Behind Lori Baer, 24

Behind Lori Baer

CHAPTER 24

We crisscrossed it in the intersection.

“You saw it?” I shouted, as Tommy searched for a place to swing around the Suburban.

“Sure I saw it. It damn near killed me in Decatur. It’s given me a permanent prejudice against lime green.”

“Right,” I said, twisting around to keep the pickup in view. “But I mean, did you see him hesitate, as if he recognized us?”

“Saw it,” Tommy grunted, as he yanked the Suburban into a driveway off Everett Road. He jammed it into reverse and with only a cursory glance torpedoed us back on the road. Drivers expressed their displeasure by laying on their horns. He turned back onto Oak Knoll and found the pickup sitting in the Gatewood driveway.

Tommy and I glanced at each other, mirroring each other’s thought: The trouble with guns: You never have them when you need them.

“Okay,” Tommy said, “I don’t want to go straight in. He probably didn’t leave his gun at home. He might see us through a window.”

“Why don’t we call the police? Lori may be in danger.”

“I don’t think so, Gabe. Sure it was a sad story, but it didn’t convince me she didn’t have something to do with Chuck Gatewood’s murder.”

“You think she hired Mr. Lime Green to kill Chuck and Marsh?”

“I think I’d like to get close to a window to see what’s going on inside.”

He turned in the circle at the end of Oak Knoll, drove to the end of the street and turned right.

His eyes searched between the houses and through the trees. “That’s it,” he said, bringing the Suburban to an abrupt halt. I barely made out the rear of the Gatewood house behind an imposing Georgian and through the thicket of trees and shrubs.

Tommy was out and jogging into the Georgian’s front yard before I could say I didn’t like the idea of trespassing. I jogged up next to him.

“I’d feel a whole lot better about this if I had my .38,” he said. I couldn’t argue with his reasoning.

As we entered the Gatewood’s yard through a tangle of shrubs and trees, he said, “I’ll take the back. You go around front. If you see anything, just keep out of sight. Try and see what’s going on, but stay out of sight.”

“What if he’s … “  I couldn’t finish.

“Assaulting her? Break a window, get his attention, then get the hell out of there. And yell for her to do the same. Don’t try to be the gallant knight and rescue her. You’ll only get yourself and her killed.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“Much obliged,” he smiled.

I left Tommy creeping under the kitchen window and dashed to the front. I came around the corner and found the library window. I ducked under the ledge. The sofa light still shone. I peeked up and into the room. It was empty. I crouched and duck walked to the front door. I tried it. It was locked. I continued to the next window, dropping down just before reaching it. I poked my head up. I saw an acre of empty furniture. And then I was at the end of the house.

I worked my way around and headed to the rear. Turning the corner I saw a shadow coming at me quickly. I pulled back, then shot my head out quickly for another look. He, or whatever, disappeared. I rolled back around the corner and thought about it. He could have seen Tommy, but why run from me? Unless he didn’t know it was me the way I didn’t know for sure it was him. I could have called to Tommy, but if it was Mr. Lime Green I’d be giving him an advantage.

I sneaked another look. No one. I stared closely and for a long time. It was quieter than midnight in the middle of January.

Since I couldn’t stay where I was all night, I inched my way past the shrubs that lined the house. I was three-quarters to the corner, feeling safer, when a hand clamped onto my shoulder and spun me around. I had my fist up nearly head level when I heard, “You’ve got to be more alert, Gabe. And faster to,” Tommy whispered, deflecting my arm.

“Anything up front?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I said, “everything inside appeared in order, too.”

“Same in the back.”

He looked up to the roof and I followed his gaze.

“You think he took her upstairs?”

“Why don’t we let ourselves in again?”

I motioned for him to lead the way.

We were just shy of the corner when we heard the truck door slam. We rushed the rest of the distance in time to watch the lime green pickup haul down the drive and onto the street.

Tommy loped in the direction of the street, hoping to catch a piece of the plate number. I charged the door. I don’t know why. Maybe I figured bad guys didn’t close or lock doors after committing a foul deed. I bounced off the door when it failed to open.

I quietly absorbed the pain, emitting a whimper. It was no louder than the low growl of a dog, so I was surprised when the door opened and Lori regarded me with amazement.

