The Best-Kept Secret – Chapter One

The Best-Kept Secret: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#10), by Les Roberts. Published by Gray & Company, Publishers. Front cover of book.

The Best-Kept Secret, a book by Les Roberts: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#10)Book Excerpt

From The Best-Kept Secret (a Milan Jacovich Mystery), Les Roberts

Where do people come up with their agendas, their causes, their passionate advocacies? They don’t tell you what your responsibilities are when you’re born. They don’t give you a job description and a list of your duties. You have to figure it out yourself.

I make my living as a private investigator and security specialist, a job that fulfills and enriches me as well as pays the bills. Still, I’m not presumptuous enough to say exactly why I was put here on earth, because I don’t know. And when I meet somebody who does, who tells me they’re absolutely certain they were created to save the whales, spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, revive the American theater, kill everyone who isn’t a white Protestant, convince gay people to change their wicked ways, rail against the evils of demon rum, or bitch at other poor bastards about their sexual habits, their choice of reading material, or their cigarette smoking, they are either purely full of baloney or possessed of the most astonishing hubris.

What’s right for me isn’t necessarily right for somebody else, and I take great umbrage at those who try to force the rest of us to do it their way.

I think our main job is to find out who we are and what’s the right thing to do for ourselves individually, and then shut up about it and go do it.

Reggie Parker never had an agenda.

Dr. Reginald Parker, as in Ph.D., is the principal of St. Clair High School, my alma mater, from which my older son, Milan Junior, had just been graduated. His calling, although he’d never refer to it as such, is to educate kids in ethics and living, as well as academics, and to point them in the right direction so they can live productive and happy lives. He doesn’t yammer or proselytize; he doesn’t even make much of a big deal about it. It’s his job, and he does it well.

He’s also a tough ex-Green Beret who’d seen enough action in Vietnam to fuel several Schwarzenegger movies, and a ringing voice of decency and reason in the black community on Cleveland’s east side, a civil-rights activist, and a two-handicap golfer. And he’s my friend.

That’s the most important, the friend part.

Reginald Parker loomed large in my office chair.

It wasn’t that he was any bigger than I am—actually, not quite as big. At six feet or so, around two hundred pounds, he was a middle-aged, pleasant-looking light-skinned black man with freckles across the bridge of his bespectacled nose. He wore a brown tweed suit with a tan knit tie knotted under the collar of a white shirt—so the mere sight of him wasn’t going to send anyone running for cover.

His mild-mannered mien camouflages awesome toughness of spirit. Once, several years ago, he saved my life. Not in Southeast Asia, where we’d both put in a couple of bloody tours in-country without our paths ever crossing—but in a boarded-up crack house on the east side of Cleveland, and at great personal risk to himself, to his life, and to his career as an educator.

So for me, few loom much larger than Reggie Parker.

He’d called me at home the day before, a Sunday, and said he had a friend who could use my help; from Reggie that’s all I needed to hear. We set the appointment for four-thirty the next afternoon, Monday. People tend to take care of unpleasant things, such as going to the dentist or calling the exterminator or consulting a private investigator like me, toward the beginning of the week, almost as if they’d spent the whole weekend fighting with themselves over whether or not to do it.

It was a calendar-art crisp fall day, and if I could have seen a tree from my window, it would have been gala with the joyful colors of autumn. The kind of day that makes you glad you live in northeast Ohio.

The public-relations people often refer to Cleveland as “The Best-Kept Secret,” because it offers a terrific quality of life that’s completely at odds with the sad-sack, Rust Belt image it long ago outgrew. It’s just that the television comedians who make Cleveland jokes don’t know that yet, and as far as I’m concerned, they don’t have to. None of us who live here are anxious to have a million escapees from New York or Los Angeles descend on us, pollute our air, crowd our freeways, and put us on the “cutting edge.” We like our town the way it is. That’s the charm of it.

