From A Shoot in Cleveland (a Milan Jacovich Mystery), by Les Roberts
Everybody is addicted to something.
How about you? Tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, sex, gambling, food—what’s your own particular jones?
Me? Except for the nose candy, I’m addicted to all of them, to a greater or lesser degree. I’ve smoked Winstons for more than twenty years, although periodically I try to cut down. I enjoy a beer, I’m inordinately fond of women, I like to bet on football games, and one quick glance tells you I haven’t missed many meals.
But I suppose my big thing is coffee. I slug down a couple of pots a day. Not the fancy flavored kind, hazelnut or raspberry or vanilla fudge, but good old-fashioned coffee, strong as a linebacker, no cream, no sugar. And not decaf, either. Coffee without caffeine is like nonalcoholic wine—what’s the point?
So I had two cups at home on this particular morning in August, filled a go-cup, which I drank on the drive down to my office in the Flats, on the banks of the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland, and brewed up another pot there, all before nine thirty in the morning.
For the past four months I’d been drinking my office coffee out of a very special mug, big and heavy and substantial. It had belonged to my best friend, who’d had it made for himself after he’d gotten it into his head that drinking out of cardboard or foam cups could cause cancer.
The mug is white, and on each side is his name and a reproduction of a gold Cleveland Police Department lieutenant’s badge, with his number on it in black. lieutenant marko meglich, 7787. My guts twisted every morning when I drank from it, knowing that he was gone now, that a thirty-five-year friendship begun when we were ten years old had been blasted away like a sapling in a tornado, in two terrible seconds, just across the river on a cold, wet night the past April.
His next in command in the department, Detective Bob Matusen, had given me the mug a few weeks after Marko had been buried with full honors, with cops in full-dress uniforms from almost every city in Ohio and quite a few from Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois in attendance, as well as the mayor, the police chief, several members of the Cleveland city council, the lieutenant governor of Ohio, two U.S. congressmen, a couple of judges from the Common Pleas Court, and various other local politicos who had a free morning and were looking for a photo op.
I’m the first one to admit I hadn’t been very good since then. I hadn’t really worked. I hadn’t been to a show or a ball game, hadn’t seen much of my other friends. I’d been at the edge of a brand new romance, with an attractive woman whose dragon of a mother hardly scared me at all, but I’d let it go. I didn’t have the heart for it.
I drank more than I normally do, too, far into the night, and then in the mornings I’d jog up Fairmount Boulevard, trying to work off the two or three extra beers.
I felt responsible for Marko’s death. He’d gone above and beyond the line of duty to protect my back. To make sure that justice was done in a situation where justice seemed impossible. If not for me, he wouldn’t have been where he was that night. He wouldn’t have caught a bullet.
The shrink I’d gone to a few times had assured me that that wasn’t the case, and in my head I knew she was right. The demons that scratched and clawed deep down inside me were another thing.
Yes, a shrink. A psychologist. Slovenian men like me—like Marko—don’t usually seek out the help of mental health professionals. We prefer solving our own problems in our own way. But I’d been sitting around since April without being able to let go of it, without seeming to get off the dime, and I’d figured it was time to talk to somebody.
It hadn’t helped much, and after four sessions I’d stopped going.
My pal Ed Stahl had called and invited me to dinner at his big, spooky-looking old house in Cleveland Heights a few blocks north of the Coventry branch library. I usually see Ed every ten days or so but we hadn’t gotten together for three months, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. So I’d bought a bottle of Jim Beam, one of Ed’s addictions, and gone over there on a Thursday night.
As usual, the whole house was redolent with the smell of his ever-present pipe, to which he is also addicted. He’d ordered takeout from the Sun Luck Garden, a marvelous little Chinese restaurant on Taylor Road, one of my favorites and one of Cleveland’s best kept secrets. I wasn’t surprised; Ed isn’t the domestic type, and I can’t imagine him spending even an hour toiling over a hot stove, especially for another guy. I counted myself lucky not to have been served hot dogs and chips.
Ed is a newspaperman. Not a journalist, not even a columnist, although his bad photograph appears over a column in the Plain Dealer five days a week. He’s a classic, stop-the-presses, two-finger-typist ink-stained wretch, and the Pulitzer Prize he won some eighteen years ago attests to his excellence. He’s hard-bitten, curmudgeonly, ulcer-ridden, nearsighted, relentlessly opinionated, and probably the only good friend I have left.
