Samples

Why the Cavs Should Retire World B. Free’s Number

Image of the book Vintage Cavs by Terry Pluto

Book Excerpt

From Vintage Cavs, by Terry Pluto


Wayne Embry just didn’t understand.

Or maybe, the former Cavs general manager didn’t want to admit what World B. Free meant to the Cavaliers as they were coming out of the Ted Stepien Era.

Embry is an exceptional person. He was a good general manager for the Cavaliers and the Milwaukee Bucks. But when he came to the Cavaliers in the summer of 1986, one of his first big decisions was about re-signing Free.

Embry used to make fun of how the Cavaliers sent a helicopter to pick up Free at Burke Lakefront Airport on Sept. 30, 1983. Free was flown to the Richfield Coliseum, where a red carpet awaited him—leading the shooting guard to the door of the arena.

Why all the ceremony for player with a reputation for shooting too much, with the ball or his mouth?

The Cavaliers acquired Free from the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 15, 1982. They were the worst team in the NBA with a 3-19 record before he played his first game with his new team. Even worse, the Cavaliers were probably the most boring team to watch—dead last in the NBA in scoring. The few fans who did show up were there to scream that Stepien should sell the team.

Then came World B. Free.

“I remember when I got to the Cleveland airport right after the trade,” Free told me in 1986. “The people looked tired. I said I was going to pump some life into this place. ‘What Cleveland needed was World B. shakin’, bakin’, stoppin’ and poppin’. That’s what I was thinking.”

And there was more.

“When I got to the Coliseum, and wondered, where were all the people?” he said. “I remember there were games where the crowd was my girl and a couple of her friends. I’d try to give tickets away, and people would say, ‘Hey, World, don’t call me, I’ll call you.’ The team would walk through the airport and the baggage people would ignore us. It was sad.”

Free changed some of that.

“I knew World’s strengths and I knew his weaknesses,” former Cavs general manager Harry Weltman told me years ago. “And I knew his strengths were what we needed. He could put the ball in the basket. He was exciting to watch. We desperately needed that.”

Weltman didn’t worry about Free forcing a few poor shots during a game. He inherited (from Bill Musselman) a roster full of guys who couldn’t make wide open 15-footers . . . or guys who hated being in Cleveland.

Free was not a good defender, but he played hard. He signed autographs, posed for pictures, shook hands and made friends. Maybe he wasn’t the brightest star in the NBA galaxy, but he was a ray of sunshine on the Cavaliers roster.

The Cavs finished the 1982–83 season with a 20-40 record after the Free trade. They were 3-19 before.

He averaged 24.2 points and shot .458 from the field. Free was a free agent in the summer of 1983. After Gordon Gund bought the team, he green-lighted a multi-year deal for Free. Weltman signed him with the help of team attorney and salary cap expert Richard Watson.

Weltman and Watson then cooked up the idea of bringing Free to the Coliseum via helicopter, Free popping out and walking up the red carpet for a press conference to announce his new contract.

“We needed something positive, something fun,” said Weltman. “The fans wanted World back. We needed World. And we needed some good publicity.”

The helicopter landing delivered exactly that. Free was a showman. He loved talking to the media, and they had a great time listening to him.

No matter how many times this was explained to Embry and others who dismissed Free’s time with the Cavaliers as a strange sideshow, they refused to grasp the state of the game in Cleveland when Free arrived.

“I swear, they didn’t even have all the lights on in the Coliseum during my first year,” said Free.

That’s a stretch. But basketball was in the dark ages in Cleveland until he began to light up the scoreboard.

* * *

My introduction to World B. Free was in the spring of 1974.

I didn’t actually meet him. But I was with the Hiram College baseball team. We were on a spring trip and playing a few games at Guilford College near Greensboro, N.C.

We were sleeping near the gym. Many of the Hiram players had gone into town. It was night time. I heard a basketball bouncing. I went into the gym and saw a player shooting around. I loved pickup basketball. I walked over, talked to him for a while. His name was Billy Highsmith. He was a freshman on the basketball team.

This was the Guilford College basketball team that had won the 1973 NAIA national title. The Quakers—yes, that’s their nickname—were led by a young man from New York named Lloyd Free.

Highsmith and I played a lot of 1-on-1 that night. He won every game. But he spent a lot of time practicing his jumpers rather than simply driving around me to make layups. He talked about Lloyd Free, how Free was going to play in the NBA.

I’d never heard of Free until that day.

Highsmith and I were playing in a shoebox of a gym. It was hard to imagine anyone from that small school and that tiny gym becoming a star in the NBA.

But Highsmith was right. Not only did Free play in the NBA, but so did his teammates M.L. Carr and Greg Jackson. Free was a second-round pick by Philadelphia in 1975. Carr and Jackson were future NBA fifth-round picks.

Highsmith would play four years at Guilford, averaging 10 points per game.

But the story didn’t end there.

In the summer of 1977, I was hired to my first full-time newspaper job with the Greensboro News-Record. One of my assignments was covering small college basketball, which included Guilford. I met Jack Jensen, the basketball coach. He was an engaging man, a story-teller with a young reporter willing to listen.

He talked about going to Brooklyn to not only recruit Free, but Greg Jackson and others.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there were no AAU shoe-company sponsored summer tournaments for the nation’s best high school players. They tended to stay near home. In the summer, they played on the playground, or perhaps in legendary settings such as the Rucker League in Harlem.

Free remembered playing against the asphalt legends such as Phil “The Thrill” Sellers, who became a star at Rutgers. There was Earl “The Goat” Manigault, who could have been a star but battled drugs. He was revered on the New York playgrounds.

Free talked about Nate “Tiny” Archibald, another New York playground star who was terrific in the NBA. There also was Connie “The Hawk” Hawkins and so many others—virtually all with nicknames.

“So I had a nickname dating back to junior high,” he said.

He was called “World,” short for “All-World.” He had a 44-inch vertical leap, whirling dunks and a global sized ego. Like many New York playground stars, he also talked lots of trash to opponents.

Jensen heard about Free and some others. Free was not exactly a star student. This also was a time when some major Southern schools didn’t recruit black players, or at least were keeping an unofficial quota when it came to African-Americans on their roster.

The saying about how to use black players at some schools was “play one or two at home, three or four on the road . . . and five if you were in trouble of losing.”

Jensen convinced Free to come to Guilford, and it was a place where he could play as many minorities as he wanted without worrying about public pressure.

Free didn’t have a lot of other options. The same with Jackson, who teamed up with Free in the backcourt to win the 1973 NAIA title. Jackson would only play a single season in the NBA. He returned to Brooklyn and was well-known for his work with young people at the Brownsville Recreation Center, where Free played as a youngster.

I recently ran into Leonard Hamilton, the veteran coach from Florida State. He began his college career as an assistant at Austin Peay. We began talking about James “Fly” Williams, another playground star from Brooklyn and the Brownsville Recreation Center. Hamilton convinced Williams to come to the university in Clarksville, Tennessee.

Williams played there for two years, then turned pro.

But the point is college basketball was a much different place in the days of Lloyd Free. Those young men from the mean streets of New York and the small colleges in the South had to battle their way to the NBA. They weren’t anointed “The Chosen One” as LeBron James was at the age of 17 when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Shoe companies weren’t recruiting young teenagers to attend camps that funnel them to the college basketball powers.

As Hamilton and Jensen told me, so much of the scouting was word of mouth. Someone knew someone who knew of a good player who needed a college.

“I know what it means to come from nothing,” Free told me in 1986. “My father (Charles) was a longshoreman. His work wasn’t steady. But the man always found something for us to eat. There were six of us and we lived in a one-bedroom place. We stuffed towels in the windows to keep the cold out. When my father worked, it went day-to-night-to-day. These long shifts. He’d come home and be about dead.”

Basketball was Free’s ticket. He shot his way out of New York to a small college in North Carolina. Then he shot his way into the NBA. And he kept shooting, kept scoring, kept talking.

“It started for me on the playground,” said Free. “When I was a kid, Nate Archibald was the guy in Harlem. It was me in Brooklyn. Sometimes, I’d go there for games. Sometimes, he’d come to Brownsville. It was Nate the Skate vs. World the Thrill. It was like the Old West. Who was going to be the top gun? When we took the court, it was time to hook up your holsters, pull out your guns and see who could shoot each other’s brains out.”

Free told me that in 1986, it wasn’t common for people to show up at playgrounds and start shooting with guns. He was talking about jump shots, dunks and layups. He was talking playground basketball as it once was, before AAU teams and shoe companies moved everything indoors and turned it corporate.

“I remember when I was one of those boys, sitting on the sideline, waiting to get into a game,” he said. “I used to shoot left-handed. But no one shot left-handed, so I switched to the right hand.”

Free could indeed shoot left-handed. After Cavs practices, he’d go to the foul line and make free throws with his left hand. His form was perfect. Then he’d practice his right-handed free throws.

His jump shot came from almost behind his head with a high arc.

“You learn that if you don’t want it blocked,” he said. “I learned that from some other guys on the playground.”

He was cocky. He was relentless. He was a player and an entertainer.

“I didn’t have the same advantages as a lot of guys,” he said. “There was no big name school for me. No NCAA tournament. I had to make my way the hard way to the NBA.”

Free said he has pictures of himself as a young player with the Sixers.

“I have my first pair of tennis shoes from the NBA,” he said. “They are an old pair of canvas Converses, the Chuck Taylor model. I never knew who Chuck Taylor was, but I wore his shoes.”

In the 1970s, few players had a shoe contract worth mentioning.

“People would take me to a fancy restaurant, and I’d order a cheeseburger and Budweiser,” he said. “I remember being a rookie and going out to a place where they served oysters and lobster. What did I know about oysters and lobsters? How was I supposed to eat that? I asked the waiter to bring me some ketchup. The waiter looked at me and said, ’Sir, what did you say?’ I told him to forget it. That was one of those embarrassing moments when I felt like I didn’t belong with people with money. I felt so low, I could have walked out of the room without bothering to open the door.”

* * *

I didn’t cover Free and the Cavaliers until the 1985–86 season. But I saw games with Free.

“He was the only guy we had who the fans wanted to see in those years,” said Joe Tait. “You had to be here to fully understand what World meant to this franchise. He was unfairly labeled, and too many people held things against him from when he was a younger player.”

The World B. Free who showed up in Cleveland on the cold December day in 1982 was 29 years old. He was in his eighth NBA season. He made an All-Star team. The previous four years, he had been a 20-point scorer. In 1979–80, he averaged 30.2 points per game.

He was not a young, insecure second-round pick from small Guilford College outside of Greensboro, N.C., who joined the powerhouse Philadelphia 76ers.

He used to call himself “The Prince of Midair” because of his leaping ability. But that changed when he arrived in Cleveland at the age of 29. He was not the World who could dunk with ease. He was a polished pro, a jump shooter from long range with 3-point accuracy (.378 with the Cavs).

One of my first conversations with Free led to him asking, “Do you know how hard it is to get 20?”

“Twenty points?” I asked.

“No, 20 shots a game,” he said.

I laughed.

Free was serious. He explained how defenses were set up to stop players like him, scorers on bad teams. The goal was to keep the ball out of his hands. And when he did have the ball, he often faced two defenders. It took strength, energy and ingenuity to get off 20 decent shots a game.

“It can wear you down knowing you have to carry the offense for your team,” he said. “But I did it, year after year.”

Critics of Free, such as Embry, ask, “What has World ever won?”

* * *

After three years with the Philadelphia 76ers, Free was traded from bad team to bad team. In his first full season as the starting shooting guard, those teams showed an average improvement of 15 victories.

“There was always an owner out there who knew I could help his team win,” said Free. “Maybe he liked some other players better, but he knew World could bring their team alive.”

It happened in San Diego, where the Clippers went from 27-55 to 43-39.

It happened in Golden State, where the Warriors went from 24-58 to 39-43.

It happened in Cleveland where the Cavs were 3-19 when he finally played and 20-40 after that.

In 1984–85, the Cavs started the season at 2-19 under rookie coach George Karl. He was trying to run a share-the-ball, passing game style offense. That was not going to work with a starting lineup of John Bagley, Roy Hinson, Phil Hubbard, Lonnie Shelton and Free. Those guys were more defensive-oriented players and not strong outside shooters—Free being the exception.

When Karl allowed Free to control the offense, the team began to win. The Cavs finished with a 36-46 record—34-27 once Karl turned Free loose. They made the playoffs and lost to Boston 3-1 in the best-of-5 first round series. Their three defeats were by a combined seven points.

Free averaged 26.3 points and 7.8 assists in the series against the Celtics, shooting .441 from the field.

He played well. The Cavs overachieved that season.

But the next year, GM Harry Weltman and coach George Karl went to war on a variety of fronts. Karl had two years left on his contract, but wanted a new deal as a reward for making the playoffs. Weltman did offer to change his contract a bit, but Karl wanted more.

In the 1985 draft, Weltman had a chance to pick Karl Malone. He had the future Hall of Famer in town for nearly two days. But right before the draft, Weltman instead selected Keith Lee. Karl dueled again with Free about playing more defense and having him share the ball more on offense.

It was a clash of egos.

I covered the team that year, my first on the NBA beat for the Akron Beacon Journal. Karl was 34 and immature as a coach. Free was 32 and had little respect for Karl. The two had played against each other in the late 1970s. Karl was a journeyman, a 6.5 point scorer in his career in the NBA and ABA. Free remembers having little problem scoring against the man who now was his coach.

By the end of the 1985–86 season, Karl and Weltman had been fired. The Cavs had drafted Ron Harper as shooting guard. Embry didn’t believe Free would be content to come off the bench. His career with Cleveland ended at the age of 33—despite averaging 23.4 points and shooting .455 from the field (.420 on 3-pointers) in 1985–86.

He played two seasons after that with little success. It was almost as if the rejection by the Cavaliers broke his basketball heart. He is now a “basketball ambassador” for the Philadelphia 76ers, meeting with fans at games and other events.

He has often said Cleveland was the favorite time of his career. The attendance rose from 3,916 to 9,533 per game in his four seasons.

It’s hard to explain World B. Free. You had to experience it. And Cavalier fans had the best version of Free from 1982 to 1986. In 275 games, he averaged 23 points, shooting .454 from the field.

“It drives me crazy when I hear people take shots at World,” said Joe Tait. “Only those who followed the franchise back then understand what World meant to the team. His No. 21 should be hanging from the rafters. He was that good and that important to the Cavaliers.”

Perryton, Texas

Book cover image of "Mike Hargrove and the Cleveland Indians: A Baseball Life" by Jim Ingraham

Book Excerpt

From Mike Hargrove and the Cleveland Indians, by Jim Ingraham


Perryton is in the Texas Panhandle, 7 miles south of the Oklahoma state line, on the other side of which is the Oklahoma Panhandle. Perryton is about as far away from professional sports as a town in Texas can be.

The Perryton High School Rangers—Hargrove’s high school, college, and first major league team were all nicknamed “Rangers”—represented the one and only high school in Perryton, with an enrollment at the time of about 450 students. None of them, including a future American League Rookie of the Year, played baseball for the school, because the school had no baseball team.

“They had football and basketball in the fall and winter, and in the spring, they had track and golf,” Hargrove said. “I was on the golf team because I hated to run.”

He also played football and basketball, and excelled at both. As an all-state football player—he played safety and was the backup quarterback—he was recruited by Texas A&M and TCU.

The Perryton Rangers went 9-1 in Hargrove’s senior year. High school football in the Panhandle in those days meant long bus rides to play teams from colorfully named high schools.

“One of the schools in our conference was in Muleshoe, Texas,” Hargrove said. “Their nickname was the Mules, but they could have been called the donkeys, because they weren’t very good at the time. They were 250 miles from Perryton, but they were in our conference.”

So, while Hargrove was starring on the gridiron in the fall and on the basketball court in the winter, when spring rolled around and high school baseball players were playing high school baseball everywhere else, Hargrove was golfing. At a younger age he played Little League ball. But that was it. The town had no American Legion team. The high school had no baseball team. So, he golfed.

He did play some organized ball as a teenager. But it wasn’t baseball.

“In Perryton we had a men’s fast-pitch softball team, sponsored by McGibbon Oil,” Hargrove said. “They traveled a lot. My dad was on the team. My dad was a really good player. He was very fast. He was a really good baseball player and softball player.”

Dudley Hargrove, Mike’s dad, stood about 6-2, 165 pounds, and in the mid-1950s he played on Perryton’s traveling hardball team. The team consisted of men, ages 25 to 40, who would play games as far away as Colorado and New Mexico. Dudley got seen by scouts and, legend has it, was invited to go to spring training with the Dodgers one year. But his father wouldn’t let him go because it was wheat harvesting time, and he had to help out on the farm. The next year he got invited to the New York Giants’ camp, but he had pneumonia and couldn’t go.

Time passed, and so did Dudley Hargrove’s unfulfilled baseball career. But then came softball, when again he was the star of his team—as was his precocious son.

“When I was 13 or 14, I was too old to play in the YMCA league, and we didn’t have an American Legion team,” Hargrove said. “So, for a couple of years I played on that fast-pitch softball team with my dad and his buddies. I hit third and Dad hit fourth. That was pretty cool. He was the third baseman and I played first.”

Hargrove the Younger became a teammate of his father’s one day when the team had a game, but didn’t have enough players because the shortstop didn’t show up.

“I just came to watch the game, and then my dad says to me, ‘Do you want to play?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ So, he said, ‘Ok, go get your glove.’ So, I played shortstop that day. A left-handed shortstop. My dad was right-handed. The only thing in life he did left-handed was golf. I’m left-handed, and the only thing in life I do right-handed is golf.”

So, there’s Hargrove the Younger, at age 13 or 14, hitting third in the lineup of a fast-pitch softball team on which all the players were in their late 20s to mid-30s—including his father. And the kid more than held his own.

“I did pretty well,” Hargrove said. “One time we were playing in Pampa, Texas, and they had this really good pitcher. I came to the plate and I hit a triple off the right-centerfield wall. I’m standing on third and I heard somebody yell at the pitcher, ‘I told you he could hit!’ And then Dad came up next and hit the ball out of the ballpark.”

At the time, travel fast-pitch softball teams were a thing in Texas.

“We had to travel a lot, because Perryton is up there by itself” in the Panhandle, Hargrove said. “The closest town of any size is Amarillo, which was 120 miles away and at the time had about 110,000 people. Pampa was 60 miles away and there were about 60,000 people there. So, you had to travel.”

Hargrove went into the experience as a wide-eyed teenager. He came out of it as a teenager with not-so-wide eyes.

“I learned a lot playing on that team with my dad,” he said. “A lot of it I wished I hadn’t learned. But he kind of prepared me for the clubhouses in the big leagues. I enjoyed playing with him.”

It was about that time that Hargrove, then in the eighth grade, attended a Perryton High School football game as a spectator. Also at the game was Sharon Rupprecht, a seventh grader.

“Somebody came up to me and said, ‘Mike Hargrove wants you to sit by him.’ And I said, ‘Mike Hargrove? Who’s that? I wish it was Don Williams, because I know he’s good looking.’ Then I looked down and saw Mike, and he was good looking, too. So, I said, ‘He’ll do.’ ”

That marked the founding of the Hargrove/Rupprecht baseball alliance. They married in 1970, when he was 20 and she was 19. To this day, almost half a century later, she’ll bust his chops by occasionally, mockingly, calling him, “He’ll do.”

But it began for both of them in Perryton.

“When Sharon and I lived there, it was a town of 10,000. They’re down to 8,000 now,” Hargrove said. “Back then, you knew everybody. Between Sharon and me, we were related to 65 to 70 percent of the town.”

The same small-town principles applied years later, when they raised their family in Perryton during the off-season, and throughout the many places they lived during Hargrove’s career.

“Mike used to say when we lived in Perryton that if the kids don’t come home when they’re supposed to, he could make three phone calls and find them,” Sharon said. “But if they didn’t come home in Cleveland, he didn’t even know where to start looking for them.”

In the 1960s, Hargrove became the big man on a small high school campus, and had a distinguished career in every sport he played, except for the sport at which he would make his living for 35 years as a professional. As a high school senior, with his fast-pitch softball career over and his hardball career, as far as he knew at the time, also over, Hargrove was recruited by Texas A&M and TCU to play football. Instead, he accepted a full scholarship from an NAIA school, Northwestern Oklahoma State University, to play basketball.

“I liked basketball better then, even though my favorite sport, to this day, is football,” he said.

“When he was playing for the Rangers,” said Sharon, “we would go to Dallas Cowboys games and he’d sit there and say, ‘Gosh, I wish I’d made it in football.’ ”

Another reason Hargrove chose basketball in college was his experience playing for his high school basketball coach, Roy Pennington. “He was one of the most influential persons in my life,” Hargrove said. “He was the guy, if I had problems with anything or needed some advice, I’d go to him. And I really enjoyed my basketball experience in high school.”

Northwestern Oklahoma State University is located in Alva, Oklahoma, about 150 miles east of Perryton.

“I had a friend from high school who went there, so I had kind of an in there,” said Hargrove, who in 1993 was inducted into the Northwestern Oklahoma State Sports Hall of Fame.

“I went there on a full ride to play basketball. I had no thoughts of playing baseball at all,” Hargrove said. “My freshman year we started basketball in late August and didn’t get through until late February. When we got through, I was tired. And all my buddies were getting to go out and have fun. That’s what I wanted to do.”

Then Hargrove the Elder contacted Hargrove the Younger.

It was a life-changing conversation:

“Are you going to go out for the baseball team?” his father asked.

“No, probably not.”

“Why don’t you just try it?”

“Dad, I’m tired, and these guys are good. I can’t play with these guys. I can’t compete with them.”

“How do you know?”

“I guess I don’t. But basketball was tough enough.”

“Do me a favor. Go out for the team. Walk on, and see how it works. If you don’t like it, then let it go. But just give it a shot.”

So, Hargrove the Younger did.

“And I’m glad I did,” he said. “It almost makes you sick to your stomach, thinking about it now. Because if I hadn’t done that, Sharon and I, our goal when we got married was to get our teaching degrees and I was going to coach football and she was going to teach. We would have been retired by now, and it wouldn’t have been in Cleveland, Ohio. Looking back on it now, especially in the last couple of years, I’ve come to the realization about how God’s hand has been in my life, without me even being conscious of it.”

Ghosts …

Where the 20,000-seat Richfield Coliseum once stood is now a field in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This view (top) is from Rt. 303 looking north from what used to be (approximately) the east driveway entrance to the Coliseum. Top: Chris Stephens / The Plain Dealer. Bottom: Gus Chan / The Plain Dealer

Image of the book Vintage Cavs by Terry Pluto

Book Excerpt

From Vintage Cavs, by Terry Pluto


Someone once said, “You know you’ve reached a certain age when you remember a sports venue being built, and then see the same building torn down.”

I think of that when driving down Route 303 in Richfield, at the exit off Interstate 271.

Now, there is nothing but a field bumping up against some nearby farms and barns. Staring at it, there’s a sense it has been and will always be like this—a quiet spot that time forgot.

But once upon a time, a great arena rose up among the trees and squirrels and deer and prairie grass. For a while, it was a sports palace right next to a guy’s farm with sheep grazing on it.

The Richfield Coliseum.

Long gone.

But I close my eyes and I hear the booming voice of the late Howie Chizek proclaiming: ‘WORLD . . . BEE . . . FREE . . . FOR THAA . . . REE!!!”

I’m sure there have been better pro basketball public address announcers than Chizek, but I never heard one.

How about: “WHAM WITH THE RIGHT HAND!”

Maybe there have been better pro basketball radio broadcasters than Joe Tait, but I never heard one.

And while there is no denying the LeBron James teams were the best in Cleveland Cavalier history, I don’t find myself drawn to them the way I am to earlier Cavs teams.

I think of World B. Free, who averaged 23 points a game for the Cavaliers from 1982 to 1986. We became friends when I covered the Cavs for the Akron Beacon Journal in 1985–86, his final season. After practice, we would play a game of 3-point H-O-R-S-E.

You had to take 3-point shots from different spots behind the arc. If Free made a shot and I missed, I got a letter. An H . . .

Every time that happened, another letter. To make it fair, Free said I only needed to hang one letter on him. In other words, if I made one shot and he missed, he had all five letters—H-O-R-S-E.

Some of our games took a half-hour, but he never lost. He could make 10 in a row from 5-to-10 feet behind the arc. This was long before the 3-pointer became the favored shot as it is today.

But that court and those baskets are long gone.

So is the time when writers could watch practice and then be invited by a player to shoot around after it was over.

All that’s left is a field. Not a field of dreams—just a memory on the edge of a national park between Cleveland and Akron.

Once, on a visit to Cleveland, Free had a cab driver take him from downtown to where the Coliseum once ruled. He stood and stared at the field. So many memories, so lost in time.

Sometimes, I’m the same way.

Staring . . .

Thinking . . .

Hearing the squeaking of the shoes over the roar of the crowd—because sports writers sat near the court in those days.

The wind blows through leaves, the prairie grass bends in the breeze . . .

Mark Price . . . Austin Carr . . . Larry Nance Sr. . . . Brad Daugherty . . . Hot Rod Williams . . . Ron Harper . . . Lenny Wilkens . . . Bingo Smith . . . Campy Russell . . . Nate Thurmond . . . Jim Chones.

They hung no title banners. Some seasons, they lost far more than they won.

But they were my Cavaliers.

I’ve been writing about sports long enough to know there never was an age of innocence. What seems like small change now, looking in the rear view mirror of life, seemed like big dollars at the time.

The love of the game and the love of money have always been in a spiritual tug-of-war for those involved in pro sports. There have always been deal makers, liars, egotists and cravers of publicity involved with the Cavaliers.

That said, it was a different game when the Cavaliers were born in 1970. They played at the smoky, dumpy old Cleveland Arena on Euclid Avenue for their first four years.

And it was a different game when the team moved to Richfield in 1974.

And I maintain, it was a better game—or at least more of a game than what we see now in the NBA.

I write this knowing none of the Cavs teams playing at the old Cleveland Arena or Richfield Coliseum even reached the NBA Finals, much less won a title.

I write this knowing the Cavs did win the 2016 title—with LeBron James—at what was then called Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland.

For many Cleveland sports fans, recalling Fathers’ Day of June 19, 2016, will bring tears to their eyes as they remember dancing in the streets of downtown Cleveland after the Cavs came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat Golden State in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

It remains the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history. It is the most amazing sports event that I ever covered, keeping in mind the game was played at Oracle Arena in Oakland.

But I also write this knowing a lot of the details of what it took to deliver that title—the first for a major Cleveland sports franchise since the 1964 Browns.

It was a marriage of convenience between two men who couldn’t stand each other. It was like a major corporate merger, two of the most powerful people in the NBA.

No NBA player had made more money or had more influence than LeBron James, when he left the Miami Heat for the Cavaliers in the summer of 2014. And no Cleveland sports owner was willing to spend more money to win a title than Dan Gilbert.

While the two men barely spoke in those four seasons (2014–18), the Cavs went to the NBA Finals four times. It was purely a cold-hearted, bottom-line business proposition that paid off for both parties—and for Cleveland sports fans.

But that also was a different game, as I wrote in my book “The Comeback.” I used to think Michael Jordan was the greatest player I’ve ever seen—and that included Jerry West, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

Now, LeBron James would get that vote from me because of all he did to win a title in Cleveland. And Dan Gilbert deserves credit for putting things in place to make that happen.

So none of what I write here is meant to diminish the accomplishments of those two men and the Cavs from 2014 to 2018. In sports, the bottom line is winning—and they won more than anyone else in Cavs history.

Yet, I’m drawn to the Cavaliers before LeBron James . . .

Before Quicken Loans Arena . . .

Before so much of basketball was about who was leaving as a free agent and where that player would land in the summer . . .

It was Lenny Wilkens drawing up beautiful in-bounds plays . . .

Bill Fitch screaming at Jim Chones . . .

Mark Price and Brad Daugherty giving a clinic on pick-and-roll plays . . .

And the memory of an arena long gone, but so alive in my mind.

Ten Years Was Enough for Randy Lerner

Book Excerpt

From The Browns Blues, by Terry Pluto


“If you’re the guy who fixed it, it would be so much fun.”

I can’t confirm this, but I often heard Randy Lerner had promised his mother that he’d keep the Browns for 10 years.

Randy took over as owner when Al Lerner (his father) died of cancer on October 23, 2002. The sale of the Browns to Jimmy Haslam was announced on August 2, 2012.

Pretty close to 10 years.

Furthermore, the sale closed with what former Browns CEO Joe Banner called “unprecedented speed . . . about 40 days.”

Banner also was aware of the 10-year rumor, although he didn’t know what exactly was behind it.

“Before hardly anyone heard it, I was told Randy wanted to sell the Browns,” said Banner. “He didn’t want anyone to know. He didn’t want to get involved in a long, complicated process. He wanted to quietly do it.”

Meet Joe Leccese.

He is chairman of a New York based law firm called Proskauer, “a renowned Sports Law Group,” according to its website.

Leccese has been involved in the sale or acquisition of the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Astros, New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles. That’s also according to his website.

Leccese is friends with Banner.

“Sometimes, his firm represents the buyer, sometimes the seller,” said Banner. “They’ve helped teams with their stadium deals.”

Banner was looking for a new challenge after 18 years with the Philadelphia Eagles. He had spent the last 12 years as team president. But he longed to really be in charge of a franchise. He had helped hire Andy Reid as the Eagles coach in 1999, and that led to the Eagles becoming a power in the NFC.

Leccese had heard Randy was open to selling the team. Part of Leccese’s job is knowing who would be viable buyers for NFL teams. Jimmy Haslam had been a minor owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2008. He was very interested in buying his own team. He knew it would not be the Steelers. The Rooney family loved the franchise and planned to keep it.

Leccese was aware of Haslam’s desire to own a franchise.

“He called Jimmy and said the Browns could be bought, but they were not officially on the market,” said Banner. “The Browns had yet to hire an investment banker. But it seemed Randy really did want to sell. Jimmy said he was interested in Cleveland.”

That led to a discussion between Leccese and Haslam about who’d run the franchise. The Haslam family owned Pilot Flying J—a huge chain of truck stops across the country. The corporate headquarters is in Knoxville. Haslam said he didn’t want to move to Cleveland. Leccese talked about the need to have someone in Cleveland run the team for him.

Leccese brought up Banner, who was open to leaving the Eagles for the right opportunity.

In June of 2012, the Browns issued a statement denying the team was for sale. Another time that month, team president Mike Holmgren did the same.

Also in June, Banner was meeting in Martha’s Vineyard with Jimmy Haslam and his father.

“We had confirmed the Browns were available,” said Banner. “We talked about how we’d proceed in acquiring a team. And we talked about how to keep it confidential.”

Leccese had brought Banner and Haslam together. Banner and the Haslam family had several meetings.

This is not new.

When the expansion Browns were on the market in the late 1990s, Carmen Policy was introduced to Al Lerner by Dennis Swanson of ABC Sports. Swanson was friends with Al Lerner. Policy’s daughter was looking to work in television. A casual conversation about Policy’s daughter with Swanson led to Swanson later telling Al Lerner, “If you are serious about getting the Browns, you need to call Carmen Policy.”

Policy and Al Lerner combined forces. They emerged as the group that won the bidding war for the Browns in 1999.

The price? It was $530 million.

Keep that in mind as you read this discussion of the sale to Haslam.

* * *

Banner was excited about the opportunity to help Haslam buy the Browns. He saw it as a revival of his career, an incredible professional challenge.

“I wanted to go somewhere that had been a total failure,” said Banner. “Really, I mean that. I wanted to go to a team that was awful and be the guy who fixed it. The Browns were a huge challenge, but that appealed to me.”

In 2012, no NFL team fit that description better than the Browns. They had a 53-100 record since Randy took over as owner in 2002. It was similar to Policy joining an expansion team in 1999. Cleveland was a football-crazed market with so little to cheer for.

Just some success would be greeted with loud ovations for those who could bring it to town.

“Cleveland is a great football market,” insisted Banner in 2017. “If you’re the guy who fixed it, it would be so much fun. It would be unbelievable.”

The Haslam family became very comfortable with Banner serving as CEO.

Jimmy Haslam met with Randy Lerner. The goal was to determine the price Randy had in mind.

“We’re wasting our time unless the numbers are going to begin with a ‘B’,” Randy Lerner said.

“We had been tipped off,” said Banner. “For a billion dollars, he’d sell the team.”

Something else was helping the sale along.

Randy Lerner was not interested in bringing in a high-powered investment banker to handle the deal. He was using family lawyers. Keep in mind, the Lerner family was in the banking business.

But the lack of an investment banker was a positive for both sides. Haslam also used his own legal people. Banner said this simplified the process.

“Right away, we realized we could get this deal done,” said Banner.

* * *

Al Lerner bought the Browns for $530 million, so Randy Lerner would nearly double the investment if he could secure his price of ONE BILLION DOLLARS.

In 1998, the NFL was putting the Browns expansion franchise up for an auction conducted by Goldman Sachs. I was at an NFL owners meeting at the Dallas Airport Hyatt Hotel. I talked to several owners about the Browns situation.

At one point, a few of us in the media chatted with Alex Spanos, owner of the San Diego Chargers, about what should be the price of the expansion team. Remember, the higher the price, the more each team received. It was going to be divided into 30 parts—every team getting a share except Art Modell and the Baltimore Ravens.

“A billion dollars is not unfair,” said Spanos. “I know it’s worth a billion. I don’t know if anyone will pay it.”

In 1998, the NFL owners made it clear they were interested in one thing . . . the most money.

As Tampa Bay Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer said, “It will go to the highest bidder.”

Al Lerner recognized that. As he told us in the media: “The owners will see a number (bid) they like best and decide that person is brilliant.”

A few facts from the summer of 1998, when the NFL was seriously trying to build up competition between the various ownership groups bidding on the Browns:

1. In 1993, Carolina and Jacksonville had paid $140 million to become expansion teams. Five years later, the NFL realized that was too cheap.

2. By 1998, each NFL team was to receive about $75 million annually in national TV revenue.

3. Browns fans had bought more than 50,000 season tickets and 90 of 116 available luxury suites for a team with no owner, no coach, no players. And don’t forget all those fans also being forced to purchase the dreaded PSL—Personal Seat License. OK, they weren’t forced. But if you wanted a season ticket, you also paid extra for a PSL.

4. The main groups bidding on the Browns were Larry and Charles Dolan, Howard Milstein and Al Lerner. Others such as former Tribe owner Dick Jacobs and Bart Wolstein had dropped out or were eliminated by the NFL.

5. In retrospect, Al Lerner was probably the best man bidding. Larry Dolan is an honorable man and a solid owner of the Cleveland Indians. But he was connected to Charles Dolan, whose son James has been a disaster as an owner of the New York Knicks. Charles Dolan would have been the main owner of the Browns.

6. When I was writing False Start, Carmen Policy told me that Al Lerner nearly dropped out of the bidding. Lerner was appalled by the raw greed of the other owners, how they seemed to have little interest in what ownership group was best for Cleveland. In the end, Policy convinced Lerner to stay in the bidding, and bid high. Because in a few years, the franchise would be worth more.

7. The bidding became a media event. The winner was Lerner, at $530 million. The Dolan family was second at $525 million. The issue was decided on September 7, 1998. That gave the Browns one year and five days to prepare for the September 12, 1999 season opener.

8. The $530 million price tag became the highest amount paid at that time for any team in professional sports. The highest had been $350 million paid by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Group for the Los Angeles Dodgers in March of 1998. The highest previous price for an NFL team was $250 million for the Minnesota Vikings.

* * *

The reason for the history lesson on the sale of the Browns was to say something nice about Randy Lerner. He could have turned the sale of the team into a circus. He could have hired Goldman Sachs to run an auction, as the NFL did for the Browns.

Not only that, when Dick Jacobs sold the Indians to Larry Dolan in 2000, guess who ran the auction? It was Goldman Sachs. My theory was Jacobs paid the NFL the $150,000 fee to bid on the Browns so he could study how best to sell a team for the most profit. He knew he would soon be putting the Indians on the market.

But Randy Lerner did it quietly. He did it quickly.

In most negotiations involving money, the seller wants more—the buyer is interested in paying less.

This was a civil and honorable negotiation in the billion dollar era of sports.

But it still was about ONE BILLION DOLLARS!

Not only was that Randy Lerner’s price for the Browns, that’s what Jimmy Haslam was willing to pay . . . sort of.

“Even though we thought that was a good price, we wanted to get the best deal we could,” said Banner. “We stayed with the price of a billion.”

Haslam knew it was important for Lerner to be able to say he sold the Browns for ONE BILLION DOLLARS!

Haslam and Banner stayed with the ONE BILLION DOLLAR price tag. That would be the announced price.

“In the end, we paid only $600 million up front,” said Banner. “Instead of negotiating down the price, we negotiated a deferred payment. We’d pay the $600 million up front and then we’d pay the $400 million in four years.”

Banner said there would be “no interest, no nothing” paid during the four years before the $400 million was due.

It was a way for the deal to move quickly. Randy Lerner could correctly say he secured ONE BILLION DOLLARS for the Browns.

“Jimmy could own the team for four years with money coming in before having to make the last $400 million balloon payment,” said Banner. “That would off-set some of the last $400 million.”

That last $400 million was paid by 2016.

“As far as I know, there were no other serious bidders,” said Banner. “Randy gave us all the documents we wanted . . . the financials, stadium lease, etc. He was great.”

Banner said he had a casual relationship with Randy Lerner for years. Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is friends with Randy Lerner.

“I liked Randy,” said Banner. “He is a bright guy, not arrogant. I sensed he cared about people and about the Browns fans. His character was good. He showed it in the deal.”

Banner said the sale took “less than 40 days to negotiate, that’s almost unheard of. For a deal this big, four months is fast.”

Banner said during the negotiations, it was obvious Randy Lerner “was absolutely ready to be done with the Browns. He wanted to move on as quickly as possible to the other things in his life.”


From the book The Browns Blues, © Terry Pluto. All rights reserved.

Gene Ditsler’s Obsession


Book Excerpt

From Just One More Story, by Dan Coughlin


It began as a harmless hobby which ultimately controlled Gene Ditsler’s life and the lives of his wife and three children. Even now, a good 70 years later, he remembers the moment when his heart was broken and his obsessive compulsive nature surfaced.

“It was the most disappointing day of my life,” he said. “I looked up at the board and my name wasn’t on it.”

It was the year 1949. He did not make the eighth grade basketball team at Washington-Clay High School in South Bend, Indiana, a high school that included the junior high grades. He was chunky, not willowy, the way basketball players are supposed to be sculpted, but he was quick, he could handle the ball and he could shoot. Oh, yes, he could shoot. The coach cut him anyway.

Ditsler hungered for a continuing role in the game and he found a way.

“I stayed on as the team manager,” he said. “I made myself the best team manager ever. I dedicated myself to being the best. Hal Lebovitz once wrote that student managers turn out to be more successful than players. They become lawyers, doctors, teachers.”

That was fine, but picking up socks and jocks and keeping track of the towels and uniforms was no hobby. It was work. Child labor laws come to mind. He had access, however, to a basket, a backboard and an endless supply of balls. Each day, when his duties as the student manager were completed, Ditsler practiced free throws. He vowed to become the best free throw shooter on the team, which he did. He beat the players in “horse” every day after practice. When the players were showered and on their way home, young Ditsler was still at the free throw line. Swish, swish, swish. Each shot was identical. Form and rhythm never varied. He shot at the very least 100 free throws every day. Then he turned out the lights in the empty gym and walked home alone in the dark.

Don Schlundt, one of Indiana University’s basketball greats, an All-American in 1953, also went to Washington-Clay High School and would come home in the summers for pick-up scrimmages against other college players. The appearance of the 6-10 All-American Schlundt attracted some of the region’s top college players to South Bend in the summers and also created an opportunity for Ditsler to slip into games.

In one of those scrimmages Ditsler, who was still in high school, hit five outside shots in a row. Even then, if you left a shooter uncovered, you got burned.

“Who the hell has the fat guy?” one of the older college players yelled at his teammates.

In the spring he played baseball rather well, which led him to Western Michigan University. After baseball games and practices, however, he still shot 100 free throws.

Ditsler was lured to Cleveland by recruiters from the Cleveland Public Schools in 1959 and he did not intend to stay.

“My plan was to go to a small town after three years,” he said.

Ditsler longed to return to his roots, to a small town like the fictional one later memorialized in the high school basketball movie Hoosiers. In real life, the stars such as Jimmy Rayl and Oscar Robertson came from towns such as Kokomo and city schools such as Crispus Attucks in Indianapolis.

He never got there. He spent his entire teaching career in Cleveland at junior high schools such as Wilbur Wright and Mooney and at John Marshall High School.

Along the way, he set free throw shooting records at every school. In my files I discovered my story on him in The Plain Dealer in 1973. He had hit 72 in a row in the gym at Mooney Junior High School, where he was the assistant principal.

“My goal is 100,” he said at the time.

He obliterated that mark in 1976 when he made 174 in a row in the school gym. A secretary was called away from her desk to rebound for him. What choice did she have? He was the assistant principal.

He reached his personal high of 228 in a row on Dec. 4, 2003, in a gym in Coshocton, Ohio. He started to think of reaching 300. But it never got past the thinking stage.

Don’t take his word for any of this. There were witnesses who rebounded his shots and verified his records. Actually, they didn’t rebound, since he rarely missed. They caught the balls when they dropped through the nets and passed them back to Ditsler at the free throw line. Sometimes he recruited school secretaries, as he did when he made 174 in a row. Other times his wife and three children pulled rebounding duties—none of them happily.

“There was a certain amount of complaining and whining, but they had to do that for the old man,” Ditsler admitted.

There was no joy when Ditsler had an outdoor backboard erected in the driveway of his house at 4328 Wooster Road in Fairview Park, Ohio. His hobby was now coming home with him.

After retiring from the Cleveland schools, Ditsler and his wife, Marge, moved to Coshocton County where they bought 40 wooded acres for harvesting timber, mostly white oak, hickory, maple and wild cherry. On this land is a house and a barn which Ditsler converted into an indoor basketball court. Yes, he still shoots 100 free throws a day, even though he is now in his 80s and his shoulder is killing him. A lifetime at the free throw line has wrecked his right shoulder. His rotator cuff has the texture of shredded cabbage.

His wife is still there, but his children have fled as far away from him as possible. His daughter Jennifer lives in Paris, France. His son Mark lives in Columbus and son Andy lives in Westlake.

“My daughter in Paris has a 13-year-old daughter. She rebounds for me when she visits us,” he said not long ago.

She will probably learn to complain about this in two languages.

The greatest influence on Ditsler’s free throw shooting was all-time star Oscar Robertson—not for the many he made, but for one he missed.

“It was an NCAA tournament game when Oscar was playing for Cincinnati,” Ditsler said. “Cincinnati trailed by one point. There was no time left. When Oscar went to the line he always bounced the ball once and then shot. This time, before taking his second shot, which would have won the game, he bounced the ball twice. He missed. What a lesson. Cincinnati lost in overtime. Consistency is the key.”

Ditsler recalls a shooting guru named Mike Scudder from Fort Wayne, Indiana, who traveled around the Midwest giving clinics.

“He guaranteed that he could make 95 percent from the line. He thought that was pretty good, like the best ever. I once made 977 out of 1,000. That’s 97 percent.”

As someone once said, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.”


From the book Just One More Story, © Dan Coughlin. All rights reserved.

The Cop House

Book Excerpt

From Hot Type, Cold Beer and Bad News, by Michael D. Roberts


Years later mature men, and some women, would talk about the police beat with the fondness of matriculation, a rite of passage through the thickets of journalism. A ritual in the golden days of newspapers, they would say at Nighttown over wine or at a Press Club of Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame dinner where the past was painted with romance.

As for me, I wanted to get the hell off the police beat before I ever got there. There were few bylines to be had out of that shabby carbuncle of an office in Central Station on Payne Avenue, where everything smelled of urine, disinfectant and stale tobacco. You were afraid to touch anything for fear of contracting a disease. In those days the police liked to show rookie reporters the black homosexuals jailed for the mere fact they were gay.

The police beat was where you learned that journalism was an unnatural act. You were called upon to abuse any civility you possessed, to thrust yourself into uncomfortable if not dangerous situations, to work ungodly hours—and all this for modest wages. Here you learned to argue with the Plain Dealer’s front office over cleaning bills for a suit that reeked of smoke after you covered a fire. You learned to be insensitive and brash. You also learned a distaste for editors. Most importantly, you learned whether this was what you wanted to do with your life.

And presiding over all this was a grinning bulldog of a man with a bald head and a lascivious laugh that almost always made you uneasy. This was the legendary Bob Tidyman, a combat veteran of the fierce battles waged to recapture France in World War II and the most jaded man I’ve ever met. He was the chief police reporter. His father, Ben, had held the same job for nearly a quarter of a century and had trained Bob and his brother, Ernest, in the vagaries of the beat when they were in their teens. Ernest, a seventh-grade dropout, became a novelist and screenwriter, creating the black detective John Shaft and winning an Academy Award for his French Connection screenplay.

All those years on the police beat can do things to a man, and Bob Tidyman was the recipient of every lesson the street could teach, maybe each a dozen times. The environment was enough to erode even the most virtuous soul. Tidyman had overseen the basic training of a generation of Plain Dealer reporters, making some and breaking others.

He liked to tell of the time he and his brother had witnessed a prisoner using knotted sheets to escape via a window in the Cuyahoga County Jail, visible from the police beat office. When they excitedly called the scene to the attention of their father, Ben Tidyman smiled and said, “Let him get away, boys, and then call the desk. It’s a better story if he escapes.”

The key to getting along and understanding how the beat operated was to know that Bob Tidyman did not work; he was an overseer. If you understood that, and accepted it the way you would the Gospels or the Constitution, things would be fine. If you did not, Tidyman would make your life so miserable you would pray for deliverance from the darkness of the place and become a librarian.

I received my draft notice the same day I received a memo that I was to report to the police beat. I was able to skirt the draft because of my childhood bout with polio, but there was nothing I could do about Tidyman except show up at the appointed hour and accept my fate.

I had spent most of my first few months at the paper on the rewrite desk, essentially writing shorts and taking notes from the police reporters and turning them into two-paragraph stories. The day John F. Kennedy was assassinated I manned the phones, taking calls from a mournful public seeking information. There was no cable news in those days.

The city room was in chaos as the bells on the Associated Press teletype machines announced bulletin after bulletin. Everyone labored in a strange slow motion, trying to contemplate the enormity of the event. There was so much discombobulation that the city desk had to hang a huge sign with the word A-S-S-A-S-S-I-N-A-T-I-O-N because so few of the staff could spell it.

That night I asked the city desk if I could have a byline in the paper for history’s sake. I was embarrassed to do so, but I could not let the moment pass. An editor simply nodded yes.

Death was a strange but vital part of the paper. I learned about that from the obituary writer, G. David Vormelker, a thin man with wireless glasses, a string tie and a pleasant smile, who would softly express condolences to a bereaved family and then slam down the phone and mutter about his lunch hour. “People who die on my lunch hour get shorter obits,” he told me one day. Vormelker had utter contempt for people who died on Cleveland Press time. He hated death on deadline, too. He advised me not to die on a Thursday, when space was always short because of the food pages. For the record, Vormelker died on our time and the afternoon rival gave him a good obit just to stick it to us.

There was a lot of death on the police beat, too. Shootings, stabbings, house fires, drownings, car crashes, suicides, airplane crashes and any number of other bizarre exits from this life were in the beat’s purview. One afternoon Hil Black, the chief police reporter for the Press and a man known for his dignity and skill, grabbed me and said that a respected federal judge had just died. Black was going to phone the widow; he wanted me there so that the bereaved woman wouldn’t be bothered by another call from the media. It was an uncommon and thoughtful gesture, one I never forgot.

There were plenty of those calls as well as visits to homes to collect pictures of the recently passed. If you got there before the Press, you tried to get all the pictures of the deceased, leaving the afternoon guys with nothing. They would do the same to us.

If you were truly unlucky, you would be the bearer of the ultimate bad news, announcing to a wife that she was a newly made widow because her husband had just been killed in some drunken accident on a nearby highway. Then there were calls to the coroner’s office, where an indifferent voice would yawn and give you the cause of death or tell you to call back because the body was still on the slab and they hadn’t finished counting entry and exit wounds.

Often we would go into the night and visit scenes of mayhem. I remember a shooting on the East Side where the victim lay dead on a tree lawn and a homicide detective bent over to examine the body, dripping mustard from his bologna sandwich. These stories helped fill awkward silences while out on a date, but the paper’s editors couldn’t have cared less about them.

In those days reporters could roam hospital emergency rooms like tourists, talking to police and doctors while patients were treated for their wounds. One night at Mount Sinai an ambulance brought in a man who had been shot five times in the back of his head. Not one bullet had penetrated the skull, and the man lived. It was a good story but a bad address—which was code for “black”—and it received scant attention deep in the paper.

I first set foot in the police beat office early in February at 6 p.m. I was wearing a blue blazer and a rep tie, pretty much standard dress for junior reporters. Studying me, Tidyman asked in a quiet but scary voice who the fuck I was.