My office is in a ninety-year-old red-brick building that used to be a small manufacturing plant, down in The Flats, an old industrial area where the Cuyahoga takes a hairpin curve known as Collision Bend, just across from downtown and so close to the riverbank that if I flicked a lighted cigarette out my second-floor window, it would go pssh in the water.

The sun was shining and the thermometer was flirting with the middle fifties—too chilly for keeping my big windows open; but the window cleaner had been there a few days earlier and had left no city grime to block the view of the Cuyahoga’s sluggish pilgrimage to Lake Erie or the spectacle of the gulls wheeling and cawing over the sun-dappled current. Across the river, Tower City and the home of the Indians, Jacobs Field, seemed to coruscate in the light.

With one ankle crossed over the other knee, Reggie sat easy in the chair and enjoyed the view; we were friends, after all, go-out-to-dinner-every-other-month friends for several years now. But I could tell he was tense and troubled, and that troubled me. When you’ve survived hand-to-hand combat in the jungle the way he had, it takes a lot to make you tense.

“How’s Milan junior doing at Kent?” he said, just to get things started. “He wrote me a note about three weeks ago, but that was when he’d just finished settling in. He still hadn’t discovered where the biology department is.” He smiled tightly. “I guess he’s already figured out how to get to football practice.”

“He’s fine, I guess—we only talk about once a week. He’s on the scrub squad, and chafing at the bit for varsity playing time. I keep telling him that four years is a long haul, that he’ll get his chance.”

“I know he will. I hope he pays as much attention to his grades as to his pass-catching.”

“In the meantime, it’s a great excuse for me to goof off on a Saturday and drive down to see the games.” I pointed a finger at him. “Why don’t you come with me sometime? He’d love it.”

“I’d like that,” Reggie said. “I wish we were just getting together today to do some grave damage to a couple of porterhouse steaks, have a beer or two, and watch a ball game.”

“I figured from your call it was more important than that.”

“It is.” He sighed. “You know I get pretty involved with some of the kids that come through my school,” he said. “Especially the good kids, the ones with promise. And sometimes even the bad actors who I think have a chance of making it through with a little help. And I keep track of them after they leave.” He ran a hand through his hair, receding like mine to give him a high forehead. “One of my St. Clair boys—he graduated with Milan Junior last spring—has gotten himself into some trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“A real bad kind.”

“As opposed to the good kind of trouble.”

Reggie didn’t laugh. “He’s a freshman at Sherman College.”

I knew Sherman, or at least knew of it—a small, private liberal-arts college in a far western suburb where the atmosphere drips midwest and the student body gets more passionate over saving the rain forests and studying obscure minority writers and painters and composers, than yelling for their football team or throwing toga parties on a Saturday night. Expensive, probably too much so for a neighborhood youngster who’d attended St. Clair High.

“He’s there on a partial scholarship,” Reggie said, and I grinned. Reggie was always pretty good at reading my thoughts and answering my questions before I asked them. “But this isn’t pro bono or anything. I don’t want you working for nothing. I’ll pay for your time.”

“You’ve already bought me a lot of time,” I said, shaking my head. “Your money stinks in this office.”

“Well, we’ll see after you hear the problem.”

I took a yellow legal pad from my top drawer and put it in front of me, ready to take notes.

“I’d like you to look at this,” Reggie said, and produced an eight-by-ten piece of bright red paper from his breast pocket. At the top and bottom of the page were jagged holes, as if the paper had been posted somewhere with nails through it, and in the upper-right-hand corner was an eye-catching graphic, a menacing silhouette of a hulking, long-armed, gorillalike man that I imagine had come from some computer clip-art software package.

“These appeared on every telephone pole and bulletin board and blank wall on the campus a week ago, all on bright-colored paper,” Reggie explained. “Red like this, bright turquoise, lemon yellow . . . If you’re at all involved with Sherman College, you’d have to be living in the bottom of a mine shaft not to have seen it.” He unfolded it and smoothed it out on the desk so I could read it.

The top line shouted in bold black letters: YOUR CAMPUS RAPIST OF THE MONTH IS JASON CROWELL.

