Behind Lori Baer
Once out of Chicago, the drive was easy and fast, and the weather even improved, warmed up, as we closed in on Decatur.
We jumped off Interstate 55 and entered Decatur on 51, passing a crop of fast food joints and big box stores. Fifty-one became Main Street in Decatur proper. We swung right on Eldorado Street, I guessed so named because it must have seemed the street of gold in the city’s heyday. We followed it straight out to our overnight lodging, the Holiday Inn.
We didn’t have a reservation, but there was plenty of room at the inn. I tried to secure us two rooms, but Tommy, frugal by nature and the necessity of raising a big family on a cop’s pay, insisted on a prudent single room with double beds.
The room had a good view of the parking lot and a mowed field beyond and was decorated from the standard hotel catalog.
I hadn’t bounced on my bed one time before Tommy was suggesting we grab a bite. I protested we were loaded up on corn muffins and Diet Coke and I was feeling portly. Plus, it was ten and we wanted to be up and out by seven, which meant I had to be up before five to get in my run. And I was beat from the drive. It was hard work making sure Tommy steered a steady course, which is to say I’m not the best passenger on a long drive. He called me a grouser and prevailed, telling me I could watch him, if it pleased me.
The main restaurant was closed, but the bar was open and doing a brisk business. It was a big open space, vast as the prairie, crammed with five televisions spilling forth a smorgasbord of athletics, including quasi-sports like the Miss Fitness contest on ESPN’s B channel, which I found my eye wandering to a couple of times during the evening.
A gaggle of businessmen and a sprinkling of businesswomen congregated at the bar. They were a boisterous bunch that gesticulated inordinately and with extraordinary enthusiasm. The females in the group were especially animated, as if they had to prove they could flail arms and chatter with the best of them.
Tommy and I ordered burgers and beers and watched the bar action. The drive had numbed us into an insentient silence from which we were just recovering. When our meals arrived, we revived. The burgers were thick and juicy, the potatoes hefty steak fries, and I was contented and ready to acknowledge Tommy had been right about eating.
Tommy demolished half his burger by the time I’d sampled a steak fry and I inquired about the Kmart chase that earlier had brought him to the phone breathless.
“Shoplifting,” he pronounced cryptically.
“You where chasing shoplifters?” I managed around a fry.
“I love it and I hate it.” Very clear, I thought, sailing the fry down my throat with a long pull on my Sam Adams. Genny Cream wasn’t on the menu, but I liked Sam Adams well enough.
“It keeps me busy so I love it. But I hate seeing people rip off other people.”
Tommy waxing philosophical was the last thing I was in the mood for. I prodded him back to a description of the crime. “Today’s shoplifting.”
He skewered me with the Tomassetti squint, but the drive had taken the fight out of him. He kept the philosophy to a minimum.
“Entire families have light fingers these days. Did you know that, Gabe?”
Sure I knew it; I read Gary Cabot’s police reports. I simply arched my eyebrows enigmatically to mean yes or no, what door is the tiger behind?
Tommy ignored me. “Mama, papa, and baby.” He paused to bulldoze a fry through a puddle of ketchup. The things were big enough, we could have shipped them cross-town to Caterpillar for mounting on a huge yellow terra former. He chomped and talked. “It was a nice operation, speaking purely professionally. You might never have guessed from the way they dressed they planned to walk out with the store. Dad wore nice casual clothes. Not your Dockers stuff, but good quality gabardine pants and a loose dressy shirt. Looked like silk. Mama was in a good dress. The way they dressed got my attention almost immediately. You don’t see many people shopping at Kmart in nice clothes. Nothing against your Kmart shopper. They pay the bills, after all. These definitely were not Kmart material.”
Which begged the question that I wasn’t about to ask, but couldn’t erase from my mind. How could professionals commit such a grievous error?
“The kid was cute,” Tommy intoned, when he saw me drifting and caught my eyes straying to the television broadcasting the swimwear portion of the Miss Fitness contest. Bad habits, they die hard. Or maybe that’s hardly at all.
