From The Indian Sign (a Milan Jacovich Mystery), by Les Roberts
It was snowing hard the first time I saw the old Indian. A gentle, Currier and Ives Christmas card kind of snowfall, with big fat flakes whose facets catch the light as they drift downward, pirouetting madly in the eddying currents of the warmer air closer to the earth.
When people speak of Indians in Cleveland, Ohio, they usually mean the kind who wear protective athletic cups, politically incorrect Chief Wahoo caps, and red socks pulled up to the knee, who terrorize American League pitching by batting 311 for the season with 115 runs batted in or win Gold Gloves for fielding prowess.
This particular Indian was the real deal, though—a Native American. He was broad-shouldered and deep-chested, and though he was seated I got the idea that he might be almost as tall as I am; the black high-crowned, wide-brimmed hat atop his head added to the illusion of height. He appeared to be at least sixty years old, and his iron gray hair was done up in two long braids that fell to his waist. He was wearing a hip-length jacket that looked like it was made from a colorful wool tribal blanket, with bone toggle buttons. His work-faded Levi’s were tucked into soft-looking leather boots.
It was just before nine o’clock on a morning that was February-bitter, dark and gray. He was on the bench across the street from my apartment building at the crest of Cedar Hill, in the little mini-park in front of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop on Fairmount Boulevard where it forms a triangle with Cedar Road in Cleveland Heights. Snow frosted his eyelashes and mini-drifts were collecting in little piles on his hat and shoulders, but if he noticed it, he didn’t seem to be bothered by it. Next to him on the bench was a small paper sack that could have contained his lunch. He was sitting so motionless that I had to take a second look to make sure he wasn’t dead. Only his eyelids flickered.
Although there are no longer any Indian tribes living in Ohio on reservations, there are plenty of Native Americans just going about their business. But most of them dress the way everyone else does, so his decidedly eccentric clothes made him very noticeable. His back was ramrod-straight against the back of the bench, his hands were at rest on his thighs, and his eyes were riveted on the row of three-story apartment buildings across the triangle on Cedar Road. His mouth was a thin slash in his mahogany-colored face and his jaw was thrust forward in an attitude that could have been described as pugnacious.
He looked like an R. C. Gorman oil painting.
I didn’t give him much more than a second glance as I climbed into my car; I had other things to do that morning down at my office in the Flats on the west bank of the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland. Still, for some reason he stayed in my mind all that day like a bad song that gets stuck between your ears and drives you crazy.
The funny things you see, as my father used to say, when you haven’t got your gun.
And I didn’t have mine. Either of them. I keep one on a high shelf in the guest closet in my apartment, and the other—the big one that means business, the .357 Magnum—in the top drawer of the desk in my office. I didn’t think I’d need them for my nine-thirty appointment with a prospective new client.
“Client” meaning a customer for my security business. I deal with industrial security, mostly. Employee background checks, electronic surveillance systems, damage control, that sort of thing. Milan Security, I call the company. I gave it my first name, Milan, because my last one, Jacovich, is too tough for anyone except another eastern European to try to pronounce. I’m the owner, field operative, secretary, receptionist, and part-time janitor. I only recently turned the bill-paying over to an accounting firm, otherwise I’m pretty much a one-man band.
I like it that way. I spent three years on Uncle Sam’s payroll in the early seventies as a sergeant in the U.S. Army military police, wearing the combat greens he so generously provided, mostly in a Southeast Asian garden spot called Cam Ranh Bay. After I came back from Vietnam I served for a few years as a Cleveland police officer, and those two hitches in the uniforms of my country and city developed in me an aversion to saluting and chains of command that was strong enough for me to know I wanted to be my own boss and run my own business.
It’s not that I have such an entrepreneurial spirit. I just don’t play well with others.
I also have a private investigator’s license—but that’s the part of my job I like the least. Nobody comes to a private investigator unless they’re in trouble. And that usually means I sign on for their trouble, too.
