Pepper Pike – Chapter One

Pepper Pike: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#1), by Les Roberts. Published by Gray & Company, Publishers. Front cover of book.

Pepper Pike: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#1), by Les Roberts. Published by Gray & Company, Publishers. Front cover of book.Book Excerpt

From Full Cleveland (a Milan Jacovich Mystery) by Les Roberts

A couple came into the bar and sat down next to me. They both had that kind of unremarkable, unmemorable face that you couldn’t identify ten minutes later, and the only reason I noticed them at all was that his head got in the way between me and the TV set at the far end of the bar. That bugged me because this was an important moment in my life and I wanted to see every bit of it. Twenty-seven million dollars was nothing to shrug off, and it was going to be mine. I could sense it. The ticket felt right in my hand, the numbers seemed to dance on the paper, to tell me that they were winners. Of course I knew that already. I had picked them carefully. My birthday, my mother’s birthday, my father’s, my two kids’, even my ex-wife’s birthday: eight–eighteen–nineteen–eleven–thirteen–twenty-eight. The same numbers I’d been playing for the last five years, every Wednesday. But on this night we were talking about real money, no paltry million. Tonight the Super-Lotto Jackpot was worth twenty-seven million dollars. And it was going to be mine.

I took a big swallow of beer as the Lottery Lady’s smiling face appeared on the screen, and I edged forward the better to see around my next-stool neighbor’s big head, but everyone at the bar at Vuk’s was leaning up a little in anticipation. They all had tickets, some of them ten and twenty, all spread out across the bar top and curling where their edges hit a beer spill. Every eye in the place was on that TV set, watching those little Ping-Pong balls with the magic numbers. My numbers. Everybody’s numbers. Everyone in Vuk’s had a winning ticket. Everyone in the state of Ohio had one. We were all just waiting for the announcement, for those six little Ping-Pong balls to come up with our numbers.

The TV lady was still smiling and saying something about the jackpot being worth twenty-seven million, and I lit a Winston and waited. I knew how much the jackpot was; you’d have to have spent the last five days fifty feet under the ground in a Zambezi diamond mine not to know. It was the big news, the biggest jackpot since the lottery had started up in Ohio.

The first ball popped into the air lock and the lady turned it with her fingers so the number showed. It was eleven! All right, I had one of those. Twenty-seven million, here I come. And then the second ball.

“Twenty-one,” the lottery lady said. “Thirty-four. Thirty-three. Fourteen. Twenty-six. Two. The winning numbers tonight are . . . ”

I crumpled the ticket in my hand and looked down the length of the bar. Disappointed murmurs made Vuk’s sound like a swarm of bees had been let loose at the back bar. No words were discernible save an occasional “Shit!” Just a disillusioned hum, low-key and inner-directed as if everyone were mumbling to himself alone, unwilling to share his disappointment with his neighbor; it was the sound of dreams crashing and burning. The wadded-up lottery tickets were hitting the floor like hailstones where they sat sadly in the sawdust between the legs of the stools, mute testimony to failure.

Vuk, the bartender and owner, who had served me my first legal drink of alcohol when I’d come of age, noticed my beer was gone and came down to where I was sitting. Automatically he emptied the ashtray in front of me.

“Another one, Milan? Drown your sorrows?”

“There’s not enough Stroh’s in all of Cleveland, Vuk. Not twenty-seven-million worth.”

“You’ll get ’em next week,” Vuk said. A Slovenian philosopher.

No one was much in the mood to watch Wheel of Fortune, even to see what outfit Vanna was wearing, so Vuk switched on ESPN. There was a replay of a golf match in progress, and I’ve often felt that watching golf on TV is akin to watching someone read. Besides, I don’t like a sport where the announcers have to whisper. It’s a lot better when they yell: “Wow, he hammered it! The left fielder’s going back—to the track, to the wall—it’s gone!” Spectator sports are supposed to relax you and help blow off steam and ease tension, not make you feel like you were at High Mass.

I threw a five and two ones on the bar and climbed off my stool. A few of the old regulars waved goodbye, but most of the younger guys didn’t know who I was. Over the years I’d been drifting away from Slavic Town, the neighborhood where I was born and had grown up, and was spending my days south and east of there in Cleveland Heights, where I now lived. It made me feel sad that I was something of a stranger on my own turf, but ever since my divorce it was just easier to stay out of Slavic Town most of the time. Too many memories.

I walked out onto St. Clair Avenue and around the corner to the vacant lot on East 55th Street that served as the unofficial parking lot for Vuk’s Tavern. The snow from the blizzard a week ago had melted and then refrozen so that it crunched pleasantly under my size twelve shoes. It had been one of the mildest winters old-time Clevelanders could remember, which is to say it probably would have killed a Californian or Floridian, but for us natives it had almost been a vacation. Here it was, mid-February, and there had only been three really serious snowstorms.