“The kid was two seconds short of being a toddler,” he persisted earnestly, until I was fully focused on him. “The parents had the kid in a stroller. It was an expensive job, the kind with the double wheels front and back.
“Now, you know I was already suspecting them because of the way they were dressed. But what capped it for me was the time they spent at the electronics counter. She was looking at cameras and cell phones and clocks. You’d think, typical woman, couldn’t make up her mind.”
I stared at him blankly. I would think no such thing. I knew better, and I thought he did too, being the father of my instructress.
“He was circling the display area with the stroller. He had that I’m-really-bored-honey-get-what-you-want-and-let’s-get-going look on him. You know what I mean?” He managed the compound-compound adjective while masticating a gargantuan hunk of his burger.
“You’d expect the husband to be with his wife … to protect his wallet, if nothing else.” He slurped his beer and peered over the rim of the mug. His eyes twinkled. I smiled at his joke. “Anyway, it was odd.”
“If being odd was criminal, we’d have to lock The Priest up, eh?” There was a real joke, and it earned me a glare, not a laugh. Though it was good-natured. Glare aside, Tommy didn’t take himself too seriously.
Working on the last of his burger, he continued, “The husband’s behavior got my antennae up, but it wasn’t the giveaway. How good a detective are you, Gabe? Can you guess?”
I shook my head. It was probably an obvious tic in keeping with the Tomassetti straight-line principle. I said, “Never claimed to be a detective.”
“They had a Kmart shopping bag with them.”
I stared uncomprehendingly at him. He pushed his plate to the side and emptied his beer mug.
“It’s a store. What would you expect?” I said, wary of the cat and mouse game he was playing with me.
He tapped his head. “Think about it for half a second, Gabe.”
“Tommy, I’m too tired to think.”
“Kmart’s like your supermarket. You pass through one checkout on the way out.”
When I didn’t light up like the Wrigley building, he said, “Lucky you chose advertising. You have to ask yourself: Why would they be carrying a Kmart bag into Kmart?”
It was obvious to me. “They were returning something.”
He frowned in abject and overwrought disappointment. “You are kidding me. You’ve never returned anything to a Kmart? In a place like that, the customer service desk is upfront. It’s upfront for more than convenience.”
“Come on, Tommy, some people must carry whatever they’re returning into the store. Maybe they were just looking for a replacement.”
“Good point, Gabe. You are paying attention.”
“Always to you, Tommy,” I said in humorous placation.
“But this bag was unusual. It looked used.”
“It was used,” I countered.
“No, I mean beat up.”
Out of beer, out of food, and out of patience, I said, “Oh great sleuth, reveal the secret.”
“There’s no secret, Gabe. It’s just a matter of keen observation and plain old commonsense, which the world’s short of these days.” I tipped a finger to him as if I were snapping the brim of a cap.
“They’d lined the bag with duck tape.”
Dumbfounded, I asked why.
“The detectors can’t read the tag signals through the tape.”
“I guess it’s why they call the stuff Wisconsin chrome,” I chirped.
“What a sad pair. They had the kid holding the bag. I went over and gave the kid my granddaddy grin.” He demonstrated for me, though I’d seen that goofily twisted face enough for a lifetime when Frankie and Mae Rose where kids. He’d cracked them up with it, but left me with nightmares starring Freddy Krueger. “That’s when I saw the silver tape. I stepped away, out of earshot, and radioed store security. But they were wise to me and bolted.
“The husband was like a track star. He was moving so fast I was afraid the automatic doors won’t open fast enough. He was pushing the stroller in front of him and I thought he was going to shove the kid right through the glass. But he put on the brakes and they opened okay. What a good dad, huh?
“I snatched a little piece of his shirt then. Gave it a tug thinking I might stop him. Ripped the shirt off him, and there he was charging through the parking lot naked from the waist up, chasing behind his woman, and pushing a kid in front of him.
“I caught them at their car, along with store security. Those strollers aren’t easy to get in a car,” he observed matter-of-factly.
“What’d they steal?”
“Film. Three hundred dollars worth of film, and some candy for the kid. Considerate parents, wouldn’t you say? DCFS’s got the kid,” he said, eyeing the waitress who had appeared with our check. He pointed at me.
