Behind Lori Baer
“Over here,” he yelled. “Bring him over here. I can help. I was a medic.” He gestured vigorously and bleated continuously. “I saw it all. I’m a witness. I can help you. I was a medic. I was a medic in the war. WW two, the big one.”
I had Tommy’s arm around my neck and was using my right shoulder to support him. I held the first-aid kit in my left hand. Tommy protested he was fine, but my shoulder bore half his weigh nonetheless. He was trembling slightly. Blood oozed from his head wound but the rapid bleeding had ceased. I tried getting a look at his eyes to be sure he was alert, to determine if he was concussed but my angle wasn’t right.
“You need to lie down for a minute. Let’s see if the old guy can help.” I spoke directly into his ear. I felt his cheek brush mine. I smelled the Vitalis he used to control his hair. I wondered what the company would do when men like Tommy had passed on.
“Watch the old business,” he said.
“Sensitive,” I teased.
“Look who’s talking.”
He smiled and from my craned vantage the curl of his lips appeared clownish. I let out a truncated laugh and guided him across the street to the trailer.
The man waited for us, a bag of impatient bones, weaving like a dog eager to greet its master after hours alone. He jigged in his doorway, as if Tommy and I and the near hit-and-run where the World Series and the Super Bowl wrapped into one hyperventilated package. He was all energy and when I was within his reach he applied a portion of it to tearing the first-aid kit from my hand.
“You take him. I’ll take this,” he said. He was thin and looked as if he ate no more than once a week. He held back the door with his body, flattened against it, almost merged into it. “Put him on the couch.” He pointed into a small room.
I followed his finger and settled Tommy on the couch. It was old, lumpy, and faded, used up like the man appeared to be.
The man urged me aside and began to minister to Tommy. He sent me to the kitchenette for a bowl of warm water and a cloth. I drew the water from a small gleaming sink. I took a clean towel from several stacked on a shelf above the sink. The kitchenette smelled of lemons. I brought the towels to him.
He used them to clean Tommy’s wound. As he worked, he consoled and introduced himself. “We’ll have you in tip-top condition in no time. I’m Glenn Forrest.”
I introduced us.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said. “The bathroom’s in the back, past the kitchen, in the bedroom. The bandages are in the cabinet there. Get the bigger pads.”
I went for them and arrived at the bedroom in four strides. It was in perfect order, but was a room in name only, barely accommodating the double bed. A pale red chenille counterpane covered it. A nightstand stood next to the bed, wedged hard against the wall. I counted ten books neatly stacked on it. The bathroom was half-a-step from the bed. Beth couldn’t have fit in the room with me. I retrieved the box of bandages from under the sink. My elbow bumped the wall.
I got the bandages back to the living room in three strides. He took them and patched Tommy with them.
“What brings you here?” he asked.
I spouted an abridged version as he worked. “How long have you lived here?” I asked after I finished.
“Claire … Claire was my wife. She crossed over a year ago.” Every muscle in his ordinarily agitated body halted when Claire fell from his lips. It was a minute of tribute. “Claire and me moved in the day it opened. Well, not the exact day, but close. Closer than most of the others here. It was our first home. Our only home, I guess. We never got around to moving. We talked about it a lot. Claire loved going on about a house, the kind of place with no wheels. A real house was her dream, the kind you couldn’t pull up and hitch to a car. Not that it’d be so easy to do with this thing. No, this here trailer’s not built for easy hauling. I’ve seen some try it. They took the trailer part serious. A mess. I suppose it’s like a house in that way, in that it’s not easy to budge.”
I watched him as he talked. Forrest was old, past eighty I guessed. Next to him, Tommy appeared middle aged. Forrest had me feeling like a twenty something.
The style of the place was like him, old, worn, but neat. The main motif was yellowed newspapers. They were stacked in the corners, on the coffee table, and the kitchen counter. All very neat, like artfully placed accents.
He spied me staring at the precise piles. “I’m behind in my reading. Wake up early in the morning and the paper’s not here. I go walking. I like a long morning walk. Healthful, if you know what I mean. You two are fit specimens. Both of you must like getting out too. Maybe not in the morning. Morning’s not everybody’s cup of tea. But sometime during the day, by the looks of you.
“Get home from my walk and I’m ready for a nap. When you’ve put on the years like me, you favor naps. You need your exercise, but you need your naps too. I’ve got to have both.
