Behind Lori Baer
The library darkened. Oaks and maples scattered about the Gatewood property prevented the last of the day’s light from reaching the room.
I switched on the floor lamp beside the sofa. It was a low task light; it pooled light on the arm of the sofa and made seeing Lori harder, reducing her to a shadow in front of the window. I watched her silhouetted arms swipe at her face. She reminded me of a kitten pawing sleep from its eyes.
We seemed to be at the end. We’d learned everything — much more, actually — about her we had wanted to know. Tommy was nearly killed during our trip to Decatur, and for the little we carried back, I had to wonder if the excursion had been worth it. Though staring at Lori I knew it had been. I doubt she would have opened up to us if she hadn’t suspected we knew about her past.
How could anybody be surrounded by so much violence? I’d known people who had been victims of crime. You couldn’t live in a city or suburb these days without meeting such people. Yet, these were scattered, occasional incidents. Contrary to popular belief, television and movies, most people went through life without experiencing crime personally.
And that made Lori’s experiences incongruous to me. Every person close to her had died violently. Chuck was the only one I knew to have been murdered beyond a doubt. However each death, because of its violent nature, seemed suspect.
By the time Tommy and I had returned to High Hills and were breaking into the Gatewood home, I’d conceded Lori Gatewood had a hand in the murder of her husband.
As much as I wished to revert to my earlier disbelief, I couldn’t. Her own violent, abusive childhood; her betrayal by the father she not just loved but was in the most literal sense a love slave to even before reaching puberty; her flat out admission she could have killed her father for what he’d done to her; all this seemed to close the case. There was no hard evidence. But who needed it when your emotions told you you’d found a murderer?
“Did he stay away?” asked Tommy.
“Yes,” she answered, weakly.
“Why don’t I believe you?” he challenged, sounding remarkably like Vider.
“I don’t care much what you believe,” she snapped.
“Why’d you leave home?” I asked, as much to divert the inquiry and sooth her as for an answer.
I withered under her glare. But her anger dissipated quickly. “I’m sorry,” she said, “you two aren’t my enemies. Gabe, I know you’ve resisted the idea that I hurt Chuck. I couldn’t stay at home, you understand. It wasn’t my father who was bothering me. Though, yes, to be honest, Mr. Tomassetti, he did come around a few times. It was my mother. I couldn’t live with her. Yes, I’d reconciled with her. But in my heart, there still I hated her. It was ironic in a twisted, sick way. I had regarded her as a rival, and had hated her for trying to take my father from me. And I’d hated her for not protecting me from my father … for not standing up to him, and, yes, for not telling me that what was going on was wrong and demented.”
“She tried. You said so yourself,” I said, gently so as not to arouse her ire again.
“Maybe I did. Maybe she had,” she shrugged. “Who was listening? Anyway, before I moved out I stayed out. I was fairly wild for a while. Loose you might put it. Then I met Floyd, my first husband. You know about Floyd?”
“Yes, he sounded, well, like your father.”
“My father,” she said, worrying the idea. “Yes, he was, I guess. He drank too much. But the difference was he needed me for more than sex.” She shrugged again. “I needed him, or something to anchor me, and get me away from my mother. So I married him. It wasn’t made in heaven, but I felt normal. And that’s all I wanted then.”
Which wasn’t hard to understand or sympathize with.
“His death must have been difficult for you?” Tommy prompted, ditching his Vider toughness.
She mulled before answering coolly, “I was sad, but not surprised.”
Her tone shocked me and I asked, trying not to betray my dismay, “You expected him to die?”
“What I expected, Gabe,” she said, dejectedly, “was for my life to be completely, thoroughly, and forever fucked up, if you’ll forgive my bluntness. His death fit my destiny. It was my fate, you might say, to be shadowed by death and sorrow.”
“You felt the same about your second husband?” I asked, unsettled by her fatalism.
