Behind Lori Baer
We arrived at the DPD in five minutes, but it could have been a second or a year for all the attention I paid to the drive. Lori, Lorilee, the little girl abused by her father, Cal Baer, machinist preacher, and heinous villain, occupied me.
I knew as much about child abuse as anybody who read the newspapers and watched the TV news.
Amylynne Ozamondie hadn’t described what Cal Baer had done to Lori. I wished the woman had filled in the blanks for us, because what I imagined on the drive to the DPD had to be worse. I hoped it was; and yet, I knew it wasn’t; I didn’t have the mind or heart for what had come naturally to Cal Baer.
It hadn’t taken long to develop an overpowering and unquenchable hatred for Cal Baer, and to understand how Lori must have felt the same way, and to a greater degree. I saw the residue of his abuse. Like old poison, it had retained its potency, turning, corrupting, and distorting Lori’s life to the point where all of us, and Vider and Mavic, too, suspected she caused Chuck’s death.
It had forced her, I conjectured, to commit a sort of patricide, not that Cal Baer hadn’t earned her betrayal; he was lucky she hadn’t been capable of more. It seemed to account for many of her characteristics—from chaos, her penchant for neatness and order; from abuse, her artful mastery of sexual manipulation; from monstrous parenting, her yearning for men, a man, me, who might deliver fatherly warmth, understanding, and compassion; from fear, her surrender to threat.
The Incident Beth and Mae Chen and the others believed was about me and Lori wasn’t, even if I might have wanted it to be, which I could honestly tell myself I did not. It was about Lori and her search for the impossible—a man who could be both the father she’d wished for and the husband she deserved. She selected me for the role. Before me, maybe she had picked others. And after me came Chuck. Then it stopped making sense to me.
“We’re here,” said Tommy, nudging me.
The Decatur Police Department was on Franklin Street in a building airlifted from a military encampment. A Quonset roof squatted over two stories of weathered sandstone. It sprawled over two city blocks. Signs identified it as home to the Macon County Sheriff’s Office, the Macon County Jail, and the Bivens Whitten Juvenile Detention Center. I wondered who Bivens Whitten had been, and how, back in Patroon Manor folks had named my high school in honor of the owner of the town’s largest car dealership, Fords by the acre. Well, he was president of the school board, but we hated the name anyway. Francis used to get apoplexy over the idea of being part of a high school named after a used car salesman. “New,” I’d correct. “There’s a difference?” he’d retort.
The DPD shared the first floor with the Sheriff’s Department. It occupied the north end of the building.
At the front desk, Tommy asked for Ray Stella, who appeared within a minute of the call, as if he’d had nothing better to do than wait for us.
He was short and stocky and walked with a roll, like his hips didn’t work right. He was balding unattractively and tried to hide it by artfully combing the remaining strands. He wore a suit, gray like Vider’s but neat and clean, like he cared about his appearance. He rolled at us, his hand extended toward Tommy, broad smile cleaving his round face.
Tommy strode ahead of me and took Stella’s hand firmly. I hung back, since it felt like a reunion of sorts. But I was close enough so when Tommy reached around to introduce me, I was at his side.
Stella ushered us into tight, tidy quarters, and through a doorway into the pen where he and the other detectives labored. It looked like any other office, packed with gray cubicles and file cabinets. His cubicle, like the others, had low walls we could see over when seated.
Stella waited for us to sit before he dropped into his chair. He rested an arm on a short stack of files and started right in.
“When I got your call, I checked on the Baers.” Stella patted the pile of files. “This is what I came up with. How could I have forgotten these people?” He scooted the top file off the stack and handed it to Tommy. It was the slimmest of the bunch.
Tommy took it and leafed the contents. I looked over his shoulder and followed along.
“You’re welcome to read it,” Stella said. “But here it is in sum.” We read while Stella spoke. “Lorilee Baer was born here in Decatur. The parents were Cal and Carol Baer. Cal had a long and nasty history with us.”
“We heard,” Tommy said. “We were just at the Baer’s old house.”
He leaned back in his chair and stared at Tommy quizzically. “That what I’ve got to look forward to? Playing cop until I drop?”
“Just born to it,” Tommy said, snapping over a page.
“Great. And I dreamed of retiring to a cabin on a lake down South, Tennessee maybe. Do some fishing, some hunting.”
“Never knew you to fish,” Tommy said. “But you’re a first-rate hunter.”
“Two-legged varmints are my specialty.”
They laughed at this, and Stella got on with it.