“Noontime rolls around I turn on the TV. TV’s a nice companion with lunch. I like the soaps. A man liking the soaps, I know you think it’s strange. Picked up the habit from Claire. She was a big one for the soaps. She parked in front of the set all afternoon.
“Don’t care much for the news. These news people get a little annoying at times. Always talking about killing. We know there’s killing. Don’t have to be told regularly. The killing of small fry is the worse. How do you figure that, people killing little folks, never giving them a chance to live their lives? Just doesn’t make sense.”
He stopped and drew breath. Tommy and I glanced at each other. I looked relieved at Tommy’s alertness and that Forrest was finished. I hung on Tommy longer, studying Forrest’s handiwork. Tommy was patched and the job appeared professional.
Forrest was back at it, having paused only to refresh his lungs. “I admit I watch a little of the news. It’s up-to-date and I like to get it fresh. You know, old news is no news. Then I’ve got to ask myself, why read the paper? I know what’s in it from the TV. But the paper costs money. Throwing out an unread newspaper would be like throwing out money. Claire was always fairly tight with money. She’d roll over if she saw me wasting the stuff. She earned her rest, is what I say. I save the paper. Saved lots of them over the years. I figure I practically have a museum of newspapers right here. Somebody might want them. Stranger things happen, at least according to the TV.”
Forrest checked the bandage he’d applied to Tommy’s head. “Doesn’t appear to be a concussion, Mr. Tomassetti. But if I was you I’d take it easy for a while, maybe until tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Mr. Forrest.” Tommy fingered his forehead. “Very expert work.”
“I mentioned I was a medic? Second world war. I was in Europe, in the south, Sicily, Italy. I was at Monte Casino. You know Monte Casino. Pinned down for months by the krauts. Oh, I was kept hopping at Monte Casino.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Forrest,” I injected, “but you said you saw the whole thing.”
“Thing? What thing? Oh, the accident. Well, maybe you can’t call it an accident. It sure looked like that fellow had it in for you, Mr. Tomassetti. Lucky for you you’re lively on your feet.”
“Have you seen the pickup coming through here before? Could it belong to somebody who lives here?” I asked.
“No, never saw that particular pickup. Lots of trucks around here, but I don’t recall seeing any looking like it.”
“You said fellow, Mr. Forrest,” Tommy said. “Did you get a look at him? Could you describe him?”
Forrest ran his hand over his mouth, then his hair, then brought it back to his chin, where he used it to give his chin a rapid massage. I could almost see the incident spooling behind his eyes. “He was a regular fellow. He had white hair. He was dark. Not black, just dark, like he spends lots of time outdoors. He wasn’t wearing a cap, which is how I could see he had white hair. He had lots of hair. Not like me.” His hand darted to his hair. “Used to have thick hair. Claire loved it, loved to play with it. His hair was hanging down to his shoulders. A Charlie Daniels type. You know him, Charlie Daniels? Fiddler. Real good. Appeared this fellow didn’t have much use for the barber. I like the barber. You sit back and it feels good, and you get to have a pleasant conversation.”
“Mr. Forrest, you said you’ve lived here since the park opened,” Tommy said.
“Sure did. Claire and I moved in pretty close to the opening day.”
“Do you remember the fire next door?”
“Can’t but remember it. It was the biggest thing ever in Shady Trails. Man died in it.”
Tommy nodded. “His name was Floyd Shaw. He had a wife. Her name was Lorilee.”
“That’s the man. I don’t remember him too good. I’ve got a strong memory, but he’s not in there. I remember her, though. A little girl.” He stopped abruptly. “Well, look at me, the inhospitable host. Poor Claire must be throwing a fit this very moment. Can I offer you gentlemen a beverage? Now I’m not a drinking man. I’ll indulge in a beer from time to time, but none of the hard stuff. Never did like it.”
“A glass of cold water would be appreciated,” Tommy said. I agreed.
Forrest turned around and was in the kitchen. “Water,” he said, as he got ice cubes from the refrigerator and filled tumblers, “God’s own drink.”
He handed us our waters. “God’s own drink. Claire said it all the time. She liked water. She drank it constantly. Never drank nothing else. Not even coffee. She always turned up her nose at my coffee drinking. Not that I drink the stuff much. I have one cup in the morning to get me going. No more after that. And forget at night. I have a sip and I’m walking the floors.”
“You were saying about the Shaws, Mr. Forrest,” Tommy prompted.