I looked up at Reggie. Behind his glasses he was frowning deeply. “Read the rest of it, Milan.”

I did.

Three weeks ago Saturday, freshman Jason Crowell invited a woman out for coffee. At the end of the evening, instead of driving her back to her residence, he made his way to a secluded area just off campus, parked his car, and forced himself on her sexually.

The woman had been a virgin.

She was afraid to go to the police or the college authorities. And ashamed. She didn’t want the publicity, didn’t want everyone pointing at her, pitying her, or in the case of some male assholes on this campus, snickering. And she didn’t think it would do any good, anyway, because white male establishment types always stick together.

So she came to us. Out of fear and desperation and a self-loathing she sure as hell doesn’t deserve.

Rape is not a sexual crime, folks—it’s a crime of violence, a pitiful attempt by some pencil-dicked loser to prove his power over someone weaker than he is, and to convince himself he’s a Real Man.

We’re damned sick of date rape! We believe Jason Crowell and pigs like him should have to pay for preying on women! We believe all right-thinking people on this campus should express their outrage in no uncertain terms. We believe there is no place at Sherman College—or anywhere else in the world—for bastards like Jason Crowell. And if we can’t—or won’t—punish him legally without doing terrible emotional damage to his victim, the least we can do is let everyone know what kind of a cowardly, scum-sucking son of a bitch he is!

Jason Crowell—and men all over this campus—we’re on to you, and you’re not going to get away with it anymore!!

At the bottom of the page was typed, Women Warriors, Sherman College.

I fingered the flyer thoughtfully. “Bastard, pencil-dick, scum-sucking son of a bitch, huh?”

Reggie laughed, but it was that polite kind of laugh that let you know his heart wasn’t in it. “My guess is, it wasn’t written by an English major.”

“Jason Crowell is your grad?”

He nodded. “Comes from a very nice family. His father is a professional fund-raiser and his mother is a housewife who does volunteer work for the homeless. He’s got two sisters, both younger. He had a three-point-five grade average in high school, was the senior-class vice-president, and never got into the slightest bit of trouble, with girls or otherwise. A real nice kid.”

“I suppose he’s claiming innocence.”

Reggie shook his head. “He’s not claiming it, Milan, he is innocent. I’d bet the farm on it.”

I was somewhat skeptical; in my years on the Cleveland P.D., it had been my experience in accusations of rape or other sexual transgression that there was usually a dollop of truth in there somewhere. But I didn’t say that to my friend Reggie.

“And you want me to help him prove it?”

“No,” he said. “Not exactly.” He frowned deeply, and put his fingertips together to make a cathedral, his head bowed for a minute.

I lit up a Winston and waited uneasily, wishing he hadn’t come. This wasn’t my kind of case.

“The problem is,” he said, raising his chin off his chest, “no one seems to know who it is Jason is supposed to have raped.”

“You wouldn’t expect them to plaster her name all over the campus.”

“No. But no one will even tell Jason.”

“What do you mean, nobody will tell him? Why doesn’t he just ask ‘Women Warriors’?”

“He can’t find them. Campus organizations and clubs are supposed to register with the college. But there is no record anywhere of a group called Women Warriors. Most organizations like that have some sort of official status—they even have faculty advisors. But no one knows who’s behind Women Warriors or where they come from. Nobody seems to have ever heard of them before. They’re completely anonymous.”

“Maybe you could check with the various print shops around Sherman and see if you can trace the flyers,” I suggested.

He waved a hand around the office, at my PC, fax machine, elaborate telephone answering machine and all the high-tech goodies I’d been suckered into buying when I moved my office from my living room in Cleveland Heights to this colorful old building on the riverbank. “With all your bells and whistles,” he said, “you’re still operating with a quill-pen-and-parchment mentality.” He laughed. “This stuff was done on a laser printer, off a computer. It’s virtually untraceable.”

“Same with the paper?”

“Every office-supply house in the state sells reams of it every week.”

I took a deep drag on my cigarette and held in the smoke for a few seconds before exhaling. Alarms and excursions were going off inside my head; I didn’t want the best part of this situation. Frankly, it gave me the creeps.