“Cal Baer was not what you’d call a nice man. He was a machinist at Staley. He also boasted he was a preacher. Carried a damned certificate around in his wallet to prove it. Quoted from the Bible a lot.” He rolled his shoulders in a big, exaggerated motion. “Who knows if what he said was really in the book? Anyway, he earned a pretty good living milling parts over there at Staley.”
“You wouldn’t know it by the house,” I said.
“Times change,” Stella said. “Decatur didn’t look the way it does now either thirty years ago.” Quiet settled over him and Tommy and I let the phones ringing in the other cubicles serenade us.
“He wasn’t much of a homebody,” Stella resumed. “Had too many other interests. And they had nothing to do with his preaching. Mostly he drank and raised hell around Macon County. He had it in for blacks, Jews, Hispanics. Basically, if you weren’t white, you were on his shit list. Cal Baer could out-Klan a Grand Wizard. We had him and his pals in here plenty of times for breaking heads.”
“One of them happen to be named Hoary Ozamondie?” Tommy asked.
“Best buddies,” he said, demonstrating their closeness by holding up two intertwined fingers, “though Hoary was pretty much a saint compared to Cal Baer.”
Tommy handed the folder back to Stella. Stella placed it next to the stack.
“Mrs. Ozamondie told us he was abusing his daughter,” Tommy said.
“You read the girl’s statement,” he said, tapping the file we’d returned to him to let us know it was contained therein. Tommy had read it. I’d skimmed it. I couldn’t bear the details.
“Took a lot of courage for the girl to turn her own father in. He was your all around son of a bitch, the reason why son of a bitch was invented, if you ask me. Raped his daughter regularly. Beat his wife like he was following a train schedule. ‘Tuesday night, honey. Time for me to beat the shit out of you.'”
The pen got quiet again. Stella gave his desk a thorough examination and finished it off by chipping at the files with a thick index finger. I nearly broke, when Stella locked eyes with Tommy, and said, “It’s a shitty business with shitty people. Why you still doing this, Tommy?”
“It’s like a bad habit, Ray. Too hard to break. Or maybe I’m just too lazy to give it a good try.”
“Maybe,” Stella said, swiping at the files. “I don’t mind the bad guys who kill each other. They should kill each other, do the community a real service. This domestic stuff, the kid stuff, I could do without it.”
Stella paused again. He gave the files another good going over with his eyes, like maybe he expected them to bite him if he didn’t keep them under intense surveillance. I glanced over at Tommy. His eyelids drooped and the lines in his face appeared deeper, painful, too, if that could be. He was avoiding Stella’s gaze, as Stella was avoiding his.
When the reverential pause had passed, Tommy concurred, “It can be a crappy business.”
“You said it,” Stella agreed, picking up the Baer history. “The girl was eleven, I guess eleven or there abouts, when she gave up the old man.” He tapped the file. “It’s all in there. A long, ugly story. He started on her when she was around four. By-passed the touchie stuff and got right into the hardcore action.” He skirted the details and I was silently thankful. I’d learned more than I’d wanted reading over Tommy’s shoulder.
“What about the mother, Carol?” I asked. “Why didn’t she do anything to stop him?”
“The girl said she did. But it didn’t ring true to me. How about you, Tommy?” Tommy shook his head. “Sounds like the girl was covering for her mother. Protecting her, as if she was afraid the DCFS people would have hauled her out of the house. Like that would have been bad, worse than what she was going through.”
“Did they?” Tommy asked.
“Take her from her mother? No. They bought what the girl said. Lori and her mother set up housekeeping together. Not in the house you two were at. Ozamondie bought that. It was a steal, like Cal Baer was doing his pal a favor, giving him the place for practically nothing.” His fingers stepped out a little jig on his pant leg. “Of course, Cal Baer was ornery enough to do it to spite the women. Teach them some sort of sick lesson. You know, ‘Don’t mess with God’s right hand, or it will smote you.’ Like that.”
“Why’d Carol agree to sell the place? She was half owner, wasn’t she?”
“Don’t know,” Stella said. “But the wife, she wasn’t a woman who protested very much. Considering what she’d kept quiet about, his selling the house from under her was a small thing.”
He stared, judging our level of satisfaction. He shrugged when it wasn’t at full. “The girl and mother ended up in a basement apartment, a one bedroom hole a couple of blocks north near Milliken.” He added, “That’s the local college,” in case we didn’t know.
“Cal Baer could be a good boy, but apparently only in prison. His got four years. He was released in two.” He pirouetted the dancing finger. “Revolving door.”
