Behind Lori Baer, 16

Behind Lori Baer

CHAPTER 16

By the time I’d merged onto Interstate 74, Tommy was slumped against the passenger door asleep. I cruised at eighty to save time. We arrived at the University of Illinois at around two.

The University sprawled over acres of pancake-flat farmland, and I was lost immediately after entering the campus. I pulled over to get my bearings.

Human Resources, wherever it was, no doubt was the repository of the answers we sought about Lori. But extracting them wouldn’t be easy and might even be impossible. I had already spoken to somebody in the department. She’d declared releasing information other than that Lori Baer had worked at the University in the business school would be a violation of policy. I wasn’t sanguine that an in-person appearance would convince her or anybody else in her office to make an exception, but I knew I had to try.

Tommy stirred. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. He felt his bandage. He asked, “Where are we?”

“We’re there,” I said, “on a street called Wright.”

“Why are we parked here?”

“I’m getting the lay of the land. How’s your head?”

He touched it again, gingerly I noticed. “Okay. Forrest did a good job. Let’s ask somebody where the personnel office is.”

“Human Resources.”

“Whatever,” he said, dismissively.

He powered down his window and called to two boys and a girl who were passing by. They looked like high school kids to me. The boys were tall, lanky, and dressed like homeless men. The girl was just a hair shorter and thin, as if food was scarce at the University. Her hair was long and laundered and ironed into flat curls. The tips toughed the waistband of her jeans. She wore no makeup and it looked good on her, imparting a look of fresh innocence.

Tommy asked if they could direct us to the personnel office.

They came up to the Suburban. The boys acted as if Tommy was testing them. Their faces were blank.

The girl took over. She pointed south. The boys sighted on her arm, as if she were delivering a revelation. “A block that way. You’re going the right direction.”

Tommy thanked her and we watched them stroll away. I put the Suburban in drive and inched from the curb.

“Let’s walk,” he said. “I could stretch my legs.”

I reversed into the space. “You’re sure you’re okay?”

“Not even a headache. The walk will wake me up.”

We climbed out and walked the block to the Human Resources building.

Human Resources was in a modern box. We strolled in and up to reception. The receptionist was a young woman, who could have been a student. She had blond hair cropped in a pageboy. It hung straight and barely covered her ears. She had a rosy look, as if she’d just emerged from a shower. We explained who we were. Tommy showed his credentials. We described why we were there. She pushed buttons on her call director, waited a moment, and then spoke softly into the receiver. She nodded once, hung up, said someone would be with us shortly. She invited us to take a seat.

We sat in plush and startlingly uncomfortable chairs. There was a small crowd already seated. Most looked anxious. While I waited, I glanced through a glossy extolling the virtues and advantages of working in a world-class university. I glanced up a couple of times and caught people stealing nervous peeks at Tommy, who sat with his arms folded. His bandaged head accounted for their unease.

We burned up five minutes this way. Then a tall woman dressed in a blue business suit came for us. She introduced herself as Carolyn Crowly. She asked us to accompany her.

We trod behind her into the elevator. We took a silent ride up to the fourth floor. We trailed behind her into her office, where she took her place behind her desk. We sat in chairs arranged in front of the desk. She had window behind her. The background was a tree in autumn yellow. She was an attractive woman, a brunette, and the tree set her off nicely, sort of like a Florentine portrait.

“You are inquiring about a former employee?” she said. She had a strong voice, bordering manly. Her hands were palms down on her desk, which was clean of papers. There was a computer off to the side. A University Human Resources’ screen saver was on the screen.

I took the lead and said, “We’d like information on a Lori Baer. She worked here, in the business school.” I cited the probable dates.

She swiveled to her computer, banged away, and brought up information on Lori. We were too far to read it.

“Yes, Lori Baer worked here. She was an office assistant in the business school. She left the University shortly after the death of her husband.”

“Husband?” I said. The word was beefy with surprise. Tommy was wearing his police mask.

“Yes, Professor Stanley Wheat. It looks like she married Professor Wheat during her tenure.”

Tommy took over. “How did the professor die?”

She hesitated.

“It can’t be confidential,” Tommy coaxed.

Reluctantly, she admitted, “No, I suppose not. Professor Wheat died in an auto accident. The accident occurred on campus. He ran into a tree. The professor hit his head on the steering wheel.”

“Did you know the professor?”

She shook her head. “No, not really. But the Daily Illini reported on it extensively.”

