Behind Lori Baer
Two weeks passed and I’d only begun adjusting to having killed a man. It didn’t matter Lori Gatewood, and everybody she would come into contract with, was better off for what I’d done. Nor did it seem to matter much that Cal Baer hadn’t given me much choice. That was Tommy and Gary’s salve for my emotional turmoil. It was pretty rationale, very soothing if I allowed it to massage away my concern. But, and this was a huge solid caps BUT for me, I had had choices. They began way back with Lori Baer at Trumpet. They continued with my ill-fated and completely wrongheaded quest to prove her innocence. And they ended with my decision to leap from Gary’s squad and, thereby, set the stage for the fatal confrontation. What—I tortured myself with this over and over—what did I expect? Did I actually believe a demented, vicious, child-abusing, murdering son of a bitch like Cal Baer would throw up his hands in the face of me and my Dan Wesson?
Beth, as usual, was a fount of understanding. She was of the no-choice school. I allowed, once only, perhaps I was spurred on by a desire for revenge after learning how Cal had maltreated and forever wounded his daughter. She assured me that was nonsense. She was the vengeful type, demonstrated in this case by how she’d treated me in the wake of the Incident, and how afterwards she ostracized Lori. I, she assured me, was of gentler stock. I appreciated her labeling me such; however, I had my doubts.
This mental healing, like the physical kind, was a slow process, and I was progressing. Eventually I knew, I hoped, I’d be whole again, my only concerns my advancing age, my nine miles in the morning, and my ability to react to Beth in a black camisole. All this was quotidian and frivolous, and I eagerly aspired to devolving into every bit of it.
When I was dating Beth, she revealed—partly in jest and partly, I still believe, as a transparently veiled warning—Tommy had killed three people during his career. Over time, and by that I mean only after Beth and I had been married a year and Tommy had warmed up to me, I asked him what it had been like, how had he adjusted to … I’d been unable to form the word; he caught my clumsy drift. Being forced to kill was the worst part of the job; it didn’t get any worse. You know it’s not your choice; you know the person you shot forced you to shoot as surely as if he’d gripped the gun in your hand and squeezed the trigger himself. The first time was by far the worst; but repetition didn’t make it easier, at least if you had any sort of conscious and regard for life. But you adjusted, he’d said. You put it behind you. Time wares the edge off it.
It wasn’t much, he’d confided then; but it was reality, the way it was, and facing up to the real was always better than erecting fantasies.
It was this guidance given long ago, so old that until days after I’d pulled the trigger did I recall it, that helped. Like he’d said then, it wasn’t much; it wasn’t what you wanted to hear; but it was fact. And it was these facts of having done it, of having to get over it … it was understanding this that eventually sobered and adjusted me.
As for the others involved in this drama of many deaths, Margaret and Herb called after news of Jerdan and Cal’s deaths filtered across the plains of northern Illinois to them. They were profuse in thanking me for discovering why Gatewood Graphics was losing money each month. I assured them it would turn around now that Jerdan was out of the business. They were mulling over who should run the company. They didn’t want to, nor did they think either of them was up to it. They were contemplating recommending that Lori go to the outside. I suggested they ask Lori to take over. She knew as much as anybody as a result of working with and marrying Chuck. She certainly couldn’t do any worst than Jerdan.
As for Lori Gatewood, we had her over for dinner a week after the incident of Cal’s demise. It was Beth’s idea; she personally invited Lori. I was amazed and voiced my surprise. Beth was stern with me, reminding me that big people could accept and admit when they’d been wrong. Which I took to mean she classified herself among the giants.
It was a surprisingly pleasant evening, considering the history between Beth and Lori. It was as if they’d been friends lo’ the years. Just girls getting together to hash over their relationships, and other matters important to them.
Lori seemed happy, a state I hadn’t observed her in since we renewed our acquaintance a few weeks earlier. We didn’t bring up the matter of Cal; she did. She wanted me to know she held no animosity toward me for what I had done. She understood her father had given me no choice. Another person in that camp, I nearly let slip.
Lori had been in Decatur, Hillcrest, and Champaign the week after her father’s death. In each place, she put the ghosts of her past to rest. She spent time with Phyllis Shaw, the two remembering a man who doubtless was a no-account, but who deserved something better than cold-blooded murder. Stan Wheat had left no family, but those on the University of Illinois faculty who remembered him appreciated knowing the truth about his death. Her visit allowed police departments in the three towns to straighten out their records.
In Chicago, Lori passed several hours with Tony Vider and Anne Mavic. She was forthright with them, or at least so far as my brother-in-law Sal would allow. Beth had recommended she contact her brother and had mentioned Lori to Sal. Vider and Mavic considered holding her as an accomplice. Sal convinced them and the State’s Attorney that she was a victim of Cal Baer not his accomplice. He pointed out that no jury would convict. Rather, they’d sympathize with her and wonder why the State felt compelled to harass a young woman who’d already been living in hell for the first thirty years of her life.
Beth was delicate and understanding the entire evening. But I could tell something gnawed at her. She revealed tension in her eyes. They narrowed when she was that way.
She waited until she served dessert to bring it up. She wanted to know how Lori could have loved her father through and after all he had inflicted on her and those near her.
Lori didn’t answer immediately. She sipped her coffee. She smoothed the black dress she wore that evening. When she was ready, she said, “It may sound absurd, perhaps even sick, but I loved him. Yes, I hated him, too. But despite everything he did to me and to those around me, I loved him. In the wrong way, yes, but I’m convinced he loved me. I always believed he had my best interest at heart. And I want to believe what I did at the end was right for him.”
Beth and I exchanged glances. We both wore expressions that clearly indicated our abhorrence at what Lori said. She stared at us.
“You asked. I’m sorry. I can’t explain it any better.”
The evening ended shortly afterwards.
I helped Beth clean up.
Upstairs we prepared for bed in silence. She finished first and was waiting for me. She didn’t have the usual collection of schoolwork and teacher journals scattered over the counterpane. There was one light on. It was low and bathed the room in deep yellow, the kind that fills you with warm feelings and good memories. Outside the wind had picked up. We could hear the rustle of leaves, the clattering of bare branches against each other and the house, harbingering winter.
I slipped in beside her. She rested her head on my shoulder. She smelled new and fresh, like she had in the early days when we were getting to know each other. We joined hands. We knew that we’d be fine. In time, we’d be just fine, as we always were.