Behind Lori Baer
Hillcrest was a pinpoint on the Rand McNally, barely detectable along the black line of Route 51. A small sign, white on black, peeking from behind overgrown bramble bushes, rusted on the edges, perforated liberally with bullet holes—twenty-twos, we guessed, rabbit ammo—announced we’d entered the hamlet.
It was a trailer town, but it had a real downtown, a vestige of what it had once been. Downtown was four buildings, two of them bars. Each begged for attention—a fresh coat of paint, a wrecking ball.
What we wanted wasn’t in downtown. We went a mile farther to reach the police station. It tenanted in a tarnished red brick building, a tuck pointer’s dream. The police and the fire departments shared. A patrol car was parked in front of the police station. We drifted by and I saw “Chief of Police” stenciled on the front fender. Two spaces down was a battalion car. It said “Fire Chief” on the front fender.
Tommy eased the Suburban in the space between the two. The surroundings seemed deserted, but he locked up anyway. Tommy never did not lock up.
We targeted the police station and shuffled through a glass door into a small anterior room, like a reception entry in a business, but without furniture. It was a weary space but well tended, like they had a janitor who knew what he was doing, maybe even liked his job.
Somebody had printed out a sign and taped to the inside of the receptionist’s sliding window. It invited us to enter through the door to our right. “Tight security,” Tommy tossed off, twisting the knob and leading the way in.
The office we entered was another small room, cramped by its contents—three institutional green metal desks, matching chairs, and file cabinets. There wasn’t a paper in sight. It had to have been the quietest burg in Illinois with neat-nicks for cops. It was a bizarre sight to Tommy’s eyes, who shook his head in disbelief.
There was a small office in the back, the kind built on tracks so it could be dismantled in the blink of an eye. It was wood on the bottom, glass on the top, brushed stainless coupling the panels. A fourth desk was in front of it. It was exactly like the others, except it was occupied.
She was a large woman, about the size of a side-by-side refrigerator, and only slightly less blocky. Her hair was a dull red, her skin a translucent white. Freckles spotted every inch of visible flesh.
She surprised us with a squeaky voice, high pitched like a whining girl. “Can I help you?” She lobbed the question at us with a smile. Regardless, the question was perfunctory.
“We’d like to see Chief Wilco,” Tommy said.
“I would too,” she replied. She beamed, but without a dram of humor in evidence.
“He’s not here?” I asked.
She let the smile dissolve into her fleshy face. She stared at me with curiosity, as if I was missing essential body parts, like ears or my nose.
“When do you expect him?” Tommy pressed.
Time slipped away while we waited for an explanation. Finally, Tommy caved and asked, “Why not?”
“His day off.”
“It’s Thursday,” I said. I guess I meant it wasn’t Wednesday, or maybe he wasn’t a doctor. I was flummoxed.
“All day,” she said, no more smile, “what about it?”
“Is there a way we reach him?” Tommy asked.
I asked, “Can you help us?”
“Why not? I help everybody else,” she said sourly.
“We’re inquiring about Floyd Shaw.”
“Why? He get out of his grave while we weren’t looking?”
“You know the case,” Tommy said.
“Sure. He was a drunk. Got himself burned up in a trailer out at Hillcrest Park. What have you got to do with Floyd? You don’t look like old lost buddies of his.”
The old got a tiny wince out of me.
“We’d like to contact Chief Wilco,” Tommy said,
“He’s not in today, I told you.”
Tommy swung his head from right to left and back again, as if somebody was lurking about who might overhear him, as if the place wasn’t as empty of people as Mars. He leaned in toward her.
“We got a new development in the Floyd Shaw case. We need to talk with the Chief. He can help us.”
“Ha,” she roared, blowing Tommy back a step and producing on his face a rare countenance: shock. “No way Chief Will-Call can help you or anybody else. Not in his condition.”
“What condition?” I asked. “He’s sick?”
“Sick, maybe,” she snarled. “Dead drunk for sure. Passed out in his official police chief’s chair in his goddamned office.” She thumbed behind herself vigorously. “What’s new, anyway?”
“He’s back there,” I muttered, casting an eye behind her. I could barely make out shapes through the frosted glass and none looked like the bulk of a man.
