From The Cleveland Connection (a Milan Jacovich Mystery) by Les Roberts
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
Joe Bradac was the last guy I’d expect to see standing on the threshold of my apartment at nine o’clock on a Monday morning. A cop at the door wouldn’t have surprised me; I was once a cop myself, so not only do I have a load of friends on the force, but since becoming a private investigator and security specialist my interests and those of the police department occasionally dovetail—or clash—and Cleveland’s boys in blue visit me more often than I’d like. It could have been my landlord knocking—I try to pay my rent by the fifth of the month, but occasionally I forget. Maybe a Jehovah’s Witness waving a religious tract at me; in Cleveland Heights, where I have my office in my apartment, they are as ubiquitous as the gray squirrel. Once in a while even a dissatisfied client shows up at the door—things happen, after all. But not Joe Bradac.
Joe Bradac lives with my ex-wife.
Lila and I have one of those amicable divorces that seem to work out better than the marriage ever did. She got the house and car and we split everything else, including custody of my two sons, Milan Junior and Stephen, who are now sixteen and twelve years old respectively. Although they live under her roof, there’s rarely a problem when I want to see them.
It wasn’t always so; when we first split up Lila could get pretty sticky if I wanted to be with the boys more often than my court-mandated every other weekend. But now she and I talk a few times a week on the phone, we see each other occasionally, and though she’s grown more prickly than ever with me, we get along about as well as can be expected. After four years of separation, we aren’t in love anymore—time is a thief of love—but when you’ve cared about somebody for more than half your life, the caring doesn’t end just because a piece of paper says it should. I took the divorce hard for a while—especially the part about not living with my kids—and I took Joe pretty hard, too. But finally I’ve let go and moved on to the rest of my life.
Even so, Joe Bradac and I aren’t pals. We never have been, not in high school and not since, and his moving in with Lila and playing resident daddy to my boys hasn’t done anything to further the friendship. So when I opened my door and saw him in the hallway, his fists shoved into the pockets of that blue jacket of his, the fake fur collar pulled up around his rather prominent ears, you could have knocked me over with a feather.
Joe walks softly when he’s around me; he never knows how I’m going to react to him, and this time his approach was to make a pretty pitiful attempt at a smile, which came out looking like the grimace of a baby with a gas pain. But then Joe’s attempts at just about anything are pitiful. He’s one of those guys who kind of tiptoes through life trying not to wake anybody up. I’ve never understood why Lila is attracted to him. She can be a real buccaneer when she wants to, and there are times when she gives Joe a pretty rough time. Maybe it’s because he lets her.
The end of his nose was red from the cold, and a sprinkle of snowflakes was only half melted on his shoulders. “Whattaya say, Milan?”
“Joe,” I said. That’s about as cordial as I get with Joe. I didn’t offer to shake hands because I had the sports section of the paper in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. And I didn’t want to shake his hand anyway.
“Can I come in for a minute?”
His manner was hesitant, as always. Nevertheless, his visit was so unexpected and so out of character that a cold finger of alarm jabbed me in the back. “Nothing’s wrong, is there, Joe? With Lila or the boys?”
He shook his head. “Everybody’s fine,” he said. “Stephen had a little cough last week but he’s okay now. And Milan Junior’s doing real good in school. He had to write a paper on something for history—the Civil War, I think it was—and he got a B plus.”
Relief flooded over me like a sudden rainstorm, even as it galled me having to hear news of my own children from Joe Bradac, and my attitude softened a little. I stood aside and let him walk past me into my front room, which I use as my office. My desk is in there, and a cracked leather sofa and a couple of not too comfortable chairs I keep for the rare client who comes to see me. I do my real living in a little parlor off the big one, where I have my TV and my easy chair and all my books and magazines. Joe could damn well sit in one of the client’s chairs and keep it impersonal. He had nothing to do with where I lived.
He plopped down where I pointed, a passive man in word and deed. I went behind my desk. I didn’t offer him any coffee; what I was drinking was the last of the pot and I wasn’t about to make more just for him. His body language is as unaggressive and meek as he is, and he sat there like a pile of dirty clothes waiting to be put in the washing machine.
“I hope you don’t mind my just coming over like this,” he said. “I was afraid if I called you wouldn’t see me.”
He had that right. I sat down. “It is kind of a surprise.”
He wiggled his butt in the seat, a princess on a pea. “I wouldn’t’ve if it wasn’t important. I need your advice.”
I leaned back a little too hard in my chair and fought for balance for a second. Emotional balance too. The guy had nerve, give him that. “Have you tried Dear Abby?”