Everyone was having trouble this particular season. After El Niño had blessed us with two years of mild, snowless winters it was payback time, and we hardy Clevelanders, who normally button our top buttons only when the thermometer starts sinking into negative readings, had grown soft and spoiled and almost resentful of the icy temperatures and relentless snowfall that had been visited upon us since the very first day of January.
The cold front, one of several that annually blow down on us from western Canada, was turning the snow slick and slippery on the streets, especially heading down Cedar Hill from Cleveland Heights into the city, and I concentrated even more than usual on keeping my car within the lane lines. On the radio, John Lanigan and Jimmy Malone kept me alert with their own particular brand of craziness on WMJI, Majic 105. A lot of Clevelanders who drive to work couldn’t make it to their desks in the morning without the company of Lanigan and Malone in the car with them.
The Indian was nagging at me. I couldn’t imagine what he was doing sitting in front of the Baskin-Robbins shop at nine o’clock in the morning, staring off into space while the snows of a midwestern February piled up on the brim of his hat.
But there are all sorts of things in this world that I don’t know and will never understand, and after a few minutes’ musing I decided he was simply one more on that long list.
The graveled parking lot outside my office building was dusted white by the time I arrived, and when I wheeled my nine-year-old Sunbird into my reserved space next to the door, the tires took the virginity of the morning snow. It’s an old building; I bought it for less than one might imagine a few years back when my Auntie Branka died and left me some money. I have a tenant downstairs, a company that makes wrought-iron gates and grilles, and they are noisier than I’d like, hammering and clanking, the roar of the acetylene torch frequently floating up through the floor. The owner, Tony Radek, habitually bellows around his ever-present cigar at his hapless employees, most of who seem to be his younger brothers. My other tenant, sharing the second floor with me, is a surgical supply house, and the best I can say for them is that they’re nice and quiet, and pay their rent on time.
The combined rental income more than covers the mortgage, and I have myself a free office—and an investment.
The world headquarters—the only headquarters—of Milan Security is one very big room and one very small one, with hardwood floors, exposed brick walls, and windows that arch gracefully from near the floor almost to the ceiling, affording me a fabulous view out over the hairpin twist of the Cuyahoga River known, from the days of the six-hundred-foot ore tankers who used to regularly engage in aquatic fender benders, as Collision Bend.
The office features a small closet, a spacious unisex bathroom with a shower stall, and the smaller, windowless utility room where I keep my copying machine and store a lot of the electronic toys I was talked into buying but rarely use: the micromini cameras that look like fountain pens, the microphones that can pick up the rumblings of a kitten’s gastric juices from three blocks away, the tape recorders and illegal telephone bugs, and some of the database software I’d had specially designed that can supply amazingly detailed information about anyone in America short of what they had for breakfast this morning. Not to make anyone nervous, but that includes you.
There was a fire in here a year or so ago, courtesy of a well-thrown Molotov cocktail, and although thanks to the insurance company everything had been repaired or redone, in some cases to the betterment of the original, there is still a hint of smoke odor, not entirely unpleasant, that prickles the hairs inside your nose on cold mornings and will probably never go away.
I hung up my parka—I had worn the heavy black one this morning that had come with a tag affixed informing me that it wasn’t a parka at all but a “cold-weather system.” I made a pot of coffee, my second of the day. I’m an addict; I had drunk four large mugfuls before leaving the house and I figured I would share this batch with my nine-thirty visitor.
He was a few minutes shy of prompt; at about 9:46 he came through the door, wearing a white silk scarf and brushing the snow off the shoulders of his cashmere overcoat and onto my hardwood floor.
“Mr. Jacovich?” he said, erroneously pronouncing the J. Properly it’s Yock-o-vitch. And the first name, while I’m on the subject, is My-lan. Long i sound and the accent on the first syllable. Milan Jacovich. I am by heritage a Slovenian, and if you’re unsure as to just where Slovenia is, join a big crowd of geography-challenged Americans. It’s the northernmost republic of what used to be Yugoslavia; we’re the quieter and more peaceable neighbors of the Serbs and Croats, and fortunately were not part of the nonsense that ripped the Balkans apart at the end of the twentieth century.