Tommy asked if an officer was available.
“Two on duty now and they’re both out patrolling, maybe. How about me? I probably know more about the Shaw case than any of them. For sure, more than Chief Will-Call. Just like Shaw, you know. Surprised he hasn’t burned down the police station.” She paused to consider. “Would, for sure, if it wasn’t for me. I put out his damn cegar after he passes out. Should forget it one of these days.” She hunched her shoulders. “But then where’d I be if this joint burned down? No where.”
“You can help us?” Tommy asked.
“Better than most around here. What I don’t know, I can get at quick in that file over there,” she declared, thumbing toward the gray four-drawer in the corner as if it sealed the truthfulness of her statement. “You two cops? What didn’t you say so upfront?”
Tommy flashed his PI card, which he kept in his old shield case. The card was stamped and looked official. Well, it was official, but not quite the way refrigerator woman thought.
“Somebody who’d been close to him’s involved in a murder in Chicago. We think there might be a link with Floyd’s case.”
“You mean, like this person up in Chicago might have killed Floyd?”
“Could be,” Tommy said.
She mulled the prospect, gnawing her lower lip, pushing it in with a stubby index finger to get more skin between her teeth, really working at it, until I wanted to yell at her to stop before she gave us a blood bath.
“Did Mr. Shaw have a family?” Tommy asked.
She tapped her abused lip. “He had a wife. A little girl, small, you know.”
I looked at Tommy sharply. That Lori might have a child, children, had never crossed my mind. But our few hours in Decatur had shown me there was much about her I didn’t know nor had ever suspected.
“Not that I ever heard about, no.”
“How about parents, a brother or sister?”
“Sure he had mom and dad, but they’re dead. No brother. A sister though.”
“Sure is. Lives right here in Hillcrest. We were friends in school. Phyllis Shaw. She was kind of a quiet person. Still is. That’s how I knew Floyd. The pesky little brother.”
“Think we could talk to her?”
“Don’t know why not. You think she knows something about this person?”
“She might. Do you have her address?”
She worked her lip furiously, unconsciously, as she pondered the request. Maybe we were asking her to reveal a Hillcrest state secret.
“You think she knows this person?”
Her eyes flitted. “Who’s this person?”
Tommy hesitated, communicating the impression that he shouldn’t be revealing any of this to her. He was making her privy to confidential information.
“Lorilee Shaw,” he said.
“Lorilee’s in Chicago?” she exclaimed. “Why, I wondered what happened to her after Floyd died.” Then she connected the lines. “You’re telling me Lorilee Shaw murdered somebody up there in Chicago?” Her eyes were as big as her other features and this news caused them to open wide, doubling their size. She slapped her desk. “No, you’re putting this little ole girl in soy land on, aren’t you?”
“No,” Tommy said.
She shook her head, quivering her piled-on red hair like a quaking mountain. “Lorilee couldn’t figure out which way to twist a door knob without Floyd showing her. Why, Floyd could—hell, he did more times than I can recollect—he knocked her from the front of that sorry-ass trailer to the back, and she’d have to crawl over to him and beg for directions about how to get to the front, how to find the goddamn door so she could get out before he pounded her right through the floor.”
She laughed and reached up to check the red pile, ensuring each lacquerer strand was glued in place, as if anyone had a chance of breaking free of the others, as if they had a better chance than super-glued fingers had of separating from each other.
“Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think for a second what he did to her is funny. It’s not. But Lorilee a murderer? If I was to yank out the Webster’s and look up meek, you know like from the Bible, meek, I’d see her name right there in that tiny print. There’s a girl who couldn’t take a pee without asking the right way to squat on a toilet. That’s why I had to laugh, laugh back then when the genius sprawled out back there,” she snickered, hitching her thumb at the office, “he came up with the bright idea she might have killed Floyd. And when the other geniuses over there in Decatur, they gave him an ear.”
I couldn’t comprehend her description of Lori, opposed as it was to the woman I knew. I saw her as smart, pretty, intelligent, decisive, coy, certainly manipulative. But meek, weak, the type who would allow someone like Floyd Shaw to abuse her. And yet, there it was. He had. Her father had.
