From The Cleveland Local (a Milan Jacovich Mystery) by Les Roberts
It was a black-and-white-movie morning when I opened my office, looked out the window down the Cuyahoga River, and saw the angry thunderheads hunkered over Lake Erie. It was one of those mornings we get in Cleveland at the end of April. We’ve been looking at gray skies and fastening our coats and jackets up to the top button for almost eight months, and the longing for a spot of sunshine and warmth to burn through the pewter-colored overcast becomes as urgent and palpable as the throbbing of an infected hangnail.
It doesn’t matter that we’ve already sprung forward into daylight saving time, because the Tribe is playing night baseball at Jacobs Field, the hoods of their undershirts pulled up over their heads, making them look like ski racers. Dillard’s is trumpeting their big spring sale, and it’s been much more than six weeks since Punxsutawney Phil, neighboring Pennsylvania’s groundhog, saw his shadow at the beginning of February. We still have little to look forward to; we know that within a few days of its turning balmy and sixtyish the temperature will soar up toward the eighties and nineties and every car window will be closed tight to keep the cooled air from escaping—and we’ll have once more missed spring.
I spooned three scoops of Maxwell House into the filter basket of my Braun, opened the sports page of the Plain Dealer, and waited for my nine o’clock client to arrive.
There are many reasons clients come to a private investigator, and almost none of them are happy ones. Some people have lost something or someone and want it found, some want their suspicions allayed or confirmed, some are seeking redress or protection or succor. In any case, the decision to seek out members of my profession stems from some sort of disquiet that has reached a point of crisis.
As a result, clients tend to walk into my office with any one of a number of attitudes. Some are almost pathetic, some nervous, some defensive to the point of being obnoxious, some angry, and many just plain frightened.
Patrice Kerner came to me at promptly nine o’clock on a Tuesday, nodding a rather formal good-morning. She sat down opposite me in one of my leather client chairs, crossed her legs, cleared her throat self-consciously, and started to cry. Hard.
The tears didn’t creep up on her gradually; there was no preliminary quivering of her chin or reddening of her nose or filling up of her eyes. They came like a sudden gully washer on a sunny day, spilling down her cheeks and taking her mascara with them. She’d seemed so cool and self-possessed when she’d called for an appointment, and even more so when she came in that morning, the kind of person one might imagine only wept at funerals.
Somewhere in her early forties, she was short and compactly built, with dark curls. An attractive woman, looking all business in a fawn-colored wool power suit just right for the kind of chilly Cleveland spring day when rain, snow, sunshine, or even a tornado are all reasonable possibilities. She’d walked in with a slim ostrich-leather folder tucked under one arm like a bird colonel’s swagger stick, and the long strap of a Gucci purse slung over the other shoulder. She divested herself of both, shrugged her coat off into my hands as if I were a servant, graciously allowing me to hang it in the closet, and sat down, and then the waterworks surprised us both, messing up her careful makeup.
I keep a box of tissues at the ready for just such emergencies. I pushed it across the desk at her. She went through seven before she was done, blotting and blowing and dabbing. I’d known her for exactly two minutes, not long enough for a kindly series of murmured there-theres, so I simply waited, looking out my office window across Collision Bend, that particularly treacherous hairpin curve of the Cuyahoga River, at Tower City beyond. Finally she got herself together enough to tell me what she was there for.
“My brother has been killed,” she said at last, in a voice surprisingly flat and well modulated, issuing as it did from a tear-streaked, reddened, puffy face. She might have been giving the sports scores.
“I’m very sorry, Ms. Kerner.”
“Perhaps you read about it in the newspapers.”
“No, I’m afraid I didn’t.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, but the disapproving thrust of her jaw indicated it did. “What matters is that there’s someone out there who’s gotten away with murder.”
It’s an ugly word to just toss out on the table like that. I shifted uneasily in my big executive chair, not exactly relishing the idea of hearing the rest of the story. When an unexplained fatality occurs, family members often let their grief overtake their common sense.
“Are you so sure it was murder?” I said.
