Behind Lori Baer, 9

Behind Lori Baer

CHAPTER 9

“I feel like Q’s tonight,” she said, icily.

I flushed. My face and neck burned. My spine prickled with sweat. I didn’t need a mirror to tell me I was the shade of a September tomato. My mouth was dry as on the day after a long, loud, and alcohol-drenched client dinner. I had the symptoms of guilt and I was busy transmitting them across the room to an unsettlingly cool, impassive Beth. If I had actually transgressed, I couldn’t have appeared more the transgressor.

Then resentment of her and her jamb-leaning glare of judgment overwhelmed me. I had no reason to be guilty. I hadn’t done anything but what we all had agreed I should do—talk to Lori, attempt to lure her into revealing a closely held secret about Chuck’s murder, work at maneuvering her into conceding what they as a group suspected, that she was instrumental in his death, thereby proving their notion of her as evil incarnate.

Then I spun again like Scylla’s flotsam in the Charybdis, up and down and around between violent emotions, surfing through dopamine white caps I never knew I was capable of, wondering if my cerebral thrashing was the male approximate of menopause.

Beth appeared extraordinarily patient, until it dawned on me that time hadn’t passed but maybe for a tock. My panic had been instantaneous. “Lori,” I said.

“Why don’t you get a jacket and tell me at Dynasties? I’m starved.” Well, maybe she wasn’t icy; but, definitely, she was unrelentingly pleasant.

In her BMW, cutting through the last of rush hour traffic, she asked about Lori.

“She’s upset,” I said.

“A taste of her own medicine.” She stared ahead, concentrating on the blinking brake lights crowding the road, not sparing me the flick of an eye.

“I called her about the audit report.” I recounted my conversation with Mike, who she didn’t know, expunging the color, and with Marsh and his fun mate Petey, skipping the implication of threat a man constructed like the pushed-up rubble of a tectonic eruption can have on a body. Why worry her unnecessarily? The unnecessarily was pure hope.

“Did she say she’d help?” She was angling into the Five Dynasties’ lot. It was full. She headed for a spot far from the entrance, not bothering to breeze by the front of the place even once in the oft chance exiting diners were opening a primo spot. Primo was a word Frankie used as a boy to describe things he considered first rate, including the perfect parking place by the entrance to anywhere we might be visiting.

“Yes.” I guarded the doubt I harbored. For her it would be fuel she didn’t need.

She parked and killed the motor. She turned and studied me while the car pinged into silence. “We’ll see,” she said. She meant, I’m not holding my breath and neither should you, or you’ll keel over for lack of oxygen.

Inside, Q put us at a favorite window table. It gave us a view of the restaurant’s inner courtyard. We admired the garden, which Q replanted and decorated seasonally. Being October, brown and gold dominated. Splashes of red and yellow added brightness. Half a dozen carved pumpkins formed a centerpiece of sorts. They were the winners of a contest sponsored by Q. The event was hardly Oriental, but it was good community relations, and Q was a sage businessman.

We minded the courtyard, a contemplative couple, though I admit to a little mental slackness as antidote to the tension just wrung from me. We kept at it until our martinis arrived. They reanimated us.

Beth started by commenting how I was hoisting my martini with my left hand. I described Petey’s steely grip. She grasped my right hand and sent a jolt of restorative consolation through me. Nothing was ever so monumental that it came between us for long, including Lori Gatewood.

We each had another drink. She had pork. I had beef. We finished with almond cookies and green tea. We talked about Frankie and Mae Rose, and how we might like to visit our daughter in New York and catch a show. We were home by nine. She went directly to bed, claiming exhaustion. I plopped behind the desk in my office dull around all my edges and called Tommy. He picked up on the second ring.

I ambled through my day and Tommy prompted me when he required more detail, especially about my encounter with Marsh and Petey and the bar patron at The End of the Tail who I had found vaguely familiar. He knew The End of the Tail by reputation and under a number of titillating aliases stretching back to his days in the Chicago P.D.