Increasingly, I was seeing Lori as a person does when viewing himself reflected in the shards of a shattered mirror. She was more than a Janus, closer to a Sybil, a woman with dozens of personas, among them, perhaps, murderess.
“Do you have Phyllis Shaw’s address?” Tommy asked.
She swung her head side to side. “I don’t know how she could help you.”
Tommy leaned in closer, intruding on the boundary of her desk. “You’ve got to explore all the angles, Mrs. …”
“Mahon. Kelli,” she said. “With an ‘i.'” She blinked her eyes.
I studied my feet. Tommy had charm and he knew how to use it. But it was hard to watch, like bad theater, and I looked away.
“Well, Kelli, you probably understand this more than most people, being in the profession.”
She nodded pulling closer and regarding him with conspiratorial intensity.
“I mean, really in the profession,” he emphasized. I saw him lift an arm and indicate the office, implying her boss wasn’t a member of their elite circle.
“Phyllis lives in Shady Trails park.” Figuring Tommy had finished with the heavy sugaring, I looked at them again. Mrs. Mahon, Kelli with an “i,” was tossing her head in a westerly direction. “On Ten Deer Path.”
I thought we were done and I turned to leave. But Tommy wasn’t finished and I was facing Kelli again, shifting my feet, feeling I was rooting and tired of the hard floor.
“But it is possible Mr. Shaw didn’t come by his death naturally?” he said. They appeared to be closer.
“I hadn’t given it much thought … say, in all this, I forgot your name. No offense. I’m usually good with names. Doing this job and all, you’ve got to be.”
Tommy excused her forgetfulness with a little wave, which ignited a smile and a sparkle in her eyes. He said by no means were we offended. He introduced us. She took a valiant stab at Tomassetti, but he waved off the formality, insisting on Tom. I stifled a laugh, trying to remember a time anybody had called him Tom, at least twice in a row. Early on, I’d made the mistake. If we were to get along, he’d informed me, “Call me Tommy, because I’m no alley cat.”
“Tom, like I said, I thought somebody killing Floyd was a joke. I just figured he’d done a pretty good job of it himself. Hell, if it wasn’t the fire, he’d have probably drunk himself to death.” She shrugged. “Maybe the fire was the best thing for him.”
Tommy nodded at this bit of philosophy.
“Anyway, I guess there were lots of people who didn’t care much for him. He was a moocher. An o.p. type.”
“O.p.?” I said.
“You never heard of o.p.s? Other people’s. Like, o.p. smokes, rides, that sort of thing.” She shook her head, pitying my ignorance.
“He was like a pimple on your ass,” she said. “Excuse the expression, but that was Floyd. Nobody I known was going to kill over a little uncomfortable pimple. That’s why I had to laugh at Will-Call and the Decatur cops. Like they believed what they saw on TV.”
Tommy gave her his best cop stare, the one that said he knew something and she did too. She caught it.
“Always the possibility, I guess. You never know these days, do you?”
“No, you don’t,” Tommy agreed.
We could see her ruminating the idea of murder. Her head twitched. Her hair jiggled. She squirmed. Finally she said, “Floyd wasn’t the best, but he wasn’t bad enough for nobody to kill. No, Tom, I got to stick with what I said. Floyd burned himself up out of his own carelessness.”
We thanked her for Phyllis Shaw’s address. Tommy produced one of his TLA business cards. He handed it to her. He asked her to call if anything else occurred to her. He said we’d appreciated her help and she’d given us a new perspective on the crime we were investigating.
She thanked us. Her eyes sparkled.
I followed Tommy outside, down to the next door, and into the Hillcrest Fire Department. He moved quickly and I was tempted call out, “Slow down, Tom.” But he was driving, and I wanted to see Beth that night.
The entry was identical to the police department’s, but instead of leading to offices, it opened directly into the truck bays. Two bays, two trucks, and an EMS vehicle parked in front of the pumper. We saw a small office tucked in the back behind the hook and ladder, snuggled next to a staircase that climbed up sharply.
A modest sign was on the door. It declared Martin Duber, Fire Chief.
