Behind Lori Baer, 27

Behind Lori Baer

CHAPTER 27

“Did he hurt you?” I was hugging Beth while surveying her for injuries, and doing neither very gracefully.

“Bruised and battered. Otherwise, I’m fine.”

We heard Tommy before we saw him. I released Beth and she fell into her father’s arms.

Gary was with him and Zantello told him I’d given him a description.

“Let’s get it on the air,” Gary commanded.

“Done already,” replied Zantello.

Tommy, Beth, and I huddled together, a small knot on the tailing end of the crowd in a final surge toward the front gates.

As I urged Beth into her jacket and she awkwardly pulled on her slacks, Gary asked me, “Did you do anything to slow him down?”

“I’m afraid not,” I said, wincing as a sharp reminder of the encounter sparked up and down my rib cage.

Beth looked concerned. She eased from Tommy’s grasp and touched my face gently. “You’re hurt, Gabe.”

“Couple of bumps,” I demurred. “But you might want to massage my pride. I’m sorry I let him escape.”

“Don’t worry about it. We have all the exits covered and we have his truck. He’s not going anywhere.” It was Gary trying to put me at ease. I wondered if I was too old to learn a martial art, just in case there was a next time.

“Any idea who this guy is?” Gary asked.

“No,” I said. “Tommy and I spotted him at Lori’s place. We asked her about him. She said he was the gardener.”

“Maybe she’s not paying him enough,” he smiled thinly. “You believe her?”

I shook my head no, and Tommy did the same.

“But she knows him?”

“That’s the impression.”

“And he’s the killer?”

“No doubt about it. He admitted it.”

“Okay,” he said. “Once we have him, we’ll want you to identify him.” He meant Beth and me. “Besides, you can’t get out of here until this clears up.” He waved at the mob of costumed characters.

Beth and I held each other as the police urged the crowd along. Tommy scouted the area. He found a bench and hailed us over. Beth and I sat down, she between Tommy and me.

The danger and terror had passed. Beth’s tears had stopped. My heart beat normally. Now there was nothing to do but wait, and speculate.

I asked Beth if the lime green man had revealed his name. He hadn’t.

I asked if he’d said anything that might tell us who he was, something about his connection to the Gatewoods and Marsh.

She said, “He didn’t talk much. What he did say was disturbing. He was schizophrenic about Lori. One minute he damned her. He described her as a whore and harlot. Then he called her a spiteful child. He was doing good, he said, saving her from herself. It was almost as if he thought he was doing the work of the Lord. He was delusional is the best I can put it. In his mind, Chuck Gatewood and Jerdan Marsh were hurting her.”

“How does he know so much about Lori?” I asked.

“Gabe, there’s a more fundamental question,” Beth said. “Why should he care about her at all?”

I knew what she was driving at, but my blank expression didn’t convey it.

“Because he had a relationship with her,” she continued.

“What kind?” piped Tommy.

Beth shrugged. “I don’t know. He didn’t say. But it’s obvious.”

“The only relationships we heard about were with her father, and her three husbands. And they’re dead,” I said. “Unless there was somebody no one knew about.”

“Her father,” she said. “I sounds like a father-daughter thing, especially where the father has been possessive and possibly abusive.”

“Which her father was,” I said.

“Exactly,” she affirmed, running her hands through her hair, then examining them. “How do you know the father’s dead?” she asked, casually, concentrating more on examining her hand than asking the question.

“Well, the Decatur police said so,” I said. Tommy nodded in agreement.

She shook her head.

“What, you don’t believe them?” I asked.

“Oh, this head shaking?” she said with a smile. “It’s about my hair. It’s a mess. Needs a good washing.” She wiped her hand on her slacks. “I forget, how did he die again?”

“Truck accident,” Tommy said.

“The circumstances?” she asked.

“He’d been drinking with a friend of his. They got into a fight at the local red neck pub. They stumbled out of the joint drunk, in no shape to drive. Didn’t stop them. A few miles out of town, they wrapped themselves around a tree and the truck burned.”

“Any witnesses?”

Tommy gave it thought and said, “No.”

“No other cars around? A completely deserted road, near a large town like Decatur?”

“Yes,” said Tommy. “You know it’s possible.”

“Trucks usually burst into flame upon hitting a tree?”

“Sometimes,” Tommy said.