“Those two at Gatewood are dirtier than used toilet paper,” Tommy said. An unpleasant gurgle rumbled through my intestines. Tommy said he and Sal had dug around. “Marsh has enough names to fill a Kmart cart. They’re all American, like he’s ashamed of being Italian,” he said, resentment riding the phone lines. “But I guess we should be glad about that. Massalino’s his real name. Raphael Massalino. His pal is Peter Adonis. He look like an Adonis to you?” He clucked at the image. “Yeah, maybe twenty years ago before he got his face mashed in the ring. Pug fighter. Guess who managed him?”

“Marsh.”

“He was going by Glenn Leonard then. How’d he convince Mr. Gatewood he was an accountant, you’re wondering?”

I told him it had occurred to me.

“Because he is. He went to college, DePaul of all places. Glenn Leonard Corbett Phillips Jerdan Marsh, a good Catholic boy with a good Catholic education. Well, maybe not such a good boy, since he’s been picked more than half-a-dozen times. Catholic lad with a bad case of anti-social behavior.”

“Murder among his anti-social acts?”

“No, but that’s not to say he hasn’t killed anybody. Gambling and loan sharking. Four times for making book. Once for running a floating poker game. Twice for juice.”

“How about Petey?”

“Muscle. In between getting himself batted around the ring, he’s done time. Twice for battery. He favors a tire iron. Crippled a slow pay with one.”

“Ouch.”

“Yeah. Mr. Gatewood was playing with a couple of bad boys. And you say Mrs. Gatewood likes Marsh?”

“Love and hate. I’m not sure about the connection.”

“Well, Mr. Gatewood must have had a reason for getting involved with these two.”

“The loan sharking?”

“Small stuff, Gabe. Marsh put ten, twenty grand on the street at a time. From what you’ve said, if Mr. Gatewood had money trouble, it was big.”

“Couldn’t Marsh get his hands on more cash?”

“Maybe. I’ll check to see what family he’s with. There’s something else to think about.”

When Tommy wasn’t forthcoming, I said, “What?”

“How close where you with Mr. Gatewood?”

“We were business associates, and friends too.”

“Time can change people, you know,” he cautioned.

“I don’t follow.”

“Mr. Gatewood could have been hiding something, something he didn’t want certain people to know about.”

“Blackmail?”

“Marsh is the type.”

I shocked myself by ticking off a list of nefarious activities Chuck could have engaged in. Stealing from the business. But why steal from yourself? It didn’t make sense; but then who said it had to? Cheating on Lori. I didn’t believe Chuck had it in him. Besides, I didn’t think he’d want to risk losing her. No, I told myself, thievery and adultery occupied no place in Chuck’s character. Tommy had to be wrong about blackmail.

“No, Tommy, I can’t see Chuck involved in anything illicit or illegal.”

“If he was desperate …”

“Sorry, I don’t see it. I don’t want to close any avenues, but it’s just not Chuck.”

“There’s another possibility,” he ventured. “Lori.”

I nearly fired off a reflexive objection, but couldn’t quite voice it. Could she have had an affair? She was young and beautiful. Chuck struck me as viral, but maybe not enough for her. Or maybe Beth and the family were right; maybe she was as calculating and conniving as they suspected.

“How do you prove something like that?” I found myself asking.

“Hard if the affair’s over. I doubt she’d admit to it, especially if she had been paying off Marsh to keep it quiet.”

“I suppose Marsh would want lots of money. Where would she get it?”

“Maybe she had a big allowance. Maybe it wasn’t money.”

“What are you getting at?”

“She played matchmaker to Mr. Gatewood and Marsh.”

“You mean she got Marsh the job at Gatewood Graphics knowing he’d steal from Chuck?”

“Listens good to me, Gabe.”

“But that’s like stealing from yourself,” I said.

“You take money out of your bank account. Or you let a crook rob your husband’s company. There’s a difference?”

“The audit report …”

“Don’t hold your breath.”