The rest of his face turned as red as his nose. “Not that kind of advice. Jeez, I wouldn’t insult you. . . . ”
“What is it, then, Joe?” Thirty seconds with Joe Bradac was enough to make anyone’s eyes cross with boredom and impatience. I don’t know how Lila puts up with him. Or manages to stay awake.
He took a breath. “You mind if I smoke?”
“Where do you think you are, church?”
He extracted a pack of Luckies from his jacket and lit one, tossing the dead match into my already-full ashtray.
“What’s your trouble?”
“It’s not mine, exactly. It’s a mutual friend.”
“You and I don’t have any mutual friends,” I said.
“Well, old acquaintance, then. You remember Walter Paich? Skinny guy, his father worked the iron mills? He was two years behind us in high school.”
I dug into my memory, but though the name tinkled a distant bell my vision of Walter Paich was vague, and more than twenty years out of date. “What about him?”
“I ran into his sister Danica last night.” He pronounced it the old-world way, Danitza. “I’d gone for a beer with a couple of guys from my bowling league, and she was at a table with some other girls, and I went over to say hello and we got to talking. You probably don’t remember her, she was just a kid. She must be, oh, eight or nine years younger than us, like seven years younger than Walter, so I didn’t know her real well, just to see around, you know.”
“Get to the point, Joe, all right?”
“Sure, Milan,” he said, jerking nervously. I played football in high school and college, nose guard, and probably outweigh Joe by sixty pounds, and since he got together with Lila, whenever he sees me he worries I’m going to tear him apart. I admit the thought has occurred to me more than once, but not recently. I enjoy his discomfort, though. Deep down I truly enjoy it.
“Anyways, we got to talking, you know, about old times and how’s the family, the way you do with somebody you didn’t see in a long time, and I could tell something was bothering her.”
“How could you tell?”
His eyes roamed the room as though there’d be an answer up near the ceiling. “I just could. She was nervous, had kind of a sad look. So I asked if everything was okay.”
“What a caring guy you are, Joe.”
He chose to ignore that one. “Well, the thing of it is, see, she’s real worried about her grandpa.”
“He’s been missing for a week.”
“He just disappeared, and they haven’t seen or heard from him since.”
I lit a cigarette of my own, a Winston. It was my first of the day and tasted terrible, as usual. “There’s a real neat organization called the police department to help people with things like that. You may have heard of them.”
“She called the cops four days ago, but she can’t get them to take her serious,” Joe said.
“The old man’s disappeared before, just taken off on his own for a few days at a crack, and the minute they heard that they put it on the bottom of the pile.”
“I don’t blame them.”
“Danica thinks it’s different this time.”
“I dunno. Gut feeling, I guess.”
He sat there with that earnest, nerdy look of his, and I realized how much I wanted him to go away. “I’m still not sure I know why you’re here, Joe.”
He squirmed some more and blew out a lungful of smoke, which merged with mine to create a fog over my desk. “I told her about you. I mean, she asked me what was new with me and, well, your name came up.” He’d rather have cut off a finger than say that, so he hurried on. “She remembers you real good, because of the football. She asked how you were, and I told about your being an investigator and all. Anyway, she wants to hire you.”
I sighed. “Nice of you to drum up business for me, but mostly I do industrial security—you know that. Missing persons just isn’t my line. But I could recommend someone for her.”
He tapped the ash off the end of his cigarette. “See, the grandfather’s from the old country. All his friends, too. I think the family’d be more comfortable with another Slav.”
“These’re Serbs, right?”
He kind of stuck out his chin, which I took to mean yes.
I shook my head. I’m Slovenian; my people come from a different part of Yugoslavia. The Serbs and the Slovenes haven’t really gotten along for five hundred years, and I have a busted marriage to prove it. They share a language but use different alphabets, and they go to different churches, which sounds on the face of it like New York City, but the reality is something else again. At the moment the two republics are engaged in a mutual economic boycott, including the nonpayment of debts, and their armies are snarling across the border. They don’t have much use for each other, but that’s nothing compared to the enmity between the Serbs and the Croatians, whose factional differences make the petty sniping between our own Southerners and Yankees seem like a neighborhood dispute over mowing the lawn. It’s hard for someone who isn’t a Slav to understand—hell, it’s hard for me to understand. But just because we all share geographic roots doesn’t mean we like each other. Serbia and Croatia and Slovenia were all separate countries not too long ago, and at the end of 1990 Slovenia voted to be independent again. The republic of Serbia didn’t like that too much, and the Slavs who live in Cleveland are every bit as militant, one way or another, as those back in the old country.