“Yes. I went to Champaign to get away. I thought I might outrun the shadow of my fate. I should have known better. I couldn’t escape it. I never intended to marry again. I wasn’t looking for a man. Stan and I just fell together. He needed me, and I discovered I needed him. We had a good life, while it lasted. I learned much from Stan. He gave me a new life.”
“So, you were shocked by his death?” I asked.
“Saddened. But not shocked, surprised, upset — none of it. It was my fate.”
“Well, I thought it might be different. I felt like a new person. I was doing something I enjoyed. I built up a record of accomplishment. Back in Decatur, after my father, I never imagined I would lead a life like this. I never imagined I would lead a life of any sort, to tell you the truth.” She paused and appeared to carefully contemplate her next words. “Actually, Chuck’s death has effected me more than the others. I had deceived myself into believing I’d finally put my past behind me. I believed I had emerged from the shadow. But Jerdan Marsh dragged me back.”
“I hate to ask this,” I said, “but I have to. Where you having an affair with him?”
“Don’t be sorry. The police asked the same question. The answer is yes and no.”
I regarded her with undisguised puzzlement.
She smiled as if she was condescending to the village idiot. “If you mean, was I in love with Marsh and cheating on Chuck, the answer’s no. But I was seeing Marsh regularly. He insisted on that. And we did have sex, oh, about four times. That was in the beginning when I thought he had absolute control over me.”
I set aside her situational ethics about adultery and said: “Marsh was blackmailing you.”
“He learned about your past and threatened to go to Chuck.”
“I doubt it would have mattered to Chuck,” I said.
“It wasn’t the point,” she said. “It mattered to me. It mattered to me what Chuck thought of me.”
I wanted to tell her Chuck would have stood by her and defended her; it was the kind of man Chuck was. But maybe I’d hurt her, or maybe she wouldn’t care. I chose to plunge forward instead.
“But why did Marsh pick you?”
“He didn’t. Not intentionally. He just wanted into a place where he could skim the receipts. He was quite skillful at it, really, hiding the shortages, and, when they were discovered, fabricating excuses that could have been legitimate. He had a business or two he liked better than Gatewood Graphics. But nobody would hire him. Too many jobs. Too many questions raised at past jobs. Gatewood had a weak link. Me.”
“He did his homework,” I said.
“Marsh wasn’t much on working to accomplish good. But he worked diligently to do harm. I once asked him about it. He described himself as a pragmatist. Digging up dirt required a burst of energy. But it was a one-time effort. The rest was gliding along on the gravy train. That’s how he’d put it, ‘I’m riding the Gatewood gravy train to the last stop.’ I expect he figured he’d see the last stop before it arrived and disappear.”
“How’d he draw you into it?”
“It was nothing particularly dramatic. I received a phone call one morning, just after breakfast. I’d just had breakfast with Chuck and had seen him off to the office. He was searching for a controller at the time. He’d just expanded the business and what with bank loans, new equipment purchases, additional labor, the business was beyond the point where he could personally control everything. And, Gabe, you knew some of the accounting staff.”
“Turk Terrell,” I said, “and a few others.”
“Right. Generally nice people. But not the financial whizzes Chuck felt he needed managing the company’s money. He’d put out feelers, asked Margaret and Herb if they knew of someone, even contacted a headhunter.”
She shifted her silhouette, now taking on more form and distinction as the window darkened behind her and the lamp began to do its job properly.
“That Chuck was looking was no secret. Marsh was very direct and simple. ‘I know about your father, your husbands, and your faked college credentials. We should meet immediately, or I’ll talk to your husband.'”
“But how’d he know you hadn’t told Chuck?” I asked.
She looked at me bewildered, as if this was the first time this had come up.
Tommy twitched to life next to me. He’d been quiet and nearly motionless for quite a while. I was beginning to think he was catnapping. “It made no difference. He probably had checked up on you, Mrs. Gatewood, here in Chicago. He could have obtained a previous address. Somebody might have remembered you, including where you worked. A few quick phone phones would tell him that you lied about your education. He’d put two and two together. If you lied about that, maybe you lied about other things. If you blew him off, so what? He was out a few hours of leg work and he could move on to somebody else.”
