From The Lake Effect (a Milan Jacovich Mystery) by Les Roberts
I owed Victor Gaimari a favor.
Favor being a broad, all-purpose word subject to many interpretations, you might think I’d be picking up his dry cleaning or driving him to the airport or taking his homely visiting cousin to dinner and a show. But it wasn’t that kind of a favor.
Victor is the favorite nephew and heir apparent of Giancarlo D’Allessandro and number-two man in the D’Allessandro family, which pretty much pulls all the strings in organized crime in northern Ohio, their sphere of influence stretching from Toledo through Cleveland and Youngstown clear across the state line into the Pittsburgh area. And families being what they are, especially that kind of family, when you owe Victor you owe the old man too. It’s the sort of debt you don’t take lightly.
Some time back I went to them with a request for a name I couldn’t have ferreted out anywhere else. They supplied it for me, a name that eventually helped me bail the teenage son of an old friend out of a dilemma that might ultimately have killed him. It’s the only thing that would have sent me to the mob with my hat in my hand, but you do what you have to. At the time Victor warned me that someday he would call in the favor.
Of course I’d known that before I asked.
The original deal was that I wouldn’t do anything illegal for them. Or anything that stretched my sense of morality or ethics. Or anything that wasn’t strictly within the purview of my normal business, a private investigations and industrial security operation which is called Milan Security because I have little hope of anyone who doesn’t have a European background saying my last name correctly: Jacovich, with the J pronounced like a Y. For that matter, most people screw up the first name, too. It’s Milan, pronounced My-lan. That’s the Americanized way, because my folks, both immigrants from Ljubljana in Slovenia, had wanted to be good Americans. Not Mi-lahn, like the city in Italy, or Mee-lahn. Milan Jacovich.
Victor didn’t have to remind me of the duty owed when he asked me to come by his brokerage office one bright autumn Thursday. It was tacit between us. The fact of its being had been burning in my stomach for nearly a year like a pierogi that won’t digest, and I’d waited for the marker to be called the way you wait for the winter’s first blizzard in Cleveland—with a kind of dread, but also with the certainty that it eventually will come and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
And since Victor Gaimari and I aren’t exactly fond buddies, the summons—for that’s what it was, an imperative, and we both knew it—had to be about the return of the favor.
Terminal Tower is Cleveland’s most famous landmark, dominating the skyline despite the recent construction of the even taller Society Tower, and is arguably the most beautiful piece of architecture between Chicago and the Chrysler Building, the kind of dignified, rococo building no one wants to erect anymore because beauty isn’t cost-efficient. Victor, as one of the city’s leading stockbrokers, maintains offices there, along with a lot of lawyers and importers and the Cleveland Convention Bureau, and even manages to transact a good deal of legitimate stock market business and make a lot of money for his clients. As a result he’s one of the darlings of the very rich and very social set. That happens in Cleveland when you’re an eligible bachelor and good-looking and rich, and you always see Victor’s name in the society and gossip columns like “Mary, Mary” or Fran Henry in the Plain Dealer or Rick Haase in the Sun-Press, attending some benefit or co-chairing some good-works committee.
Victor enjoys his status and visibility, playing them like a violin. He’s been linked with every attractive, wealthy single woman on the East Side. And some not so single.
When Victor Gaimari dies, his ashes will be scattered over all the elegant restaurants in Greater Cleveland.
I’m a bachelor too—a divorced one—but I don’t get invited to the same parties as Victor. My social outings tend to be Sunday afternoons when the Browns are on TV spent with a Stroh’s beer in one hand and a klobasa sausage sandwich in the other, in the den of one of my school buddies from the old Slovenian neighborhood where I grew up just off St. Clair Avenue on the East Side.
I asked Victor’s efficient middle-aged secretary to tell him I’d arrived, a request fraught with more peril than it sounds. Once, several years ago, I’d punched her employer right in the beezer in that very office and he’d bled all over the expensive carpeting, and now on the rare occasions when I visit him, she regards me the way a Visigoth might the centurion of an invading Roman legion. This time she actually sniffed when she announced me over the intercom, glasses low on her nose so she could fix me with a baleful stare over them. Her boss and I may have more or less settled our differences, but followers aren’t as quick to forgive.
