Behind Lori Baer, 17

Behind Lori Baer

CHAPTER 17

I pulled the Suburban onto Interstate 57 north at three. We had four-and-a-half hours until the council meeting started and a five-hour drive ahead of us. I pushed the Suburban to eighty-five and held it there, even kicked up the velocity when I could, until we reached the outskirts of Chicago.

Tommy was tired. His headache had returned. He fished his first-aid kit for aspirin. He ate three and reclined his seat. He lolled the back of his head against the door window.

“Should have packed a pillow,” he muttered. He told me to wake him when we were home. He was asleep before we had traveled a mile. I figured Forrest was right. Sleep would heal what ailed Tommy.

I focused on the road. Calling Beth was on my mind. But Tommy’s phone was buried in the center console. Hunting for it and piloting the black rocket didn’t appeal to me.

What I had learned about Lori stuck with me like a nightmare, and now that I had nothing to occupy me but endless road, she was overwhelming me. The abuse. Turning in her own father. Her escape. His fiery death. The marriages. The deaths. More fire. And my friend Chuck caught up in her pathological life, dead like the rest.

It was overpowering, like rushing floodwater through a narrow sluice, concentrated force that couldn’t be countered. It descended on me as I guided the Suburban and there seemed no escape except avoidance.

I shoved the trip, and the past six days, out of my mind. I trotted in the coming council meeting. The Colluccis were an ironic barrier. At least they hadn’t tried to kill Tommy or me.

I gripped the steering wheel tight enough to make my hands hurt.

Maybe they had. Who knew? The old man certainly had the experience. He knew how to hire killers, to get the job of murder done efficiently. And just because the guy who had been after us was old and sloppy and drove a candidate for the junkyard, none of that disqualified him as a mob hit man. Where was it written but in Hollywood that mob killers had to dress like lounge lizards and drive Cadillacs?

That speculating did me absolutely no good, except to suck me into thinking about Marsh and Petey. Why not them? Tommy and I had a good read on them. They probably knew we suspected blackmail. They weren’t stupid. Well maybe Petey’s IQ would embarrass a rock, but he didn’t need much of the stuff with Marsh around. Marsh impressed me as somebody who could –- who really hankered to –- do the thinking for a dozen Peteys.

It made impeccable sense, and no sense whatsoever. When you had Petey around for muscle, why would you expose yourself by hiring from the outside? Sensible and insensible wrapped into one untidy package. The entire six days had been like that.

But blackmail, that made more sense now. Lori had a past. She may not have wanted anybody to know about her abusive father. But it didn’t seem nearly enough reason to help Marsh takeover Gatewood Graphics and, finally, kill her husband. Nor were multiple marriages sufficient. Not even creating an academic life for herself traded equally with murder. Which meant what Marsh had on her was very big, was as enormous as murder.

Lori’s men where a ladder. Shaw was the low rung. Not much in any department -– breadwinner, husband, human being. He was adequate, however, for removing her a degree away from the life she’d wallowed in.

Trouble was, Shaw was too close to what she had been fleeing. She was in Shaw’s clutches and he wouldn’t release her, at least while he was alive. And then he wasn’t living anymore and she was on to a new life almost before his body had cooled down.

Wheat was closer to what she’d wanted and needed. He loved her. She loved him back, according to Professor Miller, who had no reason to lie about it. But it seemed to me it wasn’t so much that she loved him; she loved what he represented and what he was doing for her. She transfigured from bumpkin and pathetic creature to strong and confident woman under his tutelage. He accomplished her transformation fast, and when he’d finished his part, she woke up beside an ordinary man, not a savior and teacher rolled into a single demigod. An old man at that, and mighty boring, in addition. She despaired of living with him until she died. She’d promised to, but she’d made her promise before she was a woman, a capable person. He’d prepared her to leave him, and she did.

Around Gilmore, a patch of white houses, silos, and trees halfway to Chicago, a mirage of tranquility shimmering off the highway, I tried to force Lori as predator from my mind. I concentrated on Gilmore as it slipped by, spinning it into a small and lovely, ordered and peaceful place, a Willoughby straight from the “Twilight Zone,” an oasis of peace, where a man could live out his days without ugly intrusions like murder of a friend by a friend.

Gilmore disappeared quickly and I was left with the road again and miles of blacktop and the unrelenting presence of Chuck’s murder in front of me, and the renewed realization I was responsible for his death in more ways than I’d first dreamed, even more than being too late to save him:  I’d paired him with the agent of his death.

