From Collision Bend (a Milan Jacovich Mystery) by Les Roberts
Virginia Carville was, as usual, right between my bare feet.
That’s because she was the special reporter and sometime coanchor on the eleven o’clock news on Channel 12, and I’m generally lying on my bed when I watch her.
I met her once or twice several years ago when she was an eager college intern at the station and still known as Ginger. It wasn’t until after she’d progressed to newswriter and then to full-fledged reporter that she began insisting everyone call her Virginia because it was more dignified.
I opened my feet a little wider, the better to see her, and the side of my foot touched that of Dr. Nicole Archer, neonatologist extraordinaire, from whose bed I was watching the news. My toes are always cold, no matter what the weather, and her bare skin felt good against mine. Warm. Cold toes don’t seem to bother her; she murmured softly deep down in her throat and drew a little closer to me without looking up from her book.
Reading and watching the news doesn’t sound very romantic, I know. But Nicole and I had been together for ten months and had finally passed beyond that initial fevered leaving-a-trail-of-discarded-clothing-in-our-heated-rush-from-the-frontdoor-to-the-bedroom stage. It was comfortable now.
Virginia Carville was doing what they call in the TV news business a “stand-up,” this one in front of the control tower at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, which meant little except that she was more visually interesting than someone sitting behind a desk in the studio. She was going on about a commercial plane that had crashed three hundred miles from Hopkins and saying that the liner’s “black box,” which automatically records all flight information, had survived the accident and FAA officials were in the process of determining the cause.
I’ve always wondered why they don’t build airplanes out of the same apparently indestructible materials they use to make the black box.
Ginger had reinvented herself since becoming a “personality.” I remembered her as an intern, mousy and drab; now she was almost pretty, at least in her television makeup, and obliquely sexy. She’d always been ambitious, right from the start; without drive and fire no one would last a month in the TV business. She had done it the hard way, working her way up through the ranks fairly quickly, earning the respect of her peers with an in-depth piece on an old woman whose two drug-dealing sons had been murdered and dumped in Lake Erie by the local crime boss. Virginia had talent and instinct to go along with the ambition, and more than one local politician had suddenly developed a case of tight collar when Virginia Carville called and said she wanted to talk to him on the air.
There was no way for me to know, when I’d first met her years before, and as I watched her now from Nicole’s bed, that she would indirectly turn my life upside down.
She finished her report from Hopkins and the broadcast cut back to the studio, where longtime anchor Vivian Truscott, the reigning queen of the Cleveland media, was nodding in a fascinated way. “Thanks, Virginia, keep us informed,” she said as if she really gave a damn, and gracefully segued into a commercial, promising to return with the sports report and the wrap-up in just a moment.
In the commercial, which was local, a small business entrepreneur dressed like a circus acrobat did what apparently was meant to be a comic wrestling act with a bear, for reasons I couldn’t discern. I had no idea what he was selling and couldn’t imagine why he thought anyone would want to do business with a terminally cute man who wrestled bears. He, however, seemed to be having a good time, and what the hell, it was his money.
Nicole threw her left leg over my right one and shifted next to me on the bed. “Is the news over yet, Milan?” she said sleepily.
“All but the sports.”
“Is it going to snow tomorrow?”
“They said no. Partly cloudy and cold.”
“They always lie,” she said, putting the book on the nightstand. “I’ll probably have to call a snowplow in the morning to get the partly cloudy off my driveway.”
She switched off the bedside lamp so the only illumination in the bedroom was the bluish glow from the TV screen, and rolled onto her side, facing me. “Maybe we’ll just have to stay home, then. Snowbound.”
I kissed her under the ear, pushing her blonde hair out of the way first. “They won’t find us until the spring, arms around each other, starved to death. I hate it when that happens.”
“We won’t starve. I’ve got stuff in the freezer.”
“Klobasa and pierogies?”
She gave my chest a mild slap. “Milan, I’m a doctor!”
“Oh, yeah. Cholesterol. Beer, then?”
“Ever since you came along I always seem to have beer.” It was the mildest of rebukes, and I rightly ignored it. “And sliced ham and turkey.”
“Well, that’s okay then. We can be snowbound. What’ll happen to your patients, though?”
“What’ll happen to your clients?”
I waved a hand cavalierly. “They’ll live.”
She screwed up her mouth. “My patients might not,” she said. “That’s why I’ll call the snowplow.” She rubbed the inside of her foot up and down my calf. “Being snowbound might be okay otherwise, though.”
I put my arm around her shoulders, drawing her close so her face was nestled against my neck. She wore sweats to bed in the wintertime, and I threw my other arm over her and sneaked my hand up under her sweatshirt to feel the warm skin in the hollow at the small of her back.
“Besides,” I said, “being snowbound might get boring.”
“After a while, maybe.”
I took her earlobe into my mouth and sucked gently. “You think?”
She stroked my leg more insistently with her foot. “No,” she breathed.
I moved my hand lower, down under the waistband of her sweatpants and did some stroking of my own. Her feet might be warm but the perfect twin globes of her buttocks were icy to the touch.
