Behind Lori Baer, 25

Behind Lori Baer

CHAPTER 25

I held the Mustang to thirty-five in The Farm. I was anxious to get to the lime green man and Beth; but killing or maiming a neighbor in the process made no sense.

It was when I pulled onto Village Road that I cranked her to fifty and zigzagged to maintain my speed. Luckily, traffic was light this time of night.

At Village and Milwaukee our luck ran out for a minute. We caught a red light at what often seemed to me to be one of the longest traffic lights in Lake County. I could have cooked a Sunday dinner in the time we waited. I drummed the steering wheel impatiently, and when I’d had enough of that I switched to the dashboard.

Normally I don’t sound my horn. But as soon as I saw the cross traffic’s light show amber, I was on the button. The fellow in front flipped me the finger as he putted through the intersection, his slice of sweet vengeance. I understood. He could moon me for all I cared, as long as he figured a way to do it with a foot on the gas petal.

I shot past pokey on the straightaway of Milwaukee. As I did, I pointed at the black box in Tommy’s lap. “Get that thing working.”

Tommy tossed me a smoldering glance but focused his effort on the scanner he’d been fiddling with since we had hit Village Road. Finally, it crackled to life as we passed the Red Top Shopping Center, the name the only remnant of the horse ranch once occupying the rolling land.

Tommy monitored the scanner and called out the jurisdictions. High Hills had a car in the building cavalcade. When we heard the voice on the scanner, we knew it was Gary. Libertyville had a squad in the run. And the Lake County Sheriff’s Department was positioning two cars along the road on which the pickup with Beth was running.

“Where the hell are they?” I shouted at the windshield. “Are they still on Milwaukee?”

It was as if the Sheriff’s deputies had heard me. They announced they were taking a position on Buckley Road as I bounced the Mustang over the railroad tracks in downtown Libertyville. I rocketed up the hill, flashed by the country western bar and banquet hall in record time, and made a squealing right onto Buckley. My darling Mustang took it well, with just a dainty lift. I was glad we chose her. The Suburban would have been spinning on its back like a flipped turtle and we would have been eliminated from the race to save Beth.

The report blared through as we came up on the squads congregated on Route 176 within sight of Interstate 94. It ran north to Wisconsin and through Milwaukee and south through the northern suburbs and into Chicago. The police thought the pickup would take the Interstate. Somewhere, however, the pickup had turned off. The lime green man wasn’t playing according to the police agenda.

I pulled onto the shoulder and killed the Mustang’s lights. The last thing I wanted was to be noticed and ordered home for the second time.

The scanner buzzed with chatter as Sheriff’s cars were summoned to patrol the roads around our location.

“Where do you think he turned?” I asked Tommy.

He brushed me off with the shake of his head. He wanted to concentrate on the scanner in case somebody spotted the pickup.

I sat listening to the crackle and pop, asking myself where I’d go if I had nearly half-a-dozen cops on my tail and a kidnapped woman in my truck?

It wouldn’t be home. That’s the first place the police would look. I hoped the lime green man thought the same way, because where or what he called home was as much a mystery as the man himself.

If I were him, I wouldn’t wander the suburbs, at least at night. I might try it during the day. There were plenty of trades people around, more than enough to blend with. As for a destination, I thought I’d head somewhere where there was a crowd, someplace like a city. We were just about halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. He could choose either. That’s what the police thought and why they blocked access to the Interstate.

Getting to either city would be more difficult. It could be done, but the chance of detection now was much greater. Then why not resolve the dilemma by finding a waiting place until things settled down?

“Tommy, if you wanted to hide a lime green pickup around here, how would you do it? Where’d you hide it?”

“Where it looked like it belonged,” he said, disengaging from the scanner. “Maybe a gas station that did repair work, or the lot of a body shop. Damn thing looks like it could use a complete overhaul.”

“You know of one around here?”

“Dozens.” He turned his attention to the scanner then back to me with a smile. “Okay, we can listen to these boys try and catch the scent again while you head that way, back where we came from.”

“What are we looking for?”

“The landscapers. Rocky and Sons. I noticed their nursery as you where hot dogging us here.”

I eased the Mustang onto the road, aimed west, and accelerated slowly. I switched on my headlights when the lights of the squads were pin dots in my rearview mirror.

