Behind Lori Baer
The door closed and latched with a satisfying thud and click. It reminded me of its virtue as a front door, why we’d selected it in the first place.
I started to guide Lori down the hall to the kitchen. She tugged me arm and I stopped.
“Is Beth here?”
“Yes, and Tommy, too.”
“I heard about this afternoon … this evening. She’s all right, I hope, Gabe?”
“She’s recovering, Lori, in her own way. I am to.” I was cool.
“I want you to know I didn’t intend for this.” She regarded me imploringly. “Not for any of it.”
I felt guilty, as if I was responsible for her pleading. I administered a large dollop of understanding. “I didn’t think you did. I didn’t think you were responsible.”
“In a way I am,” she said, not much ameliorated by me. “You see, I know who killed Chuck.”
“I’m not surprised,” I said with more calm rationality than I thought myself capable of.
“I’m not through, Gabe. I could have prevented his death. For that matter, I could have saved them all.”
Now that struck me speechless.
I led her into the kitchen. Tommy stood in the courtly fashion of the gentleman he was. Beth, who the other day had expressed compassion for Lori, acknowledged her coolly. Well, coldly. It seemed the coffee in our cups iced over. I guessed understanding and sympathy worked better when extended long distance and before a kidnapping.
I pulled out a chair opposite Beth. Lori settled in. It didn’t take much. She wasn’t carrying anything. No coat. No purse. Nothing. I caught Tommy’s expression. It said, “Odd.” “Would you care for a coffee?” I asked, bending forward a bit to gain eye contact. When she didn’t react, I said, “Perhaps something stronger?”
“No, coffee’s fine. I couldn’t tolerate anything much stronger.”
I’d taken a step toward the stove when she asked, “Could you add a couple of aspirin to the order? It’s been a long afternoon.”
It had been. Lori had changed since earlier. She wore fresh wool slacks and a pullover sweater. But she looked anything but renewed. Her face was drawn, creased with lines, adding years to her, what? thirty-two years? Her eyes were bloodshot.
I gave her water and aspirin with the steaming coffee. She floated the aspirin down with a sip of water and immediately started in on the coffee.
Like an audience, we watched expectantly.
“I should have told you this earlier, Gabe. I wanted to. But I couldn’t. He said if I did he’d hurt you. I knew he would. He’d done it before, many times.”
She fortified herself with sip.
“The person who killed Chuck and Jerdan is my father.”
A couple of days ago, even this morning, her revelation would have stunned us. Beth’s speculation had robbed the message of its shocking quality. Nonetheless, to hear Lori confess it, it still held surprise.
“Your father staged his death?” I said.
She nodded. “I was completely unaware at first. I recall the night the police informed us. I was elated. I believed I was free of him. He wouldn’t harass me anymore.”
“How did he do it?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t know the details. I lived for several months as if he was dead. I was married to Floyd. It wasn’t the best marriage. It was crap, but it was the best my life had been for a long time. I was free of my father. ”
I noticed her cup was empty. I offered her a refill. She shook her head.
“Your father killed Floyd?” Tommy asked.
“Yes,” she said quietly.
“What about your second husband?”
“He followed me to Champaign. He killed Stan.”
“Why?” asked Beth.
“Because he loved me and didn’t want to share me with anybody. Not even my mother.”
“You mean …” I said.
Tommy whistled softly. I would have joined him, but my mouth was too dry, and maybe I thought it disrespectful, given the horror Lori was relating. I glanced at Beth. Her expression was the opposite of what I expected. She appeared fascinated.
Beth asked, “Why didn’t you report your father to the police, after he killed your first husband?”
“He said he’d kill me if I said anything about him being alive.”
“Now too many people are dead. More will get hurt or will be killed. I can’t bear it anymore. Even if he kills me, it will be a relief. It will be an improvement over living the way I am, afraid to allow anybody near, afraid to love for fear that the person I love will die.”
She melted away in tears. Beth quickly moved over and embraced her. Lori buried her face in the crook of Beth’s arm. I admired my wife for it.
Tommy was eager to ask Lori questions and I had my own. But we restrained ourselves until her sobbing subsided.
Tommy beat me with: “Do you know where he’s staying?”
She shook her head. “No. I see him only when he wants me to see him. He’s in control. Nothing’s changed.”
“When does he come to you?” Tommy asked.
She stared at him blankly.
“When does he seek you out? What prompts him?” I asked, hoping to get her talking to learn what we might expect from the killer.
