Behind Lori Baer
The alarm sounded, but it was superfluous. I tapped it silent, and read the red digits. Five-thirty. Beth rolled onto her back, squinted at me, and mumbled a couple of words I couldn’t make out. I kissed her forehead and whispered she should get some sleep and I’d wake her later so she wouldn’t be late for school. She smiled and rolled onto her side and scooted her rear against me, which gave me ideas. I settled for kissing her neck.
I got out of bed shivering. If the house hadn’t been chilly, I could easily have blamed the feeling on the dream I’d had. I snatched my running shoes from the bathroom and headed downstairs.
I saw the problem immediately. The furnace was chugging away but it couldn’t keep up with the cold air pouring through the broken window. I wanted to shut the door, but I couldn’t without disturbing the papers on the floor or touching the door. I went to the hall closet, got a jacket, and shrugged into it. I put my shoes on while I was at it. Then I returned to the kitchen and put the coffee on. I sat at the table and waited for it, not bothering with the morning papers right away. I had a dream on my mind. Not that I valued dreams much; but Mae Chen placed a lot of stock in them. This one was easy—a nightmare brought on by the past several days.
In it, blackness surrounded me. It was so black it was like wearing a sleeping mask. It was so black, I could have been blind, but I wasn’t and I knew it. I was just staring into a black void.
The dream went on like that for the longest time, awareness in total blackness. My dream world was soundless; and regardless of how much or in what direction I twisted my head—my head only; I couldn’t budge the rest of me—I saw and heard nothing.
Then Beth’s face appeared above me. I couldn’t figure out how I saw her without light of any sort. But I noticed an eerie luminescence emanated from her. She radiated as if a bulb had been lit inside her and was shining out of her, golden, reflecting on me. She talked, but I knew that only by the movement of her lips, and even that was so indistinct I couldn’t read them.
Then in slow succession, like movie scenes lazily fading in and out, other faces appeared and mouthed words I couldn’t hear or read. Lori’s husbands came first, in order—Floyd, Stan, and Chuck. Each appeared anguished, but Chuck more than the others. And Chuck looked down at me the longest. I wanted to say I was sorry—sorry for introducing him to Lori, for running ten minutes late, for defending who I now was pretty sure killed him. But like those hovering over me, I couldn’t speak, and when I moved my lips, I sensed my lips bore no resemblance to what I was trying to say.
Then Marsh replaced Chuck. But it wasn’t the arrogant Marsh I recalled from our confrontation in his office. It was Marsh in pain, posing his face in the same tortured distortion as those who went before him.
He transformed into a man with cloudy features, except for one, and these were tongues of light, nearly white flames springing from his head in every direction.
He didn’t fade into another face, but instead grew larger as I sensed myself drawing away from him; and as I felt the space between us increase, he was like a full moon shining on me and lighting up my little world, and showing me the confines of my world: me perfectly immobile, but for my wobbly head, in a silver bullet coffin.
I knew who had put me there, and there was one face not in anguish, but laughing a soundless, hollow laugh, and vibrating with what I sensed was satisfaction.
I shivered and it wasn’t from the cold.
I grabbed a mug and filled it with coffee. I sipped as I threaded down the hallway and outside to retrieve the papers. I saw Zantello in his patrol car and raised my cup. He raised his 7/11 cup in response. I finished the coffee by the time I returned to the kitchen.
I put the cup in the sink. I dropped the papers on the table and left them there, not bothering to remove them from their plastic sleeves. I went out onto the patio, did my stretching routine, and then ran down to the path. I turned around almost immediately and ran up onto the patio. I stared at the window and decided I couldn’t leave Beth alone.
I returned to the kitchen, poured more coffee, slipped the papers from their sleeves, and spent an hour reading about everybody else’s troubles.
I woke Beth with a couple of kisses and when she was firmly in the world she pushed back with a couple of her own.
“You first,” I said, gesturing at the bathroom.
I settled on the floor, on Beth’s side of the bed. I leaned against the rail and watched her strip off her sweats and trot into the bathroom in black underwear that struck me as incongruous. I wanted to see her exit, but the doorbell rang before she finished.