Her mouth twisted into a sneer; she was in full control once more. “What would you call a shotgun blast to the face, Mr. Jacovich?” She even said my last name correctly, with the J sounding like a Y—Yock-o-vitch. I wondered how she’d do with my first name. I pronounce it the Americanized way, My-lan, although most people trying it for the first time fancy it up as Mi-lahn, like the Italian city, or Mee-lan. That’s what happens when you have an ethnic name. Nobody ever mispronounces Fred Wilson.
“This is kind of a touchy area, Ms. Kerner,” I said. “Private investigators like myself aren’t allowed to investigate ongoing capital cases. There’s a law against it. The police don’t like it, and it could cost me my license.”
“The police are the ones who recommended you,” she said. “A Lieutenant Meglich, I believe.”
That would be my oldest friend in the world, Marko Meglich— who prefers being called Mark these days—the number-two man in the Cleveland P.D.’s homicide division. Our friendship began when we bloodied each other’s noses in the schoolyard in fourth grade; neither one of us remembers why. But most of our adult arguments have been about my butting into his cases when they happen to dovetail with mine. It was hard to believe that he’d given this woman my name to investigate her brother’s murder.
“Why would Lieutenant Meglich recommend me to work on a murder case when he knows that by law I’m prohibited from becoming involved with it?”
“My brother wasn’t killed in Cleveland,” she said. “It happened when he was on vacation. In San Carlos.”
It took a few moments to pinpoint San Carlos in my mind, but I managed to remember that it was a small island country in the Caribbean that wasn’t famous for much of anything except secret numbered bank accounts, jerk chicken, steel drum music, and a couple of overpriced luxury resort hotels that feature white sand beaches, shockingly clear water, and killer rum drinks.
“When was this?”
“About ten weeks ago.”
I didn’t like that; trails grow cold. After ten weeks, one can be completely obliterated. “What do the San Carlos police say?”
Patrice Kerner’s spine straightened slowly, one vertebra at a time, and her face composed itself into a hard mask. “They’re no damn help at all.”
In her anger, she seemed to gain even more frighteningly icy control. She leaned forward aggressively in her chair, the only remnant of her recent crying jag a slightly reddened nose. “They don’t have the manpower or the expertise to handle anything as sophisticated as murder. Or enough interest, for that matter, when a gringo dies.” Her mouth puckered, as if the words even tasted bitter. “They’re calling it ‘death by misadventure at the hands of a person or persons unknown.’ Frankly I think that’s a load of bullshit.”
I took a sip of my coffee. My older son, Milan Junior, had bought his caffeine-addicted father an electric mug-warmer for Christmas, so the coffee was still nice and hot. “I’m not sure what you want me to do for you, Ms. Kerner.”
She uncrossed her legs and then recrossed them the other way. “I should think that’s obvious. I want you to find out who’s responsible for my brother’s death. And I want them to pay for it.”
It sounded easy the way she said it, but I knew damn well it wouldn’t be. These things never are. “Let’s be clear, Ms. Kerner,” I told her. “I don’t take money for hurting people, and I’m not going to get you information so that you can. I understand your need for revenge, but whatever you do with what I find out, you’ll have to stay within the law.”
She looked offended again. She had a wider range of unpleasant facial expressions than Laurence Olivier came up with when playing Nazis late in his career. “Do I strike you as the vigilante type?”
“How are vigilantes supposed to look?”
She stared at me, or rather through me, with eyes like those of a basking crocodile. “I just want to know,” she said.
“Then I’m going to need a little more to go on.”
She unzipped the ostrich-leather case, pulled out a stack of documents an inch thick, and dropped it on my desk. I was embarrassed at the little cloud of dust and minuscule particles of cigarette ash that arose from the surface. Housekeeping is not one of my strong suits.
“I’ve put together a dossier of everything I think you’ll need,” she said. “My brother’s name was Joel Kerner. Junior.” She tapped the stack. “I’ve got his photograph here, and where he worked, his bank accounts, credit card numbers, a list of his friends, and . . . ”
She faltered, grabbing for a fresh tissue and dabbing at her nose with it. The used ones were in a wad the size of a softball on the desk in front of her.
“There are copies of two newspaper stories about his death in there too,” she continued, her voice a little shakier now. She added the most recent tissue to the collection. “One from the Plain Dealer and the other from a San Carlos paper. You won’t get very much out of those, I’m afraid.”