Rubbing my arm, I offered, “I thought you might be in trouble … “

“Where did you get that idea?”

“Tommy and I saw a pickup, a lime green pickup. We thought it was the same one that tried running him down in Decatur.”

“Would you like me to ask Mr. Ramirez if he was in Decatur yesterday? I’m happy to do it. He’ll be stopping by tomorrow. I’m having him trim the scrubs behind the house.” Her eyes were too intense, her tone too tight, no match for the words. Something didn’t fit. I suspected it was more than the gardener calling. I stood like a statue. She moved nervously.

“Really, Gabe, I’m flattered you and your father-in-law are watching over me. But honestly there’s no need.”

“Who was he, really?” I asked.

Her eyes darted back and forth. She mulled something over. And that something was probably whether she should tell me the truth. The truth lost.

“The gardener, Gabe,” she said, “Really.”

There was nothing more I could do. “If you need me, Lori,” I said earnestly.

She nodded and closed the door.

I caught up with Tommy halfway down the driveway.

“Let’s go,” he said. “Maybe we’ll pick him up on Village Road.”

Trotting to the Suburban, I asked, “What makes you think he’ll take Village Road?”

“A hunch. It leads to High Hills.”

I stopped. “You think he’s headed to the house?”

“Come on, will you, Gabe?” I picked up the pace. “Like I said, it’s a hunch.”

The Suburban’s rear wheels kicked up loose gravel. Traffic on Everett was thicker now, it being Lake Forest’s version of rush hour. The maids and yard workers and shopkeepers were leaving for their homes in Highwood, North Chicago, and everywhere else they lived.

“I got a glimpse. He was wearing a red cap. His hair was long and gray. I couldn’t make out his size; he sat low in the cab. He had on a flannel shirt.”

“Sounds like he might be the gardener,” I said quietly.

“Is that what she told you?”

“Yes.”

“You believe her?”

“Not then, no, but now, from what you said, it could have been.”

He grunted his disbelief at her story and me for honoring with it an ounce of credence.

He took Everett Road over the toll way, jogged north, and glided onto Village Road a mile east of High Hills. I didn’t have to check my watch to know it was around six. The traffic was heavy the entire way into town.

We passed the Five Dynasties. I’d been scanning the roads intently since leaving Lake Forest. Funny how many pickups there were when you were looking for them. All sorts of people drove them—men in flannel shirts and business suits, and women who looked as if they’d been more comfortable behind desks in swank offices. I didn’t get the appeal, but there was much I didn’t get, as the case of Lori Gatewood proved.

Then we were on Friendly Fences pulling up to the house.

I followed Tommy’s gaze to the house.

“It looks okay,” he said, though the way he said it, tersely, with a tiny wobble, like he wasn’t entirely sure, didn’t inspire the greatest confidence in me.

The house did appear normal. Downstairs, yellow comforting light glowed in every window. Upstairs, the lights were off. That was Beth: Light where it was needed and nowhere else.

Tommy parked the Suburban in the driveway, and I pushed out of the car quickly and was at the front door as Tommy was just stepping onto the walkway.

I had my key out, but I didn’t need it. When I tried pushing the key into the lock, the door fell back. It was unlocked and unlatched.

My instant reaction and urge was to shout Beth’s name, but I suppressed it. Frantically, I searched up and down the street for the pickup. I didn’t see it, or tail lights heading off into the distance. I recounted our approach to the house as I flattened myself against the outside wall, out of sight of anybody who might be inside, and waved to Tommy. I didn’t recall seeing anything faintly resembling the pickup passing us. Tommy saw my signal and came running.

Pressing himself against the wall, thumbing toward the doorway, he asked, “Have you heard anything?”

I shook my head.

“We could get the cops,” he said.

I shook my head violently. There was no way I was leaving without first checking the house for Beth.

“Good Lord,” he said, “Okay, here’s how we do it. You go past the staircase to the right. But no farther. I’ll go to the closet. Move fast, but quietly. On three.” He waited for me to brace myself. “One, two, three.”

I dashed in like a high school kid running his first meet as a new girlfriend watched. That is, until I was trying to become part of the wall, fearing the lime green man was in the house and drawing a bead on me.