All the way in, I tried throwing up walls to isolate and contain these thoughts. Invariably, relentlessly, the explosive power of his death crumbled them and I was left with images. Chuck dead. Lori in chic black. Marsh the puppeteer.

Then there were Vider and Mavic. Were they aware of Lori’s past, of the death threading through her life? Stella and Carmichael weren’t. They viewed each death as discrete. Unless Vider and Mavic had actively extended their investigation beyond Chicago, Lori’s propensity to attract death was probably unknown to them. I planned to call Vider in the morning.

I wrestled like this every mile to the sign marking Chicago’s limits. It hit me like a slap in the face, one of those movie smacks that brings the hysterical character back to his sensibilities.

I had a life beyond Chuck’s death, and part of it was coming due at four tomorrow in the form of a column I had to file with Ad Age. I briefly suffered a dose of panic. It left me with dampness along my spine and a good feeling that came of having a new and mundane focus.

I was off calculating I could put something together in the morning and email it over by afternoon. I was going good, distancing myself from the bad times, the bad thoughts, when I tackled the story topic. I’d write about the importance of good customer relations. It was a mistake, a free-association horror, a big cannonball screaming through the wall I had finally mortared solid. Dead Chuck was back, because he was the exemplar of the behavior. I didn’t get much done on the Ad Age piece, and I was no further along on Chuck’s case.

I roused Tommy as I glided the Suburban to a stop next to my Jag. He woke up alert. I cracked the door, and he looked, in the dim dome light, rested and nearly recovered.

“You’d better hurry if you expect to make your meeting,” he said.

I twisted my wrist and read my watch. It was seven. I’d probably be a half-hour late. I reached back and pulled my Dan Wesson from the gun box and Tommy’s cell phone from the console. I tilted the phone toward him like a question.

“Be my guest,” he said.

I called home first to check on Beth, and to let her know I wouldn’t be stopping by before the council meeting. The answering machine picked up. I worried as I listened to her voice recite the familiar message. I calmed myself with the idea that she probably went to the Five Dynasties for dinner and a little company.

Next I called Mitch Holbeck, a fellow trustee and in my camp when it came to Ecstasy. I told him I’d been out of town and would be late. He said he’d convey the message to the council. He’d arrange to postpone the Collucci discussion until eight.

I handed the phone to Tommy.

“You okay?” I asked.

“I’m fine,” he said,. “Call me in the morning. Now stop wasting time here with me.”

I dragged over to the Jag. Everything about the day was weighing on me –- the driving, Tommy’s near miss, the almost certain sense Lori was deadly, Beth’s call about a prowler. I put the Wesson in the trunk and drove away with a strong desire for twelve hours in bed instead of the acrimony I was driving into.

I arrived forty minutes after the meeting started. I eased in during public comments. A handful of residents who had been campaigning for a stop sign on their street to slow traffic were at the podium. It was a common suburban tactic, using stop signs to slow down traffic. We were careful about stop signs. Too many and the commerce of the town would gridlock. Not to mention people would become inured and disregard them.

We trustees perched on a dais behind a long concave paneled desk miced for videotaping, which was later broadcast over the village’s cable channel. My chair was one removed to the left of the village president. I slipped into it as the group’s leader rested her case with passion. She’d unfurled and waved vigorously the familiar flag of endangered children.

I didn’t have my meeting packet with me. Mitch Holbeck, who sat between me and the president, noticed and shared his agenda with me. We were addressing the stop sign issue first -– the traffic committee had recommended against it. A discussion of Ecstasy was to follow.

I scanned the chamber and spotted the Colluccis in the back with a third man who I assumed was their lawyer. Senior wore a blazer, open white shirt, and tan slacks. Junior was dressed like an undertaker. The lawyer was like a lawyer.

We settled the stop sign issue in five minutes. We voted it down, as the traffic committee recommended. The supporters left disgruntled, hurtling invectives at politics and politicians.

With their exit, the chamber was empty, but for the Colluccis, their lawyer, village employees, and the trustees. It wasn’t surprising. Not many people attended these regular meetings. About the only time we’d see our fellow citizens was when they wanted something from the council, such as a stop sign where none had business being. I’d learned long ago that village government was like prayer:  People participated when they needed favors. Otherwise, the working of village government was invisible.

