Behind Lori Baer, 18

Behind Lori Baer

CHAPTER 18

I couldn’t pinpoint why I was edgy. It could have been the day—long, disillusioning, peppered with old and new violence. Or the council meeting that was more acrimonious than normal, and attended by a man known to be a merciless and brutal killer. Or it could have been the harrowing chase through the usually somnolent streets of after-hours High Hills.

Or maybe it was simply entering a pitch-black house—even the light over the kitchen sink was off—that disturbed me.

Beth was not a lighting enthusiast—she had her thing about enriching Commonwealth Edison. It would require a special occasion, a special consideration, such as the night of Chuck’s wake, for her to have more than two lights on. She was strictly a task light person, very few exceptions. But she wasn’t a complete light Luddite.

I hesitated on the threshold. I stared at my fuzzy shadow, cast into the kitchen by the sallow light from the automatic garage door opener. Beth should be home, I thought. Her car was in the garage. The front light was on—at least she’d put it on.

But the rest of the house was black.

Beth could have been upset with me for not coming home first, as I’d said I’d try to. And not call again when I couldn’t reach her. She’d demonstrated her dissatisfaction with what she considered my rude and inconsiderate behavior in small but unmistakable ways. Leaving the downstairs uninvitingly black would be a way she would show her displeasure with me.

No lights—it was probably nothing. Other days I would have ignored it. But not tonight. Not since Saturday. Maybe not ever again.

Chuck in his final seconds, in the minute after, was projected across the front of my mind on a cinematographic screen of hurt, when I switched on the kitchen light. I was afraid I might see another nightmarish scene.

What I saw was a spotless kitchen.

I pulled a chair out from the table and set my overnight bag on it. I did it gently, not my normal practice.

I started for the hallway to make my way upstairs to see Beth in bed, to announce I was home, to get a look at her, to feel her lips on mine, to have her rub my back, to regain normalcy and sanity.

I was nearly out of the kitchen when I saw it. I caught it in my peripheral vision. It was yellow and lined and out of place in the clean kitchen. I had to look at it. I had to study the legal-pad paper on the floor in the kitchen. It had spilled from the office into the kitchen, ahead of reams of scattered, misplaced sheets.

I began operating on instinct, on a stealth I hardly knew I possessed. I grabbed the overnight bag. I crept the zipper tooth by tooth, so slowly I began aching with anxiety, trying to contain the fear wriggling up my spine, working it without diverting my eyes from the office, not even when the teeth pinched my finger.

I rifled the contents until I bumped the Wesson. Eyes still glued on the office door, I released it from the holster, weaning it free without squeaking the leather.

I lifted it from the bag. I pushed the barrel from the frame. I ran a finger around the chambers, reassured by the jackets. I knew I’d loaded the Wesson, but I wanted certainty. I fixed the barrel into position, muffling the snap by pressing the revolver against me and shielding the barrel with a hand.

Then I raised the Wesson and I gripped with two hands. I stiffened by arms and locked my elbows. The Wesson pointed at the floor. That way, awkward and tense, I eased over to the office doorway in a sort of sidle forced on me by the position of my arms.

At the door, I leaned against the wall, tight to the jamb. I calculated how much ambient kitchen light might be leaking into the office. Enough to glimpse something, I guessed. I poked my head through the door, articulating it like a waddling hen, holding long enough to take in as much as I could in the split second I had. I didn’t see a person, at least not standing. I removed my left hand from the Wesson, snaked it around the jamb into the room, and along the wall, until I hit the light switch. I drew a breath and held it.

I triggered the switch up, raised the Wesson, got it into a two-handed grip again, and hurled myself into the office. I thumped to a stop on spread feet, wavered, then went rigid. I was as silly and graceful as a ten-year old playacting guns.

The office was trash. The floor was white and yellow with paper. My sitting chairs were kindling. My computer was shattered on the floor. My desktop had a crevasse carved down its middle. A Wüsthof blade was imbedded at the terminus of the cut. The handle was gone, probably buried under the papers. The credenza doors gaped open. The credenza was empty, its contents spilled around the room.

I started to move in, then stopped. I was cold and shaking. The Wesson vibrated in front of me. I’d been afraid before, but never shaking as I was then.

I couldn’t look beyond the Wesson, beyond the paper, on the other side of the desk. I was seeing Chuck, his feet jutting out from his desk, angled oddly, unnaturally. I was seeing Beth. I didn’t want to see her. I forced myself to walk, dragging my feet. My eyes were hot and moistening. My heart pounded, making it impossible to keep the Wesson steady.