“If he thinks I’ve spent too much time with a man, he visits me. Other times when he needs money.”
“Then why…” began Beth.
“Because I had no choice,” Lori said quickly. “I know you don’t think much of me, Mrs. Angellini. After that episode in Gabe’s office, I suppose I can’t blame you. It happened with Gabe. My father misunderstood just as you did. I was able to … prevent him from harming Gabe. But it was different with Chuck and Jerdan.”
“How so?” Beth asked.
“I was married to Chuck. It wasn’t something I wanted. Not in the beginning. Chuck was persistent. I allowed him to take me out, once. When my father didn’t turn up, I went out with Chuck again. When I’d gone out with Chuck several times and my father didn’t show up to threaten me, I began to wonder. My hope was that he was dead. He drank. He prowled low-life bars, always looking to save souls. Of course, he could never save his own. Anyway, I hoped he was dead. I allowed Chuck to continue, and our relationship developed. We’d been seeing each other for nearly a year when he asked me to marry him. I really believed my father was gone forever. I believed he was dead. I said yes.”
“Then Marsh found out about your past?” I said.
“Yes, Chuck and I’d been married about a year. I didn’t want my past to be public knowledge. And, compared to my father, Jerdan didn’t seem so bad.”
“When did you father reappear?”
“About a year ago. He’d been in a brawl. In a bar, of course. He’d gone south, to Decatur. Well, you could see my situation. I was married to Chuck. I simply couldn’t walk out of the marriage. Besides, I loved him and loved our life together. But I wasn’t fair to him. Our relationship changed. I thought I might protect him, what we shared, by putting some distance between us. I thought my father couldn’t live forever. One day, I thought … I hoped, I’d be free.”
“And the same was true of Jerdan?” I asked.
“Somewhat similar. We had a relationship. A sick and demented one. But with him, I could be more direct. I even thought Jerdan could help me.”
“You asked Jerdan to kill your father?”
“Not flat out. But I let him know I wouldn’t be heart broken if my father passed away, soon. I made it clear it would be in all of our best interests.”
“Marsh certainly was the type. Why didn’t he take you up on it?” Tommy asked.
“Oh, he did. As it turned out, my father wasn’t easy to deal with. As much as I despised him, Jerdan’s first instinct wasn’t to kill. It was to con, blackmail, cheat. He tried it on my father. It got him nowhere. After Chuck’s death, Marsh realized he had no choice. If he wanted to stay close to me, he’d have to kill my father.” She paused, then said, “You’ve met Petey?”
I massaged my shoulder. “I’ve had the pleasure. Marsh sicced him on your father?”
She nodded. “And shortly afterwards,” Lori said, “Jerdan died.
I churned this over for a minute. The trees rattling in an autumn breeze was the only sound in the room.
“Your father must be at the end of the line. How can he expect to go on? He must have known we’d figure out who he was.”
“That’s why I came to you tonight. All of you are in danger. And I don’t want to see anymore people dying over me.”
“Are you sure you don’t know where he’s staying?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Tomassetti. I have no idea. He never told me. I never asked.”
“Well,” I said, “we’re safe for the time being. Zantello’s watching over us outside. And we’re armed and alerted.”
“Maybe we’d better give Gary a call. Tell him what we know,” Beth said.
I was thinking the same thing and was at the kitchen wall phone before Beth could finish her suggestion. I guessed Gary would be at the station. He’d been running around most of the day and would want to catch up before heading home.
The dispatcher put me though and Gary picked up his phone on the first ring.
I summarized Lori’s story. He told me to keep everybody in the house. He’d be over in a few minutes.
I hung up and decided to let Zantello know Gary would be on his way, though I knew Gary had probably radioed him already.
I excused myself. I gabbed the Wesson off the table. Its cold hardness was reassuring. I slipped on a jacket before going out and dropped the Wesson in a pocket.
I hadn’t noticed what a dark night it was. It seemed the moon had been shining earlier at the park. But it could just have been the bright park lights. I looked around carefully but saw nothing.
Zantello’s squad squatted in the street, in front of the house where he’d parked it earlier. The lights were off, as was the engine. I didn’t see the telltale cloud of condensed gas drifting from the tailpipe, as it normally did this time of year.
There wasn’t much to do in the house, at least not until Gary arrived. I decided to stroll the yard, thinking I’d encounter Zantello and fill him in.