The Colluccis and Ecstasy were up. My visit to their establishment had convinced me our ordnances were in place to block businesses just like theirs. Not that there weren’t nude bars and prostitution rings in the area. We weren’t children. But taking an adult attitude didn’t mean we condoned these nefarious businesses. Nor did it mean we had to invite them into our village.

Business of this type steered clear of High Hills, just as it did of Lake Forest, or Libertyville, or any number of the communities surrounding us. 

The Colluccis were different. They had set their minds on High Hills, sunk their teeth into us, and they held on tenaciously. They had been such bulldogs they split the council. Only our president, Lyle Teedler, was on the fence. The Colluccis were doing their best to topple him to their side. Holbeck and a couple of others were tugging at him to fall in our direction. Lyle claimed his position required him to be open-minded, though my side suspected he relished and reveled in the courting.

Lyle called them to the podium. They trundled up. Senior and Junior assumed subordinate positions behind their lawyer. The lawyer, who was tall and gangly, attributes his finely tailored suit was meant to hide but didn’t quite, introduced himself as Phillip Weinstein.

He made an energetic case for their project, spouting the results of a survey they had conducted, demographic analyses they had undertaken, cheerful comments they had secured from current members of their Schaumburg club, and sizable tax projections for the village. They concluded Ecstasy was a perfect fit for High Hills.

I didn’t find the argument compelling in the least. But Lyle listened intently and smiled frequently enough during the presentation to give me the impression he was inclining in their favor. When Lyle opened the matter for questions and discussion, supporting trustees monopolized the conversation, allowing Weinstein to reiterate the project’s multitude of economic positives.

It went on like that for nearly twenty minutes. Then I summarized the opposition, which boiled down to two arguments. First, Ecstasy was not in keeping with the character of the village. We didn’t object to a health club. We favored one, but a more traditional club, and preferably affiliated with a hospital. Second, we objected to the ownership. I called on Gary Cabot to present his findings about the principals. He related them with authority, his uniform adding weigh to his points. He spent most of his time recounting Senior’s history.

Lawyer Weinstein felt Gary’s words as flame under his chair, given the excited manner in which he hurled himself to his feet and yelled, “Objection,” in caricature of how he’d done it scores of times in the real defense of his client. His objections gushed forth as a flurry of assaults on Gary’s facts, or as Weinstein denigrated them, “So-called facts.” “At best, they are allegations,” he bellowed, making me wonder from what part of him he mustered the wind. “Allegations isn’t correct either,” he thundered. “Hearsay is more like it. Rumor. Character defamation.” He was impassioned beyond reason, like killing a fly with a bomb, leading me, and I hoped other equally sensible individuals, to conclude Senior had done many bad things, had much to hide, and needed all the vociferous defense anybody could summon forth on his behalf.

“Mr. Collucci Senior is not and never has been an owner, director, or involved in Ecstasy in any other capacity that can be proved.”

With Weinstein at his elbow, nobody ever would prove Senior guilty of anything greater than jaywalking, and then I had my doubts anybody could prove that. The old man was the clean whistle.

Gary had uncovered nothing on Junior, except he was the son of Senior, which was enough for me. Had he not been stopped, Weinstein’s expurgation of the Collucci history might have continued interminably.

It seemed to me ages since I had visited Ecstasy in Schaumburg. It had been that past Monday, a mere four days. Yet the memory was as foggy as the misted spa room of the club, obscured by Lori’s stunning life. I’d had no time to formulate a report, written or mental. When it was my time again to speak, I left it at, “I can’t support this project. I’ll have a detailed report for the next meeting with all the particulars.”

I didn’t win points with Weinstein who rocketed to his feet enraged. “Trustee Angellini is clearly prejudiced against my clients. And now he’s asking for time to spread his prejudice among his fellow trustees. His request is patently unfair and should be rejected out of hand. The council should put this project to a vote this evening.”

Lyle suggested Weinstein might wish to calm himself. He said he looked a bit too red in the face. “You appear to be a type A person to me, Mr. Weinstein. I was like you once, and take it from me, it’s not the healthy way to live.”

Weinstein’s response to Lyle’s observation and recommendation was a series of sputters and head twists that looked painful to me.

Lyle polled us trustees as to whether we wished to vote on the matter of Ecstasy at this meeting or defer the vote until I passed around my report. Deferral won by a vote, Lyle’s, and he directed the secretary to add the discussion and vote to our mid-November meeting, providing me with two weeks in which to prepare. I thanked him and smiled at my nemeses.