I switched off the TV. With all the astonishing inventions and miracles of science that have come along in the last fifty years or so, without a doubt the most important one is the TV remote. Even though I didn’t get to hear the latest sports news.
When the clock radio alarm went off at seven a.m. Nicole and I were sleeping nude, spoon-style, closer to her side of the bed than mine, probably because she’s a notorious hogger of covers and I’d simply followed them over there. She rolled toward me and nuzzled my neck for a few minutes, and I thought it would be a lovely way to begin the morning if I started something, but she whispered that she had to go to work. She got up, put on the coffee, and disappeared into the bathroom. I lay there a while and listened to the sounds of John Lanigan, John Webster, and Jimmy Malone do the zany “Knuckleheads in the News” shtick they do every Thursday on WMJI-FM. This morning they were recounting the sorry tale of a bank bandit who’d called first and alerted the bank that he was planning a robbery. I stayed in bed and chuckled until the coffee was ready.
I went home to shower and change before going to the office myself.
“Going to the office” is something fairly new for me. For years I’d run my business out of my apartment in Cleveland Heights where Cedar Road and Fairmount Boulevard come together to form a triangle. The building is right across from Russo’s Stop-N-Shop and the Mad Greek Restaurant at the top of Cedar Hill, which, I’m told, is the first official foothill of the Alleghenies. My line is private investigations and industrial security, and I call my business Milan Security. I gave it my first name because I figured damn few people are able to work their tongues around my Slovenian last one: Jacovich, with the J pronounced like a Y. For that matter, not too many people get my first name right. It’s My-lan—long i, with the accent on the first syllable.
However clients might mangle my name, working at home had been damn convenient. My desk was twenty-six feet from my bed, I didn’t have to get dressed up every day, and unless I had to actually go somewhere, I didn’t worry about traffic or the weather or where I was going to eat lunch. But last summer all that changed.
My aunt, Branka Jacovich, widow of my father’s brother Anton and the only relative to whom I was at all close, had died at the age of eighty-two and left her entire estate, consisting of a small savings account, some insurance, and a little three-bedroom house in Euclid just off Lake Shore Boulevard where she’d lived for sixty years, to her two surviving children and to me.
At the urging and with the assistance of my old high school chum Rudy Dolsak, who was now senior vice president of the Ohio Mercantile Trust and was always after me to do something better with my money than simply sticking it into his vault, I had used my share of the inheritance to purchase an old building down on Scranton Road in the belly of the Flats, about a mile away from the restaurants and nightclubs that draw hordes of young drinkers and dancers even on the coldest of nights. It was on the bank of that peculiar and difficult-to-navigate kink in the Cuyahoga River known as Collision Bend, because of the many shipwrecks that had occurred there in the nineteenth century. They’ve since rerouted the river, but Collision Bend is still a navigator’s nightmare, and it still requires some skillful ship handling to avoid aquatic fender benders.
Once a warehouse serving Cleveland’s booming iron ore industry, my building had been converted to office space in the seventies and had languished half empty ever since. With Tetka Branka’s bequest, I’d taken it over and spruced it up a bit, and I now occupied one of two sprawling office suites on the second floor. A bank of floor-to-ceiling windows afford an absolutely splendid view of the busy water traffic and the handsome skyline of downtown Cleveland beyond, dominated by the proud facade of the Tower City shopping center and office complex right across the river.
People who haven’t been to Cleveland for thirty years would be surprised by the Flats. Once a barren, weed-choked riverbank, it became a shipping mecca when the steel industry was in full throttle, then reverted to a rusty collection of derelict warehouses. It wasn’t until the early nineteen-eighties that someone got the bright idea to turn it into the fun-and-frolic center of northeast Ohio. Restaurants, bars and nightclubs sprang up first on the east bank of the Cuyahoga, later on the west. Even the venerable Fagan’s, which used to be the only place to eat on the east bank of the Flats, turned trendy, catering to the young hip crowd. In the old days, if Fagan’s didn’t have a seat for you they’d find one, even if it was behind the bar or in a telephone booth. Now the Generation X-ers, the ones who wear their baseball caps with the bill pointed toward the back, stand in long summertime lines to get in.
Collision Bend, though, is about a mile upriver and hasn’t been invaded yet by the hip-slick-and-cool crowd. You can still taste the river and the rust on your tongue, still feel the ground vibrate beneath you with the pulse of the nearby steel mills, still hear the raucous caw of the gulls and experience in your viscera the ponderous passage of the great ore boats on the river outside your window.
The entire first floor of my building is occupied by a longtime tenant, a company that sells and installs ornamental iron doors and railings. My second-floor tenant is a surgical appliance and supply house. The rent I charge them both more than covers the mortgage payments, and of course I am financially better off than when I worked at home.
But when I got a legitimate office and plenty of space, Rudy Dolsak and another pal, Ed Stahl, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s gadfly columnist, prevailed upon me to take a quantum leap into the late twentieth century and purchase and install a complicated computer I can barely operate. I have not, however, gone on-line so I can meet people and make new friends on the Internet, get e-mail, and get myself hooked on the electronic bulletin boards that have proved so addictive to so many people. I do, after all, have a life.