Tommy gestured at me, used his hands around his eyes as if they were binoculars, and tilted his head at the corner. Cautiously, with deliberate slowness and no shortage of terror, I peeked around the corner. Since my head was still on after the first look, I did it again and held my gaze.

I pulled back and looked to the other side where Tommy was. He was already staring in my direction, shaking his head to tell me he had seen nothing. I responded in kind.

He motioned for me to meet him on my side at the end of the hall. The idea didn’t excite me, but I had no choice in the matter as he was there before I’d overcome my hesitation. I closed my eyes, lunged by the staircase, and waited for something to happen. But nothing did and I arrived beside Tommy in one piece.

“You’re sweating,” he said, studying my face. “You sure you’re up to it?”

“I should knock you down for that,” I nearly spat.

“Save it for him. They might be in the back of the house, in the kitchen or family room. Don’t start down the hallway for two minutes.” He lifted his watch to his face. I did the same with mine. “Not until six-fifty-two. Then move very quietly. I’ll check the kitchen. Don’t waste your time on that. Get a look in the family room.”

I pushed hard against the hallway wall, wishing that somehow I could disappear into it and reappear when and where I wanted. I was down by the doorway in seconds. I checked my watch. I had a minute and a half to kill.

With time to burn, I pictured my last night with Beth. What had she been talking about? I’d only half listened to her. I promised myself that I would not make that mistake again. It was something about redecorating the bedroom. With winter coming on, she wanted to transform it into a bright and warm refuse from the cold and darkness of the outside.

She’d worn a nightgown. It had been white and gossamer. She knew I liked them that way. She knew I enjoyed the excitement of just glimpsing bits and pieces of her, of allowing my imagination to construct lovemaking scenarios. Beth understood that the secret to love was the power of the mind. Nothing could be more thrilling than what I—or anyone—could conjure up in their minds. The real world simply paled.

I checked my watch. Thirty seconds left.

At night, in bed, she wore no makeup, not that she adorned herself with much during the day. Even now, approaching fifty, she didn’t need it, and felt no need for it. Advertising didn’t influence her. She possessed complete confidence in herself. She was beautiful, and I prayed I’d see her again, and lie next to her, feel her warmth, and hear her speak words that I might only half hear.

I held the watch up to my face. Five, four, three, two, one. I burst into the family room, heart pumping visibly in my chest. The room was brightly lit, and completely empty.

Tommy was by my side in a second saying that the dining room and kitchen were empty.

We advanced on my office. The door was open. The lights were on. We ducked in quickly. It was like everything else on the first floor, lit and empty.

“Maybe she’s not house,” Tommy said.

“Maybe,” I said, reaching for the phone on my desk.

I punched in Tommy’s number, drummed my fingers on the desk while it rang, and heard Mae’s voice.

“Mae, Gabe. Is Beth with you?”

She said no. Then she wanted to know if everything was all right. I told her everything was fine. Nothing to worry about, though my stomach churned as I uttered each word. If Beth had been home, surely she would have heard us down here. We were quiet, but not that quiet in a perfectly silent house.

I hung up, turned to Tommy, and shook my head. He pointed up.

We moved cautiously into the foyer and up the stairs with Tommy leading. We checked each room together. Each was dark and the process of entering and searching was slow and frightening. We feared what we would find. Confronting who we suspected to be the killer would be terrifying; but finding Beth injured, or worse, dead, paled to concern about our own safety.

In our bedroom, Tommy didn’t have to tell me what I do. I snatched up the phone and called the High Hills P.D.

We returned to the first floor and the kitchen to wait for them. Tommy asked if I was interested in coffee. I said, “Why not?” But I wasn’t much interested in anything except finding Beth, and finding her as I’d left her that morning.

The doorbell rang before the coffee had brewed. I let in Zantello. On the way into the kitchen, I filled him in on what had happened. He told me Gary would be at the house in ten minutes.

Zantello asked a few questions, clarifying a couple of details I supposed I’d been vague on. When he was satisfied he had the facts clear, he radioed in a description of the pickup, the driver, and Beth. It was strange and disconcerting hearing her described as “white female with oriental features, black hair, tall, slim, probably wearing a black dress, no outstanding characteristics to report.” I saw her as much more. She was much more.

