The Mothers of Improvisation – excerpt from the book.
October 25, 2020
Bizarre death and terror had come to Waukegan, Illinois with the arrival of a deranged killer wielding a bloody butcher’s knife. Oblivious to the gravity of the grisly murder they’d just witnessed, an animated throng of people exited the retro Cineplex Theater and milled about under the emblazoned hype on the marquee.
It’s Back! From the Master of Suspense
Still Chilling Still Terrifying
And Norman Bates Is Still Crazy
After All These Years
A black 1958 Chevrolet Impala slowly rolled down the street nearing the theater, its fiberglass-packed mufflers emitting low bursts of throbbing beats into the crisp night air. The four passengers inside, only visible as silhouettes, wore black ski masks in the low‑riding car as it inched closer to the marquee like a military patrol boat hunting for the enemy.
In the crowd in front of the theater gathered two teenage boys and two teenage girls, all in their late teens. They laughed as one of the boys in the group mimicked a scene from the movie they’d just seen with slashing motions as if stabbing a make-believe victim.
A tall young man exited the glass doors of the theater accompanied by another man in his thirties. Both were chicly dressed, smiling and talking as they came outside. The older man spotted the black car approaching the theater. His face changed to one of ashen fear. His younger companion, followed his gaze, saw the car and began to run. As he bolted past the four teenagers, automatic gunfire erupted from the car.
Bullets filled the air, crashing through glass doors and poster sign frames. The crowd was soon riddled with wounds and collapsed onto the pavement like the dropped prey from hunters’ rifles. A life-size photo of Alfred Hitchcock instantly collapsed from its easel in riddled shreds. The ticket booth exploded into glass shrapnel, the ticket-taker blasted through its back door. Bloody splatter stippled its tiny walls.
The tall man, shot in the back mid-run, stumbled and dove forward like a dead halfback making one final end zone plunge. He rolled and crumpled to the pavement, ripped through and bleeding.
The older man, frozen in shock, took numerous slugs and gyrated in place like a marionette on jiggled strings. He fell backward through the shattered door frame of the theater.
The four teenagers, one by one, as if in slow motion, turned toward the source of the gunfire, their faces quickly changed from happiness to terror. Each brutally stricken down. The bullets obliterated their youthful joy, leaving them sprawled on the sidewalk. One teenage girl, lying across her dying friend, managed a single word.
And then joined the others, crimson and breathless.
* * *
A throng of people gathered around a memorial ceremony in the auditorium of a high school. Four caskets lined the area in front of a podium where a clergyman came to the end of his address to the gathering of mourners, news media, and a crowd of other attendees.
“We are here to say our goodbyes to Nia and Kate; to Mateo and Brad, whose bodies shall rest here, side by side, while their spirits ascend to Almighty God. And so, as they were in life, the best of friends, always together, so shall they be evermore. May God have mercy on these beautiful souls and on all of us. Amen.”
Four women, dressed in black, stood in a row facing the caskets, a man beside three of them. They struggled to contain their emotions, but tears refused to be denied.
Tara Eriksson, a statuesque redhead at a youthful 40, consoled another of the four, Amy O’Brien, an Afro-American in her late 30s, who had draped herself on one of the caskets and sobbed hysterically. Amy’s husband, Jesse, 42, tried to calm his wife in her grief. Ellen Berger, dark-haired, beautiful, 45, with the figure of a super model, stood without facial emotion, while the tears she tried to withhold ran down her tan cheeks, leaving trails in her make-up. Her husband Stan, 50s, at her side, his arm around her shoulders. The last of the four women, Liliana Perez, early 40s, stood alone and dried her eyes with a small lace handkerchief.
Tara ultimately succeeded in gathering up the three women and led them away from the service.
* * *
The four women from the memorial sat at a booth in the lounge of a pleasantly decorated, homey bar. Moments passed in an interminable silence as they sipped their drinks and stared off into a space known only to each of them.
The silence finally ended.
“Nia always liked this place,” Amy O’Brien said.
“She drank in here?” Ellen Berger said.