I stared at Tommy for a moment, impressed by his ability to delve the devious mind. I guess that’s what had made him such a good cop. I asked Lori what happened after Marsh called her.
“I think I gasped while on the phone. Anyway, whatever I did, it told him I was concerned. He pushed me into meeting him that morning. Actually within ten minutes of the call. He was in Lake Forest on a cell phone practically around the corner. He knew exactly when Chuck left because he saw him pull out the driveway.
“I didn’t have time to change. I was still in my robe when he rang the bell. I let him in.”
“Was he alone?”
“If you’re asking if Petey was with him, no. He came later, after Jerdan was established at Gatewood. Jerdan drove up in a Jag. He was dressed conservatively in a dark blue suit, white shirt, and regimental striped tie. I remember that because he was a clone of Chuck. He was gracious. He introduced himself and asked permission to enter, as if he was invited and we knew each other. It was very disturbing and strangely comforting at the same time. I deluded myself into hoping this wouldn’t be so bad. But it was a nightmare.”
Her expression was a mix of pain, regret, and sorrow. I asked if she cared for another drink. When she nodded, I refilled her glass, one finger. She indicated it was insufficient and I added two more. She sipped and then continued.
“Under that polished exterior, Jerdan was a snake. He wanted money, of course, but the figure he reeled off was astronomical. I told him there was no way I could pay him without Chuck discovering. He laughed. I don’t remember his exact words, but they were patronizing. He didn’t expect me to pay him. He planned on helping himself to whatever he wanted any time he wanted it.
“I didn’t understand him. He didn’t bother explaining himself. He preferred to let me dangle and twist. My discomfort and uncertainty entertained him.
“I protested that I couldn’t get him a job, let alone a top and sensitive job, at Gatewood Graphics. He dug his heels in and said that if I didn’t, Chuck would hear every sordid and lurid detail of the true Lori Baer. I pleaded with him, to no avail.
“It was then he noticed I was only in my robe. It had fallen away to reveal, well, … “ She clutched her neck and ran her hand over the front of her blouse. “He leered and I pulled the robe tightly around myself. But it was apparent I wore nothing under it. I rarely did in the mornings. Chuck and I were alone in the mornings. There was no need,” she said, defensively.
“He said there was one more thing he neglected to mention. He could have me anytime, anywhere, in anyway he wished. I pleaded it wasn’t possible and I wouldn’t consent.
“He grabbed my wrist and yanked me close to him. I felt his hot breath on my face, smelled the coffee he’d drunk waiting in the car. He said we were going to start right now or Chuck would know everything by evening. ‘Besides,’ he said, ‘why would an accomplished little whore like you care? You fucked your father, didn’t you? I’m not even a relative. I’ll go to my grave with those words in my mind.
“He demanded, ‘Where’s the bedroom. I want to fuck you where my new employer does.’ He pushed and pulled me to the bedroom. He spent the morning with me.”
Lines of pain cut deeply around her mouth, spread out from her eyes. She stared at us, reading us.
“I could have killed him. I had reason to kill him. But I didn’t. I couldn’t kill. If I could, do you think I would have allowed him to do what he did to Chuck and me?”
“Steal from Gatewood Graphics,” I injected.
“And rape me whenever he pleased. But both small by comparison to what else he stole from Chuck and me. I loved Chuck. He loved me. Jerdan drove a wedge between us, and between Chuck and his family. Margaret never liked me much. She never said, but I knew she saw me as a gold digger. I could understand her feeling simply by virtue of our age difference and our relationship developing rapidly after the death of Doreen. I labored to overcome that. I frequently invited Herb and her to the house. And Chuck and I spent weekends with them. It took some doing, but it seemed to work.” She gave us a weak smile. At least she stopped trying to freeze me to death with her stare.
