvingly at Louise’s legs. They were very long. She held them together in a fashion I hadn’t observed young women, or any women for that matter, use for years, and briefly I wondered what the disappearance of such a simple act said about us. Sheer nylons hugged them. She wore lizard skin shoes with contrasting t-straps, doubtlessly chosen with care to complement her suit. I lingered maybe a second too long.
“We miss Mr. Gatewood,” she said.
“We do, Ms. Hollister.”
“Are you here to see Mr. Marsh?”
I hesitated. She said, “I only ask because others have been seeing him regarding the … matter of Mr. Gatewood.”
“The police,” she answered with satisfaction.
“A man and a woman?”
“Yes. Officers Vider and Mavic. You know them?”
“Friends,” I said, not too ironically.
“Shall I announce you?”
“In a while,” I answered. I was at Gatewood Graphics to scratch two pestilent itches. I hoped to unearth information about the embezzlement. I didn’t expect Marsh to volunteer as a source, reliable or otherwise, not unless he was into self-implication, which I doubted. I barely knew him and suspected he was behind Chuck’s financial problem in some way. Lori was the other itch. The idea she had no involvement in Gatewood business perplexed me. I couldn’t reconcile her claim with the person I had hired and who had performed so stellar for me.
“Then who are you here to see, Mr. Angellini?”
“Lou Cobb,” I said. Turk Terrell had ranted his viewpoint to me at the wake. But Turk was born a curmudgeon who had strengthened his standing in the surly set by cultivating a healthy cynicism of management.
Lou Cobb was different. He was a savvy production manager. He was a technical wizard and an accurate reader of people. And he loved Able Gatewood like a son a father and took a proprietary interest in Gatewood Graphics. People liked Lou. They brought their problems to him; he helped resolve them. I figured if anything truly strange had occurred at the company, he was my best chance of learning about it.
Louise did everything to avoid my look but leave the room. She stared at her desktop as if searching for an important document -– except the desk was perfectly clear of papers as always. I waited, until finally she said, “Mr. Cobb is no longer employed here.”
“Since when?” My surprise was unguarded
“Friday was his last day.”
The temptation to probe was next to uncontainable. But she wasn’t the right person. I could tell from her tone and manner, she was nervous and reticent. Her tension filled the room and had me craving a cigar. That diverted my attention, as I wondered when I’d smoked a Hoyo last and discovered it was so long ago I couldn’t remember.
I eased into it by asking her who had replaced him.
I tried not to overreact. Mike Schwarz was a robust man, almost vaudevillian in nature. He was the original lovable lug. But I never would have pegged him management material. Certainly not a manager who could follow in the footsteps of Lou Cobb. And especially not a manager who could contend with the details of production. I asked her if I could see him.
She responded by depressing the paging button on her call director. He spoke into the phone and requested Mike to phone reception. Together we stared at the director waiting for it to ring. We jumped in unison when it did. She picked up, listened, nodded, and said, “Yes, Mr. Schwartz.”
Hanging up, she said, “Mr. Schwartz will be up in five minutes. Why don’t you have a seat, Mr. Angellini?”
I followed her suggestion and settled on a chesterfield affording me a good view of her. I surveyed the room again and contrasted its warmth with the starkness of the Gatewood apartment. Definitely, Chuck and Lori had been two very different people.
“Ms. Hollister, has Mrs. Gatewood been by since …”
“No, Mr. Angellini, she hasn’t.”
“I suppose she didn’t visit very often.”
“No, Mr. Angellini, not very often, until recently.”
“How recently?” I asked casually, not betraying precisely how much her comment unsettled me.
“Shortly after Mr. Marsh joined the company.”
“To see Mr. Marsh?”
She considered her answer. “No, not at first. She would come down to attend a theatre matinee with Mr. Gatewood. Occasionally, it was simply to have lunch with him. Other times, to meet him for an early dinner.”
“But that changed?”
“Yes, in the past year.”
“She began visiting on days when Mr. Gatewood was out with clients.”
“What did she do on those days?”
“Usually met with Mr. Marsh.”
“Didn’t you find that a little, I don’t know, odd?”
She glided a finger back and forth through the cleft in her chin. “I did ask her about it.”