The Colluccis and Weinstein immediately left the meeting. Weinstein led the way out slightly hunched, with Collucci Senior up tight behind him talking softly so I heard only mumbling, and furiously gesticulating, which indicated with near certainty the old man was bestowing upon the lawyer an earful of something decidedly unpleasant.

Then the meeting became more of an inner-circle affair, as our meetings often were — trustees, the usual gaggle of village officials, the sole press representative from our weekly suburban paper. The meeting progressed smoothly and concluded uneventfully at ten.

For the most part, we trustees parked in the back of village hall and wended our way out to our cars as a group. But since I’d arrived late, I had to park in the visitor lot. It wasn’t far, but it was across the street, in the opposite direction of the employee lot. After Decatur, crossing a street, especially in the dark, spooked me.

I wasn’t ashamed to admit it, either. I asked Gary if he wouldn’t mind accompanying me to my car. He was sympathetic and escorted me. I offered to drop him at his car, save him a few steps, but he declined. It was an appreciated gesture, but he’d parked his patrol car in front of village hall, which couldn’t have been more than fifty steps from where we said goodnight.

Starting up the Jag, I noticed I wasn’t alone in the lot. There were a couple of other cars, but they didn’t concern me. None was a beat up pickup or a restored Eldorado convertible.

I turned onto 45 and got up a head of steam, when I noticed headlights behind me. Nothing unusual, I thought. Nothing more common than headlights at night. I told myself to calm down. The unusual would be a deserted highway, and then, no doubt, I’d be nervous that the world had disappeared on me.

I pushed the lights out of my mind and switched my thoughts to Beth. I should have phoned her when I’d gotten to village hall, but there had been no time. There’s always time, I remonstrated. But there hadn’t been, since Lyle had already shifted agenda items to accommodate me. Beth would understand. Besides, the prowler incident had been nothing. She’d be nervous, though. It was natural.

I was nervous. Since Chuck’s death, my life had taken on a strangeness. As I wheeled the Jag into The Farm, I acknowledged it was a feeling I didn’t dislike. It made me feel alive, purposeful, good.

I wasn’t too far along Long Pasture when I saw headlights appear behind me. They came up fast, like the person was racing to catch up with me. I peered in the rearview mirror but couldn’t make out much more than the driver had the brights on. I craned around and tried to catch a better view of the vehicle. The bright lights were blinding, and the streetlights cast illumination too dim to penetrate them and reveal the vehicle. I imprecated those lamps as I turned forward and tacked the Jag back in a straight line. I could feel the heat of the headlights on my neck.

I cursed the lamps again and the builder who had installed them and the old village council that had approved them. The builder wanted ambiance. I would have preferred crime-deterring practicality. But the old village council was on a mission to enhance High Hills with upscale development and they merrily went along with the developer. I promised myself to reignite the issue of increasing the wattage in those lamps.

Well, the driver could have been a kid in a hurry to get home, I reassured myself. We had teens in The Farm and a couple were notorious for their lead feet.

But this didn’t feel like a teenager. This person was heavy on my bumper, moving at ramming speed, and seemingly intent on pushing me right up and through my garage. Or maybe I was consumed with paranoia. It had been that kind of week.

I tapped the brakes, trying to slow my tailgater, encouraging whoever it was to go around me and fly to whichever house they belonged. My effort was rewarded with a nudge on my rear bumper.

“Damn it,” I barked, in anger, actually considering slowing and confronting the driver, until sensible fear reemerged.

I started thinking fast, sweated a little too, now properly intimidated, as the person behind me intended. It was the not knowing. Not knowing who it was. Not knowing if this was a garden-variety nut out for a good time. Not knowing if this was a mob guy paid to teach me a lesson. Not knowing if this was the gray-haired man in the pickup. The not knowing was crazing me.

I breathed deeply. Breathing deeply was supposed to calm an excited person. After a couple of breaths, I felt dizzy and not an iota calmer. I did loosen my grip on the steering wheel; my hands ached and relaxing them helped.

I decided against going home. If this person had it in for me, I didn’t want to bring the terror to the house, to Beth.

I cut hard to the right, screeching onto the street before Friendly Fences. My tail took the corner right behind me, jerking the wheel more suddenly than I had, lifting the right tires off the road. I was glimpsing in the rearview. I couldn’t see anything but the flaring headlights canting left, telling me he went an inch or two airborne. Served him right was my sentiment.