“It wasn’t difficult to get Chuck to interview Jerdan. I told him I had known Jerdan when I was a student at Champaign. I claimed he had been an instructor. I said he was one of my better ones. Chuck was actually eager to meet Jerdan. His search for a controller wasn’t going well.
“I briefed Jerdan on the lie I’d fed Chuck and on Chuck’s business, though I was surprised to learn how much he knew. He’d invested quite a bit of time in learning about Gatewood Graphics and the printing business in general. I suppose if he’d wanted to, Jerdan could have been a legitimate success.” She said the last absently.
“Jerdan ingratiated himself to Chuck. Jerdan was a master of the art. He had the job within two week of meeting Chuck. In my heart, I had hoped the scram would fail. But I knew it wouldn’t. Chuck loved me too much. I rewarded him with betrayal.”
Her guilt and remorse had substance, like a cloud, and she allowed it to hang in the air for a moment.
“Jerdan lost no time, just as he lost none with me. It was ironic, really. He solved a host of Chuck’s financial problems within a month of starting. Chuck was pleased with his performance and thanked me profusely on several occasions for recommending Jerdan. I had to swallow hard each time. And then I got to thinking that perhaps Jerdan would be subtle about his stealing. That he would build the company financially and take a portion of what he was saving Chuck. Apart from the rape, I thought, maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe it was more than I deserved. And I began to feel better about it.
“The financials improved even more the next month. By then I realized that Jerdan needed me. He was doing well and wouldn’t want me to reveal the truth to Chuck. Why spoil a good thing? I saw it as my advantage. I demanded that he stop raping me or I would tell everything. It worked. By then he also had too much to lose. Or he might have been tired of me by then. Either way, and I didn’t care much. He stopped.
“Jerdan had his problems at the plant, though. Chuck was never hard-nosed with the staff. That was part of the problem. Jerdan was the opposite. There was not a compassionate bone in his body. Naturally, he offended many people, including the entire two-person accounting department. Big mistake,” she said, tick-tocking her finger back and forth as if it were a metronome.
“Turk?” I said.
“He began noticing new disbursements. That’s when Jerdan brought in Petey … to keep the serfs quiet while he looted the castle.
“It only delayed the inevitable. Jerdan was simply too greedy. He wanted it all, and he couldn’t wait to get it. While the business was doing well, Jerdan convinced Chuck to expand capacity even more. It didn’t take much convincing. Business was good and Chuck wanted to accommodate more. But with profits marginal, he was afraid to take the chance. That’s why he had been looking for a controller. Chuck committed to the expansion based on reassurances Jerdan made to him about more business, more receipts, more profits.”
She wagged her head and said disdainfully, “The expansion gave Jerdan a convenient way to hide his embezzling. He fed Chuck a variety of lines. Chuck bought them because he wanted to believe. Besides there was nobody to hold Jerdan accountable. Certainly not me.”
“But there was somebody,” I said. “They buttonholed me at Chuck’s grave side.”
“They were on Chuck the moment their dividends began falling. By the time the business was running at a loss, Margaret and Herb were howling. I couldn’t blame them. They are part owners and deserve their fair share.
“That spurred Chuck to action. He talked with Jerdan. Jerdan related the conversation to me. He wanted to know how much Chuck knew. More important, he wanted me to put Chuck’s mind at ease. Jerdan thought I could buy him the extra time he needed to move a very large chunk of money out of Gatewood Graphics.”
“How large?” I asked.
“Half a million,” she replied, matter-of-factly. “Combined with what he’d already stolen he’d have about two million.”
“Did you assuage Chuck?”
“What choice did I have? Jerdan promised this would be the end of it. Once he had the money, he would leave. Chuck would be none the wiser. And if he was smart enough, he could rebuild the business. On top of it all, Chuck would have learned a valuable lesson.” She laughed lightly, almost to herself. “He made it sound as if he was doing Chuck a favor. It’s comical, really, when I look back on it. The thought of Jerdan stealing half a million made me happy. Because it meant the end of the horror I’d been living. I couldn’t wait. My only worry was: Could I trust him?