We ate the takeout at the big round table in his dining room where he has his Wednesday night poker sessions. I used to be a regular but hadn’t attended since Marko died. The downstairs rooms aren’t air-conditioned, and a large standing fan was blowing the hot air around. I washed the food down with Stroh’s and he sipped his Jim Beam on the rocks steadily all evening in defiance of his ulcer.
When we’d finished eating, Ed switched on the Indians game and turned the volume down to practically zero. I hardly looked at it. I’ve been a big sports fan all my life, but lately baseball seemed beside the point.
Ed took the little white cartons into the kitchen to toss into the trash and emerged with fresh drinks for both of us. He handed me mine, standing over me silently for a moment. Then he told me about the job he’d heard about. The movie job.
I turned him down flat. “I’m not a baby-sitter,” I said.
“No—you need a baby-sitter,” he shot back. “Because you’re acting like a kid. It’s time for you to get out of the house, out of the office, back into the world of the living.”
I shrugged. “Okay, so I don’t play well with others.”
“When are you going to go back to work? You’ve got to eat, don’t you?”
“I’m okay for money. I have a little cushion.”
“Lucky you,” Ed said. “I’ve got enough in the bank to keep me going until about three o’clock next Tuesday afternoon.”
“I don’t want to get involved with any goddamn movie. I quit going to movies when Bogart died.”
“And missed Sharon Stone? Madness!” He put his head down and looked at me over his horn-rimmed Clark Kent glasses. “How long are you going to keep on hiding under the covers, Milan?”
“Until it’s not so scary to come out,” I said.
“You’re scared of getting hurt all of a sudden?”
“No. I’m scared somebody else will get hurt. Again.”
Ed took a pipe from the rack on the dining room breakfront and unzipped a worn leather tobacco pouch. “It’s always going to be scary,” he said. “It’s a scary world. When has it not been?”
He was right, of course. After a hitch in Vietnam I’d patrolled the streets of Cleveland as a police officer, and I’ve served a long stretch as a private investigator. I’ve seen firsthand just how scary the world can be. It had never stopped me before; the fear is a thing you learn to live with, like chronic lower back pain. You never know when it will flare up or how bad it will be, you just go about the business of living, always knowing it’s lurking there quietly, awaiting its opportunity.
And then Marko Meglich died trying to protect me, and the fear had blossomed rich and red like an obscene flower, eviscerating me. For the entire spring and into the summer I rarely turned on my TV set, hardly glanced at the morning paper. I found lots of things I could do alone, like revisiting the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the mysteries of Lawrence Block, Moby Dick, The Brothers Karamazov. Interesting, I’d thought later, that I hadn’t even wanted to read anything new, anything I’d never read before.
I’d been playing it safe.
“Look,” Ed was saying as he stuffed flaky tobacco into the pipe bowl with his thumb, “the producers of this picture called me because they figured I knew everyone in town, and I gave them your name right away. From what they told me, this will be a no-brainer. They’re going to be in Cleveland four weeks, shooting a movie, which is good for Cleveland, right? They’ll spend a ton of money, and when it comes out in the theaters the city’ll look good. They’ve got this young kid who’s starring in the movie, though, Darren Anderson. Supposed to be Hollywood’s young-stud flavor of the month, except he has a penchant for getting into trouble wherever he goes. They just want someone to make sure it isn’t bad trouble. So you take the kid out to dinner after work every day, on them, you take him to some bars where he’ll have a good time and won’t get into a fight, and you tuck him in at night. You don’t even have to think, Milan. And they’ll pay you three hundred dollars a day.”
“For baby-sitting.” I pronounced it as if it entailed foul diapers, burping, and reading Dr. Seuss aloud.
“For security,” Ed said, sitting down at the table with me. “Isn’t that what you do? Isn’t that why you call your company Milan Security? Look at it as a kind of bodyguard gig.”
“Don’t they usually have press agents for things like that?”
Ed nodded. “But his press agent just can’t afford to spend a month away from her office. And they want somebody who knows the local ropes.”