He was right, of course. In an instant I realized I’d never expected the report to materialize. And I understood the tension between Lori and Marsh wasn’t love. If my experience with her was any indication, Tommy had to be right. She had gotten an itch for somebody, and she had scratched it. She might have felt the tug of guilt; it may have been as enduring as a sweaty night in a hotel room. What it had been was sufficient to change her life, after Marsh had learned about it. How? Who knows how the dark side of anybody’s life leaks into public, but it happens constantly. The National Enquirer and the Star would have rolled belly up dead in bankrupt waters ages ago if people discovered the secret—or maybe developed the desire—to keep their peccadilloes private.

“You there?” he asked.

“Sure. Just thinking.”

“I hope you’re thinking Mrs. Gatewood’s the key to this murder.”

“I’m thinking,” I said dourly. “Why would either of them want Chuck dead?
I don’t see it.”

Tommy was quick with an explanation, as if he had devoted his afternoon in the Kmart aisles conjuring motives. “Mrs. Gatewood liked everything about being Mrs. Gatewood, except for Mr. Gatewood. She may have cheated on him and he may have discovered her infidelity. She may have found murder preferable to life without the Gatewood money. It’s a decent motive. Money’s behind almost every crime. As for Marsh, if he was embezzling and Chuck discovered it … well, he had to protect his interests, so to speak.”

“So, maybe what I was seeing was animosity between them. She’s probably getting ready to give Marsh the boot.”

“Could be, but Marsh is rooted like a hundred year oak. I guarantee it. If we’re right about this, she cut a bad deal, and it’s not over just because the affair is, or because Mr. Gatewood is dead.”

“I think I’ll check Vider, see where he’s at with Mrs. Gatewood and Marsh. If he’s reasoned this thing like we have, it’s going to come to a pretty quick end.”

He was gone and I was left with nothing to do but gobble down three aspirin and turn in.

It was anything but a restful night. I seemed to wake every hour agitated and angry with myself about Lori Gatewood. I wasn’t convinced she had a hand in Chuck’s murder; but in a way I couldn’t grasp then, I knew his death revolved around her. My head ached because I couldn’t deny he might be alive if I hadn’t been their unwitting matchmaker, not to mention those precious minutes I’d sacrificed for a parking place.

* * *

But more than regrets over Lori and Chuck kept me stirring in my bed. My shoulder protested where Petey had clamped onto me. Not since grammar school, maybe high school, had I been in a fight, if Petey’s bullying could be broadly classified as fighting. It was more like Petey imposing his will on me. Not an easy admission, even to myself in the dead of night.

I dozed in hour spurts and during a couple of them I remembered the last time I had fought somebody. He was Francis McCann, and it wasn’t exactly a fight, but instruction on how to prepare for and survive the sudden and debilitating pain of fighting.

In the first episode of my dreamy recollection, I rode to the rescue of Francis, who, as usual, was the object of bigger boys unreasonably irate over his size and the amazing amount of bellicosity he could project from his miniature self. Whether he provoked the abuse he attracted or had it heaped on him for no other reason than his diminutiveness was never the question with me. I’d never equivocated in my defense of underdogs, or those I sensed were severely disadvantaged in a fight. Unfortunately, I placed Francis at a disadvantage, since he found my undeveloped skills forced him to defend both of us. I received a good pummeling. It cost me a night of sleep and went unnoticed by my guardian aunt and grandmother.

After a bout of wakefulness, episode two played. Francis came to me a few days later and thanked me for helping him. I mumbled and stumbled between forget-its and wasn’t-much-helps. He took pity on me. He offered to teach me how to fight, in case I wished to defend him or anybody else in the future. I thought it would be a useful skill and accepted. He said to remind him in a week, when I had healed.

My bruises where sallow rings, mildy ugly but painless, when I came around and asked for my first lesson. He had me follow him into the hilly woods on the outskirts of Patroon Manor. When he was satisfied we were far enough from civilization for his purposes, he said, “The first lesson’s the hardest.” I was on the verge of asking what could be harder than getting the short end in a fight, when his knobby fist, which had the tensile consistency of steel, cracked my jaw and snapped my head hard left.