“Milan!” Victor said in his peculiar high-pitched voice as he rose from behind his forty-acre desk to shake my hand. “How delightful to see you again.” He’s almost as tall as I am, and I’m a pretty big guy. He’s also classically handsome, which I’m not, in the way movie stars used to be back in the Tyrone Power–Robert Taylor days, with bright dark eyes, a dashing mustache, and a tan that looks as if he works on it. “Sit down, make yourself at home. God, isn’t it a beautiful fall day? Have you seen the leaves turning out in the Chagrin River Valley?”
I took the chair opposite him. “No, I haven’t been out there.” Victor lives on a huge estate in the far eastern suburb of Orange, where there are about two hundred trees for every house. It’s the kind of community where the residents don’t mow their lawns, they have them tweezed.
About six miles to the northwest is Cleveland Heights, where I rent an apartment at the top of Cedar Hill, a pretty neighborhood with oaks and elms and quaint old houses overlooking lushly forested parks, but it’s light years away from Orange.
“Can I get you something?” he said. What he meant was could his secretary get me something. “I know you’re a big coffee drinker.”
“Not at four o’clock in the afternoon, thanks.”
He sat back down behind the desk, beaming at me as if we’d been friends since kindergarten and had lost touch for a few months. It always amazes me that he can last until so late in the day without getting a single wrinkle in his suit, but Victor somehow never seems to wrinkle, sweat, rumple, get his hair mussed, or spill marinara sauce on his tie. I guess when you’re that rich and powerful you hire someone to do it for you.
“How do you like the Browns this year? Their defense is playing great, especially considering the injuries.” The Browns were two and three so far, and I suppose my stint as a defensive lineman during my high school days and at Kent State qualifies me in Victor’s eyes as some sort of expert. Whatever I said, he’d be sure to get a bet down on it for the next game.
“Victor, you didn’t ask me up here to talk sports.”
Some interior dimmer switch lowered the wattage of his smile from high to medium. “No, I didn’t,” he said. “Just trying to be pleasant, that’s all. You’re so businesslike, Milan. You ought to loosen up a little. You’re very tense. Have you ever tried chanting? I can give you my mantra.”
“Victor, for Christ’s sake!” I said.
He simply grinned at me. We’ve been butting heads for several years now. He thinks I’m a low-rent chump and I think he’s a high-end scumbag, but for some reason my approval is important to him. In some perverse way he likes me, and he was trying to tease me into liking him back. A big kid, Victor—with twenty leg breakers on his payroll. “Well, it’s fall already,” he observed at last. “You know what that means besides football and pretty leaves?”
“Seventeen new derivative TV sitcoms.”
“Ha ha,” he said. It wasn’t a laugh. I’d never really heard him laugh. He said, “Ha ha.”
I was getting annoyed. “What then? Back to school? The World Series? Yom Kippur? What are we talking about here?”
He pointed a perfectly manicured finger at me. “Politics,” he announced, as if it were some Tantric key to the secret of life as we know it. “We’re talking about politics. It’s election time.”
“Are you running for office?”
“You know me better than that. I prefer being behind the scenes. It’s more fun, and you don’t have to take nearly as much flak. No, a friend of mine is running. For mayor of Lake Erie Shores. You ever been out there?”
Lake Erie Shores is a beachside town of about thirty thousand affluent white people up northeast of the city in Lake County but still part of what they refer to as Greater Cleveland. Not my territory, although lots of city folks manage to steal a weekend every year and go off boating or swimming or fishing on the town’s waterfront. “I’ve been there,” I said.
“Then you know what a nice place it is. My friend Barbara Corns wants to keep it that way, keep it out of the hands of the developers and the fast-food joints and the taverns. Keep it a good place to raise a family and live like a decent human being. That’s guaranteed in the Constitution, right, Milan? So she’s decided to stand for election. It’ll be tough; the incumbent, Gayton True, has been in office for sixteen years.”
I frowned, trying to recall. “I’ve heard the name. If he’s been in office that long I probably read it in the paper.”
“Gayton True is a smooth customer—rich and smart and well-thought-of down in Columbus. But Barbara and her husband Evan think it’s time for a change. And so do I.”
“Okay, so you’re a public-spirited citizen and you’re backing Barbara Corns for mayor of a city you don’t even live in. Good for you.”
He spoke evenly and precisely, the way he always did when he wanted to make sure you were getting his point. “As far as Evan and Barbara Corns are concerned, that’s exactly what I am. I’d hate for anyone to tell them different. Evan is an attorney in Lake Erie Shores. I handle his portfolio.”
I crossed my left leg over my right knee and looked at my shoe. It was a heavy tan brogan, and the toe was scuffed. I would bet that Victor Gaimari hadn’t scuffed his shoes since he was eight; if he ever did, he’d throw them away and buy new ones. “What do you want from me in all this, Victor?”