“She said Mr. Gatewood wanted her to keep an eye on business when he was absent,” she said, contradicting Lori’s contention she wasn’t involved in the Gatewood Graphics.
“Did that seem strange to you?”
“Not at all. Mrs. Gatewood understood a great deal about our business. She was –- is -– quite an expert on printing.”
I had more questions for Louise, but before I could pose them, Mike Schwartz lumbered into the room. I blinked when I saw him, for he wasn’t the same man I knew three years ago. His hair had turned gray and stringy. His face was blotchy red with burst capillaries and his nose shined like an emergency light. His stomach had swollen and cantilevered over his belt, obscuring the buckle.
I rose to greet him. He met me halfway and clapped his huge hands on my shoulders. He shook me like a toy.
“Gabe, how the f—?” He halted what I assumed would be a gush of vulgarities, probably in deference to Louise. “Good to see you. A damn shame about Chuck, huh? Hear you found him. Must have been hell. What a way to go. Christ, how have you been? You look pretty good. Too skinny, but pretty good,” he laughed, rubbing his bulbous belly.
“I’ve been better, Mike.”
“Yeah, tell me about it. What can I do for you?”
“I just heard about Lou.”
He lowered his voice and muttered conspiratorially. “A bitch isn’t it? And look who’s production manager. Not that I don’t deserve it, but I don’t like how I got the job.”
He looked around nervously. “How about you buy me a drink?”
“You sure you can get away?”
“Hey, I’m the boss now,” he said with a hollow grin.
I thanked Louise for her help and followed Mike into the elevator.
On the way out, I volunteered to drive. I led him to the Mustang. He ogled the car and complimented her with a barrage of profanity.
Once settled in the passenger seat, he asked, “The End of the Tail okay with you?”
It didn’t sound as if it would be in the vicinity of suitable; but I figured Mike would be more informative if he was happy and at ease. “Good as any place, I guess,” I said
He directed me south on 83 and we were in the parking lot five minutes after we started.
The End of the Tail was a windowless pink square. Its distinguishing features were the billboards. They extended up beyond the roofline to form irregular crenulations, sort of an ignoble castle. Each board boasted a couple of posters. The posters where different in size and color, but all proclaimed a uniform message: “20 Live Nude Girls.”
I tugged his arm as he started to spill out of the Mustang. “You think we can talk in this place?” expressing my doubt about The End of the Tail.
“Sure. Why not? Shit, what, your prick fall off in three years? Come on.” He laughed. I frowned and climbed out of the car.
He moved fast for a fat man. I followed right behind him through a fingerprint-smudged solid door into a black void.
We were in an anteroom. Curtains hung from an archway where the room opened into the bar and stage. I figured this was to prevent daylight from spilling into the room and disturbing the ambiance.
The lights were low, rendering the place generally gray, except around the stage, which jutted into the room like an amusement pier. A bar strung out along the wall where the entrance was. Two-foot round tables with four chairs to each were packed tightly and marched up to and around the stage. A girl was performing. She wore Lucite platform shoes with four-inch heels and pranced almost in time to music that was loud but otherwise unidentifiable and unmemorable.
Being after the lunch hour, we had our pick of tables. Mike bee-lined for those under the stage. I caught up with him and guided him to a table in a corner as far from the girl as I could manage. At least I would have eighty percent of his attention.
We hadn’t had a chance to warm our seats when a waitress materialized. She was dressed in an order pad, a pen, and a thronged bottom.
“What can I do you boys for?”
Mike suffered an act of apoplexy that fortunately prevented him from speaking his mind. “Two Budweisers,” I said.
“Ten,” she said, smiling slyly at Mike openly leering at her breasts.
I fished a ten and a five from my pocket. She snatched the bills from me and deftly tucked them in her thong.
“Back in a sec,” she said.
She turned and treated us to a jiggle of her tail, which seemed an appropriate play on the joint’s name. It produced the effect she probably desired; Mike smoothed his shirt and swiped at his mouth.
“Nice place,” I said, surveying the room. I stopped at the bar. I fixed on a man on a stool farthest from the entrance chatting bartender. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t see him clearly enough to place him.
“The best,” Mike said. I glanced at him. He had his eyes locked on the girl who jerkily navigating the stage. Throughout our exchange, I spent most of the time addressing the side of his face.