“That isn’t exactly the American way,” Reggie went on. “Jason or anyone else is presumed innocent unless proven guilty. And he ought to be able to face his accusers and defend himself. He can’t do that unless he knows who they are.”

I did a few paradiddles on the edge of the desk with my pencil. “This doesn’t sound like my usual kind of thing, Reggie.”

“Yes, but put yourself in the boy’s place. It’d be like if you woke up some morning and saw a poster plastered all over town saying, ‘Milan Jacovich is a pedophile,’ and had no idea who was behind it. Even though you were innocent, you’d still spend the rest of your life having to deny it.”

“That kind of stinks.”

“The big stink,” he agreed. “And now Jason’s become a campus pariah. He’s already been on the carpet in the dean’s office two or three times over this, and the faculty member in charge of sexual harassment cases is doing some harassment of her own. Both the Plain Dealer and two of the local TV news stations have been hounding him, and the campus newspaper is all over him. He hasn’t talked to them, of course. I told him not to.”

“He doesn’t need a private investigator, sounds like. He needs a lawyer. A good lawyer.”

“His folks can’t easily afford one. It’s caused an enormous amount of damage to his reputation, something he might never overcome, even four years from now when he’s out of school and looking for a job.”

“That’s stretching it, Reggie.”

“Is it?” He uncrossed his legs and leaned forward over my desk. “We don’t know if these attacks are going to continue. If some anonymous loonies can plaster an accusation like this all over Sherman, they might have decided to make Jason a lifetime hobby. For all we know, this’ll be a New York Times headline next week.” He rubbed a hand over his face, then readjusted his glasses. “He’s talking about getting into therapy because of this. God knows how long he’ll need it.”

He uncrossed his ankle from his knee and smoothed out the crease in his pants. “Find out who it is Jason is supposed to have raped. Find Women Warriors, Milan, and whoever is behind it. And find out the reason they’re trying to pin this on him.”

I doodled on the yellow pad—a gallows with an empty noose. I’ve been doodling that since I was a teenager. Don’t ask me why—my mother used to tell me it was morbid. “This is the kind of thing, once it gets out, that’s going to make the papers, the six o’clock news. I’ve talked to the media before, and I didn’t like it much.”

“I remember well,” he said. “It startled the hell out of me when I was sitting watching TV last summer and there they were, talking about you on a national tabloid news show.”

“That’s what I mean, Reggie. Besides, even though it’s a damn sneaky and cowardly thing to do, no one would have put out that flyer if there wasn’t any truth in it. I know you feel a responsibility for this kid, but frankly, I agree with the flyer about rape being the action of a coward. Everything in me is saying no.”

He took off his glasses and put them in his handkerchief pocket. I knew from experience that when Reggie takes off his glasses he’s going to get serious. “Milan, I’ve never said this to you before. I hoped I’d never have to. But . . . ”

He left the rest of it unspoken. I didn’t.

“But I owe you?” I said.

He looked down, plainly discomfited, and then met my gaze with a fierce one of his own. I put down the pencil, knowing when I was licked.

“Right,” I said.

Reggie left me with two pages of notes and some very conflicted feelings. If this Jason Crowell kid was guilty of what Women Warriors accused him of, he deserved whatever he got. But the anonymous smear campaign was something else again; I like to see who’s taking jabs at me, and I imagined Jason Crowell felt the same way. And accusing someone of that kind of crime anonymously is pretty cowardly itself.

The trouble with the last decade of the twentieth century is that most people consider an accusation tantamount to the truth and are ready to step in and condemn with howls of righteous moral indignation.

The assignment wasn’t exactly outside my job description. My main occupation is as a security specialist and private investigator. Milan Security is my company; I contract out certain things, like the technicals and electronics that come with installing a security or alarm system, and some of the more complicated computer stuff. And I have a cleaning crew come in three times a week in the evenings, although I’m not averse to dusting and vacuuming the place myself in between times.