“I won’t get much out of any of it unless you and I talk some more,” I said. “That’ll be more help than any of this.” I pointed to the documents.
The flock of gulls circling outside the window must have been a lot more fascinating than I was. She followed their progress closely as they swooped and darted and wheeled over the river. “I have a limited amount of time this morning,” she said, apparently addressing the gulls. “I have to be at work.”
“Would you like to come back when your time isn’t so limited?”
She took her eyes from the gulls and zipped up the leather case again, the first in a series of those brusque, businesslike movements people make when they’re getting ready to leave. “I have clients of my own, Mr. Jacovich. I’m an attorney.”
I nodded. Somehow I’d known that.
“It runs in the family. My father, my brother. Joel was a partner in Kalisher, Kerner and Keynes. It was kind of a family joke. We used to say Joel was a big shot in the KKK.” She tried for a smile, but it wasn’t a very good try. Her expression disintegrated into a grimace; her face flushed and there was a white line around her lips, but she didn’t cry anymore. She was in control now and wasn’t about to relinquish it.
I shuffled through the papers she’d given me. The photograph of Joel Kerner was a rather formal black-and-white portrait, the kind a partner in a law firm would have had taken to put in the brochure or the financial report—pinstriped suit, muted tie, a snowy white shirtfront and a fifty-dollar haircut. He’d been handsome in a kind of weak-chinned way, younger, darker and more Semitic-looking than his sister, with distinguished sprinkles of gray at his temples and sideburns. I noted the photographer was one of Cleveland’s best-known and highest-priced portraitists.
Further down in the pile I found photocopies of two newspaper articles, both illustrated with the same formal picture. I read the piece from the local paper; the one from San Carlos was in Spanish.
Joel Kerner Jr. of Cleveland had been shotgunned in the face while jogging on the beach behind the San Carlos Inn some ten weeks earlier. The body had been dragged off the sand and into a small oasis of scrub pine and bushes. His running shoes, which the story identified as Nikes, had been taken, as well as his wallet and a Movado wristwatch. A couple of kids playing on the beach had found him just after nine o’clock in the morning. The local coroner had estimated he’d been dead about three hours.
Putting the article down on top of the pile, I looked up at my prospective client. She was perched on the edge of her chair, the ostrich-leather case in her lap and her purse strap on her shoulder, as if waiting for the starter’s pistol.
“Your brother died ten weeks ago,” I said. “Why did you wait this long? The more time elapses, the harder it is to solve cases like this.”
She didn’t flinch; indeed, she was almost defiant. Patrice Kerner didn’t like being put on the defensive. “We couldn’t even think about it. Our first reaction was grief. We were in shock, of course.”
“The family. My parents and myself. It took us a while to realize we weren’t going to get any satisfaction from the San Carlos authorities. My father naturally contacted the police here, but they told us it was out of their jurisdiction and they couldn’t do anything about it. That’s when Lieutenant Meglich suggested I see you.” Her jaw set stubbornly. “We need some sort of closure.”
“We could be looking at a simple robbery.”
“For a watch and a pair of shoes?”
“People have been killed on the streets of Cleveland for a lot less.”
She shook her head. “I don’t buy that.”
“Why not? San Carlos is a poverty-stricken country. What that watch is worth, a poor man in San Carlos could live on for six months.”
Her lips clamped shut and her shoulders went rigid with impatience. She shook her head resolutely, making her dark curls dance; she was having none of it.
I sighed. “All right, then. Did your brother have any enemies?”
Her mouth turned down at the corners, making her face look like a classic mask of tragedy. “He was a lawyer. Lawyers make enemies. Of course he had enemies.”
“I don’t know,” she said, evidently unimpressed with my achingly correct grammar. “We weren’t that close. He didn’t talk to me about his practice. You’ll have to ask his associates.”
“And they are . . . ?”
She gestured at the stack of papers under my hand. “It’s all in there.” Then she pointed a finger at me and sighted down the length of it. “Look, I need to know right now if you’ll help me or not. If you won’t, please tell me so I can make other arrangements. You come highly recommended, but I can’t force you to do what you don’t want to.”
“I’ll help you,” I said. “And I understand you have somewhere to be this morning. But I really need to talk to you some more.”