“Shaws?” he puzzled. “Oh, the couple across the way. The little girl. Their name was Shaw. Can’t remember the man. Lorilee was the wife. She looked like a child. She’d stop and chat with Claire every now and again. She was always on her way to someplace, work, store, always someplace, almost like she wanted out of the trailer.”
Forrest had been standing since delivering our drinks. He was a perpetual motion machine, shifting on his feet, pulling at his pants’ pocket, swiping at his mouth. Now he searched around for a place to sit. He retrieved a small stool from the kitchen, put it in front of us, and squatted. I glanced at my watch and groaned deep in my throat. He seemed to be settling in for an extended conversation, and that worried me. Forrest had proved himself a man who could transform a “yes” into a short story, and maybe not too short at that. We didn’t have time for any more stories, if we were to stop in Champaign and return to High Hills in time for my council meeting.
I turned to Tommy. He was recovering nicely and seemed unconcerned about Forrest’s appetite for garrulousness.
“How was their marriage? They get along?” he asked.
Forrest thought hard. He hunched over and rested his chin on his fist. He looked like an emaciated old version of The Thinker.
“Floyd and Lorilee, it’s coming back to me. Yup, I can practically see the two of them. Pretty little girl, but worn though. Tired. He was a tall lanky fellow. Unkempt, like he didn’t have a bathroom in his trailer, which I know for a fact they all have. I guess some of us just don’t use them like others of us. I’ve always been one for cleanliness. Medic, you know. Learned the value of keeping clean in the army. Let me tell you, after my stint in the army, I appreciated cleaning up everyday. Good thing, too. Claire couldn’t abide sloppiness.”
“About their relationship, Mr. Forrest,” I said. I hoped my frustration hadn’t crept into my voice. If it had, he didn’t seem to notice.
“Thanks for getting me back on track. Sometimes I veer off like a runaway train.” He quieted down and thought more. “Nope, they didn’t seem to get along. You fellows married?”
“Good. Good to be married. You don’t appreciate it until you’ve lost your spouse. Both of you are married, so you know how it is with couples. You get along most of the time. But there’s no denying, couple or not, you’re two different people. Sometimes you don’t see eye to eye on things. Not a lot, if you’re happy together. And you’re willing to overlook differences. Sort of the grease that keeps marriages going. Well, those two, they didn’t have any of the grease, if you follow me. They squabbled more than any two people I’d known before or since. Sometimes it was more than arguing. Sometimes it was downright brawling. How are your waters there? Need more? More ice maybe?”
“We’re fine, Mr. Forrest. But I could stand an aspirin.” Forrest pushed up straight and headed for the kitchen before Tommy had finished. He returned with an economy-size bottle of generic tablets. “Get some powerful headaches myself,” he said. “Always had them from the time I was a boy. Went to a couple of doctors about it. How many?”
“Four,” Tommy answered. It always shocked Beth and me how Tommy overdid medication. As far as he was concerned, more was always better.
“None of them could find the problem. Said I was one of those unfortunate folks who just had lots of headaches.”
Tommy drained the tumbler washing down the pills.
“Working already,” he said with a satisfied smack of his lips that brought a smile to Forrest’s face. “Tell me, Mr. Forrest, do you remember anything about their arguments?”
“Loud,” Forrest replied with a small laugh and no hesitation. “Not just loud shouting, though those two could shout down a storm. Claire and I couldn’t believe that little girl could make such a big noise. Loud crashing too. We never saw inside the trailer. Neither of them invited us in. Not that we would have gone over there if we’d been invited. It must have been broken up pretty good in there. Claire and I always heard stuff crashing. Could hear them real good in the summer.”
“What about the fire?”
“It was a terrible. Horrible way to die, burning up. It was big. Claire and me were watching the television. We’d watch it together on the couch. We’d hold hands off and on.” Forrest began drifting, but got back on course of his own accord. “Take a look over to your left. You can see next door through the window. We didn’t know their place was on fire until it was flaming up pretty good. It was too late to do much then, except call the fire department. They got here pretty quick with a pumper. Didn’t take then hardly any time to put it out. Too late though, you know.”
“It was winter,” Tommy said.
“Cold one, too.”
“You probably couldn’t hear much of what went on next door in the winter, what with the windows closed,” Tommy said.
“They’re not such good windows. You can hear folks having a conversation in the street through them. We could hear the fighting good even in the winter. Not as good as the summer, but good enough to know it was fighting and not cooing, if you know what I mean.”
“Did you hear fighting before the fire started?”
He was back on the stool and had contorted himself into his thinking pose. He was reaching back, trying to drag free a memory.