It was the evidence officer. His name was Jack Tyler and I remembered seeing him around town when he was a patrol officer. He was young, handsome, with thick black hair, without a hint of gray, cropped short. Gary had remarked that Tyler had barely met the department’s height requirement. Which would have been a shame, Gary had added, because Tyler was a fine officer, especially adept at detail work, which preordained him for evidence duty.
Tyler set to work immediately and I put on a second pot of coffee. While I waited for it to finish dripping, I took out the yellow pages and called a glazer. I guessed they weren’t busy in the suburbs, since they said they could have a man at my place by eight-thirty.
Then the coffee was done and I offered Tyler a cup. He said maybe after he completed his investigation.
I went upstairs and retrieved a laptop computer we kept in the bedroom. Beth used it mostly for preparing lesson plans and assignments. She preferred working in bed than in the office or at the kitchen table.
She was in the bathroom applying her makeup and I watched her out of the corner of my eye as I gathered up the laptop. She didn’t use much makeup and was careful about what she did use. She was wearing a long black knit dress with a crewel neck. It reached to her ankles. She wore black boots. I kept my eyes on her until she returned her kit to its drawer. I could have watched her the entire day.
I settled on the sofa in the family room. I positioned the laptop on the coffee table in front of me. While Tyler sifted the office for evidence, I contemplated my column for Ad Age. I put down a whole cup of coffee staring at the blank screen. I switched to the windows that looked out over the patio into the yard and the park beyond several times, conveying what I thought was a contemplative demeanor. I didn’t find a story anywhere—not on the screen, in the cup, or waiting outside on the patio.
Beth breezed into the family room while I was spinning brain gears. She’d added a loosely cinched red belt to her ensemble, and it pinched the waist of the dress enticingly at her hips. I was ready to jump, and she kept me down by placing a hand on my shoulder. She grabbed my eyes with hers and shifted them in the direction of the office.
“He’s doing fine,” I said. “Have a coffee before you go.”
“Can’t,” she said, bussing me twice and vanishing into the garage, leaving behind the faint scent of her perfume.
I returned to studying the window and the patio and found no more success the second time around. The past several days insinuated themselves into my thoughts, as they had been doing with more frequency. Finally, in the midst of that replay of horror and death, I discovered my column. It was a familiar theme, but it held even more meaning for me as I typed. I wrote of the importance of sound, trustful relationships in business. I said getting the lowest price from vendors wasn’t always in a company’s best interest. Sometimes paying more for quality, for reliability, and to have a devoted player on the team against those times when emergencies arose, and they did with more frequency than most wished, was worth it. Business was a mirror of life and good relationships were vital.
It took an hour to write, and by the time I’d read it over a few times and tinkered it into a tight column I could send to my editor, Tyler appeared in the family room and announced he was done. “So am I,” I said, but the humor escaped him.
I again offered him coffee and he declined. I asked if he’d found anything. He hadn’t but he didn’t expect he would, since burglars normally had the foresight to wear gloves. I must have appeared dejected, because he said, “I did find a couple of hairs mixed in with the broken chairs. Could be something.”
I showed him out and took myself and the laptop into the office. The place looked a bigger mess in daylight.
I cleared a patch of desk for the laptop. I plugged it into the phone jack, restarted it, opened my email, and sent the column to Ad Age. Finished, I deposited it in the kitchen, and set about putting the office in order.
I gathered the loose papers into four piles, my novels and everything else. I transferred the stacks to the family room.
I brought a large empty garbage can from the garage into the office. I tossed the big chunks of wreckage, including the computer and the fax, into it. When I’d filled it, I swept up the smaller stuff and put it in thick green garbage bags. I filled two bags before I finished. I carried the flotsam into the garage.
When I opened the door for a little natural light—it was always easier to work in the garage with sunlight—the glazer’s truck was sitting in the driveway and the glazer was on his way to our front door.
I called him over and showed him in. I offered him a cup of coffee. He accepted, and said it was good coffee with his first sip. I knew he’d do a quality job.
But at that moment he could do nothing but board the window and order a replacement, which he said would arrive in five days. It was semi-custom work. We scheduled installation in a week. He had a quick second cup of coffee while he drew up his estimate. He smiled, thanked me for the coffee, wished me a good day, and presented me with a flimsy yellow sheet on which he’d scrawled a couple of items and a grand total of $850. “You’re sure you included the time you spent drafting this,” I said, flapping the estimate. Not even a tiny smile at the corners of his mouth. Victimhood was an expensive fraternity, I thought, as I escorted him through the garage.