Though tears, I shouted, “What the fuck was that?” I was a master of vulgarism in those days.

“Lesson one,” he said officiously, grabbing my chin and giving it a casual inspection. “Know pain so it doesn’t surprise you and give the other guy an advantage in a fight.”

“Christ, I don’t know if I want you teaching me how to fight.”

“Suit yourself,” he said, setting a course out of the woods with dispiriting alacrity.

I discovered why I’d been of absolutely no help to him in the real fight of the previous week and called for him to return. I submitted to his instruction for several days. I learned how to toss a punch and befriended the pain of jabs, smacks, socks, elbows, pinches, kicks, rams, head butts, and the myriad other agonies of battle, which I recalled vividly.

I finally settled into sleep in the early morning and missed my alarm. Beth rose, dressed, and left the house before I woke at seven-thirty with the dreamy memory of her lips softly brushing against my cheek.

I had a hot shower and let the water drum my sore shoulder. I slipped into sweats and running shoes and felt pretty good after two cups of coffee. Beth had left a pot for me, brewed double strength. This was a woman I couldn’t help but adore.

It was another sunny day, perfect for a gallop around town, and the spectacular weather settled a boisterous debate roaring in me as to whether I should run or surrender to the stiffness and sluggishness weighing me down. Taking off the day, I persuaded myself, would be admitting I was on the dark side of middle age. I could more easily face the physical pain than the torment of wallowing in the idea I was too old to rebound like a spring-loaded thirty-year old. It was a decent but incomplete effort, and I was back at the house and dressed in a charcoal gray suit and maroon tie for Chuck’s funeral by nine.

I pulled the Jag into the parking lot at St. Mary fifteen minutes ahead of the hearse and funeral cortege. I took a seat toward the back. I estimated the church was about a third filled. Many faces, like Turk Terrell and Louise Hollister, were familiar. It appeared Gatewood Graphics had closed for the day in homage to Chuck.

Marsh was notably absent and I wondered if he would make an appearance. And if he did, would Lori be with him?

The answer arrived nearly on top of the question. Marsh strolled in a step behind Lori, who hurried as if she was racing him. The surly twist of his mouth said he wasn’t happy about it. Petey was nowhere in sight, for which I unconsciously rolled my abused shoulder in appreciation.

Trailing close behind them were two older people I recognized as Chuck’s sister and brother-in-law, Margaret and Herb.

The four seated themselves in the first pew and the organ began with a passage from Mozart’s Requiem Mass. The congregation stood. We faced the rear to watch the pallbearers trundle Chuck’s casket down the aisle, followed by the priest swinging a three-chain censer and two altar servers. A spicy cloud steamed from the censer and spread fragrantly through the church.

As mass began, I mulled over what Margaret might contribute to my understanding of affairs at Gatewood Graphics. While she and Chuck hadn’t been close, she had an interest in the company and I assumed she kept an eye on it.

I settled into the service at the eulogy. The priest spoke kindly of Chuck, but there was more. He gave the impression he enjoyed more than a passing acquaintance with Chuck. It was as if Chuck had camped out at the Church, involving himself in a variety of activities, which the priest reeled off with warmth. I thought I’d known my friend well. I knew he was Catholic; I didn’t know he might have practiced his religion enough to be known to the parish priest.

Going through the motions of the mass, I wondered what else I didn’t know about Chuck Gatewood.

At the conclusion of the service, the pallbearers reassembled around Chuck’s casket and wheeled him down the aisle into the bright fall day he was past appreciating. We attempted to mill around, but McCarry’s had other ideas. They herded us to our cars. I had just enough time to offer my condolences to the Baxters and ask if I could speak to them later. They agreed.

Within five minutes, our lights were on, the red-orange funeral signs were positioned in our windshields, and we were proceeding to the north side of Lake Forest and St. Mary Cemetery.