I booted the Jag up to forty, way too fast for The Farm streets, but a necessity; otherwise my friend would be appliquéing tire tracks on my roof, maybe even on me.

The end of the street came upon me fast, nearly unexpectedly. I braked and cut right again, heading back in the direction of 45.

I began wishing for things. I wished I would make it to 45. There I’d have a fairly straight roadway I could open up on. I might even get lucky and attract the attention of a High Hills’ cop.

I wished I hadn’t insisted the dealer remove the cell phone from the Jag. Beth said a car phone was good for emergencies. I was now a believer. I’d have to tell her so if I saw her again.

I wished I had the Wesson next to me, unholstered. It didn’t have to be cocked, but I wouldn’t have objected. Naturally, it was in the trunk, snug in its holster, where it was utterly worthless to me.

My tail was on me tight when I dragged the wheel around for another right. I hit forty and rendezvoused with Long Meadow in two minutes. The last turn had bought me a couple of feet, but the brights and the dim streetlights still made it impossible to distinguish the model of the vehicle.

Long Meadow was the central street in The Farm. Residents had to use it to enter and leave; there was no other way in or out. Which meant that it was the busiest street in the development and had traffic even past ten.

Which meant I resorted to praying nobody was using the street at that moment, because I wasn’t about to stop and look both ways like a good little scout.

I got the best; nobody was on Longmeadow when I flung the Jab onto it and goosed it back up to forty. My tail was still with me, but I put several yards between us.

At 45 I turned north, doubling back to village hall. Instead of going there, which was certainly locked up by now, I ducked into a strip mall nearby. I stopped in front of the White Hen. Whoever had been harassing me didn’t follow me in.

I looked back at the street. It was clear.

I climbed out of the Jag and used the pay phone in front of the store. I called Gary Cabot, who I calculated was entering his home. I could have called 911, but the emergency had vanished.

His phone rang four times. The answering machine picked up the call, and I muttered unhappily. Then he answered.

“It’s Gabe. I’m at the White Hen. Can you send a car?”

“You get shortchanged?”

“This is serious,” I said. “Somebody’s been tailing me, practically riding on my bumper since I left the meeting.”

“He followed you across the street?” This was honest incredulity, miles distant from his wisecrack.

“I’ve been home and back. I’ve nearly had my rear bumper creased a couple of times.”

“Who is it? They there now?”

“I don’t know who it is. Could be the Colluccis. Could be somebody who didn’t like Tommy and me looking in Lori’s past. I couldn’t make out the vehicle.” Keeping an eye on the strip mall’s entrance, I gave him an abridged account of the run-in.

“I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

Beth was waiting, maybe worried. “I guess I’ll give it another try. Whoever it was probably gave up.”

“I’ll send a car to your house, Gabe. If you aren’t there when he arrives, he’ll backtrack to the White Hen.”

“I’m leaving now,” I said.

I eased behind the wheel, surveying a circle around me and the Jag. I was alone. I paid special attention to the entrance. I saw no car or truck, or headlights. But whoever it was could have been lurking around the corner, lights off, engine idling, waiting.

I swung the Jag around and hurled out of the lot with full faith everybody really was tucked in their beds resting for the new day.

I cruised to 45 and then to Long Meadow without lights glaring through the rear window. My rear was still clear when I pulled in my driveway.

A High Hills police car was waiting for me. The lights were off.

The officer met me as I stepped from the car.

“Officer Benton,” he said. “I didn’t see anybody behind you. Or around the house while I was waiting.”

“Whoever it was must have given up on me at the White Hen.”

“Want me to wait while you get settled inside?”

I sensed myself reddening and was happy for the dark. I felt like a nuisance. Surely I was diverting Benton from stopping authentic crime in the village. Certainly the chief was coddling a trustee, someone who passed on the department’s budget. Truth was, it was my guilt at my own weakness. Benton was simply interested in being of service, preventing a crime, and moving onto the next assignment, without judgment about me.

“No,” I said. “I’m fine.”

I waited while he walked to his squad, got in, and drove off.

I opened the garage door and parked the Jag next to Beth’s BMW. I popped the Jag’s trunk and climbed out. I removed the Wesson from the trunk and went into the house. I stepped over the threshold and immediately felt uneasy.

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