I repeated my name correctly for my prospective client and clasped his hand. He took off his gray cashmere coat, shook it out hard, leaving more droplets on the hardwood, and gave it to me to hang up on the brass coat tree by the door. It was soft, luxurious—just handling the damn thing was sensory overload. Everything about him was expensive—his haircut, his tie, his suit, his shoes, and his attitude, which was wave-to-the-masses-from-the-carriage-but-don’t-let-them-touch-anything.
And yet there was a bulldog-hard droop to his mouth, augmented by a formidable set of jowls I was willing to bet he’d sported since his early twenties.
His name was Armand Treusch, which he had pronounced TROYSH when he made the appointment by phone. You’d think he’d have a certain sensitivity for pronouncing other people’s names properly.
And he played with toys.
Very profitably, too.
Treusch was the CEO and founder of an outfit called TroyToy, Inc.—evidently an easier-to-spell variant of his last name. TroyToy was headquartered in the southeastern suburb of Solon, where it occupied most of a large, modern industrial park and enjoyed a national reputation. One of their dolls, a pinch-faced, frizz-haired female moppet with an anatomically correct pubis that sprayed mock-urine on command, had been something of a craze a few Christmases earlier. Not as big as Tickle Me Elmo or Beanie Babies, but TroyToy had made its professional bones on it, anyway, and was now the third-largest toy manufacturer in America.
I had done some checking on Armand Treusch before the meeting, thanks to my handy-dandy computer database, so I not only knew about his very viable, growing company, but that he himself lived on a forty-eight-acre estate in Hunting Valley and was worth somewhere in the vicinity of twenty-four million dollars.
He declined my offer of coffee and seemed a trifle irritated when I chose to have some without him, staring with undisguised curiosity at my coffee mug. I didn’t bother explaining it to him, but it used to belong to my best friend, and had his name on it, and a replica of the gold lieutenant’s shield he’d carried from the Cleveland Police Department lt. mark meglich, it said, and beneath the shield number 7787. I’d staked my claim to the mug after Marko caught a fatal bullet the year before trying to back me up in a murder case that was actually outside his jurisdiction, and from that day forward I drank my coffee from it every morning.
I’d had a chronic heartache ever since then, too.
After I’d settled behind my desk, Treusch took out a solid brass card holder and gave me one of his business cards. It was embossed with his name and title, the name of the company, and the TroyToy logo—a bright blue cartoon of a helmeted Trojan warrior wearing a kind of loopy, dreamy-eyed grin that made him look like he was zonked on quaaludes.
“I’ve got an ulcer,” Treusch announced, patting his Santa Claus stomach. I had to admit it was a unique gambit with which to begin a conversation with a stranger. “It comes with the territory in my racket. There’s no more competitive field anywhere than the toy business. As a result, there has been quite a lot of industrial espionage going on in the last few years. Stealing secrets.”
“It doesn’t really matter whether or not our product is better if someone beats us to the punch. You understand what I’m saying?”
I lowered my eyelids once. Nothing irritates me more than for someone to ask whether I understand what they’re saying. I have a master’s degree from Kent State, and I guess I can understand English all right.
“I know it sounds silly to an outsider,” he said without apology. “Like the CIA or something. But if somebody swipes an idea and beats the other guy to the marketplace, it could be a swing of several million dollars.
“So we have to be damned careful. Careful who we talk to, careful who we let inside the gates of Troy.” The heretofore dyspeptic Treusch here flowered into a grin that spread from corner to corner; it was evident he was monstrously pleased with his little double-edged pun.
I decided to go with it. “And you feel there’s a Trojan horse inside?”
“That’s exactly right,” he said. “I feel it. Here.” He stuck a gentle finger into his ample gut, and grimaced; maybe the ulcer was kicking up. “I live my whole life on my instincts.”
“I see,” I said.
