The Dutch – Chapter One

The Dutch: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#12), by Les Roberts. Published by Gray & Company, Publishers. Front cover of book.

The Dutch: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#12) by Les RobertsBook Excerpt

From The Dutch (a Milan Jacovich Mystery), by Les Roberts

The dark space under the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge is, I think, a singularly lousy place to die.

The bridge, with its four landmark pylons in the shape of giants, “Titans of Transportation,” holding in their huge hands various modes of travel like buses and trucks and streetcars, stretches across the Cuyahoga River and connects the two avenues for which it is named, and is one of the primary arteries between the east and west sides of Cleveland. A few years back it was officially rechristened the Hope Memorial Bridge, after the father of local favorite son Bob Hope; the elder Hope worked as a stonemason during its construction. But no real Clevelander ever calls it that, just as New Yorkers still say “Sixth Avenue” instead of the newer “Avenue of the Americas,” even after fifty years.

The bridge is less than a mile from my office on the west bank of the river in the industrial area known as the Flats. I wasn’t anywhere near it, though, but home asleep when Ellen Carnine plunged one hundred and forty-some feet over the concrete balustrade, smashing her skull, breaking her neck and fracturing most of the other bones in her body when she landed.

The coroner estimated that the time of death was around four o’clock in the morning, but I didn’t know about it until just before nine, when I was driving to work down Cedar Hill from my apartment in Cleveland Heights, sipping a go-cup of the last of my morning coffee and listening to the news and the laughs on the John Lanigan and Jimmy Malone Show on WMJI radio.

I winced a little when newsman Chip Kullik read the report—jumping off a bridge had to be one of the worst ways to go—and felt sad for a moment that a woman had taken her own life, but after that I didn’t give it much thought. Bad things happen to nice people every day, and while poet John Donne had a valid point when he wrote that each man’s death diminishes us, the fact is that the death of a complete stranger doesn’t diminish us very much. Practically speaking, we can’t allow it to. We all have our own lives and our own concerns, and we couldn’t even function if we went around feeling diminished every time somebody succumbs to old age or takes a notion to do a half-gainer off a bridge.

Ellen Carnine died on a Tuesday. A cool Tuesday in spring, the first week in May. After a long and dreary winter the Midwest was struggling through its annual rebirth. Lawns and trees were greening again, and the early spring flowers that bordered the houses of suburban Shaker Heights and Lakewood and Rocky River were gaily proclaiming that the season was finally turning and we could at last be almost certain that the snows were gone for the duration.

Of course in Cleveland, you never really know about snow, even in May.

By the time the following week rolled around, the cool Tuesday had given way to a warm Monday, and I had switched from my wools and tweeds to a lightweight linen sports jacket over tan chinos and a dark blue shirt without a tie, and when I parked my car in front of the old warehouse-turned-office building that I had bought several years earlier I took a moment to stroll down to the riverbank and enjoy the view across the water to Tower City and Jacobs Field and the great gray hunchbacked whale that is Gund Arena, to suck some clean spring air into my cigarette smoke-cured lungs, and watch the flock of hungry gulls darken the bright blue sky with their wings as they dipped over the water looking for breakfast.

Almost one hundred years ago this hairpin turn in the Cuyahoga River was christened Collision Bend, and while there hasn’t been an aquatic fender-bender between two six-hundred-foot ore boats in some time, there is a certain romance in the name that appeals to me, perhaps because it sometimes seems we are all on collision courses in our lives, bumping into one another head-on or sideways or maybe just scraping each other’s sides, acknowledging the dents and dings, and then moving along in spite of them.

I finally went upstairs to my office. It’s one very large room and one small storage and utility room that takes up half of the second floor, the other half being occupied by a surgical supply house who, along with me, endures the noise of the wrought-iron company that chuffs and clanks and clangs down on the first floor. It’s a constant irritant, but for that view across the river to the city I would have even suffered listening to rap music all day.

Well, maybe not rap music.

Milan Security is my one-man operation, christened out of my own ego after my own first name. It’s pronounced My-lan, by the way, and the only thing that kept me from giving my company my last name is that it’s even harder to pronounce properly than Milan. Spelled J-A-C-O-V-I-C-H, pronounced Yock-o-vitch. And if someone is looking in the Yellow Pages for an industrial security specialist such as myself, they’ll probably call the one whose name they feel more comfortable in saying aloud, even though many people manage to screw that up, too, giving it the old-world pronunciation, Mee-lahn, or saying it like the city in Italy, Mi-lahn.

I set to work typing up a report commissioned by an insurance company that was trying to wriggle out from under a workman’s-comp payoff. I had spent the better part of a month keeping an undercover watch on a fifty-two-year-old factory employee who had filed a huge claim for a work-related back injury; the insurers were hoping I’d catch him playing tennis, running a 10K marathon, or dancing the lambada so they could deny him his benefits, but during my surveillance I’d seen him do nothing more strenuous than limp painfully to and from his car on his way to his physical-therapy sessions.