I introduced myself and explained that I had been told by the city desk to report to the police beat. “Those assholes never told me they were sending another college boy down here,” Tidyman growled. “We already have a guy from Princeton who can’t find his way to the crapper and washes his hands every time he picks up a phone. He’s worried about picking up some disease from all this filth. This place is too sick for that.”

Oh, man, I thought, this is going to be joyful.

The beat was all about phones and we were on them constantly, calling rounds of all the suburban police departments every hour before deadline. Sometimes one department would cover for another and provide misleading information about a late-night episode. Other times, when there were bad feelings between suburbs, they would rat out the other department.

The first thing Bob Tidyman told new guys was never to answer a certain phone in the corner. This was the direct line from the city desk, and Tidyman did not want anyone but himself talking with editors. If that phone rang, you were to track down Tidyman as fast as you could and tell him. He could generally be found in one of the many bars across the street on Payne Avenue. Tidyman would call the desk back, explaining he was up in homicide—a place he never went, because the detectives there generally despised him for a decades-old story he had written on police brutality or some other injustice.

Where now stands Cleveland State University’s manicured soccer field sat a row of shabby bars that served us late and often, providing respite from nonstop telephone rounds and endless patrols of Central Station. Tidyman held court in Lubeck’s Casino and other bars along the street. Cops drank there, homeless persons from the street would cadge drinks, and a few tired whores would take a nightcap at the joints. Tourists from the city room would stop by to catch some grit and a beer after deadline.

One night near closing, a cop shot the clock off the wall when the bartender announced last call. The scene was surreal: the smell of cordite, the ringing in the ears, the floating dust backlit by neon beer signs. Across the street, the police station remained indifferent to the noise. Another night someone fired a pistol into a phone book just for laughs. Again, the loud report brought no response from Central Station.

At the beat you learned to assemble greasy facts like a crossword puzzle. You phoned these facts to a rewrite person who sat in the comfort of the Plain Dealer office and who had the authority to question your very existence. If you missed a fact, rewrite would tell you not to call back until you had them all.

Getting the facts often meant dealing with the homicide squad and being pinballed back and forth between the cops and the city desk. What was the victim’s middle initial? What was the caliber of the gun? The model of the car? Sometimes detective Carl Roberts would clean his pistol and look at me through the barrel while I tried to pry information from him on a two-paragraph murder that the city desk was obsessing over. Running up the stairs to homicide and back down to the phone on deadline over and over again turned the perspiration pouring down your spine into a stream of tension that knotted every muscle. After a while, neophytes learned to ask the right questions quickly and effectively.

The relationship between the police and the Plain Dealer in those days was rocky. One summer afternoon Tidyman was across the street drinking with a detective who was supposedly on duty when a squirrel ran through the open door, leaped onto the bar, and bit the cop on the hand. Fearing rabies, the detective went to the emergency room at St. Vincent Charity Hospital and reported the incident as a dog bite obtained while investigating a break-in. Meanwhile, Tidyman turned in the story about the squirrel and it appeared in the next morning’s paper. In return, all the police reporters’ cars were ticketed.

Tidyman offered up plenty of other reasons for police animosity. One night, a brand-new police car was stolen. The car had been parked beneath the window of our beat room at Central Station. We often exited the building through the window, down onto a parking lot. The atmosphere on the beat that night felt strangely electric. And then Tidyman walked in and announced he had just got a tip that a new squad car was missing, maybe stolen.

While the police began a frantic search for the vehicle, several of us began to make calls. We received an anonymous tip as to where the car had been abandoned. The cops could see tomorrow’s headline. They were furious and embarrassed by our story.

The number two man on the beat was Donald Leander Bean, a rumpled reporter who squinted through thick glasses. The mentor of many aspiring Cleveland journalists, he also loved practical jokes. One of his favorites involved sending young reporters to the war memorial on the Mall to interview the mother of the Unknown Soldier.

Bean would go to great lengths to create hoaxes that would draw a Press reporter to the scene of a crime that never took place. A veteran of the defunct INS news service, Bean was the one reporter that you wanted on deadline in a late-breaking story. He was respected by the police and had a certain tenacity that endeared him to editors. He complained from time to time about his lack of promotion, but the desk dared not elevate him. Without Bean’s presence, the police beat would have been a mere shadow of itself.

Bean came up with a suspect in the case of the stolen police car. The suspect was Tidyman, and Bean swore us to secrecy. I suppose the police suspected too, but there was always that lingering doubt. Years later when I learned that during the war Tidyman had once stolen a jeep for a joyride (and was later punished for it), I couldn’t help but remember that night.

One Christmas Eve, the town silent and the police beat slow, we got a tip from a suburban police department on the West Side. A widow with four children reported that the utility company had shut off the gas and her kids were freezing.

It so happened Tidyman was just passing through on his way home from a quick stop at Lubeck’s when the call came in. Standard practice was to phone the utility company’s public relations man and get a comment. Instead, Tidyman ordered me to call the company president at his home and disturb the family dinner.

“Wish him a Merry Christmas,” Tidyman said.

I made the call and, of course, the president was angered, referring the call to his PR person. The day after Christmas all hell broke loose. Executive editor Phil Porter, who knew that the idea had been to embarrass the gas company for going Scrooge on Christmas, demanded a memo. I sweated over writing one. Tidyman just shrugged.


From the book Hot Type, Cold Beer and Bad News, © Michael D. Roberts All rights reserved.

John Lanigan: Friends in High Places

Lanigan in the Morning, a book by John LaniganBook Excerpt

From Lanigan in the Morning, by John Lanigan, Peter Jedick, and Mike Olszewski


WGAR was a 50,000-watt blowtorch. That’s radio lingo for a station that didn’t have other stations interfering, and “the friendly station” could be heard in 38 states and a big part of Canada during certain times of the day. We gave them plenty to listen to as well. Every day part had a jock who put on a show like morning drive. Lots of interviews, impressions, jingles and a staff who could pull it off. All the shows had comedy bits and lots of telephone calls. It was personality-driven radio, and that was happening all over the country: WLS in Chicago, KOMA in Oklahoma City, and others.

There were a lot of great people at the station. The crossover at 10 a.m. with Joe Mayer came about by accident. Joe was a Cleveland legend when WHK was a Top 40 monster. We would talk at the end of my show sometimes and I would throw a few jokes at him. He’d laugh and take over, and I would leave. As time went on, I threw more at him and he laughed more and it became a daily bit, a big part of the show. Joe Mayer could laugh like no other!

We had taped bits like “Buzz and Juggs” about some geeky teenagers, and “Santa Hanukkah from Santa Monica” was a Jewish version of Kris Kringle. I believe Jan Jones and Bill Ward were part of the Buzz and Juggs bit. It was all produced locally.

Ah, the Flex Club. We wanted to say the Sex Club, but you couldn’t say that on the air in those days. I started that in Albuquerque by playing David Rose’s song “The Stripper” at 7 a.m. It was a crazy thing: “It’s the Flex Club folks! Get it up, get it on, get ready, get to work.” Then I took the Flex Club with me to Denver and we started adding in letters that people sent us to read on the air. We got a lot of mail, so we would read them over the music, using the song as a bed. Eventually people started calling in to the show to talk about it, and the bit kept getting longer and longer. It was supposed to be a minute lead-in to news, and it was going five minutes! At one point we even had Flex shampoo sponsor that segment. It ran its course and we had a lot of fun with it, but eventually I just retired it.

Was there a line not to cross on the air? We talked about politics, and relationships, but the line was in your head. George Carlin once had a bit about seven words you could never say on the air, but there was no real line you couldn’t cross. We didn’t go racist or mock religion. That was radio back then. You knew what you could do without having to say it. Maybe a few times there were guests who went a little too far, but you just restored order and moved on. The lines kept changing anyway. I didn’t attack other people. That was something that Howard Stern loved to do years later, but I didn’t do that at all. That was just my personal preference. That may be why Howard and Donald Trump became such good buddies on the radio, because they did the same kind of insults. I didn’t believe in attacking and insulting other people. Yeah, you can make fun of them and make jokes about them, and we did it about everybody, but never viciously or to insult them.

One thing that I started doing before I left Denver was having the mayor, Bill McNichols, on the show every week. Politicians give you credibility because most of them have been in the city their whole lives. It doesn’t matter if you like them or you don’t. We actually became friends.

It worked in Denver, so when I went to Cleveland and started on WGAR, I invited Mayor Ralph Perk on the show. He agreed, I got to know him right off the bat and he helped get me known because we had a regular thing on the air. Nobody else on radio at that time was putting politicians on the air. He was on once a week, letting everyone know what was going on. He helped me immensely by getting out the word that I wasn’t just some outsider passing through.

Eventually I came to know his whole family, so I kind of got involved in politics through him. If I had a problem, and I had quite a few of them in my early years, I’d call him and he’d help me out. Here’s an example:

You have to promote a successful radio show on and off the air. I was asked to be the Grand Marshal for the city of Parma’s Fourth of July parade. This was kind of a big deal because I was new in town, and a lot of people still didn’t know me. So on the Fourth I pulled up to park next to the mayor’s car and a cop told me, “Hey! You can’t park here! This is restricted.” I tried to tell him I was in the parade, but he came back with, “You still can’t park here. You’re going to have to go somewhere else, you understand?”

“I’m not going to go anywhere else,” I replied. “I’m the Grand Marshal of the parade and I’m going to park here.” Well, one thing led to another and before you knew it, he had arrested me. The parade started and I heard someone ask, “Where’s John Lanigan? He’s supposed to be the Grand Marshal.”

The next thing I knew, I was at the Parma jail with one phone call. Who you gonna call? Not Ghostbusters. They were still a few years away. So I rang up Ralph Perk and gave him a thumbnail account.

“Sorry, John,” he said, “I can’t do anything for you. I’m heading to the airport and I’m flying out in about two hours to go to Washington, D.C. to see the President.”

Uh-oh. Now what?

Perk must have felt sorry for me. He called somebody, who called somebody else, and the next thing I know the jail door opened and the cops said, “We’re sorry about this. You can go now.” The parade had gone on without me.

I also became friends with the guy who replaced Perk, Dennis Kucinich. Still am.

We had him on the air a lot when he was running for mayor, so when he was elected he told me that he wanted me to be on the dais with him for his swearing-in ceremony at Cleveland Music Hall. I didn’t understand why.

“I’m not a politician,” I said. “I’m just some radio guy.”

“You were part of it,” Kucinich responded.

And he wanted me to speak!

“I don’t have anything to say! “I protested, but Kucinich stood his ground. Then I had an idea. “If I have to do it, I have to do it my way,” I told him.

Deal!

They had a number of people up on the dais and they had me sitting next to Louis Stokes, the congressmen, and former Mayor Carl Stokes’s brother. They had quite a lineup of people speaking on behalf of the new mayor, and they brought Stokes up after two or three speakers. I was supposed to be next, but I ducked out of sight and changed into a court jester’s outfit. The whole suit, and it looked pretty good. So Stokes finished up and went back to his seat and the master of ceremonies introduced me, but I was nowhere to be found. He didn’t seem pleased.

“That’s just like those media people,” he said. “They’re never on time and they’re never prepared when we’re ready.” As he was saying those words I casually strolled out to the podium as a court jester. The place exploded! I told him I would do it my way, and had a good reason behind it.

My idea was that Cleveland had been a joke for too long. We were tired of being made fun of as the “mistake on the lake” and all the rest of it. So I stood up at the podium and said, “Well, we got a new guy at City Hall. He’s young, he’s aggressive and he’s going to be interesting. And you know what? We’re not going to be laughed at anymore. We’re going to laugh back, and that’s why I’m up here, to let you know that we’re not going to take it anymore.”

I felt sort of like a renaissance Howard Beale. It got a great response, too. It made it all the way to The New York Times. The article was about Kucinich’s election, but it also mentioned the court jester who said we’re not going to be laughed at anymore. You can laugh at me, but not the city.

We’ve stayed friends over the years and have been involved in a lot of other things together. Oddly enough, people forget that he ran for president twice. You’d see him during the Democratic debates with all the other big candidates. Hey, he might have been the outsider who didn’t have much of a chance, but there he was. Gotta give him credit for that!

Kucinich had had a pretty tough life. He once told me that he wanted to sell his house in Washington, D.C., and move back to Cleveland. I said, “You’ve come a long way from living in your car, haven’t you?” You know, at one point in his life he actually was living in his car. He didn’t have anywhere to live. He just kind of smiled and he said, “You’re right, John. I have come a long way.” He made it a point to call me on my last day at WMJI. He was stuck at Fox News in Washington, but I sure appreciated that call.


From the book Lanigan in the Morning, © John Lanigan, Peter Jedick, and Mike Olszewski. All rights reserved.

(Photo courtesy of Akron Beacon Journal.)

Theater of the Mind

Cleveland Radio Tales: Stories from the Local Radio Scene of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, by Mike Olszewski and Janice Olszewski. Published by Gray & Company, Publishers. Front cover of book.

Book Excerpt

From Cleveland Radio Tales, by Mike and Janice Olszewski


The Crystal Ballroom, a Phony Funeral, and a Trip to Celebrity Donuts

Radio is best when you can visualize what’s happening. We’ve already discussed what Orson Welles did with the Mercury Theater, but a lot of local radio people also staged events, and some really knew how to pull it off.

Music stations were famous for phony rock festivals. In the early Seventies, WNOB-FM in Newbury had a syndicated special called The Ultimate Rock Concert with Brother John Rydgren introducing records and doing stage announcements against the sound of a crowd, with Bob Lewis, “Baba Lou,” cutting in with backstage interviews. Dia Stein really knew her way around the WMMS production studio and put together similar shows like Buzzard Fest and Camp Buzzard, which was aimed at promoting a special WMMS clothing line at the May Company.

John Rio, better known as Mr. Leonard, would play live recordings on the Morning Zoo that he supposedly recorded on stage at local clubs the night before, and once promised he would bungee jump off the Terminal Tower. Here’s the problem: WMMS, and especially Mr. Leonard, were incredibly popular, and on the appointed day a huge crowd clogged up Public Square. They did the jump live in the studio against sound effects, and the switchboard lit up asking where Mr. Leonard was. He just said he did it on the other side of the building so he could look at the secretaries in the lawyers’ offices.

WMMS also performed its own contemporary version of the War of the Worlds for the crowd that provided their own pharmaceutically generated special effects. WCLV did too, a few decades later, featuring local media celebrities and politicians. The driving force behind that production was the mega-talented Jim Mehrling, who a few years back produced nightly vignettes introducing his nightly World of Entertainment show on WERE.

Over the years, and despite the fact that WERE stressed the credibility of its news department, the station staged a good amount of special programming. Back in the mid-1970s, the entire news staff, including Peter Wellish and a young Carl Monday, reported from a phony funeral route for Gary Dee, who would lie in state on Public Square. The live broadcast included remarks by People Power talk show host Merle Pollis and a eulogy by Count John Manolesco, who described the entire event as “A travesty! A mockery!” At that point, Gary Dee peeked out of his casket to loudly heckle “Count Phony Baloney! Hey Doctor Voodoo!”

When WERE had its news and talk format in the 1980s, the reporters put together a phony St. Patrick’s Day parade a couple of years in a row that ran in morning drive. Problem was, people thought it was a real parade and started calling at 7 a.m. asking what streets to avoid.

And, of course, Ray Hoffman’s Sunday show was like an audio acid trip for the upper demos. He would occasionally take the show “on the road,” broadcasting live from the imaginary Celebrity Donuts shop located on Doan Court in downtown Cleveland. Of course, if you know the downtown area, it’s an alley that at the time was behind the Trailways bus station. These were the days before Google maps, so calls would come in asking where the most ornate donut house in the city was located so they could take out-of-town guests. Sometimes Hoffman would tape interviews with guests during the week and play them against the Celebrity Donuts sound effects so it sounded like they were at the remote!

But the one guy who performed theater of the mind longer and better than anyone is pretty much forgotten today.

Wayne Mack was one of the old timers who held on right into the 1990s. Every week starting in the early 1950s, he would broadcast on WDOK-AM from “the balcony radio box at the Waltz Palace, overlooking the great glistening dance floor and the huge stage” at “Northern Ohio’s oldest and most beautiful ballroom.” He said the ballroom was easy to get to, right on the lakefront, just “twenty-two miles outside the city on picturesque Sunset Road.” He encouraged people to come out “tonight if you can” to join hundreds of other couples who were already there and had been coming since it opened in 1921. It wasn’t just the house band either. Some of the biggest names in music would stop in and show the crowd what they could do. But the ballroom was actually between your ears, created with a microphone and a handful of records. Mack had plenty of practice. He had done it so often, and did it so easily that you’d swear he was broadcasting from a big band show. The ballroom had “sparkling chandeliers and red carpeting” and was full of what my grandmother would call “rich society babas” heading out to swanky private parties after a night on the town.

The reason this bit came off so well week after week is that a lot of stations really did broadcast from big dance halls. WHK would air shows from the Glens Pavilion in Bedford, and you’d hear other broadcasts from Geauga Lake, and just about any place with a stage. Bill Randle, Phil McLean, and Bob West would do live jazz shows from clubs and theaters around the city. Still, Mack did it so convincingly that you had to wonder if he really did think he was at the Waltz Palace.

Keep in mind that this was broadcast on the AM band. Most of the audience back then didn’t know or even care that FM existed. AM stations that had FM outlets pretty much just simulcast what was on the AM band. Here’s an example. WERE-FM was at 98.5, and in 1953 the management was thinking about putting on different programming. That December, the station started airing an announcement asking if anyone was out there. It said, “If you can hear this announcement, you are listening to WERE-FM. We beg your pardon for interrupting this program momentarily. This is Ed Stevens, the program director of WERE. We are considering the broadcast of some FM-only programming. However, before we can do this it’s necessary to measure in some way the number of people who listen. We would appreciate a card or letter from you if this announcement is coming into your home, stating simply, ‘I heard the FM announcement’. This is merely an audience measurement and in no way constitutes an offer of any kind. But, you will be helping us with the programming of this station. Remember, if you heard this announcement, please write a letter to WERE, Cleveland 15, Ohio. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Maybe it was the lack of FM tuners or, more likely, a lack of interest, but the response was underwhelming. WERE, like most stations, just kept simulcasting until the FCC required separate FM programming starting in 1968. Then, it wasn’t too long before broadcasters would discover that the sound of cash registers came across so much clearer out of stereo speakers.

Wayne Mack and WDOK-AM were a pair until December 1965. That’s when the AM became WIXY 1260, and Mack was banished to program “the lands of the Western Reserve” on the FM side. Mack made money and ratings for the owners on the FM, but his fans missed him on the more popular AM band. WIXY got huge ratings and was a giant in the industry until FM started to eat up all the AM outlets. In 1976 the station took the call letters WMGC and, in a very conservative Northeast Ohio, caused an uproar with billboards stating, “Get Your Rock Soft.” Three years later, it became WBBG, tried and failed with a talk format, and after a lot of tweaking switched to the same music Mack used to play!

Some said WBBG stood for “Big Band Grandstand,” and it did pretty well until the format switched over to WRMR, the old WJW, in 1987. A lot of the old war horses of Cleveland radio (and that is said with the greatest respect) found a new home with an old audience. It was like a time machine! Carl Reese, Ronnie Barrett, the great Bill Randle . . . and the return of Wayne Mack!

Mack hit the ground running, too. The Palace Ballroom was back on the air, and it had plenty of star power, too. One night in 1993 Mack promised a huge live show with Barbra Streisand singing with Harry James and his orchestra. What made the night even more remarkable was that James had died ten years earlier. No wonder Mack said there were “twenty-six charter buses already parked together and traffic was bumper to bumper on Morningside Drive all the way to Indian Ridge.” WRMR wisely had a disclaimer before every broadcast saying, “Ladies and gentlemen. The following program is pure fantasy, and is not to be confused with any actual place or event. The setting is fictional, and the music is on records and tapes and is intended solely for the entertainment of our listening audience.” The station still took calls asking for directions from listeners who probably shouldn’t have still been driving.

Mack hung on for a good long time, but his health caught up with him. He eventually did what most of his audience had done long before and retired. Pardon the cliché, but Wayne Mack went to the big ballroom in the sky on October 15, 2000.

Let’s go back to Bill Randle.

Randle’s life took a few twists and turns after he left WERE, teaching college classes, picking up a few degrees, and getting his license to practice law. But he kept his toe in the radio pool and, as always, did what he wanted. Program directors knew better than to try to tell Randle what to do. At WRMR he played *NSync along with the “Music of Your Life,” and was one of the first jocks to play 13-year-old LeeAnn Rimes, saying she was going to be a huge star. His audience stayed with him, too.

He also didn’t care what he said to whom or where. One Sunday night there was a broadcasters’ event at a hotel in Akron, and Randle was being honored along with Mike Douglas and some other big names. It wasn’t formal, but most people were in suits and ties—except Randle: open collar, shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and you could tell Randle was waiting for someone to say something. The night was going long, and it was finally time for Randle to speak. This was some speech!

Randle told everyone that awards ceremonies and the people behind them are stupid and this was a good example. It was going way too long, and he didn’t need a cheap plaque or a dinner to show he had done something significant. He already knew it, and so did anyone else with a brain. Then he talked about the way radio had degenerated and called one of the current afternoon hosts a “functional illiterate.” He ended his speech—if you call it that—by saying, “One more thing. I don’t believe in God either. What do you think about that?” He left the podium, walked through a crowd of people with their mouths wide open and went through the door to his car.

Eventually, Bill Randle became ill, and as his condition worsened he would “voice track” his show. That’s just a way of digitally recording segments and inserting them between songs. It usually takes 20 minutes to half an hour to lay down the tracks for a four-hour show, but Randle was so weak he would have to rest and it could take him the entire four hours. But as long as there was a place for him to broadcast, he was going to be there.

But WRMR had its own health issues. A loyal audience, good ratings, but let’s face facts—who’s going to buy ad time on a station that caters to people on fixed incomes? People and formats get old, and the comment was that every funeral procession was another ’RMR listener who wouldn’t be replaced. The staff joked that the station’s demos were “55 to dead.” The decision came down to pull the plug on the format, and the final day would be Friday, July 9, 2004. Morning drive ended at 10 a.m. that day, and Ted Alexander came on to do the top-of-the-hour news break. You could tell by his voice that something was wrong. He was shaken and choking back tears, and it wasn’t because of the end of WRMR.

“I was afraid this day would come, and as Jackie Gerber, our morning host on WCLV says, almost cosmic. WRMR is sad to announce that Cleveland radio personality Bill Randle passed away this morning.” He went on after a pause, “That’s pretty tough to say. He’d been ill for an extended time. He was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1924. At the age of 16 he started his journey into broadcasting. He introduced big bands on live radio. He ran a nightclub. He was a concert organizer. He held a doctorate in history. Was a practicing lawyer. Time magazine once called him ‘the number one disc jockey in America.’ Bill Randle.”

You can tell he was struggling, but Alexander soldiered on. “He was the host of the number one radio show in Cleveland on WERE during the week, and the number one radio show in New York City on WCBS on the weekends. People in the industry knew that if he said something was the next big thing, they could take it to the bank. He’s been writing books and he’s been educating himself for years and years. Had many degrees. At one time in his night club he hired a bouncer up in Detroit, Michigan, called ‘Detroit Red’. Later he was known as Malcolm X. Bill, of course, was credited with discovering Elvis Presley, and also Johnnie Ray. Bill also introduced Elvis the first time he was on national TV. Elvis’s career was launched with Bill playing his records first in Cleveland and then in New York.

“Some of the things that Bill Randle did, he made the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s recording of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ a national hit by simply editing the playing time so it would fit into radio station music schedules for short Top 40 records of the day. After his time on WERE Bill Randle was heard on WBBG 1260 and WRMR 850, sometimes on the air seven days a week. In July 2001, when WRMR 850 switched formats to sports and talk and became WKNR, the standards format came over here.” (Editor’s note: The format and call letters went to 1420 AM, the old WHK.)

He went on to say, “Bill retired for a while to concentrate on his law practice, but he couldn’t stay away from the microphone. So, in July of 2002, Bill was invited back to WRMR and the Cleveland airwaves, first reviving his Juke Box Saturday Night show from 7 to 10, and the Big Show on Sundays.” Alexander started to break down, and ended with “God rest your soul, Bill.”

The remaining hours of WRMR turned into a tribute to one of the most important jocks ever. The day the music died, revisited.

Bill Randle had a huge ego, but he had sure earned it. He didn’t hold anything back. You can’t help but think that Randle was ushered through the pearly gates and told, “The boss wants to see you right away.” And as he stood before the big throne, the angels heard Randle say to the man in charge, “By the way, I don’t believe in you!”

That was Bill Randle!


From the book Cleveland Radio Tales, © Mike and Janice Olszewski. All rights reserved.

(Photo courtesy of Cleveland Public Library)

The Comeback – About This Book

Book Excerpt

From The Comeback: LeBron, the Cavs & Cleveland, by Terry Pluto


The moment I read the essay, I knew I had to write a book about the return of LeBron James to the Cavaliers.

The essay was written with Lee Jenkins in Sports Illustrated. Some people told me they thought Jenkins really wrote it, and that he basically put the words in LeBron’s mouth.

But most people told me, “I read it and I cried.”

I’m talking about guys.

I’m talking about fans who were outraged when LeBron left the Cavs in 2010 for Miami, announcing it during the infamous “The Decision” show on ESPN.

I’m talking about people who said they’d never forgive LeBron for what he did to the Cavs and Northeast Ohio.

Not all of them were so open, so forgiving.

But most were, because they sensed the same thing that I did — LeBron was sincere.

“Who am I to hold a grudge?” LeBron wrote.

He was discussing his meeting with Cavs Owner Dan Gilbert and how they worked out their differences, setting up his return to the Cavs in the summer of 2014.

I quickly realized there has never been a story quite like this in the history of sports — at least, not Cleveland sports.

Here’s the greatest player of his sport at the time. And the player is from Northeast Ohio — from Akron. And he had left home to work elsewhere — like so many Northeast Ohio adults have done.

But part of him longed to go home.

Part of many people from Northeast Ohio longs to come home. I know. They write me . . . a lot. Email after email about Cleveland sports. They talk about how stories online make them feel at home.

People from the rest of country don’t get it. They never will.

Why would LeBron want to go home? Why would he want to return to a team that had the worst record in the NBA in the four years when he was gone? Why would he want to play for an owner who ripped him in an inflammatory email? Why would he want to live and work in Northeast Ohio when he can live and work somewhere else?

But we know why.

We know the hold Northeast Ohio has on us.

We know something else — the team that wins a title in this town will be legendary.

LeBron knew it, too.

As a kid, he said he was a Dallas Cowboys fan. He wore a New York Yankees cap. He insisted he was from Akron, not Cleveland — and said there was a huge difference.

But as he aged, LeBron began to understand. He never sold his house in Bath after signing to play for the Miami Heat. In the offseason, his home base remained home — Northeast Ohio.

He owns houses in different parts of the country, but this would always be home.

And there was something else.

Unfinished business.

It’s become a cliche . . . so many times, so many players supposedly have “unfinished business.”

But that was reality for LeBron James and Northeast Ohio.

Even if he never won a title, it was going to be a remarkable story.

While I’m not on the Cavaliers beat for the Plain Dealer, I write about them a lot in my job as a columnist. Nearly every Sunday, there are two pages of “Terry’s Talkin’ ” notes in the Plain Dealer. They cover all three teams. I talk to officials from each team virtually every week for notes.

I develop relationships. I interview people for on-the-record stories from the Plain Dealer.

Not long after LeBron returned, I began collecting material for a book — and saving interviews.

By the middle of the 2014–15 season, I started writing a few chapters. When LeBron carried a battered Cavs team into the 2015 NBA Finals, I seriously began to research and outline a book.

So this is not a quick book that began with the Victory Parade to celebrate the Cavs’ title. The actual writing was over a period of 18 months.

In fact, when the Cavs were tied 2-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals with Toronto, I asked a few friends, “If they lose this series, what should I do about my book? Maybe I should hold it for another year.”

But the Cavs came back to win that series. And they came back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals. And suddenly, I had to finish the book because I had the ending of all endings . . . one I always wondered if I’d ever have a chance to write.

A Cleveland team won a title in my lifetime as this became the comeback story of all comeback stories in the history of Cleveland sports.


From the book The Comeback: LeBron, the Cavs & Cleveland, © Terry Pluto. All rights reserved.

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Waiting for LeBron

Book Excerpt

From The Comeback: LeBron, the Cavs & Cleveland, byTerry Pluto

This excerpt describes the tense time while Cavs owner Dan Gilbert waits to learn whether LeBron will choose to return to Cleveland or go elsewhere.


Dan Gilbert was worried.

The man who started a mortgage company called Quicken Loans hates to wait. And he hates to feel that everything is not in control.

But it can be argued that Gilbert had been waiting for four years for a chance to bring LeBron James back to Cleveland, four years to “make this right,” as the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers characterized his relationship with LeBron between 2010 and 2014.

It was the morning of Thursday, July 10, 2014. This was four days after Gilbert had talked with LeBron in what I called the “Kitchen Table Meeting.” That’s because it took place at the kitchen table of a home in the Miami area. It was the first time Gilbert and LeBron had spoken since The Decision.

“I really thought it went well,” said Gilbert.

The meeting was on a Sunday, July 6.

Monday came, no decision.

Tuesday came, no decision.

The days, the hours, even the minutes seemed to crawl by for Gilbert and the Cavs.

They kept wondering, “What does LeBron have to think about? It’s Cleveland or Miami, he knows both situations very well.”

But anyone who knows LeBron knows something else. LeBron is careful. LeBron does his homework. LeBron takes time to consider every angle. LeBron wanted to make sure that wherever he played in 2014–15, he had a chance to win a title.

Now, it was four years later. Now, LeBron had been to the NBA Finals four years in a row with Miami, winning two titles. Now, he was 29 bearing down on 30 years old . . . not the 25-year old who had left the Cavs in 2010.

LeBron was still in his prime, still the best player in the game in 2014. But he also knew that he had already played 11 years in the NBA, and more of his career was over than was to come. He wanted more titles. He needed more reasons to return to the Cavs other than that he loved Northeast Ohio.

* * *

The Cavs kept in touch with LeBron’s agent, Rich Paul. They boldly made trades to clear even more salary cap room. Paul was friendly, “but he made no promises,” said Gilbert. As time passed, the Cavs felt very good about their chances with James on some days — and very worried at other times.

After hearing nothing on Monday . . . Tuesday . . .

There was news on Wednesday. LeBron and Paul met with Miami Heat President Pat Riley.

The Cavs became nervous. Very, very nervous. LeBron respected Riley. It was Riley who recruited LeBron to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Heat in 2010.

LeBron left the Wednesday meeting and made no promises to the Cavs or Heat.

Then came Thursday.

LeBron runs a skills camp for young players. He was in Las Vegas for that. Wade showed up. They talked. Then LeBron left with Wade, and they took a flight to Miami.

Why was he going back to Miami with Wade?

LeBron had left Las Vegas with Wade. But Rich Paul was staying in Las Vegas. The Cavs were in Las Vegas because they had a team in the Las Vegas Summer League.

That Thursday evening, they had a meeting with Paul. LeBron was not there. He was with Wade.

“Rich spent about two hours in our suite,” said Gilbert. “I was almost interrogating him, wanting at least a hint about what they would do. He wouldn’t show us any of their cards. He kept saying they were ‘in the decision bunker.’ So I tried to at least find out when they’d make the decision — and he would not say when, either.”

Gilbert thought it could “go on a few more days.”

But on Friday, July 11 — about 12 hours after his meeting with Paul — Gilbert’s phone rang.

“LeBron’s coming home,” Paul told the Cavs owner.

Gilbert asked about how to announce it. Paul said, “It will be on the Internet in about 30 seconds.”

That’s when James revealed his decision in a Sports Illustrated letter written with Lee Jenkins.

Right then, everything changed for the Cavs.


From the book The Comeback: LeBron, The Cavs & Cleveland, © Terry Pluto. All rights reserved.

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A Seventh Game for the Ages

Book Excerpt

From The Comeback: LeBron, the Cavs & Cleveland, by Terry Pluto

This excerpt starts 48 hours before Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. The Cavs are down three games to one, on the brink of elimination, yet unintimidated and ready for the pressure. 


It’s a long story how it happened, but I ended up talking to Cavaliers general manager David Griffin for about 30 minutes just 48 hours before the Cavaliers faced Golden State in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

“Our guys needed this,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“Getting down 3-1,” he said. “Having a chance to do something no team has ever done before. I can’t explain why, but these guys respond to extreme adversity. I wish it wasn’t like that, but it is with this team.”

What I didn’t know at the time was Griffin had spoken to the team after the Cavs were down 3-1. He talked about how the Cavs were not done, that this was exactly the type of situation where they thrive.

I mentioned how Golden State coach Steve Kerr sounded a bit shaky about his team’s chances. Kerr and Griffin are close friends. They had worked together in the Phoenix Suns front office for a few years.

“All the pressure is on them,” said Griffin. “It really is, and they know it. Think about what they’ve done this year . . . and how they never expected to be in a game like this.”

I also thought about how no one on the Warriors — among their key players — had been in a Game 7 quite like this.

LeBron had. He scored 37 points and snared 12 rebounds when his Miami Heat beat San Antonio 95-88 in a Game 7. That was in 2013.

Griffin talked about how LeBron was “in great shape, really fresh.” He praised LeBron for his training techniques, and also working with the Cavs’ sports science people to have his body ready for huge, pressure minutes in June.

“We are coming together,” Griffin said. “A lot of the garbage from the regular season is gone. Adversity galvanizes us. We’re very together right now. I expect us to win. LeBron doesn’t care where the game is played. He won’t be intimidated, and the rest of the guys won’t, either.”

* * *

A member of the Cavs told me this story.

The team was flying from Cleveland to San Francisco after Game 4. The Cavs had lost and were down, 3-1.

The person was watching the reaction of the players. Most media people and fans believed the series was over. History pressed down hard, the Cavs’ chance to emerge as champions was barely above zero.

Would the players be looking at their phones and computers, thinking about where they’d vacation after the season?

LeBron and James Jones were looking at a tablet, staring at video of the game. Soon, a few players came around. Then more players.

The coaches realized LeBron and Jones had their heads into the next game. They were pointing out ways the Cavs could win, how the series was not even close to being over.

As this member of the Cavs told me, “That’s when I realized something very special could happen.”

It’s also when the power of LeBron and his influence on the team was never greater or more important.

The Cavs won that Game 5 in Oakland. And Game 6 in Cleveland. And they flew back to San Francisco (where the team stayed) believing they could win Game 7, too.

But the start of that confidence began on that flight after Game 4.

* * *

About three hours before Game 7, I arrived at Oracle Arena.

I was thinking about being a full-time sportswriter for 40 years. And I was thinking about how in all those decades, I covered only one other Game 7 like this. Cleveland sports fans know it well . . .

World Series . . . 1997 . . . Game 7 . . . Indians vs. Florida Marlins.

A loss . . . extra innings . . . so close to a title.

I had written a column under the headline: WHEN THE CAVALIERS WIN, THERE SHOULD BE NO EXCUSES FROM THE GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS.

It was my story, but I admit — it was hard to stick to it.

But something Cavs veteran Richard Jefferson said before Game 7 stuck with me. He was talking about LeBron.

“Not many people have said, ‘Everyone get on my back,’ ” said Jefferson. “ ‘The city, the state, the organization, the team . . . get on my back. If we win or fail, I’ll take the blame, but I’m going to lead you.’ ”

Those weren’t LeBron’s exact words, but it was the message the Cavs were feeling.

“I can’t think of too many players who have put that type of pressure on themselves and then delivered more times than not,” said Jefferson. “He embraces it. That shouldn’t go unnoticed. It’s something that should be recognized by the fans.”

LeBron kept talking about “one more game.”

The season was down to one last game.

One more game.

“Like I told you the other day, it’s two of the greatest words — Game 7,” LeBron said before Game 7. “So I’ll play it anywhere.”

* * *

Sitting in that arena before the game, I thought the Cavs would win.

But the closer the game came, the more reluctant I was to say so. I kept thinking, “If they come this close . . . and don’t win . . .”

I didn’t want to finish that sentence.

But you know what happened — the Cavaliers did win.

It’s over.

That’s what I thought when Stephen Curry’s awkward 3-point shot from the top of the key banged off the rim and the clock ran down.

It’s over.

I took a deep breath and thought about two things:

1. No longer will Cleveland sports fans have to hear about how it’s been 52 years since a major Cleveland sports franchise won a championship.

2. I had 10 minutes to write a story for the paper . . . perhaps the biggest story of my 40-year career . . . and people were going to want to really read this story.

So I started that story with the obvious — lots of us were crying.

* * *

I began to think about what happened.

When LeBron held the championship trophy and wept, he represented all of the Cleveland sports fans who had waited so long for this to happen. Game 7 was when fans watched the Cavaliers put up a stop sign to a streak of 143 seasons in which no major Cleveland sports franchise had won a title — the last being the 1964 Cleveland Browns.

I kept thinking . . .

We don’t have to hear it any more . . .

All the gnashing of the teeth and all the talk of Cleveland curses . . .

And all the twisted delight some in the national media would take when a Cleveland sports team would fail . . . once again . . . to win a title.

It ended in Oakland’s Oracle Arena, where the Golden State Warriors almost never, ever lose.

Only they did.

It ended when LeBron brought the Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit, something no team ever was supposed to do.

Only they did.

It didn’t happen in some strange way. No asterisk can be slapped on the Cavaliers being the NBA champions.

As LeBron wrote in his essay announcing his return to the Cavs in July of 2014: “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned.”

They earned it.

Every point in that pressure-packed, gut-twisting, sweat-oozing 93-89 victory was earned.

Yes, this is why he came back . . . to bring a title home.

As he said on the court after the game, “Cleveland, this is for you.”


From the book The Comeback: LeBron, the Cavs & Cleveland, © Terry Pluto. All rights reserved.

← Read previous excerpt

“Major League” and the Real-World Tribe

The Making of Major League, a book by Jonathan Knight: A Juuuust a Bit Inside Look at the Classic Baseball ComedyBook Excerpt

From The Making of Major League, by Jonathan Knight

This excerpt from the chapter “Major League Strikes Back” (about the movie’s first sequel, Major League II), looks at how the Cleveland Indians’ real-world success in the 1990s reflected both movies’ onscreen action.


At the dawn of the 1990s, whenever the Indians did anything of note, local and national reporters couldn’t resist drawing parallels with Major League.

In 1990, to promote the first full Indians season since the release of the film, the team introduced a new marketing slogan, which would be printed on pocket schedules and incorporated into a radio jingle: “A Major League Good Time.” The word choice was subtle, but not coincidental.

“We were having fun with it,” [Indians vice president] Bob DiBiasio says with a smile.

There was more allegorical fun that summer. A comically optimistic prediction for Indians success in 1990 by columnist Mike Downey in The Sporting News provided 90 reasons why the Tribe would make the playoffs. Number 11 was: “Cleveland’s pennant success already has been recorded for posterity on film, which saves the club a lot of time and money. Trust me, by the year 1991, they’ll be listing the movie Major League as a documentary.”

That sentiment was reflected in mid-June when the Milwaukee Brewers came to town. Before the opening game of the series, Bob Uecker walked up to the cage to watch batting practice, and Indians rookie catcher Sandy Alomar spotted him.

“Hey,” Alomar said, pointing at Uecker, “Harry Doyle.”

A month later, few, if any, Indians fans noticed when the team traded for an obscure minor-league outfielder named Alex Cole. But when he stole five bases in his eighth big-league game and led the Tribe to a victory over Kansas City, the rail-thin, goggles-wearing Cole became the talk of Cleveland, not only for tying a team record that had stood for 59 years, but for becoming the real-life personification of one of their fictional heroes, right down to the out-of-nowhere, “we-don’t-know-where-he-played-last-year” detail.

When Cole returned to his locker after the game, he saw that his teammates had taped “Willie Mays Hayes” across his nameplate and attached five sliding gloves beside it, just as Hayes had done with his own gloves after each successful stolen base.

“Yeah, I saw the movie,” Cole replied when reporters asked the obvious question. “I can identify with him.”

Although Cole turned out to be a solid player in his seven-year career in the majors, his sudden, explosive debut—and perhaps his conspicuous connection to the movie that had cemented so many fans’ allegiance to the team—did more harm than good.

After Cole batted .300 and stole 40 bases in 63 games to round out the 1990 season, the Indians’ front office decided to build the team philosophy around Cole’s speed. They moved the Cleveland Stadium outfield fences back for 1991 and vowed to win with pitching and speed, rather than power (not that they had all that much of any of the three).

The plan backfired. Despite playing in nearly twice as many games as in his debut season, Cole managed only 27 steals, and the Indians hit a mere 22 home runs at home in a franchise-worst 105-loss season.

It was a great example of why David Ward becomes a bit nervous whenever parallels are drawn between his team and his movie. “It’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “It’s fun, but if it goes south, does it give people a negative association with the movie? Sometimes you want the movie to stay in the movie realm and the baseball to stay in the baseball realm.”

But the year of the disastrous Alex Cole experiment also marked the arrival of the primary core of players who would lead the long-awaited resurgence.

Up-and-coming sluggers Carlos Baerga and Albert Belle became full-time starters. Scrawny third baseman Jim Thome made his big-league debut. Charles Nagy evolved from a minor-league prospect to the most promising young pitcher on the staff. In June, the team used its first-round draft pick to select promising slugger Manny Ramirez, and in the next few months, the Indians would trade for athletic center fielder Kenny Lofton and pitcher Jose Mesa, soon to become the most dominating closer in franchise history.

With a new ballpark on the horizon, the team had the financial security to lock down all of these players to long-term contracts, and the Indians showed flashes of promise over the next two seasons. The team was poised to take off in 1994.

* * *

After a slow start, the ’94 Indians caught fire in May and surged into first place with a 10-game winning streak in mid-June. They won a franchise-record 18 straight in their new home, which was now rocking with 40,000-plus in the stands for every game. The lonely nights at Cleveland Stadium were quickly becoming a distant memory. The Tribe was neck-and-neck in a tight division race with the White Sox as a new rivalry emerged, giving Major League II credit for a prescient glimpse into the future.

Then the players went on strike in mid-August, wiping out the remainder of the season. It was heartbreaking and difficult to get over. But 1995 made up for it.

The Indians picked up where they had left off, then found another gear, cruising to a 100-44 record and their first postseason appearance in 41 years. No longer were the Indians the plucky overachievers comparable to their Major League counterparts. They were a behemoth out to avenge four decades of abuse.

“It was nice to see the Indians get good and to feel that, in a way, we were a good-luck charm for them,” Ward says.

The weekend after they clinched the division title, Chris Chesser came to Cleveland to visit Sister Mary Assumpta. As they strolled around town, Chesser was amazed by how many people were proudly wearing Indians gear.

“I can’t believe it,” he said, astonished. “It’s just like the movie.”

Sister Mary smiled. “No, Chris,” she replied, “the movie was so popular because people knew that this is what it would be like if we ever got there.”

Still, the allusions were impossible to miss. Once the playoffs began, Tribe fans couldn’t help but smile when switching on the NBC television broadcasts of the games to see Harry Doyle himself calling the action. Technically, it was Bob Uecker serving as the color commentator alongside play-by-play man Bob Costas, but Uecker’s presence only helped to fuel the imagination and fantastical landscape of this golden turn of events.

“Every time there was a pitch that was way outside,” Uecker says, “Bob would say, ‘Uke?’ And I’d say, ‘Juuuust a bit outside.’ It went on through the whole series.”

Even on the field, there were similarities. In the first game of the Division Series with Boston, the Indians were on the brink of defeat in the 11th inning before Albert Belle smashed a Pedro Cerrano-esque tying homer. Citing Belle’s suspension for using a corked bat the year before, the Red Sox asked that the umpires examine Belle’s bat, and it was eventually sawed in half by baseball commissioner Bud Selig and found to be cork-free. In the heat of the moment during the game, the irascible (and, this time at least, justified) Belle responded by glaring into the Boston dugout while flexing his right biceps and pointing to it—all of it feeling like a deleted scene from Major League.

After sweeping the Red Sox, the Indians stumbled to a two-games-to-one deficit to upstart Seattle in the ALCS, and Belle was out of the lineup with an ankle injury. With the dream season on the verge of collapse, the nervous crowd—wondering whether the ’95 Indians were following the same course as their 1954 predecessors—began to perk up when scenes from Major League were flashed on Jacobs Field’s giant scoreboard prior to Game Four. Then, moments before the first pitch, the Indians’ bullpen door popped open and, as X’s “Wild Thing” exploded over the speakers, Rick Vaughn came marching out, wearing a vintage 1989 Indians jersey with his name on the back and a fresh chopper haircut.

The remaining tension in the ballpark vanished in a heartbeat as the sellout crowd roared to life in a realistic depiction of the ending of Major League. Although technically it was neither Rick Vaughn nor Charlie Sheen—rather, a Sheen impersonator from Dallas—it was exactly what was needed. Tipping his hat and acknowledging the adoring audience as red and blue streamers were blasted into the air, “Vaughn” took the mound and fired a hard ceremonial first pitch that again sent the fans into a state of delirium. Nobody was going to beat the Indians in this kind of an atmosphere. The signature scene Bob DiBiasio had read on that memorable winter day almost eight years earlier had been brought to life.

“It was just awesome,” DiBiasio says. “I never would have thought we’d be recreating this someday before a playoff game with 43,000 people.”

With Jacobs Field electrified, the Indians crushed the Mariners 7-0 that night.

Ironically, Sheen himself made an unscheduled appearance at the Jake the following evening when he adapted his trip to see his beloved Cincinnati Reds after they were swept in the National League Championship Series. “The amount of love and Wild Thing shouts and all the stuff on the scoreboard,” he recalls. “I just couldn’t believe it.” With the real Rick Vaughn on hand, the Tribe won Game Five to take a three-games-to-two lead back to Seattle.

Facing intimidating pitcher Randy Johnson in Game Six, the Indians took a wafer-thin 1-0 lead into the seventh, then clinched the game and the pennant on one of the most memorable plays in franchise history. With runners on second and third, a wild pitch by Johnson allowed a run to score, but to the surprise of everyone in the ballpark, speedy Kenny Lofton motored home from second, sliding just beneath the tag of Johnson to make it 3-0 and put the Indians in the clear. In that moment, and in all the replays that followed in the years to come, some would equate Lofton’s daring baserunning and evasive slide with Willie Mays Hayes’s streak across the plate in Major League’s climax.

Although the Indians lost the subsequent World Series to the Atlanta Braves, the most memorable period in team history had begun. Throughout it all, Major League hovered in the background like a friendly specter, coming to the forefront again when the Indians and Yankees met in the postseason for the first time two years later.


From the book The Making of Major League, © Jonathan Knight. All rights reserved.

Speaking of Murder – Prologue and Chapter 1

Book Excerpt

From Speaking of Murder (a Milan Jacovich Mystery), by Les Roberts


Milan

Do you ever get the feeling that you really need help?

I don’t mean help to open a jar of peanut butter, clean your garage, hold the ladder while you clean the gutters, or tell you what ingredient is missing when you’re cooking pasta sauce from scratch.

I don’t even mean if you’re elderly and some Boy Scout helps you cross the street, as wonderful as that might be.

No—the question is, do you need help to be a better human being so you can make more money, a lot more money, get promoted, be more successful, be more popular, make friends, get laid, or find The One and fall in love and make it stick?

Thousands of people—salesmen, athletes, ministers, ex-politicians, fading movie stars, academics and others—have become motivational speakers, metaphysical thought leaders, life coaches, self-appointed gurus, personal performance trainers, even cult leaders. They are ready to help change who you are—as long as your pockets are deep enough or your credit card limits are high enough to pay them well for their time.

Some are members of SHAM, the Self-Help and Actualization Movement; others, of the Get Rich Fast crowd. They crossbreed. Many you know by name—from real TV shows or bought-and-paid-for infomercials, public appearances, best-selling books, CDs, and lapel buttons and photos and bumper stickers, souvenirs and bobblehead dolls.

The Movement, so-called as if it were holy, might have gained its first foothold in America almost a century ago, when Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, became a blueprint for those losing their way on the path of life, and in need of scattered Hansel-and-Gretel breadcrumbs to help them on their journey.

I read that book as a teen, thinking the answer was far too simple for such a long book. I offer it without charging you an arm and leg: If you want to win friends and influence people, stop being an asshole.

Why am I talking about this industry, which earns nearly ten billion dollars every year? Because recently my business company, Milan Security, did a job for the GMSA—the Global Motivational Speakers Association, chock-full of the few who can successfully give self-help speeches.

The GMSA holds its major convention in a different city each year. A third of the speakers talk professionally for a living—sometimes a most handsome living, especially if they appear regularly on television, raking in six-figure speaking fees once only reserved for former United States presidents. Their shtick is telling everyone how they can become uber-rich, famous, popular, or adored. The other two-thirds are wannabe speakers and gurus hoping that if they just brush shoulders with superstars, some magic might stick to them. More likely, it’ll be bullshit rubbing off.

Most speakers tell you how to be successful in business, in life, in sports, and in love. Of course, if they just flat-out told you not to be an asshole, and you listened to them, they’d all be out of business.