I picked up my beer. I usually drink it straight from the bottle or the can, but Ed always serves it to me in a pilsner glass. The cold against my fingers, the heft of it felt good. “I just don’t think I’m up for it right now, Ed,” I said.
He struck a wooden match and put it to the bowl of the pipe, sucking on it noisily. Smoke, an alarming amount of it, billowed out and up to the ceiling. “You’re not up for much of anything these days, are you?” he said between puffs. “What’s the matter? Have you completely lost your guts?”
I put the glass down on the table harder than I’d meant to. “That’s kind of a bite in the ass, isn’t it?”
“Only because I’m your friend, Milan.” He bit down on the pipestem and jutted his jaw at me, a balding, bespectacled General MacArthur returning to Manila Bay. “Quit acting like the Lone Ranger. Every one of us is schlepping around a certain amount of emotional baggage. How well we carry it, how gracefully we go on with our lives, how we get over ourselves is a big measure of our success as human beings.”
I fumbled in my shirt pocket for my crushed pack of Winstons. “So what you’re saying is that I’m a failure.”
“You never have been, Milan, not since I’ve known you. But right now, you could be failure’s man of the year.” He took the pipe out of his mouth and pointed the stem at me. “You think if it had been the other way around, if you were the one who died that night, that Marko Meglich would have just curled up into a ball and waited for the birds to come and cover him with leaves?”
I shook a cigarette out of the pack and lit it. The temperature was in the low eighties, but I hunched my shoulders against the cold, clammy chill of truth crawling up my back. No, Marko wouldn’t have folded. If he’d been the survivor instead of me, maybe he’d think of me on an NFL Sunday and remember our days on the varsity squad at St. Clair High School and at Kent State. Maybe he’d remember how when we first met as ten-year-olds we’d bloodied each other’s noses in the schoolyard, how he’d eased my way onto the police force after I came back from Vietnam and then turned sour when I walked away from the badge four years later.
But he’d go on. He’d make the hard choices.
I guessed I’d better start making them.
“All right, Ed,” I said with a sigh that started down near my toes and forced its way up through my viscera. “I’ll call your movie guy. I’ll talk to him, at least.”
So here I was in my office, in the venerable building I’d bought a few years before with the generous bequest of my late Auntie Branka, waiting for a representative of Monarch Pictures to come and give me my marching orders.
I’d never heard of Monarch. Ed had told me it was a fairly new independent, trying to muscle its way in with the big boys like TriStar and MGM and Warners. They couldn’t have been doing too badly if they could afford to pay Anderson’s salary. I don’t know a damn thing about the movie business, but I knew enough to realize that he was a pretty hot box-office property these days—not quite in the Brad Pitt–Tom Cruise category, but getting there.
I’d hardly been in my office at all in four months—maybe twice a week to pick up the mail, and collect the rent and the list of complaints from my two tenants, the surgical supply company across the hall and the wrought-iron-monger downstairs. It was probably just as well. There had been a fire a few days before Marko died, and the repair and renovation work hadn’t gone as swiftly as I might have liked. Thank God it was finally finished. I was depressed enough without having to spend my days sitting in a room that looked like a burned-out bunker in Bosnia.
I didn’t like to think about that fire, because that’s what had led to Marko’s being with me that night, on the muddy incline on the east bank of the Flats where the bullet bearing his name had finally found him.
It was hot in the office, and smelled musty and sooty—I wondered how long it would take for the stink of smoke to go away—so I threw open the big windows and let the breeze from the river clean things out a little. The sun was shining, and across the water Terminal Tower was backlit by the summer sky. I hoped I’d be able to hear my client talk, because the gulls were in full throat, darting on graceful wings just above the edge of the water in search of breakfast and then wheeling upward in raucous conversation to shadow the brilliant blue of the morning.
Sidney Friedman’s appointment was for nine thirty; he arrived at ten minutes past ten, validating the perception that people in the film business operated on what can best be termed their own sweet time.
He was a small, darting ferret of a man in his early thirties, with thinning sandy hair cut short and combed forward over his forehead, like Caligula’s. His designer jeans were shrink-wrap tight, the T-shirt from whose neckband he’d hung his RayBans probably cost more than my best suit, and he was wearing Nike cross-trainers with no socks. In Cleveland the only people who don’t wear socks live in cardboard packing crates under bridges.