“No, not directly before the fire.”
“How about earlier?” Tommy asked.
“No, no, as best I can recall.” He pulled at his cheeks and stoked his hair. “They didn’t fight every day. They’d fight a lot, but not every day.”
He tapped his feet. He wrung his hands. Something was cooking in him. We waited patiently for it to finish.
“I don’t know if this means anything. Can’t believe I remember it, the fire was so long ago. I heard rustling outside.”
“The wind?” Tommy asked.
“No wind. It was one of those still winter nights. Nothing was moving. It’d been cloudy all day. I’d said to Claire I thought a storm was headed our way. She was big on watching the weather. She said the weatherman wasn’t predicting snow. But you know how they are. Wrong half the time. And the other half, they’re barely right.”
“The rustling?” Tommy asked.
Forrest hunched up his thin shoulders, rubbed his hands vigorously, mauled his chin and cheeks until he raised red blotches, and finally showed us his palms. “Dog, maybe. There were a couple of dogs around here then. People’d let them out to do their business. They’d scamp around banging into cans and such. On quiet nights, they’d make quite a racket.”
“Did you check?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Too cold to be going around chasing dogs.”
“What did you do after you saw the Shaw place burning?”
“Went out to see about helping. The place was flamed up pretty good by then. About the best I could manage was watching it burn.”
“Did you notice anybody near the fire?”
“Sure, lots of people. Firemen, neighbors — “
“I mean before they showed up.”
Larry moved his eyes back and forth and swiped at his hair. He grew excited. “I see,” he said. “You two are thinking somebody started it.”
Tommy said, “We’re suspicious.”
“Whew, that’d be something, now wouldn’t it?” He mulled the prospect before saying, “No, can’t say I saw anybody out of place.”
The three of us were quiet for a minute. Tommy and I were still. Forrest was a small dynamo, all moving gears.
“Time for us to be on our way, Gabe.” Tommy stood. He faltered momentarily. “You’ll have to do the driving though.”
“You sure we shouldn’t be heading to the hospital?” I said.
“Mr. Forrest’s medic training and the aspirin did the trick. I’ll be fine after a little time in the car.”
“Sure you don’t want to stay and ask me questions. You ask good ones, that’s for sure. You got me remembering stuff I never knew I saw. Maybe you can help me recollect more.”
I was up and next to Tommy. “If we had the time, Mr. Forrest,” I said. I held my watch close to my face. “But we’re running short on it. We’ve got an appointment in Champaign.”
“State university there,” he said.
“Yes, we’re going over to see about Lori’s job.”
“The girl had a job at the school?”
“That seems to surprise you, Mr. Forrest,” Tommy said.
“Would you too, if you’d known her. She wasn’t a stupid girl. Had a good head on her. But she didn’t seem to have much book learning, if you know what I mean. And book learning is their business over there at the school.”
“She wasn’t teaching,” Tommy said.
“Cafeteria maybe,” he said. “It figures, her being a waitress. Can’t blame her for wanting to get far away from the fire. Well, glad I could be of help. If you want to use my phone before you leave, be my guest.”
“No need, Mr. Forrest,” Tommy said.
Forrest eyes widened, like we’d played a nasty joke on him. “You’re not calling the police about what happened?”
“We’ll stop by the municipal building and report it.”
“Good, good,” Forrest exulted. “Tell them I saw everything. I’ll be pleased to fill them in. I can go there. I don’t have a car, but I can figure out a way. Maybe walk. It’s not too far. Or they could come here and chat with me in my living room. You can tell them it’s pretty comfortable.”
“We’ll be sure to mention you,” Tommy said, leading the way out, Forrest on our heels, exhorting us to tell the police about him.
* * *
I took the wheel and steered the Suburban down the street and onto the highway and pointed it in the direction of the Hillcrest Municipal Center.
“What do you expect Wilco and his crew to do?” I asked.
Tommy could read my tone and he knew I thought we were wasting time with Wilco. I’d have rather been piloting the Suburban to Champaign.
“I want to see if Kelli could get us a make on the pickup.”
“How can she do that? We don’t have the plate numbers, not a single number. She’s doesn’t have anything to make.”
“We know it’s a pickup. It’s old. It’s battered.”
“I’m sure there are plenty of those around, especially down here.”
“And it’s a crazy ugly color. Lime green. I’d say the color puts it in a class by itself. Wouldn’t you?”