I also beefed up my business inventory with a plethora of security cameras, listening devices, concealed microphones, electronic bugs, and other arcane paraphernalia of the security trade. I can take photographs around corners. I can practically listen in on what’s going on clear across the river. And to record conversations held in my office, just in case I ever have to prove who said what when, I’d let a smooth-talking salesman sell me a recording system I can activate by kicking a little switch under my desk, something I’d had no occasion to use and rarely even thought about. Suddenly I’m high tech.
Me, a guy who has to have his teenage son program his VCR. And although I’ve kept my answering machine in my apartment, at my business I now even have voice mail, a term that always seems to me to be an oxymoron.
I unlocked the wrought iron security gate my first-floor tenant had installed for me as a suck-up welcoming gift when I bought the building. Then I opened the big, heavy oak door, which has done yeoman service for at least fifty years and creaks like the door of a medieval keep, and went up the stairs to my office.
On sunny days I rarely turn the lights on in there until late afternoon because of the bank of windows, but this morning the weather prognosticators had been right and the sky was partly cloudy—more than partly, if the truth were known. It was that ominous gunmetal gray that Clevelanders grow used to in the wintertime. So I snapped on a little faux Tiffany lamp Nicole had bought me, to make it more cheery.
A bank of white steel filing cabinets that I’d bought used stands against one wall, and in one corner is a storeroom, to which I’d added a steel security door, where I keep most of my sophisticated snooping equipment. I even have my own private john with a shower. Against the far wall is a den-size little refrigerator designed to look like an old-fashioned Wells Fargo safe, and it amuses me to think that if burglars ever did manage to get through all the security, they’d think they’d really scored—until they opened and found, instead of cash or negotiable securities, two six-packs of Stroh’s beer in bottles, a half-empty jar of Stadium mustard, and several cans of Diet Pepsi.
Nicole and I had spent several pleasant weekends combing antique stores to find the two oil paintings I’d hung on the wall. One was of a bucolic rural landscape that looked a lot like south central Ohio farmland, and the other a Depression-era painting of a location not far from where I sat, showing the Terminal Tower as seen through the billowing smokestacks of LTV Steel.
I hung my coat and scarf in the closet and made myself a pot of coffee. At home I have an old-fashioned Mr. Coffee brewer, but Nicole had bought me a space-age-looking Braun for the office, and even the way it hissed and burped and bubbled as it brewed sounded vaguely European to me, and ever so sophisticated. I was not only high tech, but getting high class as well.
My morning was spent devising a grid for a motion-sensitive security system for a company out in Solon that manufactures plumbing fixtures—and save the jokes, because I heard them all from Ed and Rudy and some of my other buddies when I’d first accepted the assignment. Consistent with human nature, they’d waited until there had been several break-ins at the factory before they decided they needed some protection. I had the floor plans of their plant and offices, and since the very first thing the president of the firm did was moan about the cost, the trick for me was to place as few devices as possible where they would be most efficient, so that a mouse couldn’t make it across the office floor without alerting the police. It might sound comical, but I’ve been around long enough to know that people will steal anything, even toilet bowls.
At a few minutes before twelve my stomach started to growl. All my life I’ve been a three-meals-a-day man; when you’re as big as I am—around six three and two hundred twenty pounds at my best weight, which is about eight pounds less than what I currently weigh—you need a lot of fuel to keep that engine running. But I’d skipped breakfast that morning, something I did often since I’d been staying so many nights at Nicole’s house, so I activated my voice mail and walked downstairs and over to Jim’s Steak House on the corner of Scranton and Carter at the western end of the Eagle Avenue Bridge.
Jim’s is a Cleveland fixture, having occupied its strategic site on Collision Bend for so long, I can’t remember a time when it hadn’t been there. In the summertime you can eat on an outdoor patio, and all year long the dining room offers a stunning view across the river. But it’s basically the same one I see from my office windows, so when I eat lunch there I prefer having a steak sandwich and a beer at the bar of the cozy, masculine lounge, where there’s always a conversation to be struck up with the bartender or one of the customers. It’s the kind of place where you get into heated discussions about sports and politics with strangers.
I’d just swung my leg over the barstool and was ready to order when the Channel 12 noon news came on. I was startled to see Vivian Truscott sitting beside the regular daytime anchorman. I was surprised to see her even awake at noon, much less on the set; she usually does the news at six and eleven o’clock. Ordinarily the fashion plate of Cleveland television, today Truscott was wearing a severe black suit and simple makeup. She looked tight-lipped and tense.
“This is a difficult story to report,” she was saying, and the quiver and strain in her voice were completely at odds with her usual cool, almost glacial professionalism. “But this morning our Channel Twelve colleague and my personal friend Virginia Carville was found dead in her home on Edgewater Drive on the west side of Cleveland. The police believe . . . ”
Her voice broke, and she shook her head and put her face in her hands. “Damn!” she said.
Her coanchor leaned over and patted her arm, then turned to the camera. “This isn’t easy,” he said. “Virginia was a good friend to all of us. The police are saying there was foul play.”
And suddenly I wasn’t hungry anymore.