The Irish Sports Pages – Chapter One

The Irish Sports Pages: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#13), by Les Roberts. Published by Gray & Company, Publishers. Front cover of book.

The Irish Sports Pages, a book by Les Roberts: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#13)

Book Excerpt

From The Irish Sports Pages (a Milan Jacovich Mystery) by Les Roberts

The atmosphere in the bar seemed to actually be humming, or rather vibrating like a well-played violin string, with a purity of tone and pitch worthy of a concert hall. Whether it was in anticipation of great food or the promise of something yet unspoken, I didn’t know. You won’t find a better-dressed, better-connected, or better-looking crowd in all of Cleveland than at One Walnut, the upscale restaurant on the corner of Walnut and East Ninth Street. An awful lot of the area’s beautiful people show up on any given night, but especially on Fridays, which is the week’s most important time for networking. It’s the kind of place where everyone makes an entrance, even if they’re not important at all.

On this particular evening, longtime leading morning-radio personality John Lanigan, of the Lanigan and Malone Show on WMJI, was looking at his reflection in the enormous circular art deco mirror behind the bar and chatting with flame-haired Melanie, who is something of a bartending legend around here because of her killer martinis. The air crackled.

After I’d said hello to them both, I was led down a wide hallway into the main dining room, where Cathleen Hartigan awaited me for our dinner engagement. She was far and away the most ­elegant-looking woman in the place.

I didn’t spot her immediately, because she’d been seated in a little alcove to the left of the entrance, her back to the soft gray wall, and when I approached and she raised her face for a kiss, it fell into that limbo of something more than a hello kiss and something less than anything else. I wondered if any of her lipstick had been transferred to my mouth during the exchange.

“You look sensational,” I said. I didn’t lie. Her fair Irish good looks seemed to glow, and her gray silk dress shimmered when she moved. I hadn’t seen her in a while, but I thought she’d ­allowed her blond hair to grow a bit longer, and she was wearing it more softly around her face. Her perfume, rising up to enchant me, was subtle and expensive.

“You’re looking pretty good yourself, Milan,” she said in that lilting voice that could be a clarion call in a courtroom and a soft, low purr anywhere else. “It’s so good to see you. I really appreciate your coming.”

“The pleasure’s mine,” I said, and truth to tell, it was. I’d been pleased, but more than a little surprised, when she called me and invited me to dinner. She had suggested I bring along one of my standard agency contracts, so I was fairly certain that this time we were only going to be talking business. You could say that Cathleen Hartigan and I have a “history”—one that goes back about seven or eight years.

I suppose some clarification is in order here. I spent some time in Vietnam in the military—an MP sergeant—and then several years as a Cleveland cop prior to becoming an industrial security specialist and private investigator. That stint with the police is probably what got in the way of my ever getting together romantically with Cathleen Hartigan. Because long before I met her, she was the sometime girlfriend of a man named Victor Gaimari, who is number two on the depth chart of northeast Ohio’s biggest crime family, right behind his uncle, Don Giancarlo D’Allessandro. And early in my relationship with Victor, I broke his nose, and he subsequently had me pretty badly bruised by three of his employees.

Here’s irony for you: since that time, Victor and I have become friends, sort of. And his uncle, the don, seems to think I walk on water. We’ve done each other a few favors over the years, which isn’t as bad as it sounds, and even though I hate the way he makes his money, there’s no gainsaying that Victor is a charming, affable guy—a pretty good ally when the chips are down, if it comes to that.

Back when he introduced Cathleen and me at a party he was giving, naming her my “dinner partner” for the evening, I think he’d gotten it into his head that since he liked me and he liked her, we would probably like each other. And we did. But their past romantic involvement had been problematic for me. I knew she was no gangster’s moll, no fluff chick. She was a successful attorney, and her mother was a judge, her brother was a congressman, and her late father had been a state senator. But I couldn’t get my nineteenth-century morality past the fact that she and Victor had once been lovers.

That’s the reason our relationship never amounted to much—a mild flirtation and a few quasi-innocent kisses is about as far as it ever got. And that was my fault.

I’m in my forties, and everyone my age or even close to it has a past, but in my shortsightedness and self-righteousness—traits that have been pointed out to me by more than one person in my life—I perceived Cathleen to be in some way tainted goods, and I walked away.

Stupid me. Stupid me again when I ran into her at another Victor Gaimari party last year. Before that she’d been married for a short time to another lawyer, a cheapjack shyster from the west side. She subsequently divorced him when he got disbarred for suborning perjury in a workers’ comp case. I drove her home after the party that evening and kissed her good night rather passionately—and then didn’t do a damn thing to follow through.