I climbed into my slate-gray Chevy Caprice wagon, a car I roundly hated. It was big enough to rent out the backseat to a family of Puerto Ricans, and because it was square-backed and looked like a hearse, people would take their hats off when I drove by. I’d taken the car in lieu of payment for a job I had done a few months earlier, so I figured to drive it for a while before trading it in on something I really liked. I checked my watch. It was a quarter till eight. The Cavs were playing on TV tonight—the Celtics at Boston Garden. Something masochistic in me made me want to watch the slaughter. Besides, I didn’t feel sociable this evening. I’d been divorced from Lila for over a year now, and it was okay, I was getting used to it. But once in a while when the night was cold and the air was clear and crisp, the loneliness bit hard and held on. Tonight was one of those nights.

I headed south on 55th Street, hung a left on Euclid, negotiated the crazy traffic pattern at University Circle, and headed up Cedar Hill to where I maintained my office and apartment. It was nothing fancy, but there was a big front room I used for my business, a small parlor where I did most of my living, a closet-sized kitchen with a postage-stamp dining alcove, and two good-sized bedrooms. I kept twin beds in the smaller one for when my sons came to spend the weekend, and I slept in the larger one with the big bay window looking out over the triangle where Fairmount and Cedar come together at the top of the hill, right across the street from the Mad Greek and the fancy food market and the drugstore.

The apartment was empty. No surprise there, it always was. Every other weekend I’d get the kids, Milan Jr. and Stephen, but in the middle of the week it was lonely and cold as a tomb. I turned on the steam heat in the parlor, got a Stroh’s out of the fridge, and switched on the TV just in time for the tip-off. The crowd at Boston Garden was as rude and noisy as ever, and they had a lot to yell about. The Celts got the tip, Ainge took it down court and passed it off to Bird, who hit a three-pointer when the game was less than twelve seconds old. A demoralizing beginning. I got a fresh pack of Winstons out of the drawer and ripped it open. I didn’t really want a cigarette. I never did. It was just something to do.

Boston scored on the Cavs almost at will, and at the end of the first quarter they led by fourteen. Lenny Wilkens looked as though he’d been hit with a ballpeen hammer, kind of the way I felt. I turned the game off, stripped, and got into the shower, where I stayed until the hot water began to fail. I toweled dry, put on a terry robe, and went back into the parlor and got down a book. I’d read about two pages when the telephone rang. It sounded loud and harsh in the quiet. I picked it up on the second ring before it frazzled my nerves any further.

“Is this Milan Jacovich?” a male voice said, and I allowed as how I was, but corrected his pronunciation. It’s Milan with a long i, and the J in Jacovich is pronounced like a Y.

“You do security work?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I need a bodyguard. For twelve hours. Then tomorrow morning I want you to drive me someplace at nine o’clock, wait for me about half an hour, and drive me back. I’ll give you a thousand dollars, which I’m sure is more than your usual rate. Is that all right?”

I turned my book face down on the table, which my mother had always told me never to do. “It’s more than all right,” I answered. “Who’m I talking to?”

“My name is Richard Amber. I live in Pepper Pike. I’ve asked around and they tell me you’re completely trustworthy. Is that true?”

“I’d like to think so, Mr. Amber.”

He was breathing hard as though he’d been interrupted in the middle of sex, although I had to remember it was he who had called me. “How fast can you get here?” He gave me an address on S.O.M. Center Road.

“It’ll take me about an hour.”

“Break the speed limit. I’ll pay for the ticket. And you can spend the night here.”

“All right,” I said, jotting down the address. “Can you give me an idea what this is all about, Mr. Amber?”

“Not on the phone.”

“I won’t do anything illegal.”

“This is perfectly legit, I can assure you.”

“All right, then.”

“And I can count on you?”

“I’m leaving in five minutes,” I said.

“Good. And Mr. Jacovich? Are you licensed to carry a firearm?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Bring it,” he said.

Pepper Pike is a high-rent district, a relatively new suburb out on the eastern edge of Cleveland. The big money used to live in Shaker Heights, but as the wrecking ball flattened the downtown area the denizens of the inner city moved a bit too far eastward for the landed gentry, who in turn fled a few miles farther away into the brand-new homes and subdivisions of Beachwood and Pepper Pike. In a town where a three-bedroom house with a quarter-acre of land and a two-car garage can still go for around sixty-five thousand dollars in Cleveland Heights, Pepper Pike real estate was very inflated, into six figures and averaging out at about three hundred thousand. For whatever reason Richard Amber wanted to pay me a thousand dollars for twelve hours’ worth of babysitting, I wasn’t going to feel badly about it. He could afford it.