Their most recent GMSA whoop-de-do was held in Cleveland, which is why I got involved—hauled on board for an entire weekend and getting paid nowhere near what top-rung speakers earn for fifty minutes’ work—to augment the security of the venerable Renaissance Hotel, looming over Public Square. It’s one hundred years old, within walking distance of Lake Erie, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Cuyahoga River that twists and turns its way through downtown, and just steps away from the Horseshoe Casino. The facilities are spacious and pleasant, the rooms clean, with the most spectacular views either of the square itself, the Cuyahoga River, or the lake, and close to some of the Midwest’s best restaurants.

My assistant came along with me. He’s Kevin O’Bannion, preferring to be called K.O., both for his initials and for his ability to score knockouts frequently whenever he gets physical with others who only look bigger and stronger than he does. That’s one of the reasons I keep him around. He fights better than I ever did, and if he happens to get tagged a time or two, his youth heals him quickly. Thirty years my junior, his teenage captivity in juvenile detention and three army combat tours in the Middle East taught him to handle any situations that might arise.

The Global Motivational Speakers Association is rife with self-anointed superstars, desperate wannabes, and a scruffy crew of never-gonna-bes all milling around the hotel, along with the glassy-eyed attendees looking for the fairy dust to change them from losers in business and life into wealthy entrepreneurs because they’re told nobody, but nobody, works for someone else—hoping some maven notices them, buys them a drink, or takes them to bed.

Or perhaps all three.

When hosting a large convention of celebrities and hangers-on, the Renaissance Hotel goes through a great deal of planning and preparation before anything happens.

And that’s where I came in.


Chapter One

Milan

Ask Americans what they’re afraid of, and one fear is head and shoulders above the others. Not heights, snakes, germs, fire, claustrophobia, the dark, or even the terror of lack of sanitation that sends you outside behind a bush rather than daring to sit down on a public toilet.

Most people are scared stiff of public speaking.

It doesn’t frighten me—six foot three and two hundred thirty pounds on a good day—but then I rarely speak to more than six people at one time. I’m a private investigator, emphasis on “private.” I’m also discreet, if you need someone quietly poking around in anything you’re too nervous to examine on your own.

I was explaining all this nervousness of speaking in public to my “significant other.” I call her that because we aren’t married, so I can’t say “wife” or “spouse,” and at our ages, there’s no way we can refer to one another as “boyfriend and girlfriend” without sounding like teenagers on a corny TV sitcom. In any event, her name is Tobe Blaine, and she is a homicide detective sergeant with the Cleveland Police Department.

The evening after I’d been interviewed for the job, Tobe and I were having dinner at Corleone’s, on the West Side, a restaurant situated at one corner of a strip mall. Just driving by it, you’d never know how elegant it is inside, nor how good the food is. Both the manager and the waitress greeted Tobe by name, so I knew she’d been there several times before.

Corleone’s also boasts a superb wine list.

I’m not yet a wine-drinker. For most of my adult years I was a beer guy—Cleveland is one of the best beer towns in America—until Tobe came along and started introducing me to beverages with which I’d had little or no experience. Single malt scotch, hand-tended bourbon made in very small batches, and gin martinis that are delicious but too hard to handle.

“I don’t understand,” Tobe was saying. She had little problem with martinis and was sipping hers, garnished as usual with a lemon peel twist and not the standard olive. “When hotels have big conventions, they have their own security department, and if they need more, they hire local police departments to look out for them, so nobody gets totally shitfaced in the bar and then trashes their room like they were twenty-year-old rock stars.”

I said, “They have celebrities coming, too.”

“Kanye West?”

“Who?”

She snickered. “I forgot you never even heard of the Kardashians, so you sure wouldn’t know Kanye West.”

“I do know who the Kardashians are,” I said. “I just can’t tell them apart.”

“Nobody can,” she said. “So the P.D. protects the peasants who show up there to spend money, and you take care of the big shots who make the money?”

“Something like that.”

“Interesting job, Milan—kissing the tushies of famous celebrities. I only have to butt heads with stone-cold killers.”

“Lucky you, Tobe. Whoever butts heads with you loses.”

“That,” Tobe Blaine said, “is why I get the big bucks.” She opened her menu. “I’m starved. Let’s eat.”

We had a great dinner, but I kept running over in my head the meeting I’d had that morning in my office with the head of security at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel.

Her name was Swati S. Sathe, a handsome fifty-ish woman of East Indian descent who had a classy hairdo and subtle but attractive make-up, and if she’d ever smoked a fifty-cent cigar in her life like the hotel dicks in old movies used to, I doubt anyone ever saw her do it.

“I was a police detective in India—Bangalore,” she said when I asked how she wound up with her present job. “When my husband and I moved here for his business, I applied to the Renaissance Hotel. They were interested in a security boss, and the position sounded easier to handle than a city of more than five million people.”

K.O., seated at his desk near the window, observed, “Nobody ever said Cleveland is easy.”

She looked at him. “That’s why I’m here. The Global Motivational Speakers Association’s having its convention here next month, with some of the biggest names in the business. We expect at least two thousand people, and we’ll need extra support.”

“Are you expecting trouble, Ms. Sathe?”

“I’m expecting there won’t be any trouble, thanks to extra security.” She cleared her throat. “If you take this assignment, Mr. Jacovich, you’ll have to watch some of those prestigious guests more closely than others.”

“Why is that? Have any of them had death threats?”

“If you’re famous,” Swati Sathe shrugged, “really famous, there’s always a small fringe group that hates your guts, mostly because of your success and their lack of it. The biggest name scheduled to show up,” she said, removing a list from her jacket pocket, “is Tommy Triller.”

I said, “He’s a singer?”

That made K.O. laugh. “Have you been living in a coal mine, Milan? Tommy Triller is a motivational speaker. He’s huge!”

“Nobody made any speeches in my coal mine, K.O.”

Ms. Sathe hid her smile with her hand. “Triller has written fifteen books, he’s made six yearly half-hour infomercials that air everywhere, and also a few real TV specials a year. He packs tens of thousands of fans into seminars all over the country and in Canada, too, and sells five- and seven-day retreats, coaching programs, and other events where there are all sorts of inspiring things to do—and he charges about seven thousand dollars to be there.”

K.O. looked disappointed. “No T-shirts?”

“Tons of them with his picture on them,” Ms. Sathe said seriously. “Also buttons, bumper stickers, photographs, ballpoint pens, and sayings of his, framed or on plaques that are supposed to magically change you from a washout into a superhero. The celebrities want to create a feeding frenzy—a stampede to the vendors’ room at the Center to draw convention-goers with money to them like moths to a flame. It’s all meant as a transformation.

“I’m wondering, Ms. Sathe,” I said, “how you came to us for what’s little more than bodyguarding. There are plenty of companies in town that provide that.”

“Frankly, the company we’d contacted first chose to bow out.”

“Why?”

She shrugged. “I didn’t ask why. I started looking around for a replacement—and it’s you.”

“Again, why us?”

“Frankly, a high-up in your police department highly recommended you.”

“A high-up? Not the police chief?”

“No, Mr. Jacovich. They turned me on to someone in the homicide division, and she gave us your name.”

“Detective Sergeant Blaine?”

“No—someone higher up than that,” she said. “Lieutenant McHargue, I believe.”

That caught me off-guard. Lieutenant Florence McHargue, Tobe’s boss, wouldn’t recommend me for anything except a one-way ticket to Timbuktu.

“And you want us for all four days?” I said.

“That’s correct.”

“And,” K.O. broke in, “to pay special attention to Tommy Triller?”

“He’s the one speaker who is most successful—he banks approximately a hundred million dollars annually.”

“That’s more than I make in a week,” K.O. said. “For selling T-shirts?”

“For selling hope,” Ms. Sathe said, “and marketing skills. And T-shirts.”

I said, “Is this extra security all about him?”

“For the most part. He’s asked the convention for extra security—and nobody has explained why to me.”

“If I made a hundred mil a year,” K.O. said, “I’d want extra security, too.”

“True,” she said, checking her list again. “But there are others. You have a TV set—so you know who Dr. Ben is.”

Naturally I knew who Dr. Ben is. Doesn’t everybody? Dr. Ben Mayo, sporting a gleaming pate and overdoing an old-boy yahoo drawl, has his own eponymous daily TV show, now in its twelfth year, featuring an endless parade of guests whining about their problems, hoping that within sixty minutes he’ll identify the cause of their misery and pompously pronounce a four-sentence cure that makes them feel better about themselves so they can go home and sin or suffer no more. This is the driving force behind his inspirational self-help books, courses, web sites, apps, and YouTube videos, and his fees for endorsing everything from weight loss pills to rehab centers to used cars.

Mayo, with a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina and a doctorate from Michigan State, had been a psychologist for several years, zeroing in on marriage issues. But once battling his way onto television and with the multi-millions he pockets annually, he now deals with business entrepreneurs whose careers are threatened, hotshot salesmen stuck in no-sell slumps, obnoxious neighbors with barking dogs, meddling in-laws, drugs and booze and anorexics and bulimics, dysfunctional families, out-of-control children, and people who weigh nine hundred pounds and can’t haul themselves out of bed.

I said, “Will Triller and Dr. Mayo need more protection than the other two thousand attendees?”

“Everyone calls him Dr. Ben,” she went on. “He and Triller are the biggest celebrities in this particular field.” She made a note on her paper. “I’ve brought you a complete list of the attendees and a separate list of—”

“The big shots?” K.O. asked.

“Mr. O’Bannion, there are many so-called ‘big shots’ in this group if you happen to be in the self-help business.” She studied K.O. “You don’t look like you need any help.”

“Mr. O’Bannion,” I said with more weight than necessary, since his under-thirty smart-assness gets on my nerves on a daily basis, “needs all the help he can get—but not from spending his last nickel on snake-oil salesmen.”

“Maybe,” Swati Sathe said, “but you won’t be paying them; they’ll pay you.”

“I thought the hotel was hiring us.”

She shook her head. “Triller asked the Global Motivational Speakers for extra security—and since the organization’s headquarters are in Minneapolis and nowhere near Cleveland, they asked me to do their legwork.” She raised her eyebrows. “Asked isn’t quite right. They’re bringing a lot of business to this hotel, so they demanded we find someone. But you’ll be working for them, not us—watching over the biggest of the big shots.” She picked her purse up and pushed her chair back from across my desk. “The executive director of the GMSA will be in town the day after tomorrow to meet you. He’ll be more specific.”

“About what?” K.O. asked.

“About everything,” Sathe said, “including how much he’s going to pay you.”

* * *

The Cuyahoga River—Cuyahoga is an Indian word meaning Crooked River, which means it’s the Crooked River River—flows right by my second-floor office in The Flats. During all but the worst weather, enormous ore boats navigate the hairpin turn where my building is, Collision Bend. It’s so named because in the old days, big boats heading in opposite directions to and from Lake Erie, nearly a mile farther north, would often crash into each other. Now, though it’s infrequent, they still do.

My view encompasses where the Cleveland Indians play baseball, Progressive Field, which used to be called Jacobs Field, more popularly “The Jake,” and the Quicken Loans Arena, “The Q,” where the Cavaliers play basketball, which was built as the Gund Arena. I miss the old “Jake” name, as everyone else does—and most still call it that.

It’s a good idea they changed the Gund Arena’s name, though. Saying “Gund Arena” aloud, quickly, always sounded like a sexually transmitted disease.

I was at the window enjoying the brightness of mid-October when K.O. came out of the john. “Ever been inside the Renaissance Hotel?” I said.

“Never had a reason to go there.”

“Well, you’ll get a good look at it the day after tomorrow.”

“Will I have to wear a tie?”

“Wear what you want—if you prefer looking like a bum.”

“Well, you hardly ever wear a tie.” He slid behind his desk. “But considering your ties, I wouldn’t blame you.”

He’s correct; my ties are awful. Tobe Blaine gave me a beautiful Jerry Garcia tie for my birthday, but so far I’ve had no occasion to wear it. Tomorrow might be its lucky day.

Tobe and I have been together for a year and a half—my longest romance since my marriage, which ended badly a quarter century ago. It works because she understands that what I do for a living sometimes gets sticky. She’s a Cleveland cop, but unlikely to be involved in the GMSA’s annual get-together. Her area is murder.

And nobody ever gets murdered at a GMSA convention—unless they get talked to death.


From the book Speaking of Murder, © Les Roberts. All rights reserved.

Win, Place, or Die – Chapter One

Win, Place, or Die, a book by Les Roberts: A Milan Jacovich / K.O. O’Bannion Mystery (#17)

Book Excerpt

From Win, Place, or Die, by Les Roberts


Tobe Blaine had come to work in Cleveland P.D.’s homicide division three months earlier, after long stints in Raleigh and Cincinnati, and although she’d immersed herself in learning who’s who in Cleveland—who’s rich, who’s important, who’s artistic, and who is a pushy, obnoxious pain in the ass—she’d never heard of Glenn Gallagher until he invited us to the track.

“So you saved Glenn Gallagher’s ass—and a lot of money,” Tobe observed over dinner at Lockkeeper’s. “I hope he paid you a bundle for it.”

“The difference between you and me is that I only get money when I work. You get a paycheck whether somebody gets murdered or not.”

“If nobody ever got murdered, I wouldn’t have a job.” She delicately placed a piece of salmon between her lips. They were kissable lips; I knew that for a fact. “I did a little research on Glenn Gallagher while you were working for him.”

“And you discovered he’s wanted by Interpol in seventeen different countries.”

“I didn’t find anything on him at all. He’s rich, which means he’s cheesed off a few people along the way, but for all intents and purposes, he’s clean. Divorced, with a grown son—Cullen Gallagher—whose regular day job is teaching political science at Hiram College. You know where that is?”

“Naturally I know where Hiram is,” I said. “I’ve lived here all my life. Liberal arts college with a nice little campus out in rural Ohio between here and Youngstown, less than an hour from where we’re sitting right now.”

“Sorry, I’m still new here,” Tobe reminded me. “Anyway, Gallagher’s a registered Republican, a member of the Union Club, and the Chagrin Valley Gun Club. As one of Greater Cleveland’s often-seen, he seems to show up most often for dinner at Johnny’s, Lola, and Mallorca—that’s a fancy-shmancy Spanish-Portuguese restaurant downtown.”

“I know where downtown is, too,” I said.

“Then you know where he goes on Sundays every fall, because he has season tickets to Browns games. His favorite after-dinner drink is Armagnac—but if he can’t get that, he’ll settle for Cognac.”

I laughed. “How did you find out about all this stuff?”

“Umm—because I’m a detective?”

“You must be a damn good one. I researched Gallagher, too, before I took his job, but I never found out where he eats and what he drinks.”

Tobe checked out the room. “I guess he doesn’t know about Lockkeeper’s Inn, because he’s not here.”

“Good,” I said. “This is our night.”

“We have quite a few of those, don’t we?”

Our nights? Yes, we do. Is that okay?”

“If it weren’t okay,” Tobe said, “I wouldn’t be here.”

“Will you come to Northcoast Downs with us? We can bet on every race if we want to—study the program and see who’s good and who’s not.”

“Too complicated. I’ll just bet on each jockey who’s wearing yellow pants.”

I laughed. “Actually, Glenn told me most women seem to bet on a gray horse—and gray horses don’t wear yellow pants. By the way, they don’t call them jockeys in harness racing. They refer to them as drivers. And their outfits aren’t silks like at thoroughbred tracks; they’re called ‘colors’. K.O. is coming, too—with Carli.”

Tobe smiled. “They’ve been dating as long as we have. He’s a lucky man. Carli is terminally adorable.”

“You aren’t terminal, and probably too old to be adorable, but you’re pretty hot, Tobe.”

“I’m too old but I’m hot, huh?”

“Not old, mature,” I said, too quickly. I’ve spent my life getting into trouble with women because I frequently say the wrong thing. “And sexy. Desirable. Great-looking.”

“That’s flattering, coming from a big swinger like you.”

“I’m hardly a swinger.”

“I’ve read those private eye novels—a gat in your pocket, a bottle of booze in the bottom drawer, and a blond client so gorgeous that you fall into her silver eyes.”

“Silver eyes? You need to read better books,” I said. “I don’t have a ‘gat’ in my pocket; they haven’t called a gun a ‘gat’ since The Maltese Falcon. There’s no booze in my desk because I drink beer. And I can’t remember my last blonde client, silver eyes or no. And that was a compliment, by the way.”

“Which one?”

“That you’re pretty hot. And you’re welcome.”

She shook her head. “You’re a tough guy, Jacovich.”

“Not nearly as tough as you.”

“How so?”

“I’m not carrying a ‘gat,’ and you’ve got two of them—one on your hip, and one strapped inside your ankle.”

“Good guess,” she said. “Hurry and finish dinner because you can’t wait to take them off me.”

“That’s erotic. Removing a woman’s bra as prelude is sexy. Removing a woman’s weapons as foreplay is erotic. There’s a difference.”

“Thanks for reminding me, Mr. English major. Have you removed firearms from lots of women before you went to bed with them?”

“Never slept with a woman who carried a gun until I met you.”

“Lots of women have concealed-carry licenses in this state.”

“True,” I said, “but not many—men or women—actually know what to do with one.”

“They get in the way of cops who get trained and paid to do their jobs—and what’s to stop a cop from shooting an unknown civilian waving a gun around?” Tobe blew an angry breath out from between her lips. “I shot a guy once, several years ago. Thank God I didn’t kill him, but he was standing in the middle of the street in front of his house waving a Smith and Wesson at all of his neighbors, who’d come out to see what was going on because the guy thought a robber was trying to bust into his house. Of course, I didn’t know that until later.”

“Where’d you shoot him?”

“In Cincinnati,” she said, and didn’t reveal anything else. “So tell me—besides my being hot, sexy, and desirable—and too old to be adorable—what should I learn about harness racing?”

She did study the sport before we went to Northcoast, even getting a copy of The New Care and Training of the Trotter and Pacer, and one of the first things she realized was that the drivers hardly ever wore yellow pants. The book was big and heavy enough to kill someone with, but her interest kept her going. She loves learning about all sorts of things, and if you mention something she’s never heard of or knows little of, she’ll make it her business to find out about it. Besides carrying two weapons even when off-duty, Tobe goes nowhere without her iPad, even though she bought it for herself only six weeks before Apple came out with a brand new edition of the damn thing. Anything you want to learn about—anything—she’ll look it up on the spot. She tried laying all she’d learned about racing on me in my living room one Sunday afternoon while I was watching a Browns game on TV. It was too much. I lost focus, I guess; I wasn’t interested in getting deeply involved in the harness racing business.

At least I thought I wasn’t.

So the five of us—K.O., Carli, Tobe, Glenn Gallagher, and me—were up in the second-floor clubhouse, finishing our so-so dinners and watching the end of the fifth race. Glenn smirked as he rose, heading for the payoff window where he was about to collect a bundle. “How’s everyone doing on drinks?” he said, winning ticket in hand. We all said we were fine. Then he leaned his head close to mine, his shoulders hunched nervously.

“Milan, we should get together next week,” he said softly. “I’ve got something to tell you.”

“Okay.”

“I mean, I want to hire you again.”

“More stuff at your office?”

He shook his head. “I’ll explain it all when we meet.”

“I’ll call you on Monday, then,” I said.

That relaxed him a bit. “If I were you guys,” he said to all of us, smiling happily, “I’d carefully check the horses in the seventh race.”

“Why?” Tobe asked.

“Read the program. You’ll find out.” Then he disappeared into the crowd.

“What’s so special about the seventh race?” Carli wanted to know.

“I’ll look it up,” K.O. said. For a guy who never moved a little finger to help anyone, he took very good care of Carli, probably hoping she wouldn’t have to open the program herself and risk a paper cut. I thought she wasn’t so fragile, but K.O. didn’t know that.

He thumbed through the pages, got to the seventh race, ran his finger down the list of horses, and said, “Holy shit!” He showed Carli first and then handed the program over to me, pointing to Number two in the seventh race. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Proud Milan,” was the horse’s name. I squinted at the small print. The horse owner was someone else, not Glenn Gallagher. I’d have to check the tote board on the track’s infield before the seventh to see what the odds were.

“Oh, great! Now we all have to bet on Proud Milan to win,” K.O. said.

“Is that because I’m a winner?”

“I’d never say that! I want to watch this race down by the rail and root for whoever I bet on, and it’ll be easy for me to remember his name.”

Carli hugged K.O.’s arm tight and put her face against his shoulder for a moment, closing her eyes and looking deliriously happy. I sighed. The last time I was around a very young couple that much in love, I was one of them—many decades ago.

I said to Tobe, “Shall we go downstairs and watch the race close-up? Although, knowing your super-sensitive nose, the smell of horse shit close up might bother you.” Tobe had confessed to me early in our relationship that she suffered from a physical problem called hyperosmia, an over-active sense of smell that made some odors intolerable to her and caused violent headaches, which is why I’d started using shampoo, shaving cream, deodorant and soap that was fragrance-free.

“I don’t like ca-ca, horse or otherwise,” she said, “but it won’t give me migraines the way some perfumes do. So by all means, let’s watch the Milan race from the rail.”

“The Milan race. Will that hound me for the rest of my life? The Milan race?”

“Lucky you,” Tobe said. “At least you’ll be a celebrity for a minute.”

By the way, my last name, Jacovich, is even harder to pronounce than my first name, which is Americanized to MY-lan. For the surname, just pretend the J is a Y. YOCK-o-vitch. I was born and raised in Cleveland, but my parents were from Slovenia. There are more Slovenians in Cleveland than anyplace else in the world besides Ljubljana, but that never seemed strange to me. Most of the kids I grew up with in the St. Clair-Superior corridor east of downtown were Slovenian or Croatian and toted around hard-to-spell, hard-to-pronounce monikers. None of them had changed their surname to Wilson or Johnson, either.

Glenn Gallagher returned, carrying a brandy snifter in one hand and some tickets in the other, grinning as he sat down. He’d barely eaten any dinner—all he’d ordered was a plate of deep-fried zucchini sticks, and he shared them with the rest of us. “Who’re you betting in the seventh?”

“Are you kidding? I’m in it to win,” I said. “Who named their horse after me, anyway?”

“He’s not named after you—he’s named after the owner’s father-in-law—who’s Serbian, by the way.”

“Serbian, huh?” Tobe nudged me in the ribs with one elbow. “Fame is fleeting.”

“I mentioned you’d be here tonight—and if Mee-LAHN wins, they’ll probably want to shake your hand anyway.” Glenn raised his snifter. “Cheers.” He swirled the drink around, inhaled it, and then took a sip.

Carli said, “What’s that you’re drinking, Mr. Gallagher?”

“Glenn,” he corrected her. “You’re too pretty to call me mister. It’s Armagnac.”

“Armagnac? What’s that?”

Tobe said, “You’ve heard of Cognac. It’s a brandy from a province in France, in the Gascony region. About a hundred miles south of there is another province where they make Armagnac. Both are brandies, but they’re very different in taste.”

Glenn Gallagher raised an eyebrow. “Where did you learn all that?”

Tobe didn’t want to admit she’d Googled Glenn and discovered what he liked to drink. “Oh—I research lots of things. I like a brandy myself now and then.”

“Want to try one of these, Tobe?”

“I started with vodka at dinner,” she said. “I’d better stick with it. But I’m surprised a racetrack like Northcoast Downs actually keeps Armagnac behind the bar.”

Glenn shrugged. “Not many bars sell it in Cleveland. They keep it at the clubhouse bar just because I drink it. I’m here three or four nights a week—of course, I don’t drink on the nights I’m driving—so the bar won’t go broke.”

We watched the next race; Glenn had a big bet down but the rest of us hadn’t wagered at all. Apparently Glenn had picked a loser because when all the horses and sulkies crossed the finish line, he crumpled up his ticket and tossed it onto the table. He’d bet a hundred bucks. To him, though, losing that much money was like me dropping a quarter on the street and watching it roll into a sewer opening.

“All of you go bet on Proud Milan,” he said, “and I’ll take you down to the grandstand so you can mingle with real gamblers.” Then he wandered away, and we trooped to the betting window. Carli bet two bucks, K.O. bet five, Tobe slipped a ten dollar bill through the window, and I put down a twenty—a big bet for me, but after all, the horse and I shared the name. According to the tote board, Proud Milan was going at 5-to-1.

Gallagher eventually found us and as he led us toward the stairs to the outdoor grandstand area, he stopped. Another couple was coming up toward us.

“Oh, Jesus,” Glenn muttered under his breath. Then, almost too loudly: “Evening, Chloe.”

The woman looked startled, then annoyed. In her early forties, she was overdressed in Saks Fifth Avenue elegance and overly made-up with too much eye shadow and a slash of bright red vampire-like lipstick. Her loaded-on blush made her look orange, or “tangerine,” as the cosmetics marketers called it. Her straight, dyed blonde hair hung loosely to her mid-back, with bangs. Most women that mature don’t wear bangs anymore. She was attractive enough, in an ice-cold way. Her male companion was at least twenty years younger than her, wearing light blue slacks, a linen jacket over a blue dress shirt, white loafers with no socks, and with an ascot tied at his neck.

An ascot! Nobody’s worn an ascot since charming actor David Niven died. It was hard to believe anyone wearing an ascot to a harness race, let alone wearing one in Cleveland—ever! If this guy walked around a neighborhood like Parma dolled up in an ascot, he’d never even make it to the corner.

The unsmiling woman bobbed her head once. “Glenn.”

“Please say hello to my guests,” he said. “Milan Jacovich, Kevin O’Bannion, Tobe Blaine, Carli Wysocki—this is Chloe Markham, the owner of Northcoast Downs.”

Chloe Markham lifted her head to look a bit more like royalty, perhaps put out that no one bowed or curtsied. She deliberately ignored the two women but studied K.O. and me like zoology specimens. Finally she said, “You’re Milan Jacovich.”

“Present.”

“You’re the private detective.”

“Investigator,” I corrected her. “Only police officers of a certain rank are detectives.” I was about to explain that Tobe was indeed a detective, but Chloe didn’t care enough to shut up and listen.

“I read about you. Your name gets in the papers a lot, doesn’t it?”

“More than I’d like it to.”

Sneer. “Get off on being famous, do you?”

I was getting annoyed, even if I’d only been talking to her for ten seconds. Maybe it was her tone—or her wintry personality. I said, “If I ever do get famous, you’ll be the first to know.”

When Chloe spoke again, it sounded as if her jaw was wired shut. “What are you ‘investigating’ around here? Wanting to find out something bad and tell your newspaper buddies about it? I don’t like snoops.”

“Every once in a great while, I take an evening off from work and have fun. I hope my ‘fun’ tonight doesn’t bother you too much.”

I couldn’t imagine even the Queen of England stiffening her neck that way, but Chloe Markham did so, staring off into a fantasy future inside her own head and ignoring me as if I hadn’t spoken at all. “Come on, Skip,” she ordered her companion, and they stalked off toward the clubhouse level.

“Skip,” I mumbled. “Skip—with an ascot. Jesus!”

“What a personality that woman needs!” Tobe said loud enough for Chloe to hear. “She looked right through me like I was invisible. Is that a racial thing?”

Glenn said, “She ignores all women—and everyone else, too. It’s probably a good thing she doesn’t drink like her little friend there, or she’d really be a pain in the ass. We’ve had our problems in the past, mostly because I’m almost as rich as she is, and that gets her dander up. So she doesn’t like me. Frankly, I can’t stand her, either.”

“If she hates everybody,” K.O. said, “why own a racetrack that caters to people?”

“She inherited it from her uncle six years ago,” Glenn said as we proceeded down the steps. “She tells anyone who’ll listen to her that she cares about this park to honor her uncle’s legacy.” He snorted. “That’s a load of horse puckey. Her younger brother Manley didn’t get a piece of it, even though he thinks he should have.”

“Manley?”

“That’s his name. Chloe’s already turning this place into what they call a racino—a racetrack with slot machines, but what she really wants is to own a genuine casino, just like the one downtown, so she can make more money than even she can piss away. She’s already been handed a ton of money and a minority interest by a nationally known food chain to do just that. The restaurant company will be in charge, but I doubt Chloe gives a damn—and she won’t have to pay people to shovel up horse shit every day, either.”

“Skip!” Tobe said. “Who over the age of eight calls himself ‘Skip’?”

“His name is Skip Swain,” Glenn explained, “Chloe’s boy-toy-of-the-moment. His father’s one of the richest guys in Ohio. He already owns half the state legislature, and whenever he wants something to happen around here, it does. So Chloe’s doing Skip—and if that doesn’t work, she’ll do Skip’s daddy, too.”

“Wearing an ascot is bad enough,” Tobe said, shaking her head. “But Skip?”

We made our way down to the first floor, which was almost an alternate universe. While the upstairs clubhouse and restaurant were staid and relatively comfortable, the downstairs hosted a different species of sports fans.

Stretching almost the entire length of Northcoast Downs was a series of tiny carrels, like the soulless cubicles in which one might find the office employees of some huge corporation. There were probably six hundred carrels, each with its own personal TV set. Hunkering behind them in chairs much less comfortable than the ones upstairs were hardcore, dedicated gamblers—Glenn Gallagher had called them “degenerate gamblers.” They were intent on what they were doing, which was betting not only on the races that went on approximately two hundred feet away from them but also on those taking place at many other race venues all over the country and the world. If they were real race bettors, Glenn had said, they knew how to handicap a race, which could take up to an hour or more. Their best work, however, was only about eighty percent successful—which happened to be much better than a baseball player’s batting average.

A small crowd was gathered around a man well known in our town; Glenn pointed him out to me as a big race fan and bettor. Mike Trivisonno is a much-listened-to sports guy on Cleveland radio, mostly because he tells listeners exactly what he thinks, and if they don’t like it, it’s their problem. Trivisonno waved at Glenn, but was too busy chatting up his fans to come over and talk. That was fine with me; I hear him talk enough on his radio show.

I actually saw two men I knew, dressed differently from everyone else at the carrels. Their clothes were more expensive; loud suits with open-necked sports shirts. One wore sunglasses—at nine fifteen in the evening. I thought I’d seen him around in Little Italy, that colorful neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland where the Italian mob hangs out. The other I knew by name. John Terranova had for years been the designated driver of the local godfather, Giancarlo D’Allessandro. When the old man passed away a few years back, his nephew, Victor Gaimari, took over things. At one time Gaimari and I had been friends—but that came after I had punched him in the nose and he’d sent some punks to my home to get even.

John Terranova had been one of those punks.

The sunglasses man leaned over and whispered. Terranova glanced at me and nodded, the barest of smiles at the corners of his mouth. Then they returned to figuring out their bet in the next race.

We were all suitably amazed by the multitude of huge TV screens on every wall, side by side—more than fifty in that one carrel area, most tuned to racing at different tracks all over the country, but others showing a Major League Baseball playoff game, a soccer match somewhere, ESPN, and even a tired old sitcom.

K.O. shook his head in wonder. “How many TVs are there? They’ve got just about everything playing on one set or another, except maybe porn.”

I said, “That’s because no one ever bets on porn.”

We went out into the crisp fall air to the grandstand, watching the horses warming up at a relaxed jog, stretching their muscles. The maintenance people raked the track with a grater, as they do between each race to smooth the ground and lay down deeper grooves. As we approached the rail, the horse smell was even stronger. I glanced over at Tobe and sniffed discreetly. “Okay?”

She flicked the end of her nose with a finger. “So far.”

Glenn stood close behind me. “This isn’t turning out to be one of my better nights,” he mumbled. Another couple approached us; the guy didn’t look any too pleased.

“You shouldn’t be down here with us peasants,” the man snarled as he got close to Glenn. “You should be upstairs with other people like you who think their shit don’t smell.” Mid-forties, grizzled, whipcord thin and needing a shave, his hands were curled into fists at his side, as if he were ready to fight.

The woman with him was a few years younger and several inches shorter, with one of those hard, slut-pretty faces looking as if she’d begun stripping for money when she was thirteen. Her dirty-blonde hair needed combing and her vivid scarlet lipstick smeared on her mouth was a red come-fuck-me flag visible for miles. Her breasts were too big for the rest of her, undulating with every step, struggling to burst free from her low-cut blouse. She ignored both Tobe and Carli, and her eye-batting, lip-licking flirtation with K.O. was subtle as a hurricane.

She finally tore her eyes from him and nodded to our host. “Hiya, Glenn.”

“Wanda,” he said without cheer, “you’re looking great tonight, as usual.”

She moved closer to him—by extension closer to me, too, and barely whispered, “Still just looking?”

The man with her grabbed her arm and almost jerked her away from us, throwing a looks-could-kill glare back at Gallagher.

Carli glared after Wanda as she was being taken away. “I love it when some bimbo hits on my boyfriend while I’m standing right next to him!”

Glenn said, “That was Del Fiddler—a trainer. He used to train my horses but we had—words.”

“Words about the lady?” I looked after them as they moved away, or more specifically at her butt as it swayed and twitched beneath her flimsy peasant skirt.

“Wanda Fiddler flirts with everyone, sometimes ending with a payoff. I wasn’t interested, but almost everyone else around here was. Del won’t believe I turned her down, which is why he and I don’t hang together anymore.”

“He looked ready to punch you.”

“He’d love to, but I’m twice his size.”

“You’re twice everybody’s size,” K.O. observed.

“Del gets into fights a lot around here. Now not many people want to work with him. Too bad—he was a damn good trainer.”

“All this time,” I said, “I’ve only thought of you as an investment banker with a hobby. But you live a pretty interesting life at this track.”

“If I ever write a book about this business, nobody’ll believe it.” He searched the crowd then nudged me and pointed to a strange-looking man in tattered blue jeans and a stained pink hoodie. His hands were deep in his pockets and his jaw worked manfully on a chunk of chewing tobacco. He was middle-aged and obese, his gut and spare tire drooping over his too-tight Levis, and his face looked as if the entire Turkish army had marched over it. “Take Gecko over there,” Gallagher said.

“Gecko? Like a lizard?”

“We call him that because he looks like one. Nobody seems to know his real name. He’s a groom—takes care of things in the barn when he’s of a mind to. An honest-to-God redneck. Whatever money he earns, he spends. His math starts and stops with how many packs of cigarettes can buy a blow job from one of the low-rent hookers living at his motel.”

I stole a peek at Tobe and Carli, but they were talking together and laughing. K.O. paid no attention to either of them, leaning over the rail and studying the track as if he knew what he was doing.

“Otherwise, all Gecko cares about is his dog, a weird-looking thing. He’s almost as fat as Gecko himself. He’s got the body of a too-old English bulldog and the head of a wolf. That’ll give you nightmares, believe me.”

Gecko came over and said hello to Glenn Gallagher, head bowed respectfully, and then said “hi” to me in his hillbilly voice, wiggling his fingers in an almost feminine wave, his grin gap-toothed in both upper and lower jaw. He probably hadn’t shaved for a week and didn’t smell very good, but he seemed pleasant enough as long as he didn’t get too close. When he merged back into the crowd, Gallagher said, “He’s really a funny guy when you talk to him. He’s kind and caring and so simple-minded that, except for his steady diet of creepy skanks he can buy cheap, he’s almost childlike. And he’s a damn good groom, too.”

“Does he work for you?”

“Sometimes. Once he was actually late getting one of my horses ready for a race because he got distracted; his excuse was his hooker friend was running a special that evening: a bubble bath, a back rub, and a BJ, all for fifteen bucks.”

I rubbed my eyes. “I’m trying to lose the mental image of Gecko in a bubble bath.”

“You’ll never forget it,” Glenn laughed. “It’ll be with you always.”

Horses and drivers filed onto the track. I squinted to get a good look at Number two, Proud Milan, carrying his chestnut head high, living up to his name. His driver wore black and gold colors, and looked every bit as menacing as the Pittsburgh Steelers on one of their good days. Unlike thoroughbred racing, where jockeys always wore the colors of the stable that owned the horse, in harness racing the drivers all had their own colors registered. I fingered the betting slip in my pocket, and while I haven’t actually prayed since I was eight years old, I thought good vibes for Proud Milan and hoped they’d reach whomever was in omnipotent charge of horse races.

I moved over to stand with my group, Tobe, K.O., and Carli. The women had a lot to say about “our” horse.

“He’s really pretty,” Carli observed, pointing at the horse, except whenever K.O. heard the word “pretty,” he looked at Carli.

“D’you suppose,” Tobe murmured, “Proud Milan realizes how important this is?”

“I should’ve spoken to him personally,” I said.

Gallagher joined us again at the rail. “He’s in Number two position, you’ll notice. That means he’ll be able to drop right in behind the Number one horse, who leaves out of there like a rocket. He should carry Proud Milan right with him all the way around, twice, to the head of the stretch where the inside lane opens up. If Proud Milan has it in him, he can shoot inside, just past Number one, to win.”

Hard-bitten gamblers—Glenn had called them “railbirds”—leaned as far out as they could, as if they wanted to be on the track, clutching betting tickets. They were probably at the track every day or evening—not to enjoy the sport, but to watch, trembling, as two dollars, ten dollars, or however much they’d wagered, galloped around the track pulling a driver and sulky. Within two minutes, they’d be smiling more broadly than usual or looking as if the weight of the world had just collapsed on their shoulders.

“Are you excited to watch your horse run?” Carli asked me.

“He’s not my horse. And he only shares my name if you read it, not when you pronounce it. But I bet on him anyway.”

Glenn lifted his snifter in a toast. “Here’s to Proud Milan,” he said, “all the way.”

The crowd at the track got quiet for a few seconds, fortifying themselves for the race and the result, whatever it might be. Tobe quietly took my hand in hers and squeezed. That fortified me.

Then, the track announcer: “And they’re off and racing!”


From the book Win, Place, or Die © Les Roberts. All rights reserved.

Whiskey Island – Prologue

Whiskey Island, a book by Les Roberts: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#16)Book Excerpt

From Whiskey Island (a Milan Jacovich Mystery), by Les Roberts


I think I’ve lived long enough to figure it out: Everybody is in one way or another corrupt.

Maybe they got a little too much change back from a supermarket cashier and quietly pocketed it without comment. Maybe in school they copied answers from another kid’s paper—or shoplifted a comic book or a candy bar from the local store. Maybe they cheated on their income tax. Perhaps they took sexual advantage of someone, leading them on while knowing all along it would only be a one-night stand. And they’ve all driven faster than the speed limit just to save a little time. (Oh, come on—you know this one, at least, is you.)

It gets worse, of course. Take bribery, for example. That can start small, too, but it can wind up big—in the thousands or even millions. Burglary. Picking pockets. Armed robbery. Rape. Abuse. Cruelty to animals. Cruelty to women. Cruelty to children.

And then, of course, there’s murder.

The small-timers—the ones who smoke too much weed, eat too many Big Macs with cheese and fries, the ones who speak out against those closed minds who truly believe their opinions are the only opinions and everyone else is criminal—those are the ones who get nailed. Those who commit bigger crimes are more likely to skate because they’re rich or powerful or important. They get away with it.

Does that sound cynical? I don’t know. Do you ever read anything in the newspapers besides sports scores?

I prefer to hang out with the people who give back their too-much change, but that’s not easy for a private investigator. While I built my business some thirty years ago as an industrial security specialist—it says Milan Security on my business card—too often I’ve wound up chasing down and punishing real criminals. I’ve been hurt doing that—too many times. I’m tired of pain, tired of crime and criminals, and I wish I could quit. But I’m too old to get a regular job, and I don’t know how to do anything else.

Cleveland, where I’ve lived all my life, is a blue-collar town, and I’m a blue-collar guy. My parents were born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and I grew up in the Saint Clair–Superior corridor on the east side. I attended Kent State for both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, but it was too long ago for me to do anything with those diplomas now. I was a Cleveland cop, but I never liked the regimen and the rules, so I quit and went private.

Corrupt people just seem to find me, as they did recently—only days after I barely escaped with my life solving the last stink bomb escapade. An indicted and practically convicted crooked politician asked me for help. By the time I finished, I was up to my neck in government corruption at both the city and the county levels. The city government was mad at me, the county government wanted my head on a pole, and the federal government, which I’ve tried to avoid, was once more very put out with me.

And, oh yes—there’s murder in the mix.

What follows, then, is pretty much how it happened . . .


From the book Whiskey Island (a Milan Jacovich Mystery), © Les Roberts All rights reserved.

The Cleveland Creep – Chapter One

The Cleveland Creep, a book by Les Roberts: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#15)

Book Excerpt

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


When a child goes missing, there is nothing more frightening, tragic, or terror-inducing for the distraught parent. Most never give up hoping. That’s how it was for my new client, Savannah Dacey—even though her “child” was a grown man in his twenties.

Savannah is one of the most atmospheric cities in America, on the Atlantic coast in Georgia—full of beautiful old buildings, hanging moss, eccentric natives, and weeping willows. Its summertime humidity can knock you off your feet, and it’s been the subject of a series of books, including one that wound up a Clint Eastwood movie. A river with the same name, Savannah, runs nearby. Additionally, Savannah is the name of a woman who does stand-up news at the White House for NBC television, Savannah Guthrie. Like her, most women named Savannah are attractive and as tropical-looking as their names—or at least they seem more that way than if they’d been christened Sadie or Gertrude.

But Savannah Dacey didn’t fit the name in any way. She’d sounded like a sad sack when she made the phone appointment, and whiny to boot, and she looked like a sad sack, too. She was close to fifty, and looked ten years older. Her fingers were thick as bratwursts, fingernails polished the vivid crimson women stopped wearing in 1972. Her hair had been “done” and dyed an improbable red by someone in a low-rent beauty shop. Her eyeglasses, also of a long-gone era, were bright green, shaped like cat’s eyes, with ungainly rhinestones twinkling in each corner. Her forehead and upper lip were shiny with perspiration, and half-moon sweat stains appeared at the underarms of her short-sleeved white blouse. Her wrinkled, inexpensive peasant skirt made her appear as if she’d walked in the heat and humidity from her West Park home all the way to my office on the west bank of the Flats.

How anyone named “Savannah” wound up in Cleveland is anyone’s guess; it’s not a Savannah kind of town. But I’ve met women with even more exotic names, as you’ll learn.

“It’s kind of you to see me on such short notice, Mr. Jacovich,” she said. She’d phoned me the day before and had mispronounced my last name. If it gives you trouble, just sound it out properly with the J sounding like a Y—Yock-o-vitch. It’s hard to say, I think, which is why I christened my private investigation business Milan Securities after my first name. Put the American slant on it—My-lan—and don’t say it the way you’d pronounce the name of an Eastern European, or the Italian city noted for its fashion shows and its opera house. I’d gently corrected her on the phone, and now Savannah said my name carefully, as if she’d been practicing.

Her son, twenty-eight-year-old Earl Dacey, was missing. He had left the house six days earlier and hadn’t been heard from since. Now his mother wanted to know what had become of him. “He never stayed out all night in his life,” she moaned. “If he’s ever half an hour late getting home, he always calls me. Always. He’s a good boy.”

“Does he have a car?”

“An old, crappy car,” she said. “A two-door, blue Dodge from around 1985. He bought it himself last fall. I never axed him where he got the money.”

Axed him: fingernails on a blackboard. I’d been on the edge of the Earl Dacey disappearance for less than five minutes, and he was already an albatross around my neck. I said, “Is he someplace with a—” I paused, not wanting to say “woman.” I had no right to assume Earl’s sexual preferences. “With a lover?”

“He don’t date girls. He don’t have men friends, either. The best friend he has in the whole world is me.” Savannah said it proudly.

“Where does he work?”

“He don’t have a job right now.” She shifted her spreading backside in my visitor’s chair. “He never had a proper job. He don’t get along with people he don’t know. He’s shy.” Her eyes twinkled behind the cat’s-eye glasses. Maybe she was flirting with me; I hoped not.

“Does Earl have any hobbies?”

“No—he watches TV, an’ plays on his computer for hours at a time. He likes watching baseball.” Her round whey-face lit up as she glanced out my full-length windows across the Cuyahoga River to where the Indians play—Progressive Field is its official name now, although almost everyone in Cleveland still refers to it as what they called it when it opened in 1994, Jacobs Field, or more familiarly, “The Jake.” The ballpark and my office are on opposite sides of a peculiar, sometimes dangerous kink in the river known as Collision Bend—I’m always amazed that few Clevelanders know what it’s called.

“Does Earl play baseball?”

“Lord, no! He’s not very athletic.”

“Nothing else he likes?”

“Eating—spaghetti a couple times a week, or pizza or cheeseburgers. And he likes taking pitchers, too.”

The start of a headache thrummed against my eyeballs. Pitchers! I couldn’t correct my prospective client. Not only isn’t it my job, but half the people in Cleveland call a photograph or a painting a “pitcher,” not realizing a pitcher is a guy on the mound who accurately throws a ball ninety miles an hour at another guy with a big stick in his hand and dares him to hit it. “Pitcher” is also a vessel from which to pour milk, water, or Kool-Aid. But Savannah and lots of other people don’t even know how to pronounce “picture.”

I wasn’t overjoyed about my headache, either. I was getting lots of them—more than I used to. They weren’t blinding migraines that put me out of commission; they were more the essence of a headache. Maybe I was getting old. Sixty is the new forty, or so they say—and sixty was still almost a year ahead of me. I rubbed the back of my neck. “He likes taking pictures?”

“He never goes anywhere without his camera—or his videocam.”

“He has a videocam?”

She nodded. “I dunno what he films with it, but I guess he’s having a good time so I don’t even ask.”

“Did you contact the police?”

“Fer sure,” she said—another expression that quietly died in the late sixties. “I told them he was gone, but they didn’t have much interest.”

“He’s an adult. They assumed he’d left of his own accord.” I cleared my throat. “Maybe he has.”

“No way!” There was real emotion behind her whine. “He wouldn’t worry me like that unless he’s got to.”

I nodded. “It’s a hot morning, Ms. Dacey,” I said, more out of pity than anything else. “How about something cold to drink? A Pepsi, or a Mountain Dew?”

She was immediately interested. “Regular or diet?”

“Regular Mountain Dew, Diet Pepsi.”

“Eew, no diet anything. But I wouldn’t say no to a Mountain Dew,” she simpered. I got a Dew from my office-size refrigerator, painted to look like an old-fashioned Wells Fargo safe, and she poured it into a plastic glass I gave her from my bottom desk drawer.

I said, “Does Earl belong to a photography group or a camera club?”

She shook her head.

“Who does he take pictures of, then?”

“I don’t know. People? Maybe just buildings—or dogs or squirrels. He don’t show me his pitchers very often.”

“And he has no friends—even casual ones?”

“Earl isn’t so at ease with strangers. They scare him.” She examined me with an admiring frankness that weirded me out. “You’re a big guy—I bet you’ll scare him, too.”

“I’ll try not to,” I said. “So he doesn’t have a job or a girlfriend, he doesn’t spend time with friends. Where do I start looking for him, Ms. Dacey?”

“If I knew, I’d look there myself. That’s why I want to hire you.”

“That brings us around to money.” I told her how much I charged, half expecting her to turn pale and scurry from my office, because the whole country was struggling against a recession—but when someone has an important reason to want a private investigator on the job, they somehow get the money they need. Savannah took my quoted prices in stride. Her late husband, Earl’s father, had died eight years earlier, leaving her a handsome pension from his long career on the line at the Ford plant. Shortly thereafter she hired on as night manager of a family restaurant on Detroit Avenue, so it didn’t bother her to whip out her checkbook and write me a retainer.

“I want to start by looking at your house first,” I said.

“Earl’s not at my house.”

“No, but maybe I could find information that will help show me where I might look for him.”

She looked dubious but said it was okay.

“Will you be home in about an hour and a half? At noon?”

“Yeah, but I have to work tonight—I’ll leave at about four thirty,” she said, sneaking another fond glance out the windows. “This is a lovely office—such a nice view of downtown.”

It is a nice view of downtown. It makes me feel good just looking at it. The familiar downtown skyline is my town—or I’ve always thought so. Born and bred, and though I’ve traveled—two years in Vietnam being a military policeman was a large part of it—I’ve never wanted to move anywhere else. “Thank you, Ms. Dacey.”

She fluttered her eyelashes at me. “You can call me Savannah—um—Milan.”

Now we were on a first-name basis—in moments we would become lifelong buddies.

Her high heels clattered down the steps. I didn’t move until I heard her car start up and pull out of the lot. Then I breathed more freely.

I’m never comfortable with my clients. People at the end of their rope wouldn’t hire me if they weren’t under great stress. Still, I had sympathy for a mother whose son vanished, even if he was nearly thirty.

I created a new Earl Dacey file on my computer and typed in all his mother had told me. It didn’t even fill up one page. I feared this would be a long haul, because I had other active jobs on my calendar, the main one an assignment from a large warehouse on the East Side in which brand-new refrigerators, stoves, air conditioners, and giant TV sets were kept until the retail store called for them to be delivered. One of the warehouse employees was claiming workers’ comp and had been staying home from his job for the past six weeks, nursing what he swore was a very badly injured back from wrestling those heavy appliances out to a delivery truck. His bosses wanted to know if he really was disabled—so my assignment was to follow him around and see whether those supposedly misaligned vertebrae were truly keeping him from going back to work. I’d already seen him lug his heavy trash cans from his back door to the curb on garbage days, heft two cases of beer from his shopping cart to the back of his pickup at a Dave’s supermarket, and even struggle with a gigantic watermelon.