It wasn’t much of an office inside, just a small desk, and a door, closed, leading to another office. A young, slim woman perched behind the desk. You, young lady, are truant, I thought, as Tommy did the introductions, flashing his P.I. credentials. She didn’t give us a second to admire the décor. She immediately ushered us into Chief Duber’s office. She didn’t bother with the formality of forewarning him.
Duber was busy shuffling papers. It looked like work, but who knew in Hillcrest. She announced us curtly, scrabbling our names like eggs, and withdrew hurriedly, as if she really did have a tardy bell to beat. Tommy pronounced our names properly, so the Chief had the advantage of knowing who we were.
Duber rose from his chair and stopped halfway, as if he’d run out of gas, or had neglected a chiropractic appointment. He was burly, gnarled and dark, like a chestnut roasted in hundreds of blazes. His eyes were charcoal. Black bags hung under them. Like weights, they pulled down his entire face, the skin gathering like shirring around a pointed chin. He was a man who could have benefited from a beard. He appeared to be a stumble away from retirement.
“From Chicago,” he said, and pointed at a small coffee pot sitting on a stack of manuals, themselves balanced on a small plastic table, once white and now dingy mocha. I was tempted to ask if it wasn’t a fire hazard, but Tommy spoke first, saving me from myself. He told Duber we were looking into Floyd Shaw’s death.
“Burned to death a few years back. Drunk. Sure, I remember him. You probably wonder why, right?”
He got our attention, but Tommy assumed his stone façade, with me following along as best I could. I would have asked if there was something unusual that warranted remembering a nondescript man in a hundreds-time-a-year fire that had occurred nearly a decade ago. Tommy simply asked, “Why?”
“It was my first fire death. As a chief, I mean. Very first one. I’ve had a few since. All of them sadder by a mile. But your first, you don’t forget it.”
Tommy nodded. “Same here,” he said. “My first arrest, he was a drunk busting up a bar. Nothing much. Nobody hurt. But it’s as if I’d collared Nicky Adamo yesterday. See, remember his name, too.”
They locked eyes like wanders rediscovering each other. Duber took Tommy’s hand, then mine.
“Coffee?” he asked, lowering in his chair.
There was a gray metal visitor’s chair against the wall. Tommy nabbed it. I leaned against the closed door.
“No thanks,” Tommy said.
“Why do you want to know about Shaw?”
Tommy outlined our investigation, concluding with our interest in the nature of Shaw’s death. Was it conclusively accidental; or was there a possibility it was something more?
“Do you mind opening the door a crack?” he asked.
I opened it and stepped aside.
“Candy,” he yelled.
Candy popped her head in. Duber described what he wanted, citing the date and location of the fire. I guessed he was right about the indelibility of a first.
“It’ll take a minute,” he said, after she disappeared. “We keep the older files upstairs in a storeroom. Might as well have a coffee while we wait.”
We reluctantly accepted, and he treated us to his muddy, bitter brew. He probably could have gotten top dollar for it back home.
“I like it strong,” he said, master of the understatement. Not to mention toxic.
While we awaited Candy, he proceeded to regale us with tales of his son and daughter-in-law. They lived up north in our neck of the woods, which seemed, in his mind, to be another country. They had three children, girls. He had nothing against Chicago, though he couldn’t abide the idea of fighting a fire in our tall buildings, as he wasn’t much on heights. Vertigo, he told us, though he was okay in enclosed spaces like skyscraper offices and airplanes. He kept at it, like a freight train picking up speed, instilling fear he might be unable to back off the throttle when Candy made her appearance.
He’d barreled on to his wife and home, when Candy breezed in without so much as a tap on the door. She dropped a file on his desk. She was gone before Duber’s paperwork had resettled itself.
He picked up the file, cracked it, and refreshed himself quickly. His speed qualified him as a star Evelyn Wood graduate. There was more to him than simply girth and amiability. He handed the file over to Tommy in under two minutes.
I sidled next to Tommy’s chair and rested a hand on the back. He held up the file. I bent to get a view of the pages. It contained a two-page report and an autopsy. Tommy leafed slowly.