My clients were going to be annoyed with me, but I couldn’t find fraud where there was none. So the insurance folks were going to wind up not only paying the workman’s comp claim, but my fee as well.

Too bad for my clients, but in a way it gave me a good feeling to know that the injured worker I’d been surveilling wasn’t trying to run a shitty on them. In my business when I find someone who is not crooked or corrupt or playing an angle, it restores my faith in the basic decency of the human animal.

I had just about finished the report when a new client called and requested an appointment for that afternoon. Despite the urgency in his tone, he opted not to give me any details over the phone. That immediately made me suspicious, but most people who seek the services of investigators like me desire discretion and confidentiality, and I figured he could have been someplace where other people might overhear, or be paranoid enough to think his telephone was bugged. Either way, it would only cost half an hour of my time to listen to him and find out, and I could afford that, at least.

He told me his name, which tinkled a very distant bell, and when I asked what firm he was with, he said, “It’s a private matter.”

That rang a louder bell, all right. A warning bell.

I have a private investigator’s license, which means that occasionally I am compelled to take on a job that has nothing to do with industrial security. I don’t like those much; they tend to get sordid. Being my own boss, I am able to pick and choose my assignments, and I regularly turn down the ones that involve window-peeping on errant spouses and other such ugliness. If someone’s marriage is imploding, I’d just as soon it blew without any involvement on my part. But workman’s-comp stakeouts and subcontracting security systems and vetting new employees for large corporations was for the most part pretty dry stuff, and I took on the private clients in between the more mundane assignments either as a favor to someone or simply to get my blood flowing a little faster.

The name of my two-thirty appointment was maddeningly familiar, but I couldn’t retrieve it from my subconscious. Sort of like a computer file document lost in cyberspace. And despite my owning and using a computer for the last few years, my knowledge and expertise is woefully inadequate. So I know about losing files.

I saved my insurance report to my hard drive and printed out two copies, one for my client and one for myself, and went out to lunch. I sorely miss the convenient and honest steak sandwiches and deliciously greasy hash browns I used to eat regularly at Jim’s Steak House, an old Cleveland landmark and a favorite hangout of mine, only a fifty-yard walk from the office. But it had closed down a few years earlier only to be reincarnated as a nightclub, and now I had to drive someplace every day to eat.

On this particular day I chose a place on Old River Road on the Cuyahoga’s east bank, and kept my mind occupied watching the railroad bridge go up and down to accommodate the river traffic heading out to the lake. There were quite a few pleasure craft on the water, which should have been surprising but wasn’t. I guess if you can afford a forty-foot powerboat that sleeps six, you can afford to play with it on a Monday afternoon when the rest of the world is at work. Almost every one of the boats had a beautiful woman somewhere on board, dressed skimpily in warm-weather casual wear and usually waving to us landlubbers as they floated by, like the original Queen Elizabeth greeting the peasants from her carriage. Hang around the Flats near where the Cuyahoga enters Lake Erie and you’ll get the notion that beautiful women are apparently de rigueur as a boating accessory.

Fortified by a tuna-and-pasta salad, one of my pathetic periodic attempts to cut down on my consumption of red meat, I got back to the office before two o’clock and waited for my appointment.

He arrived on time, at two-thirty.

He was a dapper little man, comfortably weighing about fifteen pounds more than he should have, in a brown tweed jacket that was too heavy for the weather, and a little bow tie that somehow managed not to look ridiculous on him and made me feel sadly underdressed in my open-collared shirt. Only a sparse fringe of tightly-cropped light brown hair ringed his otherwise bald pate, and he had one of those round, sweet, pinkish faces that had gone sour in the middle. I figured him to be in his middle fifties. In one short-fingered hand he clutched a leather folder that looked new.

“Mr. Jacovich, thank you for seeing me,” he said when he walked in the door. “I’m William Carnine.” He gave it the long i, rhyming it with the number nine. We shook hands and he sat down on the edge of one of my client chairs, clearly uneasy at being in the presence of a private investigator.

I get that a lot.

I offered him coffee or a soft drink, but he shook his head at the idea.

“How can I help you, Mr. Carnine?”

“It’s Dr. Carnine, by the way,” he said in a precise, fussy way. “I’m chairman of the biology department at Bryarly College.”

I had heard of it, a small and highly regarded private school on a lovely campus midway between Cleveland and Columbus, more celebrated for its English and writing programs and not so much for biology. His little aging-cherub face turned a trifle more red as he cleared his throat and took a breath that was so deep it became almost a desperate gasp for air.

“My daughter Ellen,” he said on the exhale, “is the woman who jumped off the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge last week. Perhaps you read about it?”

That was why his name had sounded familiar. Ellen Carnine. “Yes,” I said. “I’m very sorry.” The words rang impotent and hollow; it is not in the nature of things for parents to outlive their children, and I knew he must be devastated.