I signed it, and we scrapped back our chairs to head to our room. On the way out, I looked around the bar and saw the businesswomen had departed, and most of the men too, except for two stalwarts who nursed drinks and stared blearily at the last two lit TV screens, these looming over the bar. Miss Fitness was nowhere in sight.
Light doused, a pale yellow line where the blackout curtains wouldn’t close tightly, Tommy in his double bed snoring lightly and steadily like a quiet but incessant and irritating electric generator, I tittered on the cusp of sleep and thought about the Kmart kid—was it a boy or girl? Tommy never said and I didn’t think to ask—how the parents, a title they didn’t deserve, were worst than thieves. They were child abusers.
I’d requested a wake up call before dropping off, and the phone rang with Midwest efficiency at five a.m. Tommy, out of character for him, grunted, groaned, shifted, and returned to rhythmic sleep. Maybe travel didn’t agree with him. I got up and donned my running gear.
It was a crisp, clear morning, gray in the half-hour before dawn. I ran an abbreviated circuit heading west of the Holiday Inn down a street signed North Fairway Avenue to another marked Main Street and through a place called Wycles Corner. I ran the circle twice, the entire time comparing this Decatur with the one I’d known, though most superficially.
I’d spend time in Decatur years ago, when I came to pitch the Staley advertising account. And I was thankful with every pounding step for the difference. Back then the stench of Staley processing soybeans nearly felled me. It was vile. I remembered forcing myself to draw each breath.
Natives called Decatur “The Pride of the Prairie.” And maybe it was once. Abe Lincoln and his parents had called it home. George Halas had started a football team there. He named it the Staleys. He renamed it the Bears after he fled the town for Chicago. It had been a pint-size town of brawn, a lot like Francis McCann had been a compact dynamo. It was all shadowy past now.
Tommy had his face in a super-size styrofoam cup washing down his second donut with coffee when I returned to the room. He had an equally huge cup for me and I joined him in breakfast.
“First stop,” he said, “is 1025 Wood.” Lori’s home, according to her Trumpet application. “Next is the Decatur P.D. Then on to Champaign.”
“Police department?” I said surprised.
“Didn’t I mention I phoned Ray Stella yesterday?”
“Who’s Ray Stella?”
“Lieutenant Stella. An old warhorse, like me. He’s been on the force for thirty years. Can’t seem to retire. I figured since we were going to be down here, we might as well check in, see if there was anything on Mrs. Gatewood.”
“Was there?” I asked tentatively.
“Her name popped up in the files. I said we’d stop by in the morning.”
“She has a criminal record?” I trebled.
He shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. She could be in the files for anything.”
Showering and dressing, I wondered if the family had been right about Lori from the very beginning.
We loaded our bags in the Suburban and took Eldorado into the heart of the city. We found Wood in the center of town. It was one of the city’s four original streets, I recalled from Staley project days. Water, Prairie, and Church were the others. No doubt Wood had changed considerably since the founding of the place in 1829, but by appearance not much for the good. The houses were a mix of large three- and four-flat wood frames and single-families about as voluminous a garage in High Hills. Every building was in some state of disrepair. Gentrification had yet to discover Decatur.
East 1025 wood was practically in the shadow of the Staley plant. I mumbled a grateful prayer it wasn’t soybean day.
Rust buckets packed the street. Wood was a junkyard of wheels. I glanced at Tommy. He appeared nervous, like a hypochondriac visiting a cancer ward: His expression reflected his fear that metallic dilapidation just might be contagious. He passed up a spot directly in front of 1025. The Suburban would have been directly in front of—mere inches from—a pickup shot through with rust, littered with leaves, and entirely missing its rear fenders. He chose a place a good half-block walk away. The Suburban was a pristine island in a sea of junk.
I was out of the Suburban the minute he put it in park. He took his time. Before he got out, he reached around and removed his holstered thirty-eight from the box and hooked it on his belt.
“You think we need them?” I had stuck my head in the passenger window and was thumbing at the box.