I had more written about him than I did about Earl Dacey—but with Earl I was just getting started. I wish I didn’t have to take Savannah’s case.

I guess I’m just a sucker for mothers who tremble on the edge of crying.

* * *

It was still early for lunch, but I found my way to Stone Mad, a little bar-restaurant on West 65th Street. It’s in an ancient building with naked bricks inside, and elegant old wood—something to look at if you happened to be dining alone, like me. I’ve been eating by myself for far too long, but Stone Mad serves a fast lunch when there’s no one to talk to. After twenty minutes I headed south and west to the Dacey house, about a hundred blocks from downtown Cleveland.

In the West Park neighborhood, most of the homes are neatly cared for but old and tired. If Savannah repainted her house something other than faded gray, the upgrade would make all the rest of the homes on her block look even worse. The wooden steps up to a small front porch were swaybacked, and the swing seat, covered in sickly apple-green and bilious pink plastic, sported a coat of dust.

I pushed the doorbell, but didn’t hear it ring. I waited twenty seconds, then knocked firmly. When Savannah let me in, I noticed she wore a dark blue sundress with extra-large white polka dots, and she’d redone her makeup, apparently for my benefit. She wore too much orangey base and green eye shadow, and she’d rushed applying a new coat of lipstick, which crept out from the outline of her lips like something drawn by a first grader trying to crayon a picture in his coloring book.

In her living room the air conditioner didn’t work hard enough. The house was a modest, not-nice and not-crappy place you’d forget about as soon as you left. The furniture was either from Value City a decade ago or bought used from one of a dozen gritty resale stores on Lorain Avenue calling themselves antique shops. At both ends of the sofa were matching lamps, their bases made out of small tin pails painted bright yellow and then adorned with drawings—a contented-looking cow on one and a hog on the other. My taste in furniture has never been high class, but someone would have to shoot me before I allowed them to put those two lamps in my living room.

There were no paintings or decorations on Savannah’s walls save for a star-shaped 1960s-era clock, but every flat surface was dotted with framed photographs, mostly of her child Earl—and I use the word “child” advisedly, because every picture was of a kid under the age of ten.

The chairs, side tables, and sofa in the living room were all outdated. I lowered myself slowly onto the least-uncomfortable-looking chair, feeling a broken spring inside the cushion. The most expensive thing in the room was a fifty-two-inch plasma TV playing a daytime drama. Embarrassed, Savannah muted the sound. “I got hooked on soap operas,” she said as if confessing to a string of serial murders. “I work nights, so I never get to look at good TV shows. That’s when I started watching soaps in the daytime and—well, I’m hooked.”

“That’s okay,” I said. I’d never watched more than five minutes of any soap opera in my life. On the screen two impossibly good-looking actors were lying in bed under a sheet, hoping their audience believed they’d just had a wild sex moment, though neither of them had messed up their stiffly gelled hair even a little bit. I decided to look at Savannah instead.

Bad idea.

“So, Milan—now that you’re in my house, can I return the favor?” She batted her false eyelashes at me and crinkled up her nose. “Do you want a Mountain Dew?”

“Nothing, thanks. I just had lunch.”

Her mouth took on one of those teasing, “your-loss” looks. “I wish I knew you were going to eat before you came. Maybe we could have had lunch together.” She sat across from me on her flowered sofa, crossing her legs and hoping I’d notice them. “So,” she said, “what should I tell you about Earl?”

“Everything you can. Let’s start with a photograph, if you have one.”

“Hmmm,” she cooed, cocking her head at what she believed to be an adorable angle, “there’s lots a pitchers right here in this room. Take your pick.”

“I’d prefer one a little more current.”

“Earl likes taking pitchers, but hates having his pitcher took. I’ll go look for one.”

She disappeared down the hall and into what I assumed was her bedroom. The two drop-dead-beautiful soap opera people in bed had been replaced with two different drop-dead beautiful people, this time having an intense conversation in somebody’s living room. Neither was a good enough actor to indicate a scintilla of sexual tension between them. On those daytime dramas they usually shoot everyone in close-up, but the TV was still muted—and I didn’t care enough about what they were saying to try reading lips.

Eventually Savannah returned with a snapshot of Earl and surrendered it to me. “I took this Christmas morning,” she said, “and surprised him.”

In the photo Earl sat cross-legged near a Christmas tree, opening a present, wearing the ugliest pair of blue-and-white-striped pajamas I’d ever seen. Either he’d kicked off his slippers, or he didn’t own a pair to hide his large, bony, ghost-white feet. His lank black hair flopped over his forehead in unkempt chunks, and smiling unfortunately crinkled up his nose, making him look like he was smelling something foul. His snaggly teeth were yellow, his face bore an active case of acne, and he was a hundred pounds overweight. No wonder he didn’t pose for pictures.

“That’s my Earl,” Savannah said.

I searched fruitlessly for an appropriate compliment. “May I hang on to this?”

“Long as you bring it back.”

“I promise.” I slipped it into the inside pocket of my jacket. “You last saw him six days ago—on Wednesday. What time was that?”

She seemed vague. “I’m not sure. Morning, I guess—eleven o’clock or so.”

“He didn’t mention where he was going?”

“No, he just said, ‘See you later, Mom.’”

“What was he wearing?”

She seemed shocked at the question. “Gosh, I don’t know. Umm—khaki pants, I guess. And a short-sleeved sports shirt.” With her fingers she showed me that the shirt probably had buttons and was not a pullover.

I nodded. “Did he take anything with him, like a gym bag or a package? Was he taking clothes to the cleaners?”

Savannah tapped her forehead with one finger. “I—don’t recall. Lotsa times when he goes out, he takes a shopping bag with him.”

“Does he go shopping with that shopping bag?”

“I don’t know what he does with it. But he don’t shop. He don’t have much money ever.”

“Not many people leave to go shopping already carrying a shopping bag,” I said—discounting those “green” shoppers who buy reusable canvas bags and carry them around everywhere. “Savannah, I hate to ask this, but—does Earl shoplift?”

Her back stiffened. “What?”

“I’m not suggesting—just asking questions.”

“Well, ask a different one,” she ordered. “I don’t like that.”

“Can I take a look in his room, then?”

She relaxed a little. “Earl don’t like nobody poking around his private things.”

“Earl isn’t here,” I reminded her.

Savannah couldn’t argue with that logic, but she took nearly a minute thinking about it. Then she led me back through the house to the kitchen. She pointed toward a closed door to one side of the refrigerator. “That’s Earl’s room, there.” The room was too damn small for two large people to be inside, looking under the mattress and feeling around inside dresser drawers. I couldn’t imagine why a very large adult man slept in a single bed held over from childhood. The nubby white chenille bedspread was yellow with age, and a tattered Indians pennant on the wall curled at the tip.

I said, “I’d work better and quicker by myself. I promise I won’t steal anything.”

“You aren’t the stealing type,” she said, heading back toward the living room. “I’ll be out here—I don’t want to miss my soaps.”

No federal prison cell was more depressing than Earl Dacey’s bedroom. There were no books anywhere, and no artwork unless you count assorted color “pitchers” of Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, and Khloe Kardashian, cut from celebrity magazines and thumbtacked to the wall and to a large corkboard propped up on his desk. Despite her printed signature across the bottom, I had no idea who Khloe Kardashian was—but that’s just me.

An off-brand laptop sat atop the desk, open, with no dust on the monitor. On the floor was a photo printer. The desk drawers contained loose paper clips and rubber bands, eleven pennies and two nickels, and five Tic Tac containers, three of which were empty. His address book contained only six names and numbers scrawled in a childlike hand, none familiar to me. I took from my pocket a folded-up plastic bag from Giant Eagle and slipped the receipts and the address book inside.

On a low table was a TV set, half the size of the one in the living room, with a DVD player built in. Below it, on another shelf, was a short stack of DVDs. I squatted to examine them. The top one was The Godfather—the first one, the great one, with Brando—in a jewel case that bore signs of repeated viewings. I didn’t have much in common with Earl, but we evidently shared a love for this particular movie. I can quote much of it by heart; the line that stays with me best is: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” Classic.

The other DVDs, in colored plastic envelopes, were unmarked except by Post-It notes with numbers scrawled on them, starting with Number 1 and ending with Number 9.

I went through an old dresser desperately in need of paint. Inside were T-shirts, washed and folded neatly, which made me imagine Savannah did all her son’s laundry. About eight pairs of underwear were in the other corner of the drawer, all whitey-tighty briefs.

Cleveland gets hotter than hell in summer and doesn’t cool off much in the evening. Everyone sweats and everyone smells. When I opened the door to the closet I was nearly overpowered by the stink of old sneakers and clothes recently worn and not washed. Earl’s passion for plaid shirts emphasized his girth. There were no dress slacks—just jeans and khaki pants, hung on wire hangers.

On a high shelf Earl had folded a few sweaters and several more sweatshirts, including one hoodie with the Browns’ orange helmet logo on it. I noticed three magazines nearly hidden beneath the sweaters. The tacky color photographs on the covers were thumbprint-smudged. I’d never noticed these publications on an ordinary magazine shelf in Barnes and Noble. They were usually for sale in one of those grubby Lorain Road establishments called “bookstores” that peddled such items as these to raincoat-wearing middle-aged men who’d sneak in the back door from the parking lot so no one would see them. Earl’s small collection wasn’t exactly pornographic, but the magazines featured photos of young women cheerfully baring their backsides to the camera.

Almost everyone has enjoyed looking at nude pictures of someone, depending on their taste. However, not everyone stashes their stroke-off magazines on a closet shelf hidden beneath a stack of clothing. Earl had gone out of his way so Savannah wouldn’t discover his literary preferences. I stuffed the magazines into my plastic bag, too.

On the floor were three pair of sneakers with Velcro tabs, easier to open and close for someone one hundred pounds too heavy, and a pair of work boots that he must have worn instead of galoshes during winter snow. Next to them, squished into a corner, was a shopping bag bearing the name of a long-gone department store, Kaufmann’s. The top was covered with white tissue paper. I slid it out into the middle of the closet and looked inside carefully to find several sheets of bubble wrap, two thick eighteen-inch-square patches of soft rubber used for packing, and, stacked neatly near the top so that its lens pointed upward, a camcorder that recorded live action as well as taking still photographs.

I couldn’t help noticing that a thumbnail-sized piece of tape was affixed to the front of the camcorder. I lifted it to find someone—probably Earl—had used the tape so no one could see the red light announcing the camcorder was recording.

I picked up the laptop, collected some other possessions of Earl’s I wanted to examine more closely, hooked his shopping bag over my wrist along with my own from Giant Eagle, and went back into the living room, where Savannah was still watching a soap opera, a different program, since the top of the hour had come and gone. Two more beautiful actors in another love scene—different faces and a different bedroom, but probably the same hair stylist, because their hair wasn’t mussed up, either.

“I want to take some things with me,” I said. “A stack of DVDs, his computer, his address book, and his shopping bag, okay? I’ll write out a receipt for you.”

“Don’t bother with the receipt, Milan” she said, reluctantly hitting the mute button on her TV remote and tearing her attention away from the actors. “I trust you.”

“Where did Earl get that camcorder?”

“I bought it for him two Christmases ago.” She put her finger to her forehead to look like she was thinking about it and appearing adorable. “He’d been asking for it—hinting for it.”

So Earl owned the camcorder he’d begged for. I wondered what he did with it, and why he kept it in that shopping bag. I wrote out a receipt for Savannah before I left, though—whether she trusted me or not.

* * *

I headed home to get comfortable and to play Earl’s unmarked DVDs. For more than twenty years I’ve lived in an apartment at the crest of Cedar Hill in Cleveland Heights. I’d moved there when my marriage fell apart, figuring it would be a short-term stopover—no more than a year or two—but since then I’d thought of no valid reason to move again. My ex, Lila, got the house—my house—and she and her longtime live-in lover, Joe Bradac, enjoy it, and my bed, too. Even though I’ve never hit him, Joe is still scared to death of me. He’d slept with Lila for at least eighteen months before she announced she wanted a divorce from me, and I desperately wanted to eat his lunch, but I’ve kept my knotted fists in my pockets whenever I see him.

I’ve stared through my bay window by the hour—at the triangle where Cedar Road and Fairmount Boulevard come together, across the street from a Dave’s supermarket and the Mad Greek restaurant, in which people frequently gather for happy hour, especially during the summer when the Mad Greek lifts its windows and I can see directly into their lounge. For years I used my living room as my office until I bought the old building on the riverfront in the Flats. So here I am, two decades later and now an old-timer in my rented digs. It’s fine with me; I don’t want the trouble of landscaping, grass cutting, repairs, and maintenance on a house. I’m apartment-bound and happy as a clam—a lonely clam, admittedly, but contented nonetheless.

I shuffled through the mail, threw it all away, and felt bad for the trees that had died to produce it, grabbed a cold Stroh’s, and repaired to the bedroom to change into shorts and a T-shirt with the Cleveland Indians logo on it. I’m as uneasy about wearing Chief Wahoo garb as anyone else—but that’s our team and our mascot, so Clevelanders live with it. When the phone rang, I hadn’t yet begun watching Earl Dacey’s discs.

My home number isn’t listed, and the only people who know it are people I like, so I didn’t even check the Caller ID when I picked up and said hello.

“It’s summertime! I thought you’d be out drinking a beer and enjoying the female scenery in their halter tops and miniskirts,” Suzanne Davis said. She always makes me smile. She’s a private investigator too, but plies her trade in Lake County, so we don’t get together often enough. She’s aided me on a few cases, and I’ve given her a helping hand when she needed it. She’s a few years younger than I am, and one of my best friends.

“You’re right about the beer part,” I said. “How are you anyway?”

“Slowing down like everyone else in this recession, waiting for a miracle. What are you up to at eight o’clock tomorrow morning?”

“Ye Gods, do you percolate that early?”

“Usually not. But there’s someone I want you to meet—someone kind of interesting.”

“You want me to get up early just to meet your new boyfriend?”

She snorted. “He’s practically a boy and he’s a friend, but I wouldn’t put those two words together about him.”

“I thought you went for the young ones.”

“Not this young—he’s twenty-four. I refuse to write a note to some teacher for permission to sleep with him. He’s had some bad times, so I care about him. Besides, there’s a reason for getting the two of you together.” She got serious. “You need assistance.”

“Somebody to help me stand up or walk down the stairs?”

“Bingo!” Suzanne chuckled. “Besides, he needs a job. So—breakfast tomorrow, or not? I’m buying.”

“Buying,” I said, “is the magic word.”

We picked a place—Jack’s Deli, on Cedar Road just east of Green Road—and said goodbye so I could begin my serious inquiries into the whereabouts of Earl Dacey.

My second Stroh’s was opened when DVD Number 1 began to play. At first, all I could see on the screen was what looked like a high ceiling, studded with wide glass panels letting in bright sunshine; the tape was made during the spring or summer. There was bouncing, as if the camera operator moved briskly along, not paying attention to what was being photographed. My mind drifted off to other things, such as my current stakeout on the guy cheating the insurance company out of worker’s comp.

Then the cameraman made a sharp right turn and went through a wide public doorway, and the ceiling in the frame changed. Now it was lower, with fluorescent light fixtures, finished in rough-hewn blown plaster. The videographer was walking through a mall and now had turned into a retail venue, probably a department store. I glanced at the shopping bag. Probably what I was watching was Earl Dacey’s camera work—but why was he shooting ceilings and keeping the video collection unmarked in his bedroom?

The movement slowed down, stopped—and I was looking directly up someone’s dress.

She—whoever she was—wore a short dark blue skirt, and beneath it a tiny black thong. The camera angle distorted the view, but her legs were smooth and tan, her thighs slim and firm, her butt tight. She moved slightly while the camera ground away, probably clueless that someone was taping up her skirt. She was being assaulted.

After a few moments the cameraman moved a little, and I was treated to a shot of another pair of panties—flowered bikinis this time. This woman had slightly thicker legs than the previous victim, but wore the same type of dark blue skirt. Her bikini was pulled up tight, creating what’s known in the pornography trade as a camel toe.

I watched for another ten minutes. During that time the voyeur found two more women wearing skirts or dresses with interesting underwear. One of them, also wearing a thong, bore an interesting butterfly tattoo on her left buttock. I was learning more from this DVD than I’d ever wanted to know.

I stopped watching and rewound it. Earl must have done this recently. Cleveland women don’t wear short skirts and bare legs unless it’s summertime.

I changed discs and began studying Number 2. Different setting—I think a different mall altogether—but more of the same subject. I skipped to Number 5—same old same old.

I took Earl’s camcorder out of the shopping bag, removed the memory disc, and plugged it into my own laptop computer. Within moments I was witnessing his current artistic endeavors—more upskirt videos.

Earl Dacey, whose mother had paid me to find him, was an active pervert, and only God knew where he might be now and what he could be doing.

And me? I shook my head sadly. Unbidden, I’d suddenly turned into a dirty old man.


From the book The Cleveland Creep (a Milan Jacovich Mystery), © Les Roberts All rights reserved.

King of the Holly Hop – Chapter One

King of the Holly Hop: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#14) by Les RobertsBook Excerpt

From King of the Holly Hop (a Milan Jacovich Mystery) by Les Roberts


Three surprises make a high school reunion strongly resemble a visit to hell. First, you’re surprised some of the people you were sure would be there are missing. They’ve either moved far away, or they have no desire to join the reunion. Second, you’re surprised some of those you never dreamed would attend actually show up.

Third: you find yourself there too.

The weekend of my fortieth high school reunion—dear old St. Clair High School in the St. Clair–Superior corridor on the near East Side of Cleveland—was to begin on a Friday evening in February. February is a singularly lousy time to have a reunion, but I found later that the hotel had been booked way in advance during the more pleasant spring and summer months. I carefully chose my wardrobe for the evening, and had left it hanging in my office closet all day—the one just across the Cuyahoga River from downtown Cleveland in an old building I’d purchased several years earlier with a bequest from an elderly aunt. Checking myself out in my bathroom mirror, I thought my black wool blazer looked nifty, even on somebody as big as I am, and I donned it for the cocktail party with gray slacks, a darker gray shirt, and a muted red-and-gray necktie. Then finally I girded my loins and drove across the river to the Crowne Plaza Centre Hotel downtown.

I stepped off the elevator into an alternate universe in which everyone wore plastic-covered name badges. The men were consciously pulling in their tummies as the women strove equally hard to flaunt what remained of their girlish figures. Some faces rang distant bells for me, and in my mind I attempted to de-age them, imagining how they looked when they were seventeen.

A few people nodded at me as they strove mightily to remember my name. A few waved or smiled insincerely, and I’d bet they didn’t recognize me, either. One man I didn’t remember, now a heavyset bald guy wearing a checked sports jacket, looked at me and whispered something to his wife, covering his mouth with his hand like a wicked plotter in the court of the Venetian doge. I hadn’t the vaguest idea what he was saying about me. Until I registered, I wasn’t “official,” and no one would speak to me.

The woman sitting sentry under a welcome banner with our class year emblazoned on it wore a short, perky haircut and what looked like a strapless 1954 prom frock made of gingham, with a huge matching bow over one of her generous breasts. I recalled neither the name nor the cleavage.

“Hi-i-i-i,” she said with an upward inflection, and rose to shake my hand. “I’m Gerry Gabrosek. Remember?”

The name tag identified her as Geraldine Gabrosek Bokar. I recalled her then—an indefatigable girl who always served on the dance committee, the senior picnic committee, the prom committee—and she’d been president of the French club, and in the hostess club too. She’d always organized her own social life, and most of her girlfriends’ lives, too.

“I’m Milan Jacovich,” I told her.

“Everybody knows who you are—the private detective. You’re famous.” She leaned over the table to press her cheek to mine, and strong perfume wafted up from the valley between her bosoms like swamp gas. I didn’t bother telling her that “detective” is a police rank, and that I’m actually a private investigator.

She fluttered on for a while and then gave me my name badge, a schedule for the weekend, info sheets I never got around to reading, a biography sheet with paragraphs about everyone attending, my Saturday night dinner ticket with table number affixed, and a complimentary drink coupon.

One complimentary drink. Subsequent drinks I’d have to pay for. It was boding to be a long damn night.

I pinned my badge to my jacket and made my way into the main room. There must have been two hundred classmates and spouses in there. Some, who’d stayed in the lower echelons of the labor force like their immigrant parents, looked stiff and awkward in their dress-up clothes. Others seemed at ease, smiling and aggressively sociable. Lots of hugs and handshakes and manly backslaps going on, and air kisses galore. The gathering was an emotional clusterfuck.

The attire of some seemed a part of their anatomy and the confident way they held themselves, as if they went to parties like this every week. They knew exactly what to do, how loud to talk, and just how to hold their drinks in one hand while trying to consume hors d’oeuvres. They’d come to the reunion to strut and preen; they claimed bragging rights.

Then there was Gary Mishlove, a microscope geek who had publicly vomited in junior year chemistry lab while performing an experiment with spoiled milk that had stunk up the whole second floor for a week. He’d always been a short, chunky guy and I recognized his face almost immediately, but his body had acquired an extra two hundred pounds and he was now dangerously obese.

Gary was talking to Maurice Paich, the school’s favorite actor. How he ever survived in a tough neighborhood with an interest in acting and hauling around a moniker like Maurice, I’ll never know—but he wound up as a radio announcer for a local station. At his side his wife, a pretty, brilliant blonde whose name, I learned from a quick peek at the bios, was Meredith, was casing the room and inspecting everyone except her husband, and seemed to have an early start on an evening’s heavy drinking.

I was surprised Stupan Godic had bothered attending. From an immigrant family like mine, he’d returned from the draft after serving in Southeast Asia, damaged and embittered, and spent the next thirty-five years sunk in heavy drug use. He was medium height and still very skinny. In a wrinkled sports jacket over a blue denim shirt with collar and cuffs hopelessly frayed, he wore a half-angry and half-dreamy expression. He was lost in the traumatic events of the seventies and unready to step forward into the twenty-first century. We talked for a minute and then he shuffled away, carrying his war memories with him around his shoulders.

I made my way to the bar. The bartender, young enough to be the offspring of anyone in the room, poured me a Jack Daniels on the rocks and took away my complimentary drink ticket.

A big-eyed woman approached me, dragging her reluctant husband behind her like a kid accompanying his mom on a shopping spree. Her hair was pulled back into a severe bun, framing a Modigliani face. I recalled the smile but nothing more. Arlene, Eileen, Elaine—I couldn’t quite pick out the right name.

“Milan Jacovich,” she said, “how fantastic to see you again.” She at least remembered how to pronounce my name; it’s My-lan, accent on the first syllable—not Mee-lahn or Mi-lahn—and the surname is pronounced with a Y, not a J, as in Yock-o-vitch. She embraced me warmly, putting her soft cheek against mine, kicking in at least one memory. Somewhere, forty years ago, for some reason I didn’t recall, I’d kissed her. “Ilene Silver. Remember?”

I confirmed the spelling on her name badge. Ilene. I’d been close, anyway.

“It’s Ilene Seltzer now. This is my husband, Toby.”

Ilene Silver to Ilene Seltzer—she didn’t have to change monograms on the towels. Ilene told me they had two children, and that Toby was CEO of an engineering firm in Broadview Heights, in the western suburbs. Losing interest quickly, I flatlined after the third sentence, smiling and nodding and not listening to a thing.

Then something over her shoulder caught her attention. “Ooooh!” she squealed. “There’s Tommy Wiggins.” And without so much as a “See ya,” she powered toward our school’s real celebrity alumnus.

Tommy Wiggins had grown taller since I’d known him. He was now just under six feet, slimmed down a lot, his full head of hair generously sprinkled with silver. Fame had taught him to wear his charisma well—it hovered around his head like a nimbus. Classmates roared toward him like linebackers determined to sack the quarterback, clamoring to bask in a small sliver of his angel shine.

Clevelanders aren’t impressed with celebrities, except for the ones who wear their jockstraps to work, like LeBron James. Local TV personalities get nodded to, but are rarely bothered. However, all my former classmates seemed to feel a certain proprietary interest in Tommy Wiggins because he’d gone on to famous things. In high school, he’d been shy and slightly pudgy and very dreamy, interested in what were perceived to be arcane and not very manly subjects like art and theater. He’d gone to college in central Ohio, majoring in creative writing. When he moved to New York, seven of his plays were produced on Broadway—six of them smash-hit comedies. He’d won two Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, and when they made his work into movies, he’d earned two Oscar nominations for the screenplays. He was a big shot in both New York, where he lived, and in Los Angeles, where he kept a condo, and he frequently made the tabloid press as he married and divorced twice. His second wife was a sexpot movie actress nearly thirty years his junior, and he had been linked to other women even more famous. He’d attained a success most Clevelanders only dream about, and that’s why all his former school chums were fawning all over him.

I stopped to talk for a while with high school sweethearts who had made it permanent the year they both graduated from high school. August Turkman—we called him Augie—had gone to work in his father’s dry-cleaning store in Maple Heights and married Amalia Zelka six months later. Now Augie owns that dry-cleaning store and two others, and after forty years of marriage they both still looked happy. That was nice, I thought, even when Amalia told me they’d moved to a much bigger house in Maple Heights and now raise Welsh corgis.

“Bitsy” Steinberg—now Elizabeth Steinberg Miller—came over to greet me. She had the grace to admit we had never spoken in school, but she said she’d always enjoyed watching me play football, and introduced her husband, who owned a local chain of pool-and-patio stores and who frequently popped up on his company’s commercials, talking too loudly.

I wandered the room, free drink in hand, encountering familiar faces. Men whose hands I’d never shaken hugged me like long-lost war buddies, and women were hell bent to kiss my cheek. Most were virtual strangers to me, but we shared a history of sorts. A snapped towel in the locker room, a copped feel under the bleachers, sweating out tests together, quietly hoping for the future—memories conveniently forgotten, but not diluted by time as it tumbles by.

Then Lila Coso Jacovich entered on the arm of her longtime consort, Joe Bradac, looking spectacular in a black cocktail dress that hugged the swell of her breasts. Her hemline ended two inches above her still-shapely knees. Joe, who owned a machine shop and virtually lived in service overalls, had actually shown up in a suit. It’s the only suit I’d ever seen him wear that didn’t make him look like a wholesale chicken salesman.

I found my way back to the bar and ordered another Black Jack. This time I had to pay for it.

I carry no torch for my ex-wife. Our split-up—all her idea, by the way—hit me hard at the time. By now, though, we’d been divorced longer than we’d been married, and had moved on. Whatever residual issues remained between Joe Bradac and me existed only in his head, not mine. I belted down half my drink and shouldered my way through the crowd to where they stood. Lila surveyed the room like a reigning queen, but Joe blinked uncertainly as he watched my approach the way a deer in shock regards an oncoming semi on the highway.

“Lila, you look beautiful,” I said, bending to kiss her cheek. We never kissed anymore, not even cheeks, but everyone else at the reunion was doing so and it would have shouted tension had we not.

I didn’t shake Joe’s hand; I never did. He was always frightened that I’d crush it into jelly. It had eaten a hole in my liver that Lila secretly cheated with and then finally discarded me for someone like him, but Joe is exactly the kind of man Lila needs—one she can dominate and push around at will. Say what you will about me, then and now, nobody has ever pushed me around.

If they do, I push back.

So I was happy to be long gone from a home where major arguments occurred twice a week, at least one of them invariably on a Sunday. I still have feelings for Lila because she’s the mother of my two sons, but each time I see her it reminds me why we aren’t together anymore.

I disengaged myself from the happy couple and stood off to one side, wishing I’d skipped the reunion altogether, when my attention was caught by a guy whose name I don’t think I ever heard, even though I remembered him from St. Clair. In his youth his face was like a tomahawk, all sharp, brutal angles, and years hadn’t softened it. Now he wore his black hair combed straight back and slicked down, sporting a mustache that drooped at the ends.

He’d tried out for high school football, I remembered, and during the scrimmage—he’d hoped to become a running back—he kicked one of the tacklers right in the stones at the moment of contact. About five minutes later, when he was taken down hard by one of the linebackers, he gouged the kid’s eye with his thumb, causing some pretty scary bleeding. I never got his name and hardly ever saw him around after the coach told him to get lost. He was too far away for me to read his name badge so I could look up his bio. He might be a Baptist minister now, or a vacuum cleaner repairman, but he looked like a hired assassin.

The crowd had finally drifted away from Tommy Wiggins, and he headed straight to the bar for fortification. I came up beside him and reintroduced myself.

“I remember you, Milan,” he said. “You played football, didn’t you? As I recall, you were always very nice to me. I remember things like that.” His smile seemed more genuine than the one pasted on when everyone swarmed around him, hoping to touch him. His hair was longer than that of most men his age who still had theirs, but he didn’t need a haircut at all—the length had been cultivated for a more artistic look, and his golden skin proclaimed the gentle all-over tan of a New York tanning salon. He’d grown a lot more handsome in the forty years since senior class, but he didn’t carry himself as though he knew it. He seemed more relaxed with me than with the reunioners who’d slobbered all over him, and I gathered he was always immensely comfortable in his own milieu.

“I guess I’ve changed some,” he said, “but you haven’t at all—except you had more hair when we were seventeen.”

“You wear success well, Tom. Congratulations.”

“Don’t kid yourself.” He accepted a martini on the rocks from the bartender, took a sip, and jiggled the glass a little so the ice cubes clinked. “Every writer I know—Oscars and Tonys and Pulitzers notwithstanding—is terrified that he’s taken his last good shot, done his last good work, and his next effort is going to fall loudly on its ass in front of God and everybody else.”

“Yours won’t,” I said. “You’ll always have something interesting to write about because you lead such a fascinating life.”

“Writers don’t have adventures. We just observe them. Then we go sit all alone in a little room, type badly, and put it all down on paper.”

I laughed. “Wasn’t it Gore Vidal who said that writing comes from living a life intensely?”

“It’s been intense—I’ll give you that.” He shook his head. “Some times were great, and some times were shitty. But thank God, it’s never for a single moment been boring.”

I leaned against the bar. “What brought you to the reunion, Tommy? You weren’t really that close to any of us, at least not that I remember. And judging from your writing, you’re hardly the sentimental type.”

“I’m not sentimental at all; I’m cynical. But at least I’m funny cynical and not mean-as-a-snake cynical. This hoo-hah was just an excuse to come back to see my mother. She’s in her eighties now.” His face grew serious, and his smooth forehead wrinkled in a frown. “Besides, there’s somebody here that I’ve wanted to tell off for forty years. I never bothered with it before, but this silly damn reunion is just begging for it.” His grin was lupine. “Machiavelli said you must never wound a prince. Make sure you kill him.” Then he smiled again. “Our classmate made that mistake.”

It made me a little uncomfortable. “Who’s your target?”

“Keep your eyes and ears open, Milan,” Tommy said. “You’ll find out.”

He clapped me on the shoulder and wandered away. Like any good playwright, he knew how to end the second act in suspense.

I looked around again. Phil Kohn—Doctor Phil Kohn—was standing by the entrance, and his too-good-for-the-rest-of-you attitude reminded me that he’d always been the class snotnose. He’d bragged during senior year that he’d been accepted to Stanford, and he returned to Cleveland to become a cardiologist. His look confirmed he was one of those doctors who regarded himself as a deity, the same way he had been when he was seventeen. He saved most of his sarcasm and vitriol for jocks like me, and there had been several times I’d wanted to deck him, but then as now, he was only about five foot seven, and he was lucky that even back then I was six foot three. Now he was “portly,” but he carried it well. No one set records rushing to greet him, because few classmates had liked him any better than I had.

Matt Baznik had come in with his pretty wife Rita Marie. I wondered if he’d speak to me, if we could rekindle the close friendship that had fallen apart so long ago when I’d saved his son from using and selling drugs. No good deed goes unpunished, I suppose, because he saw me for a second, his expression darkened, and he tore his eyes away quickly. Rita Marie saw me, too, and sent me a sad, quiet smile. I guessed there would be no resuscitation of that friendship this evening.

That’s when I ran into Bernie Rothman, wandering all over the room with concern on his wide, homely face, looking as if he’d just been dropped on an alien planet. An odd duck, he was super-intellectual in school but sociable and well liked by everyone. Short, intense, and wildly philosophical, he’d been a double letter man in gymnastics and swimming, walking the tightrope between geek and jock. Now he was divorced, and taught English at a private Hebrew academy in Florida.

“Milan!” he said, his eyes lighting up. He threw his arms around me, at least as far as they could go—he was a small guy, the top of his head reaching just above my chin. I could smell the goop with which he’d slicked back his white hair.

“It’s good to see you, Bernie,” I said, disengaging. “I thought you lived in Florida.”

“I do. I was here last year, of course, when my mother died.” His eyes grew damp and red. “This is a woman who never smoked or drank, and ate healthy her whole life long, and then, BANG! The heart got her. A leaking valve, it was, that nobody found until it was too late.” He looked away, gritting his teeth. Then: “Anyway, I wanted to see some of you people I haven’t connected with in forty years. I wanted to touch base with you all again. Isn’t it strange how you completely lose track of your classmates? I’ve been out of the loop.”

His face was hangdog, looking as if he were in genuine pain. He moved closer to me. “I heard about Marko Meglich. I’m really sorry—I guess you don’t want to talk about it.”

I didn’t. Marko Meglich was the only classmate I’d want to see again, and I knew I never would. We’d met over a schoolyard fistfight in the third grade, and remained close pals since then, through high school and college. For a time we were both uniformed police officers, although never partnered, and he used to refer to us as “Butch and Sundance.” He thought of me as a clown like Paul Newman’s Butch, while he was Robert Redford’s Sundance Kid, coldly efficient and fast on the draw. I left the force after a few years to go private, but he learned copdom’s political ins and outs, decided on rapid advancement, and wound up running the homicide division as a lieutenant. His captain’s bars were never offered because several years ago he died, shot down in the street while off duty—and at risk trying to help me.

I’ve never gotten over Marko. Some grief never goes away.

Bernie Rothman’s attitude changed—he seemed to have forgotten about Marko much more quickly than I ever have. All at once his eyes glittered, and his breathing became deep and rapid. “Anyone interesting here tonight? Um—you haven’t run into Alenka by any chance.”

Whenever anyone thought of Bernie during his St. Clair High days, they’d automatically think of Alenka Tavcar, too. She was amazingly pretty—and though we’d been good friends, living about eight houses apart on the same Slovenian street, there was no romantic spark between us. She and Bernie dated a few times, but he was a lot more serious about her than she was about him. When Bernie’s Jewish parents discovered he was dating a Slovenian Catholic girl, they put their feet down hard and forbade him to see her again, and for the rest of our senior year he whined and moaned about it every chance he got until his friends grew sick of hearing him. Then Bernie went off to the University of Michigan and Alenka enrolled at Miami of Ohio, and as far as I knew nothing more ever came of it. Alenka’s reunion bio said she’d married a man named Tom Clayburgh, lived in Olmsted Falls, and was currently selling expensive residential real estate.

“Alenka,” Bernie whispered like a prayer. “Oh God, Milan, if she comes here I have to talk to her. There’s been a big hole in my heart since the last time I saw her.” Without another word he was off circling the ballroom, searching for the love of his youth. Alenka was married, and I didn’t see the point.

The guy with the hatchet face and the Viva Zapata mustache stepped in front of me. Up close I could see his eyes were as hard as the rest of him, two black stones in the bottom of a creek bed. “You’re Milan Jacovich,” he observed.

I gawked at his name badge: Ted Lesnevich, it said. “Hello, Ted.”

We shook hands. His were soft, almost feminine compared to his face. Whatever he did for a living, he used his head and not his hands. Nobody in Cleveland has a February tan, but his pallor was ghastly.

“You don’t have to pretend you remember me,” he said, “unless you remember I tried out for the football team three years running. I never made it.” He didn’t blink. “I always envied you.”

“You envied me?”

“I see your name in the news sometimes—you’re a fucking saint, aren’t you? A Superman, fighting for truth, justice, and the American way.” His tone was derisive, and I had the sudden urge to leap tall buildings at a single bound and land right on top of him.

“When I was twenty-two,” he went on, “I applied to the Cleveland P.D. myself—just like you. But I flunked the exam. You got another chance to ignore me that time.”

Being on the defensive was never comfortable for me, except in my old days of playing football. “I didn’t ignore you. I didn’t even know who you were, Ted.”

He said softly, “But you know now, huh?”

I forced a smile to take away any sting of condescension. “What’s your line of work?”

His face became a blank sheet of paper, and almost as white. “I’m in sales,” he said, and didn’t elaborate. He did a military about-face and marched off, leaving me with the impression I’d just been insulted. Lesnevich apparently hadn’t changed much from when he gouged the eye of a tackler.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw that Alenka Tavcar had just walked through the door—and she was alone.

She’d grown from a pretty girl to a stunning woman. Her hair was lighter in color now, but she was still slim and wraithlike, dressed impeccably in a wine-colored cocktail dress with black roses on it. Everybody in the room looked at her—they couldn’t ignore her if they chose to—but no one’s mouth hung open the way Bernie Rothman’s did. When he saw her he plowed directly toward her through the crowd like a heat-seeking missile. I had to look away.

Alex Cerne and Sonja Kokol came in, almost in tandem. Just as in school, they were friends—close enough that their respective spouses had bowed out of this cocktail party and sent them here together. The two of them, along with Matt Baznik and the late Marko Meglich, had formed my best-friends-forever group who’d never lost track of each other during the subsequent forty years.

Sonja had the original idea for this reunion and had put it together almost single-handedly, and when she called to implore me to come, I couldn’t really say no. She needed all the classmate support she could rally. I hugged her. She’d been so busy I hadn’t seen her for about two months. “You must be a masochist,” I said, “for agreeing to organize this.”

“Next time I look like I’ll say yes,” she said, “kick my ass, hard.”

“It’ll all work out. These people will loosen up after a few drinks until somebody punches somebody else for dancing too close to his wife.”

She started to answer but a hotel employee in a dark suit rushed up and murmured something into her ear.

“Sorry,” Sonja said to Alex and me, “but I’m wanted in the kitchen—some sort of emergency with the hors d’oeuvres.”

We watched her bustle after the employee, and I said, “Maybe they ran out of Ritz crackers.”

Alex shook his head. “Sonja’s screwed herself into the ground putting this weekend together.” There were so many people in the room now that they’d morphed into a single entity that buzzed, moved, and undulated in a comforting rhythm. “What a motley crew we are, huh Milan? Some of us blue-collar kids got educated and climbed the success ladder—and now we make more money than our parents ever dreamed of. But under the Brooks Brothers suits and the Donna Karan dresses, there’s still something so lower middle class about us all.”

“Even you? With your dental cottage industry now and your mansion in Rocky River?”

“It’s not a mansion—it’s a McMansion—a large and ridiculously expensive tract home. I’m the same as I always was. Slovenian blood is still thick and robust and ethnic—not thinned out by too many herbal body wraps and Botox and expensive Evian water.”

“I don’t drink Evian,” I said. “I bet there are four guys in the back room filling Evian bottles with tap water and laughing their asses off.”

The buzz of the collective animal crowd changed, became quieter and more intense, and I became aware of the shifting of mass as everyone moved toward the center of the ballroom, jostling for position to view a ritual execution.

Phil Kohn and Tommy Wiggins were in some sort of angry face-off, with an alarmed Sonja Kokol trying to get between them. Wiggins’s face was almost purple, and veins stood out in bas-relief on his forehead. The martini he held shook so badly that the ice cubes were playing “Carol of the Bells.” His eyes were bright with Jehovian rage. I’ve seen many people mad and out of control, but this was true fury.

In contrast, Phil Kohn was ashen, with a white line around his mouth, eyelids batting behind his glasses. One hand fluttered helplessly at the knot of his necktie, the other was raised in front of him as if to ward off an onrushing bus.

“I’ve been waiting forty years,” Tommy Wiggins was saying, “to tell you, in front of as many people as possible, to go fuck yourself. I flew in from New York just for the pleasure.”

“Tommy, Tommy,” Sonja soothed, but no one paid any attention.

“You were a cruel, insensitive, arrogant little bastard who loved hurting other people,” Tommy continued. “You haven’t changed a goddamn bit.”

Kohn’s face twisted with embarrassment, and he tried not to meet the eyes of any of us surrounding him, as if we were waiting for a bull-baiting mastiff to attack.

“You think you’re such hot shit,” Tommy snarled. “Well, I’m richer than you’ll ever hope to be. I’m famous all over the world—I get stopped in the street for my autograph. And I’ve fucked more beautiful women than you’ve ever jacked off thinking about. I was sick to death of you in high school—and not a damn thing has changed.”

And with a flick of his wrist, he tossed the contents of his nearly full glass into Dr. Phil Kohn’s face.


From the book King of the Holly Hop (a Milan Jacovich Mystery), © Les Roberts. All rights reserved.

The Irish Sports Pages

The Irish Sports Pages, a book by Les Roberts: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#13)

Book Excerpt

From The Irish Sports Pages (a Milan Jacovich Mystery) by Les Roberts


The atmosphere in the bar seemed to actually be humming, or rather vibrating like a well-played violin string, with a purity of tone and pitch worthy of a concert hall. Whether it was in anticipation of great food or the promise of something yet unspoken, I didn’t know. You won’t find a better-dressed, better-connected, or better-looking crowd in all of Cleveland than at One Walnut, the upscale restaurant on the corner of Walnut and East Ninth Street. An awful lot of the area’s beautiful people show up on any given night, but especially on Fridays, which is the week’s most important time for networking. It’s the kind of place where everyone makes an entrance, even if they’re not important at all.

On this particular evening, longtime leading morning-radio personality John Lanigan, of the Lanigan and Malone Show on WMJI, was looking at his reflection in the enormous circular art deco mirror behind the bar and chatting with flame-haired Melanie, who is something of a bartending legend around here because of her killer martinis. The air crackled.

After I’d said hello to them both, I was led down a wide hallway into the main dining room, where Cathleen Hartigan awaited me for our dinner engagement. She was far and away the most ­elegant-looking woman in the place.

I didn’t spot her immediately, because she’d been seated in a little alcove to the left of the entrance, her back to the soft gray wall, and when I approached and she raised her face for a kiss, it fell into that limbo of something more than a hello kiss and something less than anything else. I wondered if any of her lipstick had been transferred to my mouth during the exchange.

“You look sensational,” I said. I didn’t lie. Her fair Irish good looks seemed to glow, and her gray silk dress shimmered when she moved. I hadn’t seen her in a while, but I thought she’d ­allowed her blond hair to grow a bit longer, and she was wearing it more softly around her face. Her perfume, rising up to enchant me, was subtle and expensive.

“You’re looking pretty good yourself, Milan,” she said in that lilting voice that could be a clarion call in a courtroom and a soft, low purr anywhere else. “It’s so good to see you. I really appreciate your coming.”

“The pleasure’s mine,” I said, and truth to tell, it was. I’d been pleased, but more than a little surprised, when she called me and invited me to dinner. She had suggested I bring along one of my standard agency contracts, so I was fairly certain that this time we were only going to be talking business. You could say that Cathleen Hartigan and I have a “history”—one that goes back about seven or eight years.

I suppose some clarification is in order here. I spent some time in Vietnam in the military—an MP sergeant—and then several years as a Cleveland cop prior to becoming an industrial security specialist and private investigator. That stint with the police is probably what got in the way of my ever getting together romantically with Cathleen Hartigan. Because long before I met her, she was the sometime girlfriend of a man named Victor Gaimari, who is number two on the depth chart of northeast Ohio’s biggest crime family, right behind his uncle, Don Giancarlo D’Allessandro. And early in my relationship with Victor, I broke his nose, and he subsequently had me pretty badly bruised by three of his employees.

Here’s irony for you: since that time, Victor and I have become friends, sort of. And his uncle, the don, seems to think I walk on water. We’ve done each other a few favors over the years, which isn’t as bad as it sounds, and even though I hate the way he makes his money, there’s no gainsaying that Victor is a charming, affable guy—a pretty good ally when the chips are down, if it comes to that.

Back when he introduced Cathleen and me at a party he was giving, naming her my “dinner partner” for the evening, I think he’d gotten it into his head that since he liked me and he liked her, we would probably like each other. And we did. But their past romantic involvement had been problematic for me. I knew she was no gangster’s moll, no fluff chick. She was a successful attorney, and her mother was a judge, her brother was a congressman, and her late father had been a state senator. But I couldn’t get my nineteenth-century morality past the fact that she and Victor had once been lovers.

That’s the reason our relationship never amounted to much—a mild flirtation and a few quasi-innocent kisses is about as far as it ever got. And that was my fault.

I’m in my forties, and everyone my age or even close to it has a past, but in my shortsightedness and self-righteousness—traits that have been pointed out to me by more than one person in my life—I perceived Cathleen to be in some way tainted goods, and I walked away.

Stupid me. Stupid me again when I ran into her at another Victor Gaimari party last year. Before that she’d been married for a short time to another lawyer, a cheapjack shyster from the west side. She subsequently divorced him when he got disbarred for suborning perjury in a workers’ comp case. I drove her home after the party that evening and kissed her good night rather passionately—and then didn’t do a damn thing to follow through.

I’ve been on my own for a long time now, both businesswise and relationship-wise. I have my own agency in the Flats, the born-again riverbank neighborhood a hop-skip away from downtown. Milan Security, in case you want to look it up in the telephone directory. That’s my first name, Milan, with the ­accent on the first syllable—My-lan. Europeans say Mee-lahn or even Mi-lahn, but my parents wanted to be regular Americans, so they always pronounced it with the long i sound. And if you think that’s difficult to say, try bending your tongue around my last name, which is Jacovich. Pronounced Yock-o-vitch. It’s Slovenian, because ­Slovenia is where my parents came from. There are more people of Slovenian descent in the Cleveland area than anywhere else in the world outside Ljubljana, which is the capital of ­Slovenia. And if you’re geographically challenged and don’t know where or what Slovenia is, look it up in an atlas.

I’d been surprised to get the dinner invitation from Cathleen Hartigan that afternoon; there are only so many times a woman can get rejected before she figures out that she’s wasting her time. So I knew this dinner get-together was more of a professional meeting and not a date. Not personal.

I sat with her and ordered a drink, and we chatted for a while about this and that, comfortably, the way old acquaintances do. We didn’t reminisce about old times, because we really hadn’t shared any. I imagine she was wondering as much as I what might have been. And then she sat up a little straighter in her chair and unconsciously moved her drink away from her and said, “My mother is going to be joining us this evening, Milan. I hope that’s not a problem.”

And all of a sudden I was a little bit less at ease than I’d been five seconds earlier. Maureen Carey Hartigan is a former Cuyahoga County prosecutor and currently a judge of the Common Pleas Court, with a tough-on-criminals reputation that makes defense attorneys quake at the knees. I couldn’t help but wonder why Cathleen was bringing the two of us together.

I wasn’t even certain the judge would remember me, but I certainly remembered her. I had been called twice as a prosecution witness in her courtroom, including once when I provided damaging testimony against the misbegotten son of a bitch who killed my best friend, and who Judge Hartigan had sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. My best friend, Marko Meglich, was a cop; cop killers get short shrift in any courtroom in the country, but especially in Hartigan’s. She had been tough and professional and fair on that occasion, and sympathetic, too, and I’d developed a healthy respect for her.

“Of course it’s all right,” I answered Cathleen’s query. “I know her from court, but I’ve never met her socially.” Then I looked at the way Cathleen’s usually full lips tightened into a line, and I amended, “I have a feeling this isn’t exactly going to be social, either.”

“Let’s wait until she gets here, Milan. I’ll let her tell you about it.” Her general attitude was a bit too mysterious for my comfort.

When Judge Hartigan arrived five minutes later, the buzz in One Walnut suddenly resembled the sound of a Beverly Hills restaurant when someone like Tom Cruise walks in. Cleveland judges get their faces on television a lot, and Maureen was more photogenic than most. Owner-chef Marlin Kaplan came out of the kitchen to say hello, and virtually the entire restaurant staff greeted Maureen by name, as did several customers as she made her way through the dining room. Not unusual; the restaurant was close enough to the courthouse and the glittering high-rise law offices downtown, so I supposed she knew practically everybody in the place. Unlike New York and Chicago, where it’s fairly common to spot entertainment celebrities everywhere, from the most expensive restaurants to the supermarket to strolling on the sidewalk, and give them little attention, in Cleveland luminaries from all walks of life are treated as such, and while it’s rare that anyone actually bothers them in public, they are invariably recognized and greeted, or at least gawked at.

Usually, when children are small, they tend to resemble their parents. It’s only after they’re grown, and life takes over and sculpts and molds and rearranges their faces, that they often appear entirely different. Cathleen, however, still looked very much like her mother, only about twenty-five years younger. Judge Hartigan’s hair was just as blond, but streaked with gray, cut shorter, and styled in a more mature fashion, and she was perhaps an inch shorter and ten pounds heavier, and her burgundy suit wasn’t of a color one usually associates with the bench. But the familial resemblance—the porcelain skin and earthy beauty tempered by Gaelic humor and pugnacity—could be easily discerned by anyone who was paving attention.

We both rose as the judge approached, but there was no phony air kissing between mother and daughter. The way Maureen Hartigan beamed at her offspring with unaffected delight and affection was more demonstrative than any kissing or hugging or cooing might have been. Cathleen started to make the introductions, but her mother stopped her.

