From The Ashtabula Hat Trick (a Milan Jacovich Mystery) by Les Roberts
“Not exactly the world’s most luxurious vacation resort,” Tobe murmured as we pulled into the parking lot of the little motel just off the I-90 exit toward Conneaut after an hour’s drive from her place on the near West Side of Cleveland.
We’ve maintained separate residences. We love spending time together, but each of us needs privacy, our “alone time.” I’ve been married, though she has not, but each of us independently decided we didn’t want an every-moment love affair. We’re committed and monogamous, but we’re individuals, and we like it that way.
The motel where the Cleveland P.D. had made a reservation for us—or rather, for Tobe, as I was just along for the ride—looked like those that appeared in many films noir of the 1950s. It didn’t seem run-down, and was apparently clean enough, but it was hardly a honeymoon resort, either. I’m not even sure it had a swimming pool.
“Not that I expected a Ritz-Carlton,” I said, “but couldn’t your department afford a nicer hotel?”
She rolled her eyes to the spring-blue heavens. “There aren’t a lot of hotels in Ashtabula County.”
I laughed; she pronounces the name of the county and city incorrectly. She says Ash-ta-BOO-la, but it’s really Ash-ta-BYEW-la. She also says LEE–ma for Lima, Ohio, as though it were the capital of Peru, instead of how all other Ohioans pronounce it—LIE–ma, like the bean. But then, she’s from Raleigh originally, by way of Cincinnati—I guess they talk funny down there.
Side note: I loathe lima beans.
“We should have brought Herbie,” I said. Herbie was my recently acquired dog. I had never had an animal of any kind, and Herbie was a surprise. His name wasn’t Herbie, either; he was Booger, thanks to his original owner, who didn’t survive my last murder investigation—but I refused to call any living creature Booger. Tobe and I together named him Herbie, after a courageous dog rescued and cared for until his death in a western suburb of Cleveland by a cop who was all heart. Despite my having to stay upwind of him, he’d grown on me—and my changing his diet from the dirt-cheap generic dog food he’d been fed all his life to a decent brand had minimized but didn’t completely stop his noxious gastric problems.
K.O. was keeping Herbie while I went out of town with Tobe—and probably his girlfriend, Carli, was less than thrilled about that. Life changes—but we get used to it.
I said, “Aren’t there any bed-and-breakfast inns around here?”
“There are cabins by the lake you can rent by the week—but McHargue wasn’t sure how long we’d be here and didn’t want to nick the department for a few extra days. Geneva-on-the-Lake has several bed-and-breakfasts. But if the owners saw some black, gun-packing female cop investigating a double homicide show up with her Caucasian boyfriend, you think they’d give us the key to the city?”
The clerk at the motel was caught off guard when he got his first glimpse of us. There must be interracial couples in Ashtabula, but they probably don’t check into this particular establishment. He immediately stopped looking at us, but studied the reservation as if memorizing it. Finally circumstances forced him to talk to me. Not to Tobe, mind you, but to me. “Are you with the Cleveland Police Department, sir?”
“I’m with the police department,” Tobe informed him, flashing her buzzer. “He’s a private investigator, also from Cleveland. Milan, show him your license.”
“That’s not necessary,” the clerk said too quickly. “So—do you wish adjoining rooms?”
“My department only booked one room, isn’t that so?”
“Well, yes—but . . .”
“Then one room is all we’ll need,” she said.
The clerk’s eyebrows rose to nearly meet his hairline—if he’d had one. His eyes were large and bulging, his nose upward bound and pointed, making him resemble a puppet that, like Pinocchio, had been magically brought to life. As he studied us both, dirty pictures stoked his imagination. “I’ll have to charge you extra.” He looked down at the countertop, fiddled with his clipboard, examined his fingernails, checked the weather outside the window. His job was to interface with the public; perhaps he was only comfortable interfacing with white people. “The reservation is for one. For two, it’s a different rate.”
“Then I’ll pay the extra in cash,” I said, “and you collect the regular fee from the Cleveland Police Department.”
Sniffing, he pushed the clipboard toward me. “You’ll have to sign in, too. I’ll have to see some identification from you,” he said.