“I doubt it,” he said, carefully concealing the pistol under the jacket he wore. I thought about putting on the Wesson.
“Don’t think you really need yours, Gabe,” he said. “With me, old habits die hard.” Maybe I was being oversensitive, but I didn’t care much for the reference to dying. However, the Wesson remained in the box.
It was a little past eight. The neighborhood was deserted.
We strolled down to 1025. It was a wreck, shedding its brooding brown paint onto a patch of ground that looked like a prairie preservation project. The walkway leading to the front door was a mess of cracks and heaved concrete. We picked our way along it to the front door.
The door was wood, warped and cracked, caked with Staley grime. Another, an old-style wood storm door, its frame broken, its screens and glass missing, laid forgotten in a bed of thriving weeds.
Tommy wrinkled his nose. He pointed at the door. “Be my guest.”
I grimaced and knocked. I got blackened knuckles for the effort, but no response.
Tommy tilted his head at door.
I knocked again. Dirtier knuckles, but no answer.
Windows flanked the door. Tommy leaned over and peered in. He shook his head. “Your advertising friends haven’t done such a good job of getting the word out about Windex,” he cracked.
“Maybe nobody’s home,” I said, trying the other window. A limp and yellowed curtain prevented me from seeing in.
“Do it again,” he said.
I rapped harder. We heard shuffling on the other side and smelled cigarette smoke.
“Breakfast of champions,” Tommy sneered.
“Is Mister or Missus Baer home,” I called. “We’re friends of your daughter. If you don’t mind, we’d like to talk to you about her.”
We got a deep cough in response. Then a woman’s frail voice said, “No Baers here. Ain’t been for years. That’s what I told the cops and that’s what I’m telling you. Go away.”
“Vider?” I said.
Tommy tilted his head. “Probably the D.P.D. made a courtesy call.” He bent toward the doorjamb and barked, “Did you know the Baers?”
We heard ragged coughing.
“Look, lady,” Tommy said, “we can’t talk through this door all day.”
“Don’t want to talk,” the woman rattled.
“Open the door.” He was growling.
I brushed him away from the door. “Allow me.”
He squinted skeptically.
“We can do each other a favor, if you let us in,” I said.
The house shed a few more feet of paint while we waited.
“What can you do for me?”
“Open the door. I’ll show you,” I answered, as I pulled folded bills from my front pocket and removed a ten.
Tommy frowned. I added a ten. His frown deepened. At first I thought I was offending his frugal nature. But I realized with stinging compunction I had insulted his ramrod propriety regarding anything that smacked, however remotely, of bribery.
“We aren’t cops,” I said, testy under the weight of his judgment.
The knob turned slowly and the door creaked open. Bony, yellowed fingers holding a cigarette appeared. The left side of her head followed. Deep lines cut her face. Her hair was gray and dirty. She had a nasal tube hanging from her nose. A hiss floated up and out at us from behind her. She eyed the bills in my hand.
She pulled the door back and stood in full view. She was short and bent forward at the waist. The nasal tube connected to an oxygen tank about the size of a skin diver’s. It rested in a metal cart and was institutional green and liberally chipped, as if it had been heaved of a cliff a dozen times before she’d gotten her hands on it.
I introduced us. In return, she gave us a perfunctory glance. She studied the bills in my hand, inhaling her cigarette until its red head burned her fingers. She didn’t flinch, like scorched fingers were a common occurrence. She flicked the butt past us. It arched into the weed bed and I wondered if the house would be coming down around us in flames. The prospect didn’t seem to enter her mind. She produced a pack of Lucky Strikes, the non-filtered originals, from the smock she wore. It buttoned up the front, had two billowy front pockets, and was faded and pocked with burn holes.
She liberated a fresh replacement from the pack. She lit it with a Bic loud enough to hear across the street. I glanced at the tank and had a vision of the three of rocketing into orbit over Decatur.
She blew a plume of blue-gray smoke at us.
“Gimme,” she demanded. The Luckies had grated her voice to the consistency of sandpaper. And they’d robbed her of breath, so she sucked for air like a fish after speaking. Watching her made me nervous.