“There it is,” Tommy said, touching my arm.

Impulsively, my foot went for the brake. He saw.

“No,” he said, “don’t slow down. He might make us. Just cruise by and keep your eyes peeled for him.”

We glided by, both of us squinting at the lot. We saw dump trucks, pickups, and trailers. In the dark, they gleamed almost black. They could have been any color. But this was indisputable:  All shined and none were battered wrecks.

“See it?” said Tommy, jabbing my arm.

I twisted to glimpse what he was indicating but only succeeded in nearly driving off the road and plowing into the nail boutique across the street from Rocky’s. Tommy grabbed for the wheel. I wrestled the Mustang straight and he fell back with an audible sigh.

“For all that, did you see it?” he asked, brushing a bead of sweat from his forehead.

“I saw nothing except a big lacquered nail preparing to dent my little girl here.”

“Turn around, fast,” he commanded.

I tapped the brakes.

“Forget the brakes. We don’t have time for brakes. Yank that wheel,” he said, reaching over and tugging, as if to illustrate how to do it.

“What the hell—“

“I saw a cloud of exhaust back there.”

I wasn’t a stunt driver and I prized the Mustang too much to endanger it; but I loved Beth, and if there was only a remote chance we had the pickup, well, I was taking it.

I pulled the wheel down left into my lap. She responded instantly, ties squealing, back end fishtailing but mercifully not quite catching up with the front. In the center of the turning arch, I slowly straightened the tires. As I did, the Mustang bit into the road and surged forward.

As we approached Rocky’s, I tapped the brakes, bringing us close to normal speed. Passing the lot, I saw the tiny billow, pale gray in the black. It was slight, willowy, and easy to miss.

Tommy didn’t have to tell me, though it appeared he was trying to slow and swing around. I had started doing just that when a loud bang startled us. In the rearview mirror, I watched the pickup bounce onto the road, falter, and then away, heading west.

I executed a hasty and sloppy one-eighty. I promised myself I’d work on technique when I had a chance, or at the very least get the girl an oil change in appreciation.

I gunned her. We caught up with the pickup as it passed Fourth Street.

“Where do you think he’s going?” I asked, casting an eye in Tommy’s direction, not expecting to see what I saw.

He had the S&W out and was pulling back the slide.

“What’s that?” I exclaimed.

“Beth’s three-eighty,” he said, casually, as if he was describing a lawnmower she’d lent him. “I helped myself to it back at the house. I didn’t think you’d want to get caught without armament again.”

“You realize Beth’s in that truck. You don’t plan on shooting?”

“No, I plan on you getting along side him and nudging him off the road,” he said, sighting the gun. “If doesn’t cooperate, then I plan on shooting him.”

“I can’t bump him off the road. Are you crazy?  Beth could get hurt.”

He twisted himself in the seat to stare at me head on. “This guy, whoever he is, has all ready killed two people. Do you think he’ll hesitate for a minute killing Beth?  Besides, have a little faith, Gabe. I’ve done this before.”

“When?” I yearned to ask. Here I was speeding along residential streets, following a killer who held my wife hostage, and I was countenancing the ranting of an old man. But who was her father and would do nothing to put her in undue jeopardy; who loved her as much as I did; who wanted her away from the lunatic in front of us and home where she belonged.

“I’m crazy for doing this,” I said, easing into the left lane and edging along side the pickup.

Smoke sputtered from the truck’s tail. He was goosing the gas. I countered and leapt up, nearly head to head with him.

Tommy had rolled down the window earlier. He poked his head out and swung the S&W in front of him. I held the Mustang steady.

“Son of a bitch!”

“What,” yelled Tommy.

Headlights bore down on us. Whoever was coming, I was in their lane and there was nowhere to go but back. I slammed the brakes. Tommy and I pitched forward. The seat belts held us down, but without benefit of a shoulder strap I snapped forward, hitting the steering wheel with my chin. The Mustang bucked and screeched. A cloud of burning rubber rushed forward as we abruptly slowed. The pickup darted into the dark. I yanked us into the right lane. The oncoming car whooshed by us. In the instant of passing, I saw the driver, his wife and two children in the rear. His mouth moved and he was calling us damn fools, blaring his horn in fading protest. Only then did my chest tighten and my shirt stick to me.