The autopsy portrayed Floyd Shaw clinically as a white male, thirty-two years of age, a specimen with decaying teeth, scars on his forehead, his arm, and his right thigh, the last the most severe, the result of an accident or an altercation; all were long healed. Burns covered eighty percent of his body. His clothing was either completely burned or singed. His hair was gone and his pate was well crisped. His eyeballs had burst and the fluid had cooked into a filmy mass and been noted as like boiled egg whites. He was in the pugilist position, exiting life as he’d entered it. Apart from being roasted like in an oven, his internal organs presented themselves as normal, except his liver was slightly enlarged, testament to his proclivity for alcohol. Inflicted trauma was not in evidence on the Floyd Shaw visible to friends and enemies nor his parts viewable only by his god, if he’d had one.
Mercifully for Shaw, the report surmised he had perished from smoke inhalation, never waking to the horror of his flaming death, due to what had ultimately led to his demise—his blotto state at the time of the fire. Nothing indicated anybody but Floyd Shaw was responsible for the death of Floyd Shaw.
The fire report was as clear. Duber had signed it. He’d found no unexpected accelerate, just the kerosene from the lamp. Lori was reported confirming they used the heater frequently. She said the propane heating system was temperamental, working on whim. Floyd had been good at drinking and sleeping, but not much on repairing heating systems. And they couldn’t afford to call in a HVAC service.
I shook my head at the report and Tommy caught me at it.
“You see something?” he asked.
My back muscles were tight and my legs ached from the awkward position. I got erect and stretched. I shifted on my feet. I was tentative. “Nothing.”
He closed the folder and handed it back to Duber.
“It’s just I can’t imagine Lori living like that,” I said, pointing desultorily at the report. “With somebody like him.”
They stared at me, anticipating more. I didn’t have more.
Tommy said, “Maybe she couldn’t either.”
Duber fanned the report. “You made me remember something. Almost forgot, because it’s not in my report. Not really any of my business. I mean, not fire department business. After we identified Shaw, the neighbors said he had a wife. They told us where she worked and Chief Wilco asked the Decatur P.D. to notify her. The Chief couldn’t spare a car to pick her up, otherwise there’d have been nobody watching the town.
“The Decatur cops who caught the call radioed they’d found her. She worked in a restaurant, a waitress, I think. They offered her a ride, courtesy of Chief Wilco. She turned them down. She said she had a family matter to check into.” He fiddled with the file, flipping the corner, clearly indicating that the recollection troubled him. “Not quite normal, I’d say. She turned up eventually, two hours later. We were about cleaned up and ready to move out. Trailer fires burn themselves out quick. We were securing the trucks, when she dropped by. I told her she’d missed her husband. Didn’t seem phased in the least about it. Indifferent, you know what I mean? Like, ‘Huh, this has something to do with me?'”
“You have a sharp memory, Chief,” I said.
“Like I said, it was my first fire death as Chief.”
“Any reason you think she acted like she did?” Tommy asked.
He thought for a minute, working the file cover more. “Well, maybe she was in shock. It’s fairly common. A loved one dies and you shut down temporarily to get over the hump. They give the impression they don’t care, but they do, too much. I’d like to believe that’s what it was with her. But she didn’t ask too much about him. Guess she knew what she needed to know.”
“What was that?” I asked.
“He was dead. She didn’t have to know any more.” He said it like it saddened him. “Now that I’m thinking about it, she showed more interest in the condition of the trailer.”
“How so?” Tommy asked.
“I’d offered my condolences on her husband’s death. She wanted to know if there was anything worth salvaging from the trailer. Took me back at bit, I remember. Made me suspicious of her. Her attitude, it made me think she might have had a hand in the fire. We’d hadn’t examined the place yet, didn’t have the autopsy.”
“Thinking back over it, you still sure the fire was accidental?” Tommy asked.
He regarded us for an eternity, as if this was the most monumental inquiry of his year. Then he relaxed and said, “My report and the autopsy got it right.”
“You act like there might be room for doubt,” Tommy pressed.
Duber didn’t waste a second shaking his head, saying, “As sure as any man could be.”
“Thanks, Chief. You’ve been a big help,” Tommy said, rising.