The trip was relatively uneventful. McCarry’s managed to keep the procession together through town. Like drovers, they chased off a couple of interlopers who had the audacity to bust the line as we crossed over McKinley Street.

St. Mary was large cemetery and it took several minutes for our cortege to wend through to the Gatewood site. It was set on rolling green land on the palisade overlooking Lake Michigan, a perfectly appropriate resting place for Chuck. Copses of tall maples, oaks, and firs dotted the grounds. Discreet markers mixed with huge and ornate memorials, many of them showing the wear of time. It would have been a pleasant ride, if not for the occasion and the fact I was reminded of my mortality and the slope I was coasting down.

Beth being of a practical bent—she insisted on life insurance upon the birth of Frankie, an idea I resisted; the oxymoronic concept offended me and scared me too since I was forced to acknowledge the inevitable—brought up the subject of final resting places when we both had bounced over the forty-year mark. I fended her off until forty-five, when I succumbed and bought family acreage in the very cemetery I was driving through. To Beth, knowing we had an eternal resting place was comforting. Thankfully she wasn’t the type who relished a Sundry drive to view the future home; she was practical, not obsessively insane on the subject. Which allowed me to lock away the family plot in the cobwebbed attic of my mind. However, due to my birthday and Chuck’s death, the door flung wide open, and I was as agitated as a child trembling in the shadow of the bogeyman.

We parked as instructed and marched to Chuck’s grave, where the priest, pallbearers, the family, and Marsh awaited us. The priest and pallbearers stood. The family sat. Marsh sat with them and we gaggle of mourners assembled in a semicircle around them and the grave. We stared at Chuck’s coffin and the dark pit over which it was suspended, though McCarry’s had sanitized the view with boards, green Astroturf, and low brass rails. Still, it was a sad and frightful sight.

The graveside service was mercifully brief; omitted were the usual laying of flowers and sprinkling of dirt. Chuck certainly deserved the full treatment, but Lori hadn’t consulted me, and I wasn’t about to criticize her on the ceremonial shortcoming. But I wasn’t pleased with how this Mrs. Gatewood was behaving and couldn’t refrain from comparing Lori’s command of funeral etiquette to what I imagined would have been Doreen Gatewood’s approach.

Not wanting to gaze on the scene any longer, I let my eyes wander over the grounds. I fixed on an idling backhoe. Its guttural rumbling intruded on the ceremony. Two men loitered by it sipping at cups which could have contained coffee or something stronger. A battered pickup was parked near them. I would have passed over it, if it hadn’t been for the color, lime green. It wasn’t a color I had seen since the last time I’d had a Popsicle, and that had to have been before the kids transmogrified into teenagers. That is, until yesterday when I spotted the pickup at McCarry’s. Under its rust, it had been lime green. At the time, I had thought it belonged to a McCarry’s worker. Still could, I told myself. But I couldn’t image why McCarry’s would need a dilapidated pickup at the cemetery.

I thought I’d get a closer look, maybe make a mental note of its plate numbers, when it abruptly pulled onto the cemetery road and, moving faster than one ought to in the resting place of the dead, backtracked over our procession route. It was odd enough that I told myself to mention the pickup to Tommy.

Engrossed as I was in the antics of the pickup driver, I didn’t notice the priest had concluded and had sent us on our way to live good lives and remember Chuck. A jostle from those around me brought me back. I stood for a moment, allowing them to melt away. I cast about for Margaret and Herb, and as I did I saw Lori and Marsh slide into the limo.

“Gabe Angellini.” It was Margaret, with Herb beside her, attentive like a big furry dog after a good ear scratching.

I smiled and extended a hand. She grasped it firmly and released it quickly. He latched on with as much firmness but insisted on pumping my arm until I pulled away.

It seemed an unfortunate reality to me, more common than not, that one sibling was graced with the appealing looks, the charm, or the brains, while the other was stuck with the corresponding opposite traits. Chuck had been graced with all three, which was unfortunate for Margaret. She possessed a mere thimble full of each, except for intelligence.

