The wonderful thing about art, I suppose, is that it doesn’t really have to do anything. Like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis or the Mona Lisa or Rodin’s The Kiss—all that is asked of it is that it be beautiful.
It doesn’t work that way with people.
Which was too bad for April Delavan, because she was beautiful, all right. Eighteen years old or so, with none of the Drew Barrymore seen-too-much-too-soon look that many of today’s young people affect. Blonde curly hair framed a porcelain-smooth face that needed no makeup and that was punctuated by a delightful dimple just to the left of her mouth. Her eyes were remarkably large, the irises cornflower blue surrounded by dark rims; they gave her an ingenuous look of perpetual astonishment. Her aquiline nose had never felt the knife of a cosmetic surgeon but was actually genetic, and she possessed a pink rosebud mouth that couldn’t seem to make up its mind whether to be heartbreakingly innocent or heart-stoppingly sensuous.
But in today’s demanding world more is required of even the most beautiful people than just showing up, and as she sat across the desk from me in my office, I looked into those incredible blue eyes and ascertained sadly that no one was home.
I didn’t think she was on any drugs. But April Delavan had that vague, bemused sort of look people get when subjected to a classroom lecture on the political and social currents of sixteenth-century Austria, and I finally realized she simply wasn’t paying much attention.
She told me she had found my name in the Cleveland Area Consumer Yellow Pages under Detective Agencies. I’m not the first listing—I call my business Milan Security after my first name, which I pronounce the Americanized way, My-lan, rather than the way they’d say it in my parents’ native Slovenia, Mee-lan, or the city in Italy, Mi-lahn. My last name, Jacovich, is simply too tough for most people to pronounce: the J sounds like a Y and the accent is on the first syllable. I could have simplified everything and called myself Ace Security, or Acme or Zenith, but I thought using my first name was a comfortable compromise.
I suppose April Delavan chose me instead of one of a dozen other detective agencies listed in the directory because of my proximity to where she lived. My office, the front room of my apartment at the top of Cedar Hill, where Cedar Road and Fairmount Boulevard triangulate, is only about a two-minute drive from Coventry, the colorful section of Cleveland Heights where she apparently spent much of her time and from where she had made the call. I heard loud rock music blasting in the background when she’d called, and for all I knew she could have been using the pay phone at the noisy, cheerful little saloon called Pepper Ridge, except I didn’t think they were open quite that early in the morning.
The only question she’d asked me on the phone was “Do you find people that are missing?” When I admitted that I did, she asked for an immediate appointment. She sounded young on the phone, younger than she was, and being a sucker for kids in trouble, I told her to come right over.
I wasn’t quite prepared for April Delavan, though. She wore an olive drab army-surplus fatigue jacket, a swirling print peasant skirt, and a tank top that was really just a sleeveless undershirt worn over not much, or for the seventeen small dangling pewter earrings she wore in her left ear, three in the lobe and fourteen along the top of the ear hanging from holes punched in the cartilage. Her hands—small and delicate with long, tapered fingers—were work-roughened, and the unpolished, not-quite-clean fingernails were bitten down almost to the quick. Her feet were encased in gray sweat socks and brown loafers. Nothing matched.
There had been a brief period in the spring of 1993 when the style mavens tried to foist the “grunge” look on American women, but I didn’t assume April’s getup was on the cutting edge of fashion—I think she just dressed that way because she was too lazy to do otherwise.
But then, when someone is that beautiful, they can wrap themselves in the help-wanted section of the Plain Dealer and people are still going to stumble all over themselves just trying to catch a glimpse of them. April Delavan possessed the kind of beauty that could alter world history.
And it was the month of April, the day after All Fools’ Day—fitting, somehow. We had suffered through one of our longer winters, and March had been gray and rainy. But toward the end of the month the weather turned clement; the sun had come out of its long winter hibernation to bless us with its benevolent and warming rays, and Clevelanders were squinting like moles breaking the surface and seeing sunlight for the first time since early October. Cleveland is nicknamed “the Forest City,” which not many people know, and as if living up to the sobriquet, all her trees were starting to awaken and bud, giving at least the illusion that rebirth was right around the corner.