“First, the favor,” I said, feeling a little constriction in my chest, Mrs. …”
She clutched her smock and shivered. Her eyes stayed glued on the bills.
“Mrs. Ozamondie. Come in, if you’re coming.” The words where foggy and obscured by a bubbly effusion percolating from her lungs. “I don’t want the pneumonia again.”
Like tepid boys, we tagged behind her through the door. Her slippers, terry flats, slapped annoyingly on the floor, fractured linoleum barely visible in the darkened house.
The house reeked of dust, mold, and cigarettes. The faint scent of urine underlay the other smells.
She led us into a small sitting room. She wheeled her oxygen bottle next to a threadbare club chair. It was positioned directly in front of an old console color television. Mute images danced on its screen. The people looked tormented. But they were dressed well and lived in a beautiful place. I watched while she settled herself.
From door to chair, she had managed to finish her cigarette. She crushed it in a tin ashtray, the kind people used to buy by the gross for patio parties when people still smoked. Instantly, she had the pack of Luckies out of her smock. She shook one free and lit it with a shaky hand.
She sucked deeply and triggered a cascading coughing fit. Her face glowed bright red under a film of perspiration. Spittle appeared on her lips. She wiped it with a handkerchief soiled with rust-red spots of dried blood. I expected her to expire in front of us.
She thrust her cigarette hand at me, palm up. I dropped the money in it, grateful I didn’t have to touch her, guilty over my repugnance.
She studied the cash though four drags on her cigarette, smiled, coughed, and finally jammed the bills into the same pocket from which she had produced the hanky.
“What do you want to know?”
“Did you know a family named Baer?” I asked.
“You knew Cal Baer?” she said. It was an accusation, as if knowing him was a crime.
“We’re friends of Lori Baer,” I said.
She sat quietly smoking and fingering the money in her pocket. The cash acted like a battery and got her talking. “Yeah, sure, me and Hoary, we knew them.”
“Who’s Hoary?” Tommy asked.
“He was my husband. Horace. Hated the name. Made him the damned orneriest man you’d ever want to meet. He’s been dead for six years. Cal Baer, he killed him.” She sucked the roundness out of the Lucky. “If he wasn’t, you think I’d be living in a dump like this?”
Tommy wore his cop face, stone. It was me who raised an eyebrow.
“What, you don’t think I know this here’s a dump. I ain’t got nobody to keep it up for me. I sure as hell can’t hooked up to this damn contraption.” She glared at the oxygen tank and kicked it weakly.
“Mr. Baer killed your husband, Mrs. Ozamondie? You mean he murdered your husband?”
“Good as,” she said. “Got him drunk, not that Hoary couldn’t do a good job of it himself. Two sons of bitches wrapped themselves around a tree. Cal Baer sure as hell killed him.”
“The Baers,” Tommy said, “they lived in this house?”
“Yeah, until he got himself shipped off to prison. Didn’t want to know him after that.”
“How’d you end up in the Baer house?” I asked.
She gave me a scornful stare, as if I’d spit on her floor.
“This ain’t the Baer house.” She pounded the butt of her Lucky into ashtray for emphasis.
“When did you buy the house?” Tommy asked.
“After Cal Baer went to prison,” she said snapped.
She got out another cigarette and lit it. It calmed her.
After some coughing, she said, “Hoary bought it cheap. It’s the only reason I said yes, for the cheapness of it, and because I figured Cal Baer owed it to us.”
She drew on the cigarette deeply and a cough rumbled through and out of her chest. She controlled her eruption with another drag, dainty this time, intended for curative purposes. It worked.
“It was a nice place when Hoary was around. We made it a nice and decent place. A home. Not just a hiding place for that man’s dirty work.”
“Dirty work?” Tommy asked.
The question launched her on a tangent. “Cutest little girl you’d ever want to see,” she said fondly. “Smart, too, and polite. Always called me Mrs. Ozamondie. She broke my heart every time I saw her. You know, because of what was happening. And because I wanted a baby. Never could. Not that Hoary and I didn’t try mightily. At least in the beginning.”
“What happened to Lori?” I asked.