“No. She liked the bathroom.”
“The bathroom?” Ellen asked.
“Cleanest public ladies’ room in Waukegan,” Amy said. “That’s what she always said, anyway.”
Liliana Perez chimed in, “The seats may look clean, but I put paper on them anyway.”
“You put paper on the seats at home,” Tara Eriksson said. “Amy, am I making this up?”
“I do not,” Liliana said.
Who’re you kidding, girl? You’ve always had this sterile thing going on.”
“Where are you getting this crap?” Liliana said.
“Ellen, she took her own silverware to Pappillon’s last month?” Tara said.
Liliana glared at Tara.
“If they drop a fork on the floor, they just put it back on the table. They don’t even wipe it off. I’ve seen them.”
“For God’s sake.” Tara said and took a generous sip of her drink.
“I’m not eating off the floor. So I bring my own flatware.”
“Why do you go there?” Ellen asked.
“It’s the best restaurant in the county, Liliana said and paused. “But I’d give up all the restaurants in the world for the rest of my life for just one more kiss goodnight from Mateo.”
Liliana began to break down and looked at Tara.
“He was so in love with your Kate. Literally the girl next door. He used to sail paper airplane notes from his bedroom window to hers. I used to find them on the lawn”
Tara reached to Liliana, clutched her hand.
“I know what you were trying to do, Tara,” Liliana said, “and I love you for it. You have always known how to divert me from wallowing in sorrow. When Roberto died you were the first to come to my home to console me and see if I needed anything. You do loving things for all of us. You always have. You’re so damn strong.”
“God made buzzards tough,” Tara said.
“I thought the ceremony today was nice,” Amy said.
“It was nice of the town to do it,” Ellen said.
“Where did Lou get to?” Liliana asked.
“You know cops,” Tara said. “I fear the sound of a pager as much as a gunshot.”
The bartender, who’d been watching a TV at the bar, called over to the four women.
“Ladies, you might wanna catch this,” the bartender said and gestured toward a newscast playing on the television.
The women turned their attention toward the TV announcer’s report on the screen.
“…found by viewing surveillance videos taken at the scene, the police have obtained enough evidence to make arrests on four males, reputedly members of the street gang calling themselves The Mariahs. Formal arraignment is scheduled for tomorrow.”
The four women looked at each other contemplatively.
“I’ve got to find Lou,” Tara said and scooted from the booth and hurried out of the lounge.
* * *
Tara marched to the front door of a three-story office building. A sign on the facia read:
Waukeegan Police Department
Tara entered the building and approached a glassed-in barrier where a uniformed officer sat behind a window with an intercom to the right of the thick glass. The officer acknowledged Tara with a smile.
“He’s in his office, Ms Eriksson,” the officer said. “Go right in.”
A buzzer sounded and the door to the main office swung open.
Tara nodded her thanks to the officer and proceeded down a long corridor to an open office doorway. A sign on the door read:
Lt. Louis Glorioso.
Tara stepped inside the door where Lou Glorioso, pored over files on his desk. A gold shield hung from his suit jacket breast pocket. She rapped on the door frame. Lou looked up and smiled.
“How’re you doing, doll?”
He shuffled from behind his cluttered desk and kissed Tara.
“Sorry I had to leave the ceremony,” Lou said. “I guess you heard why.”
“On the TV at Torlino’s.”
“Let’s take a walk.”
Lou guided her out of the office. They strode for the front door and exited the building.
* * *
Lou and Tara walked down a path in a pretty park. Benches lined the walkway every ten yards.
“I could have told you who they were,” Lou said. “They’re smalltime punks who think they
can play hardball with the pros. All we needed was a little proof to get the warrants. Like most stupid criminals, they left a trail Barney Fife could follow.”
“They go to arraignment tomorrow morning, then to a bail hearing.”
“They could get out on bail?” Tara asked.
“Not if their old man was Alexander the Great. They don’t grant bail to repeat perps on murder one. Plus they’ve all got FTA’s out the ass. The court’s not thrilled with people who make a habit of not showing up for their hard-earned, tax-paid trials.”