April Delavan called me just after nine o’clock on a Tuesday morning and showed up a few minutes before ten. I’d made a fresh pot of coffee, and when she arrived I poured us each a large mug and settled in behind my desk to watch her dump four packets of sugar into hers. Morning sunshine streamed through the window, turning dust motes into dancing fairy trails and picking up all the golden highlights in April’s hair. I hoped it wasn’t picking up all the bare spots in mine; I share the curse of many Slovenian men and fight a never-ending battle with thinning hair, although my problem stabilized about the time I turned forty and is now in a holding pattern. I never bother trying to comb my hair artfully over my scalp, since that never fools anybody, but looking at April I was suddenly aware of the march of time and the equally relentless retreat of my hairline.
I wasn’t proud that the presence of an impossibly beautiful eighteen-year-old in my office was making me self-conscious about my thinning hair, but there it was. I’m normally not a vain person, but I’m sure that April made lots of men think and behave in peculiar ways.
“Before we start,” I said, “You should know that I get fifty dollars an hour or three hundred per day, plus expenses.”
She held her mug in both hands while she slurped her coffee like a little kid drinking milk, compounding the effect by smacking and licking her lips after each gulp. “I’ve got money,” she said. “Don’t worry about that.”
There was a flat, almost dead quality to her voice, as though she were parroting words in a foreign language, words she had learned phonetically but whose meaning she didn’t know. I peered closely at her eyes again to make sure she wasn’t on something, because I have a strict policy against getting involved with druggies, even beautiful ones with seventeen earrings.
I uncapped a felt pen and pulled a yellow pad toward me, writing April Delavan’s name on the top line. “Okay. Tell me how I can help you.”
“I haven’t seen my boyfriend for two weeks,” she said, looking around the room, out the window, at the ceiling, almost everywhere except at me. “He just dropped out of sight, and I’m getting worried about him.”
“Who’s your boyfriend?”
“His name’s Jeff Feldman.”
“Where does he live?”
She gave me an address on Euclid Heights Boulevard, west of Coventry, a stretch of street in Cleveland Heights lined with old stone apartment buildings, atmospheric and moody as hell. The kind of buildings that have names like the Saxony Arms etched in stone over their entryways.
“You live there too?”
“Sometimes,” she said, her eyes focused on a galaxy far away. “When’s the last time you saw him?”
She had to think about it. “Two weeks ago Friday.”
I wrote down 2 1/2 wks and then underlined it twice and put three question marks after it. Had it been my lover, I wouldn’t have waited two weeks and four days to get worried, but then that’s just me. “Where was this, April?”
Impatiently I tapped the point of the pen on the pad, leaving a Seurat-like pattern of dots—An Afternoon on the Grande Jatte in Cleveland Heights. The young woman and I were obviously operating in different time zones. “Where you last saw him.”
“At Arabica,” she said. “We were having a coffee and then he left, and that was it.”
There are several Arabica coffeehouses in town, serving fancy coffee brews and health-conscious pastries. The one in Coventry, which I assumed she meant, caters to a mix of elderly bearded intellectuals, baby boomers from the surrounding neighborhood, young professionals in stylish jogging outfits, and the postteen counterculture who favor Mohawk hairdos, blue hair dye, and jewelry in their noses. The Coventry Arabica is known as Ara-freak-a, whereas the one in more fashionable and upscale Shaker Square that draws the wealthy young married crowd, the rich kids from Shaker Heights High, and the hip blacks from nearby Buckeye Road is locally nicknamed Arachic-a.