Zantello asked if I had a recent photograph of Beth. I went to the bookshelves in the family room. There I dug out the most a photo album. I flipped through, starting from the back. Those were the newest pictures. Beth at the beach in a black mallet bathing suit. She looked great. In shorts knocking around downtown Lake Forest. Spectacular legs. On her hunches in the woods laughing as a butterfly pranced along her arm. Beyond charming. I worked back quickly to late spring. I figured my chances of finding her in an outfit similar to the dress she’d worn today would be greatest. I located a shot of her around Easter entering a restaurant. I handed it to him.

“Thanks, Mr. Angellini. I’ll be sure you get this back.”

I nodded my appreciation. I couldn’t speak for a moment.

Gary bustled in right on cue. He came straight to me, grabbed my shoulder, squeezed, and said, “Don’t worry, Gabe, we’ll find her.” I mumbled, “Thanks,” and wished we could move on.

We did, pretty quickly, when Gary said, “I know how you and Tommy feel. But this is official police business. I want the two of you to stay out of this. It will be safer for everybody. Especially for Beth.”

The idea didn’t settle well with me, and I started to protest. Gary cut me short. “Hold it. I mean it. I want the two of you in this house. Don’t worry. I’ll let you know what we find.”

Tommy jumped in ahead of me. “No problem, Gary. We’ll be here.” He tapped my back. Good old Tommy. He was up to something.

“All right. I’m trusting you two. It’s best for Beth.”

We nodded in agreement.

When Gary and Zantello were in their squads, I said, “What are you hatching?”

“It’s in the car. I’ll be back in a minute. Pour me coffee. Pour yourself one, too. Black for both of us.”

I did as he said. He returned cradling a police scanner that I hadn’t noticed before. I gave him a questioning look. “Can’t run a detective agency without one.”

He set it on the table and tuned into the High Hills police frequency. The box squawked like a child rudely awakened. I heard Beth’s description going out over the air. Gary suggested the officers stop at the station to pick up her photo. He expected to have duplicates within the hour. I hated hearing her referred to as if she were a victim, but I was pleased Gary and his men were on the ball.

From a law and order standpoint, not much has ever happened in High Hills, and in that it’s probably representative of most suburban and rural towns in America. The movies, television, crime statistics—I think they give us a distorted picture of life in this country. What we heard that night was more like it.

We counted a dozen traffic stops, the majority for speeding, which has to be the biggest crime in these United States. Twice, the stopping officer called for Wilmer, High Hills’ police dog to sniff a car for drugs. He found nothing. There were two disturbance calls, neighbors annoying each other and incapable of resolving their differences without the presence of somebody dressed in blue.

We’d been listening for an hour and had drunk our third cup each of coffee when one of the most feared calls came in: domestic violence. The wife phoned to say that her husband had just beaten her and left the house. She feared he would be back, drunker than when he’d left. She expected to be killed. Two officers responded and arrived as the husband reappeared. In the excitement, one officer left his radio keyed open. We heard a woman screaming, a man retorting with threats, and the officers struggling to keep the two separated. We heard two children in the background crying and pleading with their parents to stop fighting. They sounded young, around six or seven.

We couldn’t make out everything the couple screamed at each other. But the argument seemed to revolve around her not having dinner ready for him earlier in the evening. For that he felt it was his right to beat her. She agreed to file a complaint and the officers arrested him. He made the mistake of attempting to vent his anger on them. They subdued him and dragged him to a squad car.

The call we were waiting for came in around nine. A Libertyville squad spotted a pickup answering the lime green description heading north on Milwaukee Avenue. A man wearing a cap was driving. There was a woman passenger. He was in pursuit.

Our eyes met. He scooped up the scanner and we charged for the door.

I grabbed his sleeve. “Let’s take the ‘Stang,'” I said. He followed into the garage. The automatic door opener inched up. I revved my girl in anticipation.

As soon as I had enough clearance, I gunned it. The antenna clattered against the rising door. I deposited a patch of rubber on the driveway and doubled my effort on the street.

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