I got myself around the desk and breathed again. My chair was overturned. The Wüsthof handle was next to it. There was more paper. And that was all.

I lowered the Wesson. I held it with one hand. I used the other to wipe my face and pinch my eyes and take away the fear and the horrible images I had in them.

I slumped against the desk and shivered. Then I heard rustling and snapped rigid, double gripped the Wesson again, swung it in the direction of the sound, until it pointed at the shattered window overlooking the patio. The panes where shards on the floor. The mullions were splinters mixed in with the glass. The sound was the maples rattling in a breeze.

I should have been relieved. Instead, I was tense, tighter than I’d been entering the office, more wound than when I’d approached the desk. Where was Beth? It exploded in my brain. Beth, where are you?

I probably should have done a lot of things then. But I had just one thought in my head—finding Beth, finding her safe.

I slogged through the paper worried and angry. I fumed at the idea that somebody invaded our home, violated it, possessed it, destroyed it. I was furious that this phantom could terrorize us—could terrorize me with fear that my wife was in jeopardy, maybe at the very moment I was kicking through old agency reports and stillborn novels beyond threat, already harmed.

I pulled my finger hard against the trigger guard and wished this creep was in my sights. I lusted for the person’s death, and was sickened by the idea of killing, that I could harbor such intent, even as provoked as I was. And yet, there I was, squeezing the butt and trigger guard of the Wesson, restraining myself, actually exerting will to stop from firing a round, blasting it into nothing to assuage my frustration, anger, and fear.

But because I was thinking this, because it was the creation of my mind, I could squelch the merciless obsessions by shifting to the past, to the time before Saturday. It was just a handful of days ago—days that felt like a century. I was normal, and my life was blissfully dull. My biggest concern was turning fifty. Measured on a scale weighted with all that had transpired since I’d had breakfast with Beth, had watched her move under her dragon lady pajamas, had removed those pajamas—I had been in Eden, and oblivious to what I  possessed.

And then I was back to the creep, speculating about who it was, for how could I kill a phantom? It could be Lori, angry I was party to trying to prove she murdered Chuck; that I had rooted around her life, a life she’d exercised great care hiding. It could be Marsh and his Neanderthal appendage Petey afraid I’d expose his embezzling of Gatewood Graphics and his role in Chuck’s death. It could be the Colluccis hinting in their subtle manner what would happen if I didn’t bend to their will and approve their project.

In the space of a minute, I’d been yin and yang and yin again. I shook myself, refocused on what was important, on finding Beth and ensuring she was fine, and I was yang once more.

I reversed into the kitchen, cleared the doorway, swung around, and advanced cautiously into the family room, switching on lamps as insurance that nobody was hiding under the furniture. Sure it was dumb and desperate. And perfectly reflective of my flirtation with the cusp of irrationality.

I cleared the room fast and I moved on to the hallway, leaving a wake of blazing lights. If Beth was in the vicinity, the waste would have her screeching her location. I quickly checked the bath. In the foyer, I turned on the downstairs hall light. It threw enough light into the living room for me to see nobody was lurking there, even under the shadowed furniture.

Then I switched off the light and waited in the dimness for my pupils to dilate. When the steps were visible, I started up them. I ascended on my hands and knees, low and quiet, the Wesson in my right hand, out in front, just in case.

I took a breather on the landing. I pushed against the wall, trying to be invisible in the gray light. I waited for my breathing to slow and quiet, until I couldn’t hear myself. Then I was confident whoever might be in the house couldn’t hear it either. I headed for the top calmer.

On the second floor, the lights were off in every room—Mae Rose and Frank’s old rooms, the guestroom, and our room at the end of the hall. I inched forward along the wall, the Wesson in a two-hand grip in front of me, sighted on our bedroom door. Instinct told me that if someone was up here, if Beth was up here, they’d be in our bedroom.

I moved warily. I crabbed part of the way. I rolled by the open doors, switching the light on and off, stealing glances inside, not expecting to see anything, afraid that I would, easing my finger on and off the trigger just in case.

Then our bedroom door confronted me. It was closed. It was usually opened. No light leaked through the jamb. Why would Beth close the door when she hardly ever did? This question immobilized me, because I wanted to be frozen on the spot, in the moment, not taking the next step I knew I had to take.

Beth hated closed doors. I knew she hated them. She didn’t like paying for light, but she adored natural light. Light couldn’t enter the hallway with the doors closed, she’d moan ostensibly to herself, but in substantial volume, so Frankie and Mae Rose and I could hear. They were the culprits—small people attempting to protect their territory and preserve the little privacy they had.