“Did they mention a cause?”

“Perhaps. Probably. But I don’t remember. I’m sure the Illini staff could find the article in their archives.”

Tommy asked for directions to the newspaper and also to the business school. She jotted them on a notepad, tore off the page, and handed it to him. She escorted us to the lobby.

Nothing is very far away in Champaign and Urbana, at least compared to Chicago and the suburbs. We were talking to a young reporter five minutes after leaving the Human Resources building. She was the assistant managing editor and appeared to be nineteen. She made me feel fifty, maybe fifty-five.

After we’d gone through our routine of explaining ourselves and our crusade, she attacked a bank of file cabinets. She yanked a loose-leaf binder from one of them. She scoured the binder, using her pinky to scan the pages. When she found what she wanted, she went to another cabinet and pulled a file. She rifled it and brought us an issue of the Daily Illini containing an extensive report of Professor Wheat’s accident.

The accident was on the front page, and it was nothing short of shocking, at least to me. Tommy was stone-faced, and the newspaper girl was back to whatever she’d been working on when we had interrupted her.

Professor Wheat had died in a fiery crash. The front-page photo showed the wreck ablaze. Two husbands dead in fires. That was all I could think of staring at the photo.

I broke the photo’s grip on me and quickly read through the story. Professor Wheat had taught at the University for fifteen years. He had been in the Business Administration Department, where he had taught marketing courses. He also had had departmental administrative duties. He was a busy man.

University police found his car at two in the morning. Nobody witnessed the accident. A student studying late had taken a break. He was stoking his all-nighter with his dozenth cup of coffee, when he dragged over to his dorm window and saw the flames.

The story went on to report the coroner had pronounced Wheat dead from a blunt trauma wound to his head. His steering wheel was imbedded in his head. Though the fire had nearly consumed the fabric interior of the car, the coroner had been able to conclude Wheat hadn’t been wearing seat belts.

I stared to speak. Tommy hushed me softly and asked the girl if he could have a copy of the story. The assistant managing editor hiked her thumb toward a photocopier. It was tucked in a corner. She invited us to be her guest.

“Untimely, fiery death seems to be Mrs. Gatewood’s constant companion,” Tommy commented as we settled in the Suburban. He put a fine point on the observation with, “Two husbands and a father dead in fires.”

“But not Chuck,” I said, reflexively.

“No, not Mr. Gatewood,” he said, as I maneuvered us into the street, “thanks to you, Gabe.”

I drove us to the Business Administration building and parked the Suburban without saying a word. Tommy didn’t have to tell me. The deaths were the same. They could have been accidents. But what were the chances a woman’s two husbands and a father die in fires? It looked bad, very incriminating. And yet I couldn’t imagine Lori committing such atrocities. It simply didn’t balance with the young woman I had hired and worked with at Trumpet.

I didn’t see this as denial. I admitted to myself that in the beginning I rejected the thought she could have murdered Chuck. Then I discovered she was a lair; she had suffered the kind of childhood that churns out abusive and murderous adults; she’d been married twice before most girls thought about marriage; and everybody close to her had died violently and, except for Chuck, in flames. Yet, in the face of all this, and probably because of it, I couldn’t accept the idea she had killed Chuck or anybody else who’d been in her life.

And in defense I could only offer:  It didn’t feel right to me. So I kept quiet straight through the doors of the Business Administration building and to the faculty offices. The offices were in a Siberia sufficiently distant from the entrance to turn the trek to them into an endurance test.

Tommy trudged along quietly. His face was lined, and his weariness leaked from every crease. I caught him wincing a couple of times. His head wound hurt him more than he cared to let on.

The reception area was an afterthought, hardly containing the scaled down desk behind which sat a schoolgirl. She wore sandals, blue jeans, and a spaghetti-string camisole. She’d been concentrating on a textbook when we entered. She was reluctant to leave it for us but managed to devote half her attention to me as I introduced us and asked for the department head. She said he wasn’t in.

I was losing the fraction of her attention I had when I asked for a professor who’d been in the department for at least ten years.

It got her attention and she focused on us. “Why ten years?”

“He might know the professor we’re interested in. Stanley Wheat.”

“Why do you have to see a man?”

It was unexpected and I fumbled. “It doesn’t have to be.”

She said tartly, “Why’d you ask for a ‘he’?”

I fought off a bout of flummoxes.