“In other words, they stay in jail.”
“Until the grand jury votes for a trial, which they undoubtedly will.”
“But they’ll stay in custody.”
“They’re going to throw them in jail and bury the building.”
May 15, 2021
Eight long months had passed since the Cineplex massacre and Tara Eriksson had agonized during the wait like a patient about to hear the findings of a cancer biopsy. Her daughter had been in the ground for going on three seasons while her killers ate three meals a day, lifted weights, and watched TV and played checkers in a well-outfitted rec room. A single thought pounded in her head: It was high time to get these murdering bastards off to death row.
Tara found herself reliving the nightmare that had visited her life ten years earlier. Her husband, Kyle ‘Swede’ Eriksson, had been killed by a recidivist criminal during a routine domestic disturbance call. The woman who had called in the disturbance was a neighbor who lived across the street from the location of the home where she reported that screams were filling the quiet of the late night. Lou Glorioso and Swede had responded to the late night call. When Swede pounded on the door of the house under the suspicion of internal violence, a dark figure answered with a gun blazing. Four 9mm slugs struck Swede in the head and chest, killing him instantly. The killer had earlier broken into the home and was involved in robbing and molesting the woman who owned the property. Her screams had prompted the neighbor across the street and nearby others to call the police. The killer fled the scene and was never apprehended or identified. Tara now was not only a widow, she was a childless mother who wasn’t certain how she would continue living herself. The outcome of the trial for the lives of the accused murderers could hang in the balance for her own life.
During the trial, Tara and Lou weighed each piece of evidence presented by the prosecution and felt that a lot of it was weak. No eye witness identification of the shooters, no cell phone photos, and a lot of hearsay. The surveillance videos shot from two angles on the street provided only very low resolution results that barely identified the black sedan as possibly a Chevrolet Impala. Reasonable doubt would be so present in all the testimony and evidence provided by the prosecution that a guilty verdict appeared to be only a low hope that diminished with each passing hour of the trial. But the public demanded a trial, regardless how thin the evidence was. In the end, the District Attorney caved and convened the grand jury and got a vote to try the four men. One of the people killed at the Cineplex theater was recognized by the police as a known high-end drug dealer and was believed to be the real target of the shooters. The others killed were to ensure there would be no witnesses. On top of that, the four suspects had tight alibis, which placed them at the El Cid bar the entire evening of the shooting. The trial had been extremely short and Tara prayed that the scant evidence that had paraded through the courtroom would be enough to convict.
A huge crowd of people had crammed into the courtroom where four young men would stood before Judge Emil Perlman. Tara, Amy, Amy’s husband, Liliana, Ellen and her husband, and Lou Glorioso were seated in the gallery near the front. Everyone rose as the judge entered from behind the bench and took his chair.
“Bring in the jury,” Perlaman said to the bailiff.
The twelve stone-faced jury members filed into the jury box and took their seats.
“Madam foreperson, has the jury reached a verdict,” the judge asked.
“We have, Your Honor,” she said and extended a paper for the bailiff to deliver to the judge.
The judge unfolded the paper and focused on its words with a stern expression on his face. He handed the paper back to the bailiff, who carried it to the foreperson.
“Please read the verdict to the court,” Perlman said.
The tension was palpable as the foreperson consulted the paper with the verdict.
“We find the four defendants, Ramon Pena, Perry Colano, James Mantel, and Joseph Diamante, on the charge of murder in the first degree …, not guilty.”
The courtroom erupted. The scene turned chaotic. Loud outcries directed at the jury boomed in the air. Officials attempted to restore order, but to no avail. Amy screamed in anguish and pounded on the back of the bench in front of her. Tara looked at Lou in disbelief. The judge banged his gavel repeatedly.
“Order in this court! Order in this court!”
After several minutes the din slowly began to subside.
“This is a court of law,” the judge bellowed. “You will maintain order in my courtroom!”
The judge glared at each of the four young men.