She was short and portly, but not fat. She had the girth and tone of a scaled down linebacker. Her eyes were piercing blue. Her face was tight, almost mask like, as if she’d had a lift. Her hair was mostly blond and streaked with enough unnatural silver to make plain she had it done frequently. She came across as a determined matron.

I offered my condolences and asked if they could spare a few minutes to speak privately at the reception.

“What reception?” she said, ramming the hanky she’d been dabbing away tears with into the small snap purse dangling from her left wrist. “This is it. Be done with him and send the folks on their way. A nice and neat piece of work.”

Herb slung an arm around her. “Now, Margaret, you promised not to exercise yourself over this.”

He was big and eager to please her, with baleful eyes that pronounced his deep affection for her. He had a kind sloppy look about him. He was the type of guy who’d never met a fabric he couldn’t wrinkle on contact. His appearance belied his business acumen. This saggy man owned a very successful bank in Freeport, Illinois, three hours west of Chicago.

I knew no reception was a fairly bold breach of etiquette, and I could hear Beth deriding Lori on account of it.

“I was planning to wait for the reception,” I said.

“You want to tell me something I know, Gabe?” she said agitated. Herbert grabbed her hand and calmed her with a gentle squeeze.

I gave her a puzzled look.

“That woman’s having an affair. You’d have to be a lamb like Herbert here,” she said. Herbert still had her hand in his. She patted it. “She’s happy he’s dead.”

“Now, Margaret, maybe she’s not as sorrowful as we think she should be, but don’t you think you’re going overboard about her?”

“All I know, Herb, is if it was you …” Herb smiled and I could see him briefly tighten his grip.

“I don’t know,” she continued “you could be right. But her parading around like the wake was a party. And being with that man. To tell you the truth, Gabe, I’ve never doubted for a second she married Chuck for his money. Period.”

I could see Herb wanted to speak but held back.

“She’s a snake. This scoundrel’s not her first affair. You can count on that,” she said, glaring at me.

I blinked. My first reaction being that somehow, way out in Freeport, she’d heard about the famous Incident, perhaps from Chuck.

“Don’t look like you didn’t know, Gabe.”

“Know what?”

“She was seeing Chuck before Doreen died … while the poor woman was on her death bed. Maybe even before, but I’m not certain about that. I can’t say I respect Chuck much for succumbing to temptation. But I forgave him long ago, because I knew it was that woman’s doing. She saw he was vulnerable and she took advantage of him.”

Herb rolled his eyes, leading me to believe he wasn’t perfectly in sync with Margaret’s theory. However, I guessed Margaret was more right than wrong about an affair between Chuck and Lori. But I didn’t believe Lori could have seduced Chuck without his wanting it too. I couldn’t imagine what Doreen’s illness had been like for Chuck. She’d always been a vital woman. She manned the sailboat with him; she matched him stroke for stroke on the golf course; she entertained with him. She worked and played with him for years, through his parents’ illnesses and deaths. And then suddenly Doreen was an invalid herself slipping slowly and painfully into death.

Chuck was a man with an abundance of money and friends; but I figured he couldn’t find solace anywhere. Perhaps in his church, but certainly not with others, friends who where like me, too crippled to hurdle the wall of business, and those who compartmentalized their lives in their own ways. He had nobody to turn to, without children, with a sister who elected out of life as a Gatewood, with friends who may have found it too painful around Doreen and thus fended the couple at arm’s length.

With Lori, he could escape an eventuality I knew probably caused him the most pain of his life. But not for a moment did I think he had slept with her while Doreen was living. Chuck, I wanted to believe, was bound by love, honor, and respect for Doreen. I had always known him to be that kind of man. Sordid was the last behavior I would have associated with him.

“Don’t you agree, Gabe?”

I shrugged ambiguously, hoping it would sufficiently placate her. “I wanted to ask you about the business,” I said, after I saw she was agreeable to a change.

“What about it?” Herb asked amicably and quickly, happy to shunt the conversation down another track. I suspected he’d served his earthy purgatory absorbing her lamentations over Lori’s miscreant predilections.