The man at the bar bothered me. I looked over again. I could make out his form. He was short, stocky, and conveyed pent energy like a revved a turbine a second before the brake is released. As I watched, the bartender slid an envelope to the man. The man lifted it off the bar and tucked it in the inside pocket of his sports coat. He was smooth.
The waitress returned and got Mike and me focusing in the same direction. She put two Budweisers on the table and two glasses, the short kind good for beer, liquor, or orange juice.
“Can I do you boys for anything else?”
Her meaning was clear, and if Mike’s gaping mouth was any indication, he was champing to take her up on her invitation.
I quickly produced a ten and shoved it at her. “Sure can,” I said. “Bring another for my friend.” Mike was already hard at work on his first, and I wanted to cut down on interruptions by having a second at the ready. By the time she steered back to the bar, he’d gulped down half the bottle.
“What happened to Lou?” I said, finally getting on course.
If he could have divided his head in two, Mike would have; as it was he settled for staring at the stage, where the girl was lazily squatting for the benefit of two patrons who seemed about as appreciative as garden statuary. He answered me out of the corner of his mouth. I didn’t mind. At least he was talking.
“He had a beef with Marsh.” He swigged his beer noisily, like he mouth of the bottle was too small.
Before he could answer, the waitress was back with his second Bud. When he saw her and it, he sucked his bottle dry and thrust it at her. She bent slightly, but sufficiently to set her breasts in motion. She accepted the spent bottle and balanced it on her tray. She placed the fresh Bud on the table. Her fingers momentarily grazed Mike’s. He was hot enough to boil his beer in the bottle.
“Huh? What’d you say?” he asked, crawling out of his daze.
“What was the disagreement about?”
“Carlson? Who’s he?”
Mike yanked his blue work shirt. “Uniforms, rags, towels.” He caressed the new bottle as if it was the girl who put the tail in The End of the Tail. He was already down a quarter. “Marsh told him to use Best Laundry. Lou said Carlson did a good job, been doing a good job since the old man was in charge. You know, got the shit off these things okay, picked the stuff up on time, dropped it off on time, didn’t fuckin’ rob us.” He sucked at the bottle.
“What, good wasn’t good enough for Marsh?” I prodded.
“Who knows? These Best guys ain’t so bad. No problem so far at least.”
What had transpired was crystal clear to me. Lou was a moral guy—maybe even a little hidebound—and possessed a steel backbone; he wouldn’t bend over for Marsh. Mike, on the other hand, was as malleable as a rat. If Marsh wanted a vendor switched, Mike was his man. The only problem, and it was a huge problem if Marsh intended to keep Gatewood Graphics profitable, was Mike couldn’t manage anything, including getting to work on time, unless he’d reformed since the days I used Gatewood. But judging by the joint he chose, how he seemed to agonize over dividing his time between the dancing girl and the waitress, and the speed with which he drained beer bottles, I doubted he was any different.
“How did Marsh and Chuck get along?”
“Who knows? I wasn’t management then. But it had to be good, right?”
“Chuck hired him, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, sure,” he said. He was worrying the Bud label, littering the table with paper flakes. “Why would he hire a guy he didn’t like?”
Excellent question for which Mike apparently had no answer. There was nothing more to learn from him, so I reminded him of the hour and his management responsibilities. He disparaged management, burped, and reluctantly agreed it was time to leave.
He dragged his way to the exit, turned several times to catch a glimpse of the dancing girl who was wilting on stage from either wariness or boredom. I tailed Mike and focused on the bar, scanning for the man I’d noticed earlier. He was gone.
We drove back to the plant without saying a word to each other. Mike busied himself by humming discordantly. He kept his eyes closed until we pulled to a stop at Gatewood’s employee entrance. Gliding the shifter into neutral, I asked, “Do you have Lou’s number?”
He clutched the door handle for a second, concentrating as if I asked his to solve a calculus problem. “In the office. You got a minute, come on in. I’ll give it to you.”
I followed him into the plant and it was like breathing sweetly perfumed history. I tasted deeply the heady mixture of ink, solvent, and grease, and recalled the hours I’d spent here on press checks with Chuck, drinking sour black coffee—he was incapable of making a decent cup—joking and gossiping about people we knew in the business. Being there reminded me how much I missed that part of my life and how much I regretted having let my friendship with Chuck languish over the past three years.