“Milan Jacovich?” he said, pronouncing my first name like the city in Italy and my last with an incorrect hard J and a final K sound. “Hi, Sidney Friedman. Producer of Street Games.” He tucked his leather-covered clipboard under one arm and stuck out his hand for a moist, dead-fish handshake.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Friedman. And it’s My-lan Yock-ovitch,” I said. “What’s Street Games?”
“You’re kidding, right? That’s the name of the picture we’re shooting. Monarch Films. Thirty-four-million-dollar budget.” He sniffed, whether from disdain or a coke habit I didn’t know. “I guess you don’t read Variety.”
“I let my subscription lapse,” I said. “Care for some coffee?”
He looked dubious. “What kind is it?”
No one ever asked me that before. “Maxwell House.”
“Forget it,” he said, and sat down in one of my client chairs, wrapping one leg tightly around the other like a first-grader who had to tinkle. “So you’re the guy who’s going to wrangle Anderson?”
Heavy sigh. “In pictures we call the guy who handles the animals the wrangler,” he explained.
“And Anderson is an animal?”
“No,” he said. “Anderson is a world-class schmuck.”
What, I wondered, could make a world-class schmuck worth eight million dollars for three months’ work?
And then I remembered some of the grotesquely overpaid superstars of major league sports, and answered my own question.
Sidney Friedman flipped the cover of his clipboard open and began fishing through the papers in the pocket. “Darren Anderson is the classic Hollywood case of too much too soon,” he said without looking at me. “He had a five-minute role in a Susan Sarandon movie three years ago and you could feel the shock waves all the way to Peoria. Next thing you know, he’s on the cover of Tiger Beat, then Rolling Stone, then Entertainment Weekly. Geraldo had him on as one of the stars of tomorrow, and when he came out those little girls sitting in the studio audience actually came! I swear to God.”
I wondered how he could tell.
“So then he plays Tom Hanks’s kid brother, next he gets first billing under the title in a Sly Stallone picture, and with his fourth film all of a sudden he’s numero uno. His price per picture goes from fifty thousand to eight million in eighteen months, which is in direct proportion to the growth of his ego. People magazine votes him the sexiest man alive, he buys himself a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, his press people are touting him as the new Brando, and the whole world is lining up around the block just for the chance to kiss his rosy pink ass. And since he’s only twenty-four years old, the little dipshit actually thinks he deserves it!”
Friedman removed some papers and slammed the clipboard closed. “And that, Milan, is how you make a world-class schmuck!” He shoved the papers across the desk at me. “Here’s your contract. Sign all four copies and keep one for your files.”
I didn’t look at it. “I’m not quite sure what you expect me to do, Mr. Friedman.”
“Sidney. What’s with the ‘mister’ shit? Mr. Friedman is my father, and he’s dead. Hollywood’s a first-name town.”
“I know,” I said. “But this is Cleveland.”
Friedman leaned forward and frowned, to let me know he was now getting serious. “That’s the point, Milan. Out in L.A. people look the other way when guys like Anderson come along, because it’s the norm. But this is the heartland, and we don’t want him getting into any trouble while he’s here. Trouble that would engender any bum publicity for the picture. That’s where you come in. Take care of him. Show him around. Make sure he goes to all the right places and none of the wrong ones. Make sure he doesn’t take a poke at anybody—and if he does, that he doesn’t get poked back.”
“Does he like to take pokes at people?”
“It’s happened. You know, a guy is in the movies, he’s got a macho image, sometimes people want to try him. And the kid handles himself pretty well. We don’t want any assault-and-battery charges or lawsuits, especially in a strange city. We’re on a tight schedule.”
“Is he into drugs? I’m not going to stand around while he makes drugs buys.”
Friedman’s eyebrows arched. “He doesn’t have a drug problem, if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s not what I mean. Look,” I said, “this is a little out of my—”
“It’s a piece of cake,” Friedman interrupted.
“Playing nursemaid to an egomaniac punk isn’t any kind of cake I want a bite of.”
“Aw, Darren’s not such a bad kid once you get him relaxed. He’ll like you. You’re a guy’s kind of guy, I can tell. And so is he, for all his bullshit.”