“You have been tried and judged by a jury of your peers and have been found not guilty. I have had the verdict read to you. And though I totally disagree with the jury’s decision, I nevertheless will now carry out the will of the people. Guilt, at times, may sidestep our system, but I hereby warn all of you of the ultimate justice for your acts that will not this day come by this court’s hand, nor by mine. The justice that screams out from beyond this life, that you so cleverly evade today, will stalk you anew. You are men steeped in crime and have managed to outmaneuver the system and symbol of law that would’ve punished you, and now you hide beneath her very skirts. Mark me well. No crime such as yours goes unpunished forever. Guard your restless sleep, gentlemen, for Justice has a two-edged sword and she comes like a thief in the night to exact her measure. Now get out of my court, and out of my sight. We are adjourned.”
He brought down the gavel angrily, slammed it on its wooden pad and tossed the gavel across the bench.
* * *
Lou watched Tara as she ambled around the water’s edge of at the picturesque Savanna Forest Preserve Pond. She picked up stones near her feet and began tossing them into the water. Lou followed ten paces behind her.
“How could those bastards get off?” Tara said.
She threw the stones with increasingly more force and anger.
“How could those lying, rotten, stinking, murdering assholes get off?”
She found larger stones and hurled them with ferocity.
“They bought an alibi,” Lou said.
“They bought an alibi? They bought an alibi? Are you kidding me?”
Tara picked up a four-foot dead tree limb lying near the water’s edge.
“My baby’s dead and they’re out laughing and scratching like nothing ever happened.”
She pounded the bank repeatedly with the tree limb.
“Please my Irish ass!”
She flung the tree limb some twenty yards into the lake.
Lou was amazed at her strength and move closer.
“Nobody’s killing my family and getting away with it.”
“What are you going to do?” Lou asked.
“Even the score.”
“Tara, please don’t talk crazy. Swede and Kate wouldn’t want you to do anything foolish.”
“Swede died in your arms doing right. Kate died because she went to a movie. You shouldn’t die doing right in America. It shouldn’t cost you your life to go to a movie in America. I shouldn’t be without them just because I loved them.”
She broke down, dropped to her knees on the sandy edge of the lake. Lou rushed to her, held her close.
“Let me handle this,” Lou said.
“You handle it, Lou. Bring them to me dead. Then I’ll calm down and just be angry.”
She rose and pulled away from Lou’s embrace and walked away. She waved off Lou so he wouldn’t follow her and marched into the woods surrounding the lake.
Lou shook his head but kept his eyes on her until she disappeared into the dense forest. He knew controlling Tara would take every resource he owned. But he feared he might not have enough resources.
* * *
Tara got her mail from a street-side mailbox labeled: “THE ERIKSSONS,“ and returned to her middle class rancher.
Inside, Tara walked into the den to the front of a wide bookcase on whose shelves were displayed several photos of her husband Swede and her, her daughter Kate in a soccer jersey, a picture of Lou and Swede in uniform, and a family portrait of the three Erickssons. She picked up the family photo and brushed dust off the glass affectionately. She replaced it and took the photo of Swede and Lou. She half-smiled and replaced it. Also on the bookcase, sat a pair of bronzed baby booties, a special display of Swede’s decorations for bravery and his badge from the Chicago Police Force. She ran her fingers over the badge.
She stepped to a desk in the room and opened a drawer. Inside was a stainless steel revolver. She stared at it for a moment, picked it up, and weighed its heft with her hand. She opened the cylinder and noted that it contained a full load of six .38 caliber bullets. She left the den and plodded into a bedroom with the gun and sat on the edge of the bed. Tears filled her eyes as she stared at a picture on the wall across from the bed. It was a watercolor depicting a stick figure of a woman with red hair. At the top were the words “My Mom.” A signature at the bottom attributed the art to “Kate.”
Seeing the family photo in the den barraged her with choices she never dreamed would be passing across her mind. Of the three subjects in the photograph, two had departed this mortal coil and she thought about how it might be better to join them, rather than spend the rest of her life agonizing their loss. Swede would never again put out the night table light, roll to her in bed and tell her every night that he loved her and end with a firm embrace and a kiss. Kate would never graduate from high school and later pursue a career in journalism in college. Dinners with Lou were enjoyable, but Kate would no longer be there to rage about her latest crises among her schoolmates, a litany of gripes Tara always delighted in hearing, knowing that they would be resolved and gone the next day.