“Don’t lose him,” shouted Tommy.

I glanced over, wondering if he and I had been in the same place, had experienced the same incident, the same brush with death.

He responded to my odd expression with, “He’s got Beth and he’s crazy. Now step on it.”

A slap wouldn’t have worked any better. I pressed the gas pedal and we took off.

“I saw him turn north onto Milwaukee,” Tommy said.

We saw him as we passed Church Street in Libertyville. He was loping along at around thirty. I slowed to his speed and we hung back with two cars separating us.

“Where do you suppose he’s going?” I asked, more to make conversation and calm my nerves.

“No idea,” Tommy said, fiddling with the scanner. The clatter was nearly deafening but the refrain was the same. Nobody had spotted the pickup yet.

“Can you transmit on that?”

“Just receive.”

We thudded over the railroad tracks that cut through the northern part of town. As we did, a voice broke through the jumble of sounds, dominating the scanner. The officer yelled, “I’ve got him. North bound on Milwaukee, south of Winchester in Libertyville. In pursuit.”

And then we saw him enter the road. He’d doused his lights; but anybody alert for a police car couldn’t miss the light bar strapped across the roof and the reflective markings.

I glanced ahead to the pickup. It maintained speed, as if the police were of no concern to him.

“Why isn’t he running?”

“Where to?” Tommy answered.

“Who the hell is he?” I said in frustration.

We hung back, waiting to react.

When we arrived at the intersection of Milwaukee and Buckley Roads, we picked up two Sheriff’s cars, the High Hills squad with Gary, and the Libertyville car.

Everybody lined up behind the first Libertyville car in a procession behind the pickup. Though the squads’ had their fireballs off, the lime green man would have to have been blind not to realize we were following him.

“Do you think they’ve established a roadblock up ahead?” I asked.

“They could,” Tommy said, “but I doubt it. With Beth in the car, they wouldn’t want to take the chance.”

We continued following the pickup north. We passed the old Rouse house where Billy the teenager shot-gunned his wealthy parents to death, and then gun butted and stabbed his father for extra good measure. It took justice fifteen years to catch up with Billy, but it did and found him financially destitute, and ground down by alcohol, drugs, and guilt. But it caught up.

“Rouse boy’s getting his finally,” said Tommy, as if he had been reading my thoughts.

“How much gas do you suppose he has?”

Tommy shrugged. “If he’s smart, he gassed up before snatching Beth.”

“But what if he wasn’t?”

“Then, he stops dead in his tracks. He stops at a gas station. Both bad choices. These fellows,” he said, pointing at the line of police cars in front of us, “will surround him. A confrontation will be inevitable. He can’t win, and he probably knows it. Unfortunately, Beth can’t either.”

We drifted past the Slavic national cathedral and cemetery. Every time I passed it, I marveled at the idea of a national anything in the middle of Lake County farmland that was quickly giving way to suburban sprawl.

The pops, hisses, and squawks of the scanner, the darkness, and the quiet hum of the Mustang’s tires, these must have lulled me into another lapse because I swear I didn’t see it coming. It was a goblin, a gremlin, a miniature white ghost floating off to my right.

“Looks like you’ve seen a ghost,” Tommy remarked lightly.

“I did—forgot, tonight’s Halloween.”

“There won’t be many along his route,” he said. “We’re passing that development just south of Gurnee.”

Gurnee’s known for two things:  the region’s largest enclosed discount mall, called Gurnee Mills; Great America, the region’s largest amusement park.

It came from out of the blue. Well actually, the white of the child’s ghost custom.

“I know where he’s going,” I said.

“Who told you?” Tommy said, assuming I was kidding.

“You and the little ghost.”

“Huh?”

“Halloween and Gurnee mean just one thing. He’s headed for the amusement park.”

“Great America?”

“The one and only?”

“Why?’

“They’re having a party. They keep the park open late and have a haunted house, that type of thing. The point is, it draws a large crowd, and where better to hide than in a crowd?”

And in a minute, there loomed the amusement park, first visible by the wooden roller coaster and the elevator tower. Our cavalcade zipped past the Washington Street and employee entrances. The pickup turned left onto Grand and then hooked another left into the Great America parking lot. The police procession followed and we glided in behind them.