Otherwise I’m a one-man band. I do all the record-keeping, all the marketing—what there is of it—and virtually all the investigative work. My company is named after me—my first name, that is. It’s Milan, with a long i. Not like the city in Italy, Mi-lahn, and not Mee-lahn. I figured my last name was too much of a mouthful to stick on my business as well. It’s Jacovich, with the j sounding like a y. And the last syllable rhymes with rich, which is its own irony. My-lan Yock-o-vich. It’s Slovenian, of which I’m inordinately proud.

Most of my work is done for companies wanting better security, investigation of workmen’s-comp cases, preventing or identifying industrial espionage, and catching out employees who help themselves to company funds and supplies. But every once in a while I get a missing-persons case, or some lawyer in town engages me to help prove a client innocent. I’m often asked to find things that other people want to keep secret. So searching for Women Warriors didn’t really seem outside my normal working area.

Mainly, I couldn’t refuse Reggie Parker anything. If not for him, my two sons, Milan Junior and Stephen, would be visiting my grave every other Sunday.

One of the main imperatives incumbent upon all of us, I think, is to back up our friends, to be there when we’re needed, without expecting any sort of reciprocity. Reggie did it for me once and came out okay. My best and oldest friend, Lieutenant Marko Meglich, late of the Cleveland Police Department’s homicide division, hadn’t been so lucky. We’d gone through grade school, high school, and college together, plus my shortlived stint in the department, before he’d gambled his life for me on a rainy night in the Flats, and lost.

So I owed Reggie. For him, and for Marko.

I’d probably always owe for Marko.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit emotionally blackmailed. I couldn’t remember any other case in my professional life about which I was so completely conflicted.

After Reggie left, I went to the little waist-high refrigerator in the corner of my office; it’s designed to look like a nineteenth-century safe, and I keep beer and pop in there, mainly for clients. This one was for me, though; I jacked open a cold Stroh’s, leaned my butt on the edge of the refrigerator, and drank my beer, trying to formulate a battle plan while I watched the sky darken over the river.

Rape. It made me feel creepy just thinking about it, because I agreed with the poster there. It had nothing to do with sex. It was all about power and control. I felt sorry for the young woman, whoever she was.

Then I thought of my own son, Milan Junior, a freshman at Kent State, and what his life would be like if someone decided to libel him the way that flyer had done to Jason; he had absolutely no shot at defending himself because he had no idea from what direction the missiles were coming.

Young Jason Crowell needed someone who would either try to clear his name and find out who was spreading lies about him, or convince him to turn himself in, face the music, and get help for his problems.

And I like to think of myself as being in the help business.

I guess that’s why I went private rather than staying on the Cleveland Police Department. Granted, it’s not quite as noble as joining the Peace Corps or teaching in a debt-ridden inner-city school where the plaster is falling down and the rain comes in the broken windows and virtually every kid carries a concealed knife or a sap or a Saturday night special. But one does what one can.

When it was good and dark outside and the homeward-bound traffic had thinned to a trickle, I locked up the office and drove up out of the Flats, to my apartment, where Cedar Avenue and Fairmount Boulevard come together at a point near the western boundary of the suburb of Cleveland Heights. I haven’t lived in a house since my divorce, and I suppose I could have bought myself one with the money my late Auntie Branka left me instead of buying the building where I keep my office, but apartment living seems to suit me.

I retrieved my mail, and when I got upstairs I sorted through it quickly, putting the bills in a drawer and throwing the junk ads and catalogs into the trash unexamined. There were no personal letters—there hardly ever are in these times of inexpensive long-distance calling, e-mail and faxes. I carried a beer from the refrigerator into the bathroom, setting it on the edge of the sink while I stripped off my clothes, stood under a nice hot shower, and washed away the caprices of the day.

I was expecting a visitor.

Connie Haley and I had been keeping company, as she so charmingly puts it, since the middle of the summer. The daughter of an ex-Marine-turned-west-side restaurateur, she was strong-willed, funny, volatile, and sexy, with blond hair she usually wore in one single thick braid, and a pair of dimples you could hide golf balls in. She was just over five feet tall, and at six-three I feel like a large building when I’m with her.