“Things didn’t go as planned. Do they ever? Margaret and Herb grew more inpatient with Chuck. They demanded to know exactly why a business profitable every year since it was founded suddenly turned unprofitable, and unprofitable to such a degree. He placated them with the expansion story. They bought that for a couple of months. But when a turn around failed to materialize, they were at him again. Chuck went to Jerdan. Jerdan came to me. It was a vicious and disheartening circle.
“Finally, Chuck became suspicious of Jerdan. When he dug into his background, he became dismayed. And that’s when he came to you, Gabe.”
“And he was killed the next day.”
I stood and stretched. I’d been on her sofa for a long time. I checked my watch. Nearly two hours. I paced in front of the desk. Tommy watched me and worked circulation back into his legs.
“Everything points to Marsh,” said Tommy.
“Yet, he’s dead. Murdered,” I reminded him.
“Jerdan murdered?” Lori exclaimed. “When? How?”
“Yesterday, I guess,” I said. “Vider told us before you came in. But as to who, we don’t know.”
“I haven’t met this Petey,” Tommy said. “Do you suppose he might have murdered Chuck? No honor among thieves. He may have seen the amounts Marsh was embezzling. Maybe his cut was too small. He might have thought he deserved more. A lot more.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so. He didn’t impress me as somebody who could think for himself. I don’t doubt that Marsh might have ordered him to kill Chuck when he felt the heat. But I doubt Petey killed Marsh. No, I think somebody else did that.”
“Such as somebody Marsh was working for. Maybe he got cute with the proceeds. You know, the solution of a murder is usually a straight line,” he said, extending his finger out from his nose.
I stared at Lori, who hunched forward with her head resting in her hands. The flash of excitement had faded. She was drained. Her eyes were closed as if she was sleeping. I nudged Tommy.
I stood in front of the desk, bending low to bring my eyes level with hers. Gently, I said, “Lori, I know this hadn’t been easy for you. Are you all right?”
She looked up at me through red eyes. Tears were ready to spill out. “Now that you know about me, do you still think I killed Chuck?”
“No,” I said, softly, “no, I don’t. I never did. But you understand why we had to do this? It’s better us than the police.”
“You plan on telling them?” she asked. The worry lines were deep under her eyes.
“They know most of it. But not the details.”
She nodded to say she understood.
“One more question. Do you have any idea who could have murdered Chuck?”
“My shadow, who else?” she said, quickly. I thought she was alluding to the darkness that followed her. But it was more than a mere shadow, as I discovered later.
“We’re leaving now. If you need anything, call me,” I said, motioning Tommy to the door.
When we walked out of the Gatewood house, the sun was down, leaving behind a red glow on the western horizon.
As we worked the cramps out of our legs on the way to the Suburban, a scraping noise caught my attention. I turned around, searching for its source. But I saw only shadows.
I didn’t have a good feeling as I buckled myself into the Suburban.
“Did you hear that noise?” I asked Tommy.
“The wind’s blowing,” he said, cranking the Suburban to life. “It was probably rustling leaves.”
I didn’t think so, but leaned my head back anyway and tried to enjoy the quiet.
Tommy pulled onto the street gingerly. We’d already had a close encounter with the Lake Forest police and we didn’t want another.
I thought he was being extra cautious, not the usual condition for Tommy, when he jammed the brakes and brought us to a sudden stop under the amber of the traffic light.
“Jeez,” I yelled, turning to him. “Since when did you begin following the letter of the traffic law?”
“Huh?” was his response. He was staring ahead too intently to speak. I looked at what he was watching and followed his head as it swung instantly to our rear.
He had his eyes locked on a pickup truck. It was banged up, sported bondo, and where it wasn’t peeling paint, it was a lime green. My heart nearly stopped.