Now that all was in order and Beth was at school, I backtracked through the house to the patio, where I limbered up for my run. I ran my regular circuit through town and was showered and dressed by ten. I had phone calls to make, but I couldn’t bear sitting in my denuded office. I made them from the kitchen phone.
I phoned Gary first.
“Tyler was here bright and early,” I said.
“Service with a smile, we always say,” Gary said.
“He didn’t find prints, but he said he found a hair.”
“He told me. We’re on it, Gabe. We’re sending a portion to the county crime lab. I’ve asked they get the results to us and to your friend, Vider, ASAP.”
“If it matches anything they found in Chuck’s apartment –“
I didn’t have to say anymore. We both knew the significance of the hair.
“We asked Schaumburg to check on the Colluccis. They verified the father and son were at Ecstasy the entire day.”
Which only meant they could have hired a proxy.
“I’m pulling the detail off your place, but we’ll patrol the street more frequently.”
I thanked Gary and called Vider. I reached him on the second ring. I wondered if he was ever on the street.
“I’m a happy man, Mr. Angellini.”
I bit. “Why?”
“I’ve felt you’ve been neglecting me.”
“You are a flatter, Sergeant Vider.”
“Solve the case yet, Mr. Angellini?”
“I’ve been kind of busy staying alive,” I said.
He asked me to tell him about it and I did.
“You have a knack, don’t you?”
“For getting the greatest number of people pissed off at you in the shortest amount of time. You must be shooting for a record.”
“Thanks. I try.”
“Marsh is nowhere to be found,” he said.
“For how long?”
“We wanted to talk to him yesterday. Mavic and I stopped at his place twice, called more. He was out all day. And he wasn’t at home, either. At least he wasn’t answering his phone, or talking to the doorman.”
“Couldn’t have been him. The man who tried to run down Tommy had bushy gray hair.”
“That’s it,” he said.
“It’s not a great mystery, Mr. Angellini. Jerden Marsh and Lori Gatewood colluded in Chuck Gatewood’s murder. We don’t know how yet. It could have been blackmail and embezzlement like you said. I’m sure we’ll know soon. I’ll be certain to report to you the minute I hear anything.”
“Thanks,” I said sourly.
“Call anytime,” he said and hung up on me.
I was about to dial Tommy to see how he was feeling when he called me. “I’m coming over.”
“For what? And shouldn’t you be resting that head of yours?”
“We’re going to call on Mrs. Gatewood. And my head is perfect. Mae Chen covered my eye with a poultice and I woke up cured. Couldn’t be better. Mr. Forrest would be jealous.”
I pictured the hyperactive Mr. Forrest and the sedate Mae Chen together, and it wasn’t a bad pairing. Mae Chen possessed an enchanting, quiet mystical manner, incisive when applied to penetrating human emotions and intent, comforting when used to heal, or at least ameliorate, illness and physical pain. Forrest had impressed me as kind, perhaps as insightful, but he was loud, an incessant chatterbox who discovered remembrance in mundane circumstances and was compelled to express the memories in rambling discourse; but he too healed and ameliorated with old art. Mae Chen would be a good, patient, and amused audience for him.
“I’ll be at the Five Dynasties finishing lunch,” I said.
I’d skipped breakfast and I was famished when I arrived at the restaurant. I ordered pepper steak with white rice and a Diet Coke. Q showed up with my lunch. He sat with me and asked about the investigation.
“It’s not so much an investigation,” I explained, “as it is a pursuit.”
“Then you know who is responsible for your friend’s death.” Q sat across from me. He was dressed in brown tweed, though I would have found the weather too warm for such attire. He had on a deep brown turtleneck that enhanced his long neck, a Tomassetti trait inherited by every child from Mae Chen, whose neck was miraculously long, smooth, and still tight. His gaze was a wall of languidness, an impenetrable mask often donned by Mae Chen. I was thankful that Beth hadn’t inherited this trait she was always expressive.
“No,” I said, “but I think he’s pursuing your father and me.” I searched to see if I’d sparked something in him.
He was placid, and said earnestly, “You and my father should have the killer in short order then.”
I changed the subject and asked him about business, and that drew an animated flood of words.