I’ve been on my own for a long time now, both businesswise and relationship-wise. I have my own agency in the Flats, the born-again riverbank neighborhood a hop-skip away from downtown. Milan Security, in case you want to look it up in the telephone directory. That’s my first name, Milan, with the ­accent on the first syllable—My-lan. Europeans say Mee-lahn or even Mi-lahn, but my parents wanted to be regular Americans, so they always pronounced it with the long i sound. And if you think that’s difficult to say, try bending your tongue around my last name, which is Jacovich. Pronounced Yock-o-vitch. It’s Slovenian, because ­Slovenia is where my parents came from. There are more people of Slovenian descent in the Cleveland area than anywhere else in the world outside Ljubljana, which is the capital of ­Slovenia. And if you’re geographically challenged and don’t know where or what Slovenia is, look it up in an atlas.

I’d been surprised to get the dinner invitation from Cathleen Hartigan that afternoon; there are only so many times a woman can get rejected before she figures out that she’s wasting her time. So I knew this dinner get-together was more of a professional meeting and not a date. Not personal.

I sat with her and ordered a drink, and we chatted for a while about this and that, comfortably, the way old acquaintances do. We didn’t reminisce about old times, because we really hadn’t shared any. I imagine she was wondering as much as I what might have been. And then she sat up a little straighter in her chair and unconsciously moved her drink away from her and said, “My mother is going to be joining us this evening, Milan. I hope that’s not a problem.”

And all of a sudden I was a little bit less at ease than I’d been five seconds earlier. Maureen Carey Hartigan is a former Cuyahoga County prosecutor and currently a judge of the Common Pleas Court, with a tough-on-criminals reputation that makes defense attorneys quake at the knees. I couldn’t help but wonder why Cathleen was bringing the two of us together.

I wasn’t even certain the judge would remember me, but I certainly remembered her. I had been called twice as a prosecution witness in her courtroom, including once when I provided damaging testimony against the misbegotten son of a bitch who killed my best friend, and who Judge Hartigan had sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. My best friend, Marko Meglich, was a cop; cop killers get short shrift in any courtroom in the country, but especially in Hartigan’s. She had been tough and professional and fair on that occasion, and sympathetic, too, and I’d developed a healthy respect for her.

“Of course it’s all right,” I answered Cathleen’s query. “I know her from court, but I’ve never met her socially.” Then I looked at the way Cathleen’s usually full lips tightened into a line, and I amended, “I have a feeling this isn’t exactly going to be social, either.”

“Let’s wait until she gets here, Milan. I’ll let her tell you about it.” Her general attitude was a bit too mysterious for my comfort.

When Judge Hartigan arrived five minutes later, the buzz in One Walnut suddenly resembled the sound of a Beverly Hills restaurant when someone like Tom Cruise walks in. Cleveland judges get their faces on television a lot, and Maureen was more photogenic than most. Owner-chef Marlin Kaplan came out of the kitchen to say hello, and virtually the entire restaurant staff greeted Maureen by name, as did several customers as she made her way through the dining room. Not unusual; the restaurant was close enough to the courthouse and the glittering high-rise law offices downtown, so I supposed she knew practically everybody in the place. Unlike New York and Chicago, where it’s fairly common to spot entertainment celebrities everywhere, from the most expensive restaurants to the supermarket to strolling on the sidewalk, and give them little attention, in Cleveland luminaries from all walks of life are treated as such, and while it’s rare that anyone actually bothers them in public, they are invariably recognized and greeted, or at least gawked at.

Usually, when children are small, they tend to resemble their parents. It’s only after they’re grown, and life takes over and sculpts and molds and rearranges their faces, that they often appear entirely different. Cathleen, however, still looked very much like her mother, only about twenty-five years younger. Judge Hartigan’s hair was just as blond, but streaked with gray, cut shorter, and styled in a more mature fashion, and she was perhaps an inch shorter and ten pounds heavier, and her burgundy suit wasn’t of a color one usually associates with the bench. But the familial resemblance—the porcelain skin and earthy beauty tempered by Gaelic humor and pugnacity—could be easily discerned by anyone who was paving attention.

We both rose as the judge approached, but there was no phony air kissing between mother and daughter. The way Maureen Hartigan beamed at her offspring with unaffected delight and affection was more demonstrative than any kissing or hugging or cooing might have been. Cathleen started to make the introductions, but her mother stopped her.

“Mr. Jacovich and I have met before, in court,” she said. “I appreciate your coming tonight.”