I like her a lot, but sad experience and innate caution keep me maintaining a certain, safe distance. I’ve been in several relationships since my divorce from my ex-wife, Lila, and I’ve been burned so often that I’ve learned not to put too much faith in them.

I’m not so sure how Connie’s Irish Catholic father and two strapping brothers, also ex-Marines, like the idea of her spending nights in my apartment. They live on the west side, and in Cleveland west-siders and east-siders mix about as well as Serbians and Croatians. And, my knowledge of things Gaelic goes no further than attending the Irish Festival at the Berea Fair Grounds every summer or listening to the New Barleycorn singers when they appear from time to time at Nighttown, just down the street from my apartment.

All four Haleys share a big sprawling Tudor in Lakewood, but no matter how big the house, it’s too small for me to spend the night with Connie.

The Haley men seemed to accept me all right, though, and one of the upsides of dating Connie is an occasional free dinner at Leo Haley’s restaurant, the White Magnolia, although I think it’s really so he and his sons, Sean, who is the executive chef, and Kevin, the bartender, can keep an eye on me.

I put on a pair of clean khakis and a J. Crew sweater, a fashion that’s a bit too prep-school for my personal taste; a man as big as I am can’t look preppy even if he tries. I felt like a grizzly in a tutu. But Connie had bought me the sweater to celebrate our two-month anniversary and I felt obliged to wear it, especially since I hadn’t bought her anything in return. Most men, even the sensitive and enlightened ones who faithfully observe birthdays and Valentine’s Day (and not by presenting their significant others with a waffle iron or a washing machine, either), just don’t think of buying gifts for small occasions like two-month anniversaries.

Connie arrived at about eight o’clock, bearing a tray of cold cuts and cheese from the White Magnolia. She puts in so much time working in the restaurant—doing the accounts, paying the vendors, and keeping a gimlet eye on the bottom line—that most evenings we spend together we eat in, either my cooking, her brother’s, or take-out from one of the many ethnic restaurants of Cleveland Heights—the food spread across my coffee table, since I hadn’t gotten around to buying dining-room furniture yet after moving my office from my apartment to the Flats.

Blue eyes sparkling a hello, she brushed past me with a toss of her blond pigtail and took the tray into the kitchen before coming into my arms for a welcoming kiss. It was worth the wait.

Finally she broke away and backed up, grinning, one hand firmly against my chest. “Whoa, Nellie,” she said, laughing a little breathlessly. “Or we’ll never get to the cold cuts.”

“And wouldn’t that be a tragedy?”

“Animal,” she whispered.

One of the great things about Connie is her attitude about sex. There’s no game-playing with her, not a hint of the arch or coy. She’s frankly passionate and inventive, and as open about it as she would be about her taste in music. I’ve had to make a few adjustments to that, but I’ve done so with much joy.

We went back into the living room and I slipped a Sarah McLachlan CD into the player, one of Connie’s favorite singers, whose appeal is frankly lost on me. I can’t get too excited about any of today’s “hot” vocalists. Maybe it’s generational—I loved jazz and swing and the big-band stuff until it morphed into the rock-and-roll years, and my idea of one hell of a singer is Peggy Lee or Sarah Vaughn. Or maybe it’s just a guy thing.

We set up a picnic on the sofa, white wine for her, Stroh’s for me, and a space cleared for the snack tray.

She brushed an errant wisp of hair from her forehead. “I needed this,” she said in that low, musical voice that makes me crazy, and clinked her wineglass against my beer bottle. “I spent four hours this afternoon screaming at vendors.”

“Vendors” is one of those fairly new, business-speak terms that amuses me. When I think of a vendor, he’s climbing up and down the stairs at Jacobs Field, hawking hot dogs or beer.

“Just so long as you don’t scream at me,” I grinned.

“Why? Did you have a bad day, too?”