“You sick or something, Gabe?” Mike was a couple of feet ahead, huffing, and waiting for me.
I barely heard him above the unrelenting thumping of the presses. I listened for a minute, until he jerked his hand at me to hurry up.
We passed through the pressroom. It was cleaner and tidier than some Northshore homes I’d been in. Chuck was his father in many regards, and his insistence on keeping the plant spic and span was high on the list of similarities.
Mike’s office, which I been in before when it was Lou’s, was another matter. Press sheets, samples, reports, and the other flotsam of business poured over and off his desk as water falls off a palisade, except without the same pleasant result. If this was foul product of a mere day, I feared for the fate of Gatewood Graphics.
I leaned against the doorjamb as Mike fished around the desk. His rummaging caused paper to shift on the table and spill onto the floor. In the commotion, a phone revealed itself. Its red message light was flashing. The phone seemed to inspire him and he dove in around it. He pulled a Rolodex free from the garbage, flipped through it, and read off Lou’s home number. Mission accomplished, he lowered himself heavily into his desk chair.
“You know the way out, Gabe,” he said, eyeing the blinking light warily, appearing ready for a nap and not the action the light implied.
“Sure,” I said, closing the door after me. Rest in peace, I thought.
I strolled among the presses, clattering Heidlebergs and thumping Rolands. I shouted hello to a few old timers I recognized, occasionally stopping to shake a hand. There were still plenty of the old crew. Chuck, and Able before him, instilled loyalty in their employees; I wondered how such a fragile item would stand up to the rough handling I expected Marsh would be dishing. It wasn’t long before my throat was aching from the noise, the smell, and the attempts at carrying on conversations.
It was worth it though. My cook’s tour had told me a lot. I saw the plant was busy. There were no idle presses; every one churned out work. And none of it was cheap stuff either, but high-quality and high-margin advertising, corporate reports, and the like. In addition, true to what Chuck had told me at my party, a good deal of the equipment, including a six-color Roland, appeared new. It alone had probably set Gatewood Graphics back a couple of million.
I bypassed the warehouse and strolled into the prepress room. It was quiet but work of creating film and burning printing plates progressed at as furious a pace. The room had changed into a marvel of technology. Where once the work had be done by hand -– photographing paste-ups, stripping the resultant film by hand, creating the metal plates for the presses –- computers performed the same function faster and with fewer hands. And those hands belonged to younger people, many of whom were women, a recent addition to this part of the printing business. I idled near the exit contemplating the speed at which the world was changing.
The big hand startled me, and its grip on my shoulder launched me a couple of inches into the air, and then it immobilized me. But I could turn my head, which I did, and glimpsed a mound of ruddy flesh clamped on me.
“You lost, pal?” It was a surprising voice, high and squeaky, like a cam composed of rusted gears, by far too miniature for the hand.
The hand shook me lightly when I didn’t respond as quickly as its owner thought I should have.
“I’m here to see Jerdan Marsh.”
“Yeah? What makes you so sure he wants to see you?”
“He invited me.” Which was fairly close to the true.
He released me and pushed me around to face him. I had a superb view of his neck, which had the girth of a pillar. He was a giant.
“What’ca doing down here? Don’t you know where the office is?”
I was slow to answer, still trying to take all of him in. He was at least a half-foot taller than me. He was bursting out of his clothes. Too much wrist poked from his sports jacket. The jacket was black and white check; it might have been a subtle pattern on a normal person. On him it was an obnoxious billboard. From the waist down, he was in black, which did nothing to moderate his size. His face was a healed over mass of scars mostly concentrated around his mouth and eyes. An ugly one ran from his hairline, across his right eyelid, ending halfway down on his cheek, causing the lid to droop and give the impression he was about to doze off.
“I was visiting an old friend,” I said.
“Yeah, well we don’t like no visitors. Can’t you see this here’s a dangerous place? Come on. Let’s go,” he said holding the door for me. I assumed he wasn’t issuing an invitation.
I followed him to a staircase. It led to the second floor, where he motioned me to move in front of him. “The office is there at the end,” he said emphatically.
We passed Chuck’s office. I was relieved to see Marsh hadn’t commandeered it as his own, at least not yet.