“Thank you,” he said, and then fell morosely silent. I didn’t have the heart to prod him further, so I just waited until he was ready.

It took a while.

“Mr. Jacovich,” he said when he had finally mustered his courage or marshaled his thoughts, “I have no idea why my daughter would take her own life. It’s eating me up inside.”

I had no doubt that it was, even though he didn’t look like anything ever bothered him very much; I intuited that his sour look was perpetual, almost institutionalized. He was the kind of formal, correct man it was inconceivable to imagine wearing a polo shirt, watching a football game, or eating Doritos.

“Was she ill?”

“No, not that I know of. And the medical examiner’s report didn’t indicate anything like that.” He kind of gestured at me with the leather folder, so I deduced that the coroner’s report was inside.

“Could it have been because of a love affair gone bad?”

“I hardly think so,” he said dismissively, shaking his head and closing his eyes briefly as he did so, and I found it curious enough to make a mental note that he’d said it that way.

“Was she having money problems?”

“No. She wasn’t wealthy, but she made a very good living, and she had a small trust fund from her grandmother.”

“Career problems, then?”

“She was the senior vice president of a medium-sized Internet company here in Cleveland. Quite a remarkable achievement for a woman not yet thirty.” He said it with a sort of ravaged pride.

“Clinical depression, then?”

He shook his head. “I think I would have known.”

I wasn’t enjoying my role; I’m a private investigator, not a behavioral psychologist, and I was suddenly tired of the guessing game. “Dr. Carnine, there are many reasons people decide, rightly or wrongly, that it’s simply too much trouble to go on.”

“I’m aware of that,” he said. “I live on campus at the college, and Ellen moved up here five years ago, so I have no idea what her life was like. Her day-to-day life. As a father, I need to know. Mrs. Carnine and I need the closure.”

He was one of those people who referred to his wife as “Mrs.” in conversation, I noted. And I wondered what people used to say before the word “closure” became fashionable about twenty years ago.

“We need to find out why,” he continued. “For our own peace of mind.”

“I see.” I should have heeded the warning bell that rang when I first heard his name; failing to do so was a lot like noticing a red traffic light and barreling through the intersection anyway. But not paying attention to the chiming of warning bells was a personal failing of mine. “And you’d like me to look into it for you?”

He nodded.

“Dr. Carnine, I think you should know that the bulk of my work is industrial. I can give you the name of other investigators here in town who would be much better equipped to . . . ”

“I know your reputation, Mr. Jacovich. In the past few years you’ve engendered a certain amount of—publicity in this city. And we do get the Cleveland newspapers down in Bryarly.”

I winced at that one. I bend over backwards to avoid getting my name and picture in the newspaper or on television, but things don’t always work out the way I’d like them to, and I had been involved in several very high profile cases over the past few years, one involving a Hollywood movie star.

“Besides,” Carnine continued, “you come highly recommended.”

“By whom?”

“When Ellen. . . When she died, we were of course in contact with the Cleveland police. The investigating officer—Detective Matusek, is it?—when I mentioned our concerns to him, he suggested that you were highly qualified in discreet inquiries of this kind.”

“Matusen,” I said. Bob Matusen. The protégé of my best friend, Lieutenant Marko Meglich, who had been killed two years earlier. Who had died in my arms. Trying to keep me alive. ‘That was kind of Detective Matusen, but I still think you’d be better off with another firm, one who specializes in situations such as yours.”

“Are you turning me down?” His voice quavered, and all of a sudden the naked anguish that had been kept festering deep inside him where no one could see appeared on his face and in his sad eyes. I couldn’t bear to send him away.

“No, sir,” I said. “I just wanted you to be aware that this kind of thing is not my usual area of expertise.”

A gush of relief flooded his features, and he offered a sad attempt at a smile that didn’t even come close. “Thank you, Mr. Jacovich. I appreciate your candor. But I think you’ll do very nicely. If you’re willing.”

“Well, let’s talk for a while and then we can decide.” I smiled at him, but of course he did not smile back.

He put the leather folder on my desk between us; it squeaked. It even smelled new. “You’ll find everything you need in there. A list of Ellen’s friends and acquaintances, her co-workers, her church, the various organizations she belonged to, even where she vacationed for the last three years. And of course the . . . ” His bones seemed to collapse beneath the skin of his face. He couldn’t bring himself to say it.

So I helped him. “The report from the county coroner’s office?”

He swallowed hard. “Yes. And a printout of the suicide note she left for us on her computer screen.” It was obviously painful for him to mention it.

“She left a note on the computer screen?”

He nodded miserably.

“And you want me to . . . ?” I let it hang up there in the atmosphere.

“To find out why. Why my daughter committed suicide when she had everything to live for.”

From the book The Dutch, © Les Roberts. All rights reserved.

This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.