Joe, like Lila, is a Serb. He must have somehow divined what I was thinking, or maybe it had occurred to him too, because he gave an apologetic shrug and raised his hands in front of him. I guess for his purposes and those of Danica Paich, a Slovenian was better than nothing.
“What’s your angle in this, Joe?”
He looked confused, par for Joe’s course. “I got no angle, Milan.”
“I mean, you meet this girl in a bar after twenty years and she spills her guts to you. Why are you getting involved?”
“Just trying to help an old friend.”
“You stepping out on Lila with this Danica Paich?”
His face got redder, and he put his hand over his heart; any minute I expected him to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. “Come on, you know me better than that. Hey, Walter was a good guy, I’m just doing his sister a little favor. Him and me were pretty good friends back in the old days.”
Sure. Joe was such a dweeb none of us wanted much to do with him, so he hung out with the younger kids, who were less demanding. Now his life was so dull and uninteresting he was probably jumping at the chance to get in on some excitement, even though it was only secondhand. I checked the appointment calendar tacked on the corkboard behind my desk. It had little cartoon Ninja Turtles all over it, and was hardly what you’d expect in a private investigator’s office, but it was my Christmas gift from my younger son Stephen, and I didn’t much give a damn if it was appropriate or not. Other than my appointment with a prospective client that afternoon and a scheduled Wednesday morning court appearance as a prosecution witness, I didn’t have too much on my docket.
“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to talk with her,” I said.
Joe almost deflated with relief. “Great. Maybe we could all get together for dinner?”
Presume not too much on my good nature, Cassius. No client, no case, and no old friendship was worth having to break bread with Joe Bradac. “Is there any particular reason why you should be there?”
He looked crestfallen. “Gee, Milan, it was my idea in the first place. . . . ”
I began to think my initial suspicions were correct, that Joe was somehow enchanted with this Danica Paich and was using her grandfather’s problems as a way to get close to her. And by producing me, a genuine private detective, he’d look like a hero, or at the very least, a concerned and caring friend.
Of course that might have been my own paranoia working overtime. And there was an old man missing. It would rub at my conscience if I didn’t at least have an initial meeting with the granddaughter. “I think Danica might feel more free to talk with fewer people around,” I added.
He still looked hurt at being excluded; clearly it hadn’t been part of his game plan.
“Whatever you think is right,” he said.
After the first blizzard of winter, the efficient clearance crews in Cleveland salt all the streets and push whatever snow is left up against the curbs or the sides of buildings to allow traffic to function on the roads. The piles just sit there and diminish a bit every day until the next snowfall, getting a little dirtier and sadder-looking until they melt away in March or April.
It was that kind of evening as I drove downtown, the tail end of the bad-weather season, with the city eagerly anticipating the benediction of spring. Joe had called Danica Paich from my office and then handed me the phone, and after some chat we’d decided to meet at six at a restaurant in the lobby of the building where she worked, the British Petroleum Building, most often referred to as “the BP,” on the east side of Public Square.
The restaurant is called Gershwin’s. Replete with tasteful maroon awnings outside, within there are three levels, and on one of the upper ones a piano player performs songs by the place’s namesake and such other composers as Kern, Porter, Rodgers, and Harold Arlen, giving the lie to Cleveland’s false and unfortunate blue-collar image as a town where bowling is about as cultural as it gets. No one ever talks about our world‑class symphony orchestra, the jazz clubs, the terrific restaurants serving food of every stripe and ethnicity, the museums and galleries, the superb library system, the great repertory theaters, and the free concerts. Its richly varied cultural life is the little secret Cleveland keeps from the rest of the world.
I arrived a bit early, as I’d had a meeting with an old client to review his small manufacturing plant’s security system. His office was in Richmond Heights, and by the time I got out of there most of the traffic was heading out of downtown and I had a clear shot all the way down Euclid to Public Square. I parked in a garage a block away, walked through the down-slanting mist that you can’t really call rain but gets you pretty wet anyway, and had a beer at the bar while I waited. Through the interior window the lush greenery of the building’s atrium lobby cheered things up a lot, rather like a tropical jungle in the middle of Cleveland.
Gershwin’s affords an unusually good people-watching opportunity. This was an upwardly mobile crowd; the only blue collars in evidence were buttoned down over bright-hued paisley ties. They used to call this little hunk of time at the end of the workday the cocktail hour, but with increased sensibilities about the perils of drinking and driving it came to be known in more recent times as happy hour. The trend makers, feeling that that was still too frivolous, have rechristened the after-work ritual “attitude adjustment.” In the old neighborhood, when someone’s attitude needed adjusting you took him down to the cellar and bounced him off the wall a few times. Now you buy him an overpriced mineral water and fix him a plate of hot hors d’oeuvres.