“Was—is, I guess I should say—is the business in trouble?”

Herb said, “Hard to tell from a distance. But we knew it wasn’t as healthy as it had been in past years.”

“We received a dividend each quarter,” Margaret said.

“Yes. And over the years Chuck had steadily increased it as the business grew. Until about six months ago -– six is right, isn’t it, Margaret?”

She nodded and said, “Chuck visited us. Which was unusual. We didn’t see much of each other. Christmas was about it. Herb and I made the trek to Chicago for the yearly party.”

“He told us he was in the middle of a very aggressive expansion. He laid it out for us –- bigger plant, new presses, larger sales staff,” Herb injected.

“We weren’t opposed to his building the business,” Margaret said.

“We know with our own business you’ve got to be constantly at it,” said Herb. “We’ve done a lot with the bank over the years. We’ve got a pretty popular seniors’ deal. Margaret came up with a catchy name …” He saw me shuffle impatiently. “A little off the subject, I suppose.”

“If you let him, Herb would clatter about the bank for hours.”

“Maybe not hours,” he said. “Anyway, about Chuck, he came to Freeport and gave us the whole nine yards, like we were his banker.”

“What he said made sense to us,” Margaret explained. “And we appreciated his coming all the way from Chicago to tell us personally.”

“He never said the expansion would be cheap. He was honest and straight with us,” Herb added.

“So we weren’t surprised when he said he’d have to cut our dividend. But in half?”

“We weren’t thrilled, of course. But being business people ourselves, we tried to understand.”

“He did promise a higher dividend when his plan paid out.”

I waited for another spurt from them. When it didn’t materialize, I asked, “Did he visit you before or after he hired Jerdan Marsh?”

“Before. Wouldn’t you say before, Herb?”

“Yes, he came to us about six months before.”

“Before we knew Chuck had hired him,” Margaret corrected. “We don’t know exactly when Marsh joined Gatewood.”

“You think Marsh had a hand in your dividend reduction?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t doubt it for a second, knowing him,” Margaret bellowed.

Herb gave her hand a calming pat. “She gets worked up over this. So do I. It was Marsh who phoned us to say there would be no dividend.”

“When?” I asked.

“A couple of weeks ago,” Herb answered. “About a week, maybe two before the end of the quarter. That seems right, the third week of September.”

“You think Marsh was responsible for the cut?”

“All I know is things went south pretty damn fast. And about the only thing different was Marsh.”

And Chuck’s expensive expansion, which might have been incidental to the disintegration of the business if Marsh was as big a rat as Tommy implied, and if he was getting kickbacks from his cadre of dirty suppliers.

“You know why Chuck hired him, don’t you, Gabe?”

“I heard he wanted a professional money man, what with the expansion and his financing needs.”

“From who? Marsh himself?” Margaret sneered.

I shrugged, as if to say it was in the air, something like sewer gas is when a line breaks.

“The woman’s idea,” she said.

“Lori suggested Chuck hire a financial guy?”

“The woman made him hire Marsh,” she said, the bitterness nearly palpable.

“Now, Margaret,” Herb mollified, “it’s not as if she twisted Chuck’s arm.”

She gave out with a tiny huff, sounding like the first puff of a locomotive. “She may as well have. I’m too modest to say what she probably really did. But forcing is forcing even if it’s not violent.”

“Whoa,” I said, throwing up my hands, “I’m confused. Lori told Chuck he needed a financial person and she supplied the candidate?”

“Yes,” Herb said, leaving Margaret to fulminate in silence.

That certainly belied Lori’s claim of no involvement in Gatewood business. If she had lied about that, I wondered what else she was lying about.

“How do you know?” I asked. “After all, Chuck didn’t tell you about Marsh when he came out to Freeport.”

“We called Chuck, oh, maybe three months after he came out. Three months about right, Margaret?”