Flattered that she’d remembered me, I held out her chair for her to sit down, and she gave me a startled but not displeased look. I know holding a woman’s chair or opening a door for her is considered politically incorrect these days, but I’m just old enough that the lessons in etiquette and common courtesy my mother drummed into my skull are hard to break. The judge didn’t seem to mind, and actually thanked me. I guess she was old enough to remember courtesy, too.

She ordered one of Melanie’s specialties—an honest, old-style gin martini straight up with an olive—endearing herself to me forever. To a purist, those designer concoctions with vodka and chocolate or mint or curaçao aren’t really martinis at all, no matter what they’re called.

When her drink came, she got right down to business. “What I want to speak to you about is obviously confidential,” she said. “I know your reputation, and of course Cathleen vouches for you, too, so I assume that won’t be any problem.”

“No, ma’am,” I said, again mindful of the manners I’d learned at my mother’s knee.

Her smile was crooked, playful. “I wore this wine-colored suit with the daring neckline instead of my judicial robes for the express purpose of not being called ma’am,” she said. “Maureen will do, if you’re comfortable with that.”

“Great, Maureen. And if you’re comfortable with calling me Milan, I think we have a deal.”

She nodded, and then looked around cautiously to see if anyone was paying attention. “Good.” She lowered her voice to a commanding whisper. “The fact is, Milan—and this is very embarrassing to me—I have been royally scammed, and so has my family.”

I tried not to look surprised. Maureen didn’t fit the profile of con-game victim. “Do you mind if I take notes?”

She hesitated for half a second. “Discretion is very important to me.”

“If I’m captured by the enemy, I promise I’ll eat them,” I said, smiling to take the sting out of it.

She nodded, which I took for permission to pull out my notebook and a pen.

“It started with my cousin, Hugh Cochran,” she said. “He’s an assistant director of the Department of Public Service here in Cleveland.”

I knew the name. Vaguely. “Okay.”

“About seven weeks ago Hugh was having a drink in a bar on the west side called O’Grady’s.” She allowed herself a small smile. “An Irish bar, naturally, not too far from his house. For some reason it’s one of those places in which Irishmen who work for the city hang out. Perfectly harmless, I assure you—and you don’t have to be Irish to drink there, either.”

So far all I’d written down was “Hugh Cochran” and “O’Grady’s.” I waited.

“About five weeks ago a young man wandered in. He had a brogue as thick as Irish stew and said his name was Brian McFall, from County Mayo.”

“How young?” I said. Youth was a relative thing; the judge was in her sixties, and I suppose that to her I was a young man, too.

“In his early or middle thirties,” she said, looking to Cathleen for confirmation. “No older. You may or may not know it, Milan, but a lot of Cleveland’s Irish population have ancestors from Mayo. It’s one of those strange sociological phenomena like the one that brought most Slovenian immigrants to this area as well.”

I ducked my head in acknowledgment. My own parents had emigrated from Ljubljana after World War II, arriving in Cleveland because virtually everyone they knew from Slovenia who had come to America had wound up here, too. Ethnic neighborhoods in American cities have nothing to do with racial distrust or bigotry or even clannishness. They are all about a comfort level.

“You know how it is in a tavern,” she said. “Especially an ethnic tavern. People get to talking, having a few drinks, they open up and wax nostalgic, and pretty soon everyone knows everyone else’s life story.”

“I have the feeling you’re going to tell me Brian McFall’s.”

“Well, sort of. In any event, after a drink or two, and a good bit of reminiscing about how much he missed Achill Island and the Moy Valley and all that, McFall told Hugh and his friends that he’d arrived at Cleveland Hopkins Airport from Castlebar by way of Shannon that very afternoon, and that the airlines had lost his luggage, including his passport, his wallet, all his credit cards, and his traveler’s checks. And that he’d come to Cleveland to get to Akron to work for his cousin but couldn’t locate him.”

That story would have sounded pretty lame to me, but then I hadn’t been drinking in a pub all night and wouldn’t have been caught up in the emotion of a fellow Irishman in need. “I suppose your cousin had to pay the drink tab?”

Maureen Hartigan rolled her eyes toward the ceiling, and Cathleen shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “I wish it had been only that.”

She stopped as the waitress came back to recite the specials of the evening. The waitress didn’t go away, though, until Cathleen and I ordered a second drink, too.

“Hugh actually brought McFall to my house a few days later,” Judge Hartigan said when the three of us were alone again. “He said McFall couldn’t check into a hotel without a credit card, and he’d bunked in with Hugh for a few days, but since Hugh lives in a one-bedroom house and I have five, he thought . . . ”

“I’ve got the picture.”

“It was only to be for a night or two,” she said, “until the airlines delivered his lost baggage.”

“But they never did find his luggage, did they?”