These losses had stolen her life to the point that she studied the pistol in her hand and considered the possibility of rejoining her loved ones. Someone once said to her that suicide was an act that, if performed, would piss you off in three days. The absurdity of the statement reminded her of the profound quotes attributed to New York Yankee great, Yogi Berra. That brought a reluctant smile to her face. It was true. Things in life constantly changed. A loss today could become a win the next day, very much like Kate’s schooldays’ grousing. The word “Paradox” flashed in her mind, and with it a phrase someone had added: “Life is mystery. Don’t try to figure it out.” Her smile faded and she dwelled on her helplessness to do something about her frustration; anything to balance the scales and make her feel like justice could indeed be achieved. But only anger returned and stoked a volcanic fire deep within her breast.
Tara walked back to the den and placed the revolver in the drawer in the desk. Later she would revisit her scattered feelings, regroup and rethink her options. Perhaps Scarlett O’Hara was right. “After all, tomorrow is another day.” No. There was another much more important statement from the wisdom of Jesus: “Take care of today. Tomorrow will take care of itself.”
* * *
The acquitted perpetrators Ramon, Perry, James, and Joseph sashayed down the street four-abreast like cocks of the walk. Perry shoved an elderly woman struggling with bulky shopping bags out of their way, forcing her into the street where she stumbled and fell. They laughed at her helpless plight. They received congratulations from a young boy with his head and shoulders protruding from of a second story window across the street. They waved and gave him a thumbs-up gesture for their assertion of street dominance and personal victory.
The four sauntered to a bar at the corner of the street and file inside. A sign over the door named the run-down establishment as The Oasis. The four young men find a booth in the back where two well-dressed men were having drinks. One of the men in the booth turned toward them with an unemotional expression on his face and handed Ramon a small package and an envelope. Ramon tucked the items in his jacket and the four young men departed and returned to the street.
James said some terse goodbyes to his buddies and headed in another direction from the other three. Three blocks later he climbed the four steps of a worn marble stoop in front of a run-down row house and unlocked the front door with a key attached to his belt on a chrome chain. He entered the house, locked the door behind him, and lumbered up a steep stairway. He stepped into a bedroom, doffed his jacket, and tossed it on the unmade bed’s dingy sheets. He walked into the adjoining bathroom and paused a moment to admire himself in the mirror. He adjusted his hair with a hairbrush. The shower curtain burst open and a ski-masked person stepped out and rammed a shiny revolver against the back of his head.
“You move and the last thing you’ll ever see is your ugly face splattered on that mirror,” A gruff woman’s voice said.
“What the fuck, man!” James bellowed.
“See, this is sort of like the movie PSYCHO, only backwards. Dig? In this one, the babe
in the shower gets Norman the owl stuffer. Neat twist, huh?”
“What do you want? A fix? What?”
“Your ass on a sharp stick.”
She pushes the gun hard against his head. He winced.
“Piss in the toilet.”
“Don’t make me repeat myself.”
“I don’t have to go.”
“If I don’t hear a steady stream of water running into that toilet in three seconds, I’m going to put this bazooka up your crack and squeeze the trigger till it don’t work no more. Got me?”
“Shit.” James said and hung his head.
James moved to the front of the commode, unzipped and forced himself to urinate. After half a minute, he finished and zipped up.
“Okay, you happy?” James asked.
“Not quite. Get on your knees in front of the bowl, stick your face in the water, and hum The National Anthem, all of it.”
“Aw, come on! You’re not serious, are you?”
The masked intruder jammed the gun into the back of his head.
“Does Howdy Doody have wooden balls?”
James knelt, took a deep breath, and reluctantly lowered his head into the bowl until his face was immersed in the water. After several seconds, he exhaled, making loud bubbling noises mixed with a loosely interpretive, hummed version of The Star Spangled Banner.