I observed the middle-management mating dance for a while. Everyone was talking louder than necessary in an almost desperate effort to be noticed in the look-alike crowd. The women all contrived to dress the fine line between professionally correct and sensually alluring, what I call the mixed-message wardrobe, very starchy and businesslike but with tight-fitting skirts and lots of sleek, nyloned leg showing. Some of the younger men, rainmakers-in-training, had removed their suit jackets to display patterned designer suspenders, and I watched one guy with wide pink-and-gray jobbies bust a move on a brittle blonde at the end of the bar. My father used to wear suspenders—utilitarian black ones, and he wore them to keep his pants up, unlike these successful young guys on the rise who use them to flaunt their own individuality in defiance of corporate uniformity, reminding me somehow of conservative businessmen who furtively wear ladies’ panties beneath their gray flannel suits.
I had on a tweed jacket, a plaid shirt, and a blue knit tie, and nobody paid much attention to me because my clothes said I was neither an attorney, a stockbroker, nor the head of a department. I do share one thing with such corporate types, though: I admit feeling silly about it, but I have a beeper.
I always thought—I still think, to tell the truth—that unless you’re a heart surgeon, wearing a beeper on your belt is presumptuous and pompous, a sign of the deluded self-importance that afflicts many people these days. They all labor under the firm conviction that if they aren’t able to make instant contact with everyone they’ve ever met, the earth will fly off its axis and go careening out into space, signaling the end of civilization as we know it. But in my business, it’s easier to carry a little device on my belt than to jump up and check my answering machine twice an hour. I still haven’t gotten over feeling like a horse’s ass when the beeper goes off in public, though, and every eye in the place is suddenly on me.
After a while I sensed someone at my elbow and turned to look down at a petite young woman with dark brown hair in a soft cut that framed her face, bright blue eyes, very red lipstick, and the broad planes of her Slavic ancestry flattening her prominent cheekbones. “Hello, Milan,” she said.
I got off my stool as clumsily as a trained bear. I towered over her by more than a foot. “Danica?”
She nodded, smiling. “I’d recognize you anywhere. From high school. You haven’t changed.”
I sucked in my gut and ran a hand through my rapidly thinning hair. “Not much,” I said. I peered at her, trying to recall that face at ten years old, but the memory wouldn’t kick in, even though she looked a good five years younger than she was. She had obviously improved with age—if she’d looked anything like that I would have remembered her. She wasn’t flashy or even beautiful, but she was pretty in a way that would just get better the older she got.
“That’s okay,” she said, reading my thoughts. “I didn’t expect you to remember me. I was just a little kid.” She unbuttoned her gray wool coat and I helped her shrug it from her shoulders. The skirt of her dark blue suit was slit up the side to mid-thigh, and a beautiful white cameo adorned the neck of her ivory-colored blouse.
“How’ve you been, Milan? God, it must be twenty years since I’ve seen you.”
“At least,” I agreed. “I’m fine.”
“Joe says you have your own business now. That’s wonderful.” She flashed an uncertain smile. “And you married Lila Coso.”
“Wooed, won, and lost,” I said. “Now she’s Joe’s lady. I suppose he told you that too.”
She had the class to pass that one over. “Whatever made you become a detective? Was that a longtime dream of yours?”
“Hardly. I got a B.A. in business administration at Kent State and took my master’s in psychology. The agency kind of happened. But I don’t consider myself a detective. I’m an industrial security specialist, and that makes up ninety percent of my business. Every once in a while I get involved in something else, though, like for a friend.”
Her face lit up from within, and she blushed. Danica Paich was a woman whose moods were reflected on her face like sunlight hitting the ripples on the face of Lake Erie, ever constant, yet changing all the time. “I’m glad you think of me as a friend after all these years,” she said. “I appreciate your coming. This must be pretty small potatoes for you.”
“Not at all. And speaking of potatoes, should we get a table?”
“Someplace where we can talk,” she agreed.
The hostess led us to a quiet booth in a room away from the bar, although we could still hear and enjoy the music. I’m an oddball among my friends: I like Gershwin and Irving Berlin while most of them are into either seventies rock or tambouritza orchestras. Danica declined a drink, so I didn’t have one either. After all, she was the client and was paying for all this.