“You said about sixty seconds ago it wasn’t necessary. Oh, well . . .” I flipped open my wallet so he could see my driver’s license, and fished out my P.I. license, too. He laboriously studied my name, Milan Jacovich, as though it were written in Farsi. Then he tried it aloud: “Mee-LAHN Ja-CO-vich.”
“Not even close.” I counted out five twenties and pushed them across the counter at him.
“How many days will you be here?” he demanded.
“It depends,” Tobe snapped. She signed the registration card with a flourish. “May we have an extra room key, or should we just break in through the window?”
He pursed his lips as he handed her two electronic cards that would open our motel room door. “I’m just being careful,” he said.
“Well, my friend here will watch to see I don’t steal any of your towels.” Tobe glanced at his cheap name plaque on the counter. “Feelo Ackerman, is it?”
“It’s Philo!” he said, offended. “Long i. Philo!”
“I’m Tobe Blaine. Long o. E sounds like Y, but isn’t. Long a. And a long memory.” She spun quickly and marched from the office.
I leaned over the counter. “A news flash, Mr. Ackerman. It’s not 1850 anymore, and we’re not in antebellum Alabama.”
Being six-three and weighing two-thirty, I like it when what I say leaves a person silent, with mouth gaping. Tobe and I found our motel room, with a queen-sized bed—the advertisement online had promised king-sized, along with Wi-Fi—and a view overlooking the I-90 freeway.
“Feelo?” I said.
“It takes so little to piss people off—like when someone calls you MEE–lan, or pronounces the J in your last name like J instead of Y.”
“Now I feel bad for poor Feelo.” I pulled aside the curtains and looked out at the busy freeway. Cars and trucks rumbled noisily by. “Should we ask for a quieter room?”
She hung her bag in the closet and tossed her suitcase on the bed. “If you want to stay in some five-star hotel, hook up with the ambassador to Spain and not a homicide cop.”
“The ambassador to Spain isn’t as sexy as you are.”
“You don’t know that. He might be.” She checked her watch. “We should head for the police department. The chief expects us.”
“A chief,” I observed, “with not enough Indians.”
“If he had more Indians, we wouldn’t be here. And while we’re at it, Milan, Indians are from India. You mean Native Americans.”
“If you say ‘a chief without enough Native Americans,’ the joke isn’t funny.”
“It wasn’t funny to begin with.” She opened her suitcase and removed her holstered gun, strapping it to her waist.
“Think you’ll have to shoot somebody today?”
“You never know. But take away my weapon and I’m just a middle-aged black woman with a lousy attitude.”
We went out to the gray Ford Taurus the Cleveland P.D. had assigned to her. When we began our trip from Cleveland, Tobe had said, “It’s a cop car. I’m the cop, so I drive. That’s the rules.” She’d slid behind the wheel and patted the passenger seat beside her. “Hop in, Milan. Pretend I’m Morgan Freeman and you’re Miss Daisy.”
A six-minute trip from Conneaut to Queenstown took us through lush spring greenery, with the lake stretched before us on one side, looking bigger, cleaner, and more tranquil than it looks from Cleveland. Then again, the summertime view from downtown, with all those white sails bobbing in the distance, takes your breath away. But we were on a more peaceful road—although two recent local murders didn’t make its citizens feel peaceful.
There wasn’t much of Queenstown that was nonresidential, and virtually no retail. They didn’t even have a movie theater, although I noticed a sign outside their library announcing a relatively new film showing every Friday evening. The police department in the “town center” was different from all other structures in the village, which are nearly a century old, and well cared for. The building also housed a small meeting room, and the offices of those who kept Queenstown running. Made of yellowish brick, it had been erected during the sixties—that crazy decade when everyone tried to decide whether they were a hawk or a dove, a hippie or the Establishment, a drunkard or a doper.
The P.D. itself boasted only two rooms—the large reception room, and the other room, the chief’s office. He sat with his broad girth spread out behind an executive desk that was too big for the room. Pinned to a tropical sports shirt, the chief’s gold badge looked silly. His head was shaved and very round, as were his face and body; he looked like a snowman. His name was on a plaque: Chief of Police Eino Koskinen. I wondered whether everyone in this county had a desk plaque.