I walked out toward Zantello’s car and then turned back to the house. I admired the way it rambled on the gently slopping land. Lights blazed upstairs and down, the way they had every night when Frank and Mae Rose had been children. They were like me in this regard, lovers of brightness. The lights were comfort.
I walked to the left side of the house. Several years ago, we’d planted a combination of honeysuckle and forsythia along the foundation line. We liked the yellow and pink and red in the spring and the green in the summer.
However, now I didn’t care for them quite as much. They were tall and thick, still bearing summer leaves, and a perfect hiding place for an average size man, not to mention a thin fellow like Cal Baer.
I wished I’d brought a flashlight with me. I slipped my hand into my jacket pocket and gripped the butt of the Wesson. I rested my finger on the trigger guard. Just in case.
Walking by the honeysuckle and forsythia was like passing by an electric field. My hair stood on end. My spine tingled. I broke out in a sweat and shivered in the cool air. I tightened my grip on the Wesson. I glanced over my shoulder several times, expecting to discover him stalking me from behind.
But nobody seized me, and I made it to the backyard. The kitchen, family room, and den lights cast the yard in dim yellow. I let down my guard in the security of the light.
I moved close to the house, allowing no space between it and me. Danger now could come only from my unprotected side and believe me I looked for it. But there was nothing. No Cal, and no Zantello. No, Cal didn’t bother me. But the missing Zantello, that troubled me. I’d covered three-quarters of the house. I hadn’t seen him in his car. I knew he wouldn’t leave his post, especially with his squad parked in front.
When I reached the corner of the house, I turned back and stopped on the patio. I gazed in through the French doors. Lori, Beth, and Tommy sat around the table. Lori stared into her lap. Beth swirled the coffee in her cup. Tommy darted his eyes around the room. I wondered if I should go around the corner and to the front of the house, or retreat into the kitchen.
I’d been mulling that choice for a good two seconds when a dull thud snapped me back to reality. Swinging around to the sound, I saw everybody inside looking in the same direction.
Tommy caught me in the corner of his eye. He nabbed the .380 off the table and motioned in the direction of the corner. Beth stood, urged Lori up, and wrapped arms around her.
I hugged the wall and slid toward the corner. I wished the journey would last as least as long as the average TV commercial, but before I could catch my breath, I was at the corner.
I pulled the Wesson up below my chin, muzzle angled skyward. I reconsidered. If my finger slipped off the guard, if I overreacted, I might lose my nose. I moved it to my right, just in case.
I popped my head around the corner, eyes wide, hoping to take everything in at one time, like a camera. But I couldn’t, being limited to a small field of vision. I poked my head around three more times, in rapid succession, as if the three were one.
I saw the outline of the bushes that lined the side of the house. The streetlights provided background contrast so if somebody was standing or moving, I was fairly sure I’d see him. I didn’t see movement, but I did see a mound on the ground about at the halfway point. I knew Beth and I hadn’t planted anything there.
I slowly moved my head around the corner, focused on the bump, and held it for a second. I pulled back quickly. It looked like a body. I stuck my head out again, this time for several seconds.
Nobody shot at me, or tried to hit me, so I figured it was safe to proceed. I moved the Wesson in front of me, in the extended arm position, ready.
It was no time to be quiet or demurring. If he was there, he probably saw me.
“Cal, I know you’re there. I’m armed,” I called.
I inched forward, swinging the gun side to side, repeating myself. I admit I felt foolish, like a kid playing cops and robbers. But I knew this was serious business, and there was nothing childish about what I was doing. On the contrary, to act any differently would have been stupid.
I worked my way to the mound, wishing I’d had the presence of mind to grab a flashlight. But on top of the body, I had no trouble making out who it was.
Zantello was on his back. His hands were at this throat. I heard a low gurgle, followed by a wheeze. He inched away from me.
“Zantello, stay still,” I whispered, kneeling beside him, bending into his face. “It’s Gabe.”
“My throat,” he wheezed. “The bastard cut my throat. He came up—“
I touched his shoulder. “Don’t talk,” I cautioned. “I’ll get inside and call for an ambulance. You’ll be fine.” I didn’t know if that was right or wrong, but it was the only comfort I could offer. “Don’t talk. Just point if you know which way he headed.”
Zantello attempted to move his head. The best he could manage was to make it loll to the right. He mouthed, “No.”
Great, I thought. Cal could be anywhere or nowhere. I had a wounded man at my feet who required immediate medical attention. In that split second, I knew I had no choice. It wasn’t a matter of bravery. It was necessity.