I had drained my glass and Q’s business talk was nearly depleted when Tommy pulled up a chair. Q, the most formal of the Tomassetti children, the chief preserver of their Chinese heritage, bowed modestly and respectfully to his father from his chair.
Q asked if Tommy wanted anything. Tommy didn’t. Q excused himself.
“Let’s go,” Tommy said to me. “I’ll drive.”
On the way to Lake Forest, I related my conversation with Vider.
“So,” Tommy said, “Marsh is keeping out of sight. Interesting.”
We didn’t have to discuss our thoughts on this. It was more proof Marsh was involved in Chuck’s murder.
Chuck and Lori lived in West Lake Forest, a newer section of the town, on Oak Knoll. I directed Tommy east on Village Road to St. Mary’s Road and then to Everett. We took a left onto Oak Knoll and drove about two miles to a dead end, where the Gatewood house was, isolated from the others in a nearly estate-like setting.
The house was a long and rambling two story in a modernized Tudor style of brick, board, and stucco. It was situated on a couple of very pricey acres, wooded in the back, sculptured in the front. The lawn was expansive and clipped like a putting green. Trees and scrubs bordered the street and shielded the house, though given its reclusive location, few uninvited guests probably found their way to the place.
“What do you think we’ll learn from Lori?” I asked as Tommy guided the Suburban to a stop at the foot of the driveway.
“I’m hoping she isn’t home,” Tommy said.
I turned and glared, but he didn’t notice. His attention was on the house.
“What do you mean?”
“I think we’ll learn more if Mrs. Gatewood isn’t home.”
“That’s against the law.”
Tommy shrugged. “Sometimes the law has to be flexible.”
“Somebody will see this thing,” I said.
He piloted the Suburban away from the Gatewood house. He went around the corner and parked.
He climbed out of the Suburban and I followed.
“That’s it?” I said.
Tommy scanned the neighborhood, craning his neck, striking a pose, and generally exaggerating his gestures, all for my benefit. “It’ll be fine. Nobody’s around. They probably don’t even look out their windows. Let’s go.”
Walking back around the corner, I complained, “We stick out like a sixty-three Ford Falcon.”
“Lousy car,” he said.
“Take a look, Tommy. Nobody walks around here.”
“Nobody walks in any suburb,” he said pointedly.
“I’ve been told.”
We ambled up the driveway, Tommy looking perfectly comfortable, me affecting nonchalance I didn’t feel.
“You do the honors,” he said, nodding at the bell button.
“What if she’s home?”
“It’s a crime to visit the wife of a dead friend? You’re a sympathetic guy, Gabe. She knows that.”
I pushed the button. There was no answer.
“Again,” he said, “and hold it. She might be doing the laundry.”
I shot him the look I reserved for nuts.
“Anything’s possible,” he said. He wasn’t smiling, but his eyes twinkled. He was clearly enjoying this, and my discomfort.
Nobody answered, so Tommy set to work. He drew a small case from his jacket pocket. He unzipped it, while he raked the front yard with his eyes. That told me we were into serious stuff.
“Watch for busybodies,” he said, removing two picks from the case. I happily obeyed, as if not staring somehow absolved me of the b&e we were engaged in.
He defeated the deadbolt and the door locks in under two minutes, but I swear I saw the cops creeping in the front yard scrubs.
Tommy nodded at the door and offered up the knob with a palm-up hand. I shook off his invitation. He shrugged and opened the door. I was right behind him.
“Close it,” he said, so cocky he didn’t even bother to pretend to whisper.
I froze for the moment with a horrible realization. “What if they have an alarm?” I whispered.
“Close the door. There’s no alarm. No need to whisper either.”
I swung the door closed and listened as its latching echoed in the hall, louder than I remembered any latching ever sounding, with perhaps the exception of the lobby door of Chuck’s apartment building.
“How can you be sure?”
He was swinging his head around, probably thinking about where to begin. “What?”
“The alarm. How can you be sure they don’t have an alarm?”
“No signs,” he said. “Where’s the study? A house like this has to have a study.”
“What do you mean, no signs? You don’t see a sign and you assume there’s no alarm? That’s crazy.”
“You have an alarm?”
“No, of course not. You know we don’t.”