“Mr. Jacovich and I have met before, in court,” she said. “I appreciate your coming tonight.”

Flattered that she’d remembered me, I held out her chair for her to sit down, and she gave me a startled but not displeased look. I know holding a woman’s chair or opening a door for her is considered politically incorrect these days, but I’m just old enough that the lessons in etiquette and common courtesy my mother drummed into my skull are hard to break. The judge didn’t seem to mind, and actually thanked me. I guess she was old enough to remember courtesy, too.

She ordered one of Melanie’s specialties—an honest, old-style gin martini straight up with an olive—endearing herself to me forever. To a purist, those designer concoctions with vodka and chocolate or mint or curaçao aren’t really martinis at all, no matter what they’re called.

When her drink came, she got right down to business. “What I want to speak to you about is obviously confidential,” she said. “I know your reputation, and of course Cathleen vouches for you, too, so I assume that won’t be any problem.”

“No, ma’am,” I said, again mindful of the manners I’d learned at my mother’s knee.

Her smile was crooked, playful. “I wore this wine-colored suit with the daring neckline instead of my judicial robes for the express purpose of not being called ma’am,” she said. “Maureen will do, if you’re comfortable with that.”

“Great, Maureen. And if you’re comfortable with calling me Milan, I think we have a deal.”

She nodded, and then looked around cautiously to see if anyone was paying attention. “Good.” She lowered her voice to a commanding whisper. “The fact is, Milan—and this is very embarrassing to me—I have been royally scammed, and so has my family.”

I tried not to look surprised. Maureen didn’t fit the profile of con-game victim. “Do you mind if I take notes?”

She hesitated for half a second. “Discretion is very important to me.”

“If I’m captured by the enemy, I promise I’ll eat them,” I said, smiling to take the sting out of it.

She nodded, which I took for permission to pull out my notebook and a pen.

“It started with my cousin, Hugh Cochran,” she said. “He’s an assistant director of the Department of Public Service here in Cleveland.”

I knew the name. Vaguely. “Okay.”

“About seven weeks ago Hugh was having a drink in a bar on the west side called O’Grady’s.” She allowed herself a small smile. “An Irish bar, naturally, not too far from his house. For some reason it’s one of those places in which Irishmen who work for the city hang out. Perfectly harmless, I assure you—and you don’t have to be Irish to drink there, either.”

So far all I’d written down was “Hugh Cochran” and “O’Grady’s.” I waited.

“About five weeks ago a young man wandered in. He had a brogue as thick as Irish stew and said his name was Brian McFall, from County Mayo.”

“How young?” I said. Youth was a relative thing; the judge was in her sixties, and I suppose that to her I was a young man, too.

“In his early or middle thirties,” she said, looking to Cathleen for confirmation. “No older. You may or may not know it, Milan, but a lot of Cleveland’s Irish population have ancestors from Mayo. It’s one of those strange sociological phenomena like the one that brought most Slovenian immigrants to this area as well.”

I ducked my head in acknowledgment. My own parents had emigrated from Ljubljana after World War II, arriving in Cleveland because virtually everyone they knew from Slovenia who had come to America had wound up here, too. Ethnic neighborhoods in American cities have nothing to do with racial distrust or bigotry or even clannishness. They are all about a comfort level.

“You know how it is in a tavern,” she said. “Especially an ethnic tavern. People get to talking, having a few drinks, they open up and wax nostalgic, and pretty soon everyone knows everyone else’s life story.”

“I have the feeling you’re going to tell me Brian McFall’s.”

“Well, sort of. In any event, after a drink or two, and a good bit of reminiscing about how much he missed Achill Island and the Moy Valley and all that, McFall told Hugh and his friends that he’d arrived at Cleveland Hopkins Airport from Castlebar by way of Shannon that very afternoon, and that the airlines had lost his luggage, including his passport, his wallet, all his credit cards, and his traveler’s checks. And that he’d come to Cleveland to get to Akron to work for his cousin but couldn’t locate him.”

That story would have sounded pretty lame to me, but then I hadn’t been drinking in a pub all night and wouldn’t have been caught up in the emotion of a fellow Irishman in need. “I suppose your cousin had to pay the drink tab?”

Maureen Hartigan rolled her eyes toward the ceiling, and Cathleen shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “I wish it had been only that.”

She stopped as the waitress came back to recite the specials of the evening. The waitress didn’t go away, though, until Cathleen and I ordered a second drink, too.

“Hugh actually brought McFall to my house a few days later,” Judge Hartigan said when the three of us were alone again. “He said McFall couldn’t check into a hotel without a credit card, and he’d bunked in with Hugh for a few days, but since Hugh lives in a one-bedroom house and I have five, he thought . . . ”

“I’ve got the picture.”

“It was only to be for a night or two,” she said, “until the airlines delivered his lost baggage.”

“But they never did find his luggage, did they?”

“You’ve figured that out already? No, they didn’t.” She shook her head.

I felt like shaking mine. The gullibility of otherwise very sensible people never ceases to amaze me.

“How long did he wind up staying with you?

“Almost three weeks.”

“And the job with his cousin in Akron?”

“Apparently it never materialized. Brian said he wasn’t ever able to locate him.”

I glanced over at Cathleen, who looked every bit as somber as her mother. “I assume that you wouldn’t have called me in on this if it was just a matter of unpaid lodging and a bar tab at O’Grady’s . . . ”

“Not by half,” Judge Hartigan said. “Briney borrowed my cousin Hugh’s credit card so he could rent a car, which he did. But he also used it to run up more than two thousand dollars’ worth of clothing at Nordstrom, and Brooks Brothers, too. He said that because his baggage had been lost he needed new clothing—and suitcases, as well. I gave him about fifteen hundred ­dollars of my own, too. In cash. He said he needed some ‘walking around money.’ ”

“For fifteen hundred dollars he could have taken taxis,” Cathleen put in.

“Limousines,” I agreed.

“And he stole from me, too, Milan,” the judge said. It was as though she was surprised by the fact, even after all this time. “A brooch-and-earrings set my grandmother gave me is missing, along with some other jewelry and about eight hundred more in cash. And Hugh discovered that an expensive pair of leather boots, three or four silk ties, and some valuable cuff links were gone from his house as well.”

“This Brian McFall just disappeared?”

She nodded. “Into thin air, it seems. Brian McFall, Hugh’s credit card, the rental car, my jewelry, the clothes, and the cash, along with some important papers and photographs—all gone. I woke up one morning and looked in his room, and he just wasn’t there anymore.”

I wet my whistle with my drink because I was going to ask a question I thought I already knew the embarrassing answer to. “Why didn’t you notify the police, Maureen? You’re a judge. I’m sure they would have made finding Brian McFall a priority.”

There was a pause that was at least eight months pregnant, and mother and daughter exchanged glances that could only be classified as humiliated.

“It was a little more than simple theft, I’m afraid,” the judge said. “A little more personal.”

I didn’t say anything; my mind was too busy trying to process what I thought I knew was coming.

“Milan, I’m an elected official,” she continued. “The slightest whiff of scandal, especially in a conservative district like mine . . . ”

I put up a hand to stop her. “It’s all right,” I said. “Those things happen. Even to judges. Nobody is judging you.”

She looked blank for a moment, and then all of a sudden she laughed, throwing her head back and guffawing loud enough to attract some attention. “Oh my God, you think I was sleeping with him? I’m sixty-three years old!”

I stared at her, thinking that she was sexy and attractive and not too old to sleep with anybody. “I apologize, Maureen. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions. But then I’m not sure what . . . ”

I saw the second embarrassed look pass between mother and daughter, and all of a sudden I did understand, and then I was sure. My heart sank a little. I turned toward Cathleen.

She flushed, her Irish complexion going from pale white to bright red in a matter of moments. “I haven’t dated since my ­divorce, Milan—you know that. And Briney was quite the charmer,” she murmured, her head down. “Handsome, funny, full of stories—he even sang old Irish folk songs.”

I nodded knowingly. The old-Irish-folk-songs ploy.

“This is kind of humiliating,” she continued. “Give me a few points for guts, at least. The hardest thing I ever had to do in my life was to call you, knowing I’d have to tell you about this.”

I reached over and squeezed her hand.

“That’s why confidentiality is so important, Milan,” the judge said, her eyes following my hand to Cathleen’s. “I know it’s the twenty-first century and all that, but in some circles a woman still has her reputation to consider.”

“I’ll be very discreet,” I promised, “as soon as you tell me what you’d like me to do.”

“I want you to find Brian McFall. I want you to bring him back so he can stand in front of me and tell me why he betrayed us all.” She opened her large purse and pulled out a snapshot, which she pushed across the tablecloth to me. “That will give you an idea of what he looks like; I know that will help.”

“It will,” I said, and looked at it. Cathleen and a lean, young man with sharp, ferretlike features and dark curly hair were seated on a sofa together, laughing, each holding a bottle of Guinness, his arm around her shoulders. It was hard to tell, but the man seemed as if he might be fairly tall when he stood up; his legs were stretched out comfortably and looked long. In the out-of-focus background were two other people, a man and a woman, whose faces were partially turned away from the camera. It was obviously a candid shot snapped at some sort of party, and both subjects seemed unaware their picture was being taken.

“As you can see,” Cathleen said miserably, “he was a real cutie.”

I was itching to slap the cutie around. Not just because of him and Cathleen; that was none of my business, and she wouldn’t have gone to bed with him if she hadn’t wanted to. But because he was a punk—and a stupid punk at that. Assuming that he hadn’t dumped the rental car off at some chop shop for ten cents on the dollar and left Hugh Cochran holding the bag for it, his larceny had amounted to not much more than a few thousand dollars in cash and merchandise. Not a bad payday for three weeks’ work for most people, but hardly enough to risk getting a judge riled up at him.

Only small-timers steal small things.

“He was staying with your mother,” I said to Cathleen, “but spending nights at your place?”

She nodded miserably. “Mostly, yes. I invited him to bunk in with me for the time being, but he said it would be too much trouble to move again. And Mom and I only live about six blocks from each other.”

“The funny thing was,” the judge said, pointing to the photograph, “that he just about went postal when that flash went off. He got very angry and said he didn’t like having his picture taken. So that’s the only one we have of him.”

“I can see why,” I said. ‘The guy is a scam artist. It wouldn’t do for a bunch of photos of him to be floating around.”

“Well,” Cathleen said, “at least we have the one. That should give you something to go on.”

“It does,” I said. “But I can’t bring him back if he doesn’t want to come. Not by force, anyhow. I’m sure you know that’s kidnapping.”

“I don’t expect you to bring him back by force, necessarily,” Maureen said. “I want you to convince him that it would be in his best interest.”

“You mean you want me to threaten him?”

The judge patted her lips primly with her napkin, and her eyes scanned the dining room as though she was looking for somebody she knew. “I don’t particularly care to know your methods,” she said tightly. “All I want is results.”

“I don’t imagine you’ll get your money back,” I said.

She nodded. “I don’t really expect to recover much of the cash, if any. It doesn’t matter—in the long run it was a piddling amount. And Hugh has canceled his credit card, of course. But my mother’s jewelry—that’s irreplaceable. I want that back, no matter what. If he’s still got it, fine. If he sold it, I want you to find out to whom. I’ll buy it back if I have to.” She cleared her throat, scoping out the room again, looking everywhere but at my face. “And the papers and photographs that he stole. I want them returned as well.”

I was scribbling notes. “Okay,” I said. “What kind of papers and photos?”

“Legal papers,” Cathleen put in. “And family pictures.”

“An album?”

The judge hesitated, but just barely. “No. Loose photographs. In a plain eight-by-ten manila envelope.”

“Again, Maureen, I’m sure you know that even if I find him, I can’t legally make him return the photos.”

“Let me take care of that,” she said heavily.

I didn’t like the sound of it, and was going to tell her so when I caught a glimpse of Cathleen. She looked devastated, and was giving me an entreating glance I couldn’t really say no to.

“All right, Maureen. This picture of him and Cathleen will help, but it isn’t much to go on. Anything else you can tell me?”

“He told us that his father was the executive vice president of Belleek china,” Cathleen said in a way that made me suppose I should have been impressed. But I’d never heard of Belleek china. I get most of my dishes at Wal-Mart. “And he swore that for our help he’d see to it that we all—Hugh, my mother, and I—would be sent full sets of Belleek Parian china. It’s some of the finest in the world.”

“After he’d been gone for several days without a word and without leaving a number or forwarding address,” Maureen said, “I got suspicious. So I called Belleek in Ireland. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that they’d never heard of anybody named Brian McFall. Their executive VP’s name is Haggerty. So he lied about that, too.”

“He lied about everything,” Cathleen put in, mournfully but with an unaccustomed bitterness giving her tone a sharp edge.

“Can you help us?” the judge said. “Quietly and discreetly?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “There isn’t much to go on here.”

“Will you try?”

I hesitated, and Cathleen turned her hand over in mine and squeezed tight, fingernails digging into my palm. Her blue eyes were shining wet. “Just try, Milan,” she said. “For an old friend.”

I sighed. I’m a sucker for blue eyes, I suppose. “It might run into some serious money; these things often do.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Maureen said, and took a checkbook from her purse. “Getting my own back matters more.”

“All right, then,” I said. I fished the contract from my jacket pocket and passed it over to her. She scanned it quickly, professionally, and signed it with my pen. Then she took out her checkbook and wrote me out a retainer. Before I folded it and put it away, I noticed that her checks were imprinted with adorable little kittens. Cute—but not very judicial.

“I’ll want to talk to your cousin Hugh,” I said, and wrote down his address and phone number in my notebook. “And now you’ll have to tell me where I can find O’Grady’s.”


From the book The Irish Sports Pages (a Milan Jacovich Mystery), © Les Roberts. All rights reserved.

The Dutch – Chapter One

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 (a Milan Jacovich Mystery), © Les Roberts. All rights reserved.

The Indian Sign – Chapter One

The Indian Sign: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#11) by Les RobertsBook Excerpt

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.”

I nodded.

“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.”

“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.”

“Why?”

“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.

“Deep background.”

“Uh-huh.”

“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.


From the book The Indian Sign (a Milan Jacovich Mystery), © Les Roberts. All rights reserved.

The Best-Kept Secret – Chapter One

The Best-Kept Secret, a book by Les Roberts: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#10)Book Excerpt

From The Best-Kept Secret (a Milan Jacovich Mystery), Les Roberts


Where do people come up with their agendas, their causes, their passionate advocacies? They don’t tell you what your responsibilities are when you’re born. They don’t give you a job description and a list of your duties. You have to figure it out yourself.

I make my living as a private investigator and security specialist, a job that fulfills and enriches me as well as pays the bills. Still, I’m not presumptuous enough to say exactly why I was put here on earth, because I don’t know. And when I meet somebody who does, who tells me they’re absolutely certain they were created to save the whales, spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, revive the American theater, kill everyone who isn’t a white Protestant, convince gay people to change their wicked ways, rail against the evils of demon rum, or bitch at other poor bastards about their sexual habits, their choice of reading material, or their cigarette smoking, they are either purely full of baloney or possessed of the most astonishing hubris.

What’s right for me isn’t necessarily right for somebody else, and I take great umbrage at those who try to force the rest of us to do it their way.

I think our main job is to find out who we are and what’s the right thing to do for ourselves individually, and then shut up about it and go do it.

Reggie Parker never had an agenda.

Dr. Reginald Parker, as in Ph.D., is the principal of St. Clair High School, my alma mater, from which my older son, Milan Junior, had just been graduated. His calling, although he’d never refer to it as such, is to educate kids in ethics and living, as well as academics, and to point them in the right direction so they can live productive and happy lives. He doesn’t yammer or proselytize; he doesn’t even make much of a big deal about it. It’s his job, and he does it well.

He’s also a tough ex-Green Beret who’d seen enough action in Vietnam to fuel several Schwarzenegger movies, and a ringing voice of decency and reason in the black community on Cleveland’s east side, a civil-rights activist, and a two-handicap golfer. And he’s my friend.

That’s the most important, the friend part.

Reginald Parker loomed large in my office chair.

It wasn’t that he was any bigger than I am—actually, not quite as big. At six feet or so, around two hundred pounds, he was a middle-aged, pleasant-looking light-skinned black man with freckles across the bridge of his bespectacled nose. He wore a brown tweed suit with a tan knit tie knotted under the collar of a white shirt—so the mere sight of him wasn’t going to send anyone running for cover.

His mild-mannered mien camouflages awesome toughness of spirit. Once, several years ago, he saved my life. Not in Southeast Asia, where we’d both put in a couple of bloody tours in-country without our paths ever crossing—but in a boarded-up crack house on the east side of Cleveland, and at great personal risk to himself, to his life, and to his career as an educator.

So for me, few loom much larger than Reggie Parker.

He’d called me at home the day before, a Sunday, and said he had a friend who could use my help; from Reggie that’s all I needed to hear. We set the appointment for four-thirty the next afternoon, Monday. People tend to take care of unpleasant things, such as going to the dentist or calling the exterminator or consulting a private investigator like me, toward the beginning of the week, almost as if they’d spent the whole weekend fighting with themselves over whether or not to do it.

It was a calendar-art crisp fall day, and if I could have seen a tree from my window, it would have been gala with the joyful colors of autumn. The kind of day that makes you glad you live in northeast Ohio.

The public-relations people often refer to Cleveland as “The Best-Kept Secret,” because it offers a terrific quality of life that’s completely at odds with the sad-sack, Rust Belt image it long ago outgrew. It’s just that the television comedians who make Cleveland jokes don’t know that yet, and as far as I’m concerned, they don’t have to. None of us who live here are anxious to have a million escapees from New York or Los Angeles descend on us, pollute our air, crowd our freeways, and put us on the “cutting edge.” We like our town the way it is. That’s the charm of it.

My office is in a ninety-year-old red-brick building that used to be a small manufacturing plant, down in The Flats, an old industrial area where the Cuyahoga takes a hairpin curve known as Collision Bend, just across from downtown and so close to the riverbank that if I flicked a lighted cigarette out my second-floor window, it would go pssh in the water.

The sun was shining and the thermometer was flirting with the middle fifties—too chilly for keeping my big windows open; but the window cleaner had been there a few days earlier and had left no city grime to block the view of the Cuyahoga’s sluggish pilgrimage to Lake Erie or the spectacle of the gulls wheeling and cawing over the sun-dappled current. Across the river, Tower City and the home of the Indians, Jacobs Field, seemed to coruscate in the light.

With one ankle crossed over the other knee, Reggie sat easy in the chair and enjoyed the view; we were friends, after all, go-out-to-dinner-every-other-month friends for several years now. But I could tell he was tense and troubled, and that troubled me. When you’ve survived hand-to-hand combat in the jungle the way he had, it takes a lot to make you tense.

“How’s Milan junior doing at Kent?” he said, just to get things started. “He wrote me a note about three weeks ago, but that was when he’d just finished settling in. He still hadn’t discovered where the biology department is.” He smiled tightly. “I guess he’s already figured out how to get to football practice.”

“He’s fine, I guess—we only talk about once a week. He’s on the scrub squad, and chafing at the bit for varsity playing time. I keep telling him that four years is a long haul, that he’ll get his chance.”

“I know he will. I hope he pays as much attention to his grades as to his pass-catching.”

“In the meantime, it’s a great excuse for me to goof off on a Saturday and drive down to see the games.” I pointed a finger at him. “Why don’t you come with me sometime? He’d love it.”

“I’d like that,” Reggie said. “I wish we were just getting together today to do some grave damage to a couple of porterhouse steaks, have a beer or two, and watch a ball game.”

“I figured from your call it was more important than that.”

“It is.” He sighed. “You know I get pretty involved with some of the kids that come through my school,” he said. “Especially the good kids, the ones with promise. And sometimes even the bad actors who I think have a chance of making it through with a little help. And I keep track of them after they leave.” He ran a hand through his hair, receding like mine to give him a high forehead. “One of my St. Clair boys—he graduated with Milan Junior last spring—has gotten himself into some trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“A real bad kind.”

“As opposed to the good kind of trouble.”

Reggie didn’t laugh. “He’s a freshman at Sherman College.”

I knew Sherman, or at least knew of it—a small, private liberal-arts college in a far western suburb where the atmosphere drips midwest and the student body gets more passionate over saving the rain forests and studying obscure minority writers and painters and composers, than yelling for their football team or throwing toga parties on a Saturday night. Expensive, probably too much so for a neighborhood youngster who’d attended St. Clair High.

“He’s there on a partial scholarship,” Reggie said, and I grinned. Reggie was always pretty good at reading my thoughts and answering my questions before I asked them. “But this isn’t pro bono or anything. I don’t want you working for nothing. I’ll pay for your time.”

“You’ve already bought me a lot of time,” I said, shaking my head. “Your money stinks in this office.”

“Well, we’ll see after you hear the problem.”

I took a yellow legal pad from my top drawer and put it in front of me, ready to take notes.

“I’d like you to look at this,” Reggie said, and produced an eight-by-ten piece of bright red paper from his breast pocket. At the top and bottom of the page were jagged holes, as if the paper had been posted somewhere with nails through it, and in the upper-right-hand corner was an eye-catching graphic, a menacing silhouette of a hulking, long-armed, gorillalike man that I imagine had come from some computer clip-art software package.

“These appeared on every telephone pole and bulletin board and blank wall on the campus a week ago, all on bright-colored paper,” Reggie explained. “Red like this, bright turquoise, lemon yellow . . . If you’re at all involved with Sherman College, you’d have to be living in the bottom of a mine shaft not to have seen it.” He unfolded it and smoothed it out on the desk so I could read it.

The top line shouted in bold black letters: YOUR CAMPUS RAPIST OF THE MONTH IS JASON CROWELL.

I looked up at Reggie. Behind his glasses he was frowning deeply. “Read the rest of it, Milan.”

I did.

Three weeks ago Saturday, freshman Jason Crowell invited a woman out for coffee. At the end of the evening, instead of driving her back to her residence, he made his way to a secluded area just off campus, parked his car, and forced himself on her sexually.

The woman had been a virgin.

She was afraid to go to the police or the college authorities. And ashamed. She didn’t want the publicity, didn’t want everyone pointing at her, pitying her, or in the case of some male assholes on this campus, snickering. And she didn’t think it would do any good, anyway, because white male establishment types always stick together.

So she came to us. Out of fear and desperation and a self-loathing she sure as hell doesn’t deserve.

Rape is not a sexual crime, folks—it’s a crime of violence, a pitiful attempt by some pencil-dicked loser to prove his power over someone weaker than he is, and to convince himself he’s a Real Man.

We’re damned sick of date rape! We believe Jason Crowell and pigs like him should have to pay for preying on women! We believe all right-thinking people on this campus should express their outrage in no uncertain terms. We believe there is no place at Sherman College—or anywhere else in the world—for bastards like Jason Crowell. And if we can’t—or won’t—punish him legally without doing terrible emotional damage to his victim, the least we can do is let everyone know what kind of a cowardly, scum-sucking son of a bitch he is!

Jason Crowell—and men all over this campus—we’re on to you, and you’re not going to get away with it anymore!!

At the bottom of the page was typed, Women Warriors, Sherman College.

I fingered the flyer thoughtfully. “Bastard, pencil-dick, scum-sucking son of a bitch, huh?”

Reggie laughed, but it was that polite kind of laugh that let you know his heart wasn’t in it. “My guess is, it wasn’t written by an English major.”

“Jason Crowell is your grad?”

He nodded. “Comes from a very nice family. His father is a professional fund-raiser and his mother is a housewife who does volunteer work for the homeless. He’s got two sisters, both younger. He had a three-point-five grade average in high school, was the senior-class vice-president, and never got into the slightest bit of trouble, with girls or otherwise. A real nice kid.”

“I suppose he’s claiming innocence.”

Reggie shook his head. “He’s not claiming it, Milan, he is innocent. I’d bet the farm on it.”

I was somewhat skeptical; in my years on the Cleveland P.D., it had been my experience in accusations of rape or other sexual transgression that there was usually a dollop of truth in there somewhere. But I didn’t say that to my friend Reggie.

“And you want me to help him prove it?”

“No,” he said. “Not exactly.” He frowned deeply, and put his fingertips together to make a cathedral, his head bowed for a minute.

I lit up a Winston and waited uneasily, wishing he hadn’t come. This wasn’t my kind of case.

“The problem is,” he said, raising his chin off his chest, “no one seems to know who it is Jason is supposed to have raped.”

“You wouldn’t expect them to plaster her name all over the campus.”

“No. But no one will even tell Jason.”

“What do you mean, nobody will tell him? Why doesn’t he just ask ‘Women Warriors’?”

“He can’t find them. Campus organizations and clubs are supposed to register with the college. But there is no record anywhere of a group called Women Warriors. Most organizations like that have some sort of official status—they even have faculty advisors. But no one knows who’s behind Women Warriors or where they come from. Nobody seems to have ever heard of them before. They’re completely anonymous.”

“Maybe you could check with the various print shops around Sherman and see if you can trace the flyers,” I suggested.

He waved a hand around the office, at my PC, fax machine, elaborate telephone answering machine and all the high-tech goodies I’d been suckered into buying when I moved my office from my living room in Cleveland Heights to this colorful old building on the riverbank. “With all your bells and whistles,” he said, “you’re still operating with a quill-pen-and-parchment mentality.” He laughed. “This stuff was done on a laser printer, off a computer. It’s virtually untraceable.”

“Same with the paper?”

“Every office-supply house in the state sells reams of it every week.”

I took a deep drag on my cigarette and held in the smoke for a few seconds before exhaling. Alarms and excursions were going off inside my head; I didn’t want the best part of this situation. Frankly, it gave me the creeps.

“That isn’t exactly the American way,” Reggie went on. “Jason or anyone else is presumed innocent unless proven guilty. And he ought to be able to face his accusers and defend himself. He can’t do that unless he knows who they are.”

I did a few paradiddles on the edge of the desk with my pencil. “This doesn’t sound like my usual kind of thing, Reggie.”

“Yes, but put yourself in the boy’s place. It’d be like if you woke up some morning and saw a poster plastered all over town saying, ‘Milan Jacovich is a pedophile,’ and had no idea who was behind it. Even though you were innocent, you’d still spend the rest of your life having to deny it.”

“That kind of stinks.”

“The big stink,” he agreed. “And now Jason’s become a campus pariah. He’s already been on the carpet in the dean’s office two or three times over this, and the faculty member in charge of sexual harassment cases is doing some harassment of her own. Both the Plain Dealer and two of the local TV news stations have been hounding him, and the campus newspaper is all over him. He hasn’t talked to them, of course. I told him not to.”

“He doesn’t need a private investigator, sounds like. He needs a lawyer. A good lawyer.”

“His folks can’t easily afford one. It’s caused an enormous amount of damage to his reputation, something he might never overcome, even four years from now when he’s out of school and looking for a job.”

“That’s stretching it, Reggie.”

“Is it?” He uncrossed his legs and leaned forward over my desk. “We don’t know if these attacks are going to continue. If some anonymous loonies can plaster an accusation like this all over Sherman, they might have decided to make Jason a lifetime hobby. For all we know, this’ll be a New York Times headline next week.” He rubbed a hand over his face, then readjusted his glasses. “He’s talking about getting into therapy because of this. God knows how long he’ll need it.”

He uncrossed his ankle from his knee and smoothed out the crease in his pants. “Find out who it is Jason is supposed to have raped. Find Women Warriors, Milan, and whoever is behind it. And find out the reason they’re trying to pin this on him.”

I doodled on the yellow pad—a gallows with an empty noose. I’ve been doodling that since I was a teenager. Don’t ask me why—my mother used to tell me it was morbid. “This is the kind of thing, once it gets out, that’s going to make the papers, the six o’clock news. I’ve talked to the media before, and I didn’t like it much.”

“I remember well,” he said. “It startled the hell out of me when I was sitting watching TV last summer and there they were, talking about you on a national tabloid news show.”

“That’s what I mean, Reggie. Besides, even though it’s a damn sneaky and cowardly thing to do, no one would have put out that flyer if there wasn’t any truth in it. I know you feel a responsibility for this kid, but frankly, I agree with the flyer about rape being the action of a coward. Everything in me is saying no.”

He took off his glasses and put them in his handkerchief pocket. I knew from experience that when Reggie takes off his glasses he’s going to get serious. “Milan, I’ve never said this to you before. I hoped I’d never have to. But . . . ”

He left the rest of it unspoken. I didn’t.

“But I owe you?” I said.

He looked down, plainly discomfited, and then met my gaze with a fierce one of his own. I put down the pencil, knowing when I was licked.

“Right,” I said.

Reggie left me with two pages of notes and some very conflicted feelings. If this Jason Crowell kid was guilty of what Women Warriors accused him of, he deserved whatever he got. But the anonymous smear campaign was something else again; I like to see who’s taking jabs at me, and I imagined Jason Crowell felt the same way. And accusing someone of that kind of crime anonymously is pretty cowardly itself.

The trouble with the last decade of the twentieth century is that most people consider an accusation tantamount to the truth and are ready to step in and condemn with howls of righteous moral indignation.

The assignment wasn’t exactly outside my job description. My main occupation is as a security specialist and private investigator. Milan Security is my company; I contract out certain things, like the technicals and electronics that come with installing a security or alarm system, and some of the more complicated computer stuff. And I have a cleaning crew come in three times a week in the evenings, although I’m not averse to dusting and vacuuming the place myself in between times.

Otherwise I’m a one-man band. I do all the record-keeping, all the marketing—what there is of it—and virtually all the investigative work. My company is named after me—my first name, that is. It’s Milan, with a long i. Not like the city in Italy, Mi-lahn, and not Mee-lahn. I figured my last name was too much of a mouthful to stick on my business as well. It’s Jacovich, with the j sounding like a y. And the last syllable rhymes with rich, which is its own irony. My-lan Yock-o-vich. It’s Slovenian, of which I’m inordinately proud.

Most of my work is done for companies wanting better security, investigation of workmen’s-comp cases, preventing or identifying industrial espionage, and catching out employees who help themselves to company funds and supplies. But every once in a while I get a missing-persons case, or some lawyer in town engages me to help prove a client innocent. I’m often asked to find things that other people want to keep secret. So searching for Women Warriors didn’t really seem outside my normal working area.

Mainly, I couldn’t refuse Reggie Parker anything. If not for him, my two sons, Milan Junior and Stephen, would be visiting my grave every other Sunday.

One of the main imperatives incumbent upon all of us, I think, is to back up our friends, to be there when we’re needed, without expecting any sort of reciprocity. Reggie did it for me once and came out okay. My best and oldest friend, Lieutenant Marko Meglich, late of the Cleveland Police Department’s homicide division, hadn’t been so lucky. We’d gone through grade school, high school, and college together, plus my shortlived stint in the department, before he’d gambled his life for me on a rainy night in the Flats, and lost.

So I owed Reggie. For him, and for Marko.

I’d probably always owe for Marko.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit emotionally blackmailed. I couldn’t remember any other case in my professional life about which I was so completely conflicted.

After Reggie left, I went to the little waist-high refrigerator in the corner of my office; it’s designed to look like a nineteenth-century safe, and I keep beer and pop in there, mainly for clients. This one was for me, though; I jacked open a cold Stroh’s, leaned my butt on the edge of the refrigerator, and drank my beer, trying to formulate a battle plan while I watched the sky darken over the river.

Rape. It made me feel creepy just thinking about it, because I agreed with the poster there. It had nothing to do with sex. It was all about power and control. I felt sorry for the young woman, whoever she was.

Then I thought of my own son, Milan Junior, a freshman at Kent State, and what his life would be like if someone decided to libel him the way that flyer had done to Jason; he had absolutely no shot at defending himself because he had no idea from what direction the missiles were coming.

Young Jason Crowell needed someone who would either try to clear his name and find out who was spreading lies about him, or convince him to turn himself in, face the music, and get help for his problems.

And I like to think of myself as being in the help business.

I guess that’s why I went private rather than staying on the Cleveland Police Department. Granted, it’s not quite as noble as joining the Peace Corps or teaching in a debt-ridden inner-city school where the plaster is falling down and the rain comes in the broken windows and virtually every kid carries a concealed knife or a sap or a Saturday night special. But one does what one can.

When it was good and dark outside and the homeward-bound traffic had thinned to a trickle, I locked up the office and drove up out of the Flats, to my apartment, where Cedar Avenue and Fairmount Boulevard come together at a point near the western boundary of the suburb of Cleveland Heights. I haven’t lived in a house since my divorce, and I suppose I could have bought myself one with the money my late Auntie Branka left me instead of buying the building where I keep my office, but apartment living seems to suit me.

I retrieved my mail, and when I got upstairs I sorted through it quickly, putting the bills in a drawer and throwing the junk ads and catalogs into the trash unexamined. There were no personal letters—there hardly ever are in these times of inexpensive long-distance calling, e-mail and faxes. I carried a beer from the refrigerator into the bathroom, setting it on the edge of the sink while I stripped off my clothes, stood under a nice hot shower, and washed away the caprices of the day.

I was expecting a visitor.

Connie Haley and I had been keeping company, as she so charmingly puts it, since the middle of the summer. The daughter of an ex-Marine-turned-west-side restaurateur, she was strong-willed, funny, volatile, and sexy, with blond hair she usually wore in one single thick braid, and a pair of dimples you could hide golf balls in. She was just over five feet tall, and at six-three I feel like a large building when I’m with her.

I like her a lot, but sad experience and innate caution keep me maintaining a certain, safe distance. I’ve been in several relationships since my divorce from my ex-wife, Lila, and I’ve been burned so often that I’ve learned not to put too much faith in them.

I’m not so sure how Connie’s Irish Catholic father and two strapping brothers, also ex-Marines, like the idea of her spending nights in my apartment. They live on the west side, and in Cleveland west-siders and east-siders mix about as well as Serbians and Croatians. And, my knowledge of things Gaelic goes no further than attending the Irish Festival at the Berea Fair Grounds every summer or listening to the New Barleycorn singers when they appear from time to time at Nighttown, just down the street from my apartment.

All four Haleys share a big sprawling Tudor in Lakewood, but no matter how big the house, it’s too small for me to spend the night with Connie.

The Haley men seemed to accept me all right, though, and one of the upsides of dating Connie is an occasional free dinner at Leo Haley’s restaurant, the White Magnolia, although I think it’s really so he and his sons, Sean, who is the executive chef, and Kevin, the bartender, can keep an eye on me.

I put on a pair of clean khakis and a J. Crew sweater, a fashion that’s a bit too prep-school for my personal taste; a man as big as I am can’t look preppy even if he tries. I felt like a grizzly in a tutu. But Connie had bought me the sweater to celebrate our two-month anniversary and I felt obliged to wear it, especially since I hadn’t bought her anything in return. Most men, even the sensitive and enlightened ones who faithfully observe birthdays and Valentine’s Day (and not by presenting their significant others with a waffle iron or a washing machine, either), just don’t think of buying gifts for small occasions like two-month anniversaries.

Connie arrived at about eight o’clock, bearing a tray of cold cuts and cheese from the White Magnolia. She puts in so much time working in the restaurant—doing the accounts, paying the vendors, and keeping a gimlet eye on the bottom line—that most evenings we spend together we eat in, either my cooking, her brother’s, or take-out from one of the many ethnic restaurants of Cleveland Heights—the food spread across my coffee table, since I hadn’t gotten around to buying dining-room furniture yet after moving my office from my apartment to the Flats.

Blue eyes sparkling a hello, she brushed past me with a toss of her blond pigtail and took the tray into the kitchen before coming into my arms for a welcoming kiss. It was worth the wait.

Finally she broke away and backed up, grinning, one hand firmly against my chest. “Whoa, Nellie,” she said, laughing a little breathlessly. “Or we’ll never get to the cold cuts.”

“And wouldn’t that be a tragedy?”

“Animal,” she whispered.

One of the great things about Connie is her attitude about sex. There’s no game-playing with her, not a hint of the arch or coy. She’s frankly passionate and inventive, and as open about it as she would be about her taste in music. I’ve had to make a few adjustments to that, but I’ve done so with much joy.

We went back into the living room and I slipped a Sarah McLachlan CD into the player, one of Connie’s favorite singers, whose appeal is frankly lost on me. I can’t get too excited about any of today’s “hot” vocalists. Maybe it’s generational—I loved jazz and swing and the big-band stuff until it morphed into the rock-and-roll years, and my idea of one hell of a singer is Peggy Lee or Sarah Vaughn. Or maybe it’s just a guy thing.

We set up a picnic on the sofa, white wine for her, Stroh’s for me, and a space cleared for the snack tray.

She brushed an errant wisp of hair from her forehead. “I needed this,” she said in that low, musical voice that makes me crazy, and clinked her wineglass against my beer bottle. “I spent four hours this afternoon screaming at vendors.”

“Vendors” is one of those fairly new, business-speak terms that amuses me. When I think of a vendor, he’s climbing up and down the stairs at Jacobs Field, hawking hot dogs or beer.

“Just so long as you don’t scream at me,” I grinned.

“Why? Did you have a bad day, too?”

“Mine was—troubling,” I said. I told her about Reggie Parker’s visit, and filled her in about our personal history. I spared her the part where I’d had about three minutes to live when he busted into that crack house and saved my bacon. Even though she shared a house with three former leathernecks, Connie was never completely comfortable with the fact that occasionally my work turns dark and dangerous.

Few women in my life have been, including my ex-wife. Lila left me years ago, claiming my job was interfering in our lives, opting for a wimp we’d known in high school, Joe Bradac, whose ownership of a small machine shop rarely puts him in mortal danger. Since the divorce I only get to see my sons every other weekend except for special occasions. My profession has cost me dearly.

When I started telling Connie about Jason Crowell and Women Warriors, her neck seemed to stiffen and her eyes got smaller and glittered. I finished the story and looked at her.

“What’s wrong?” I said.

“Nothing.”

“You look funny.”

She gave me a smile, but I could tell she was forcing it. Her dimples don’t deepen when she forces her smiles. “Funny ha-ha, or funny peculiar?”

“Just—funny.”

She shook her head and the pigtail swayed provocatively. “This is a pretty ugly story.”

I nodded agreement.

“Are you actually going to try and help this little rapist?”

“He says he’s not a rapist.”

She drew in her chin. “You believe him?”

“I believe my friend Reggie.”

“Reggie doesn’t really know,” she said, waving a hand in front of her for emphasis. “He’s operating on faith and hope.”

“Then I’ll have to add the charity. I’ll talk to the kid tomorrow.”

“This is lose-lose, Milan,” she said impatiently. “It’s more than the problems of some college kid. This is the kind of thing that makes national headlines, and you’re going to be right in the middle of it.”

“Been there, done that,” I said. A few months before, a national tabloid TV news program had laid me out in lavender, and for a couple of weeks I had been a bona fide media celebrity in Cleveland. I had hated it.

“Then don’t do it again,” Connie urged. “Walk away.”

“How do I walk away from somebody who saved my life?”

“It’s not Reggie Parker’s problem. It’s this Crowell kid’s.”

“The principle remains,” I said a little stiffly. “Besides, I think if someone’s going to make an accusation like that, they should have the stones to sign their name to it. Don’t you?”

She shook her head. “I’m afraid you’re making a bad decision.”

“Is that the polite way of saying I’m being a stupid asshole?”

She didn’t deny it, which made me nervous. I got up and went over to the bookshelf that I’d built into the wall when I’d used my apartment as an office; now I actually use it for books. It’s also where I keep my cigarettes. I shook one from the pack and lit it. I hadn’t wanted this damn case in the first place, and now it was causing me trouble before I’d even started. “This is the kind of thing I do for a living,” I told her, waving away the smoke from my initial exhale. “I frequently work for people I don’t care for or whose causes I don’t believe in. It’s part of the job description.”

“This isn’t a job,” she reminded me. “You’re not getting paid.”

“Reggie Parker didn’t get paid when he blasted into a house full of killers to save my sorry ass.”

Her eyes got very big. “He did?”

“He did.”

“You never told me that.”

“I imagine we could fill a large book with the things we haven’t told each other,” I said.

She took some time to think about that, but it didn’t seem to change her mind any. “Well, you aren’t saving Reggie’s sorry ass, you’re doing it for some punk rapist.”

“Alleged punk rapist. You ever hear of that old concept of American justice—that a person is innocent until proven guilty?”

She snorted derisively, which is Connie’s way of avoiding an uncomfortable situation.

“If Jason Crowell raped anybody,” I continued, “I’ll drop him in his tracks. But first someone will have to prove to me that he did it.”

She started to say something, but I cut her off.

“That’s the way it works, Connie. It’s the way I work.”

Her forehead crinkled. She took a big swallow of her wine, and what she said next made a hummingbird of uneasiness bang its fluttery wings against my rib cage, because I’d heard the same thing from my former wife, Lila, and from nearly every woman I’ve been serious about since. “This is a hell of a lousy business you’re in, Milan.”

“It keeps me off the streets,” I said.


From the book The Best-Kept Secret (a Milan Jacovich Mystery), © Les Roberts. All rights reserved.

Deep Shaker – Chapter One

Deep Shaker: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#3) by Les RobertsBook Excerpt

From Deep Shaker (a Milan Jacovich Mystery), by Les Roberts


The sprawling mass that is Cleveland Municipal Stadium can be cold and uncomfortable at the best of times. In the winter—not the best of times—being there constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. On this particular November Sunday a freezing rain was drubbing the faithful football fans of northern Ohio, those small hard drops that sting your face and eyes, falling at a forty-five-degree angle, and most of it was finding its way down my collar. The temperature was about twenty-six above zero, and the wind howling in off Lake Erie sounded like an avenging Mongol horde. The Browns were in the process of blowing out the hated Pittsburgh Steelers, and for all intents and purposes the game had been decided at the end of the first quarter.

Matt Baznik and I had been friends since high school. He’d managed to snag thirty-yard-line tickets, one of the perks of his civil service job at the Department of Public Works, and when he’d called and begged me to join him, I couldn’t think of a single reason to say no. So I had dragged myself out of bed—or out of my girlfriend Mary’s bed, to be more precise—and met him at his house for the drive to the stadium. Mary’s bed had been more fun—and warmer. Mary is the sales manager for Channel Twelve, a local TV station, and someone had offered her tickets to a Willie Nelson concert that Saturday night, but we’d spent the evening watching an old movie on the VCR and cuddling instead. Why should I waste an evening seeing someone who dresses worse than I do?

Like me, Matt Baznik is Slovenian, a big solid guy with a receding hairline, a roll of fat around his middle, and blue eyes that he squints as a result of the myopia that kept him off the school football team and out of the service. He was huddled in frigid misery in his car coat, draining his sixth beer, which undoubtedly added to his chill, cheering listlessly every time the Steelers fumbled or had a kick blocked, which seemed to be every few minutes or so. He didn’t appear to be having a very good time.

“You want another beer, Milan?” he said. “Or maybe a sausage sangwidge?”

“I’m okay, Matt,” I said. But I wasn’t. I wished that pro football teams occasionally conceded games so we could go home, where it was warm and dry. But then the impossible happened—the Browns’ offensive line grew suddenly porous and Bernie Kosar got sacked. The capacity crowd let out an outraged roar. In Cleveland it’s unforgivable to lay unfriendly hands on our quarterback. Bernie Kosar is more than a popular sports figure or a mere celebrity; he is a local hero, an icon, a shining example of young American manhood. And at home, when Bernie gets sacked, it is simply not tolerated. A yellow penalty flag sailed through the soggy air and landed in the backfield, but none of us had to wait for the crime to be identified. No matter what they called it officially, we all knew it was fifteen yards for roughing the Deity.

While the referee paced off the penalty, Matt said to me, “Milan, I think I’m in trouble.”

He was peering through his Coke-bottle-bottom glasses at the nonaction on the field, but from his distracted expression I doubted if he could have told anyone the score. The corners of his mouth were pulled down by invisible five-pound weights.

“What’s the matter?”

He shrugged. “I can’t talk here.”

“Then let’s go someplace where we can.”

“Naw. You want to watch the game.”

“There’ll be other games. Come on.” The weather had gotten steadily wetter and colder, and I felt as though I’d just been paroled.

We made our way through the crowd, which was screaming in delight at the gift first down, and I was glad when we reached the shelter of the stadium’s overhang, out of the pelting rain. The loonies who paint their faces brown and orange and sit bare-chested in defiance of the elements each week in that enclave near the end zone known as “the Dawg Pound” were barking like fox hounds.

We got into Matt’s Plymouth after about ten minutes of wet and silent walking. When the engine warmed up, the blast of the car’s heater was a benediction. Matt drove out of the jammed parking lot and onto the street.

“You want to go for a beer?” I said.

“Let’s just drive around a little, okay?”

He turned east, the lake a roiling gray mud soup on our left, out the Shoreway and then along Lake Shore Boulevard, past the high-rise apartments that now stood on the old site of Euclid Beach Park, that magical place of amusement known to seven decades of Clevelanders as simply “the Beach,” where Matt and I and our friends had gone to meet girls and ride the Thriller and Flying Turns and Laff-in-the-Dark, where I had encountered my first real fistfight and copped my first real feel. There isn’t much left of the park now—a cement bridge from one of the old thrill rides is now part of the entryway to an apartment building—but it has long been rumored that some optimistic and sentimental citizens bought up the components of the old rides when the park closed in 1969 and stored them somewhere, in the hopes that someday there would be another Euclid Beach Park. The memories got to both Matt and me at the same time, and he turned and gave me one of his few smiles of the day.

Our original plan was to repair back to Matt’s house after the game to have dinner with his family. He seemed distracted, a million miles away, but at least he was headed in the right direction. He chewed on his lower lip and peered out at the rain-slick streets through the rhythmic sweep of the wipers, and swung west again. He didn’t seem to have a destination.

“What’s up, Doc?” I said.

“I don’t know what to do anymore. About Paulie.”

Matt’s son Paul was a year younger than my fifteen-year-old, and they had been playmates, combatants, and friends to one degree or another since before they could walk. At times when they were in grade school, Paulie had been over at our house so much I almost wondered which one was Milan Jacovich Jr.

“What’s the matter with Paulie?”

Matt steered through the madness that passed for a traffic pattern at University Circle, and past the various departments of Case Western Reserve University, past Severance Hall, the Newton E. Baker Memorial, the Art Museum, and the breathtakingly beautiful gothic Church of the Covenant, and headed up Mayfield Road through Little Italy. “He hardly ever comes home anymore, and he never tells us where he’s going or who he’s with. He’s gotten really fresh to his mother, and me he won’t talk to at all. He just grunts. He won’t come out of his room, and if Rita Marie goes in there to clean he gets like a crazy man. He won’t take out the garbage or dry the dishes. He’s more like a boarder than our kid. It’s real bad, Milan.”

“It’s just the age,” I said. “They all do it. They start getting hair under their arms and think they can walk on the water. He’ll grow out of it.”

He shook his head forcefully. “It’s more than that. Like he don’t give a damn for anything anymore. You remember his dog?”

Once you’d seen him, you’d always remember the dog. For Paulie’s tenth birthday, Matt had bought him a rottweiler puppy, which they’d named Croat in honor of the centuries-old friction between the Croatians and the Slovenians, with the expectation that he’d grow big and mean and serve as a protector for the boy. Croat had matured into an amiable monster whose most aggressive behavior was slobbering on those unfortunate enough to come within range of his pendulous dewlaps. Boy and dog had forged steel bonds of love on sight.

“Sure,” I said. “The sprinkler that walks like a bear.”

Matt shook a Winston out of his crumpled pack and ignited it with the dashboard lighter. “Well, Paulie don’t even talk to him or play with him anymore. He even shuts him out of his room. The big bastard just lays by Paulie’s door and whimpers all night long.”

“He’s probably in there whacking off. Fourteen-year-olds have different priorities than the rest of us. Don’t you remember when you were fourteen?”

“I wasn’t like this, that’s for sure. My father would’ve handed me my head.”

I lit a cigarette of my own. I didn’t really want one, but what with him smoking in the closed car, it was a matter of self-defense. The roaring heater fought to drown out the persistent tattoo of rain on the roof. “How long has this been going on, Matt?”

“Oh, since spring, I guess.” He stuck the fingers of one hand under his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “It started getting bad in the spring and summer; now it’s like there’s a stranger in the house with us. I tried talking to him, I yelled at him—I even knocked him around once or twice. But I just see him slipping away.”

“Don’t you think you might be overreacting?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know anymore.”

“Teenagers are tough,” I said, hunching down in my seat in a futile attempt to get warm. “There are times when I think Milan Jr. hates my guts. Other times the decent, funny kid we raised pokes his head through all the garbage and relates to us, and it’s almost like old times again. You just have to get through it.”

“Yeah, but there’s other things. Like Paulie asked for a new stereo for Christmas. Well, he already had a stereo, and I told him that. He said he wanted a good one. Showed me an ad for some damn Japanese thing costs eight hundred dollars. I told him no way, and he went out and bought one for himself.”

“For eight hundred dollars?”

“He told me he got it used from some other kid, but I don’t believe him.”

“I can’t see Paulie stealing a stereo.”

“Me neither. I think he bought it all right. But where did he get the money?”

“Doesn’t he have a job after school and weekends?” It sounded silly even as I said it.

“Delivering pizza. Could you save up eight hundred dollars for a stereo you didn’t really need delivering pizza?”

“I couldn’t save up eight hundred dollars now,” I said.