She nodded. Her neck and cheeks had blushed, as if her blood was mercury in an overheated thermometer. If we went on much longer, I thought, we’d have to ask the backhoe crew to prepare a spot for her because her head would cannon off.

“We were curious about the expansion,” Herb continued, moving a hand to her back and rubbing in a soothing circular motion. “We wanted to find out how Chuck was progressing with it, see if it was on target. Sort of reassure ourselves the business was moving along smoothly.”

“Progress,” Margaret snorted. “Marsh was progress?”

“Margaret means Chuck said he’d brought on a sharp financial guy to run the business part of the operation. He told us about Marsh.”

“Did he mention how he found Marsh?”

“He was her idea.”

“That’s right,” Herb said, intensifying his massage. “I remember asking what kind of search he’d conducted. I don’t know about Chicago, I suppose with so many people, it’s easier find good workers, but in Freeport getting high-level experience isn’t easy. Not that we don’t have good people back home. But we’re not nearly the size of Chicago. You can’t expect—“

“Did he say,” I interrupted, “why he thought Marsh was right for the job?”

“No,” Herb answered. “He didn’t elaborate. I didn’t pursue the subject. I suppose I should have—“

“You sure should have,” Margaret said indignantly.

“Water under the bridge,” he replied.

I knew I’d learned all I was going to about Marsh and Lori from them. But I was curious about another matter. It went to strengthening the case for Lori having had a hand in arranging Chuck’s death.

“Did Chuck happen to mention if he had a prenuptial agreement with Lori?”

“It would have been smart,” Margaret said.

“Yes, it would have been. When Chuck broke the news of his impending marriage, we asked about a prenuptial.”

“After all,” chimed Margaret, “we might not run the company, but we have a fairly sizable interest in it.”

“Chuck said he didn’t have an agreement. He said he couldn’t reconcile it with a relationship built on love and trust.”

“I’m still befuddled by the naiveté of my brother. Really,” she said, venting fury at Chuck for allowing an emotion as ethereal as love to jeopardize his own and his father’s life’s work.

“We urged him to reconsider,” Herb said, giving Margaret a chance to calm herself. “We went as far as imploring Berdie to stress to him the importance of an agreement, especially with someone who he knew had so much less. I know how this sounds, Gabe, very selfish of us.”

I told him not to worry about perception. Prudence was a virtue Chuck should have exercised. As Tommy was fond of preaching, where there’s murder, there’s money, and lots of it. Lori had the money with Chuck alive or dead. But maybe, and the idea drove a shudder through me, the money meant more to her if the check read only, Lori Gatewood. I was sure Tommy, Beth, and the others would give a nod to that conclusion.

“Frankly,” Herb said, “with Chuck gone, we’re concerned about the fate of Gatewood Graphics.”

I had toyed with asking them about the embezzlement. But considering their grief over the loss of Chuck, concern about the business, and Margaret’s acidic dislike of Lori and Marsh, combined with Mike’s revelation of kickbacks, it was pointless. There had been no embezzling, at least not in the traditional sense. Marsh did what crooks like him did best:  He threw business at his cronies. They were tossing money back at him. Gatewood Graphics was bleeding to death, much as Chuck had on Saturday. And that was what Chuck wanted to talk to me about.

“Have you told the police any of this?” I asked, certain Vider and Mavic had gotten to them.

Margaret and Herb, holding onto each other, said they had.

And then there was nothing left to do but look around and find a way to end our conversation without undue awkwardness and mawkishness.

I glanced around to where the backhoe was. The two men had boarded it. One took the driver’s seat. The other stood beside him on the machine’s running board. The driver engaged the gears and I watched for a few seconds as they lumbered over the gently hilled grounds toward the back of the cemetery, trailing compact balls of black soot. Down the narrow road came another cortege, a modest parade of late model cars led by a shiny hearse. The first thing that jumped into my mind was, How did the occupant of the hearse die? It was difficult then to image people dying of anything but unnatural causes.

When I looked back, Margaret and Herb were in their car. The engine was running. Margaret gave me a small wave and then began working at her eyes with her hanky.

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