Marsh’s office was next to Chuck’s and nearly as spacious. He sat at his desk and stared into a laptop computer. He didn’t acknowledge us until the giant cleared his throat and I had the chance to notice the office was empty, as if Marsh had just moved in and hadn’t yet unpacked.
“I found him downstairs.” He tapped my shoulder to emphasize he was referring to me. I felt as if he struck me with a hammer.
Marsh looked up and regarded me coolly.
“Have a seat, Mr. Angellini.” The big guy nudged me, like a playful gorilla, toward a leather guest chair in front of Marsh’s desk. “Would you like anything? Coffee?”
I sat in the chair. “Answers,” I said.
“You want me here, Mr. Marsh?” My escort’s voice vibrated behind me.
“Sure, Petey. Where you’re at.”
Marsh and I went eye-to-eye like boys playing dare. I took the rest of him in with my peripheral vision. He was dressed much as he had been at the wake, in a conservative suit, a white shirt with a solid tie. It looked as if he was trying extra hard to appear respectable. I tried to picture Marsh and Lori together but couldn’t connect them.
I’d always been pretty good at this game, and business had honed my ability to stare at an object for minutes on end. I wasn’t surprised he broke away first, dropping his eyes to the laptop’s screen. He studied its content as if he really believed it was more important than what was transpiring between us. But I could tell by his eyes, which had narrowed to black slits, that wasn’t the case. They were like a tiger’s eyes, cautious, observant, and very threatening. At that moment, I would have chosen a stalking jungle cat over him.
I would remain unharmed, I imagined, for as long as it was in his best interest. He was probably weighing which might be the lesser of two evils: leaving me intact or dealing with my sudden disappearance. To this day I don’t think I was being paranoid. Even Gravedigger Collucci didn’t have me feeling that way.
He wasn’t looking me in the eye and he wasn’t talking, so I broke the silence. “Tell me if I’m right about this. You think somebody died and left you boss.” It was a smart mouth jab, and less than wise given I was out numbered and outclassed, too, by men who may well have killed Chuck Gatewood and would have had scant compunction about doing the same to me.
“Why are you here, Mr. Angellini?”
I was tempted to double up on smartness by asking him the same question. But I restrained myself
Petey, exhibiting memory I thought beyond his capacity, answered for me. “He says he’s visiting a friend.”
“Let’s let Mr. Angellini speak for himself.”
“Remembering a good friend.”
“You could do your remembering better at home.”
“But then I’d miss so much, wouldn’t I?”
“Meaning Lou Cobb and Carlson.”
Marsh’s black slits narrowed to razor thinness and his mouth curled in a sneer. “Last time I checked, you weren’t a shareholder.”
“Let’s say I’m Chuck Gatewood’s outside auditor.”
He leaned back in his chair, losing none of his intensity. “Didn’t we go through this last night?”
“Last night you invited me to help you investigate the embezzlement.”
“I recall being very clear, Mr. Angellini. I said I conducted a thorough audit. I found no embezzlement. I did discover some poor business decisions.”
“Chuck Gatewood was a smart businessman.”
“People lose their edge.”
“You didn’t happen to issue a written report?”
“I’d like to see it.”
He traced an invisible line across the desk. I wondered if he was drawing a line in furniture oil and would dare me to cross it.
“It’s confidential,” he said curtly.
Innocently I said, “Then how can I help you?”
“Who says I want your help?”
“I thought you did, last night,” I said, keeping up the naiveté.
“Why’s this so important to you?”
“The Gatewoods are my friends.”
He rocked in his chair, then stopped, steepled his hands, and batted his nose lightly. His lips curled again. “You got a thing going with Mrs. Gatewood?”
I blanched, not at the salacious suggestion, but that it might have been true one time, if the circumstances had been different.
He lunged forward and smacked the desk. The crack startled me, and probably woke Petey up; he bumped my chair. “Wouldn’t blame you if you did,” he said.
Composing myself, I asked, “What thing do you have with her?”
He stroked his chin and leered, I’m sure because he thought it would irritate me. He lingered for a minute. “I’d say she’s my boss.”
Tired of dueling innuendoes, I demanded, “The report.”
“I’ll make a deal with you, Mr. Angellini. If the boss says to release the report to you, it’s yours.”