“You were telling me your life story.”
I smiled. “I hope I wasn’t being that pompous. Let’s see; after college I wound up in Vietnam. With the MPs. Going into the army wasn’t the thing to do back then, especially for a guy from Kent, but I felt pretty strongly about it at the time.” I smiled. “Funny how things change.”
“And then you came back and decided to go into industrial security?”
“No, I became a cop. Remember Marko Meglich?”
She crinkled up her eyes for a moment. “Wasn’t he on the football team too?”
I nodded. “Wide receiver. He’d always been my best friend, and he decided he wanted to be a cop and talked me into it too. But after four years or so the politics and the bureaucracy got to me, so I quit and opened my own store. Marko’s still on the force—only he calls himself Mark now, and he’s a lieutenant.”
The waiter arrived and we ordered dinner. She chose some sort of fish with dill sauce and I went for a steak, medium. I have the palate of a peasant. I can’t help it, that’s how I am.
“How about you?” I said. “Fill me in.”
“I was a business major too, at Cleveland State. I put myself through by waitressing. I really got interested in computers in school, so I concentrated on that, and I guess it paid off, because now I run a department.” She nodded at the ceiling. “Right upstairs, here. I’ve been there almost seven years. Most people around the office call me Diana, in case you have to phone and ask for me.”
I frowned. It was typical of big corporate thinking. They tend to Anglicize anything they can’t turn into an acronym. “I think I like Danica better.”
“I do too,” she said.
“I’ll call you Danica, then.” I paused. There was no ring on her left hand—single guys tend to notice those things—but I figured I’d ask anyway. “Married?”
She shook her head. “Too busy carving out a career. My biological clock isn’t ticking too loudly yet, so for the time being it’s okay.”
“And your brother Walter? How’s he?”
Something happened to her pretty face that turned down the corners of her eyes. “He works for Deming Steel, on the floor somewhere. Third generation of our family. I don’t see him much.”
It was more than pleasant sitting there with an attractive woman, listening to music and enjoying a good meal. I hadn’t done that in quite a while, and I had to remind myself that this dinner wasn’t really social. After our salad plates were cleared I asked about her grandfather.
She dabbed at her mouth with a napkin, but it was due more to nervousness than necessity. “I’m very worried about him. He just took off one afternoon and never came back.”
“Monday. A week ago today.”
I didn’t say anything, just nodded. She’d tell me what she had to in her own good time. Keeping one’s mouth shut often yields greater results than asking a million questions.
“He’s too old to be running around somewhere all by himself.”
“How old is he?”
“Seventy-six. He’s done this before, for a day or two, but he’s always called my mother to let her know he was all right.”
“What do you mean, he’s done it before?”
“He has a Ford van, an old one he’s had since when my grandmother was alive. He’ll just take off in it without telling anybody and drive to Cincinnati or Pittsburgh or Toledo, or someplace nobody’s ever heard of, some little town. He wanders around, talks to people, finds the Serbian social club if there is one or a Serbian bar if there isn’t, and then comes back when he’s good and ready.”
“But he always calls?”
She nodded, her eyebrows knitting. “At first it made us crazy, but now we’re used to it, so for the first few days we didn’t think much about it. But more than a week without a word—that’s never happened. I’m worried sick.”
“When he left the house last Monday did he say anything?”
“I wasn’t there, but my mother said he just waved and walked out the door like he always does.” Her smile was rueful. “Grandpa never does say much.”
I understood. My grandfather never said much either. He’d just glare at you if you sat in his favorite chair and make a quick, chopping motion with his hand to get you out of it. After dinner he’d usually wipe his mouth, grunt “Good,” and go in and watch TV. He was a face pincher, though; he’d grab a handful of tender grandchild cheek and squeeze until the tears came, and even though it hurt I never complained, because I knew it was his way of showing love.
“And he didn’t take anything with him?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “A suitcase, a gym bag, a paper sack.”
“No, there was nothing unusual, Mama said. He just left like he does every day. Except he didn’t come back.”
I held my next question until our dinners were in front of us and the waiter had retreated. “Do you know if your grandpa was upset about anything? Was something bothering him?”
“He doesn’t have much to be upset about, ever. He’s been retired for ten years or so; all he does is hang out with his pals.”
“Where does he hang out?”
“A little bar on St. Clair. Janko’s, I think it’s called. He goes there almost every day.”
I knew the place, a Serbian bar a few blocks to the west of where I was born. I cut into my steak.
Her eyes opened wide, and I noticed there were darker rings around the blue. “Find him,” she said.