He had a point. I’d seen the pickup several times now and the feature that popped into my head with each encounter was the color. A sickly lime green.
“You’re thinking whoever was driving it was from around here?”
I switched between him and the road. “I saw it back home, remember? Wouldn’t it make more sense the driver’s from around Chicago?”
“Possibly. Of course, Gabe, you know the pickup has four wheels.”
“Is that a riddle?” I said, holding my eyes on him a beat longer.
“Might concentrate on the road. This is my car you’re driving.”
“You mean whoever’s driving it is mobile.”
He nodded. I caught the nod in my peripheral arc.
I guided the Suburban into the same spot in front of the municipal building and killed the motor. I turned and faced him. Color had returned to his face, which had been a shade on the ashen side at Forrest’s. His eyes were clear and bright. I wished myself to be a resilient when I hit my seventies.
“You think the pickup is connected to Chuck’s murder?”
“Possibly. You said you started seeing it about a week ago. Then again …”
“Then again what?”
“You have your tiff with the Colluccis.”
“The Colluccis are having me followed?”
“Because I’m opposing their project?”
“The old man didn’t get the name Gravedigger for nothing. Intimidation’s in their toolbox.” He pulled the lever and cracked the door.
We climbed out. I came around to his side to be sure he was okay. He was steady.
“It doesn’t sound like them,” I said.
“Too subtle. Besides I never heard of mob guys cruising in a beat up pickup.”
“You watch too much TV.” He headed into the building. “Let’s talk to our friend Kelli.”
Kelli was working on her nails. She was pure concentration. She had a bottle of bright red polish in front of her. Her tongue peeked from between her lips. She was filing her nails with an emery board.
She stopped and gave us a big smile. “You caught me,” she said, stirring the air with the emery board.
“Is the Chief ready to see people?” Tommy asked.
“Poor man, he’s been on top of situations since you left. Exhausted himself. He didn’t even have time to take a call from Mrs. Wilco, and he always takes her calls. The man knows what’s good for him. Didn’t matter, seeing he was on his way home for a well deserved nap.”
She resumed work on her nails, which she was forming into sharp points.
Then she paused and stared at Tommy.
“You look different,” she said.
“Thanks for noticing. You like it?”
“Sure. It gives you that rugged look. I like that in a man.”
“Careful. I’m married.”
“So am I. What of it?” She laughed. “You two make me feel good. Too bad you can’t come by tomorrow. How’d you do it? Bump into a door at Phyllis’?”
“I got an introduction to Hillcrest driving,” he said.
“Somebody tried to run him down,” I said.
“At Phyllis’ place?”
“No, the Shaw’s old place,” Tommy said. “Hillcrest Park.”
“Visiting the scene of the crime, huh? You here to file a compliant?”
“Sure,” Tommy said, “and get some information.”
“What kind of information?” she asked. He put her emery board aside, swiveled, and tapped on her computer keyboard. An accident report form appeared on her computer screen.
“My idea,” she said. “I’ve put the department’s forms on the computer. Now nobody has to decipher these fellows’ chicken scratch. Got a plate number?”
“Got a description.”
“The DMV doesn’t run on descriptions.”
“I’m hoping for a little Kelli Mahon personal knowledge.”
She banged the keys for a second or two, then looked up at Tommy and smiled. “How good’s the description?”
She stopped typing and gave Tommy her complete attention. He described the lime green pickup and tossed in Forrest’s description of the driver. She concentrated and jotted on a pad in front of her.
“Tom, it sounds familiar, but I can’t place it. Even the man rings a bell. But I’m just not putting a name to him. How about I broadcast this to the fellas? Maybe one of them will know.”
“Good idea, Kelli,” Tom said.
Behind her desk was a console and on it was a two-way radio. She grabbed the microphone and sent a message to the two cars on patrol. Both called in and the officers asked what she had. The pickup and the driver seemed vaguely familiar, but they couldn’t place it or the driver.
This, however, didn’t discourage Tommy. He appeared exuberant, or as near exuberant as Tommy normally allows himself to get. “Sounds to me like it might be local.”
Kelli found Tommy’s card on her desk and flashed it at us. “How about the boys and me think about it. We can get back to you if any of us IDs the pickup or the guy.”
“We’d be most appreciative,” Tommy said. “And maybe you could pass it on to Ray Stella. Could be somebody in Decatur.”
“Happy to. Now let me write up this accident report.”
Tommy gave her the details.
Ten minutes later we were in the Suburban headed to Champaign.