He suddenly turned somber. “Here’s the thing, Mr. Jacovich.” He pronounced it correctly this time; Armand Treusch was obviously a fast learner. “My comptroller—chief accountant—died about three months ago. Embolism in the brain. Went like that!” And he snapped his fingers to illustrate just how quickly that was.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Yeah. He’d been with me since the very beginning. He was practically my first hire. Well, no, my fourth, actually. . . . Anyway, I’d have trusted him with my life. He was more than an employee, he was a friend.”
I didn’t say anything; I’d already expressed my condolences once, and figured that was enough. After all, he wasn’t talking about his mother.
Treusch leaned forward earnestly to drive the next point home. “And he was well compensated for his loyalty. I take good care of my top people. Not only salary, but built-in bonuses, stock options, medical-dental-optical, company car phone. All the bennies.”
His shoulders rose and fell in a jerky twitch. “Hey, it was sad losing him, but life goes on, you know what I’m saying?”
I sighed. I knew what he was saying, but I resisted the urge to tell him so; he was, after all, a paying client, and I was in business to make money.
“I mean, hey,” he went on, “you gotta have an accountant . . . ”
Life without one was indeed inconceivable. I nodded.
“So I hired a new guy. His name is David Ream. Kind of a wimpy, nerdy little guy, but what do you expect from an accountant?”
I sipped at my coffee; I make it strong and like it black, but my guest was making it taste bitter. I don’t have the luxury of only working for people I was crazy about, and I had not lucked out with Armand Treusch.
“Anyway, I’ve got this funny feeling about him. Ream.”
“How long has he been working for you?” I said.
“Not quite a month.”
“And why do you have this funny feeling?”
Treusch ran his right thumb delicately over the balls of his other fingers as if he were getting ready to crack the combination of a safe. “I can’t say, really . . . ”
“Has he done anything?”
“Not exactly, no . . . ”
I lifted an eyebrow and waited. I generally find out a lot more when I keep my mouth shut and listen; I’ve learned to be comfortable with the silences. Most people haven’t.
Treusch fidgeted and eventually rewarded my patience. “Well, he asks too many questions.”
“Yeah. Asks our production people and the guys in the marketing department a lot of things about the various products we make. Stuff an accountant doesn’t really need to know.”
“Maybe he wants to learn as much as he can about the company he’s working for,” I suggested. “I should think that would be a plus.”
“Normally I would think so, too. It’s just this feeling I’ve got,” Treusch said. “I mean, he’s new and all . . . ”
“That doesn’t make him a bad guy.”
“I know, I know. But our most recent hire before him was—I don’t know, five years ago, six. And my people are as loyal to me as they are to the flag.”
I put my coffee mug down on its warmer, watching the little red light flicker on. “What do you want me to do about it?”
“Check him out for me,” Treusch said. “David Ream. His background.”
“I should think hiring somebody that highly placed in your company, you would have investigated him before you offered him the job. Thoroughly.”
“I did,” Treusch said. “Or I should say my human resources director did.”
“I’ll probably want to talk to him, then.”
“Her. Her name is Catherine McTighe. But I’d rather no one else at TroyToy knew what was going on.”
“Like I said, this is a sensitive industry. Need-to-know and all that.”
“I’ll be very discreet in my inquiries,” I said.
He stuck out his jaw again. “What does that mean?”
“I’ll lie if I have to.”
That seemed to please him, because he almost smiled. “Well, Ream’s bona fides vetted out.” He opened the expensive briefcase and extracted a file folder. “Here’s his personnel file, his references, everything.”
I reached across the desk and took it from him. “I’ll make a copy.”
“Don’t bother. That is a copy. You can keep it.”
Armand Treusch had it all figured out. Or partway, anyhow. Actually it was kind of refreshing; most clients don’t think of such details until they’re prompted. I put the file down without opening it. “And what would you like me to do with this?”
Treusch’s eyes rolled upward as he searched the old, restored stamped-tin ceiling of my office for answers. A lot of people have looked up there for the same reason. “I’m hiring you to tell me.”
I decided to help him out. “I think I can. You want more personal stuff than what’s in this file.”
“Exactly,” he said.
“You want to know what kind of beer he drinks and what kind of music he likes and what he had for supper.”