“Okay, what now?” James asked and raised his head, his voice echoing in the bowl.
After a long silence, he withdrew his dripping head and looked around the bathroom. The masked person had disappeared.
“Fuckin’ Alfred Hitchcock!” James said and spat into the toilet bowl.
* * *
Lou Glorioso read a newspaper at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee in front of him. Tara buttered toast at a kitchen counter.
“What word on the street?” Tara asked.
“One of those perps in your case got nailed last night.” Lou said and sipped his coffee.
“One of them is dead?”
“No, but somebody paid him a visit with a gun. Tried to scare him, I guess.”
Tara brought a plate of toast to Lou and placed it next to his coffee.
“Drug related?” Tara asked.
“Drug dealers don’t dunk you in the crapper. They dunk you in Lake Michigan. With cement scuffies.”
Tara poured herself some coffee and joined Lou at the table.
“Crapper? I don’t get it.”
“The story I got is the guy was forced to stick his face in the toilet water and hum a song.”
“It’s a crazy world.” she said and laughed.
“I hate to even think this, Tara, but I gotta ask. Did you have anything to do with shaking up this punk?”
Tara suppressed her laugh to a smile and placed her hand on her chest.
“Okay, I’m sorry. But you understand I had to ask.”
“Eat your toast while it’s warm. Why did you have to ask?”
“Because you have a motive to harm him. All of the parents and relatives of the victims do. I’ll have to question them all. Routine crap.”
“Crusading for the little bastard, are we?”
“You’re the last person I have to explain my actions to. You were married for over fifteen years to one of the best cops in the business. Swede would be doing the same thing. We have to. It goes with the job. Personally, if the dirty son of a bitch got run over by a tank I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass, but if a crime’s been committed, I’ve got to do what they pay me for.”
“And it’s all about motive, huh?”
“Yeah, that old ‘MOM’ principle.”
“Motive, opportunity and means?”
“You got it. Swede taught you well. Without motive we don’t solve many cases. In fact, without motive we don’t even make many arrests. Nothing to take to a grand jury to charge someone with a crime. If we don’t get a good motive, we pray for a smoking gun. Doesn’t happen often. You know, you’re overlooking the real perpetrators with a motive to do this crime.”
“Really? Let’s hear that one.”
“You don’t actually think that those four punks have enough brains between them to plan a hit like the one at the Cineplex, do you?”
“The two sterling citizens who own the El Cid bar are the bosses at the top. Paco Neruda and Carlos Hernandez. They call all the shots in Waukegan and control all the drug distribution.”
“Then why aren’t they serving time?”
“Because they’re more slippery than Teflon John Gotti. We haven’t been able to nail them on anything substantial. But I’d wager that they called the hit at the Cineplex to get rid of a the drug competitor that died that night with all the others. They merely sent out the young gangsters on their payroll.”
Tara tapped a fork against the table and absorbed what she had just heard. Lou picked up his toast, took a bite, and glanced at the newspaper lying on the table. As he began to flip through its pages, Tara slipped into the den, picked up her purse, opened it, and withdrew the nickel-plated revolver and replaced it in the desk drawer. A floorboard creaked and she whirled around at the sound and saw Lou standing in the doorway of the den staring at her. She blocked the view of the open desk drawer with her body.
“Gotta run, kitten,” Lou said. “See you around six?”
“Fine. Six is perfect.”
He crossed to her, gave her a peck on the lips, and strode out of the room as Tara pushed closed the open desk drawer with her buttocks.
* * *
The mention of the word “motive” during her discussion with Lou had sent Tara’s thinking in a new direction. What if a killer had no motive whatsoever? And what if people with strong revenge motives were nowhere near the victim they wanted dead? That had Tara assembling a plan to mete out justice to not only her local murderers of Kate, but for all women country-wide who had felt the helplessness of watching killers of loved ones go free of any punishment. The plan was materializing, but it needed a count on how many others shared the same grief she festered in her breast. She especially wanted to find out how many were mothers.