“But you if you had an alarm, wouldn’t you put up a little sign? You know, advertise you did?”
“Sure, I suppose.”
“It’s part of the deterrent effect.”
“That’s it?” I said with a big load of my own alarm expressed in a loud whisper which sounded like a ruptured steam pipe.
He shook his head. “Gabe, we’re wasting time. Does this place have a study? And will you cut out the whispering or I will be crazy.”
I was preoccupied with running my eyes over the windows encasing the door and the door itself hunting for wires. I didn’t see any and calmed down a couple of degrees hoping Tommy hadn’t lost every ounce of his cop sense. I rationalized he that he was right about the alarm. After all, security was his business, and he was good at it.
“To the left,” I said finally.
“Why don’t you take a look, while I check upstairs?”
I nodded. “What am I looking for?”
“Why would I kid? Find his desk and look in the draws. Find a checkbook. Look through it. See if anything recorded in it looks strange, doesn’t fit with what you know about the Gatewoods.”
“Or might show somebody was blackmailing Lori.”
“Right. You’ve got the idea.”
As I started for the study, Tommy touched my arm. I stared at him. He pointed to my ears. “Keep them open,” he said, and then he ambled up the staircase. That admonishment certainly boosted my confidence. I wished I’d stayed in the Suburban.
Reflexively, as I made my way to the study, I dug an index finger in my right ear. Just keeping it open, as advised.
Tommy’s warning jogged my memory. I recalled when I was a little boy, before my parents and my brother died, when I had a normal boy’s life. I’d wanted a toy I’d seen at Spangler Five & Dime—the store on Market Street in Patroon Manor whose motto was and remained until the day it closed: “Nothing More Than 25 cents,” which was probably a big reason why it went out off business. The toy I thought I couldn’t live without was an Indian (Native American these days, but plain Indian then) and horse set in a cellophane package, on which was labeled a price of fifteen cents. The fifteen cents was the problem.
I’d all but forgotten, maybe buried it deep down in my gray matter because it conflicted with the view I’d constructed of my past, that when my parents were alive, we weren’t Rockefellers, a favorite expression they overused until it was as clichéd as the shine on the seat of Dad’s pants. My father was no disciple of Nelson Rockefeller, who was governor of New York State during a portion of my boyhood. My father had, however, found Nelson a handy foil. No man but Rockefeller would find my Indian anything but a frivolous acquisition, because Nelson was a man who didn’t know from money as he didn’t need to know.
He was a green Indian, I remembered. A chief with a full war bonnet, bowlegged so he was useless for anything other than straddling his pony. He carried a bow and a quiver stocked with never-used arrows. His pony was tan and striding. I liked the striders, as opposed to those rearing back; I could do more with striders, and when I wanted them to rear, I created the action myself.
I didn’t have the fifteen cents, or any prospects of acquiring it. So I took the Indian. Mr. Spangler, who was old, slightly bent, and plagued with bad eyes, didn’t notice. I stuffed the Indian into a pocket. In those days, my pockets usually bulged with junk.
Remorse and fear consumed me the moment I was in the sunlight. When I got home and ran up to my room to be alone with my treasure, I discovered I could barely remove the Indian from my pocket. And when I did, holding it shocked me with the jitters, inducing queasiness, like when I ate too much candy and got sweaty and wobbly and the world would spin before my eyes like I was a rotating top.
It wasn’t the same Indian I’d lusted for in the store. It was the same, of course, but wasn’t, not in my mind. There was just Mr. Spangler’s visage, a broad smile pasted on it, encouraging me to come in again, mouthing how much he liked seeing me, the kid with big pockets; and me slinking from the store, taking advantage of his crummy eyes, with the Indian in my pocket; and not noticing the Indian was deforming into an object I actually abhorred with each foot I put between me and the store.
I stashed it behind my dresser. No, not a dresser, but a wood orange crate that served as a bookcase. I stashed the cellophane-wrapped Indian behind it, knowing my mother would never find it, because the reality was my mother rarely got around to cleaning, though I always wanted to remember she had been devoted to the art.
I carried the Indian back to Spangler’s the next day and surreptitiously reunited it with its fellow denizens of the frontier.