“Mine was—troubling,” I said. I told her about Reggie Parker’s visit, and filled her in about our personal history. I spared her the part where I’d had about three minutes to live when he busted into that crack house and saved my bacon. Even though she shared a house with three former leathernecks, Connie was never completely comfortable with the fact that occasionally my work turns dark and dangerous.

Few women in my life have been, including my ex-wife. Lila left me years ago, claiming my job was interfering in our lives, opting for a wimp we’d known in high school, Joe Bradac, whose ownership of a small machine shop rarely puts him in mortal danger. Since the divorce I only get to see my sons every other weekend except for special occasions. My profession has cost me dearly.

When I started telling Connie about Jason Crowell and Women Warriors, her neck seemed to stiffen and her eyes got smaller and glittered. I finished the story and looked at her.

“What’s wrong?” I said.


“You look funny.”

She gave me a smile, but I could tell she was forcing it. Her dimples don’t deepen when she forces her smiles. “Funny ha-ha, or funny peculiar?”


She shook her head and the pigtail swayed provocatively. “This is a pretty ugly story.”

I nodded agreement.

“Are you actually going to try and help this little rapist?”

“He says he’s not a rapist.”

She drew in her chin. “You believe him?”

“I believe my friend Reggie.”

“Reggie doesn’t really know,” she said, waving a hand in front of her for emphasis. “He’s operating on faith and hope.”

“Then I’ll have to add the charity. I’ll talk to the kid tomorrow.”

“This is lose-lose, Milan,” she said impatiently. “It’s more than the problems of some college kid. This is the kind of thing that makes national headlines, and you’re going to be right in the middle of it.”

“Been there, done that,” I said. A few months before, a national tabloid TV news program had laid me out in lavender, and for a couple of weeks I had been a bona fide media celebrity in Cleveland. I had hated it.

“Then don’t do it again,” Connie urged. “Walk away.”

“How do I walk away from somebody who saved my life?”

“It’s not Reggie Parker’s problem. It’s this Crowell kid’s.”

“The principle remains,” I said a little stiffly. “Besides, I think if someone’s going to make an accusation like that, they should have the stones to sign their name to it. Don’t you?”

She shook her head. “I’m afraid you’re making a bad decision.”

“Is that the polite way of saying I’m being a stupid asshole?”

She didn’t deny it, which made me nervous. I got up and went over to the bookshelf that I’d built into the wall when I’d used my apartment as an office; now I actually use it for books. It’s also where I keep my cigarettes. I shook one from the pack and lit it. I hadn’t wanted this damn case in the first place, and now it was causing me trouble before I’d even started. “This is the kind of thing I do for a living,” I told her, waving away the smoke from my initial exhale. “I frequently work for people I don’t care for or whose causes I don’t believe in. It’s part of the job description.”

“This isn’t a job,” she reminded me. “You’re not getting paid.”

“Reggie Parker didn’t get paid when he blasted into a house full of killers to save my sorry ass.”

Her eyes got very big. “He did?”

“He did.”

“You never told me that.”

“I imagine we could fill a large book with the things we haven’t told each other,” I said.

She took some time to think about that, but it didn’t seem to change her mind any. “Well, you aren’t saving Reggie’s sorry ass, you’re doing it for some punk rapist.”

“Alleged punk rapist. You ever hear of that old concept of American justice—that a person is innocent until proven guilty?”

She snorted derisively, which is Connie’s way of avoiding an uncomfortable situation.

“If Jason Crowell raped anybody,” I continued, “I’ll drop him in his tracks. But first someone will have to prove to me that he did it.”

She started to say something, but I cut her off.

“That’s the way it works, Connie. It’s the way I work.”

Her forehead crinkled. She took a big swallow of her wine, and what she said next made a hummingbird of uneasiness bang its fluttery wings against my rib cage, because I’d heard the same thing from my former wife, Lila, and from nearly every woman I’ve been serious about since. “This is a hell of a lousy business you’re in, Milan.”

“It keeps me off the streets,” I said.

From the book The Best-Kept Secret, © Les Roberts. All rights reserved.

This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.