He leaned forward even more, frowning even more deeply. “One thing though, you gotta watch out for. Chicks.”
“Chicks,” I repeated dully.
“He can’t keep his pants zipped. That’s his Achilles tendon.”
I tried not to laugh. “If you think I’m spending four weeks trying to keep a healthy twenty-four-year-old movie star from getting laid . . . ”
Friedman shook his head. “I don’t care how many times he gets laid, or how many women he does it with.” He gave me a sly smile. “As a matter of fact, if you happen to know any hot numbers . . . ”
“I’m not a pimp!”
His face lost a little of its Malibu tan. “Of course not. I didn’t mean anything. I just thought—”
“You thought wrong, Mr. Friedman.”
“Sidney.” He sat back, relaxed, and waited for me to say it. His eyes demanded that I say it.
“Sidney,” I finally said, grudgingly.
That seemed to make him feel better. A man of simple needs. “The thing is, see, he’s not always discreet.” He treated me to a just-between-us-guys smile. “You can’t blame him, really. He gets twenty thousand pieces of fan mail a week. Women throw their underwear at him.” He waved an airy hand. “Hell, he’s not much older than a kid. All that testosterone—he’s only human.”
I pushed the contracts back across the desk at him. “Get yourself another boy,” I said. “I wouldn’t touch this with rubber gloves.”
“Well, let’s see about that,” he said, turning the contracts around so they were facing him. He whipped out a pen—a Bic, to my disappointment—and made an alteration to one of the figures, then pushed the papers back at me. He’d scratched out the $300.00 per diem and written in $500.00.
“Now, that doesn’t include any expenses you’ll incur,” he said. “That’s all separate. Dinners, concerts. You can have a pretty good time on Monarch Films.” His nose crinkled and he grimaced as if he were having a sudden attack of heartburn. “On me.”
“I don’t think you understand,” I said. “I don’t want the job.”
“You haven’t thought this out carefully, Milan.” Friedman did a here’s-the-church-here’s-the-steeple with his fingers. “Remember Rob Lowe and his video-sex thing? After that he dropped out of sight like Amelia Earhart. We don’t want that happening with Darren. He’s got his whole life ahead of him. Hell, after he finishes this picture they’re talking about him doing one with Gene Hackman. You know how much he could learn working with a giant like that?”
“Then get Gene Hackman to baby-sit him.”
“Milan, I’m a proud man,” Friedman said. “I don’t like to beg. But I’m begging you now. You’re just the kind of guy we’re looking for. Because you can stop him from screwing up his entire career. You can make sure he behaves himself.”
He looked at me with an admiration so phony that I almost gagged.
“And you’re big and tough enough to see that he doesn’t get into any fights. Come on, Milan, it’s four lousy weeks here. After that we go down to Wilmington, North Carolina, to shoot interiors, then back to the coast.” He extended the pen to me with the extreme confidence of a man who rarely hears the word no. “And you get to go on the set, meet all the actors and the director. Lots of pretty girls on this shoot. You never know, you might get lucky—big good-looking guy like you.”
“Some of us can find our own women, Mr. Friedman.”
“Sidney,” he said. “Look, it’s like going to a party. A big party, one that lasts four weeks, and the beauty part is, you’re getting paid, too.” The pen wavered in the air, like a rapier pointing at my heart. “And it’ll just be evenings—during the day we can keep an eye on him ourselves. Come on, Milan, come on board with us. You’ll have fun.”
I doubted that.
He gave me a canny look that made me realize Ed had told him more about me than I would have liked. “What else have you got to do?”
The answer to that one was pretty clear—nothing. I had nothing else to do. I’d been turning down jobs all summer from past clients, and I hadn’t tried to find any new ones.
I didn’t for a moment imagine that getting involved with a Hollywood production would be any sort of “fun” at all. Phony, self-important people just got on my nerves, and I was pretty sure I would loathe Darren Anderson at first sight.
Still, maybe it was a no-brainer, as Ed had promised. Maybe I could just ride shotgun on this kid and not really have to think about it at all. For a guy suffering from serious brain overload, as I was, it might prove to be the perfect distraction.
“Make sure you change that per diem figure on all four contracts,” I said, and reached out to take his damn pen.