Treusch beamed, nodding enthusiastically; I think he was getting into the spirit of it. “Right, right.”
“And most of all, you want to know if he has any connection whatsoever with any other toy company.”
He lit up like the scoreboard of a pinball machine when the little steel ball hits a million; I could almost hear the bells. “Now you’re talking!” he said. “You’re a bright guy, Jacovich. I’d heard you were a bright guy. That’s why I came to you in the first place.”
“Mr. Treusch,” I pushed the file back across the desk at him. “You’re wasting your time.”
His inner light went out and he slumped in his chair, a kid who’d been promised a pony for Christmas and got a cheap ukulele instead. “Why?”
“Right now, all you have about David Ream is a completely unfounded suspicion.”
“I’m going on gut instinct,” he said. “I told you, my gut has never let me down yet.”
“Maybe not. But what you’re talking about—that kind of thorough probe—your gut is going to cost you a hell of a lot of money.”
He lowered his head, and the bulldog look darkened his heavy features again. I got the idea Armand Treusch was no one to be trifled with. “What do you care?” he said. “It’s my money.”
I sighed. I’d met clients like Treusch before; they come in with a set idea in their head and nothing anyone can say talks them out of it. I opened the bottom drawer of my desk to extract one of my standard contract forms. “Yes,” I said, “and it looks like some of it is going to be mine.”
I didn’t much like it. It was Armand Treusch’s paranoia that was sending me out on a witch-hunt, and I had the sinking feeling that if I discovered David Ream to be squeaky clean and bleeding TroyToy blue, Treusch was still going to be dissatisfied and suspicious.
It’s the way some people are sometimes. They get an idée fixe and won’t let go of it. I figured no matter what the results of my investigation, David Ream was not long for TroyToy. That made me feel kind of bad for the guy, but I’d learned—from Marko Meglich, actually—that you can’t take on the world’s troubles as your own. From that comes ulcers, disappointment, frustration, and eventually failure. And I have enough failure in my life without going out hunting for it.
Maybe Treusch had another agenda, another reason for digging up David Ream’s buried treasures that he was loath to tell me about. Nevertheless, I’d taken his money, and now I owed him my complete attention. Although I make noises like I’m as independent as hell, I do need to earn a living, and don’t have the luxury of turning down a couple of thousand dollars for a few days’ easy work, even though I held no affection for Armand Treusch or his cause. Industrial security is, after all, what my little company is about.
So I’d make the proper inquiries, rattle some cages, and at the end of a week tell him he had indeed wasted his money.
Unless of course I found something.
But that didn’t seem likely. Success had made Treusch overly wary of any change. Apparently he hadn’t yet come to the realization, as I had, that life is about nothing if not change.
I spent the rest of the morning reading through David Ream’s personnel file. It didn’t tell me much. The vast brigade of crusaders who set up a hue and cry about people’s “rights” have made it illegal for an employer to ask about age, marital status, or even gender—although there was a photocopy of the applicant’s picture that made it highly unlikely he was a female. His sand-colored hair was sparse, his eyes pale blue behind nerdy, unfashionable glasses, and he had a receding chin and no lips to speak of at all. In a crowd of three he would completely disappear. He was one of the vanilla people.
Other than that, personal information was sketchy. He lived in Shaker Heights, on a street just off Van Aken Boulevard that was neither high end nor depressed, at an address commensurate with the sixty-five-thousand-dollar annual salary he was getting from TroyToy. So if he was indeed in the employ of a rival toy company, he was keeping his ill-gotten gains where no one could see them.
According to his application, he was a 1984 graduate of Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Business, which would probably place him in his late thirties. Right out of college he had gone to work as a bookkeeper at a health spa in Aspen, Colorado, where after three years he had risen to the title of comptroller. His most recent job had been as chief accountant with a digital analog company in Strongsville, a southern suburb of Cleveland.
If I ever got to meet David Ream, I’d have to ask him what in hell a digital analog was.
Interestingly enough, there was an eight-month gap between his leaving the Strongsville firm and hooking up with TroyToy. I was sure that Armand Treusch’s in-house watchdogs had asked about that and been satisfied, but I decided I needed a little reassurance.