“You must have been a business major, in your day. Professor Stuart Miller’s about right for you,” she said, hitting a button on her call director. She said, “Two businessmen for you, professor.” To us she said, “Down the hall. It’s the big office on the right at the end.”

Tommy brought up the rear and about halfway down said, “Very smooth, Gabe.”

I glared back at him, but had to agree I’d allowed an eighteen-year-old to throw me off balance. If I had a tail, I would have had it tucked tightly between my legs.

I was feeling properly chastised when I knocked on the professor’s door. It was a polite knock.

He summoned us to come forth and we did.

It was an office of considerable square footage any vice president would have been proud to call home. Professor Miller was enthroned behind an imposing desk, replete with a banker’s lamp. He sat in front of a window. The sun was steaming in and backlighting him. I couldn’t make out his features. It was as if we were meeting a shadow.

A bookshelf teeming tomes covered one wall. Photos of the professor posed with important people -– I recognized the current governor, a past governor, and company presidents -– covered the other like wallpaper.

After the preliminaries, which by then were dust in my mouth, I asked, “Did you know Stanley Wheat?”

He owned a sonorous voice. It resonated in the office. It must have been impressive in a lecture hall. “Yes,” he answered, “Stan Wheat taught the courses on pricing policy and the basics. I handled advanced marketing management.”

“Did you know the professor’s wife?”

“Certainly. Not knowing her was impossible.”

“Impossible?”

“She was the department secretary prior to becoming Mrs. Stanley Wheat.”

“Can you tell us about her? About their relationship?”

He played with his wristwatch. It was a distinctive clunky hunk of gold and steel. He rotated around his wrist a couple of times.

“You’ve arrived at the worst possible time, Mr. Angellini. I’m in the midst of reviewing the galleys of my new book.” He patted a thick stack of elongated papers. “My publisher is demanding my edits by the end of the month.” His tone was haughty.

I wondered why he was avoiding the question. But I trod carefully, having learned my lesson with the receptionist. These university people were touchy. “Professor, did you like the Wheats?”

He drummed the galleys to emphasize he was busy and impatient. “You’re persistent, Mr. Angellini.”

“It’s important, professor.”

He stared at me and played with his watch. “I didn’t care for her much, at first. Stan was a brilliant man. He excelled at teaching. His scholarship was impeccable. And I don’t praise with abandon, gentlemen.”

I believed him.

“He absolutely abhorred writing. He preferred working with his students. He was perfectly suited for the basic courses.” He drummed the galleys again. “I liked him. I respected him. He and I complimented each other. I haven’t found anyone among the staff remotely as compatible.”

“But you didn’t care for Mrs. Wheat.”

“Look at me, Mr. Angellini.” He saw the light from the window was giving me trouble. “Abysmal way to site a building. It would be impossible to enumerate the total of students blinded in those chairs,” he said, rising.

He crossed around the desk and stood behind us. We twisted around to watch him.

“Now, how old do you suppose I am. Guess away. My age is about all I’m not vain about.”

He was my height, but out weighed me by a good fifty pounds. He carried a quarter of the extra weight in his face and the balance in his gut. His hair was graying but mostly black. His eyes were hazel. He had the appearance of a man who seldom ventured out and never engaged in anything more physical than rearranging his bookshelves.

“Fifty,” I guessed, suspecting he was sixty. No matter what he’d said, age couldn’t possibly be an exception for a person acknowledging abundant vanity. Besides, my age bothered me — had really starting bugging me when my senior status become official; and I couldn’t see it plaguing him any less.

“Most say forty-eight,” he said, lowering slightly, then adding with a begrudging brightness, “Fifty’s close.”

“Two years,” I said.

He cocked an eye. “A mathematical wizard, are we? Stan was five years my senior.”

“She was too young for him.”

“Exactly. She was barely out of high school, and it showed.”

“You disapproved of the marriage.”

“Indeed I did. Stan was a mere step ahead of the pedophilic hounds.”

“Maybe she loved him.”

“Maybe she manipulated him,” he retorted.

Maybe you were jealous. I kept that to myself and asked, “What was she like?”

He folded his arms and made little hydraulic movements with his eyebrows. “Hmm, how can I put this?” He set his eyebrows in motion searching for a way. “She was a child and acted as such. She wasn’t a conversationalist. Her diction and grammar were abominable. Her dress was old-time bluegrass. And she couldn’t cook.” He slapped his arms discordantly, allowing his comments to sink in. “Stan was a skinny fellow,” he added, “in need of a wife who could at the very least put a hot meal in front of him. And her name, Lori, didn’t add any luster to her star either.” He delivered the speech turgidly.