April Delavan seemed to me to have a claim on both of them. She dressed and acted the part of the Coventry street rat, but there was something aristocratic about her, a nobility of bearing that hinted of a background closer to that of the Shaker Square crowd. There was nothing of the streets in the way she formed her words, and a lot of the Hawken School. She took a crumpled pack of generic cigarettes from the pocket of her field jacket and lit one, not inhaling but blowing the smoke out of the side of her mouth in a fierce jet, once again looking like a little girl trying to act grown-up.
“Something must’ve happened to him,” April said. “Otherwise he would have called.”
“Why would something have happened to him?”
“Because he’s just the kind of asshole that gets people mad enough at him to do something about it.” The vulgarity was simply offered, like something on a tray of canapés, and was even more unsettling emanating from that angel’s face.
“Has he been to his job? What does he do?”
She waved a vague hand in the air. “He’s got a loft in the East Thirties just off Superior. He’s a potter.”
I hesitated, felt pen hovering.
“A ceramic artist,” she explained. “He makes clay pots and sculptures. And I’m trying to be a painter—so that kind of explains how we first got together.”
I put down the pen. “April,” I said as gently as I could, “are you sure he just didn’t take off? Kids do that sometimes.”
She laughed, although the twist of her mouth made it more sardonic than amused, and the silvery earrings tinkled like Chinese wind chimes. “He’s not a kid. He’s forty-two. I think. Or -three.”
Older than I am. Not by much, but older, and running around with a toddler who had not yet stopped biting her nails.
“Still,” I said, trying to suppress my judgmental side, “artists get moody sometimes. You mean he walked out of Arabica that Friday and hasn’t called you since?”
Maybe he’d grown tired of playing in the sandbox with children, or maybe his feelings for April were more shallow than hers for him. I wanted to make some sense out of it before I had her sign a contract, took her money, and committed myself.
“I mean he hasn’t called, hasn’t even been around.” She sounded irritated, offended. “Not at all. Not to the apartment, not to his studio, not to any of his friends’. Nobody’s seen or heard from him. He just vanished.” She took another puff on the cigarette and blew smoke in my direction. “Don’t patronize me, okay? I’m a kid, but I’m not stupid.”
“Sorry.” I waved the poisonous fumes away. I smoke myself, so I don’t feel I can tell others they can’t—we Americans spend too much time minding other people’s business anyway. But I can think of more felicitous hobbies than having to eat the exhaust from April Delavan’s plain-wrap cigarettes. It smelled like someone smoking kohlrabi in the stall of a Greyhound terminal men’s room.
“I don’t have much to go on, April,” I said. “Can you give me the names of some people to contact? People who know him, who might have seen him.”
“He shares a loft and a kiln with two other potters—they haven’t seen him either,” she said smugly. “I checked.”
“What about his family?”
She shrugged. “I think his parents live in New York.”
“New York City?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Look, we never got into long discussions about families and stuff. We didn’t talk very much at all, tell you the truth. We just . . . hung out.”
“But you live with him?”
“Some of the time.” She gulped down the rest of her coffee, again holding the mug with both hands, the cigarette between her second and third fingers almost singeing her hair when she lifted the mug to her face. Cohabiting with someone she knew virtually nothing about didn’t seem to disturb her.
“And what about the rest of the time?” I said.
She looked directly at me, those bluer-than-blue eyes as steady as a laser beam. “I live with my parents. In Gates Mills.” She waited for me to process the information and then she blinked, like a huge frog waiting for a fly to get within tongue-flicking range.
Gates Mills in the Chagrin River Valley is one of the prettiest towns in Ohio—or anywhere else, for that matter. The houses are painted white and set on rolling, heavily wooded parcels of land that are, by law, a minimum of three acres. The river cuts through the middle of it, and up on the hill on the other side of Mayfield Road is a fairly new tract of homes selling for upwards of two hundred thousand bucks each that the old-liners in the valley witheringly refer to as “the Projects.” Zoned for horses, Gates Mills is one of the places the polo-and-fox-hunting set hang their hats. Pretty high-rent district for a kid from Coventry.
“I’d like to come by the apartment later this morning, April,” I said.