Without daylight the hallway was forbidding. It was small and confining and dreary, and Beth couldn’t see the family photos and the art she had hung and that she loved. Not long after moving into the house, she’d suggested we install skylights to allow in light day and night. She summoned contractors. They appeared. She expounded. They quoted. Their prices were exorbitant. The hallway was under roof’s apex, they explained, and they’d have to build boxes up to it, little rooms for cities of dust mites.

Frugal Beth, practical Beth, she was forced to say no. No to the cost, no to a result she desired, denial for the greater family good. Yes from her would have been as unnatural as rain falling up.

If Beth was in our bedroom behind the closed door, I knew she wasn’t alone.

I ticked through my options. I could barge into the room and surprise them. If I did, would her captor give up? Bolt from the room? Threaten to kill her? Or would her holder just blast away at me, the perfect target silhouetted in the doorway against the leaking silver of moonlight? This was terrifying because then I knew there would be shooting. Maybe Beth would be in the line of fire. I’d never contemplated being in a gunfight, and there I was on the verge of reliving the O.K. Corral in my bedroom. I didn’t want to open the door.

The Wesson shocked my torpor. It was electric in my hand, cramping my thumb, prickling my nerves. I was gripping it with unconscious ferocity.

Entering the room was unquestionable. I leaned lightly against the wall on the side nearest the knob. I released the Wesson—not without a spasm of trepidation—and tucked it in my armpit. I massaged my hand. I put the Wesson back in my hand, where it felt at home, comfortable and comforting, and I was prepared to do what I had to.

I reached my left hand across my body and seized the knob.

It was a lever. Beth preferred them over the ball types. I remember her pleasure at the idea they’d be easier for us to use when we were in our dotage. I laughed at the idea. We were in our thirties when she said it. Frank and Mae were kids. Tommy and Mae Chen were not much older than we were this night. I remembered thinking at the time age would never catch up with us. We’d be as we were then, forever without change.

I pushed the lever down. It unlatched quietly. I opened the door a crack. I cocked an ear. A tsunami of nothing came back at me.

I sucked the hallway empty of air, captured all of it in my lungs, vacuumed it in until my little alveoli pressed and ached against each other. I counted ten. Then I pivoted in front of the door, double-gripping the Wesson as I moved, and kicked.

The door flung in, sprung off the doorstop, and bounced back at me before I could get into the bedroom. I stopped the it with my foot. It ricocheted decrepitly back at the wall, its momentum spent, and stayed there.

I darted into the room, zigged right, landing hard against the wall. I froze. I hoped the dark camouflaged me as I listened for Beth’s cry, waited for the shooting to commence, anticipated, at the least, vulgar shouts to drop my gun.

Instead, silence enveloped me.

I felt my way into the room, along the bed, to the nightstand. I released a hand from the Wesson and fumbled up the lamp to the switch and turned it on.

The room was empty. The bed was rumpled. The rest of the room was in order.

But the bed was rumpled.

Beth’s pillow was out of place. The disorder wasn’t much, slight actually, unnoticeable to most.

But it was enough for me; it wasn’t in Beth’s nature.

I sat on the bed, on the rumpled spot. I picked up the phone. I touched nine, one, and one. The number rang sharply in my ear. I was aware it was the second time I’d called a 911 number in less than a week. My first call was to report a murder. My second call was abou—I didn’t know what. But it was more disturbing than the first, more painful, harder to make. Harder to talk to the 911 dispatcher. Harder to keep from breaking down. I was shouldering a quaternion—Chuck, Lori, the mystery man in the lime green truck, and vanished Beth. I was like a brittle Atlas; I was cracking.

Then I phoned Gary. He picked up on the second ring and said, “You got home okay.” He was reading his caller ID.

“Somebody broke into the house,” I said straight out and frazzled. “Beth is missing.”

He asked if I’d called 911. I said I had. He responded he’d be right over.

I cradled the receiver as the doorbell rang. I kept the Wesson with me as I headed downstairs, turning on lights as I went. At the door, I stashed the Wesson in the mail table’s drawer.

It was Benton redux. He said, “Sorry to be seeing you again this evening, Mr. Angellini.”

I nodded and ushered him in, down the hallway, to my shattered office. Along the way I peppered him with how I searched the house, how I couldn’t find Beth. I told him she should have been home, she should have been waiting for me. I said she’d been anxious about the prowler from last night, that maybe whoever had followed me, harassed me, was responsible.