Tommy nodded. He knew everything there was to know about the revolving-door justice system. He’d been spinning in it for years. Still was as a rent-a-cop.
“He found them, of course,” Stella said. “Quite a homecoming he had for himself. He’d been saving up for nearly three years, if you count in the time he spent upstairs.”
“Did he hurt Lori?” I asked.
“She wasn’t around. She was living in Hillcrest with her new husband.” Stella picked up the bottom file from the reduced stack and flipped it open. “Floyd Shaw,” he said. “Another piece of work.” He poked at the bottom file, but handed Tommy the file resting on it. It was as thick as a clenched fist. Tommy began scanning it and I went right along behind him. The file was an unholy litany of Cal Baer’s sins.
“The wife took the brunt of it,” Stella said. “We—the department, not me personally—got called to the house. Neighbors called in the disturbance. Carol Baer didn’t press charges. The rest, it was like a fairy tale for white trash. They lived agonizingly ever after. He kept up the drinking, the carousing, the beatings. Put her in the hospital for a day once. It’s there, fractured a couple of ribs, broke her nose. She said it was her own fault. Not watching where she was going. Not much we can do if they don’t press charges.” He was shaking his head, tossing off the impression it wasn’t only Cal and Carol Baer who frustrated him.
He continued, “Things went on like that for around six months. Then Cal Baer had a close encounter of the fatal kind with a tree.”
Tommy smiled. “Justice prevails.”
“Might be a God,” Stella said with satisfaction.
I asked, “How’d it happen?”
“Cal Baer and Hoary Ozamondie were drinking, raising the usual hell. They got themselves falling down drunk. Hassled people at three different bars, their usual style. Finally ended up out on the street on their asses at the last place compliments of a couple of black guys who didn’t take kindly to the pair calling them niggers. So what did our bright boys do?” He chuckled at the memory. “Here’s where sweet justice takes over. They stumbled into Cal’s pickup and rip assed out of town. They were on 121. We know because the Sheriff’s office got a call about a pickup weaving all over the place, cutting people off. Sheriff’s office dispatched a car. That’s how they were found so fast.
“They’d jumped off onto Wyckles Road, then onto another road, a smaller one. Forget the name. It’s in the file there if you need to know it. They didn’t get more than a half-mile down before they met up with the tree. Ozamondie got himself fired out the windshield like a cannon ball. He ricocheted off a tree and landed next to the truck. He was a mess, crushed skull, but at least Mrs. Ozamondie could identify him. Cal Baer was pinned behind the wheel in the truck.
“Maybe he was dead, maybe not, the Coroner couldn’t say exactly, when the truck blew. Burned him black as the toast my wife serves up in the mornings.”
As Stella expounded, Tommy shuffled color photographs of the accident scene. Stella hadn’t been kidding about the condition of the truck. It was a burnt out shell. It reminded me of the metal corpses I’d seen in old war newsreels. The heat had oxidized the paint, exposing and scorching the bare metal.
A body was barely discernable in what had been the front seat. It looked as if the steering column was buried in his chest, which probably meant Cal Baer was unconscious or dead when the flames consumed his body. He was no more than a lump of charred meat, a very bad grill job. His arms had pulled up, as if he were about to throw a punch. I knew from Tommy’s description of murders and arsons this was called the pugilist’s pose. It was involuntary; the heat contracted the muscles in the arms and legs of victims. Though I had to wonder in Cal Baer’s case if he hadn’t raised his fists in defiance of God Himself before he was smote.
Tommy glanced at me, as if to ask, “Are you done?” I sat back in my chair. He dropped the case file on Stella’s desk.
“And that’s it?” he said. As if it wasn’t enough, more than we’d bargained for. I kept it to myself.
“As far as Cal is concerned, yes. But there’s more on the girl.” He proffered the last file. I couldn’t help staring at him, anxious for Tommy to open it, fearful of what I would hear.
He began flipping pages, as Stella said, “Remember Floyd Shaw, her husband. He was a good old boy. Liked his pickup. Liked using his fists. Liked his buddies. Liked everything well enough, except his wife.”
“Another Cal Baer?” I said, holding the groan I felt in the back of my throat.
“Not quite as bad. Close enough though. It wasn’t long before he was in the Hillcrest files, ours too, for smacking her around. Did it once where she worked and got himself a week upstairs.”
“She press charges?” I asked, expecting she had, after her experience with her father.
“No. Just waved a butcher knife his way a couple of times. Might have given him a cut or two. Who knows? Shaw squawked to the Hillcrest P.D., but nothing ever came of it.”