I called the company in Strongsville and asked to speak to the personnel department. A mistake, apparently, because the operator rather stiffly informed me that she’d connect me with human resources, and leaned on the two words so I wouldn’t make such an egregious error again. For a guy like me who regularly thinks of a sofa as a davenport and a refrigerator as an icebox, the new terminology comes hard. I’m Newspeak-challenged.
The person who answered the phone had a husky, matronly voice, and I pictured her as slightly chubby, curly-haired, a jolly earth-mother type. She told me her name was Mrs. Ver Planck, and after I identified myself as being with a nonexistent credit bureau, she did some hemming and hawing and “calling up” records on the computer, and indeed verified that David Ream had worked there as their chief bookkeeper until the past June.
“Was he terminated?” I asked, uncomfortably aware of what that word meant in certain government circles. But I had to prove I could talk the new, politically correct talk with the best of them; five years earlier I would have inquired right out whether Ream had been canned.
“Oh, no. He resigned,” Mrs. Ver Planck said.
“I see,” I said, not seeing. “Did he give a reason?”
“There’s nothing in the records. But I just happen to remember when he came in to clear the company on the last day. When he turned in his ID badge and his keys, he said he was leaving for personal reasons.”
“You mean a higher-paying job?”
“I think he characterized it as personal fulfillment.”
Things are indeed different nowadays. I’m quite certain no one even asked my father, when he was toiling in the hellish pits of the steel mills south of the city in the temperatures that often reached more than one hundred and twenty degrees, whether or not his career fulfilled him personally.
I thanked Mrs. Ver Planck and put the telephone down, forgetting to ask her about digital analogs, and thoughtfully drummed my fingers on the receiver. After “clearing the company,” David Ream hadn’t worked for eight months. And after that, his personal fulfillment had taken the shape of working a similar job to the one he’d left, only at a commercial manufacturer of toys instead of digital analogs.
Curious, I thought. Not suspicious, certainly not damning. But curious nonetheless.
I opened a new file on my computer, titled it treusch.doc, and typed in my notes on my initial meeting with him and my thoughts on the conversation I’d had with Mrs. Ver Planck. I copied it onto a floppy disk, and then made a hard-copy folder of my own—I still prefer paper I can hold in my hand to an electronic version that is in constant danger of disappearing—and placed the copies of David Ream’s personnel records from TroyToy inside.
I’d eaten a big breakfast, so I wasn’t really hungry for lunch and decided to skip it. I’ve reached that age where weight goes on easily and comes off with the utmost difficulty. Besides, I was having dinner that evening with my lover, Connie Haley, and since she usually has a very healthy Irish appetite, I wanted to be sure I was hungry enough to keep up with her.
I flipped through my Rolodex and found Rudy Dolsak’s name. Rudy and Marko Meglich and I had gone to high school together and then reconvened at Kent State. Chubby, myopic Rudy had never realized his dream of playing big-time college football, but he’d plodded and plotted and worked his way up to varsity equipment manager and quietly idolized Marko and me for actually putting on the pads and getting bruised and dirty out there. After grad school, I’d gone to Vietnam—not the norm for young men from Kent State in the early seventies—and Marko had become a police officer. Rudy got a job in banking, and just as at Kent, had doggedly risen through the ranks until now he was the senior vice president at Ohio Mercantile Bank, downtown on Euclid Avenue. It was generally acknowledged that he was next in line for the presidency.
Providing he didn’t get caught feeding confidential financial information to his private-investigator friend.
I was a little ashamed to call him, to tell you the truth. As close as we had been, as close as I felt to him, I find myself only contacting him when I need some information. Maybe it was because he’s a family man and I have been divorced and single for many years. Maybe it was because we moved in very different circles. Sometimes the people we care most about get short shrift because of the pressures of career and family and just plain old living.
Rudy is relentlessly cheerful, however, and didn’t hold it against me. He wasn’t too thrilled that day, however, when I asked him to poke into David Ream’s financial records.