“You didn’t care for her.”

“No. At least not in the beginning. I saw her as a conniver. As I said, it was my opinion she was manipulating Stan. She came to us seeking a job. He hired her on the spot. It was his prerogative, naturally, as department head. Not many of us approved. Stan insisted she possessed a quality, but he alone saw it. She was a rough little diamond, and he intended to polish her.”

He dropped his arms and worked his way back to his chair.

“He did it,” he said, seating himself. “He taught her how to be a secretary. She was a fast learner. I wish my students were as quick as she. Within months, the department was relying on her skills, myself no exception. Her diction improved. Her wardrobe filled with professional attire. She became, in a word, desirable.”

“Pygmalion,” I muttered.

“Precisely. Stan was her Henry Higgins down to their marriage. The announcement of vows was fait accompli. I had dinner with the glowing couple a week after the event, which had occurred off in dreamland.”

“Dreamland?” Tommy said.

“The American Mecca, Las Vegas. It was tawdry, and most suitable for their wedding. I dined with the newlyweds shortly after their return and witnessed the distaff’s paucity of culinary skills firsthand. The result was that I always accepted dinner out with the two lovebirds, but never an invitation to the nest for a dose of her home cooking.”

He seemed pleased with himself and hunched forward on the desk. When we weren’t quick with a question, he opened the desk’s center draw and removed a pen. It was fat and black, a Mont Blanc. He played with it, laying it on the desk blotter, rolling it between his hands.

“There’s more, if you’d like to hear it.”

“We would,” I said.

“They should not have been happy. Plenty of reasons existed for them not to be. But the damn thing was, they were ecstatic.” He gave us a tight, brief smile. I couldn’t tell whether it reflected his own desire for their brand of happiness; or whether he simply wanted us to know he wasn’t a purebred curmudgeon. “They were lovebirds of the worst sort. Sickening, really. He was the culprit of the pair. Simply could not keep his hands off her. I could appreciate that, after he’d cleaned her up, of course.”

“They were a happy couple,” I said.

“Delirious.”

“Where you in town when Professor Wheat died?” Tommy asked.

“No, I was in Ann Arbor. I was guest lecturing at the graduate school.”

“You didn’t hear about Professor Wheat’s death until your return?”

“No, I heard about it while I was in Ann Arbor. The University police phoned me.”

Tommy had on his usual stony countenance. I tried but couldn’t hide the jolt he’d given me. “Why you?” I asked.

“Entirely routine, I assure you. The sheriff asked questions along the same lines as you gentlemen. I’m not a policeman by any measure. However, I do indulge in the occasional potboiler. Those closest to the victim usually are the obvious suspects, isn’t that so?”

“Professor Wheat’s death was an accident, professor. Wasn’t it?” Tommy asked.

“Yes, Mr. Tomassetti, to the best of my knowledge.”

“Then why would the police call you?”

He pushed back in his chair and warded off the question with raised hands.

Tommy pressed on, though gently. “Do you recall any of the conversation?”

“It’s been a long time, Mr. Tomassetti.”

“But you must have an excellent memory, professor. I mean, given what you do for a living.”

The professor gave Tommy a cagey smile and a nod. “They asked if Stan was in the habit of cruising around the University in the early hours.”

Tommy waited, the picture of placidity. I said, impatiently, “How did you answer them?”

“Stan was a homebody before he met Lori and definitely after he married her.”

“When you returned from Ann Arbor, did you see Mrs. Wheat?” Tommy asked.

He went back to playing with the Mont Blanc. “Yes, three. The first time was the wake. Actually, the wake and the funeral.”

“How was she?” I asked. I was remembering her as she had been at Chuck’s wake and funeral.

“She was sad, but subdued. She wasn’t hysterical. She suffered no outbursts at any time.”

“You thought that was unusual?” Tommy asked.

He nodded.

“Why?”

“Really, they were the lovebirds. I would have expected a bit more keening from her. Had I been Stan, I’d have been sorely disappointed with her performance.”

I couldn’t restrain the thought. For one so practiced, Lori hadn’t developed a knack for grieving.

“What about the second time?” Tommy asked.