I didn’t break any speed laws. The suburban cops don’t have much to do in the way of tracking down armed robbers and rapists, so they fill their idle hours by nailing motorists who go three miles an hour over the speed limit. Though Amber might be willing to pay for my ticket, I doubted he’d pay the increase in my insurance. So I was careful. Doubly careful because I was carrying a .357 Magnum in my armpit. I was licensed for it, but I didn’t particularly want to have to stop and explain to the law why I was wearing it. I owned a smaller weapon, a .38 from my days in the Cleveland Police Department, but the .357 had a lot more stopping power, and if you’re going to shoot some poor bastard you might as well make it stick.

The more I traveled eastward the higher the snowdrifts were piled at curbside, because for some strange reason the East Side always got a lot more snow than the West. This phenomenon was referred to mysteriously as “the lake effect” by TV weathermen, but no one ever bothered explaining it to my satisfaction or anyone else’s. It’s one of those things you accept when you live here, like each year’s disappointments over the Cavs and the Indians, or jokes about the river catching fire.

I swung onto Shaker Boulevard at Richmond Road and drove down the darkened street past homes I’d never be able to afford, finally turning a few blocks south at S.O.M. Center Road. I found the house easily, a sprawling Cape Codder, white with black trim and shutters, set well back on a sloping lawn now covered with virgin snow that was beginning to go a little gray. It was a two-story with an attached garage and a driveway that climbed up one side of the slope to the garage or else, if one preferred, curled around to the front door and then down the other side of the slope to the street again. The driveway was neatly cleared of any snow or ice, and was dry. I parked directly in front of the entrance and got out, turning up the collar of my car coat and hunching my shoulders against the cold, whistling wind. The temperature was in the low teens, the kind of evening you want to stay home with a good book, which had been my original plan. A thousand dollars, however, makes it worth going out in the cold.

The porch light was on, rather brightly, I thought, and I found the doorbell easily. I heard it chime inside and waited for about forty seconds, then rang it again. No answer. I stamped my feet on the mat to keep the circulation in my toes and looked around. There were no lights on inside at the front. After ringing fruitlessly for the third time, I walked around the side of the house, sinking ankle-deep into the snow. When I got to the back there was a light on behind a sliding glass door, and I peered in. It was a study, obviously a man’s room, with wood paneling and a thick dusky rose carpet. There was a large walnut desk, and a few occasional chairs and a nut-brown leather sofa. I slipped off my glove and knocked on the glass door and called out something dumb like “Anybody home?” It was obvious there wasn’t. I vacillated between annoyance and concern, and finally concern won out. I walked clear around the house looking for signs of occupancy, but it seemed completely deserted. No lights were on at all upstairs. I wound up at the front door again, stupidly ringing the bell once more before sticking one of my business cards into the door handle and driving away.

It was just past ten o’clock. I headed for a little bar down on Chagrin where a journeyman piano player was banging out golden-oldie show tunes for middle-aged patrons to sing along with off-key. I hung up my coat and went to the phone booth and dialed Richard Amber’s number. An answering machine, in a soft feminine voice, told me that no one was home but that she’d be ever so pleased if I waited for the tone and left a brief message.

“This is Milan Jacovich, Mr. Amber. It’s . . . ten past ten o’clock. I was just at your house and there was no one there. I’m at . . . ” I looked at the number of the pay phone and read it off to the tape. “I’ll stay here until midnight, and then I’m going home.”

Back at the bar I ordered a beer and listened while a fat, bald, gray-bearded customer who thought he was Robert Goulet massacred a few songs from Camelot and came on as strongly and gracelessly as I’d ever seen to a fiftyish woman wearing a white blouse and a blue-gray skirt slit up to her crotch. Having to stay and listen was cruel and unusual punishment, and I took some sort of perverse satisfaction when she put on her coat and went home right in the middle of “I Loved You Once in Silence.” Everybody strikes out sometimes.

By the time midnight rolled around the bar had pretty much emptied out—it was a Wednesday evening, after all, and most of these folks had to work in the morning. I was pretty annoyed. Not only had I wasted an evening and half a tank of gas, but I’d lost an easy thousand dollars. It wasn’t much compared to the twenty-seven million I’d missed out on from the lottery that evening, but in my head I’d already banked the thousand, and I was very out-of-sorts. I went back to the phone, called Amber’s number, and waited patiently through the recording again.

“Milan Jacovich here,” I said after the beep. “It’s twelve o’clock and I’m going home.”

I headed west on Chagrin and got stopped by a Beachwood cop for going five miles over the speed limit. I nursed some bad feelings about Richard Amber the rest of the way home.

From the book Pepper Pike, 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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