Tommy had jumped ahead in the file. Stella had distracted my attention with his talk of butcher knives and cutting, too similar to the means of Chuck’s death for coincidence and comfort. I only knew Tommy was staring at something that had his eyebrows arching like mountain peaks. Before I could see what he was seeing or ask about it, he said, “That was a month before the fire.”
“Got the attention of the Hillcrest P.D.,” Stella said. “Shaw must have told them she was from here. We told them about her and Cal Baer.”
I trampled their conversation with my frustrated exclamation. “What fire?”
Stella explained, “It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for a typical good old boy like Shaw. Truck crash, house fire, hunting accident, getting out of this world early just seems to come naturally to them. A lot has to do with the alcohol. It did with Shaw, that’s for sure. One night he guzzled a few too many beers in that trailer. It was a damn cold night. Freezing. He had their little kerosene heater cranked up, nice and cozy in the bedroom. She was working at the diner when he did it.
“The short of it is, he passed out on the bed. He was smoking at the time and his cigarette hand came down on the heater. Toppled it. Probably one of these moves,” he said, illustrating by flopping his arm forward and nearly launching his desk lamp into Tommy’s lap. “Except his went sideways and knocked over a pretty full heater. His cigarette ignited it, though the lamp could have set itself off. The Hillcrest Fire Department said it was hard to tell”
“Not much left of Mr. Shaw,” Tommy said flatly.
“Enough. The trailer was a torch when the fire department arrived. Fire turned the metal trailer into an oven. It cooked Shaw to a nice turn. You could still tell he was a man, a well-done man.”
Stella sat back, leaving Tommy and me to scan the fire department’s report. The date of the fire was what had Tommy building mountain ranges with his eyebrows. It was a month after the butcher knife incident. I couldn’t hide my shock and discouragement, though I tried mightily to affect Tommy and Stella’s practiced indifference.
“You like this woman,” Stella said.
I stared at him, torn and tormented by my feelings for her, liking and admiring her more now knowing what she’d overcome, loathing her for accepting it for as long as she had, not relenting in recognition she was a girl, and hating her for the suspicion she had been very capable of helping hasten Chuck to his demise, perhaps even as she had her first husband.
“She was at work when the fire broke out,” Stella said. “Her punch card substantiated she was at her job. According to it, she didn’t leave until she received a call from the Hillcrest P.D.”
“She might have hired somebody to do it for her,” Tommy said.
Stella laughed. “This is why I liked you the minute we met. I said to myself, ‘Here’s a guy with as screwed up a view on people as me.’ The job does it to you, and I can see it doesn’t go away with retirement. Turn the page,” he said, pointing at the report. “We interviewed the day and night crews at the restaurant, figuring if she was in the market for a hit man, she’d more than likely feel out people at work she trusted. We figured it was our best bet seeing how she had no family, except her mother. Nothing. Nothing later either, and you know how stuff like that leaks out.”
Tommy returned the file to Stella. “Anything else?”
Stella twisted his lips in a weird grin, hard and unfunny, the kind of idiotic countenance that creeps up when a person sees an accident or hears about a death and forgets for a second how to respond and reacts from pure dumbness. It happened to sensitive people, and despite his emotional calcification, Stella was compassionate, as Tommy had taught me the really good cops were.
The look vanished in an instant, as he gave us the third file. It was labeled Carol Baer.
It was thin, but I soon discovered, horror also came in small packages.
As we read, Stella narrated. “About six months after Shaw burned up, Carol Baer died. It’s in there as suicide.”
“I see,” Tommy said, skimming the summary of the autopsy. “She hung herself in her apartment from a closet door knob.”
“How do you hang yourself on a door knob?” I asked, surprised, expecting an overturned chair, a rope from a light fixture, the shocking sight of a limp body hanging stark still, like it was caught in the doldrums of eternity.
Tommy explained, “People don’t usually hang themselves from the rafters, Gabe. They can’t get at them. They use bedposts, doorknobs, and prison bars. They tie one end of the rope, or whatever they’re using, to a knob, for instance. They loop the other end around their necks. Then they lean forward. They’re out cold in a minute or so. Gravity does the rest.” He paused and considered what he’d said. “Really, it’s not a bad way to do it, if you have to do it. It’s painless after you’re unconscious. Neat, too.”
“You certain it was suicide?” I asked.
“Hundred percent,” Stella answered.
“The ligature marks give it away,” Tommy said.
“Tommy’s right,” Stella affirmed.