“You ever see it happen, Dad?”

Tommy mulled it over. “A couple of times.”

“Outfit?”

“Yeah, well, they were burning.”

“Whatever, Dad. Did you read the police report?”

“Tommy did,” I said.

“Did it contain an autopsy? Or a summary of the findings?”

“No,” I said. “There was no autopsy. Should there have been?”

“Violent deaths, especially suspicious ones require an autopsy be performed on the bodies.” Sometimes, like that moment, I had to ask myself who this woman was. My wife was a second-grade teacher, not a cop. But when you play in the coal bin, some—a lot—of the dust rubs off.

“No suspected foul play,” Tommy followed. “It was apparent the victims died in an accident. Enough people saw them drinking and knew they were drunk when they left the bar.”

“What condition were the bodies in after the accident?”

“Burned,” Tommy answered.

I added my recollection. “Charred beyond recognition.”

Beth pursed her lips. “How did they identify the victims if the bodies were charred lumps?”

I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t recall us asking the question. But then we weren’t there to learn about Lori’s father. I suppose I was feeling defensive.

Tommy said, “They identified the truck as belonging to Cal Baer, that’s Lori Gatewood’s father. Since a few people at the bar saw Cal Baer and his pal drive away in the truck, the police figured they were the ones in the burned out truck. It was a logical assumption.”

“No doubt,” Beth said. “But it was just an assumption.” “What’s your point?” he asked.

“Allow me a question or two more. After all, I’m a victim of this murderer too.”

“As long as we get to the point before the park clears out,” Tommy said.

Now that Tommy mentioned it, the place was quieter. The crowd had disappeared through the bridge tunnel. The police were gone too, scattered to other parts of the park searching for the elusive killer.

“The murderer has been very selective. He’s killed people who had one relationship in common: Lori Gatewood.” She rattled them off in machine gun fashion: “Chuck Gatewood, Jerdan Marsh, you, Gabe, and me, probably because I’m your wife. Then there are the suspicious deaths down state. Lori’s two husbands, her mother, the father’s friend. Whoever the killer is, he had something going with Lori.”

“Maybe she has another lover?” I offered, tentatively.

“Well, it would have to be a very long-standing affair. I agree with you and Dad. Those deaths downstate were not accidental. However, I don’t think it’s logical to believe she’s kept a lover in the background all these years.”

“Maybe it’s somebody stalking her. A secret admirer, maybe even one she’s not fully aware of,” I said.

“You’re on the right track. In a way, the person I have in mind is a secret lover. Her first lover.”

Tommy and I gazed at each other in a sort of gestalt enlightenment. What Beth said made sense. Except, of course, that Cal Baer was dead, and had been for over ten years.

“You mean her father?” Tommy asked.

“Exactly,” she answered, bright eyed, proud of herself, having seemingly forgotten her episode in the grip of death.

“You’re saying the father’s alive?” I asked.

“Why not? There’s no hard evidence to prove he’s dead.”

“Nothing,” said Tommy, “but a police report prepared by experienced officers containing conclusions drawn from the observations of creditable witnesses.”

“But no hard facts,” she retorted. “No autopsy.”

“If that’s all you consider fact, then no.”

“Thank you. With the right motivation, it’s possible to stage a credible accident.”

“But it’s not easy to get victims to cooperate,” I said. “Especially if you plan to kill them. I seems to me people object to that.”

“You know, Gabe,” Beth said, “I always appreciate your wit, but not at the moment. From the way you described his relationship with Lori, and based on what you learned in Decatur, her father comes across as brutal, not just to her, but to everybody. And that includes friends. I can see him plying his friend and anybody they’d bump into with liquor. He could have rendered them unconscious.” She motioned as if hammering a nail, or a head.

“Heck, the way you described their drinking, they might have passed out. After that, how difficult could it have been to get them into the truck and drive them into a tree? Without an autopsy, who would know?”

“But why would he fake his death? Why kill two people in the process?”

She shrugged. “He’s not rational, Gabe. I don’t know. He was obviously obsessed with his daughter. You said she got a police injunction preventing him from being around her. Who knows, maybe he decided the best way to be around her without interference was to fake his death. People have done that before, isn’t that so, Dad?”

Tommy shifted on the bench, searching for a softer spot. There wasn’t one and he settled for a different set of slats. “It’s been known to happen. But not often.”