“Probably didn’t give you fellows what you wanted.” He was standing halfway, extending a hand to Tommy.
Tommy took it. “Sure you did, Chief. You gave us the truth, and that’s exactly what we want.”
Duber stood upright and lumbered around from behind the desk. He said he’d show us out. Candy was nowhere to be seen. She was a double part-timer, as it turned out. Duber said she worked part-time in his office and attended college part-time at Milliken. She aspired to teaching.
“She certainly has the personality for it,” I said.
I admit it was being sardonic, but Duber didn’t seem to notice. I realized he did get it when we were outside climbing into the Suburban. His laugh caught up with us as we slammed the doors.
* * *
I glanced at my watch while Tommy consulted his Macon County map. It had been a long morning and wasn’t yet noon when we headed toward Phyllis Shaw’s place. If the rest of the day went as well, we could stop by the U of I on a way back to Chicago, and I could still make my council meeting.
“Want to stop for a bite before we visit Mrs. Shaw?” Tommy asked.
“What about our schedule?”
“Plenty of time.”
Tommy passed a strip mall and doubled back. He parked in front of a hole-in-the-wall called Millie’s. A phone booth would have provided more frontage than what it had.
And it wasn’t any bigger inside. There was a counter with five stools and one small booth in front of the window. The table looked more like a ledge. It was empty. No surprise, since sitting in the booth seemed to require juggling skills most people lacked. Tommy and I sat were most probably sat, at the counter.
The place smelled of grease. But it was the good stuff, the tantalizing grease that usually sets off hunger pangs in me.
A large woman trundled from a small doorway—she turned sideways to get through—and stationed herself behind the counter about the time we picked up the menus. She had a ruddy face and stringy gray hair. She wore an apron over a blouse. The seams on both strained to hold her in. The apron was a kaleidoscope of stains.
When she asked for our orders, Tommy ordered a tuna melt. I should have had a salad, but I ordered a well-done burger and fries instead. I figured it was best to go with the house specialty. He added a coffee to his order. I asked for Diet Coke.
“What do think?” I asked.
Tommy played with his silverware. “I think Mrs. Gatewood’s an interesting character.”
“Weak and strong.”
“You’re being enigmatic.”
He stared at me, daring me to use another dime word.
“You know what I mean,” I said.
The woman was quick and slow. Quick to round up our orders. Slow to deliver them. She waddled our orders to the counter. He waited for her to leave before he answered.
Digging in, he said, “Strong because it’s unusual for a little girl to report she’s being abused. Even grown woman have a problem with it.”
I prodded him on the weak. “She found a man like her father,” he said.
He was nearly done with his tuna melt. I was having trouble with my burger. It was rubbery. Not good grease after all. I dozed it with ketchup. It didn’t help. I gave up on it and ate the fries. The fries were better. Good grease. The difference was like night and day.
“Marrying Floyd Shaw makes her weak?” I said.
He finished and pushed his plate aside. “The way I see it, she needed another father. Shaw seemed to fit the bill.”
“You’re a psychologist?”
“I’m a cop who’s watching a rerun.” He waved a finger at my plate. “You done?”
We left money on the counter. I checked my watch on the way out. Lunch had taken a grand total of ten minutes.
Tommy pointed the Suburban toward Phyllis Shaw’s. Once he had it aimed right, I asked if I could use his cell phone. I didn’t lug one for the same reason I had the dealer remove it from the Jag. I wanted to be out of touch occasionally. I looked forward to being unreachable. In fact, I cherished it. I’d had my fill at Trumpet. In a world that hungered for continuous communication, I hankered to be left alone. The greatest luxury of the new century, I liked to preach to anybody who would listen, would be privacy. Not private, protected information; but the ability to step out of the world for however long a person wished, not to be ferreted out by another human being until it was a person’s choice to be scurried back into the crowd from wherever.
But I recognized, and every once in a while appreciated, the convenience of a cell phone.
He pointed to the console. I opened it and fished out his phone. It had an American flag cover. Tommy Tomassetti, The Priest, American Patriot.