Koskinen appeared as surprised as the motel clerk when he saw Tobe Blaine, armed and wearing her own badge. “Your mayor said you were coming,” he said pleasantly, “but he didn’t mention you were a—female detective.”
“That’s because,” Tobe said, “the mayor and I never shower together.”
Pursing his lips, he chose to ignore that. “And you, sir?”
I handed him my card and pronounced my name for him. “I’m accompanying Detective Sergeant Blaine.”
“Accompanying,” he said softly, reading my card. “Does this mean you’re entitled to all the same perks and privileges?”
Tobe answered for me. “You’d be surprised at his perks and privileges, Chief. He asks good questions, too.”
He nodded. “So where you-all staying at?”
I tried not to smile as I told him the name of the motel. “Yeah—just off the freeway. Well, listen now—I’m wondering,” Koskinen said, stroking his chin, “if we’re looking for a serial killer.”
Tobe leaned her elbow on a filing cabinet against the wall. “May we get info on the victims?”
He sighed. “You’re calling the shots.” He took two thick files and led us back out into the outer office, which doubled as his “conference room,” with a dinette-sized table seating six and mismatched chairs. He opened the first file and spread out the contents in front of me; Tobe had to crane her neck to get a good look.
“This was Number One,” the chief said.
The photograph was of a middle-aged white male wearing a gray suit, dark blue tie, glasses, and one of those comb-over haircuts ineffectively hiding a bald spot, smiling into the camera while sitting at a table in a restaurant. “Paul J. Fontaine. He has a ranch, right on the Queenstown-Conneaut border. Raised and sold horses—not good horses, but he unloaded lots of them to the Amish. Also sold scrub veggies. He made a good living, but no millionaire.” Koskinen puffed up his chest, or was he sticking out his gut? “I liked him.”
“You knew him?” I said.
“It’s a small town. Everybody knows everybody.”
“Married or single?” Tobe asked.
“Me or him?”
Tobe sighed and pointed to Paul J. Fontaine’s photograph. “Married to Maude Fontaine for twenty-one years,” the chief explained. “Two teen kids, a boy and a girl. Paul was born in Queenstown; Maude went to Conneaut High School, down the road.”
Tobe looked at me. “Locals. How did he die?”
Chief Koskinen moved the top photograph aside. The second had been taken at the crime scene—Fontaine at the wheel of his pickup truck, wearing a lightweight windbreaker over a white shirt, lying back against the seat, head back and mouth wide open. The left side of his chest was soaked with blood.
“Knife wound—right through the heart.”
“Where’s the knife?”
I asked, “Who did the autopsy?”
He looked annoyed. “The coroner. Who you think did it?”
“Where was the car?” Tobe wanted to know.
“In Sunset Park.” He extracted another photograph—taken about ten feet away from the car with Fontaine’s body still in it, in a small parking area next to a stretch of grass and trees on a ridge overlooking Lake Erie and an ancient beach that had been traveled by seventeenth-century Native Americans so often that it formed a natural road. “My officer Joe Platko found him. He was on his usual shift, just driving around, when he—uh—found Paul Fontaine.”
“Was this near Mr. Fontaine’s ranch?”
“About four or five miles away—between here and Conneaut.”
“Why did Officer Platko investigate a car in a parking lot?”
Koskinen fussily neatened the report pages on the table. “Sunset Park is—the kind of place people visit in order to—uh, meet other people, if you know what I mean.”
“I’m not sure I do know what you mean,” Tobe said.
He sighed. “Aw, hell. You go up there if you’re horny—hoping you’ll meet somebody else as horny as you are.”
“You mean prostitutes hang out in Sunset Park?”
Now the chief looked shocked and offended. “We have no prostitutes around here, Detective. This is a straitlaced town.”
She nodded. “So townies go up to Sunset Park when they want to get un-laced. Is that it?”
“Mostly kids, doggone it. Teenagers deal with raging hormones.”
Tobe’s eyes locked with mine and she silently mouthed “Doggone it” and tried not to smile. “Doggone it” isn’t an expression heard often in Cleveland.
I said, “How long had he been dead?”
“You’ll have to ask the coroner that.”