I didn’t require any more knowledge, but Stella thought differently. He produced a yellow legal pad, placed it on his knees, pulled a pen from the pocket protector in his shirt, concealed the entire time by his suit coat, and drew lines he said represented necks. An artist he wasn’t, but I got the picture. Around one neck, he drew a circle. Around the other, he drew a “U.” Pointing to each in turn, he said, “The circle indicates somebody strangled the deceased. The ‘U’—see how it comes up under the jaw and leaves a mark clear up the ear—that shows a hanging.”
“What,” I asked, thinking Cal Baer capable of anything, including rising from the dead to inflict a parting barbarity on his wife, “would prevent a murderer from putting the person in the correct position and forcing the head forward?”
Tommy wriggled his nose.
Stella caught it and came to my defense. “It’s a fair question. People don’t just let other folks haul them off and hang them. At least not under normal circumstances. You’d expect they’d put up a fight. We’ve got this instinct to survive, even the most passive among us, which Carol Baer no doubt was. If somebody had tried to hang her, we’d have found bruises or other marks. The Coroner’s office did a toxicology study on her, too. Drugs hadn’t incapacitated her. So we’re sure she was conscious and alert when the rope went around her neck.”
“I see you interviewed Lori,” Tommy said, studying a page in the file.
“Like with Floyd Shaw?” I said.
He shrugged. “Other people’s misfortunes seem to follow the woman.”
“You have any more Baer files stashed in your desk?” Tommy asked.
“Three aren’t enough for you?”
Tommy smiled. I wasn’t in the mood.
“You said her Chicago husband was stabbed, right?” Stella asked. “You suspect she had a hand in it?”
Tommy said, “Gabe hopes not. But the facts are she had easy access to an otherwise inaccessible apartment. She was connected to the financial guy at her husband’s company. How, we don’t know. Could be he was blackmailing her about something in her past, something like the death of her first husband. We do know she coaxed her husband into hiring this fellow. His name is Jerden Marsh. He has mob connections. A few months before his murder, the victim had his lawyer re-jigger the will. Mrs. Gatewood wasn’t the winner. You might say he was losing his faith in her.”
“You’re surmising she thought she had to take action before he shut her out of the money completely?”
“Maybe. Or Marsh arranged it to protect his cash flow. That’s what they call it, right, Gabe? Cash flow? Even with Mr. Gatewood dead, he could bleed money from Mrs. Gatewood. Wouldn’t doubt he has her shaking in her pantyhose right now over her husband’s murder.”
“And don’t forget, this fellow Marsh had the wherewithal,” Stella said, absorbed in this freestyle cathartic exchange for cops.
“But Chuck’s multiple wounds don’t sound like a mob hit,” I interrupted, attempting to force the two of them back to what I thought was reality.
“True,” Tommy said.
“It’s a mystery,” Stella chimed, like an intentionally bad thespian.
“Well, what about the embezzling?” I asked.
“Embezzling?” repeated Stella.
“Mr. Gatewood approached Gabe at Gabe’s birthday party. He pulled him aside and said somebody was stealing from the business. He asked Gabe to help him out. Gabe appeared the next day at Mr. Gatewood’s apartment to help him solve the embezzlement crime. Instead, he discovered Mr. Gatewood’s body.”
“Sorry to hear about it,” Stella said. “Couldn’t have been an enjoyable experience.”
“I think now he wanted to tell me about Marsh. He wanted me to help figure a way to get Marsh out of the company, and out of his wife’s life,” I said.
“You’re thinking Marsh was on to him and had him done away with?” Stella asked.
I spoke up. “It makes sense to me. Without Lori knowing about it.”
“It’s a possibility,” confirmed Tommy. I knew he wasn’t convinced of the last part.
The office had filled during the time we’d been with Stella. A soft hum of ringing phones, clattering keyboards, and low, gray voices floated over Stella’s cube walls. A minute passed while the three of us listened.
“Where to next?” Stella asked.
“Hillcrest,” Tommy answered.
“Not much of a police department there. Chief’s name—there are only four cops including him—the Chief’s name is Wilco. Known as ‘Will Call,’ as in ‘Will call you one of these days.’ But don’t worry. Somebody there will help you. Feel free to use my name and show whoever you run into this.” He handed us a business card, which he had eased from a dispenser next to his phone.
He offered to show us out, but his phone rang. We whispered our thanks as he picked up and showed ourselves out.
Tommy gave the Suburban a thorough going over. From experience, he knew no place was as detrimental to the good health of your wheels as a police station—expect perhaps a Catholic parking lot at the conclusion of a Sunday mass.