It was about time for Beth’s lunch break. She had twenty minutes for lunch, which she took in the teacher’s lounge, a small box of a room, the sole amenity of which was a mildly worn sofa and a Laz-A-Boy.
“I’m in the lounger,” she said, in answer to my question, “and if I don’t get out of it in two minutes, I’ll be sleeping through the afternoon.”
She asked how we were faring, if we’d learned anything. I told her what we’d uncovered. She absorbed it without comment, but when she did speak her mind, she astonished me.
“I feel sorry for her,” she said.
I didn’t know how to respond. I knew how she felt about Lori, knew the kind of person she thought Lori was, knew she didn’t want to see Lori under any circumstances, and knew to a degree this was a reason Chuck and I hadn’t seen each other, except for the ad club meeting, since his marriage to Lori. And now, there Beth was, expressing compassion for the woman. I just didn’t know what to say to that. I decided to bypass it.
“I may have to go directly to the council meeting.”
“Oh,” she said. It was a soft sound, a wisp of air fractured with hesitancy. She was troubled, and I thought the cause was how I’d glossed over her comment about Lori.
I was wrong. She said, “I had to call the police last night. It was around midnight.
“You called the police?” I tried modulating down, but it still came out pretty close to a shout. Tommy darted an eye at me.
“Something wrong?” he said.
I shrugged and asked Beth, “What happened?”
“If you wouldn’t interrupt, I’d tell you.” Her voice was tight with worry.
I said, “Okay,” and waited.
“I’d been reading Steven King. Like my kids would say, it was creeping me out. I thought a little tea would help. I was about to go downstairs … when I heard a noise.”
“In the house?”
“No, thank God. I’d have jumped out of my skin if it had been in the house. I was just so jittery, Gabe, what with the murder, your thing at the village council, you and Dad traipsing around downstate. Little noises in the house, I usually don’t pay them a bit of attention. I’m straying, I guess.”
I smiled and hoped she felt it. She must have, since she calmed down and went on.
“The noise was outside. It sounded like somebody was at a window. It sounded like it was coming from the windows in your office.”
“Somebody was in the back, on the patio?” I said.
“Who was it?” Tommy asked. He swiveled his head and glared at me. I pictured a tree jumping in front of us. Hurriedly, I shook my head. I pointed at the road in front of us, and he attended to his driving.
“I called nine-one-one immediately. I stayed in the bedroom, in bed. I had the gun out of the nightstand, in bed with me. They sent over Gerry Armbruster. He called me on a cell phone when he got here. He searched around outside. He rang the door, like he told me he would, after he finished. It’s the only time I left the room. He didn’t find anything. He said it could have been a coyote.”
“Probably was,” I said reassuringly. I half believed it myself. We lived on the park and High Hills was having problems with coyotes. Homes and businesses were spreading north, encroaching on the habitat of local wildlife. Coyotes were showing up in neighborhoods, along with raccoons, scavenging for food. High Hills and the other towns were like supermarkets for these critters.
So Armbruster could have been right. It probably was a coyote or a pair of raccoons. Then again, I wasn’t entirely sure. Beth was right about Chuck’s death and my dispute with the Collucci’s. Suddenly our lives had changed; we were brushing up against murders and abusers, against a mysterious past.
It could have been a coyote. But, then, we would have experienced two firsts in one night. Wildlife rooting around our place. We’d never had that before. And a police visit, other than Gary’s social calls and council business.
“You there?” she said.
“When you see Gary at the meeting, be sure to tell him about Officer Armbruster and how we appreciated the quick response.”
Typical Beth, always thoughtful and polite. “I’ll be sure to. How are you?”
“Tired. I was restless. I didn’t get much sleep. But I’m fine, I guess. I’m waiting up for you tonight.”
“I love you,” I said. “I’ll try to stop home before the meeting.”
“My twenty minutes are up. Love you, too. See you tonight.”
I let her click off first. The dead air left me lonely. I shut off the phone and dropped it in the console.
“Beth okay?” Tommy asked.
“Fine,” I said. “Just a coyote prowling around the house.”
He gave me a piercing look. “You afraid of coyotes?”
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“Because you don’t look so fine.”
He was right. I was far from fine. And he didn’t look very fine himself.