The lot was packed. People were arriving for the big scare night. They crowded the entrance booths. Plenty of adults peppered the crowd; but for the most part, children and teens comprised the audience.

I felt Tommy stirring and glanced over. He was agitated. “I don’t like this,” he grumbled, waving at the scene. “Too many kids.”

I looked back at the crowd differently. If the lime green man managed to get inside the park and decided to put up a fight, well the kids seeking Halloween thrills could be in store for an unhealthy dose of terror.

I pulled over and idled near the entrance on the access road. It seemed the best place to be until we knew what the lime green man planned. I strained to see Beth, but the pickup was too far away.

Tommy and I didn’t have to wait long for the man to make his move. It happened so fast it was hard to imagine and describe.

The pickup looped lazily around the parking lot. It was if the lime green man was lost and wandering aimlessly. He meandered toward the large plaza that held the ticket booths jammed with ticket buyers. And when he assumed a straight course, he accelerated.

Besides us, Gary was among the first to realize what was about to happen. He engaged his siren. His rear tires spewed gravel and dust as he accelerated. He moved to the right of the pickup when the other squads grasped the situation. Then they all sounded their sirens.

The crowd turned almost as one and looked in the direction of the piercing noise. And the strangest thing happened. Nobody moved. Instead, they milled. They seemed to be laughing. Adults and children pointed at the fast-approaching cars. They must have thought it part of the entertainment, an enormous show for them. They believed themselves to be spectators, not what they were:  impending victims. By the time they realized otherwise, it would be too late.

“Get going,” commanded Tommy, gesturing at the entrance. When I hesitated, confused about what he had in mind, he shouted, “Go, go, cut the SOB off.”

There seemed no other alternative, at least not in the split second we had available to us. Gary herded the pickup to the right. The cavalcade of cops trailed. The people remained statues. And only we were in a position to prevent tragedy.

I tromped the gas pedal to the floorboard. The sole salvation to the situation was that I aim directly at the diver’s door, exactly opposite of where Beth sat. My plan, if you could grace it with such a descriptor, was to strike with force sufficient to stop the truck, perhaps incapacitate the lime green man; but not jar the pickup too much, and certainly not overturn it. Of course, there was no hope for the Mustang, and, yes, lamentation for her did pass through my mind.

We roared forward, but Tommy demanded more speed as we approached the plaza and it looked like the pickup was edging away from us.

I pushed harder and the Mustang gobbled the distance and spit it out the tailpipe. I swore I could have written a novel, or at least a few ads, in the time required to reach the pickup. Then I imagined us as those torpedoes in World War II movies I loved slicing slowly through ocean until … bang! 

But it was only seconds.

The impact was sudden, loud, and heart-wrenching, and nearly a miss.

I clipped his rear, hooking his bumper, shearing it off. It bounded onto the Mustang’s hood. Fortunately, the hood was the length of a small airfield, leaving the bumper plenty of room to skew left and bounce off the left pillar in front of me. Reflexively, Tommy and I covered up.

We would have exhaled in relief, if the pickup hadn’t slammed into the side of the Mustang. I saw the lime green man cannonballing at me. He looked short and skinny behind the wheel, like a spent factory worker, his life dissipated by tobacco and alcohol, a red cap pulled low over this eyes to prevent me from seeing into his besotted soul.

We shot by each other, releasing into the air the scream of metal on metal, followed by orange sparks like those off the flit wheel in a toy.

What I didn’t see as the lime green man and I spun around each other was Beth. I prayed she’d found refuge on the floor under the dashboard.

I tried halting our centrifugal motion by jamming the break pedal through the floor. The Mustang shuddered and the rear bucked wildly like the pissed off filly she was. I fought the wheel until I finally gained control. Then I glimpsed the pickup through the rear view mirror.

The lime green man and Beth, who was now visible, looked back at us from a pickup that wobbled like wounded prey. It shimmied to a stop on the plaza, short of the crowd.

I scrambled out oblivious to any injury I might have suffered. Tommy was right behind me.

The lime green man was as fast. He grabbed Beth by the arm and jerked her along.

Rage and fear consumed me. I screamed for her. As they entered the crowd, she looked back at me, appealing eyes ablaze.

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