“I think Paulie’s into something really shitty, and it’s scaring hell out of us.”

It sounded shitty to me, too, but I didn’t want to tell Matt. The sadness in his eyes was leaking out and casting a further pall over a day already daubed in grim shades of gray. I reached over and switched on the radio, which was tuned to Magic 105, but it didn’t help any. It certainly didn’t do anything to improve my frame of mind.

My heart went out to Matt Baznik. I was a part-time parent these days, trying every other weekend to come up with meaningful and fun activities for two boys who were four years apart in age, making sure I gave each of them a certain amount of private time so they could talk to me of their fears and problems and triumphs and failures and dreams. And with every fortnight that passed, I became just that much more alien to them, a father who lived six miles away. I had watched in helpless anguish this last year as Milan Jr. grew apart from me like a ship pulling away from the dock.

Fatherhood of a boy—which is the only kind I know—is a bear at the best of times. They hand you this little bundle of squalling, peeing humanity and tell you that for the next twenty years it’s your job to not only feed and clothe and house it, but to raise it up into adulthood with a sense of responsibility, morality, and decency. You’re supposed to teach it to fish and to swing a baseball bat, to impress on it that school is good and necessary, stealing is bad, and hurting other people is wrong, and you try getting it to respect women, its elders, and the dignity of all living things. You point out that some day it will have to leave the nest and it better learn from you the lessons that will enable it to hunt and forage for itself, and through all this you have to somehow convince it that you are all-wise and all-knowing and what you’re saying is the True Word.

And then this hunk of protoplasm that sprang from your loins in a moment of careless abandon starts feeling its own hormones expanding and banging against one another like bumper cars. It gets into high school to find its peer group is cutting math class, smoking in the john, and feeling girls up, and all of a sudden the guys in woodshop are the cool, “rad” ones and you’re just an aging, stupid asshole who’s losing his hair.

“Is there anything I can do, Matt?” I had to make the offer first; Matt would have died before he asked me.

He mumbled his answer in a voice so low I could hardly hear. “Could you maybe try and talk to him tonight? He might open up to you where he won’t to me. I mean, you’re like family anyway.”

This was obviously why he’d invited me to the football game; it would forever remain unspoken, but it was tacitly understood. I traced my finger across the condensation our breath had misted on the car window, feeling the wetness through my knit glove. “I can try. I’m not the number-one father figure in town these days, but I’ll give it a shot.”

He allowed me a half smile of gratitude. Yugoslavian men are not comfortable showing their emotions, especially to other men, and I knew how hard it was for Matt to ask for help. I hoped that little smile would be the end of it, because neither of us wanted to talk about it any further.

We pulled into the driveway beside the Bazniks’ brick house in Euclid. Matt had suspended a basketball hoop over the garage door years ago for Paulie, and knowing what I now knew, it seemed sad and poignant and pointless in the rain. When it comes to our kids, most of us don’t believe there will ever be a rainy day.

Croat pounded out from his shelter under the steps and greeted us. The dog was a leaner, pressing his hundred-pound bulk against my legs while I petted him hello, and he shook himself all over, spraying rain and strings of saliva in every direction. I took an extra long time rumpling his soft ears, knowing that he must be aching for the attention he used to get from his young master, which was now being withheld from him. How do you explain to a dog that the human he’s idolized since puppyhood has turned into a sullen and silent jerk?

We walked in the kitchen door and were assailed by the unmistakable aroma of punjena snicla, Serbian stuffed veal, and I was glad I hadn’t eaten much at the ball game. Rita Marie, Matt’s wife, looked momentarily confused, glancing from us to the little black-and-white TV set on the counter, where the football game we had left was still in progress.

“It got too cold and wet for us to stay,” I explained to forestall any questions, and kissed the rosy cheek she offered me. Rita Marie had gone to school with us too, but Matt had fallen in love with her about seventy pounds ago. She now looked like a cocktail waitress in a neighborhood bowling alley.

She said, “Twenty years ago a little rain wouldn’t have made you guys leave a Browns game.”

“Twenty years ago we were dumb,” I said, peeling off my wet coat and hanging it on the rack by the door. “Is coffee on?” The question was rhetorical. The only time coffee wasn’t on in the Baznik kitchen was at four o’clock in the morning. She fixed steaming mugs for both of us; black for me, and loaded with cream and sugar and calories for Matt.

“Where’s the kid?” he said.

Rita Marie frowned, vaguely waving a hand. “He said he’d be back for dinner.”

He looked pointedly at me, and the two of us repaired to the living room. The furniture had been of good quality when it was new thirty years ago. Most of it I remembered from when Matt and I were kids. The football game was showing in there on a larger color TV. It didn’t improve the quality of the play any. Fumbles and stumbles were the name of the game.

“Back for dinner,” Matt mumbled. There was a bitterness in his voice that disturbed me. “Where the hell is he on a rainy Sunday like this?”

“He’s probably watching the game at a buddy’s house.”

“Nah. He don’t even give a shit about the Browns now.” There was a touch of wonder in his voice; disinterest in the Browns was the strongest indictment yet of a kid from the East Side of Cleveland. “I’m telling you, Milan, something bad’s going down.”

“Let’s just wait and see, okay?”

He slurped angrily at his mug as though everything that was askew in his life was the coffee’s fault. Sitting in his favorite upholstered chair, big as he was, he seemed somehow dimin­ished, his family problems pressing him down like an anvil.

Then he said, “You never have any problems with your kids, do you?”

“Sure I do. I told you, Milan Jr. can be pretty damn stubborn when he wants to be. Of course, Lila catches most of the crap because she’s there with him every day.”

Matt said, “How do the boys get along with Joe?”

I stared down at a little amoeba-shaped rainbow of oil floating on top of the black coffee. I put the mug down on the end table. “All right,” I said.

“I don’t know if I could take that, Milan; another man raising my kids.”

“He’s not raising my kids!” I answered with some heat. “He’s living with their mother. My kids are my kids, and I’m the only father they’ve got!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to piss you off.”

“You didn’t piss me off,” I said, pissed off.

I slumped back against the sofa cushions and watched as the two-minute warning sounded at the Stadium, but the crudely played game didn’t hold my attention. It kills me that wimpy Joe Bradac is living in my house and watching my sons grow up while I’m halfway across town in a rented apartment. The boys, Milan Jr. and Stephen, have been what’s kept me going since they were born, and not having them with me hurts so bad that most of the time I just sweep the ache under my emotional rug so I won’t have to deal with it. I’m not mad at Joe Bradac for being there, although he’s never going to be my best friend; I just hate it that I don’t have more time to spend with my sons. They grow up so damn fast.

The fact that Joe is openly cohabiting with my ex-wife, Lila, doesn’t annoy me at all any longer. I care deeply for Lila as a person, and I probably always will, but whatever romantic love we shared when we were young sputtered and turned cold a few years after I got back from Vietnam, and all that’s left is the caring friendship of two people who have shared most of their adult lives together. Whomever she might be sleeping with, it hardly bothered me a bit. Mainly because I had a new someone in my own life, a golden angel named Mary Soderberg, who has blue eyes and Swedish cheekbones and is ten years too young and ten times too pretty for me, and who’d made the last nineteen months of my life seem like only nineteen minutes, the most joyful nineteen minutes I’d ever known.

The front door opened, admitting a blast of cold, damp air, and then slammed shut again, hard, and Paulie started up the stairs two at a time, dark hair rain-plastered to his skull.

“Hey!” Matt barked, an uncharacteristic meanness in his tone. Paulie took another double step up, then thought better of it and stopped.

“Where you been?”

Paulie shoved his hands into the back pockets of his jeans. “With the guys,” he said, barely audible.

“Don’t you say hello to Mr. Jacovich?” I would have pre­ferred him to call me by my first name—Jacovich is a mouthful for anyone, even another Slovenian—but his father insisted on the formality.

Paulie looked at me for the first time, and there was a soft­ening of the sullen cast of his features, so slight as to be nearly unnoticeable. We’d always been pals. “Hiya,” he said.

“Whaddaya say, Paul?”

Apparently not much, because he tossed his head and continued up the stairs. I noticed as his top half disappeared that the cuffs of his jeans were sopping wet.

“See what I mean?” Matt said.

“Frankly, no. He’s fourteen years old; you expect him to run in and give Daddy a big kiss, for God’s sake?”

Matt put his face in his hands. “Jesus, Milan, go talk to him, will you? He’s always respected you. Talk to him. I don’t know what to do anymore.”

I went back out into the kitchen and lifted the lid of the simmering pot on the stove to take a sniff. In the neighborhood, Rita Marie Baznik’s punjena snicla was almost a legend.

“Get away from there,” she warned, waving a cooking spoon at me. “Don’t go sticking your dirty fingers in there.”

“Mmmm. I’ve been looking forward to this all day, Rita Marie. I hope you made a lot.”

“Don’t I always?”

I refilled my coffee cup and began ascending the narrow stairway to Paulie’s room. It was a long damn trip.


From the book Deep Shaker, © Les Roberts. All rights reserved.

A Shoot in Cleveland – Chapter One

A Shoot in Cleveland, a book by Les Roberts: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#9)Book Excerpt

From A Shoot in Cleveland (a Milan Jacovich Mystery), by Les Roberts


Everybody is addicted to something.

How about you? Tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, sex, gambling, food—what’s your own particular jones?

Me? Except for the nose candy, I’m addicted to all of them, to a greater or lesser degree. I’ve smoked Winstons for more than twenty years, although periodically I try to cut down. I enjoy a beer, I’m inordinately fond of women, I like to bet on football games, and one quick glance tells you I haven’t missed many meals.

But I suppose my big thing is coffee. I slug down a couple of pots a day. Not the fancy flavored kind, hazelnut or raspberry or vanilla fudge, but good old-fashioned coffee, strong as a linebacker, no cream, no sugar. And not decaf, either. Coffee without caffeine is like nonalcoholic wine—what’s the point?

So I had two cups at home on this particular morning in August, filled a go-cup, which I drank on the drive down to my office in the Flats, on the banks of the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland, and brewed up another pot there, all before nine thirty in the morning.

For the past four months I’d been drinking my office coffee out of a very special mug, big and heavy and substantial. It had belonged to my best friend, who’d had it made for himself after he’d gotten it into his head that drinking out of cardboard or foam cups could cause cancer.

The mug is white, and on each side is his name and a reproduction of a gold Cleveland Police Department lieutenant’s badge, with his number on it in black. lieutenant marko meglich, 7787. My guts twisted every morning when I drank from it, knowing that he was gone now, that a thirty-five-year friendship begun when we were ten years old had been blasted away like a sapling in a tornado, in two terrible seconds, just across the river on a cold, wet night the past April.

His next in command in the department, Detective Bob Matusen, had given me the mug a few weeks after Marko had been buried with full honors, with cops in full-dress uniforms from almost every city in Ohio and quite a few from Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois in attendance, as well as the mayor, the police chief, several members of the Cleveland city council, the lieutenant governor of Ohio, two U.S. congressmen, a couple of judges from the Common Pleas Court, and various other local politicos who had a free morning and were looking for a photo op.

I’m the first one to admit I hadn’t been very good since then. I hadn’t really worked. I hadn’t been to a show or a ball game, hadn’t seen much of my other friends. I’d been at the edge of a brand new romance, with an attractive woman whose dragon of a mother hardly scared me at all, but I’d let it go. I didn’t have the heart for it.

I drank more than I normally do, too, far into the night, and then in the mornings I’d jog up Fairmount Boulevard, trying to work off the two or three extra beers.

I felt responsible for Marko’s death. He’d gone above and beyond the line of duty to protect my back. To make sure that justice was done in a situation where justice seemed impossible. If not for me, he wouldn’t have been where he was that night. He wouldn’t have caught a bullet.

The shrink I’d gone to a few times had assured me that that wasn’t the case, and in my head I knew she was right. The demons that scratched and clawed deep down inside me were another thing.

Yes, a shrink. A psychologist. Slovenian men like me—like Marko—don’t usually seek out the help of mental health professionals. We prefer solving our own problems in our own way. But I’d been sitting around since April without being able to let go of it, without seeming to get off the dime, and I’d figured it was time to talk to somebody.

It hadn’t helped much, and after four sessions I’d stopped going.

My pal Ed Stahl had called and invited me to dinner at his big, spooky-looking old house in Cleveland Heights a few blocks north of the Coventry branch library. I usually see Ed every ten days or so but we hadn’t gotten together for three months, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. So I’d bought a bottle of Jim Beam, one of Ed’s addictions, and gone over there on a Thursday night.

As usual, the whole house was redolent with the smell of his ever-present pipe, to which he is also addicted. He’d ordered takeout from the Sun Luck Garden, a marvelous little Chinese restaurant on Taylor Road, one of my favorites and one of Cleveland’s best kept secrets. I wasn’t surprised; Ed isn’t the domestic type, and I can’t imagine him spending even an hour toiling over a hot stove, especially for another guy. I counted myself lucky not to have been served hot dogs and chips.

Ed is a newspaperman. Not a journalist, not even a columnist, although his bad photograph appears over a column in the Plain Dealer five days a week. He’s a classic, stop-the-presses, two-finger-typist ink-stained wretch, and the Pulitzer Prize he won some eighteen years ago attests to his excellence. He’s hard-bitten, curmudgeonly, ulcer-ridden, nearsighted, relentlessly opinionated, and probably the only good friend I have left.

We ate the takeout at the big round table in his dining room where he has his Wednesday night poker sessions. I used to be a regular but hadn’t attended since Marko died. The downstairs rooms aren’t air-conditioned, and a large standing fan was blowing the hot air around. I washed the food down with Stroh’s and he sipped his Jim Beam on the rocks steadily all evening in defiance of his ulcer.

When we’d finished eating, Ed switched on the Indians game and turned the volume down to practically zero. I hardly looked at it. I’ve been a big sports fan all my life, but lately baseball seemed beside the point.

Ed took the little white cartons into the kitchen to toss into the trash and emerged with fresh drinks for both of us. He handed me mine, standing over me silently for a moment. Then he told me about the job he’d heard about. The movie job.

I turned him down flat. “I’m not a baby-sitter,” I said.

“No—you need a baby-sitter,” he shot back. “Because you’re acting like a kid. It’s time for you to get out of the house, out of the office, back into the world of the living.”

I shrugged. “Okay, so I don’t play well with others.”

“When are you going to go back to work? You’ve got to eat, don’t you?”

“I’m okay for money. I have a little cushion.”

“Lucky you,” Ed said. “I’ve got enough in the bank to keep me going until about three o’clock next Tuesday afternoon.”

“I don’t want to get involved with any goddamn movie. I quit going to movies when Bogart died.”

“And missed Sharon Stone? Madness!” He put his head down and looked at me over his horn-rimmed Clark Kent glasses. “How long are you going to keep on hiding under the covers, Milan?”

“Until it’s not so scary to come out,” I said.

“You’re scared of getting hurt all of a sudden?”

“No. I’m scared somebody else will get hurt. Again.”

Ed took a pipe from the rack on the dining room breakfront and unzipped a worn leather tobacco pouch. “It’s always going to be scary,” he said. “It’s a scary world. When has it not been?”

He was right, of course. After a hitch in Vietnam I’d patrolled the streets of Cleveland as a police officer, and I’ve served a long stretch as a private investigator. I’ve seen firsthand just how scary the world can be. It had never stopped me before; the fear is a thing you learn to live with, like chronic lower back pain. You never know when it will flare up or how bad it will be, you just go about the business of living, always knowing it’s lurking there quietly, awaiting its opportunity.

And then Marko Meglich died trying to protect me, and the fear had blossomed rich and red like an obscene flower, eviscerating me. For the entire spring and into the summer I rarely turned on my TV set, hardly glanced at the morning paper. I found lots of things I could do alone, like revisiting the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the mysteries of Lawrence Block, Moby Dick, The Brothers Karamazov. Interesting, I’d thought later, that I hadn’t even wanted to read anything new, anything I’d never read before.

I’d been playing it safe.

“Look,” Ed was saying as he stuffed flaky tobacco into the pipe bowl with his thumb, “the producers of this picture called me because they figured I knew everyone in town, and I gave them your name right away. From what they told me, this will be a no-brainer. They’re going to be in Cleveland four weeks, shooting a movie, which is good for Cleveland, right? They’ll spend a ton of money, and when it comes out in the theaters the city’ll look good. They’ve got this young kid who’s starring in the movie, though, Darren Anderson. Supposed to be Hollywood’s young-stud flavor of the month, except he has a penchant for getting into trouble wherever he goes. They just want someone to make sure it isn’t bad trouble. So you take the kid out to dinner after work every day, on them, you take him to some bars where he’ll have a good time and won’t get into a fight, and you tuck him in at night. You don’t even have to think, Milan. And they’ll pay you three hundred dollars a day.”

“For baby-sitting.” I pronounced it as if it entailed foul diapers, burping, and reading Dr. Seuss aloud.

“For security,” Ed said, sitting down at the table with me. “Isn’t that what you do? Isn’t that why you call your company Milan Security? Look at it as a kind of bodyguard gig.”

“Don’t they usually have press agents for things like that?”

Ed nodded. “But his press agent just can’t afford to spend a month away from her office. And they want somebody who knows the local ropes.”

I picked up my beer. I usually drink it straight from the bottle or the can, but Ed always serves it to me in a pilsner glass. The cold against my fingers, the heft of it felt good. “I just don’t think I’m up for it right now, Ed,” I said.

He struck a wooden match and put it to the bowl of the pipe, sucking on it noisily. Smoke, an alarming amount of it, billowed out and up to the ceiling. “You’re not up for much of anything these days, are you?” he said between puffs. “What’s the matter? Have you completely lost your guts?”

I put the glass down on the table harder than I’d meant to. “That’s kind of a bite in the ass, isn’t it?”

“Only because I’m your friend, Milan.” He bit down on the pipestem and jutted his jaw at me, a balding, bespectacled General MacArthur returning to Manila Bay. “Quit acting like the Lone Ranger. Every one of us is schlepping around a certain amount of emotional baggage. How well we carry it, how gracefully we go on with our lives, how we get over ourselves is a big measure of our success as human beings.”

I fumbled in my shirt pocket for my crushed pack of Winstons. “So what you’re saying is that I’m a failure.”

“You never have been, Milan, not since I’ve known you. But right now, you could be failure’s man of the year.” He took the pipe out of his mouth and pointed the stem at me. “You think if it had been the other way around, if you were the one who died that night, that Marko Meglich would have just curled up into a ball and waited for the birds to come and cover him with leaves?”

I shook a cigarette out of the pack and lit it. The temperature was in the low eighties, but I hunched my shoulders against the cold, clammy chill of truth crawling up my back. No, Marko wouldn’t have folded. If he’d been the survivor instead of me, maybe he’d think of me on an NFL Sunday and remember our days on the varsity squad at St. Clair High School and at Kent State. Maybe he’d remember how when we first met as ten-year-olds we’d bloodied each other’s noses in the schoolyard, how he’d eased my way onto the police force after I came back from Vietnam and then turned sour when I walked away from the badge four years later.

But he’d go on. He’d make the hard choices.

I guessed I’d better start making them.

“All right, Ed,” I said with a sigh that started down near my toes and forced its way up through my viscera. “I’ll call your movie guy. I’ll talk to him, at least.”

So here I was in my office, in the venerable building I’d bought a few years before with the generous bequest of my late Auntie Branka, waiting for a representative of Monarch Pictures to come and give me my marching orders.

I’d never heard of Monarch. Ed had told me it was a fairly new independent, trying to muscle its way in with the big boys like TriStar and MGM and Warners. They couldn’t have been doing too badly if they could afford to pay Anderson’s salary. I don’t know a damn thing about the movie business, but I knew enough to realize that he was a pretty hot box-office property these days—not quite in the Brad Pitt–Tom Cruise category, but getting there.

I’d hardly been in my office at all in four months—maybe twice a week to pick up the mail, and collect the rent and the list of complaints from my two tenants, the surgical supply company across the hall and the wrought-iron-monger downstairs. It was probably just as well. There had been a fire a few days before Marko died, and the repair and renovation work hadn’t gone as swiftly as I might have liked. Thank God it was finally finished. I was depressed enough without having to spend my days sitting in a room that looked like a burned-out bunker in Bosnia.

I didn’t like to think about that fire, because that’s what had led to Marko’s being with me that night, on the muddy incline on the east bank of the Flats where the bullet bearing his name had finally found him.

It was hot in the office, and smelled musty and sooty—I wondered how long it would take for the stink of smoke to go away—so I threw open the big windows and let the breeze from the river clean things out a little. The sun was shining, and across the water Terminal Tower was backlit by the summer sky. I hoped I’d be able to hear my client talk, because the gulls were in full throat, darting on graceful wings just above the edge of the water in search of breakfast and then wheeling upward in raucous conversation to shadow the brilliant blue of the morning.

Sidney Friedman’s appointment was for nine thirty; he arrived at ten minutes past ten, validating the perception that people in the film business operated on what can best be termed their own sweet time.

He was a small, darting ferret of a man in his early thirties, with thinning sandy hair cut short and combed forward over his forehead, like Caligula’s. His designer jeans were shrink-wrap tight, the T-shirt from whose neckband he’d hung his RayBans probably cost more than my best suit, and he was wearing Nike cross-trainers with no socks. In Cleveland the only people who don’t wear socks live in cardboard packing crates under bridges.

“Milan Jacovich?” he said, pronouncing my first name like the city in Italy and my last with an incorrect hard J and a final K sound. “Hi, Sidney Friedman. Producer of Street Games.” He tucked his leather-covered clipboard under one arm and stuck out his hand for a moist, dead-fish handshake.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Friedman. And it’s My-lan Yock-ovitch,” I said. “What’s Street Games?”

“You’re kidding, right? That’s the name of the picture we’re shooting. Monarch Films. Thirty-four-million-dollar budget.” He sniffed, whether from disdain or a coke habit I didn’t know. “I guess you don’t read Variety.”

“I let my subscription lapse,” I said. “Care for some coffee?”

He looked dubious. “What kind is it?”

No one ever asked me that before. “Maxwell House.”

“Forget it,” he said, and sat down in one of my client chairs, wrapping one leg tightly around the other like a first-grader who had to tinkle. “So you’re the guy who’s going to wrangle Anderson?”

“Wrangle?”

Heavy sigh. “In pictures we call the guy who handles the animals the wrangler,” he explained.

“And Anderson is an animal?”

“No,” he said. “Anderson is a world-class schmuck.”

What, I wondered, could make a world-class schmuck worth eight million dollars for three months’ work?

And then I remembered some of the grotesquely overpaid superstars of major league sports, and answered my own question.

Sidney Friedman flipped the cover of his clipboard open and began fishing through the papers in the pocket. “Darren Anderson is the classic Hollywood case of too much too soon,” he said without looking at me. “He had a five-minute role in a Susan Sarandon movie three years ago and you could feel the shock waves all the way to Peoria. Next thing you know, he’s on the cover of Tiger Beat, then Rolling Stone, then Entertainment Weekly. Geraldo had him on as one of the stars of tomorrow, and when he came out those little girls sitting in the studio audience actually came! I swear to God.”

I wondered how he could tell.

“So then he plays Tom Hanks’s kid brother, next he gets first billing under the title in a Sly Stallone picture, and with his fourth film all of a sudden he’s numero uno. His price per picture goes from fifty thousand to eight million in eighteen months, which is in direct proportion to the growth of his ego. People magazine votes him the sexiest man alive, he buys himself a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, his press people are touting him as the new Brando, and the whole world is lining up around the block just for the chance to kiss his rosy pink ass. And since he’s only twenty-four years old, the little dipshit actually thinks he deserves it!”

Friedman removed some papers and slammed the clipboard closed. “And that, Milan, is how you make a world-class schmuck!” He shoved the papers across the desk at me. “Here’s your contract. Sign all four copies and keep one for your files.”

I didn’t look at it. “I’m not quite sure what you expect me to do, Mr. Friedman.”

“Sidney. What’s with the ‘mister’ shit? Mr. Friedman is my father, and he’s dead. Hollywood’s a first-name town.”

“I know,” I said. “But this is Cleveland.”

Friedman leaned forward and frowned, to let me know he was now getting serious. “That’s the point, Milan. Out in L.A. people look the other way when guys like Anderson come along, because it’s the norm. But this is the heartland, and we don’t want him getting into any trouble while he’s here. Trouble that would engender any bum publicity for the picture. That’s where you come in. Take care of him. Show him around. Make sure he goes to all the right places and none of the wrong ones. Make sure he doesn’t take a poke at anybody—and if he does, that he doesn’t get poked back.”

“Does he like to take pokes at people?”

“It’s happened. You know, a guy is in the movies, he’s got a macho image, sometimes people want to try him. And the kid handles himself pretty well. We don’t want any assault-and-battery charges or lawsuits, especially in a strange city. We’re on a tight schedule.”

“Is he into drugs? I’m not going to stand around while he makes drugs buys.”

Friedman’s eyebrows arched. “He doesn’t have a drug problem, if that’s what you mean.”

“That’s not what I mean. Look,” I said, “this is a little out of my—”

“It’s a piece of cake,” Friedman interrupted.

“Playing nursemaid to an egomaniac punk isn’t any kind of cake I want a bite of.”

“Aw, Darren’s not such a bad kid once you get him relaxed. He’ll like you. You’re a guy’s kind of guy, I can tell. And so is he, for all his bullshit.”

He leaned forward even more, frowning even more deeply. “One thing though, you gotta watch out for. Chicks.”

“Chicks,” I repeated dully.

“He can’t keep his pants zipped. That’s his Achilles tendon.”

I tried not to laugh. “If you think I’m spending four weeks trying to keep a healthy twenty-four-year-old movie star from getting laid . . . ”

Friedman shook his head. “I don’t care how many times he gets laid, or how many women he does it with.” He gave me a sly smile. “As a matter of fact, if you happen to know any hot numbers . . . ”

“I’m not a pimp!”

His face lost a little of its Malibu tan. “Of course not. I didn’t mean anything. I just thought—”

“You thought wrong, Mr. Friedman.”

“Sidney.” He sat back, relaxed, and waited for me to say it. His eyes demanded that I say it.

“Sidney,” I finally said, grudgingly.

That seemed to make him feel better. A man of simple needs. “The thing is, see, he’s not always discreet.” He treated me to a just-between-us-guys smile. “You can’t blame him, really. He gets twenty thousand pieces of fan mail a week. Women throw their underwear at him.” He waved an airy hand. “Hell, he’s not much older than a kid. All that testosterone—he’s only human.”

I pushed the contracts back across the desk at him. “Get yourself another boy,” I said. “I wouldn’t touch this with rubber gloves.”

“Well, let’s see about that,” he said, turning the contracts around so they were facing him. He whipped out a pen—a Bic, to my disappointment—and made an alteration to one of the figures, then pushed the papers back at me. He’d scratched out the $300.00 per diem and written in $500.00.

“Now, that doesn’t include any expenses you’ll incur,” he said. “That’s all separate. Dinners, concerts. You can have a pretty good time on Monarch Films.” His nose crinkled and he grimaced as if he were having a sudden attack of heartburn. “On me.”

“I don’t think you understand,” I said. “I don’t want the job.”

“You haven’t thought this out carefully, Milan.” Friedman did a here’s-the-church-here’s-the-steeple with his fingers. “Remember Rob Lowe and his video-sex thing? After that he dropped out of sight like Amelia Earhart. We don’t want that happening with Darren. He’s got his whole life ahead of him. Hell, after he finishes this picture they’re talking about him doing one with Gene Hackman. You know how much he could learn working with a giant like that?”

“Then get Gene Hackman to baby-sit him.”

“Milan, I’m a proud man,” Friedman said. “I don’t like to beg. But I’m begging you now. You’re just the kind of guy we’re looking for. Because you can stop him from screwing up his entire career. You can make sure he behaves himself.”

He looked at me with an admiration so phony that I almost gagged.

“And you’re big and tough enough to see that he doesn’t get into any fights. Come on, Milan, it’s four lousy weeks here. After that we go down to Wilmington, North Carolina, to shoot interiors, then back to the coast.” He extended the pen to me with the extreme confidence of a man who rarely hears the word no. “And you get to go on the set, meet all the actors and the director. Lots of pretty girls on this shoot. You never know, you might get lucky—big good-looking guy like you.”

“Some of us can find our own women, Mr. Friedman.”

“Sidney,” he said. “Look, it’s like going to a party. A big party, one that lasts four weeks, and the beauty part is, you’re getting paid, too.” The pen wavered in the air, like a rapier pointing at my heart. “And it’ll just be evenings—during the day we can keep an eye on him ourselves. Come on, Milan, come on board with us. You’ll have fun.”

I doubted that.

He gave me a canny look that made me realize Ed had told him more about me than I would have liked. “What else have you got to do?”

The answer to that one was pretty clear—nothing. I had nothing else to do. I’d been turning down jobs all summer from past clients, and I hadn’t tried to find any new ones.

I didn’t for a moment imagine that getting involved with a Hollywood production would be any sort of “fun” at all. Phony, self-important people just got on my nerves, and I was pretty sure I would loathe Darren Anderson at first sight.

Still, maybe it was a no-brainer, as Ed had promised. Maybe I could just ride shotgun on this kid and not really have to think about it at all. For a guy suffering from serious brain overload, as I was, it might prove to be the perfect distraction.

“Make sure you change that per diem figure on all four contracts,” I said, and reached out to take his damn pen.


From the book A Shoot in Cleveland, © Les Roberts. All rights reserved.

The Cleveland Local – Chapter One

The Cleveland Local: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#8) by Les RobertsBook Excerpt

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.”

“We?”

“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.”

“Like whom?”

“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.


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

Collision Bend – Chapter One

Collision Bend: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#7) by Les RobertsBook Excerpt

From Collision Bend (a Milan Jacovich Mystery) by Les Roberts


Virginia Carville was, as usual, right between my bare feet.

That’s because she was the special reporter and sometime coanchor on the eleven o’clock news on Channel 12, and I’m generally lying on my bed when I watch her.

I met her once or twice several years ago when she was an eager college intern at the station and still known as Ginger. It wasn’t until after she’d progressed to newswriter and then to full-fledged reporter that she began insisting everyone call her Virginia because it was more dignified.

I opened my feet a little wider, the better to see her, and the side of my foot touched that of Dr. Nicole Archer, neonatologist extraordinaire, from whose bed I was watching the news. My toes are always cold, no matter what the weather, and her bare skin felt good against mine. Warm. Cold toes don’t seem to bother her; she murmured softly deep down in her throat and drew a little closer to me without looking up from her book.

Reading and watching the news doesn’t sound very romantic, I know. But Nicole and I had been together for ten months and had finally passed beyond that initial fevered leaving-a-trail-of-discarded-clothing-in-our-heated-rush-from-the-frontdoor-to-the-bedroom stage. It was comfortable now.

Virginia Carville was doing what they call in the TV news business a “stand-up,” this one in front of the control tower at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, which meant little except that she was more visually interesting than someone sitting behind a desk in the studio. She was going on about a commercial plane that had crashed three hundred miles from Hopkins and saying that the liner’s “black box,” which automatically records all flight information, had survived the accident and FAA officials were in the process of determining the cause.

I’ve always wondered why they don’t build airplanes out of the same apparently indestructible materials they use to make the black box.

Ginger had reinvented herself since becoming a “personality.” I remembered her as an intern, mousy and drab; now she was almost pretty, at least in her television makeup, and obliquely sexy. She’d always been ambitious, right from the start; without drive and fire no one would last a month in the TV business. She had done it the hard way, working her way up through the ranks fairly quickly, earning the respect of her peers with an in-depth piece on an old woman whose two drug-dealing sons had been murdered and dumped in Lake Erie by the local crime boss. Virginia had talent and instinct to go along with the ambition, and more than one local politician had suddenly developed a case of tight collar when Virginia Carville called and said she wanted to talk to him on the air.

There was no way for me to know, when I’d first met her years before, and as I watched her now from Nicole’s bed, that she would indirectly turn my life upside down.

She finished her report from Hopkins and the broadcast cut back to the studio, where longtime anchor Vivian Truscott, the reigning queen of the Cleveland media, was nodding in a fascinated way. “Thanks, Virginia, keep us informed,” she said as if she really gave a damn, and gracefully segued into a commercial, promising to return with the sports report and the wrap-up in just a moment.

In the commercial, which was local, a small business entrepreneur dressed like a circus acrobat did what apparently was meant to be a comic wrestling act with a bear, for reasons I couldn’t discern. I had no idea what he was selling and couldn’t imagine why he thought anyone would want to do business with a terminally cute man who wrestled bears. He, however, seemed to be having a good time, and what the hell, it was his money.

Nicole threw her left leg over my right one and shifted next to me on the bed. “Is the news over yet, Milan?” she said sleepily.

“All but the sports.”

“Is it going to snow tomorrow?”

“They said no. Partly cloudy and cold.”

“They always lie,” she said, putting the book on the nightstand. “I’ll probably have to call a snowplow in the morning to get the partly cloudy off my driveway.”

She switched off the bedside lamp so the only illumination in the bedroom was the bluish glow from the TV screen, and rolled onto her side, facing me. “Maybe we’ll just have to stay home, then. Snowbound.”

I kissed her under the ear, pushing her blonde hair out of the way first. “They won’t find us until the spring, arms around each other, starved to death. I hate it when that happens.”

“We won’t starve. I’ve got stuff in the freezer.”

“Klobasa and pierogies?”

She gave my chest a mild slap. “Milan, I’m a doctor!”

“Oh, yeah. Cholesterol. Beer, then?”

“Ever since you came along I always seem to have beer.” It was the mildest of rebukes, and I rightly ignored it. “And sliced ham and turkey.”

“Well, that’s okay then. We can be snowbound. What’ll happen to your patients, though?”

“What’ll happen to your clients?”

I waved a hand cavalierly. “They’ll live.”

She screwed up her mouth. “My patients might not,” she said. “That’s why I’ll call the snowplow.” She rubbed the inside of her foot up and down my calf. “Being snowbound might be okay otherwise, though.”

I put my arm around her shoulders, drawing her close so her face was nestled against my neck. She wore sweats to bed in the wintertime, and I threw my other arm over her and sneaked my hand up under her sweatshirt to feel the warm skin in the hollow at the small of her back.

“Besides,” I said, “being snowbound might get boring.”

“After a while, maybe.”

I took her earlobe into my mouth and sucked gently. “You think?”

She stroked my leg more insistently with her foot. “No,” she breathed.

I moved my hand lower, down under the waistband of her sweatpants and did some stroking of my own. Her feet might be warm but the perfect twin globes of her buttocks were icy to the touch.

I switched off the TV. With all the astonishing inventions and miracles of science that have come along in the last fifty years or so, without a doubt the most important one is the TV remote. Even though I didn’t get to hear the latest sports news.

When the clock radio alarm went off at seven a.m. Nicole and I were sleeping nude, spoon-style, closer to her side of the bed than mine, probably because she’s a notorious hogger of covers and I’d simply followed them over there. She rolled toward me and nuzzled my neck for a few minutes, and I thought it would be a lovely way to begin the morning if I started something, but she whispered that she had to go to work. She got up, put on the coffee, and disappeared into the bathroom. I lay there a while and listened to the sounds of John Lanigan, John Webster, and Jimmy Malone do the zany “Knuckleheads in the News” shtick they do every Thursday on WMJI-FM. This morning they were recounting the sorry tale of a bank bandit who’d called first and alerted the bank that he was planning a robbery. I stayed in bed and chuckled until the coffee was ready.

I went home to shower and change before going to the office myself.

“Going to the office” is something fairly new for me. For years I’d run my business out of my apartment in Cleveland Heights where Cedar Road and Fairmount Boulevard come together to form a triangle. The building is right across from Russo’s Stop-N-Shop and the Mad Greek Restaurant at the top of Cedar Hill, which, I’m told, is the first official foothill of the Alleghenies. My line is private investigations and industrial security, and I call my business Milan Security. I gave it my first name because I figured damn few people are able to work their tongues around my Slovenian last one: Jacovich, with the J pronounced like a Y. For that matter, not too many people get my first name right. It’s My-lan—long i, with the accent on the first syllable.

However clients might mangle my name, working at home had been damn convenient. My desk was twenty-six feet from my bed, I didn’t have to get dressed up every day, and unless I had to actually go somewhere, I didn’t worry about traffic or the weather or where I was going to eat lunch. But last summer all that changed.

My aunt, Branka Jacovich, widow of my father’s brother Anton and the only relative to whom I was at all close, had died at the age of eighty-two and left her entire estate, consisting of a small savings account, some insurance, and a little three-bedroom house in Euclid just off Lake Shore Boulevard where she’d lived for sixty years, to her two surviving children and to me.

At the urging and with the assistance of my old high school chum Rudy Dolsak, who was now senior vice president of the Ohio Mercantile Trust and was always after me to do something better with my money than simply sticking it into his vault, I had used my share of the inheritance to purchase an old building down on Scranton Road in the belly of the Flats, about a mile away from the restaurants and nightclubs that draw hordes of young drinkers and dancers even on the coldest of nights. It was on the bank of that peculiar and difficult-to-navigate kink in the Cuyahoga River known as Collision Bend, because of the many shipwrecks that had occurred there in the nineteenth century. They’ve since rerouted the river, but Collision Bend is still a navigator’s nightmare, and it still requires some skillful ship handling to avoid aquatic fender benders.

Once a warehouse serving Cleveland’s booming iron ore industry, my building had been converted to office space in the seventies and had languished half empty ever since. With Tetka Branka’s bequest, I’d taken it over and spruced it up a bit, and I now occupied one of two sprawling office suites on the second floor. A bank of floor-to-ceiling windows afford an absolutely splendid view of the busy water traffic and the handsome skyline of downtown Cleveland beyond, dominated by the proud facade of the Tower City shopping center and office complex right across the river.

People who haven’t been to Cleveland for thirty years would be surprised by the Flats. Once a barren, weed-choked riverbank, it became a shipping mecca when the steel industry was in full throttle, then reverted to a rusty collection of derelict warehouses. It wasn’t until the early nineteen-eighties that someone got the bright idea to turn it into the fun-and-frolic center of northeast Ohio. Restaurants, bars and nightclubs sprang up first on the east bank of the Cuyahoga, later on the west. Even the venerable Fagan’s, which used to be the only place to eat on the east bank of the Flats, turned trendy, catering to the young hip crowd. In the old days, if Fagan’s didn’t have a seat for you they’d find one, even if it was behind the bar or in a telephone booth. Now the Generation X-ers, the ones who wear their baseball caps with the bill pointed toward the back, stand in long summertime lines to get in.

Collision Bend, though, is about a mile upriver and hasn’t been invaded yet by the hip-slick-and-cool crowd. You can still taste the river and the rust on your tongue, still feel the ground vibrate beneath you with the pulse of the nearby steel mills, still hear the raucous caw of the gulls and experience in your viscera the ponderous passage of the great ore boats on the river outside your window.

The entire first floor of my building is occupied by a longtime tenant, a company that sells and installs ornamental iron doors and railings. My second-floor tenant is a surgical appliance and supply house. The rent I charge them both more than covers the mortgage payments, and of course I am financially better off than when I worked at home.

But when I got a legitimate office and plenty of space, Rudy Dolsak and another pal, Ed Stahl, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s gadfly columnist, prevailed upon me to take a quantum leap into the late twentieth century and purchase and install a complicated computer I can barely operate. I have not, however, gone on-line so I can meet people and make new friends on the Internet, get e-mail, and get myself hooked on the electronic bulletin boards that have proved so addictive to so many people. I do, after all, have a life.

I also beefed up my business inventory with a plethora of security cameras, listening devices, concealed microphones, electronic bugs, and other arcane paraphernalia of the security trade. I can take photographs around corners. I can practically listen in on what’s going on clear across the river. And to record conversations held in my office, just in case I ever have to prove who said what when, I’d let a smooth-talking salesman sell me a recording system I can activate by kicking a little switch under my desk, something I’d had no occasion to use and rarely even thought about. Suddenly I’m high tech.

Me, a guy who has to have his teenage son program his VCR. And although I’ve kept my answering machine in my apartment, at my business I now even have voice mail, a term that always seems to me to be an oxymoron.

I unlocked the wrought iron security gate my first-floor tenant had installed for me as a suck-up welcoming gift when I bought the building. Then I opened the big, heavy oak door, which has done yeoman service for at least fifty years and creaks like the door of a medieval keep, and went up the stairs to my office.

On sunny days I rarely turn the lights on in there until late afternoon because of the bank of windows, but this morning the weather prognosticators had been right and the sky was partly cloudy—more than partly, if the truth were known. It was that ominous gunmetal gray that Clevelanders grow used to in the wintertime. So I snapped on a little faux Tiffany lamp Nicole had bought me, to make it more cheery.

A bank of white steel filing cabinets that I’d bought used stands against one wall, and in one corner is a storeroom, to which I’d added a steel security door, where I keep most of my sophisticated snooping equipment. I even have my own private john with a shower. Against the far wall is a den-size little refrigerator designed to look like an old-fashioned Wells Fargo safe, and it amuses me to think that if burglars ever did manage to get through all the security, they’d think they’d really scored—until they opened and found, instead of cash or negotiable securities, two six-packs of Stroh’s beer in bottles, a half-empty jar of Stadium mustard, and several cans of Diet Pepsi.

Nicole and I had spent several pleasant weekends combing antique stores to find the two oil paintings I’d hung on the wall. One was of a bucolic rural landscape that looked a lot like south central Ohio farmland, and the other a Depression-era painting of a location not far from where I sat, showing the Terminal Tower as seen through the billowing smokestacks of LTV Steel.

I hung my coat and scarf in the closet and made myself a pot of coffee. At home I have an old-fashioned Mr. Coffee brewer, but Nicole had bought me a space-age-looking Braun for the office, and even the way it hissed and burped and bubbled as it brewed sounded vaguely European to me, and ever so sophisticated. I was not only high tech, but getting high class as well.

My morning was spent devising a grid for a motion-sensitive security system for a company out in Solon that manufactures plumbing fixtures—and save the jokes, because I heard them all from Ed and Rudy and some of my other buddies when I’d first accepted the assignment. Consistent with human nature, they’d waited until there had been several break-ins at the factory before they decided they needed some protection. I had the floor plans of their plant and offices, and since the very first thing the president of the firm did was moan about the cost, the trick for me was to place as few devices as possible where they would be most efficient, so that a mouse couldn’t make it across the office floor without alerting the police. It might sound comical, but I’ve been around long enough to know that people will steal anything, even toilet bowls.

At a few minutes before twelve my stomach started to growl. All my life I’ve been a three-meals-a-day man; when you’re as big as I am—around six three and two hundred twenty pounds at my best weight, which is about eight pounds less than what I currently weigh—you need a lot of fuel to keep that engine running. But I’d skipped breakfast that morning, something I did often since I’d been staying so many nights at Nicole’s house, so I activated my voice mail and walked downstairs and over to Jim’s Steak House on the corner of Scranton and Carter at the western end of the Eagle Avenue Bridge.

Jim’s is a Cleveland fixture, having occupied its strategic site on Collision Bend for so long, I can’t remember a time when it hadn’t been there. In the summertime you can eat on an outdoor patio, and all year long the dining room offers a stunning view across the river. But it’s basically the same one I see from my office windows, so when I eat lunch there I prefer having a steak sandwich and a beer at the bar of the cozy, masculine lounge, where there’s always a conversation to be struck up with the bartender or one of the customers. It’s the kind of place where you get into heated discussions about sports and politics with strangers.

I’d just swung my leg over the barstool and was ready to order when the Channel 12 noon news came on. I was startled to see Vivian Truscott sitting beside the regular daytime anchorman. I was surprised to see her even awake at noon, much less on the set; she usually does the news at six and eleven o’clock. Ordinarily the fashion plate of Cleveland television, today Truscott was wearing a severe black suit and simple makeup. She looked tight-lipped and tense.

“This is a difficult story to report,” she was saying, and the quiver and strain in her voice were completely at odds with her usual cool, almost glacial professionalism. “But this morning our Channel Twelve colleague and my personal friend Virginia Carville was found dead in her home on Edgewater Drive on the west side of Cleveland. The police believe . . . ”

Her voice broke, and she shook her head and put her face in her hands. “Damn!” she said.

Her coanchor leaned over and patted her arm, then turned to the camera. “This isn’t easy,” he said. “Virginia was a good friend to all of us. The police are saying there was foul play.”

And suddenly I wasn’t hungry anymore.


From the book Collision Bend, © Les Roberts. All rights reserved.

The Duke of Cleveland

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?”

“What?”

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.

“What for?”

“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.”

The Lake Effect – Chapter One

The Lake Effect, a book by Les Roberts: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#5)Book Excerpt

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?”

“A favor.”

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.”

“Uh-huh.”

“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.


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

The Cleveland Connection – Chapter One

The Cleveland Connection: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#4) by Les RobertsBook Excerpt

From The Cleveland Connection (a Milan Jacovich Mystery) by Les Roberts


You could have knocked me over with a feather.

Joe Bradac was the last guy I’d expect to see standing on the threshold of my apartment at nine o’clock on a Monday morning. A cop at the door wouldn’t have surprised me; I was once a cop myself, so not only do I have a load of friends on the force, but since becoming a private investigator and security specialist my interests and those of the police department occasionally dovetail—or clash—and Cleveland’s boys in blue visit me more often than I’d like. It could have been my landlord knocking—I try to pay my rent by the fifth of the month, but occasionally I forget. Maybe a Jehovah’s Witness waving a religious tract at me; in Cleveland Heights, where I have my office in my apartment, they are as ubiquitous as the gray squirrel. Once in a while even a dissatisfied client shows up at the door—things happen, after all. But not Joe Bradac.

Joe Bradac lives with my ex-wife.

Lila and I have one of those amicable divorces that seem to work out better than the marriage ever did. She got the house and car and we split everything else, including custody of my two sons, Milan Junior and Stephen, who are now sixteen and twelve years old respectively. Although they live under her roof, there’s rarely a problem when I want to see them.

It wasn’t always so; when we first split up Lila could get pretty sticky if I wanted to be with the boys more often than my court-mandated every other weekend. But now she and I talk a few times a week on the phone, we see each other occasionally, and though she’s grown more prickly than ever with me, we get along about as well as can be expected. After four years of separation, we aren’t in love anymore—time is a thief of love—but when you’ve cared about somebody for more than half your life, the caring doesn’t end just because a piece of paper says it should. I took the divorce hard for a while—especially the part about not living with my kids—and I took Joe pretty hard, too. But finally I’ve let go and moved on to the rest of my life.

Even so, Joe Bradac and I aren’t pals. We never have been, not in high school and not since, and his moving in with Lila and playing resident daddy to my boys hasn’t done anything to further the friendship. So when I opened my door and saw him in the hallway, his fists shoved into the pockets of that blue jacket of his, the fake fur collar pulled up around his rather prominent ears, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

Joe walks softly when he’s around me; he never knows how I’m going to react to him, and this time his approach was to make a pretty pitiful attempt at a smile, which came out looking like the grimace of a baby with a gas pain. But then Joe’s attempts at just about anything are pitiful. He’s one of those guys who kind of tiptoes through life trying not to wake anybody up. I’ve never understood why Lila is attracted to him. She can be a real buccaneer when she wants to, and there are times when she gives Joe a pretty rough time. Maybe it’s because he lets her.

The end of his nose was red from the cold, and a sprinkle of snowflakes was only half melted on his shoulders. “Whattaya say, Milan?”

“Joe,” I said. That’s about as cordial as I get with Joe. I didn’t offer to shake hands because I had the sports section of the paper in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. And I didn’t want to shake his hand anyway.

“Can I come in for a minute?”

His manner was hesitant, as always. Nevertheless, his visit was so unexpected and so out of character that a cold finger of alarm jabbed me in the back. “Nothing’s wrong, is there, Joe? With Lila or the boys?”

He shook his head. “Everybody’s fine,” he said. “Stephen had a little cough last week but he’s okay now. And Milan Junior’s doing real good in school. He had to write a paper on something for history—the Civil War, I think it was—and he got a B plus.”

Relief flooded over me like a sudden rainstorm, even as it galled me having to hear news of my own children from Joe Bradac, and my attitude softened a little. I stood aside and let him walk past me into my front room, which I use as my office. My desk is in there, and a cracked leather sofa and a couple of not too comfortable chairs I keep for the rare client who comes to see me. I do my real living in a little parlor off the big one, where I have my TV and my easy chair and all my books and magazines. Joe could damn well sit in one of the client’s chairs and keep it impersonal. He had nothing to do with where I lived.

He plopped down where I pointed, a passive man in word and deed. I went behind my desk. I didn’t offer him any coffee; what I was drinking was the last of the pot and I wasn’t about to make more just for him. His body language is as unaggressive and meek as he is, and he sat there like a pile of dirty clothes waiting to be put in the washing machine.

“I hope you don’t mind my just coming over like this,” he said. “I was afraid if I called you wouldn’t see me.”

He had that right. I sat down. “It is kind of a surprise.”

He wiggled his butt in the seat, a princess on a pea. “I wouldn’t’ve if it wasn’t important. I need your advice.”

I leaned back a little too hard in my chair and fought for balance for a second. Emotional balance too. The guy had nerve, give him that. “Have you tried Dear Abby?”