“Just has to be once,” she said.

“Well,” I answered, “it might be moot if Gary and the others capture our man.”

“In any case,” Beth said, “I want to tell him what we’re thinking.”

“What you’re thinking,” Tommy corrected her. “I haven’t bought into it yet. I don’t know about Gabe here.”

I chimed in with, “Not me.” I may have been a bit hasty since Beth scowled at me.

“Listen, can we get up and walk around?” I suggested. “I’m getting stiff sitting here.” I touched my side gingerly. “I think we need to find some ice and a couple of aspirin.”

“Oh my gosh,” Beth exclaimed, standing and feeling around the bench, “did you find my bag?”

I picked up the ball next to me on the bench. It was her blouse, caked with dirt and grease from the Batman ride. I unwrapped it. Her bag was inside. I handed it to her. She rummaged in it and found a tin of aspirin. She handed it to me.

I looked around for a water fountain, but saw none. I popped two into my mouth dry and chewed quickly. I wondered which was worse, the taste or the pain. She took the tin and swallowed four, truly her father’s daughter.

“Let’s amble to the front of the park,” Tommy said, stepping off. Beth and I followed.

It was an easy walk unimpeded by people. We must have been sitting and talking for quite a while because the park appeared empty.

Gary and a knot of local police and Sheriff’s deputies where congregated at the entrance, which was still bathed in the blue and red of swirling fireballs. There must have been a dozen squads parked in a dizzying variety of directions, most with lights going.

When Gary saw us, he motioned us over.

“Did you get him?” I asked.

“We’re still searching the park,” he said. “I suggest you go home. I’ll let you know the outcome later.” He motioned for Zantello, who was nearby. “I’ll send the Sergeant with you. He’ll stay around your place too. Just precautionary until we find this person.”

“Very reassuring,” I said. “Do we take it to mean you don’t expect to find him tonight?”

He shuffled. “It was a large crowd. It was messy getting them out of here. I wouldn’t kid you. He could have slipped through.”

Beth had been holding my arm. She tightened her grip. I wiggled my hand and she placed hers in it. I squeezed reassuringly.

The Mustang was beaten up, but she’d come through for us. I drove, silently promising the ‘Stang I’d nurse her back to top form, telling her I was sorry, but Beth was everything.

“Sorry about the car, Gabe,” Beth said, always able to read my thoughts.

“I can fix it,” I said. “I could replace it, if I had to.”

Beth took my hand and squeezed.

Tommy folded himself in the back seat. The Mustang’s not very accommodating to rear passengers, unless you’re a kid or unusually short. He managed, though.

We took Route 21 to Village and then straight home. Zantello’s lights were behind us the entire time. It did feel reassuring to have a real guardian angel.

I eased the Mustang into the garage with caution. The lime green man—I wasn’t prepared to call him Cal Baer yet—had demonstrated his ability to enter and leave our house at will. Tommy and I weren’t about to assume he couldn’t make it back here—hadn’t made it back here and was waiting for us.

I crawled up the driveway and into the garage. We used the time to survey the grounds and the garage for anything out of place. Everything seemed as it should have been. But you never could be certain.

Before exiting the car, I glanced at Beth. Our eyes locked and behind the weak smile I knew she was nervous. I could only imagine what it was like to be snatched from your own home, and what an unsettling experience to return, with your kidnapper running free, knowing where you lived, and how to get at you.

I reached across and tenderly ran a finger down her check. She grabbed my hand and pressed. There was no way the lime green man, or Cal Baer, if that’s who he was, was getting at her again.

Tommy broke my pledging bond: “Let me out of here before my legs go completely numb, will you? This is senior abuse.”

I motioned for Beth to wait. I rolled out. Tommy quickly pushed the seat forward and tumbled out behind me. It seemed that we couldn’t make a normal entrance into the house any longer. Remembering the last time I’d simply opened and walked through a door into the family manse was getting difficult.

Tommy told me to park in the garage while he looked around outside. He was gone a second when Zantello strolled in.

“Where’s Tommy?”

“Making a circuit around the outside,” I said.

Zantello shook his head. “He should have waited.”

I gave him a shrug that said, “You don’t know Tommy.”

“I’ll have a look inside. You stay with Mrs. Angellini.”

Zantello distracted me so I didn’t notice Beth climb out of the Mustang and sidle up to me. I jumped as she touched my arm.