“It was a week later. I encountered her on the Quad. I quite distinctly remember it because I rushed to her aid.”

“Why? Was she in trouble?” I asked. I noticed I injected a lot of concern into the question.

“A grounds man was about to strike her.”

“A grounds man?” I said, confused. “How could you tell?”

“Tell what? If he was a grounds man, or if he was about to strike her?”

I could see, the professor was enjoying himself. I pitied his students. “Both.”

“The man wore a workman’s uniform. He had his arm raised above her, as if he was about to slap her face. I shouted her name. Quite out of character for me, but the situation, in my judgment, demanded extraordinary behavior. I also advanced on them at a fairly rapid rate, at least for me. By no means do I represent myself as an athlete. He saw me. He dropped his arm and hurried away from her in the direction opposite to mine.”

“What was her state when you reached her, professor?” Tommy asked.

“Odd.”

“She was in an odd state?” I said, in something of a state myself.

“At least I found it odd. She was angry. Her face was flushed. She was muttering to herself, staring at the retreating figure. In other words, gentlemen, she wasn’t frightened witless.”

Which would have been the expected reaction to assault.

“Do you recall what she was saying?” Tommy asked.

“No, I only remember her muttering. But there was no mistaking the emotion.”

“Ever see this man around the University before or after?” Tommy asked.

“Normally, Mr. Tomassetti, I don’t pay attention to the grounds workers.” Barely a beat passed, when he added, “I don’t mean to sound snobbish.”

It would have had a snob blanching, but Tommy let it pass. “Can you describe him?

“It’s been a long time, you understand.” He concentrated on the pen, rolling it back and forth. “He was rough. That’s the impression I had, rough and ragged. He had wild hair.”

“Wild hair,” I repeated.

“Unruly, unkempt, as if a comb or brush hadn’t been run through it in years. He was a shaggy fellow.”

“Was his hair gray?” I asked.

“Now that you mention it, not gray at all. It was white. Not entirely white, though. It was streaked with yellow, dirty yellow.”

I stared at Tommy. He registered no reaction.

“Is the color of the man’s hair important?” the professor asked.

Tommy answered with, “At this point, everything is important, professor. Did you see Mrs. Wheat again after that?”

“Once more, when she came here to collect Stan’s personal items. I’d packed up his office. I knew what was his, what he would want her to have. She stopped in to say goodbye. She thanked me for being a good friend to Stan and for helping her on the Quad.”

“Did she say anything about the incident?” Tommy asked.

“No, she merely thanked me.”

“Did you ask her about the incident?”

“No. I wasn’t her guardian, Mr. Tomassetti.”

“Well, professor,” Tommy said, “we appreciate your time and the help you’ve given us.”

“You gentlemen believe Stan’s death is more than an accident?”

“It’s the question we’re trying to answer,” Tommy replied.

In front, we asked the girl for directions to the school’s police department.

The University was a little city about a third of the size of the two small cities that sandwiched it. It had its own police force, with sworn officers, and all the power of a regular police department. It had investigated Professor Wheat’s accident.

On the way over, I asked Tommy what he made of the professor’s grounds man story.

He said, “It jibes with Mr. Forrest’s description of the man in the pickup. And the pickup appears to be the same one you saw at Mr. Gatewood’s funeral. Whoever this person is, he has an interest in Mr. Gatewood’s murder.”

Though I didn’t say it, the man seemed to me somebody from Lori’s past. He didn’t appreciate us nosing around. That said to me, he had something to hide. What, was the question? And how was it related to the murder. It also seemed to me the man was tied to Lori in some way. The question was how? I wondered what Vider and Mavic would have to say about our mystery man.

We met with Ted Carmichael in his cubicle. He was a tall gangly man with large hands and feet, a ruddy face, and white crew-cut hair. He was a sergeant on the University force. He was the available officer.

Tommy explained why we were there. Carmichael listened intently. Then he ordered up the Wheat file.

While we waited, Tommy killed time by chatting up Carmichael. He asked him how long he’d been on the University police force. He told us he had retired from the Champaign force after thirty years. He and his wife, her name was Sarah, planned to amble around the country, wayfarers in search of America.

“Had the Winnebago gassed and ready to pull out of the driveway,” he said, “when we got the word. Sarah had cancer. It proved terminal. The Winnebago went to pay her medical bills. She went not too long after the Winnebago. She lasted a year. Six months where okay. The rest was hell for us.”