I sprung up, pushed the Wesson out, swiveled to ensure nobody was in front of me. I turned, did the same, and then sprinted around the house and to the back door.
Tommy was there.
“Zantello’s around the corner,” I said. “His throat’s cut. He needs an ambulance.”
Tommy opened the French door and conveyed the message to Beth. She released Lori and lunged for the phone. Lori sat frozen at the table. Her cheeks shone wet.
After calling, Beth grabbed towels from a draw and pushed past Tommy, joining me outside.
“I’ll come with you,” Tommy said.
I stopped him with my hand. “Keep an eye on Lori. We’ll be fine.”
“We’ll be fine, Tommy,” I insisted, sounding surer than I felt. “I love Beth too.”
“Go,” he said, nearly slamming the door in my face.
“Where is he, Gabe?” Beth asked, hard behind me as we trotted to the corner of the house.
“Around here,” I said, pointing the way with the Wesson. “Me first.”
We halted at the corner. I inched out, gun first. I went into my extended arm and swivel routine.
“Damn it,” I muttered.
“What?” she said, gripping my arm from behind.
“I forgot the flashlight again.”
She handed me the Maglite we kept under the kitchen sink for emergencies. “Second-grade teachers learn to always come prepared,” she whispered, too gleefully in my opinion.
I switched it on and ran the beam around the yard. It produced ominous shadows. Anything, or anybody, could have been lurking in them. But it appeared clear. I couldn’t be certain; however, with a man’s life hanging in the balance, certainty was secondary.
“Stay close. You see anything, shout and drop,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I got a pretty good education in duck and cover.” After all she’d been through and all we’d heard, Beth could maintain her sense of humor, compounding my admiration of her. I had to admire that.
“Right.” I reached back and squeezed a thigh. I felt better.
We trotted in a crouch to Zantello.
“Put the light on him,” Beth whispered.
I did as she instructed. He didn’t look well. He was whiter than a sheet of typing paper. His hands were drenched with dark, clotted blood. He tried wheezing a thank you. He aspirated blood.
Beth touched his shoulder gently. “Don’t talk. Lie still.” She bent low and applied the towels. “We’ve got an ambulance coming. You’ll be fine. Just stay calm, Officer Zantello.”
As if on cue, we heard a siren in the distance. As it grew louder, an explosive report shattered the quiet. I heard that noise enough to recognize the blast of the .380.
“Take this.” I shoved the Maglite at Beth.
“Be careful,” she said. There wasn’t time to reassure her.
As I charged to the corner of the house, the shriek of the siren increased and another gunshot rented the autumn night.
I banged against the house. My heart pounded. Sweat dripped into and stung eyes. I tightened by grip on the Wesson. I double-gripped and extended it, and then swung around the corner. My finger jumped from the guard to the trigger.
Tommy was in my sights. He waved me off.
“He ran that way,” he yelled, aiming the .380 into the park. “There,” he shouted.
I pivoted to the park and took off. As I did, I saw a man flash under a park lamp in the distance.
Racing toward the figure, I glanced back to check if Tommy was following. He wasn’t. He was restraining Lori, who had come out onto the patio. She struggled, pulling toward the park.
I ducked under a sagging tree branch. I was on the path, near the lamp, trying to catch a glimpse of Cal Baer. The path was clear both north and south. I lowered the Wesson and squinted across the field. I made out a shape running due east. I raised the Wesson and centered him in my sights. But I couldn’t fire a round. I couldn’t be sure it was Cal Baer, or just somebody jogging, or scared off the path by the gunfire.
I had to get a better look at the man. I ran in his direction. As I did, more sirens filed the air.
I was halfway across when I saw two squads veer off the park pathway, kicking up sod and dirt as they roared onto the field. One broke off in my direction, the other continued east in pursuit of the figure.
I lowered the Wesson and raised my hands as the squad bounced to a stop near me. I saw Gary behind the wheel.
“Get in,” he shouted.
I sprinted around the back of the car, pulled open the door, and dropped in beside him.
“Was it him?” he asked, slamming the gas petal, trying to position us behind the other squad.
“I think so,” I panted, talking faster than necessary, hyped by the running, fear, and the close encounter of having almost fired on another human being.
“Okay,” he said. It may have been the flashing red lights reflecting off the car in front of us, but I didn’t think anything was or would be okay.