“Carol was the mother,” she continued, as if she hadn’t heard me. “She seemed nice enough, but a mess. You know, she always looked like a rag picker. Kind of beaten up too. He probably smacked her around. Wouldn’t put it past him. I’d see her sometimes, but not much. Cal kept her locked up in the house.”
“He was abusing his wife?”
“You a detective?” She regarded me as if I was a dolt. “Hauled his ass off to prison, but that’s not why.”
“Why?” Tommy asked.
“‘Cause of the girl.”
“What about her?” Tommy asked.
“Him claiming to be a preacher too. What kind of a preacher does what he did to a little girl? And his daughter no less. Served him right, going off to prison. If he’d a been my husband, I would have killed the bastard right on the spot. Stabbed him right though his black heart.” She illustrated her resolve by thrusting with her cigarette hand and twisting. Her face was bright red, indicating just how heated she’d gotten recollecting Cal Baer. She sedated herself with a long, deep drag on her Lucky, which produced a long ash, which engendered a hacking fit, which launched the long ash off the Lucky and at me, where it landed on my shoe. My feet were already performing an agitated dance over her revelation. The ash splattered in a miniature atomic burst.
I needed to quiz her about Lori and Cal Baer; but I had to bide my time as she wasn’t finished inveighing Cal Baer.
“Hypocrite, if you ask me. Not that I’m big on church. I talk direct to Him.” With her cigarette, she indicated His location as somewhere in the far corner of the ceiling. I couldn’t restrain the thought about where He was when Cal was attacking Lori. “Preacher my ass. He worked in the factory like all the others around here.” Her invectives caused her to snort—not unlike a big-nose dog does when she gets a snout full of smoke—as she encompassed the neighborhood and the Staley plant with a couple of ash-dispersing and wan whirls of the fagged Lucky.
While she busied herself with getting another smoke going, I asked, “What did he do to her?”
She eyed me critically over the Bic’s flame.
“What do you think?” she challenged.
I exchanged a glance with Tommy who as a professional could better than guess as to all the myriad ways in which Cal Baer could have labored at destroying his daughter’s life. “We get the picture,” he said.
“So why’d you bother asking?”
“How did the police find out about him?” I asked.
“Cops, they’re good for nothing, except maybe handing out parking tickets to old ladies like me. Maybe not even good at that,” she laughed, setting off a chest-rattling earthquake. I winched. Tommy was stone, not even showing offense by her diminution of his brotherhood. “They had nothing to do with his getting caught.”
“Who did?” asked Tommy.
Another pull on her Lucky and another coughing jag, featuring long, loud crackles, like this episode was shattering her lungs. When she was capable, she answered, “The girl. She did it.”
“Lori?” I clarified.
“They called her Lorilee. Nice name. I like two names for girls, don’t you? Probably because my names two parts. Amylynne’s my name. Spelled like one name, but it’s two.”
“Pretty,” I said. “My daughter’s name is Mae Rose.”
“Mae Rose,” she repeated. “Cute. Two-name girl’s are always cute.” She smiled, more to herself than at us.
“Of course, Lorilee wasn’t too cute not to cut the old man’s balls off.”
“What about Mrs. Baer? Any idea where she is?” I asked
She shrugged. “Don’t know. Like I said. Hoary and me bought the house from her and that’s the last we knew. She and the Lorilee moved out.”
“Who would know?” Tommy asked.
She shrugged. “Try the cops. They got to be good for something.” She stubbed out the cigarette and slumped in her chair. “Meter’s on empty,” she said breathlessly.
We left her like that, head lolled back, eyelids half shut, breathing shallowly, with a rasp audible all the way out the front door.
In the Suburban, Tommy returned his gun to the box and hauled a cell phone from console box. He punched in a number and got Ray Stella. Tommy told him we’d be there in ten minutes.
As he put the Suburban in gear, he glanced my way and said, “You should feel a little better.”
“About what? About Lori being abused by her own father?”
He turned us around and headed for the center of town. “It probably explains why her name’s in the files.”
“Couldn’t be better news,” I said, crossing my arms and brooding.