“To look around. You never know what you’re going to find.” She didn’t seem interested one way or the other. “Whatever,” she said, making it two words.
“Do you have a photograph of Jeff?”
She screwed up her mouth as though the very idea was preposterous. Pictures in the wallet were definitely for the picket-fence-and-pressure-cooker crowd. I don’t have any in mine either, if you don’t count the publicity photo of Maureen O’Hara that came with the wallet, which tells you how many years ago I bought it. I’ve never had the heart to remove it.
“How will I know him if I find him, then?”
She cocked her head to one side, prettily. Archly, as a matter of fact, self-awareness flowing from her like liquid sunshine. April Delavan might be a New Ager, living among the rebels and castaways talking about karma and vibes and searching for themselves and the meaning of life in the dregs of fancy coffee in a cardboard cup on the sun-dappled sidewalk in front of the Centrum Theatre near Coventry, but she knew damn well how good-looking she was and used it every chance she got.
“Let’s see, now.” She pretended to think hard. Then, brightening, “You have a pencil and a piece of paper?”
I got a sheet of white typing paper out of the bottom drawer and took a pencil from a plastic Cleveland Indians mug bearing the likeness of the Tribe’s politically incorrect mascot, Chief Wahoo.
“What are you going to do?” I asked, pushing the stuff across the desk at her. “Draw me a picture of him?”
She picked up the pencil and raised a sardonic eyebrow at me. “What was your first clue?”
It took her about five minutes or so to complete her work, and I busied myself sneaking a glance at the sports page of the Plain Dealer. Baseball season was just around the corner, and already the Indians’ replacement players were struggling through another spring training in Florida. Losing in spring training doesn’t mean a damn thing, we tell ourselves every season. Especially in a strike year.
When she finished the sketch she handed it over to me with a flourish that might have been born of pride. I guess I looked impressed, because she was smiling when I glanced back up at her.
“This is very good, April.”
“What’d you expect?” she said.
Whatever I expected, it wasn’t such a detailed piece of work. She had drawn a dark, curly-haired Semitic-looking man with a graying beard and aviator glasses. The hair had receded at each temple, the brows were shaggy and uneven, the chin weak even beneath the beard, the nose prominent but straight. A mean smile drew up one side of the mouth. It was the eyes that got me, though. Behind the glasses they were hard and unloving. Look at them one way and you’d see scheming and calculation, another way and they showed fear. With the set of his jaw and the supercilious arch of the heavy brows, they could also be classified as cruel eyes.
The drawing was remarkably skillful, especially done from memory, and so quickly. But it was also sketched with unforgiving anger, mocking cynicism, almost—as in the deep creases beside the nose and the sag of jowls beneath the jawline—vengefully. Every pouch and wrinkle of a dissipated middle-aged man had been penciled in.
“I didn’t get it quite right,” she said. “He’s not that good-looking. He thinks he’s pretty hot shit, but he’s not much, when you get right down to it. In his dreams he wishes he looked like that.” She lit a new cigarette from the glowing end of the old one and stubbed out the butt in my ashtray. She still hadn’t inhaled any of it, and from the smell of it I believe it was a wise decision. “He’s about five nine,” she said, “but he walks around like he’s six four.”
I held the sketch by its edges so as not to smudge it; I’d get it photocopied later in the morning. “You don’t sound like you like him very much.”
She stopped to consider that for a while, staring up at the molding around the ceiling and blowing smoke at it. Then she stuck the cigarette between her lips; it wobbled comically as she spoke. “I guess I don’t, when you come right down to it.”
I sat back in my chair, studying her. She looked like a pouting, grouchy three-year-old with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, one eyebrow raised in a kind of quizzical disdain.
“Then why do you care if I find him?”
She turned those amazing eyes on me, and in spite of myself I felt something flutter inside me somewhere between the heart and the groin. Instant dirty old man.
“Because,” she said coolly, “he owes me eighteen thousand dollars.”