“Aw, Milan,” he said, and it came out perilously close to a whine. “Not again, okay? I hate it when you ask me to do things like that.”
“Come on, Rudy, you can do whatever you want—you’re the boss.”
“I won’t be if anyone gets wind that I’m giving out confidential records to private detectives.”
“Don’t let me down now, pal. You’ve always been there for me. When I’d catch a blister, or get a shin splint, you were the one who always patched me up, right? You were my go-to guy.” I chuckled to cover my guilt at the outrageous wheedling. “Nothing’s changed—you’re still covering my butt.”
He laughed in spite of himself. “Don’t manipulate me, Milan, I’m not seventeen years old anymore.”
“Good,” I said, relieved he had caught me. “I wasn’t doing it very well.”
“What is it you need?”
“All I want to know is what went on from June of last year to the present. Whether Ream was making any deposits.”
Rudy sighed. “I don’t suppose you’re going to make it any easier on me by giving me a social security number.”
I flipped open the personnel file. “As a matter of fact I am.” I read it off to him.
He buzzed and hummed and made little grunting noises as he scribbled it down. Then he said, “I’ll do what I can for you.”
“Thanks, Rudy. I owe you dinner.”
“Dinner my Aunt Fannie! If I get burned for this and lose my job, you’re going to have to support me.”
I laughed. “As long as it isn’t in the style to which you’re accustomed.”
I hung up and reflected on what a good thing it was to have friends. Old friends. Like Rudy, since we were kids. A couple of other childhood chums like Alex Cerne and Sonia Kokol, who generally saw to it that I didn’t spend Thanksgiving or Christmas alone in my apartment. Louis Vukovich, who ran Vuk’s Tavern on St. Clair Avenue and had ceremoniously served me my first legal drink of alcohol—a Stroh’s beer, right from the bottle. And Ed Stahl, the curmudgeonly op-ed columnist for the Plain Dealer, who’s been my comrade, confidant, drinking partner, and information source since I was a raw police rookie, and who can always be counted on to scrounge up Indians tickets for my sons and me on selected weekends even though the games have been sold out for the last six years straight.
Thinking of friends reminded me of Marko, and I winced involuntarily as the sharp wolf-bite of regret dug into my gut. Everybody loses friends, loved ones—it’s the cycle of life, and we usually go on. But Marko, whose nose I bloodied the day I met him in the fifth grade and who had gone on to be my friend for more than thirty years, had died for me. And that doesn’t go away so easily.
Marko was dead because he covered my ass when he didn’t have to, and here I was, relentlessly hunting down a man suspected of spying on toys.
Well, I thought, going on the defensive against myself, so what? That’s what I do. It’s not my job to preserve peace in the Balkans, find a cure for cancer, or stomp out hunger and poverty. It was my job, at the moment, to keep the world safe for Armand Treusch and the TroyToy empire. Did that mean I wasn’t worthy enough to mourn my friend? Would it be better if he had sacrificed himself to save a welder, a salmon fisherman, a flight attendant, or the old guy who shines shoes in the lobby of the Halle Building instead of me?
I shook it off as I had so many times before. As Marko would have wanted me to. I’m sure he would have leveled one of those long, strong, pass-catching fingers at me and narrowed his eyes, and his mustache would have twitched as he ordered, “Milan, get over yourself!”
So I got over myself. I read Ream’s file again, looking for some clue, some irregularity, but I couldn’t find one. Then I made a few more calls, locked up the office, and headed eastward on Carnegie Avenue toward Cleveland Heights before the homeward-bound traffic turned University Circle into gridlock. The snow had stopped, for all intents and purposes. It was still in the air, but in tiny, almost invisible flakes that dissipated as they hit the ground. The homeowners of Greater Cleveland were spared additional shoveling tonight—except for those souls up north in Lake and Geauga counties who live in what is commonly termed the snow belt.
I got up to the top of the hill at about a quarter to five.
The old Indian was still on the bench in front of the ice cream shop, looking for all the world as if he hadn’t moved since nine o’clock that morning.