He surveyed the office but remained stationary. He was preserving the crime scene, as he’d been taught. And I was a foot behind him with Chuck rampaging through my mind, reminding me of how I’d mucked through his scene of death, despoiling its sacred perfection for Vider and Mavic, nearly embroiling myself in a situation from which the truth might have been so thoroughly obscured as to be insufficient to extricate me.

Benton asked if I’d checked the basement. I answered no and was immediately racked with guilt and then the fear that Beth might be entombed down there and that maybe I’d known that all along and I was exercising my avoidance muscle. We went in the kitchen and he asked which was the door to the basement. I pointed to it. He opened it and started down. I was behind him, ready to fulfill my duty. He said, subdued, intense, “It’d be better if you waited here.” What was in my mind was in his, too.

I nodded. I fell back. I gripped the jamb tightly, as if releasing would send me tumbling to the floor. My knuckles whitened. Dizziness swirled around me. I hoped right down to my bowels he wouldn’t return with news I couldn’t bear to hear.

Then the doorbell rang. It was like the recess bell, setting me free, this time from numbing dread. Gary was at the door and he had an officer with him, who he introduced as Carmine Zantello. I’d seen him on patrol. He was new. Not new to policing, just new to High Hills. He was short, stocky, slightly bulbous in the belly, but thick and tough and hard everywhere, especially in the forearms and the neck, of which he had very little. His eyes were black and piercing and his face was rutted like he’d been among the last victims of smallpox in America. He inspired confidence.

Gary wanted to know the situation, and I repeated what I’d told Benton. I finished at the basement door as Benton came through it.

“Evening, Chief,” he said. “The basement’s clear.”

“Recheck the rest of the house,” Gary directed. “Carmine, you take the outside.”

They dispersed. Gary put a hand on my shoulder. “Gabe, did you call Tommy and Mae Chen?”

“No. Her car was in the garage. Mae Chen doesn’t drive. Tommy just came back with me from Decatur. And he wasn’t in great shape.”

“What’s wrong with Tommy?”

I waved him off. I wanted only to talk about Beth.

“Another time, sure. Well, Beth may be visiting a neighbor,” he suggested. It was reassuring, whether he believed it or not. “She gets around the neighborhood?”

“Yes, she does,” I said. I was loosening up. It was good having a friend with me.

“She a note leaver? Margie’s big on them. Leaves them all over the house for me.” There was a little grimace, just a flash, but enough. Theirs was a flinty relationship, always sparking, never dull.

Beth wasn’t compulsive about it like Margie, and her notes weren’t about jobs or deficiencies. If Beth went out and I wasn’t home, she sometimes scribbled a note. She’d leave a message on the answering machine if she expected to be delayed at school, or was running late at the beauty parlor. I scanned the counters. They were spotless and without notes.

“How about your answering machine?” he asked.

“The office machine is wrecked. I think the one up in our bedroom is okay.”

Gary walked down the hallway to the stairs. He called up to Benton and directed him to check the answering machine in our bedroom. Benton called back that there were no messages.

Zantello clomped in from the patio through the kitchen French doors. I began knotting again.

“I found his route in and out,” Zantello reported. He had a deep voice, rough like his appearance.

“How do you know it was a man?” I asked.

“His footprints. They had to be a man’s. Or this is a pretty big woman. It was a man. He parked two houses down. Left an oil patch on the street. It’s fresh.” He glanced at me apologetically, and it looked staged on him, like he banished empathy from his life ages ago. “Sorry, Mr. Angellini, but there was no sign of your wife. No second set of footprints.”

“That’s good news,” I said. That sense of looseness was coming over me again. Nothing was good news, because it wasn’t the horrid news I dreaded.

“Seems like it to me,” Gary said. More reassurance. I didn’t know if I believed him, but I knew I wanted to.

I was balancing precariously on an emotional tightrope, when the door from the garage opened. We swung our heads toward the door startled. Zantello’s hand glanced the butt of his pistol as we three pivoted in unison like porcelains on a windup music box.

Beth walked in.

“Gabe,” she said, mild amusement on her face, a touch of confusion in her eyes, watching us three, slack-jawed, staring at her, “what’s going on?”

“Beth,” I exclaimed, tripping over her words, “where have you been?”

She pointed north. “I was two houses down at the Jamison’s. I left you a note.”

I went to her and wrapped my arms around her. She smelled of tea and cake. “But the bed,” I rambled, “the door, the car, I thought –“

“Oh, Gabe,” she said, pressing into me, “I didn’t mean to worry you. I took a little nap; it was a rough day. I woke up late. I guess I was flustered about keeping Ellen waiting. I rushed out of the room without fixing the bed. The sleeve of my blouse caught the door and pulled it closed. I didn’t stop to open it. Is that what this is all about, Gary and the police department, Gabe?”