“You’ve figured that out already? No, they didn’t.” She shook her head.

I felt like shaking mine. The gullibility of otherwise very sensible people never ceases to amaze me.

“How long did he wind up staying with you?

“Almost three weeks.”

“And the job with his cousin in Akron?”

“Apparently it never materialized. Brian said he wasn’t ever able to locate him.”

I glanced over at Cathleen, who looked every bit as somber as her mother. “I assume that you wouldn’t have called me in on this if it was just a matter of unpaid lodging and a bar tab at O’Grady’s . . . ”

“Not by half,” Judge Hartigan said. “Briney borrowed my cousin Hugh’s credit card so he could rent a car, which he did. But he also used it to run up more than two thousand dollars’ worth of clothing at Nordstrom, and Brooks Brothers, too. He said that because his baggage had been lost he needed new clothing—and suitcases, as well. I gave him about fifteen hundred ­dollars of my own, too. In cash. He said he needed some ‘walking around money.’ ”

“For fifteen hundred dollars he could have taken taxis,” Cathleen put in.

“Limousines,” I agreed.

“And he stole from me, too, Milan,” the judge said. It was as though she was surprised by the fact, even after all this time. “A brooch-and-earrings set my grandmother gave me is missing, along with some other jewelry and about eight hundred more in cash. And Hugh discovered that an expensive pair of leather boots, three or four silk ties, and some valuable cuff links were gone from his house as well.”

“This Brian McFall just disappeared?”

She nodded. “Into thin air, it seems. Brian McFall, Hugh’s credit card, the rental car, my jewelry, the clothes, and the cash, along with some important papers and photographs—all gone. I woke up one morning and looked in his room, and he just wasn’t there anymore.”

I wet my whistle with my drink because I was going to ask a question I thought I already knew the embarrassing answer to. “Why didn’t you notify the police, Maureen? You’re a judge. I’m sure they would have made finding Brian McFall a priority.”

There was a pause that was at least eight months pregnant, and mother and daughter exchanged glances that could only be classified as humiliated.

“It was a little more than simple theft, I’m afraid,” the judge said. “A little more personal.”

I didn’t say anything; my mind was too busy trying to process what I thought I knew was coming.

“Milan, I’m an elected official,” she continued. “The slightest whiff of scandal, especially in a conservative district like mine . . . ”

I put up a hand to stop her. “It’s all right,” I said. “Those things happen. Even to judges. Nobody is judging you.”

She looked blank for a moment, and then all of a sudden she laughed, throwing her head back and guffawing loud enough to attract some attention. “Oh my God, you think I was sleeping with him? I’m sixty-three years old!”

I stared at her, thinking that she was sexy and attractive and not too old to sleep with anybody. “I apologize, Maureen. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions. But then I’m not sure what . . . ”

I saw the second embarrassed look pass between mother and daughter, and all of a sudden I did understand, and then I was sure. My heart sank a little. I turned toward Cathleen.

She flushed, her Irish complexion going from pale white to bright red in a matter of moments. “I haven’t dated since my ­divorce, Milan—you know that. And Briney was quite the charmer,” she murmured, her head down. “Handsome, funny, full of stories—he even sang old Irish folk songs.”

I nodded knowingly. The old-Irish-folk-songs ploy.

“This is kind of humiliating,” she continued. “Give me a few points for guts, at least. The hardest thing I ever had to do in my life was to call you, knowing I’d have to tell you about this.”

I reached over and squeezed her hand.

“That’s why confidentiality is so important, Milan,” the judge said, her eyes following my hand to Cathleen’s. “I know it’s the twenty-first century and all that, but in some circles a woman still has her reputation to consider.”

“I’ll be very discreet,” I promised, “as soon as you tell me what you’d like me to do.”

“I want you to find Brian McFall. I want you to bring him back so he can stand in front of me and tell me why he betrayed us all.” She opened her large purse and pulled out a snapshot, which she pushed across the tablecloth to me. “That will give you an idea of what he looks like; I know that will help.”

“It will,” I said, and looked at it. Cathleen and a lean, young man with sharp, ferretlike features and dark curly hair were seated on a sofa together, laughing, each holding a bottle of Guinness, his arm around her shoulders. It was hard to tell, but the man seemed as if he might be fairly tall when he stood up; his legs were stretched out comfortably and looked long. In the out-of-focus background were two other people, a man and a woman, whose faces were partially turned away from the camera. It was obviously a candid shot snapped at some sort of party, and both subjects seemed unaware their picture was being taken.

“As you can see,” Cathleen said miserably, “he was a real cutie.”