Fishing a discreet gray business card out of her purse, she dropped it on the stack. I saw that she was with one of the high-profile law firms in Terminal Tower. “Call my secretary for an appointment,” she said, as though I were the one asking for help.
“This may run into some money,” I warned her. “I may have to go to San Carlos. Don’t you want to know my rates?”
Her hand fluttered at me, like a bird flushed from cover and flying away. Or like her money taking wing. “It’s not important,” she said. “Results are important. Is there something for me to sign, or what?”
I got out one of my standard contract forms and passed it across the desk to her. She put on a pair of glasses shaped like cat’s eyes with rhinestones at the corners of the aqua frames, and unlike most of my clients, read the document very carefully before giving me a curt nod and signing it with a gold Cross pen that she took from her purse. Then she wrote me out a retainer check and was gone, the ghost of her White Diamonds perfume lingering in the air. I rather liked it; it masked the stale smell of cigarette smoke.
Outside the sky was growing darker; we were apparently in for some rain. The winter had been a long one, with near record-breaking snowfall, and although a heavy rainstorm tends to dampen the spirits, at least it wasn’t a blizzard.
I poured myself some fresh coffee and sat down to more carefully go through the papers she’d left. Her parents, and Joel’s, were listed as Mr. and Mrs. Joel Kerner Sr., with an address on South Park in Shaker Heights. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain a warning light flashed; nobody who lives on South Park shops at Kmart, and I remembered her saying that it had been her father who had contacted the Cleveland police. We were evidently dealing with Leading Citizens here.
I sighed. Leading Citizens make me tired.
I pulled an empty file folder from the drawer, wrote Patrice Kerner’s name on the tab, and wrapped it around the stack of documents.
Swiveling around in my chair, I faced my computer. I’d had it for almost a year, but it was not yet user friendly, at least not to me. I’d reluctantly joined the computer age at the same time I’d bought the building where I now have my office, aided by a modest inheritance from my late Auntie Branka, my tetka, but just as I was unused to being a landlord and having a big, efficient, well-equipped office in which to work, I wasn’t yet comfortable with the technology. I didn’t have an e-mail address, I was barely able to send a fax, and surfing the net still sounded to me like something the Beach Boys might have sung about in the sixties.
The screen saver was on, displaying flying stars. I created an electronic file for Patrice Kerner and input the essential data contained in her sheaf of papers.
Input the data. A plastic pocket protector would be next.
Joel Kerner Jr. had lived in an expensive apartment he owned in the east tower of Moreland Courts near Shaker Square. His law offices were in the Leader Building, one of Cleveland’s older and more architecturally interesting downtown office structures, once the home of a now defunct daily newspaper. His law partners were listed as Daniel Kalisher and Robert Keynes; they were not among the scores of attorneys whose paths I had crossed in the course of my own business.
Patrice had included a laundry list of her brother’s friends and acquaintances, along with two of his former girlfriends, Lois Scaravelli and Patt Wolfe—that’s Patt with two ts. There was also a page of organizations to which Joel had belonged, some of them with their roots in the legal community, and some prestigious social clubs like the Cleveland Skating Club, the Rowfant Club, and the University Club. He’d served on the boards of a local library Friends group, a film society, and a ballet company, as well as that of a shelter for homeless women and children. Joel hadn’t lived long enough to attain the rarefied social heights scaled by the older and more powerful players in town, like membership in the Union Club, but he had definitely been a young man on the way up.
I scrolled through what I had typed, then leaned back in my chair to finish my coffee. There was a lot to do here, much spoor to follow on a trail already grown cold, but at the moment all of it was just words on paper to me. I wanted to talk to Patrice Kerner sometime when her concentration wasn’t elsewhere and she didn’t keep looking at her watch—and I wondered what the real reason for the ten-week delay was, why it had taken so long before she got interested, and why her very real tears had been followed by such impatience.
My first priority, though, was to find out about Joel Kerner Jr.’s last vacation.
The rain finally hit, big, hard drops beating on the old roof of my building. Snakes of water ran down the windowpanes, and the wind squalled loudly and blew sand and gravel around in the parking lot. The surface of the river was choppy. A good day to stay inside and think about your options.
I called Lieutenant Mark Meglich and invited him to lunch.