The rest of his face turned as red as his nose. “Not that kind of advice. Jeez, I wouldn’t insult you. . . . ”

“What is it, then, Joe?” Thirty seconds with Joe Bradac was enough to make anyone’s eyes cross with boredom and impatience. I don’t know how Lila puts up with him. Or manages to stay awake.

He took a breath. “You mind if I smoke?”

“Where do you think you are, church?”

He extracted a pack of Luckies from his jacket and lit one, tossing the dead match into my already-full ashtray.

“What’s your trouble?”

“It’s not mine, exactly. It’s a mutual friend.”

“You and I don’t have any mutual friends,” I said.

“Well, old acquaintance, then. You remember Walter Paich? Skinny guy, his father worked the iron mills? He was two years behind us in high school.”

I dug into my memory, but though the name tinkled a distant bell my vision of Walter Paich was vague, and more than twenty years out of date. “What about him?”

“I ran into his sister Danica last night.” He pronounced it the old-world way, Danitza. “I’d gone for a beer with a couple of guys from my bowling league, and she was at a table with some other girls, and I went over to say hello and we got to talking. You probably don’t remember her, she was just a kid. She must be, oh, eight or nine years younger than us, like seven years younger than Walter, so I didn’t know her real well, just to see around, you know.”

“Get to the point, Joe, all right?”

“Sure, Milan,” he said, jerking nervously. I played football in high school and college, nose guard, and probably outweigh Joe by sixty pounds, and since he got together with Lila, whenever he sees me he worries I’m going to tear him apart. I admit the thought has occurred to me more than once, but not recently. I enjoy his discomfort, though. Deep down I truly enjoy it.

“Anyways, we got to talking, you know, about old times and how’s the family, the way you do with somebody you didn’t see in a long time, and I could tell something was bothering her.”

“How?”

“Huh?”

“How could you tell?”

His eyes roamed the room as though there’d be an answer up near the ceiling. “I just could. She was nervous, had kind of a sad look. So I asked if everything was okay.”

“What a caring guy you are, Joe.”

He chose to ignore that one. “Well, the thing of it is, see, she’s real worried about her grandpa.”

“Why?”

“He’s been missing for a week.”

“Missing?”

“He just disappeared, and they haven’t seen or heard from him since.”

I lit a cigarette of my own, a Winston. It was my first of the day and tasted terrible, as usual. “There’s a real neat organization called the police department to help people with things like that. You may have heard of them.”

“She called the cops four days ago, but she can’t get them to take her serious,” Joe said.

“Why not?”

“The old man’s disappeared before, just taken off on his own for a few days at a crack, and the minute they heard that they put it on the bottom of the pile.”

“I don’t blame them.”

“Danica thinks it’s different this time.”

“Why?”

“I dunno. Gut feeling, I guess.”

He sat there with that earnest, nerdy look of his, and I realized how much I wanted him to go away. “I’m still not sure I know why you’re here, Joe.”

He squirmed some more and blew out a lungful of smoke, which merged with mine to create a fog over my desk. “I told her about you. I mean, she asked me what was new with me and, well, your name came up.” He’d rather have cut off a finger than say that, so he hurried on. “She remembers you real good, because of the football. She asked how you were, and I told about your being an investigator and all. Anyway, she wants to hire you.”

I sighed. “Nice of you to drum up business for me, but mostly I do industrial security—you know that. Missing persons just isn’t my line. But I could recommend someone for her.”

He tapped the ash off the end of his cigarette. “See, the grandfather’s from the old country. All his friends, too. I think the family’d be more comfortable with another Slav.”

“These’re Serbs, right?”

He kind of stuck out his chin, which I took to mean yes.

I shook my head. I’m Slovenian; my people come from a different part of Yugoslavia. The Serbs and the Slovenes haven’t really gotten along for five hundred years, and I have a busted marriage to prove it. They share a language but use different alphabets, and they go to different churches, which sounds on the face of it like New York City, but the reality is something else again. At the moment the two republics are engaged in a mutual economic boycott, including the nonpayment of debts, and their armies are snarling across the border. They don’t have much use for each other, but that’s nothing compared to the enmity between the Serbs and the Croatians, whose factional differences make the petty sniping between our own Southerners and Yankees seem like a neighborhood dispute over mowing the lawn. It’s hard for someone who isn’t a Slav to understand—hell, it’s hard for me to understand. But just because we all share geographic roots doesn’t mean we like each other. Serbia and Croatia and Slovenia were all separate countries not too long ago, and at the end of 1990 Slovenia voted to be independent again. The republic of Serbia didn’t like that too much, and the Slavs who live in Cleveland are every bit as militant, one way or another, as those back in the old country.

Joe, like Lila, is a Serb. He must have somehow divined what I was thinking, or maybe it had occurred to him too, because he gave an apologetic shrug and raised his hands in front of him. I guess for his purposes and those of Danica Paich, a Slovenian was better than nothing.

“What’s your angle in this, Joe?”

He looked confused, par for Joe’s course. “I got no angle, Milan.”

“I mean, you meet this girl in a bar after twenty years and she spills her guts to you. Why are you getting involved?”

“Just trying to help an old friend.”

“You stepping out on Lila with this Danica Paich?”

His face got redder, and he put his hand over his heart; any minute I expected him to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. “Come on, you know me better than that. Hey, Walter was a good guy, I’m just doing his sister a little favor. Him and me were pretty good friends back in the old days.”

Sure. Joe was such a dweeb none of us wanted much to do with him, so he hung out with the younger kids, who were less demanding. Now his life was so dull and uninteresting he was probably jumping at the chance to get in on some excitement, even though it was only secondhand. I checked the appointment calendar tacked on the corkboard behind my desk. It had little cartoon Ninja Turtles all over it, and was hardly what you’d expect in a private investigator’s office, but it was my Christmas gift from my younger son Stephen, and I didn’t much give a damn if it was appropriate or not. Other than my appointment with a prospective client that afternoon and a scheduled Wednesday morning court appearance as a prosecution witness, I didn’t have too much on my docket.

“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to talk with her,” I said.

Joe almost deflated with relief. “Great. Maybe we could all get together for dinner?”

Presume not too much on my good nature, Cassius. No client, no case, and no old friendship was worth having to break bread with Joe Bradac. “Is there any particular reason why you should be there?”

He looked crestfallen. “Gee, Milan, it was my idea in the first place. . . . ”

I began to think my initial suspicions were correct, that Joe was somehow enchanted with this Danica Paich and was using her grandfather’s problems as a way to get close to her. And by producing me, a genuine private detective, he’d look like a hero, or at the very least, a concerned and caring friend.

Of course that might have been my own paranoia working overtime. And there was an old man missing. It would rub at my conscience if I didn’t at least have an initial meeting with the granddaughter. “I think Danica might feel more free to talk with fewer people around,” I added.

He still looked hurt at being excluded; clearly it hadn’t been part of his game plan.

“Whatever you think is right,” he said.

Fuck him.

After the first blizzard of winter, the efficient clearance crews in Cleveland salt all the streets and push whatever snow is left up against the curbs or the sides of buildings to allow traffic to function on the roads. The piles just sit there and diminish a bit every day until the next snowfall, getting a little dirtier and sadder-looking until they melt away in March or April.

It was that kind of evening as I drove downtown, the tail end of the bad-weather season, with the city eagerly anticipating the benediction of spring. Joe had called Danica Paich from my office and then handed me the phone, and after some chat we’d decided to meet at six at a restaurant in the lobby of the building where she worked, the British Petroleum Building, most often referred to as “the BP,” on the east side of Public Square.

The restaurant is called Gershwin’s. Replete with tasteful maroon awnings outside, within there are three levels, and on one of the upper ones a piano player performs songs by the place’s namesake and such other composers as Kern, Porter, Rodgers, and Harold Arlen, giving the lie to Cleveland’s false and unfortunate blue-collar image as a town where bowling is about as cultural as it gets. No one ever talks about our world‑class symphony orchestra, the jazz clubs, the terrific restaurants serving food of every stripe and ethnicity, the museums and galleries, the superb library system, the great repertory theaters, and the free concerts. Its richly varied cultural life is the little secret Cleveland keeps from the rest of the world.

I arrived a bit early, as I’d had a meeting with an old client to review his small manufacturing plant’s security system. His office was in Richmond Heights, and by the time I got out of there most of the traffic was heading out of downtown and I had a clear shot all the way down Euclid to Public Square. I parked in a garage a block away, walked through the down-slanting mist that you can’t really call rain but gets you pretty wet anyway, and had a beer at the bar while I waited. Through the interior window the lush greenery of the building’s atrium lobby cheered things up a lot, rather like a tropical jungle in the middle of Cleveland.

Gershwin’s affords an unusually good people-watching opportunity. This was an upwardly mobile crowd; the only blue collars in evidence were buttoned down over bright-hued paisley ties. They used to call this little hunk of time at the end of the workday the cocktail hour, but with increased sensibilities about the perils of drinking and driving it came to be known in more recent times as happy hour. The trend makers, feeling that that was still too frivolous, have rechristened the after-work ritual “attitude adjustment.” In the old neighborhood, when someone’s attitude needed adjusting you took him down to the cellar and bounced him off the wall a few times. Now you buy him an overpriced mineral water and fix him a plate of hot hors d’oeuvres.

I observed the middle-management mating dance for a while. Everyone was talking louder than necessary in an almost desperate effort to be noticed in the look-alike crowd. The women all contrived to dress the fine line between professionally correct and sensually alluring, what I call the mixed-message wardrobe, very starchy and businesslike but with tight-fitting skirts and lots of sleek, nyloned leg showing. Some of the younger men, rainmakers-in-training, had removed their suit jackets to display patterned designer suspenders, and I watched one guy with wide pink-and-gray jobbies bust a move on a brittle blonde at the end of the bar. My father used to wear suspenders—utilitarian black ones, and he wore them to keep his pants up, unlike these successful young guys on the rise who use them to flaunt their own individuality in defiance of corporate uniformity, reminding me somehow of conservative businessmen who furtively wear ladies’ panties beneath their gray flannel suits.

I had on a tweed jacket, a plaid shirt, and a blue knit tie, and nobody paid much attention to me because my clothes said I was neither an attorney, a stockbroker, nor the head of a department. I do share one thing with such corporate types, though: I admit feeling silly about it, but I have a beeper.

I always thought—I still think, to tell the truth—that unless you’re a heart surgeon, wearing a beeper on your belt is presumptuous and pompous, a sign of the deluded self-importance that afflicts many people these days. They all labor under the firm conviction that if they aren’t able to make instant contact with everyone they’ve ever met, the earth will fly off its axis and go careening out into space, signaling the end of civilization as we know it. But in my business, it’s easier to carry a little device on my belt than to jump up and check my answering machine twice an hour. I still haven’t gotten over feeling like a horse’s ass when the beeper goes off in public, though, and every eye in the place is suddenly on me.

After a while I sensed someone at my elbow and turned to look down at a petite young woman with dark brown hair in a soft cut that framed her face, bright blue eyes, very red lipstick, and the broad planes of her Slavic ancestry flattening her prominent cheekbones. “Hello, Milan,” she said.

I got off my stool as clumsily as a trained bear. I towered over her by more than a foot. “Danica?”

She nodded, smiling. “I’d recognize you anywhere. From high school. You haven’t changed.”

I sucked in my gut and ran a hand through my rapidly thinning hair. “Not much,” I said. I peered at her, trying to recall that face at ten years old, but the memory wouldn’t kick in, even though she looked a good five years younger than she was. She had obviously improved with age—if she’d looked anything like that I would have remembered her. She wasn’t flashy or even beautiful, but she was pretty in a way that would just get better the older she got.

“That’s okay,” she said, reading my thoughts. “I didn’t expect you to remember me. I was just a little kid.” She unbuttoned her gray wool coat and I helped her shrug it from her shoulders. The skirt of her dark blue suit was slit up the side to mid-thigh, and a beautiful white cameo adorned the neck of her ivory-colored blouse.

“How’ve you been, Milan? God, it must be twenty years since I’ve seen you.”

“At least,” I agreed. “I’m fine.”

“Joe says you have your own business now. That’s wonderful.” She flashed an uncertain smile. “And you married Lila Coso.”

“Wooed, won, and lost,” I said. “Now she’s Joe’s lady. I suppose he told you that too.”

She had the class to pass that one over. “Whatever made you become a detective? Was that a longtime dream of yours?”

“Hardly. I got a B.A. in business administration at Kent State and took my master’s in psychology. The agency kind of happened. But I don’t consider myself a detective. I’m an industrial security specialist, and that makes up ninety percent of my business. Every once in a while I get involved in something else, though, like for a friend.”

Her face lit up from within, and she blushed. Danica Paich was a woman whose moods were reflected on her face like sunlight hitting the ripples on the face of Lake Erie, ever constant, yet changing all the time. “I’m glad you think of me as a friend after all these years,” she said. “I appreciate your coming. This must be pretty small potatoes for you.”

“Not at all. And speaking of potatoes, should we get a table?”

“Someplace where we can talk,” she agreed.

The hostess led us to a quiet booth in a room away from the bar, although we could still hear and enjoy the music. I’m an oddball among my friends: I like Gershwin and Irving Berlin while most of them are into either seventies rock or tambouritza orchestras. Danica declined a drink, so I didn’t have one either. After all, she was the client and was paying for all this.

“You were telling me your life story.”

I smiled. “I hope I wasn’t being that pompous. Let’s see; after college I wound up in Vietnam. With the MPs. Going into the army wasn’t the thing to do back then, especially for a guy from Kent, but I felt pretty strongly about it at the time.” I smiled. “Funny how things change.”

“And then you came back and decided to go into industrial security?”

“No, I became a cop. Remember Marko Meglich?”

She crinkled up her eyes for a moment. “Wasn’t he on the football team too?”

I nodded. “Wide receiver. He’d always been my best friend, and he decided he wanted to be a cop and talked me into it too. But after four years or so the politics and the bureaucracy got to me, so I quit and opened my own store. Marko’s still on the force—only he calls himself Mark now, and he’s a lieutenant.”

The waiter arrived and we ordered dinner. She chose some sort of fish with dill sauce and I went for a steak, medium. I have the palate of a peasant. I can’t help it, that’s how I am.

“How about you?” I said. “Fill me in.”

“I was a business major too, at Cleveland State. I put myself through by waitressing. I really got interested in computers in school, so I concentrated on that, and I guess it paid off, because now I run a department.” She nodded at the ceiling. “Right upstairs, here. I’ve been there almost seven years. Most people around the office call me Diana, in case you have to phone and ask for me.”

I frowned. It was typical of big corporate thinking. They tend to Anglicize anything they can’t turn into an acronym. “I think I like Danica better.”

“I do too,” she said.

“I’ll call you Danica, then.” I paused. There was no ring on her left hand—single guys tend to notice those things—but I figured I’d ask anyway. “Married?”

She shook her head. “Too busy carving out a career. My biological clock isn’t ticking too loudly yet, so for the time being it’s okay.”

“And your brother Walter? How’s he?”

Something happened to her pretty face that turned down the corners of her eyes. “He works for Deming Steel, on the floor somewhere. Third generation of our family. I don’t see him much.”

It was more than pleasant sitting there with an attractive woman, listening to music and enjoying a good meal. I hadn’t done that in quite a while, and I had to remind myself that this dinner wasn’t really social. After our salad plates were cleared I asked about her grandfather.

She dabbed at her mouth with a napkin, but it was due more to nervousness than necessity. “I’m very worried about him. He just took off one afternoon and never came back.”

“What afternoon?”

“Monday. A week ago today.”

I didn’t say anything, just nodded. She’d tell me what she had to in her own good time. Keeping one’s mouth shut often yields greater results than asking a million questions.

“He’s too old to be running around somewhere all by himself.”

“How old is he?”

“Seventy-six. He’s done this before, for a day or two, but he’s always called my mother to let her know he was all right.”

“What do you mean, he’s done it before?”

“He has a Ford van, an old one he’s had since when my grandmother was alive. He’ll just take off in it without telling anybody and drive to Cincinnati or Pittsburgh or Toledo, or someplace nobody’s ever heard of, some little town. He wanders around, talks to people, finds the Serbian social club if there is one or a Serbian bar if there isn’t, and then comes back when he’s good and ready.”

“But he always calls?”

She nodded, her eyebrows knitting. “At first it made us crazy, but now we’re used to it, so for the first few days we didn’t think much about it. But more than a week without a word—that’s never happened. I’m worried sick.”

“When he left the house last Monday did he say anything?”

“I wasn’t there, but my mother said he just waved and walked out the door like he always does.” Her smile was rueful. “Grandpa never does say much.”

I understood. My grandfather never said much either. He’d just glare at you if you sat in his favorite chair and make a quick, chopping motion with his hand to get you out of it. After dinner he’d usually wipe his mouth, grunt “Good,” and go in and watch TV. He was a face pincher, though; he’d grab a handful of tender grandchild cheek and squeeze until the tears came, and even though it hurt I never complained, because I knew it was his way of showing love.

“And he didn’t take anything with him?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “A suitcase, a gym bag, a paper sack.”

“No, there was nothing unusual, Mama said. He just left like he does every day. Except he didn’t come back.”

I held my next question until our dinners were in front of us and the waiter had retreated. “Do you know if your grandpa was upset about anything? Was something bothering him?”

“He doesn’t have much to be upset about, ever. He’s been retired for ten years or so; all he does is hang out with his pals.”

“Where?”

“Where what?”

“Where does he hang out?”

“A little bar on St. Clair. Janko’s, I think it’s called. He goes there almost every day.”

I knew the place, a Serbian bar a few blocks to the west of where I was born. I cut into my steak.

Her eyes opened wide, and I noticed there were darker rings around the blue. “Find him,” she said.


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

Full Cleveland – Chapter One

Full Cleveland: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#2) by Les RobertsBook Excerpt

From Full Cleveland (a Milan Jacovich Mystery) by Les Roberts


In blue-collar towns such as Cleveland you don’t often run into guys with names like Richardson Hippsley-Tate. It isn’t the norm. There are plenty of people named Annunzio Napolitano or Bernie Feinberg or Leroy Washington Jr. Or even names like mine, Milan Jacovich. That’s Yugoslavian—Slovenian, to be more precise—and in my old neighborhood on the East Side, or in Bernie’s or Leroy’s or Nunzio’s neighborhoods, a guy with a hyphen in his name had better be either pretty good with his fists or damn fast on his feet.

On this particular afternoon, one of those oppressive August days in Cleveland when the air clings like wet cotton and beer sales hit an annual high, I had just finished a big job for an electronics firm in the eastern suburbs and written them a thirty-six-page report on implementing security procedures, preventing industrial espionage, and keeping the ribbon clerks from stealing paper clips. It’s not the most exciting type of job I get, but it was a nice change from spying on errant husbands and wives, or having guys with bent noses try to make mine look like theirs. The president of the electronics company had given me a little bonus and a glowing letter of reference, my bank account was healthier than it had been in a while, and I was feeling pretty satisfied with myself and with life in general. From past experience, I should have known that someone was going to rain all over the picnic—someone always does. But even if I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have figured it to happen that day. It was just too hot and muggy to start stirring up any shit. That’s when my telephone rang and I first heard of Richardson Hippsley-Tate.

You’d expect a fellow with a hyphen to have a stuffy British accent, but this guy sounded more like New York than New Hyde Park. He was the general manager of the Lake Shore Hotel, a huge new resort-and-convention-center complex that had been completed just the past spring, with all the attendant hoopla, grand opening visits by show business and sports celebrities, and a ribbon cutting by Governor Kinnick capping a boring and windy speech. The Lake Shore had been built, after an internal battle in the city council chambers that had left several members either politically dead or mortally wounded, atop a landfill on the West Side overlooking Lake Erie. It catered to fast-track business executives, Fortune 500 corporations, the local fat cats, and the out-of-town idle rich who were perverse enough to want to spend their precious vacation time in Cleveland.

When Hippsley-Tate called, he told me he needed to see me on “a matter of great urgency.” That’s what he said, a matter of great urgency.

“Could you be a little more specific, Mr. Hippsley-Tate?”

“It’s not something I can talk about on the phone,” he answered, “but this hotel has been ripped off for a great deal of money, and I need you to help me get it back.”

I run a private security agency from my apartment in Cleveland Heights, so I assumed he’d gotten my name from the classified directory. For someone like myself with an independent bent, self-employment seems to work out a lot better than punching a time clock and trying to look busy when the boss walks in. I never bitch about the boss, because I am he; I never have to worry about layoffs, because I am the sole employee of Milan Security, as well as the entrepreneur. So I didn’t have to check with anyone before arranging a meeting with Hippsley-Tate that evening. And since I get to the West Side all too infrequently, I decided not to waste the trip. I invited my lady, Mary Soderberg, to join me for the evening and dinner at Johnny’s.

I picked her up at her place in Shaker Heights, and we headed out the Shoreway to the West Side. In a pair of black slacks and a shiny green blouse that did funny things to the normal blue of her eyes, she looked merely sensational, causing heads to turn everywhere we went. She knew the outfit was one of my favorites, and I was touched that she wanted to wear it for me. In fact, just about everything Mary did touched me one way or another. I was getting scared about Mary—she was beginning to mean too much to me.

Mary regarded the rough-hewn scenic wonders of downtown Cleveland as we swung by Municipal Stadium and approached the bridge. “This isn’t going to be one of those deals where you get hurt again, is it, Milan?” she said. “I hate it when you get hurt.”

“I’m not real fond of it myself,” I told her. “When it comes to that, the whole idea is to hurt the other guy.”

“Didn’t General Patton say something like that?”

“He never said it to me.”

The big-shouldered silhouette of the Lake Shore Hotel rose against the darkening sky on our right as I pulled off the Shoreway and started down the access road. It was a beautiful hotel, some fourteen stories high, covering almost two hundred acres of prime lake frontage. Beautiful, that is, if you like stark modern architecture done in grays and muted pinks. Me, I prefer the solid buildings that have been around for a while—the ones that proudly announce they’re from the Midwest: Terminal Tower, Gray’s Armory, St. John’s Cathedral, and the old Deming Mansion, which climbs the bluff just a few blocks from my apartment at the intersection of Cedar Road and Fairmount Boulevard. Then again, I like big band music and American cars and Beeman’s gum and day baseball on grass, so you can’t go by my tastes.

The entire effect was as cold and emotionless as the eyes of a doll. Glass elevators climbed up the outside of the building like glossy-backed beetles, mirrored glass reflected the colors of the evening sky as though bent on improving them, and there was a too noisy waterfall in the lobby. For the life of me I couldn’t find a ninety-degree angle anywhere in the hotel. The walls of the lobby were covered with a kind of carpeting, and curved, as if they had been photographed with a fish-eye lens. The only thing square was the Muzak chirping merrily from hidden speakers all over the place. I asked at the desk for Mr. Hippsley-Tate. The clerk, a perky nineteen-year-old girl wearing a gray blazer with the hotel’s name and crest on the pocket, pointed me across the lobby to the executive offices.

Mary said, “I’ll meet you in the cocktail lounge, or whatever they call that place with the tables by the waterfall. I don’t want to sit there in the office like a camp follower while you play detective.”

“I hate to tell you this,” I said, “but I’m not playing.”

Mary didn’t understand about my work sometimes. Our relationship, now six months old, was basically hassle free. We hardly ever argued about anything, and when we did it was more of a spirited discussion than an argument. But she didn’t always understand about my work, and it troubled me. One of these days I felt it would cause a problem.

Richardson Hippsley-Tate’s secretary was supercilious and curt, as if I were a pencil salesman come to foist some low-priced soft-lead specials on her boss. I guess when your hairspray is laid on as thick as hers was it cuts off circulation to your head, and you tend to snap at people as a matter of course. Eventually she relented, performed some sort of mystical ritual with the intercom system, and the man himself came out of his office to greet me. Hippsley-Tate was a stocky five foot eleven, and affected a dashing Continental-style Vandyke that matched his sandy hair. His expensive three-piece suit was of the same shade of gray as the carpeted walls. It must have been the corporate color. His handshake was firm and hearty.

“Come on in, Mr. Jacovich. It’s so nice to meet you,” he said, seeming almost puppyish in his desire to have me like him. “How about some coffee? A drink? Name it.”

“Nothing right now, thanks,” I said, “I’m on my way to dinner. How can I help you, Mr. Hippsley-Tate?”

“Richie,” he corrected me, indicating a comfortable chair for me to sit in. “My last name’s too much of a mouthful.” He sat down behind his desk and folded his hands very correctly in front of him. “I’ll get right to the point. Does the name Gregory Shane mean anything to you?”

I frowned. It did ring a bell somewhere, but I couldn’t place it at first and told him so.

“How about North Coast Magazine?”

“I seem to remember them,” I said. “They’re new, just starting up. In fact, they called me for an ad about four months ago, but I wasn’t interested. The guy I talked to—was that Gregory Shane? A hell of a salesman. He said he’d write a small article about my business and do a quarter-page ad for two hundred dollars.”

“Two hundred dollars,” Hippsley-Tate murmured.

“It seemed like a good deal at the time, although now that you mention it, I haven’t seen the magazine anywhere.”

“There is no magazine,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I imagine that Shane told you the magazine was designed to highlight members of the business community here in the Cleveland area, right? And that instead of simply buying ads, the businesses were, in effect, buying editorial space: the stories that would be written about them would be twice as efficient as just an ad.”

“Something like that.”

“That’s what happened to me,” he said. “It was about two weeks before our grand opening in May. I’d had meetings with the financial interests in this hotel, and it was my idea to bring some of the local people in here to dine and drink and dance, to attract business meetings and conventions from the immediate area as well as the out-of-town trade that obviously will keep up the occupancy rates. I’m not worried about the transient business, but it’s very important to me to keep our banquet and F and B divisions in the black.”

“F and B?”

He smiled. “Sorry. Food and beverage. So anyways, I was, making that a priority. And when Dan Mulkey called to ask for an appointment and told me about his magazine, it seemed to be just what I was looking for in terms of local publicity.”

I took out my notebook and jotted down two things. One of them was Dan Mulkey and the other was Anyways???? I said, “Who is Dan Mulkey?”

“He was involved with the magazine somehow. He set up an appointment with me. They promised me that for the first three issues they wouldn’t accept any advertising from any of the other hotels in town, like the Hyatt or the Hollenden House. In other words, the Lake Shore had an exclusive with North Coast, for the back cover, which is the most desirable place to put an ad, as you know.”

I didn’t know. I’d never advertised in my life. I said, “And the cost of this ad?”

“Forty-two grand.” I noticed that he was perspiring. General managers of luxury hotels weren’t supposed to sweat. Under my other notations I put 42 Grand??

Hippsley-Tate ducked his head. “It was quite a price, but it was a new magazine and it was bound to get a lot of attention. I figured it was well worth it. Three-color printing, and they’d do all the layout and typesetting.”

“What did they tell you in terms of readership?”

“They said they were aiming for a circulation of a hundred thousand. I mean, they were going to do a print run of twenty thousand, but he figured at least five people would see each issue. In doctors’ offices and hotel rooms and places like that, he said. And of course on the racks in all the markets and discount drug outlets and the bookstores.” The perspiration had begun to collect over his eyebrows and he wiped at it absently with his hand. “And they promised to give good reviews to our restaurants and to mention whatever entertainment we had in the lounges in later issues.”

“And you gave them the entire fee up front?”

He nodded.

“With amounts that large isn’t it customary to spread payments out over longer periods?”

“Usually, sure. But when Dan Mulkey came to pick up the money he said the only way he could give me such a good rate was if he got a lump sum in advance.” He pounded his desk gently with a knotted fist. “I realize now what he was up to, but like I said, it seemed like such a good deal at the time.”

I scribbled Like I said?? Richardson Hippsley-Tate was beginning to interest me. “When is the last time you heard from them?”

He held his hands up in a gesture of supplication. “The day he picked up the money.”

“Did you get any sort of a receipt?”

He got up and went to a file cabinet in the corner. Ruffling through the folders for a moment, he came up with a piece of paper, which he brought to me. It was a standard receipt form, printed cheaply on thin paper, with Dan Mulkey’s signature scrawled almost illegibly across the bottom. It said, “Three issues, back pg., 3-color,” and the date and the dollar amount. Across the top of the receipt was printed the name of the magazine and an address in Ohio City.

“Listen, Mr. Jacovich,” he said, going to sit at his desk again. “Can I call you Milan? Jacovich is almost as much of a mouthful as Hippsley-Tate.”

I nodded.

“The owners of this hotel are very upset about this, and I’m kind of on the line about it. I mean, I cut this deal without going to executive row for approval. You’ve got to help me.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Find Greg Shane and get our money back.”

I noted the use of the plural and lit a Winston. I didn’t ask permission, because he was puffing away like mad on a cigarette of his own. He said, “We’ll give you a quarter of all the money you recover, with a minimum of five thousand dollars if you find Shane and don’t recover the money right away.”

“And if I come up empty?”

“We’ll pay you your standard daily rate and cover all your expenses for a week just for you to look. Is that fair?”

It was more than fair, and Richardson Hippsley-Tate knew it. But it didn’t smell good to me. “If you can’t get the money back, why is it important for you to find Shane?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Everyone has assets that can be converted to cash. We’ll get something out of it. Mainly, we don’t want to look like a bunch of patsies.”

I wrote down patsies in my book. “It seems to me that these people are bona fide con artists. Why don’t you just put the police on them?”

“They came around and they took statements, but they are short on manpower, as usual, and right now they’re looking into a real estate rip-off in Parma, where the sting is well over six figures. This case will die in the files, I’m afraid.”

He removed a wallet from his pocket and extracted a number of crisp one-hundred-dollar bills. It was the kind of flat wallet that didn’t fold or crease the money inside; Benjamin Franklin was young and unwrinkled—all fifteen of him. “This should cover you for the first five days,” he said. “You can invoice me personally for the expense money.”

I took the money as though it might burn my fingers and put it in my jacket pocket. It felt bulky and unnatural there, like a tumor. “Okay,” I said. “Tell me where to start.”

“There on the receipt is Shane’s address. It’s a house in Ohio City, and I can tell you right now that it’s empty. He cleared out of there lock, stock, and wife.” Hippsley-Tate pushed a piece of paper across the desk at me. It was a list of names and addresses.

“Who are these people?”

“They’re the so-called staff of the magazine—or they were. I’ve heard of Leonard Pursglove before; he used to work for several local ad agencies. If you have connections in the ad business you might want to check up on him. Dan Mulkey used to have something to do with a record company. Greg Shane I never heard of until I got involved with his magazine.”

“Okay,” I said, and put all the papers in my pocket with the money. “Tell me, how’d you happen to get into the hotel business?”

He shrugged. “It’s as good as any other,” he said. “I managed a place in Manhattan Beach out in L.A. for a while. A small, European-style hotel with very expensive antiques in every room. The money was good, and it was a fun job, so I stuck with it. I’ve never handled a place as big as this one, though. It’s a hell of a lot more hard work.”

“I’ve always found that anytime someone gives you money to do something, it’s more work than fun. Otherwise they’d make you pay them.”

He laughed, ducking his head in agreement. “Milan,” he said, “it’s really important that we get some action on this. I mean, the owners of the hotel are holding me responsible, and forty-two Gs is a big bite out of anyone’s paycheck.”

“That’s more than I make in a week,” I agreed.

I went back out to the lobby to collect Mary. She was seated at a table near the waterfall, working on a glass of house Chablis, looking bemused as a paunchy middle-aged man in a blue suit stood over her giving her the rush of her life. He looked as if he was a regional sales manager in town for the annual corporate meeting of a bathroom accessories manufacturing firm. I sighed. When I had started seeing Mary several months before, I’d come to uneasy terms with the fact that such a truly beautiful woman is going to get a lot of attention from other men, but I’ve never quite accustomed myself to it happening in front of me.

I put on my best glower and stalked up to the table. “’Scuze me ma’am,” I drawled, “is this fella here botherin’ you?”

He looked up at me, the color leaving his face via express. “No,” he said quickly. “No problem. Just . . . ” He didn’t say just what but beat a hasty retreat to the other side of the lobby. Maybe the fear of scandal getting back to his boss and to his wife at home in Columbus or someplace changed his mind about pursuing his line of inquiry. Maybe it was because when I was at Kent State I was a first-string defensive guard, and I look it.

Mary watched him go and sipped her wine. “It’s getting so a girl can’t turn an honest buck around here,” she said. “He wanted to know what he could get for a hundred. Look, Milan, I’m getting hungry. Are you planning on buying me dinner? Because if not, I can earn my own, right here.”

She stood and I took her arm. The regional sales manager was glaring at us from across the lobby. He thought I was the house detective.

“I don’t know,” I said. “What can I get for buying dinner?” She put her mouth very close to my ear and told me.

During the day Johnny’s is a shot-and-a-beer bar, its clientele mostly unemployed steelworkers who sit hunched over their drinks in a cloud of cigarette smoke—plaid-shirted in the winter; muscle-shirted in the summer, so their tattoos show—for upwards of seven hours each day, ignoring the game shows and soap operas flickering on the TV, talking in rumbling monotones about the fates of the various sports franchises in town and about the weather and about their cars and about women. The smells of the beer and the smoke and the sweat seem to have been soaked up by the walls. There are ten thousand such neighborhood taverns in a hundred industrial cities, and almost all are interchangeable, except that one might trade talk of the Browns and Cavs and Indians for speculations about the Lions and the Pistons and the Tigers.

But along about six thirty or seven in the evening a strange thing happens to Johnny’s. The unshaven steelworkers at the bar are displaced by yuppie lawyers in three-piece suits and their tall, elegant women in clinging jersey dresses and full sets of acrylic nails, trailing clouds of Enjoli and waiting not always patiently for a table. The daylight odors of Stroh’s and Lucky Strikes are overpowered by those of beef en croutade and veal marsala and fusilli in a pesto sauce served on a bed of radicchio. The bartender, a hard-looking young woman in a well-filled T-shirt, spends more time selecting the right pouilly fuissé than she does drawing beers, and suddenly a maître d’ appears to recite the specials. He looks like a former welterweight contender, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that for good, fancy cooking, Johnny’s is one of the best restaurants in Cleveland.

Mary ordered roast quail with sherry lime sauce, and I had pasta with walnut sauce. We split a bottle of California grey Riesling. As we were preparing an assault on our goat cheese salads, Mary said, “Well, how did it go with Mr. Stokeley-Pipps?”

Mary had come into my life at just the right time. I had been divorced from my wife Lila for almost a year and was missing the hell out of my two sons, whom I see less and less frequently as they get older and busier with friends their own age, and who seem to be spending a lot of their spare time with my wife’s new friend, one Joe Bredac from the neighborhood. Joe had evidently worshipped Lila from afar since she and I had been a steady item in high school. To give him credit, he never made any sort of move in her direction while I was still in the picture, but as soon as Lila and I separated he moved in like a hermit crab, to inhabit the shell I’d left behind. In the meantime, my life had become as bland and flavorless as yesterday’s chewing gum; I had been turning into a lonely, cranky old bachelor, drinking beer at Vuk’s Tavern in the old neighborhood on St. Clair Avenue and watching the game on TV by myself every night. I always figured that when I got married it was going to be forever, and the fact that Lila had filed divorce papers on me didn’t change my gut feelings that she was still my wife, still the only family I had, and that somehow I had failed, screwed up, taken a wrong turn somewhere along the line. But when I met Mary it was like the sun coming out after a long winter of gray.

“I got the job,” I said. “He seems to be a scared little man who’s gotten in too deep.”

“And you’re the life preserver?”

“It’s what I do.”

“Is it going to be dangerous? Rough stuff?”

“Not at all,” I said. “He’s been scammed, that’s all.”

She reached over and put her hand on my cheek. “I hope you’re right,” she said. “I’d hate anything to happen to this gorgeous face.”

I don’t have a gorgeous face. If you stretched real hard you might say that I’m okay-looking. But Mary makes me believe, for a few seconds at a time, anyway, that I have a gorgeous face. Relationships have been built on a lot less.

I looked up toward the front door as the noise level intensified a few decibels. Making a rather grand entrance was an old high school chum of mine who had gone through the police academy with me but had stayed on the force and earned his gold shield. Marko Meglich, now a homicide bureau lieutenant, had dropped the o from his first name and was called Mark by everyone, except those of us who knew him back on East Fifty-fifth Street. He was wearing expensive tailored sharkskin suits now and got a manicure once a week, but I could remember when he had the best hands of any wide receiver in the East Side City High School League. I’m told he often uses those hands to bounce recalcitrant witnesses off walls, but I couldn’t substantiate that. He was with another couple in their late thirties and a flashy-looking redhead, who I don’t think was of legal drinking age. Marko’s marriage to a neighborhood girl had, like my own, recently caved in—his under the pressures and exigencies of police work—and now he was most often seen around town squiring some pretty young thing like this one, with a body built for the fast lane and a vacant stare. Most of them were too young to be classified as bimbos; privately I referred to them as Marko’s Bimbettes.

I rose as he approached our table. “Milan!” he said. “You’re moving up in the world, my man, coming in here. I’ve never known you to eat anything more exotic than klobasa on rye bread.” He ignored my outstretched hand and hugged me. There was still that much Slovenian left in him. I could feel the gun nestled beneath his left armpit. Regulations.

“And this must be the magical Mary,” he said, taking her hand and kissing it gallantly, then preening his drooping black mustache. “You’re Milan’s only topic of conversation the last few months. I feel like I know you already.”

“Wouldn’t it be awkward,” I said, “if this weren’t Mary?” For a moment I thought Marko was going to wither away with embarrassment, so I quickly bailed him out. “Mary, meet Lieutenant Mark Meglich, Cleveland P.D.”

Mary gave Marko one of her more dazzling smiles. “I’ve heard a lot about you, too, Lieutenant.”

“Mark, please,” he said. And then as almost an afterthought, “Oh. Everyone say hi to Brenda.”

The girl smiled faintly, her red hair in a wild, trendy perm framing her pretty, empty face.

“What brings an East Side Kid like you west of the Cuyahoga?” Marko said.

“A case.”

“Naturally,” he said. “Anything you want to talk about?”

“Nothing that would interest homicide. Have you heard about North Coast Magazine?”

“I’m not really familiar with it,” Marko said. “If I recall rightly, they went around selling advertising to a bunch of mom-and-pop businesses and then disappeared before the magazine ever hit the stands. Small-time bunco stuff.”

“Do the names Greg Shane and Dan Mulkey mean anything?”

“Not Shane, but I can look it up for you. Mulkey, the last I heard of him, was a record company executive, a little on the shady side. Is that your case? The magazine?”

“Yeah. One of the scam-ees is bellowing.”

“Poor baby,” he said. “When will people learn that everything’s a scam? Religion, politics, television, football.” He took Brenda’s arm possessively. Maybe she was a scam too. “Listen, I’m with some people, I gotta run. Don’t be such a stranger, Milan. Quit keeping this beautiful creature all to yourself. Maybe the four of us can go out sometime.” He turned to Mary. “Make him call; all right, Mary?”

She smiled. “I’m not sure anyone makes Milan do anything.”

Marko scowled. “That’s his damn trouble!”

“Let’s just say I’ll suggest it,” Mary offered. “It was nice meeting you, Mark.”

I noticed that the broken-nosed mâitre d’ made a bit more of an obsequious fuss over Marko’s party than he had with us. A gold shield comes in handy sometimes, and one of Marko’s favorite pastimes is chiding me for not staying in the department and earning one of my own. For two people who’ve been friends for almost thirty years, he and I have definite communication problems. I’ve never been able to make him understand that I left the force because I’d had enough saluting at Cam Ranh Bay to last me a lifetime.

“So that’s the famous Marko Meglich,” Mary said as I sat back down and rearranged my napkin on my lap. “When should we get together with him and Brenda and all of us go out for some fun?”

“I can hardly wait.”

“I hope he won’t keep her out too late for her to finish her algebra homework. She’s certainly pretty, but your friend Marko seems better than that, somehow.”

“It’s his postdivorce play time,” I said. “She’s the flavor of the month. All divorced men go through it. Some take longer than others.”

“Did you, Milan?”

I thought about lying for a moment; then I said, “No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. Just needed to lie back and lick my wounds, I guess. Spent a lot of time alone, getting in touch with my own feelings. Is this conversation going to get heavy?”

“We haven’t talked much about Lila. Maybe it’s time we did.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” Mary said, “maybe because we’ve been hanging out together for a while and it might be helpful to define the relationship.”

“I’m nuts about you,” I said. “You’re very important to me, and I don’t know if I could make it without you. How’s that for a definition?”

“Right out of Webster’s,” she said as the waitress brought our dinners. “The silver-tongued devil strikes again.”

The walnut sauce was delicious, and Mary and I, as is our custom when we come to Johnny’s, tasted each other’s dinner. I’m not an authority when it comes to roast quail with sherry lime sauce, but the sample I had was spectacular. We discussed the food and the wine for a minute, easy once more after a few moments that had been less than comfortable. That was what was so good about Mary—the comfort level was remarkable. We are so often chameleons with other people, role-playing and trying to keep our dialogue and our scenes straight, it’s rare and very special when we find someone with whom we can relax and be ourselves. Woe to whoever lets such a person get away.

After dinner, instead of taking the Shoreway back to the East Side, I drove on surface streets past the old recently restored houses of Ohio City on the west bank of the Cuyahoga, which had once sheltered the families of European immigrants and now were the abodes of upwardly mobile young executives, and stopped at the address Hippsley-Tate had given me, the last-known residence of Greg Shane. Mary and I got out of the car and walked up the stone steps to the front porch. The house was dark. A few cobwebs were strung across the upper corners of the doorway, and there was no sound coming from inside. I peered in the windows, trying to see through the lace curtains that covered them, but I wasn’t too successful. From what I could make out there wasn’t much to see; a few cardboard boxes on the floor, a cheap aluminum chair in the middle of the room. An empty house isn’t all that fascinating.

Mary hugged herself. “It has a spooky feeling about it. Do you suppose they sneaked away in the dead of night?”

“I’ll find out tomorrow.” I wrote a reminder to myself in my notebook. Then we drove back to Mary’s house, and for quite a while I didn’t think about Gregory Shane or Richardson Hippsley-Tate.


From the book Full Cleveland, © Les Roberts. All rights reserved.

Pepper Pike – Chapter One

Full Cleveland: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#2) by Les RobertsBook Excerpt

From Full Cleveland (a Milan Jacovich Mystery) by Les Roberts


A couple came into the bar and sat down next to me. They both had that kind of unremarkable, unmemorable face that you couldn’t identify ten minutes later, and the only reason I noticed them at all was that his head got in the way between me and the TV set at the far end of the bar. That bugged me because this was an important moment in my life and I wanted to see every bit of it. Twenty-seven million dollars was nothing to shrug off, and it was going to be mine. I could sense it. The ticket felt right in my hand, the numbers seemed to dance on the paper, to tell me that they were winners. Of course I knew that already. I had picked them carefully. My birthday, my mother’s birthday, my father’s, my two kids’, even my ex-wife’s birthday: eight–eighteen–nineteen–eleven–thirteen–twenty-eight. The same numbers I’d been playing for the last five years, every Wednesday. But on this night we were talking about real money, no paltry million. Tonight the Super-Lotto Jackpot was worth twenty-seven million dollars. And it was going to be mine.

I took a big swallow of beer as the Lottery Lady’s smiling face appeared on the screen, and I edged forward the better to see around my next-stool neighbor’s big head, but everyone at the bar at Vuk’s was leaning up a little in anticipation. They all had tickets, some of them ten and twenty, all spread out across the bar top and curling where their edges hit a beer spill. Every eye in the place was on that TV set, watching those little Ping-Pong balls with the magic numbers. My numbers. Everybody’s numbers. Everyone in Vuk’s had a winning ticket. Everyone in the state of Ohio had one. We were all just waiting for the announcement, for those six little Ping-Pong balls to come up with our numbers.

The TV lady was still smiling and saying something about the jackpot being worth twenty-seven million, and I lit a Winston and waited. I knew how much the jackpot was; you’d have to have spent the last five days fifty feet under the ground in a Zambezi diamond mine not to know. It was the big news, the biggest jackpot since the lottery had started up in Ohio.

The first ball popped into the air lock and the lady turned it with her fingers so the number showed. It was eleven! All right, I had one of those. Twenty-seven million, here I come. And then the second ball.

“Twenty-one,” the lottery lady said. “Thirty-four. Thirty-three. Fourteen. Twenty-six. Two. The winning numbers tonight are . . . ”

I crumpled the ticket in my hand and looked down the length of the bar. Disappointed murmurs made Vuk’s sound like a swarm of bees had been let loose at the back bar. No words were discernible save an occasional “Shit!” Just a disillusioned hum, low-key and inner-directed as if everyone were mumbling to himself alone, unwilling to share his disappointment with his neighbor; it was the sound of dreams crashing and burning. The wadded-up lottery tickets were hitting the floor like hailstones where they sat sadly in the sawdust between the legs of the stools, mute testimony to failure.

Vuk, the bartender and owner, who had served me my first legal drink of alcohol when I’d come of age, noticed my beer was gone and came down to where I was sitting. Automatically he emptied the ashtray in front of me.

“Another one, Milan? Drown your sorrows?”

“There’s not enough Stroh’s in all of Cleveland, Vuk. Not twenty-seven-million worth.”

“You’ll get ’em next week,” Vuk said. A Slovenian philosopher.

No one was much in the mood to watch Wheel of Fortune, even to see what outfit Vanna was wearing, so Vuk switched on ESPN. There was a replay of a golf match in progress, and I’ve often felt that watching golf on TV is akin to watching someone read. Besides, I don’t like a sport where the announcers have to whisper. It’s a lot better when they yell: “Wow, he hammered it! The left fielder’s going back—to the track, to the wall—it’s gone!” Spectator sports are supposed to relax you and help blow off steam and ease tension, not make you feel like you were at High Mass.

I threw a five and two ones on the bar and climbed off my stool. A few of the old regulars waved goodbye, but most of the younger guys didn’t know who I was. Over the years I’d been drifting away from Slavic Town, the neighborhood where I was born and had grown up, and was spending my days south and east of there in Cleveland Heights, where I now lived. It made me feel sad that I was something of a stranger on my own turf, but ever since my divorce it was just easier to stay out of Slavic Town most of the time. Too many memories.

I walked out onto St. Clair Avenue and around the corner to the vacant lot on East 55th Street that served as the unofficial parking lot for Vuk’s Tavern. The snow from the blizzard a week ago had melted and then refrozen so that it crunched pleasantly under my size twelve shoes. It had been one of the mildest winters old-time Clevelanders could remember, which is to say it probably would have killed a Californian or Floridian, but for us natives it had almost been a vacation. Here it was, mid-February, and there had only been three really serious snowstorms.

I climbed into my slate-gray Chevy Caprice wagon, a car I roundly hated. It was big enough to rent out the backseat to a family of Puerto Ricans, and because it was square-backed and looked like a hearse, people would take their hats off when I drove by. I’d taken the car in lieu of payment for a job I had done a few months earlier, so I figured to drive it for a while before trading it in on something I really liked. I checked my watch. It was a quarter till eight. The Cavs were playing on TV tonight—the Celtics at Boston Garden. Something masochistic in me made me want to watch the slaughter. Besides, I didn’t feel sociable this evening. I’d been divorced from Lila for over a year now, and it was okay, I was getting used to it. But once in a while when the night was cold and the air was clear and crisp, the loneliness bit hard and held on. Tonight was one of those nights.

I headed south on 55th Street, hung a left on Euclid, negotiated the crazy traffic pattern at University Circle, and headed up Cedar Hill to where I maintained my office and apartment. It was nothing fancy, but there was a big front room I used for my business, a small parlor where I did most of my living, a closet-sized kitchen with a postage-stamp dining alcove, and two good-sized bedrooms. I kept twin beds in the smaller one for when my sons came to spend the weekend, and I slept in the larger one with the big bay window looking out over the triangle where Fairmount and Cedar come together at the top of the hill, right across the street from the Mad Greek and the fancy food market and the drugstore.

The apartment was empty. No surprise there, it always was. Every other weekend I’d get the kids, Milan Jr. and Stephen, but in the middle of the week it was lonely and cold as a tomb. I turned on the steam heat in the parlor, got a Stroh’s out of the fridge, and switched on the TV just in time for the tip-off. The crowd at Boston Garden was as rude and noisy as ever, and they had a lot to yell about. The Celts got the tip, Ainge took it down court and passed it off to Bird, who hit a three-pointer when the game was less than twelve seconds old. A demoralizing beginning. I got a fresh pack of Winstons out of the drawer and ripped it open. I didn’t really want a cigarette. I never did. It was just something to do.

Boston scored on the Cavs almost at will, and at the end of the first quarter they led by fourteen. Lenny Wilkens looked as though he’d been hit with a ballpeen hammer, kind of the way I felt. I turned the game off, stripped, and got into the shower, where I stayed until the hot water began to fail. I toweled dry, put on a terry robe, and went back into the parlor and got down a book. I’d read about two pages when the telephone rang. It sounded loud and harsh in the quiet. I picked it up on the second ring before it frazzled my nerves any further.

“Is this Milan Jacovich?” a male voice said, and I allowed as how I was, but corrected his pronunciation. It’s Milan with a long i, and the J in Jacovich is pronounced like a Y.