A young man who looked like he could have been an Eagle Scout delivered the Wheat file into Carmichael’s hands.

Carmichael perused the file.

“The name had a familiar ring to it,” he said, passing the file to Tommy. “The accident occurred while I was on the Champaign force. Kind of a curious case.”

“How so?” Tommy asked. He was flipping through the file. I was tracking along.

“For starters, it happened right on the campus. I grew up just outside Champaign. Lived around here my whole life. Never once until then did I hear of a professor dying in a car accident on the campus.”

Tommy went to the accident photos. The car had wrapped around a light post. It was scorched and mangled badly. Neither Tommy nor I could have testified to the make with any degree of certainty.

“You’d have to be traveling at a pretty good clip to smash up like this,” Tommy said, vaguely outlining the concaved hood of the car.

Carmichael nodded. “Sure would. A kid might get himself killed like that, but for a professor in his fifties …” He shrugged his point across to us.

Naturally, I thought, we old dogs were winding down. Raising our martini glasses was more than most of us could manage. I had the crazy idea I’d like to whip Carmichael around High Hills and environs in the Mustang.

Tommy turned back to the accident report. “Wheat crashed at one-thirty a.m.”

“You’ve got to ask yourself, why would a professor be trolling at one-thirty in the morning on a week night in a place shut down by that time?”

“You would,” Tommy said. “It doesn’t fit with a fifty-year-old man, a professor no less.” He went to the accident report again. “I don’t see an answer in here.”

“I didn’t either.”

“You remember much about the accident?”

“It was big news around here for a day or two. It’s not often we have a professor getting himself killed on campus like that. They’re retiring types.”

“You convinced it was an accident?” Tommy asked.

“I’m not convinced Sarah’s gone.” He went quiet for a second. “There’s nothing to tell me otherwise. The coroner’s report in there said the professor’s injuries were consistent with those you’d expect in an auto accident.”

“The body looks pretty bad. You wonder how the coroner could be so sure.”

“They have their ways. Experience and all that.”

“There are other things, too.”

Carmichael twisted his face quizzically.

Tommy rattled, “The time, the place, the reason Wheat was there. I don’t see any witnesses here, except the student who called it in, and he’s about as close to a witness as I am to my supper right now.”

Tommy pulled out the photos and laid them on top of the file. They were in color, close-ups in sharp focus. They were gruesome. I could make out Wheat in the driver’s seat. He was hunched over the steering wheel. He was charred and shrunk into a fetal position, though he was sitting and not lying on this side as Floyd had been. The sight chilled me and had me thinking the worst about our drive back to High Hills.

“Mrs. Wheat couldn’t tell you why he was out? They have a fight, maybe?” Tommy asked.

“I only know what’s in the report. She said she didn’t have a clue he was gone. She said they went to bed together around ten like they always did. She said they were early risers. He had morning classes and she started at the faculty office at eight. She said he must have gotten up later without waking her. According to her, he sometimes got up in the middle of the night. He’d go to the kitchen for a snack. Sometimes he read for a while or worked on his class notes.”

“He was an insomniac?” Tommy asked.

“She didn’t say. Sounds like it, though. In the beginning, she’d wake up. She’d call for him. She’d search for him, and usually find him in the kitchen. She adapted to his habit. She slept straight through after a few weeks of marriage.”

“Did his habit include leaving the house?”

“I didn’t see anything in the report about it. Nobody asked. Or if they did, they didn’t write down her response.”

Tommy had been staring intently at the photos during this exchange.

“You see something?” I asked.

“The problem is, I see nothing.”

His little riddle flew way over my head.

But Carmichael, who broken into a broad grin, got it. “No skid marks,” he said. “How could anybody have missed that?”

I took another look. The pavement was clean enough to eat off of. I couldn’t see anything resembling skids.

“Do you think he might have killed himself?”

Having had a minute to think it over, Carmichael said, “I’ve seen accidents without skids. Or short skids. People panic. They freeze. Bam. Suddenly they’re around a light post or a tree.”

“But you would concede it’s possible it wasn’t an accident?” Tommy said.

Carmichael said, “Anything’s possible.”

I took the file and photos from Tommy. I stuffed the photos in the back. Something was eating at me. I reread the accident report.

“It says he wasn’t drinking.”

“You think that’s significant?” Carmichael asked.

“Could be,” I said.

Tommy nodded.

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