Tobe put in, “What kind of knife was it?”
“Ask the coroner that, too.”
Scribbling Coroner in my notebook, I said, “Was the second victim knifed, too?”
“Nope.” He opened another file. “Cordis Poole. Forty-nine years old—an insurance salesman for State Farm in Conneaut. Wife’s Gwen—teenage son’s Cordis Junior. Everybody calls him Junior, but I’m not sure he likes that.”
I said, “He probably hates being called Cordis, too. It’s a redneck name.”
Atop the file was a candid photograph of Cordis Poole the elder, a high school jock grown chunky with middle age, grinning at the camera, holding a football and wearing a Steelers jersey. The second photo was of Poole lying facedown in some sort of creek or river in the darkness, the back of his skull crushed. “Looks like some sort of hammer or iron pipe, but we haven’t found a weapon for either killing.” Koskinen sadly shook his head. “I’ve been a cop twenty-six years—but murder isn’t in my wheelhouse.”
“Where was this photo taken?” I asked.
“Tinker’s Hollow—at one end of the bridge.” Rising heavily, he pointed to an Ashtabula County map hanging on one wall, his finger almost caressing the thin blue line that was Conneaut Creek. “Who knows if he was pushed off the bridge? You can’t drive across it—it’s been closed for years. They say Tinker’s Hollow is haunted. I’ve never seen a ghost, but the rumor is that one of the Tinker brothers—from the nineteenth century—floats around there and says ‘boo’ and screws up your car. It’s a spooky place in the daytime—and at night, it’ll scare the piss out of you.” He blushed and said to Tobe, “Oh, sorry, Ma’am—pardon my French.”
Tobe waved it off. “I’m a cop, not a nun. What do these victims have in common?”
Koskinen said, “Similar incomes—Fontaine’s a little more than Poole’s. Decent homes, good marriages, no criminal records. Part of this community, like everyone else.”
“They were friends?” I said.
“They lived about a mile apart, attended the same church.”
“What church is that?”
Koskinen frowned. “The Baptist church. What difference does that make?”
“What else did they have in common?” Tobe wanted to know.
“They both came to town hall meetings, they were in Rotary—a big organization here—and far as I know, they never disagreed with one another.”
“BFFs? What’s that?”
“Internet shorthand for ‘Best friends forever,’ ” Tobe said. “So—no feud between them?”
“The only feud in Queenstown is two next-door neighbors. One has two cats crossing over into the other one’s yard and killing birds she feeds every day—and they both bitch about it all the time.”
“Where was Cordis Poole’s car?” I asked.
“In the lot of the Baptist church.”
Tobe said, “Is Tinker’s Hollow in walking distance from the church?”
“Not hardly. They’re a couple miles apart.”
She nodded. “Can we have a copy of these files, Chief?”
He glanced over at the copy machine in one corner. “These here are copies; I made them up for you. Addresses, phone numbers, job numbers, and everything else we could think of.”
“Well—Officer Platko discovered these murder victims, so we included everything we could for you.”
“Officer Platko found both bodies?” Tobe asked.
“Teenage kids found Cordis Poole—they called Joe Platko.”
“What time was this?” I said.
“Nine thirty at night, when he’s on duty.”
“What were kids doing in Tinker’s Hollow at night?”
“What did you do when you were a kid? Either drinking beer, smoking weed, or making out.” Koskinen rubbed his face as if it were dusty. “When Joe found the bodies, he called Highway Patrol; they’re no better at these murders than me.”
“Did Platko take these photos?” Tobe said.
“Joe doesn’t carry a camera. He called me—I called the Messenger.”
Tobe said, “Is the Messenger the Queenstown newspaper?”
“We’re too small to have a paper of our own. It’s the county’s—located in Ashtabula. And both times Amy Klein drove over and took the pictures. She’s their photographer, reporter, co-editor, and she probably sells ads, too.”
“And who’s on police patrol late at night, like midnight?”
“Nobody!” Koskinen snapped. “There’s no gangs here. This isn’t Newark or Vegas. It’s a small town; nobody does crime. We don’t need an on-duty cop in the middle of the night.”
“Well,” I said, “maybe now you do.”