The word hung heavily in the air as we looked at each other in perfect, if uneasy, understanding. After he was sure I got the message he said, “Barbara’s behind in the polls. They don’t have a lot of money. It’s really a mom-and-pop campaign.”
“Why don’t you just make a contribution?”
“I have.” He rose and went to the window, looking northward as though he could see Lake Erie Shores from the eleventh floor of Terminal Tower. You almost could; it was a clear fall day, and the wind was blowing all the gunk out of the air. “But they’re floundering around without a real direction. They need help. I think you’re just the man.”
I had to laugh. Victor hates it when anyone laughs at him, but the chuckle just bubbled out. I tried to cover it with a cough. “I’m no politician. I’m an industrial security specialist. I help companies with plant security and safety. I investigate insurance claims. I tell them how to keep employees from swiping ballpoint pens. I make sure no one peddles business secrets to the competition. Occasionally I hunt down a missing person.”
“You’re also an ex-cop,” Gaimari said, still staring out the window. “A candidate has to have security.”
“A small-town mayoral candidate needs the Secret Service? We’re not talking about the presidency here—this is Lake Erie Shores. The last time I looked, communities of white, middle-class Methodists and Episcopalians with two-car garages were a little thin in the political terrorist department.”
“That may be, but the campaign’s gotten pretty ugly out there, and I’d feel better having someone like you look out for her until the election is over. Besides, security wouldn’t be your only job. You took poli sci at Kent, didn’t you?”
“I took a class in it, yes.”
“Well, then, you could be of inestimable help.”
“I took an art history course, too, but the Cleveland Museum of Art hasn’t made me a curator. I don’t want to sound obtuse, but . . . ”
He turned back to me, silhouetted darkly against the bright sun behind him. I couldn’t see the expression on his face very well. I didn’t like that.
“You’d be an advisor. Check over Barbara’s speeches, huddle with her before her public appearances so she’ll know what to say. You’re a smart man, Milan. You have as much education as I do. And you’ve lived here all your life, you know the people.”
“I’ve lived in Cleveland,” I pointed out, “and Cleveland Heights —both of which are socioeconomically a million miles away from Lake Erie Shores. I couldn’t begin to know what a bunch of nouveau riche WASPs want to hear from a politician.”
“Milan, Milan,” he crooned, shaking his head at my lack of social awareness. “You’re such a reverse snob! You wear your blue collar like a merit badge. Look, the upper middle class is worried about the same things as everyone else: crime, high taxes, the quality of life. They want the same things for their kids as you do for yours.” His tone changed from pedantic to avuncular. “How are your boys, by the way?”
“Fine.” I said it through my teeth. Victor Gaimari even talking about my family was enough to upset me.
“Good-looking kids, both of them. I enjoyed meeting them that time.”
“Your oldest—Milan Junior, is it?”
I let my eyes flicker an affirmation; otherwise I stayed as still as an oil painting.
“He playing football again this year?”
“Wide receiver.” I begrudged him even that tiny scrap.
“And the little one—well, I guess he’s not so little anymore. He’s a charmer. Stephen Louis Jacovich, I think he told me his name was. He just stuck out his chest and introduced himself as Stephen Louis Jacovich.”
That just about tore it. “Cut to the chase, Victor.”
He came away from the window and stood too close to my chair, his cologne making the lining of my nostrils prickle. It smelled expensive—not like the kind you can pick up in KMart. I got to my feet and shifted so I could see his face better.
“All right, Milan.” This was the all-business tone now, the one you’d better listen to if you know what’s good for you. “Bottom line. I want you on the Corns campaign for the twelve days until the election. The title is chief of security, and the pay is three thousand plus any reasonable expenses, and you can set your own hours. I know you have a business to run, so it’s perfectly acceptable if you want to work on other things around Barbara’s schedule. And if she wins, there’s a twenty-five-hundred-dollar bonus. How’s that sound?”
“On paper it sounds terrific. But if the campaign is short on money, how are they going to afford it?”
“Let me worry about that,” he said.
“That’s good, Victor, because I don’t like worrying. It makes people old before their time. Now how about dropping the other shoe?”
He chuckled, going back behind his desk to sit down. The leather of the chair squeaked. It was an expensive sound.
“I’m beginning to think you and I know each other a little too well.”
“I’ve thought so for years.”
“Ha ha,” he said.