Chuck’s study was English country gentleman, like the reception area at the plant. It was empanelled in cherry wood, rubbed and polished to a lustrous sheen. A mix of shelves and glass cases covered two walls. Books weighted the shelves. Models of sailing ships and boats, and Chuck’s own Doreen, were encased in glass cases accented in cherry. Photographs were thick on the walls, like wallpaper. Most chronicled Chuck and friends about to set sail, sailing, or just finished sailing. I glanced at them and saw Doreen’s photos remained, which I noted as a merit for Lori, who lately had earned double her body weight in demerits. Chuck’s desk was matched cherry, massive, and situated in front of two windows that looked over the front lawn and the shrub fence.
I walked behind the desk, inspecting it as I went. The surface was clear, except for a clock set in a ship’s wheel, a yellow-shaded banker’s lamp, the large style with two poles, and a photo of Lori in a frame of marquetry. Four draws framed a very spacious kneehole. His chair was burgundy leather, tufted with brass pins. I lowered myself onto it.
The room was dim, more gray than black. I switched on the banker’s lamp. The yellow—it was deeper, nearly ocher—imparted a mellowness to the room.
I ran my eyes lazily around the room and over his desk, ending with the thought that I kept my checkbook in the center of my desk draw.
I pulled it open and the book was there, as if Chuck intended for someone, maybe me, to find it. His checkbook was the size of a ledger bound in burgundy leather.
I removed it, opened it, and began leafing through the stubs. Usual things were in abundance, but on a grander scale than appeared in my checkbook, which itself was the smaller and ordinary executive size, a runt in comparison to Chuck’s. Judging by the checks Chuck had written to Sunset Foods, he and Lori should have been regulars at Weight Watchers, which, of course, wasn’t the case. They must have done copious entertaining, and along the way Lori had apparently developed very refined and expensive tastes.
There were also checks for expenses folks like me would never see—boat parts and repairs, boat storage, slip fees, supplies, and on and on in similar fashion. I’d never been much for boating, and, eyeing his expenses, I counted myself fortunate.
The mortgage was a heart stopper, in the lower five figures paid month in and month out. The spa Lori frequente— and spa precisely described it—amounted to two thousand a month. Commonwealth Edison and Peoples Energy certainly must have loved the pair, since, judging by the amounts, Chuck and Lori consumed sufficient electricity to light and warm High Hills on a January night.
Enrique Ramirez showed up every month. He was the gardener—Chuck had noted such on the stubs, but Chuck paid Ramirez enough for the fellow to qualify as a junior executive.
Religion also got its share from the Gatewoods. Given the amounts, I marveled the place was still called St. Mary’s. Then there were his religious charities. One that came in for regular contributions was the Ministry of Angels. Another was C.B. Ministries. These appeared to alternate with each other from month to month.
There were many other expenses, many repeated month to month. But the ones that struck me, that gave me pause, that had me staring at them, spending time with them, were the Ministry of Angels and C.B. Ministries. The amounts weren’t large, not a fraction of the Gatewood contributions to St. Mary’s. The question nettling me was why were there contributions at all? Chuck was Catholic and by every appearance involved and generous with the Church. Why would he give to other churches, if the Ministry of Angels and C.B. Ministries were churches?
Then I went back over the contributions. I noticed that while they were regular they were made at irregular intervals. Sometimes once a month, other times up to three times in a month, and one month, last month, not at all.
As I flipped back and forth between the various studs, I finally realized there was yet another difference between the St. Mary’s contributions and those made to the Ministry of Angels and C.B. Ministries. The handwriting on the studs was different. Chuck’s script was somewhat sprawling, nearly florid in the old Catholic grammar school tradition. Lori’s script, I recalled from her application, was of a sturdier variety. It showed more deliberation. It was concentrated into smaller letters with little territory between words. Lori had written the checks to the Ministry of Angels and C.B. Ministries.
Marsh instantly sprang to mind. She was disguising the blackmail checks. But in the next instant I realized that made no sense. Marsh was stealing from Gatewood Graphics. He didn’t need checks from Lori. He had his own personal bank account, thanks to her.
I was just closing the check ledger, pondering this, when I heard the floor creak. The sound came from the hallway outside the library.
“Is that you, Tommy?” I said. I slipped the ledger into the draw and closed it.
“Tommy, is that you?” I said again, rising.
A hand pushed open the door slowly.
“Tommy?” I said.