This reinforced a suspicion a bond existed between Lori and him. I was convinced if I knew what it was, I’d know who murdered Chuck and why.
He probably thought I was a little too cocky, and maybe I was. To deflate me, he taunted, “Mrs. Gatewood is quite pleased with the way I’m managing the company.”
“What other things are you managing that she’s pleased with?”
“I think, Mr. Angellini, we’re at the end of our conversation,” he said, casting a quick glance past me to Petey. I felt my shoulder gripped snugly. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a company to run.” Petey tightened his grip and helped me out of the chair.
“We’ll have to do this again,” I said, as Petey hustled me out of Marsh’s office.
“I hope your visits don’t become habit forming, Mr. Angellini, or I’ll have to call your friends at the police department.”
On the first floor, Petey said, “I got to heave you out on the street, or you think you can take a hint?”
“Don’t be too subtle.”
“Get out a here before I forget I’m not supposed to break your head.”
I left him with an “I like you, too” and exited into the parking lot.
I climbed into the Mustang and enjoyed its low growl before I pulled onto Route 83 and steered north. I was maneuvering through traffic when a dégà vu panic swept over me; this little visit had felt like the Colluccis all over.
* * *
I tucked the Mustang in at five and by the time I’d made my way into the kitchen I was too worn to do anything culinary.
Instead, I went into my office and checked for messages. I had none. Tommy had promised to call me, but I decided to phone him while I waited for Beth. I listened to his phone ring a dozen times before I hung up. Tommy and Mae Chen did not keep an answering machine in their home; Tommy did keep one in his office, which was in a small second-floor walk up just off Harlem. But he rarely returned to it on an assignment day; and he never returned business messages at night. Which meant there was no sense tracking him down. He’d be in touch when it suited him. Mae Chen and he were probably at dinner.
I had to call Lori, I told myself. Then I proceeded to fiddle with my desk junk. I’d rearranged the stuff a few times and was back to where I’d started. I swung around and grabbed my Rolodex. I thumbed through it for the Gatewood number. With no more excuses at hand, I swiveled around, picked up the phone, and called her.
The number rang a half-dozen times. I was about to happily hang up, when Lori answered. She uttered a long, drowsy rendition of hello, fuzzy from start to finish, and marinated, I suspected, in liquor, or something from the pharmacopoeia.
“It’s Gabe, Lori.”
The silence was a taste of eternity.
“Lori, are you alright?”
More waiting before she said, “What do you want?” Though she stumbled over the question, her irritation came through clearly.
“I want to know if you’re okay.”
“Nice, Gabe. Always the nice guy.”
“I’m concerned about you.”
“Come over and take care of me then.”
I was silent.
“Sorry, Gabe. I shouldn’t have … Yes, I’m fine. The doctor prescribed Xanax. I guess it’s working.”
“Good,” I said, not having the heart to quiz her immediately. I put it off by turning my chair toward the desk and opening the humidor I kept there. I stared at the cigars. I closed it without removing one. I decided to wait until after dinner.
“You called just to check on my health, Gabe?”
“Yes, and about the embezzlement.”
“Oh,” she said. I detected disappointment.
“I was at the plant today.” I waited, tracing the crest engraved on the lid of the humidor. When she didn’t respond, I said, “I saw Jerdan Marsh. I asked him for the audit report. He wouldn’t release it to me without your authorization.”
“I don’t have anything to do with the business. I told you I didn’t last night.”
“He said you’re his boss.”
“He said I was his boss?”
“He assumes it’s your company now.”
“Sure. It’s all mine. Just like I planned. Right, Gabe?” Even her loopy state couldn’t mask her bitterness.
“Nobody thinks anything, Lori,” I soothed.
I swung back to the credenza and stared out the window.
“Nobody. Sure. The cops are nobody. You’re nobody.”
“Listen, I’m on your side. I know you loved Chuck. I want to help you. And I want to find out who killed him.”
“Thanks, Gabe.” She sounded calmer.
“Would you call Marsh and tell him to send the audit report to me?”
“I’ll do it tomorrow.” The words where right, but the timbre in her voice hinted at tentativeness.
“Get some rest tonight. You’ve still got the funeral,” I said.
She hung up without another word.
I stared at the receiver before dropping it in its cradle. Then I swung my chair around to discover Beth watching me from the doorway.