“There was a break in,” I said. “Your car was here. You weren’t. I didn’t see your note. I was worried.”

“Who broke in?” She pulled free of me. “Where?”

Gary said, “He came in through the office. Messed it up.”

She went to the office door. “It’s a disaster.” She turned back to us. “Did he take anything? Did you catch him?”

I said, “I haven’t had a chance to check if anything’s missing.”

Gary said, “We haven’t caught him, yet.” He sounded confident, like it was a matter of minutes.

“What about the rest of the house?”

“Just the office,” Gary said.

She played with her hair, twisting the ends behind her ear. “That’s peculiar.”

It was. But we’d been preoccupied with her whereabouts; we hadn’t noticed it until she said it.

“Beth’s right,” Gary said. “Who would break in just to wreck your office?”

“A Collucci goon,” I said, “delivering a message.”

“Could be the fellow following you tonight,” Gary said.

“You were followed, Gabe?” Beth crossed the kitchen and got an arm around my waist. Her brow was furrowed with concern.

“After the council meeting. Somebody rode my tail around The Farm. Nothing happened,” I said.

“Nothing, except somebody, maybe the person following you around, smashed the office window and destroyed your office.” To Gary, she said, “You really think it was the same person?”

“We don’t know, Beth. But Officer Zantello found a trail. It led across the patio, went around the house, up the street, and ended at an oil patch. We think he parked there while he was busy in the house.”

Beth fell quiet and stared at the floor.

“Gabe, what would he be searching for?” Gary asked.

I wanted to quip my Ad Age article, but good luck; he’d never find it. I still had to write it. It was strange what dross would take up residence in my head with concern over Beth vacated from the premises.

“What makes you sure he was searching for anything?”

“He didn’t go beyond the office.”

“Maybe I came home before he had the chance?”

“Maybe –”

Beth cut him short with, “Did you see what he was driving, Gabe?”

“No. His brights blinded me. Why?”

“I don’t know. Ellen and I were in her living room talking about the second-grade Halloween party. She’s a room mother this year. I’m sure I mentioned she was helping out a week ago.”

I nodded, though I hadn’t the least recollection. Which isn’t to say Beth hadn’t told me. Which is to say I probably hadn’t listened.

“She was sitting near the window. A loud noise interrupted our conversation. It was a bad muffler.”

Beth had been on intimate terms with the rumble of a bad muffler. I had a rotted one on the Mustang for years and she complained until the day I got around to replacing it.

“I said it was probably a kid with an old car. I know there’s a boy two streets down with a sixty-nine Camaro.” It was a sixty-seven Firebird, but she was close enough. “Ellen pulled the curtain and looked. By then the noise had stopped. ‘Who around here owns a pickup?’  I remember she asked me that. I said I didn’t think anybody did.”

“She saw a pickup.” I was excited. “Was it a Ford? Was it beat up? Was it pukey lime?”

“She just said pickup, Gabe. She didn’t rattle off its vitals from the Nitwit catalog.”

“Whitney.”

“New trucks don’t usually leak oil or transmission fluid,” Gary said.

“No they don’t.” Then I knew who had been following me and who had broken in. He wasn’t a Collucci goon. He was the mystery man who somehow was tied to Chuck’s death, the man Lori had been seen arguing with at the U of I.

“Look, it’s late,” Gary said. “We can’t do much more tonight. Tomorrow I’ll send a detective over to interview Mrs. Jamison. I’ll also have our evidence officer dispatched over here.”

“Could you make it first thing, Gary? I’ve got a busy day.” I was thinking a visit with Lori was in order, but I wanted to keep it to myself. “I have to see Vider and fill him in on Decatur, the pickup, the break in, the whole mess. And I want to hear if he’s learned more about Marsh’s involvement.”

He nodded. “I’ll have Officer Zantello stay around the house until his shift ends. I’ll arrange for another officer to come by at eleven. I’ll try to have evidence here by eight. Then you can get the window repaired, or boarded.”

We thanked Gary and showed him and Zantello out. We watched Gary climb in his car and drive off. Zantello got in his squad and began the vigil. We locked up and went upstairs. On the way, I grabbed the Wesson.

We spent the night on the bed, not in it. Beth was in sweats. I was too, just in case. We laid entwined in each other’s arms. We didn’t get much sleep.

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