“Careful,” she whispered, “you might dent the ceiling.”

“Very funny. Why didn’t you stay in the car?” I tried acting peevish, but only succeeded in sounding ridiculous.

Tommy returned first to report he’d found nothing. Then Zantello reappeared, as if on cue, to say the same about the house.

We settled around the kitchen table, after switching on every light in the house, a gauge of how seriously we regarded the situation.

Zantello excused himself. He preferred prowling outside on foot and in the car. Beth promised to bring him a cup of coffee later.

I volunteered to put on a pot of Columbian, but she waved me off, professing the need to occupy herself with something ordinary.

As Beth prepared the coffee, Tommy and I walked around the house, concentrating our attention on the windows and doors, checking each to assure ourselves they were secure. We knew if there was a way in, the lime green man would find it. After all, couldn’t rats squirm through miniscule fissures?

We entered the kitchen as Beth pulled three mugs from the official mug cabinet. It was a constant amazement her and Tommy that we owned a sufficient number of coffee mugs to fill an average kitchen cabinet to overflowing. I was the culprit as I bought a mug wherever I traveled, and I had done quite a bit as president of Trumpet Advertising. Actually, we had more than one cabinet’s worth, but many had broken over the years. I liked to believe their demises were due to accidents.

We sipped from city mugs. Tommy got New York, San Diego held my coffee, and Beth gave herself London. Beth also set out cream and sugar, but only she took the cream. We weren’t worried about staying awake the entire night.

“Think he’ll come by tonight?” I asked, more of the house gods than Tommy or Beth.

“Doubt it,” Tommy said. “Still and all, it’s a good idea to keep the guns nearby. One for you and for Beth.” Tommy had Beth’s .380, which he produced and laid on the table. I had retrieved my Dan Wesson before we’d reconnoitered the house.

“He has to know the police are here,” Beth said.

“Criminals are a breed unto themselves. They do things that make no sense to normal people,” said Tommy. “If he escapes, he’ll probably be by. So I’m advising you, if you can sleep, sleep lightly with your guns loaded and next to your bed.”

  We’d neglected our coffees and they’d gotten cold. I collected the mugs, dumped the contents, and refilled them with steaming brew. We sipped quietly, contemplating the situation as if it floated on the black liquid.

Each time the house ticked or creaked we looked up and around, first with concern, then relief when we recognized the sound. It wasn’t pleasant and it had me wishing for a resolution no matter how disturbing or unpleasant it might prove. It had to be better than living like a bow drawn taut, just short of snapping.

We went on like that for several minutes. Beth was about to break the silence when there was a knock at the front door. It startled us and Tommy and I reached for the guns laid on the table.

“I’ll get it,” I said, hopping out of the chair, pleased to do something, even if I was only walking in terror to the door.

It’s times like these that you wished you’d done things differently. Years ago, when we remodeled the house, we chose a solid wood door. We liked the look and thought it more secure than other types of doors, especially those with windows. And we never installed a spy hole. We didn’t think we needed it in the quiet, safe suburbs. I wished at that moment for a window. I would have settled for a spy hole. As it was, the only way to discover who was on the other side of the door was to open it.

Reaching for the knob, I rationally thought it was Zantello. He could be knocking for any reason. He may have wanted a coffee, or might have had to use the toilet. It made sense. And if I was being sensible then, I would have approached the entire enterprise of greeting somebody at the door with the usual calm almost everyone does.

But this was no ordinary situation and no run of the mill night. There might be a man running lose, a killer, who at best wanted to scare the hell out of us, which he was doing quite nicely, and at the worst wanted to kill Beth, or me, perhaps even tried to kill Tommy already in Decatur.

There was Zantello to contend with. He was our first line of defense. But where dozens of officers had been ineffective, how could we count on one to protect us? For all I knew, he was slumped in the front seat of his cruiser, another victim of the lime green man.

I held the knob for several beats, rolling it all around in my head. Finally, with courage screwed up to maximum, I opened the door.

Zantello looked like salvation to me.

“Sorry to disturb you, Mr. Angellini,” he said, softly. “Someone’s here to see you.”

She stepped into the light.

“Gabe,” she said, “I hope I’m not bothering you, coming this late, but I have something to tell you and Beth.”

I invited Lori in and thanked Zantello.

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