I was itching to slap the cutie around. Not just because of him and Cathleen; that was none of my business, and she wouldn’t have gone to bed with him if she hadn’t wanted to. But because he was a punk—and a stupid punk at that. Assuming that he hadn’t dumped the rental car off at some chop shop for ten cents on the dollar and left Hugh Cochran holding the bag for it, his larceny had amounted to not much more than a few thousand dollars in cash and merchandise. Not a bad payday for three weeks’ work for most people, but hardly enough to risk getting a judge riled up at him.

Only small-timers steal small things.

“He was staying with your mother,” I said to Cathleen, “but spending nights at your place?”

She nodded miserably. “Mostly, yes. I invited him to bunk in with me for the time being, but he said it would be too much trouble to move again. And Mom and I only live about six blocks from each other.”

“The funny thing was,” the judge said, pointing to the photograph, “that he just about went postal when that flash went off. He got very angry and said he didn’t like having his picture taken. So that’s the only one we have of him.”

“I can see why,” I said. ‘The guy is a scam artist. It wouldn’t do for a bunch of photos of him to be floating around.”

“Well,” Cathleen said, “at least we have the one. That should give you something to go on.”

“It does,” I said. “But I can’t bring him back if he doesn’t want to come. Not by force, anyhow. I’m sure you know that’s kidnapping.”

“I don’t expect you to bring him back by force, necessarily,” Maureen said. “I want you to convince him that it would be in his best interest.”

“You mean you want me to threaten him?”

The judge patted her lips primly with her napkin, and her eyes scanned the dining room as though she was looking for somebody she knew. “I don’t particularly care to know your methods,” she said tightly. “All I want is results.”

“I don’t imagine you’ll get your money back,” I said.

She nodded. “I don’t really expect to recover much of the cash, if any. It doesn’t matter—in the long run it was a piddling amount. And Hugh has canceled his credit card, of course. But my mother’s jewelry—that’s irreplaceable. I want that back, no matter what. If he’s still got it, fine. If he sold it, I want you to find out to whom. I’ll buy it back if I have to.” She cleared her throat, scoping out the room again, looking everywhere but at my face. “And the papers and photographs that he stole. I want them returned as well.”

I was scribbling notes. “Okay,” I said. “What kind of papers and photos?”

“Legal papers,” Cathleen put in. “And family pictures.”

“An album?”

The judge hesitated, but just barely. “No. Loose photographs. In a plain eight-by-ten manila envelope.”

“Again, Maureen, I’m sure you know that even if I find him, I can’t legally make him return the photos.”

“Let me take care of that,” she said heavily.

I didn’t like the sound of it, and was going to tell her so when I caught a glimpse of Cathleen. She looked devastated, and was giving me an entreating glance I couldn’t really say no to.

“All right, Maureen. This picture of him and Cathleen will help, but it isn’t much to go on. Anything else you can tell me?”

“He told us that his father was the executive vice president of Belleek china,” Cathleen said in a way that made me suppose I should have been impressed. But I’d never heard of Belleek china. I get most of my dishes at Wal-Mart. “And he swore that for our help he’d see to it that we all—Hugh, my mother, and I—would be sent full sets of Belleek Parian china. It’s some of the finest in the world.”

“After he’d been gone for several days without a word and without leaving a number or forwarding address,” Maureen said, “I got suspicious. So I called Belleek in Ireland. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that they’d never heard of anybody named Brian McFall. Their executive VP’s name is Haggerty. So he lied about that, too.”

“He lied about everything,” Cathleen put in, mournfully but with an unaccustomed bitterness giving her tone a sharp edge.

“Can you help us?” the judge said. “Quietly and discreetly?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “There isn’t much to go on here.”

“Will you try?”

I hesitated, and Cathleen turned her hand over in mine and squeezed tight, fingernails digging into my palm. Her blue eyes were shining wet. “Just try, Milan,” she said. “For an old friend.”

I sighed. I’m a sucker for blue eyes, I suppose. “It might run into some serious money; these things often do.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Maureen said, and took a checkbook from her purse. “Getting my own back matters more.”

“All right, then,” I said. I fished the contract from my jacket pocket and passed it over to her. She scanned it quickly, professionally, and signed it with my pen. Then she took out her checkbook and wrote me out a retainer. Before I folded it and put it away, I noticed that her checks were imprinted with adorable little kittens. Cute—but not very judicial.

“I’ll want to talk to your cousin Hugh,” I said, and wrote down his address and phone number in my notebook. “And now you’ll have to tell me where I can find O’Grady’s.”

From the book The Irish Sports Pages, by Les Roberts. 

© Les Roberts. All rights reserved. This excerpt may not be reproduced without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.

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