“You do security work?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I need a bodyguard. For twelve hours. Then tomorrow morning I want you to drive me someplace at nine o’clock, wait for me about half an hour, and drive me back. I’ll give you a thousand dollars, which I’m sure is more than your usual rate. Is that all right?”

I turned my book face down on the table, which my mother had always told me never to do. “It’s more than all right,” I answered. “Who’m I talking to?”

“My name is Richard Amber. I live in Pepper Pike. I’ve asked around and they tell me you’re completely trustworthy. Is that true?”

“I’d like to think so, Mr. Amber.”

He was breathing hard as though he’d been interrupted in the middle of sex, although I had to remember it was he who had called me. “How fast can you get here?” He gave me an address on S.O.M. Center Road.

“It’ll take me about an hour.”

“Break the speed limit. I’ll pay for the ticket. And you can spend the night here.”

“All right,” I said, jotting down the address. “Can you give me an idea what this is all about, Mr. Amber?”

“Not on the phone.”

“I won’t do anything illegal.”

“This is perfectly legit, I can assure you.”

“All right, then.”

“And I can count on you?”

“I’m leaving in five minutes,” I said.

“Good. And Mr. Jacovich? Are you licensed to carry a firearm?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Bring it,” he said.

Pepper Pike is a high-rent district, a relatively new suburb out on the eastern edge of Cleveland. The big money used to live in Shaker Heights, but as the wrecking ball flattened the downtown area the denizens of the inner city moved a bit too far eastward for the landed gentry, who in turn fled a few miles farther away into the brand-new homes and subdivisions of Beachwood and Pepper Pike. In a town where a three-bedroom house with a quarter-acre of land and a two-car garage can still go for around sixty-five thousand dollars in Cleveland Heights, Pepper Pike real estate was very inflated, into six figures and averaging out at about three hundred thousand. For whatever reason Richard Amber wanted to pay me a thousand dollars for twelve hours’ worth of babysitting, I wasn’t going to feel badly about it. He could afford it.

I didn’t break any speed laws. The suburban cops don’t have much to do in the way of tracking down armed robbers and rapists, so they fill their idle hours by nailing motorists who go three miles an hour over the speed limit. Though Amber might be willing to pay for my ticket, I doubted he’d pay the increase in my insurance. So I was careful. Doubly careful because I was carrying a .357 Magnum in my armpit. I was licensed for it, but I didn’t particularly want to have to stop and explain to the law why I was wearing it. I owned a smaller weapon, a .38 from my days in the Cleveland Police Department, but the .357 had a lot more stopping power, and if you’re going to shoot some poor bastard you might as well make it stick.

The more I traveled eastward the higher the snowdrifts were piled at curbside, because for some strange reason the East Side always got a lot more snow than the West. This phenomenon was referred to mysteriously as “the lake effect” by TV weathermen, but no one ever bothered explaining it to my satisfaction or anyone else’s. It’s one of those things you accept when you live here, like each year’s disappointments over the Cavs and the Indians, or jokes about the river catching fire.

I swung onto Shaker Boulevard at Richmond Road and drove down the darkened street past homes I’d never be able to afford, finally turning a few blocks south at S.O.M. Center Road. I found the house easily, a sprawling Cape Codder, white with black trim and shutters, set well back on a sloping lawn now covered with virgin snow that was beginning to go a little gray. It was a two-story with an attached garage and a driveway that climbed up one side of the slope to the garage or else, if one preferred, curled around to the front door and then down the other side of the slope to the street again. The driveway was neatly cleared of any snow or ice, and was dry. I parked directly in front of the entrance and got out, turning up the collar of my car coat and hunching my shoulders against the cold, whistling wind. The temperature was in the low teens, the kind of evening you want to stay home with a good book, which had been my original plan. A thousand dollars, however, makes it worth going out in the cold.

The porch light was on, rather brightly, I thought, and I found the doorbell easily. I heard it chime inside and waited for about forty seconds, then rang it again. No answer. I stamped my feet on the mat to keep the circulation in my toes and looked around. There were no lights on inside at the front. After ringing fruitlessly for the third time, I walked around the side of the house, sinking ankle-deep into the snow. When I got to the back there was a light on behind a sliding glass door, and I peered in. It was a study, obviously a man’s room, with wood paneling and a thick dusky rose carpet. There was a large walnut desk, and a few occasional chairs and a nut-brown leather sofa. I slipped off my glove and knocked on the glass door and called out something dumb like “Anybody home?” It was obvious there wasn’t. I vacillated between annoyance and concern, and finally concern won out. I walked clear around the house looking for signs of occupancy, but it seemed completely deserted. No lights were on at all upstairs. I wound up at the front door again, stupidly ringing the bell once more before sticking one of my business cards into the door handle and driving away.

It was just past ten o’clock. I headed for a little bar down on Chagrin where a journeyman piano player was banging out golden-oldie show tunes for middle-aged patrons to sing along with off-key. I hung up my coat and went to the phone booth and dialed Richard Amber’s number. An answering machine, in a soft feminine voice, told me that no one was home but that she’d be ever so pleased if I waited for the tone and left a brief message.

“This is Milan Jacovich, Mr. Amber. It’s . . . ten past ten o’clock. I was just at your house and there was no one there. I’m at . . . ” I looked at the number of the pay phone and read it off to the tape. “I’ll stay here until midnight, and then I’m going home.”

Back at the bar I ordered a beer and listened while a fat, bald, gray-bearded customer who thought he was Robert Goulet massacred a few songs from Camelot and came on as strongly and gracelessly as I’d ever seen to a fiftyish woman wearing a white blouse and a blue-gray skirt slit up to her crotch. Having to stay and listen was cruel and unusual punishment, and I took some sort of perverse satisfaction when she put on her coat and went home right in the middle of “I Loved You Once in Silence.” Everybody strikes out sometimes.

By the time midnight rolled around the bar had pretty much emptied out—it was a Wednesday evening, after all, and most of these folks had to work in the morning. I was pretty annoyed. Not only had I wasted an evening and half a tank of gas, but I’d lost an easy thousand dollars. It wasn’t much compared to the twenty-seven million I’d missed out on from the lottery that evening, but in my head I’d already banked the thousand, and I was very out-of-sorts. I went back to the phone, called Amber’s number, and waited patiently through the recording again.

“Milan Jacovich here,” I said after the beep. “It’s twelve o’clock and I’m going home.”

I headed west on Chagrin and got stopped by a Beachwood cop for going five miles over the speed limit. I nursed some bad feelings about Richard Amber the rest of the way home.


From the book Full Cleveland, © Les Roberts. All rights reserved.

The Making of Major League – Prologue

The Making of Major League, a book by Jonathan Knight: A Juuuust a Bit Inside Look at the Classic Baseball ComedyBook Excerpt

From The Making of Major League by Jonathan Knight


Considering what it would ultimately lead to, it was a decidedly undramatic moment. But, as mundane as it was, the salvation of a despondent baseball franchise began with the ringing of an office telephone.

It was a typically cold and colorless winter day in Cleveland, Ohio, the kind that makes you almost physically ache for spring and genuinely wonder if baseball will ever be played again.

Fittingly, within the winding concourses and executive offices of rickety old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, whatever energy existed was fueled by the ballpark’s gridiron tenants. The Browns had just completed a marvelous 1987 campaign that saw them reach the playoffs for a third straight year and once again come within a breath of the Super Bowl, making them undoubtedly both the talk of the town and the proverbial apple of Cleveland’s eye.

By contrast, their housemates were the troubled siblings their parents rarely talked about. Like spring itself on this bitter winter day, the concept of the Cleveland Indians creating any kind of buzz like the Browns had generated in recent years seemed as remote as the Canadian shore across the frozen blackness of Lake Erie lying just outside the ballpark.

In this environment, Bob DiBiasio sat like a night watchman in an abandoned factory in his small office crammed just inside Gate A. A native of nearby Lakewood, he’d just returned to his hometown as director of public relations of his hometown team after a year in the same role with the Atlanta Braves. Now he was faced with the task of trying to promote a team that had just wrapped up its second 100-loss season in three years. Even without having to compete with their much more attractive orange-and-brown bunkmates, the Indians’ task wasn’t an easy one. In addition to posting the worst record in baseball in 1987, the Indians had also drawn fewer fans than any other team. Neither disturbing distinction marked the first time it had happened.

In the three-plus decades since the Indians’ most recent postseason berth, Cleveland had gradually transformed from a gleaming baseball metropolis into an all-out football town. By the 1980s, the Browns simply owned Cleveland, while the Indians were a not-all-that-entertaining distraction that served little purpose other than to fill in the gap like window caulk between the NFL draft and the start of training camp. And of course, serve as a punch line for the rest of baseball.

DiBiasio, along with all the other marketing, PR, and ticket-sale staffers in the Indians’ employ, was nobly fighting a losing battle. So when his phone jingled that winter day, he couldn’t have known that the wheels of change were about to be set in motion.

The phone call was from Hank Peters, who asked DiBiasio to come down to his office. Peters, who’d taken over as the Indians’ new president the previous November, had already quietly established himself as a front-office magician over the course of an impressive career in Oakland and Baltimore. Now entering his first full season as the head honcho in Cleveland, Peters was carefully laying the groundwork for the renaissance that was to come for the Indians franchise in the following decade. Little did Peters know that sitting on his desk at that moment was an unexpectedly vital piece of the upcoming revolution.

Meeting with the team president wasn’t a unique experience for DiBiasio, who’d served as the Indians’ PR director for seven years before his sabbatical in Atlanta. But as he made the short walk down the hallway, DiBiasio had no reason to expect that this meeting would be one of the turning points in the franchise’s long history, nor that it would be the first step toward changing the public’s perception of the franchise.

He stepped into Peters’s office. Sitting behind the desk, Peters looked up to acknowledge him, then pointed casually to a thick stack of paper sitting on the desk between them.

“For some reason,” Peters began, “our friends at Major League Baseball have agreed to allow a movie to be made with the Cleveland Indians as the subject.”

It took DiBiasio a moment to process what he’d just heard.

The Indians?

These Indians?

His Indians?

In a movie?

The team, which had now gone 28 consecutive years without even sniffing a postseason appearance, and which was barely a topic of conversation in its own hometown, was suddenly being courted by Hollywood. Somebody out there, somebody who’d actually won an Oscar, DiBiasio would later learn, wanted to acknowledge the Cleveland Indians on film.

But just as DiBiasio began to wrap his head around the idea, what Peters said next nearly knocked him over.

“It’s all yours. Have fun.”

Peters instructed DiBiasio to review the script and mark anything in it that he found objectionable to ensure that “we keep the organization in the best light possible”—a truly challenging prospect under any conditions.

DiBiasio, stunned but still professional, stammered a reply. “Well, thank you, sir,” he said. “I’ve never done this before.” Neither had anyone else in the Indians organization. Other than the intensely forgettable The Kid From Cleveland, a 1949 morality tale about a troubled teenager “adopted” by real-life Cleveland players who cameoed as themselves, the team had never been featured in a major motion picture. There was no mystery why.

DiBiasio scooped up the stack of papers and hurried back to his office like a kid racing down the stairs on Christmas morning. He sat down and immediately whipped through the script. In a half hour, he’d finished it, and couldn’t help but smile.

As he rearranged the pages into a neat stack, he again looked at the cover sheet, which had the title of this proposed cinematic enterprise centered neatly at the heart of the page:

Major League.

And beneath that, the name of the brave soul who was not only willing to use the Indians as the subject for a major motion picture, but was putting his career on the line to do it: David S. Ward.


From the book The Making of Major League, © Jonathan Knight. All rights reserved.

Overtures (from The Cleveland Orchestra Story)

The Cleveland Orchestra Story, a book by Donald Rosenberg: “Second to None”Book Excerpt

From The Cleveland Orchestra Story by Donald Rosenberg


In 1842, two of the world’s great orchestras came to life. In Austria, the Vienna Philharmonic played its first notes at the city’s Imperial Palace on March 28. In Manhattan, nine months later, the New York Philharmonic gave its first perfomance at the Apollo Rooms.

In Cleveland that year, cows still grazed peacefully on downtown’s Public Square.

Europe already had a long orchestral heritage. The Dresden State Orchestra had been performing since the early 17th century; the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra since 1781. The comparatively youthful United States now was launching its own rich tradition with the New York Philharmonic.

The small town on the southern shore of Lake Erie, however, was only beginning to show an interest in the arts, fine or otherwise. Cleveland would, in fact, be one of the new nation’s last cities—the 17th—to boast of a major orchestra.

Founded in 1796 by Moses Cleaveland and a party from the Connecticut Land Company, Cleveland was in no position to compete with more populous and accessible American cities that had developed their resources to the point where they could nurture artists and artistic institutions. The small metropolis’s ruggedly wooded terrain (the source of its nickname, the Forest City), elusive location, and challenging climate conspired to keep its growth on a slow track. Only after the Ohio and Erie Canal was completed in 1832 and roads later began to lead to the area was the city’s life transformed through shipping and trade, the creation of jobs, and a steady influx of European immigrants.

By the time Cleveland’s permanent orchestra made its debut in December 1918, American orchestras had established themselves, with varying success, in New York (Philharmonic and Symphony), St. Louis, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Houston, Detroit, and Baltimore.

In the decades leading up to Cleveland’s orchestral coming of age, music was already providing a way for immigrants drawn by the city’s burgeoning industries to maintain their cultural identities far from home. The earliest music-making in Cleveland, aside from church choirs, revolved around amateur singing societies, bands, and small ensembles (two dozen or so players) that today would be called chamber orchestras. One group that had an impact on the town was the Cleveland Grays Band, an ensemble of the military unit known as the Cleveland Grays, whose director brought with him an imposing European pedigree: Balthasar B. Schubert was a nephew of the late Austrian composer Franz Schubert. The younger Schubert evidently was a talented bandsman. In 1840, he formed an 11-member group comprising seven brass, two wind, and two percussion players.

Within a few years, Clevelanders had heard not only band concerts but also occasional performances featuring operatic music. Whether the repertoire was performed with piano or orchestra isn’t clear. Most orchestras that appeared in Cleveland during this period were local amateur groups that accompanied choruses or played in the pit for opera productions—many of them heard but not seen. Ensembles that did perform onstage or in ballrooms presented light fare, such as waltzes and overtures.

In 1842, local industry was beginning to flourish. Mills, tanneries, and cheese and flour factories opened their doors. Sandstone quarrying started in Berea. The region welcomed its first shipment of fruit. In the decade that followed, the railroad boom stimulated manufacturing and the mining of iron ore and coal that would be so crucial to the city’s future. These industries attracted a multitude of workers, especially German and Irish immigrants who began pouring into Cleveland in 1848. By 1850, the city’s population had jumped to 17,034, slightly behind Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago, but well behind Cincinnati, whose economic development had brought its population to 115,435.

Of the ethnic groups that left their homelands for better lives, the Germans were to become Cleveland’s largest and most influential. They exhibited a rigorous work ethic but also found time to maintain their strong cultural tradition. They established singing societies and instrumental ensembles, including the Germania Orchestra, which performed with choral groups and played for social functions. Among the German arrivals in 1853 was Baptiste Dreher, founder of the Dreher Piano Company. His grandfather, Meinhard, was an organ builder near Ulm who had known Johann Sebastian Bach.

Pianos, mostly by the Boston firm Chickering, were already being sold in Cleveland by S. Brainard’s Sons, an instrument dealer and music publishing house founded by Silas Brainard in 1836. Brainard built a small musical empire, managing Brainard’s Opera House (later the Globe Theater) and publishing a monthly journal, Brainard’s Musical World, before moving to Chicago in 1889. Along with sheet music for the general public, the firm supplied musical materials for the local orchestras of the Cleveland Mozart Society, St. Cecilia Society, Cleveland Musical Society, and Cleveland Mendelssohn Society, as well as the Germania Orchestra. These ensembles occasionally played major choral works—Handel’s Messiah, Rossini’s Stabat Mater—and short orchestral pieces, but they mostly served in accompanying capacities.

Opera brought orchestral sounds to local audiences, though most ensembles of the day tended to employ reduced rosters to fit the pit and the budget. Cleveland began to import opera in 1849, when a troupe known as the Manvers Operatic Company performed Bellini’s La Sonnambula and Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment, works hardly renowned for their use of the orchestra. As travel to Cleveland became easier and new theaters opened in the 1850s and 1860s, opera companies from New Orleans, New York, Boston, and Chicago made their way to the city to present pieces that were richer from an orchestral point of view, among them Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, Weber’s Der Freischütz, and Gounod’s Faust (just five years after its 1859 Paris premiere). These productions raised the sophistication level of audiences that had been used to hit-and-miss playing by local amateur ensembles.

Another troupe that came to Cleveland, in 1866, was the American Opera Company, which performed works by Gluck, Delibes, Massenet, and Wagner (the last three were living at the time) in English with American singers. The conductor of these productions, Theodore Thomas, would have a lasting impact on orchestral life in the United States. Thomas had created his own symphony orchestra, the Theodore Thomas Orchestra, which began touring in 1869, when Cleveland became part of his “great musical highway,” as his wife, Rose, called the orchestra’s itinerary through America’s larger cities. After performances in Cleveland in November 1869, the Musical World reported that Thomas’s orchestra was “the finest we have ever heard in the city, and the concerts [were] successful in every way.” Thomas, who would make frequent appearances in Cleveland for the rest of his life, went on to serve as conductor of the New York Philharmonic (1877–78 and 1879–91) and as founding conductor of what later would become known as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Local conductors were attempting to give the city’s own musicians opportunities to pursue their art, too. Austrian-born Ferdinand Puehringer, a student of Franz von Suppé, arrived in 1872. He worked with the Germania Orchestra, began a singing and instrumental school, and, in 1881, created the Philharmonic Orchestra. Puehringer’s ensemble initially had 30 amateur musicians; professional players eventually joined. Rehearsing at the YMCA building, they made their debut on October 31, 1881, with a program of music by Verdi, Chopin, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Ole Bull, the extraordinary Norwegian violinist.

In 1873, Alfred Arthur founded the Cleveland Vocal Society. A year before, he had led a series of orchestra concerts—some with as few as 16 players—at Brainard’s Piano Rooms, though these performances evidently couldn’t approach the quality of the music that Thomas was bringing to the city. “The orchestral numbers at both concerts were wretchedly given,” reported Musical World in May 1872. “Mr. Arthur either has no control over his orchestra or does not understand his business.” He apparently began to understand his business in following years, as he not only developed his orchestra but also imported ensembles from Cincinnati and Boston to collaborate with the Cleveland Vocal Society.

* * *

By the 1870s, Cleveland was on the verge of major postwar industrial and commercial expansion. Eugene Grasselli, whose company had made chloroform for Union forces, founded the Grasselli Chemical Company. Theodore H. White transported his sewing-machine enterprise from Massachusetts. Shipyards owned by Captain Alva Bradley opened in Cleveland. Perhaps most significantly, an ambitious young entrepreneur named John D. Rockefeller organized the Standard Oil Company, which would make Cleveland the oil capital of the world in little more than a decade. Euclid Avenue, lined with mansions of the city’s nouveaux riches, was considered one of the most beautiful streets in the country. The city’s population rose to 92,828 (15th largest in the U.S.) in 1870 and 160,146 (12th largest) in 1880.

As Cleveland grew, its residents sought greater artistic stimulation, including a broader range of musical events. Clevelanders had heard soprano Jenny Lind, the “Swedish nightingale,” in 1851. The Thomas Orchestra, featuring pianist Anton Rubinstein and violinist Henri Wieniawski, gave a concert in May 1873 introducing “the most supreme organization of musical talent that has ever performed in one evening before a Cleveland audience,” according to the Leader, a daily newspaper. Recitals followed by violinist Pablo de Sarasate and pianist Hans von Bülow (soloist in the world premiere of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in Boston during the 1875–76 season). In 1889, 14-year-old Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler made his Cleveland debut with pianist Moritz Rosenthal.

Audiences also enjoyed opera performances featuring richly colored orchestration (if reduced instrumental forces). Maurice Grau brought the Metropolitan Grand Opera Company to the Euclid Avenue Opera House in 1886, offering Carl Goldmark’s Queen of Sheba, and Wagner’s Rienzi, Lohengrin, and Tannhäuser with “150 performers, an orchestra of fifty-five, a chorus of fifty, and a ballet.” The 1890s held a panoply of performances by great singers (Adelina Patti, Nellie Melba). Walter Damrosch presented his opera company and the New York Symphony Orchestra in Wagner’s Lohengrin, Siegfried, and Tannhäuser in 1897, the same year that Victor Herbert’s operetta, The Serenade, received its world premiere at Grays Armory, home of the Cleveland Grays, on Bolivar Road. Grau inaugurated the Metropolitan Opera’s long relationship with Cleveland with the 1899 spring tour, which included The Barber of Seville, Carmen, La Traviata, and Faust starring Emma Calvé, Marcella Sembrich, and Édouard de Reske.

Before the turn of the century, the city heard a generous sampling of noteworthy orchestral ensembles. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1881, came to town in 1886 and 1887 with Wilhelm Gericke. In 1889, the ensemble returned under one of the commanding figures in orchestral history, Arthur Nikisch, who was later described by George Szell as “in the best sense hypnotic and magic . . . You could not extricate yourself from his spell.” Cleveland also heard performances led by Anton Seidl, head of German repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera, who had assisted Wagner at the inaugural Bayreuth Festival in Germany in 1876. Seidl provoked an outpouring of American affection for Wagner, especially among women. In Cleveland, Seidl conducted his so-called Wagner Orchestra (actually the Met orchestra) in 1893 and 1897.

Starting in the early 1890s, prominent American orchestras came to Cleveland at the invitation of N. Coe Stewart, a conductor and composer who had guided music curriculum in the city’s public schools since 1869. He expanded his reach as director of the Star Course concert series, which presented solo artists and orchestras. His roster included the New York Symphony Orchestra (with Damrosch) and the Pittsburgh Orchestra, then in its infancy under cellist-composer-conductor Victor Herbert.

* * *

While all of these visitors were making welcome appearances, Cleveland’s resident musicians were trying to establish a homegrown orchestral tradition, without much success. The conductorship of the Philharmonic Orchestra had passed from Puehringer to Müller Neuhoff to Franz X. Arens. In 1888, the post went to Emil Ring, a Czech-born oboist, pianist, composer, and conductor who had arrived in the United States the previous year to play principal oboe in the Boston Symphony under Gericke. Ring, who was born in 1863, would become a key figure in Cleveland’s musical community as conductor and teacher. His vast experience made him well suited to conduct the Philharmonic Orchestra, which now had 60 players. Ring expanded the repertoire and the concert schedule, collaborating with the Cleveland Gesangverein, a German chorus, and, in the summer, taking the orchestra to Haltnorth’s Gardens, a former beer hall at Woodland and Willson avenues that had thrown off its erstwhile reputation as a den of iniquity. (The Leader once reported that “scenes are enacted there every Sabbath that should excite a blaze of indignation in the breast of every respectable citizen.”)

By 1893, Ring had honed the Philharmonic Orchestra so impressively that he was chosen to be musical director for the 27th Saengerfest, a national festival of amateur singing societies. Even so, the orchestra couldn’t sustain itself, especially after the festival’s expenses placed a crushing burden on its guarantors. Although Ring offered to work without pay, the orchestra was doomed. It reorganized in 1894 but finally went out of existence in 1899.

* * *

The big problem with the local orchestral scene in Cleveland wasn’t necessarily lack of talent. Local managers simply could make more money importing an orchestra than organizing one of their own, for they had to pay musicians’ salaries and music costs, as well as other expenses. And audiences would rather hear renowned orchestras than a fledgling local ensemble. Still, Clevelanders in the early decades of the 20th century listened hopefully to three local ensembles that set out to give the city a permanent orchestra. The time was ripe for such an enterprise. With industry booming, the population in 1900 had leaped to 381,768, putting Cleveland seventh among U.S. cities.

The first entirely professional ensemble that attempted to put down roots in the city was the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, which was conceived in part as a new incarnation of the defunct Philharmonic Orchestra. The conductor was Johann Beck, who, with Emil Ring, would become one of Cleveland’s most visionary and influential musicians of the period. Born in Cleveland in 1856, Beck pursued part of his education at the Leipzig Conservatory. As composer, conductor, and violinist, he returned home in 1882 in triumph. He formed the Beck String Quartet and conducted numerous American orchestras in his own compositions, and also taught.

The Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, with Ernest Farmer as manager, played its first concert on January 16, 1900, at Grays Armory. Beck conducted Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, the second and fourth movements of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, arias and songs by Mozart and Schubert, an excerpt from Wagner’s Lohengrin, and Beck’s overture, Lara, based on the poem by Lord Byron. Among the soloists were violinist Sol Marcosson, the orchestra’s concertmaster, and cellist Elsa Ruegger. Cleveland Town Topics, a weekly journal devoted to the arts and social events, was impressed: “Beck produced unexpectedly good results with a new body of players and demonstrated himself to be a musician of scholarly endowment, a conductor of authority, judgment, progressiveness and spirit, and a composer of high ability.” The orchestra of 50 musicians played three concerts in its first season.

The second season began on a high note on November 5, 1900, with a program that included Beethoven’s First Symphony and excerpts from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Once again, Town Topics chimed in with encouraging words, stating that the “experimental Cleveland Symphony Orchestra season of last year has given way to the substantial and assured one of this season.” The Plain Dealer, the Cleveland newspaper published since 1842, proclaimed, “success had come and come to stay.” Both views were premature, though the season’s remaining four concerts must have proved intriguing. The soloists included violinist Fritz Kreisler (in the Bruch G minor Concerto) and pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch (in the Schumann Piano Concerto). Beck programmed more of his own music, as well as works by colleagues from Cleveland and Pittsburgh. When pianists were needed to accompany, Beck turned to two prominent local musicians—James H. Rogers, a composer who later would serve as longtime music critic of The Plain Dealer, and Adella Prentiss, a fledgling impresario whose true impact on Cleveland’s musical life was still decades away.

Unfortunately, the audacious Farmer tried to run the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra entirely by himself, and his management skills were questionable. Believing that ticket sales would take care of funding, he didn’t seek donations from the public, including the wealthiest audience members, until it was too late. Rather than admit he had blundered, Farmer lashed out at the city’s inability to support its own, saying that Cleveland’s musical community reminded him “of the story of a Mississippi river steamboat that had a bigger whistle than a boiler. When the whistle blew they had to stop the boat.”

Aside from his mishandling of money matters, Farmer was inept at scheduling. When he noticed that the fourth concert of his orchestra’s second season, on February 5, 1901, would compete with local performances the same week by Eduard Strauss and his Viennese orchestra and by soprano Marcella Sembrich, he only changed the program, convincing Beck to add Johann Strauss II’s Tales from the Vienna Woods. But ticket sales went nowhere for the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra concert, and Farmer was forced to cancel. The situation drew protests from both Farmer and local journalists. The manager fumed that “a permanent local orchestra has to postpone its concert (because it is dependent on public support) so that more showy and transient concerts may whistle merrily and successfully.” As Town Topics observed, “knocking [down] has always been a favorite diversion in Cleveland musical circles. An undercurrent of it has existed contemporaneously with the establishment of the local orchestra.”

True as these statements may have been, they did nothing to help the new orchestra. Farmer attempted to reschedule the February program for the following month, to virtually no response from the public. Lack of confidence in the local product and in Farmer’s business methods led to bankruptcy in the spring of 1901, though the orchestra showed its appreciation to the manager by offering a benefit concert on May 28, 1901, to help him reduce his debts.

* * *

Cleveland was once again without a local orchestra. Soon to come to the rescue was Conrad “Coonie” Mizer, a Cleveland tailor and music lover who had instituted seasons of Sunday afternoon summer band concerts in public parks in 1898 with funds from the city. Now he envisioned a similar scenario to bring the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra back to life. He called on some of the town’s heaviest political and industrial hitters—including future Cleveland mayor and U.S. secretary of war Newton D. Baker and chemical magnate Eugene Grasselli—to provide support for an orchestra that would play Sunday afternoon concerts at Grays Armory. Beck and Ring were invited to alternate as conductors.

The new institution was dubbed the Cleveland Grand Orchestra, though it was advertised for the 1904–05 season as the Cleveland Orchestra, probably the first time a local ensemble used this name. The orchestra comprised 45 players (all men, according to Town Topics) who were paid the paltry sum of $30 each for the entire season. Ticket prices were low, too: most cost 10, 15, or 25 cents. The orchestra made its debut on January 4, 1903, when pianist William Sherwood performed Liszt’s E-flat major Piano Concerto on a program that included Weber’s Euryanthe overture, Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, an excerpt from Bizet’s Carmen, and the “Wedding March” from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Throughout their dual tenures with the orchestra, Beck and Ring paid generous attention to local soloists and composers, and they led standard classical fare.

The orchestra encountered the problem faced by every local symphonic organization—it was compared, fairly or not, with visiting orchestras, which were now being brought to town by concert manager Adella Prentiss in her highly successful Symphony Orchestra Concerts series. The Cleveland Grand Orchestra came to be regarded as a “pop orchestra,” or, by implication, a lowbrow ensemble.

Many, though, considered its existence a positive sign. Prentiss was enthusiastic about the new venture, telling Mizer that he was “not only a ‘pop’ but a ‘prop’ because he is giving the people a taste of orchestral music which will bring them to a better plane of musical appreciation.” Town Topics noted in 1905 that “if these same guarantors and lovers of music would rally and come to the aid of Cleveland musical talent, the day might not be so far distant when we could hope to compare with other symphony orchestras. Pittsburgh capitalists have made it possible for the famous Pittsburgh Orchestra to live and thrive. New York, Boston, Chicago, and Cincinnati have done the same, and why, with all the wealth in this city, we should be a back number in the greatest of arts has always been a mystery. Can it be a lack of civic pride?”

It could have been, but it is more likely that the Cleveland Grand Orchestra simply was not good enough to convince citizens that they should support the local product over fine visiting orchestras. Tensions within the orchestra itself also seemed to be taking a toll on the musicians, who had difficulty coming to terms with two leaders with highly different personalities: Beck was perceived as a much more authoritative conductor than Ring. In 1910, the orchestra changed its name to the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra and performed for two more years under Beck and Ring. Then waning financial support and attendance, as well as brickbats from the press, darkened the orchestra’s horizon. The biggest blow came from Wilson G. Smith, a local composer and pianist who had become the music critic of the Cleveland Press, which would cover the orchestra’s high-profile successor for decades. Smith blamed the ensemble’s erratic quality on “inadequate rehearsals, and absence from the ranks of some of our best orchestra talent, and the fact that two directors of divergent temperament and qualifications have been in control.” The solution: better musicians and one charismatic conductor who could attract financial support and raise the orchestra’s standing in the community. Adella Prentiss Hughes (she had married vocal instructor Felix Hughes in 1904) offered a typically forthright reason for the waning popularity of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra in 1912: “The Sunday pops had begun to be monotonous.”

* * *

The conductor chosen to ward off the monotony was Christiaan Timmner, former concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under Willem Mengelberg and most recently concertmaster of the St. Paul Symphony Orchestra. The Dutch violinist and his wife, Anna, a cellist, had arrived suddenly in Cleveland in the spring of 1912. The Timmners quickly established themselves in the musical community by joining forces with pianist Betsy Wyers for a series of public and private recitals managed by Adella Prentiss Hughes. The public concerts drew a favorable response from the press.

To bolster Timmner’s reputation locally, the savvy Hughes printed a formidable testimonial, from no less a figure than the noted German composer Richard Strauss, on a recital advertisement: “Mr. Timmner is well remembered by me from the performances of the Concertgebouw Orchestra as a superior violinist, a distinguished musician and an amiable artist, and it gives me particular pleasure to recommend him most warmly to concert associations as soloist as well as concertmeister.”

With the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra on the edge of extinction, Hughes and others, including Press critic Smith, pianist Wyers, and Alice Bradley of Town Topics, lobbied for Timmner to replace Beck and Ring. Smith would refer to the Cleveland conductors in his column as “old brooms” and call Timmner the “new broom who can sweep clean all the accumulated rubbish.” In December 1912, the management brought in the “new broom” for a clean sweep. Timmner was appointed sole conductor of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. In addition, an executive committee (comprising musicians’ union representatives Walter Logan and Robert Brew, managers Adella Prentiss Hughes and Victor Sincere, lumber magnate Archibald Klumpf, and architect Frank Meade) was formed to bring responsible business practices to the organization and to appeal to wealthy donors.

Timmner led his first concert on January 19, 1913, at Engineers Hall. It was followed by eight more Sunday afternoon concerts that generally sold out (tickets cost 25 to 50 cents). To rid the orchestra of its reputation as a pops ensemble, Timmner programmed beloved and substantial European works, and drew accolades from critics. Smith raved about the results and denigrated Beck and Ring in the process.

The previous conductors weren’t about to let the success of the new man in town overshadow their achievements or ambitions. Two months after Timmner’s inaugural concert with the orchestra, Beck—keenly aware that the Dutch violinist had no conducting credentials—began a petition drive to oust him. Writing to Newton D. Baker, who had become Cleveland’s mayor in 1912, Beck stated, “we have local men who are unquestionably better musicians and who are far more capable as Orchestral Directors, to occupy this position, which should be open to competition, and secured on merit alone, and not upon the suggestion or recommendation of a few individuals.” His words were to fall on deaf ears, at least for the time being.

In April 1913, a month after the mayor received Beck’s petition, Baker appointed Timmner as Municipal Director of Music for the city of Cleveland and named Smith as advisor to the superintendent of parks. Timmner was to lead the orchestra—renamed the Cleveland Municipal Orchestra—in Sunday afternoon concerts in city parks throughout the summer and in winter concerts at the 4,000-seat Hippodrome Theatre.

Dubbed the “anti-ragtime director” for his aversion to the popular syncopated music (“It is too rotten. Until I have to play it, I won’t play it”), Timmner began his tenure by firing almost half of the former Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. The Cleveland News listed some of his reasons:

They practice with a long stogie or a black cigar in their mouths.

They cross their legs.

They slouch down in their seats and rest their elbows on the arms of the chairs.

They yawn audibly and without attempting to conceal their mouths with their hands.

They ignore his appeals for them to come to rehearsal and became peeved when he corrected their technique.

With the players he had chosen, Timmner set out to provide summer audiences with music they could simply sit back and enjoy (even though this sounded, oddly, like a pops approach). “People in general like music according to the ease with which they can remember the melody,” he told the Cleveland Press. “That is the reason ragtime is so popular and everyone whistles it. They would whistle the ‘Blue Danube’ or the intermezzo from ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ if they heard them often enough.” But listeners wouldn’t be hearing serious classics, at least during the summer. “The heavier music will be all right later on, perhaps, but if you play it at the start people will say, ‘I know it’s very good, but I don’t like it,’ and so they won’t come again,” Timmner said.

By the first summer concert on June 15, when the orchestra played music by Bizet, Delibes, Saint-Saëns, Wagner, and others, Timmner had an ensemble of 46 musicians. Attending a rehearsal before this performance, the Press noted that the bass players wore blue suspenders, and that although the cymbal player had the least to do he had to be “on the job all the time. If he is the fiftieth part of a second late with his crashes, Timmner begins to roar.” The story also depicted the orchestra’s work as far from glamorous: “Rehearsals are held each day on the fourth floor of the old gas company building adjoining city hall. The highbrow organization is buttressed on one side by the street cleaning department and on the other by the smoke inspector’s office.”

But the first concert elicited a glowing review from Smith: “If any doubt existed concerning the practicality of a symphony orchestra for Sunday park concerts, it was dissipated at Edgewater park Sunday afternoon by the municipal orchestra under Muny Director Christiaan Timmner.”

The success of the summer concerts led to hope that the new orchestra might become a fixture in Cleveland. “I cannot possibly see failure for the project,” said James D. Johnston, a viola player in the orchestra and also its personnel manager. “I know that no man leading an orchestra, big or little, in Cleveland or in any other city can hope to do his work without having opposition. He is bound to have trouble, prompted, generally, by jealousy. But the more opposition there is the more backbone it will take to fight it and to bring the project to a successful conclusion. Successful conclusion it must be and nothing else, for a Cleveland symphony orchestra will mean wonderful things for the musicians and the music lovers of Cleveland alike.”

However visionary Johnston may have been about the place of such an ensemble in the city’s life, he was hasty in assuming that the Municipal Orchestra could be the group that would succeed. In early 1914, at the suggestion of critic Smith, Mayor Baker made the orchestra a project of the city. It was to be funded through taxes, with the city taking full responsibility for the budget. The deal meant additional work for Timmner, whose obligations included starting amateur orchestras at social centers. He would be paid $2,400 a year. Baker, a staunch supporter of the arts, didn’t appear concerned that the venture might affect the city’s deficit, and he shared Johnston’s optimism. “There is no question in my mind that the orchestra should be continued,” Baker told members of the City Club. “The esthetic development of the city is just as important in my mind as are paved roads and other physical improvements.”

As admirable as Baker’s view may have been, it was misguided in two ways. The city’s funding of the orchestra didn’t pay Timmner enough to make a living, so he augmented his income by giving high-priced lessons. This may have seemed innocent enough, but the conductor was soon accused of using his teaching to “sell” jobs in his orchestra to his students. Musicians complained, and the charges led to a court case against Timmner in March 1915. With Baker and others defending him, Timmner prevailed in court, but his reputation was forever tainted in Cleveland.

The last straw for the orchestra came in May 1915, when city officials realized that Cleveland’s deficit of $52 million would mean the end of funds for the orchestra (and thus the end of the orchestra itself). Timmner’s power base had eroded. His only recourse was to seek employment out of the region, armed with recommendations from Baker and Smith.

It was during Timmner’s court case in March that the public learned why he had arrived so suddenly from Minnesota in 1912. He had been let go as concertmaster of the St. Paul Symphony Orchestra after behaving badly toward conductor Walter Rothwell, fellow musicians, and students whom he had overcharged and promised seats in the orchestra. Adella Prentiss Hughes later suggested that the period under Timmner had tried everyone’s nerves: “Years later, with a twinkle in his eye, Mr. Baker told me that he had more trouble handling the Municipal Orchestra than all the affairs of the city of Cleveland put together!”

By 1915, Hughes had been a hardy survivor of Cleveland’s symphony wars for almost two decades. The indomitable woman who so zealously spread appreciation for great music—in an environment dominated by high-powered men—was about to lead the city to a cultural milestone.


From the book The Cleveland Orchestra Story, © Donald Rosenberg. All rights reserved.

The Incredible Vanishing Killer – Cleveland’s “Black Widow” of 1922

The Corpse in the Cellar, a book by John Stark Bellamy II: And Further Tales of Cleveland WoeBook Excerpt

From The Corpse in the Cellar by John Stark Bellamy II


Black Widow. The two words provoke several images, none of them cheery. Most people are aware, at least by repute, of the female black widow spider, the most lethal arachnid native to America, notorious for occasionally dining on her male partner after mating. Some, too, are familiar with the archetype of the female serial-killer spouse, memorably rendered in a number of films, most recently by Theresa Russell in Black Widow (1987). Few Clevelanders realize, however, that almost four score years ago their city riveted the attention of the nation for almost a fortnight with sensational news of a serial husband murderess. They should probably be readily forgiven for not knowing: the “Black Widow” story came out of nowhere, burned fiercely in the public mind for two weeks, and then, just as suddenly, disappeared forever.

Edward C. Stanton was probably the most interesting, aggressive, and effective prosecutor in Cuyahoga County history. During his tenure as county prosecutor (1921–1929), Stanton sent eight men to the electric chair and earned a deserved reputation as a publicity-savvy, cunning, and relentless lawman. Propelled into office by his avidity in prosecuting the alleged May Day rioters of 1919, Stanton quickly gained the public’s favor with his unexpected conviction of municipal judge William H. McGannon for perjury, for his dramatic pursuit and prosecution of those involved in the infamous murder-for-hire demise of Lakewood printer Dan Kaber, and for the long-awaited guilty verdict that ended the chilling criminal career of Cleveland’s Public Enemy No.1, George “Jiggs” Losteiner. (All of these trials are covered in the pages of the author’s previous volume, They Died Crawling.) Stanton’s zealous efforts also sent three men to the electric chair for their role in the brutal payroll robbery and murder of businessmen Wilfred C. Sly and George K. Fanner on the last day of 1920. (The author has chronicled the Sly-Fanner murders in another previous book, The Maniac in the Bushes.) It is likely, however, that none of Stanton’s celebrated cases was more bizarre, more chilling and yet paradoxically inconclusive than the ephemeral “Black Widow” phenomenon of 1922.

The story erupted on May 1, when Stanton announced that a 37-year-old Cleveland woman was under investigation on suspicion of multiple murder. Held in the county jail on an unrelated larceny charge, she was suspected, Stanton told reporters, of having poisoned two of her four children and perhaps as many as three of her five husbands in order to collect on various substantial insurance policies. The next day’s newspaper headlines left nothing to the reader’s imagination. The Plain Dealer blared, “Suspect Woman Killed Husbands For Insurance,” while the Press shouted, “Body Exhumed In Poison Plot.” Interestingly, neither Stanton nor the newspapers revealed—then or ever—the identity of the accused distaff Borgia.

Stanton, as usual, was in deadly earnest. Early the very next day, county coroner A. P. Hammond showed up at staid Lake View Cemetery to oversee the exhumation of the suspected poisoner’s fifth husband, a machinist who died in May of 1921. After removing the corpse to the county morgue on Lakeside, Hammond’s physicians quickly extracted the vital organs and turned them over to city chemists Harold J. Knapp and George Voerg for analysis. Pursuant to Stanton’s orders, they were looking for signs of metallic poisons: Stanton publicly vowed a murder indictment should so little as even a tenth of a grain of arsenic show up in the cadaver.

Meanwhile, the background story luridly unfolded in the pages of Cleveland’s three daily newspapers. And what a story it was. The woman, it seems, had originally come to Stanton’s notice a year before, when she sought his aid in collecting on her recently deceased husband’s insurance. Her sad story to Stanton was that her late spouse was a World War I veteran whose health had been fatally ruined by poison gas in the trenches of France, and that the heartless United States government had refused to pay off on his $5,000 war risk insurance. Stanton couldn’t help her, but he turned her over to the Cleveland offices of the American Red Cross.

This proved an imprudent move for the grieving widow. Not only did the Red Cross fail to expedite her insurance problem—it seems that Husband No. 5 had been remiss in his premium payments—but Red Cross official Esther Knowles became suspicious as she learned more and more details of the high-living widow’s lifestyle. Several months later, in April 1922, the widow would be arrested on unrelated larceny charges, and Esther would renew their acquaintance when the Red Cross took over care of the woman’s two teenage daughters. After talking with the daughters, Esther went to Stanton, and he went to the media on May 1.

Over the next week, the strange saga of the “Black Widow” unfolded in the newspapers. Her trail led back to Pittsburgh, where nearly 20 years before she had wed her first husband and produced two daughters. They did not last long: the heavily insured girls died after eating “poison tablets” in what was assumed to be an unfortunate household “accident.” The Black Widow soon divorced and married Husband No. 2, a Pittsburgh druggist. That marriage produced another two daughters, born in 1907 and 1908 but, alas, not nuptial felicity: the couple divorced during World War I. Husband No. 2 survived his experience with the Black Widow, but he would later recall that she did seem to have “a mania for collecting insurance.”

The pace of her marital adventures now picked up steam. She married Husband No. 3 in Pittsburgh, and she and her daughters moved with him to Cleveland, where he had found a splendid job opportunity. Indeed, it was so good that it even included a free $1,200 insurance policy as an employee benefit. Unfortunately, No. 3 didn’t stick around to enjoy it, as he died very unexpectedly only a week after it took effect. Described as in “perfect health,” he nonetheless fainted at work one afternoon and was dead within 24 hours. After cashing in his policy, the Black Widow took her family back to Pittsburgh.

There, she wasn’t lonely for long. Within the year she had snared Husband No. 4, a wealthy man likewise described as being in “perfect health.” Shortly after the nuptials were celebrated, however, he began to fail alarmingly and died in May of 1919. The Black Widow had by now begun to attract the attention of local lawmen, and an autopsy was conducted on her late No. 4. Robert Brauh, the Allegheny County chief of detectives, was not surprised when the autopsy turned up traces of arsenic in the stomach. But nothing further was done, because Husband No. 4’s physician testified that he had prescribed medicines for the deceased containing the potent metallic powder. The late No. 4 left $5,000 to his stricken widow, who now shifted her base of operations back to Cleveland.

As ever, the new widow did not pine long. Seven months after No. 4 shuffled off his mortal coil, she met Husband No. 5, an ex-soldier just returned after the Armistice. After a whirlwind courtship, which was by now her wont, the newlyweds settled down to marital bliss in an expensive flat on East 40th Street.

Probably more is known about the corpse of Husband No. 5 than about the living man, but it is fair to surmise that his brief married life was not a felicitous idyll. Unlike his immediate predecessor in the Black Widow’s mercurial affections, Husband No. 5—known to inquiring newspaper readers only as “Joe”—was not a wealthy man, and his machinist’s wages were not adequate to underwrite the lifestyle to which his spouse had become accustomed. Sad to say, very soon after tying the knot, his wife took to wistfully voicing her discontent aloud to her bosom friend Jessie Burns. It began with subtle wishes, modest daydreaming hints like: “Wouldn’t it be nice if Joe died? Think of the fun and parties we could have if Joe died.” Within a few more weeks, as the 25-year-old Jessie later reminisced, the Black Widow’s coy remarks became more direct and concrete: “I would like to get rid of him. I would like to give him arsenic.”

But all was not Lady Bluebeard gloom-and-doom at the East 40th Street love nest. Various roomers who sublet premises from the couple would later testify that Joe’s wife not only insisted on cooking all of his food herself but was shrewishly insistent that not a tasty morsel go to waste, often screaming profanely, “— —- you, eat that food. I’m not going to cook for you and have you leave everything!”

Perhaps more ominously for Joe, there were increasing hints that his wife had not lost her “mania for collecting insurance.” He complained to friends that she was constantly nagging him to join lodges that offered insurance benefits, and she attempted, unsuccessfully, in the weeks just before his death, to get his veteran’s insurance raised from $5,000 to $10,000. And to friends to whom she owed money, she promised that she was just about to come into an “expected windfall” of $5,000—the exact amount of Joe’s G. I. death benefit.

Although the Black Widow would later claim that Joe’s abrupt demise stemmed from longstanding health problems caused by his gassing in France, neither War Department records nor the recollections of Joe’s brothers supported her assertion. Indeed, Joe’s fatal crisis must have come unexpectedly. The couple’s only remaining roomer would recall leaving Joe in perfect health on a May day in 1921—and returning only three days later to find him laid out in a casket.

For her friends, who remarked that the new widow seemed rather jolly under the circumstances, the Black Widow had a ready explanation, encrusted with convincingly mundane detail: “Joe ate a hearty meal last night and drank six bottles of loganberry juice. At about 10 p.m., he went to take a hot bath. Eating, drinking and the hot water must have affected his heart, I guess, because when I got up the next morning I found him dead on the bathroom floor.”

Perhaps custom by now had steeled Joe’s widow to the familiar pain. But it is likely that she had already realized ready cash from his unexpected departure, as a mere 48 hours after her spouse’s funeral she was throwing parties and spending her substance in what a disapproving Stanton later characterized as “riotous living.” Moving to a luxurious East Side apartment, the Black Widow decorated with expensive furniture, splurged on $1,400 in diamonds, and bought herself a new car.

Also pampering her aesthetic side, she acquired a piano and, along with it, a new beau. His name was L. P. Farrell, a widowed 53-year-old, and he met the Black Widow when he delivered the piano to her new digs. They had a few drinks and struck up a conversation that soon developed, he would ruefully recall, into her “making violent love” to him after she discovered he was a man of some property. Over the next few months she wooed Farrell assiduously. The result was a wedding date set for April 24, 1922.

That problematic union never came off. The Black Widow was arrested that very morning on multiple charges of larceny brought by her neighbors, who connected her with the recent disappearance of their cherished valuables. After she was taken to the county jail, her children were turned over to the Red Cross, leading ultimately to Esther Knowles’s fateful conversation with Edward Stanton and the ensuing nationwide sensation.

The story peaked on May 5. That afternoon, Stanton announced that the autopsy of Husband No. 5 had turned up traces of both morphine and arsenic in the vital organs. Simultaneously, word came from Pittsburgh authorities that they had been trying to build a murder case against the Black Widow for three years. There was talk of impending murder indictments and the possibility of digging up husbands No. 3 and No. 4 and her two dead children from their graveyard homes. Yet another talkative friend came forward to tell police of an additional, now vanished child the accused had given birth to. A search of East Side drugstore records disclosed two purchases of arsenic in the spring of 1921 that bore her surname. The discovery of a cache of suggestive newspaper clippings at the Black Widow’s flat further inflamed police and public suspicions. One was a report of a judge’s charge to a jury, which seemed to have a lurid bearing on her present predicament: “Bear in mind that suspicion was an entirely different thing from legal proof, and it was in accordance with proofs and not suspicion that their verdict must be given.”

A second item provided a juicy rationale for the much-married suspect’s alleged modus operandi: “As to loving more than once, it certainly can be done. No love is so great that no one else can come along and take the place of the former love.”

What more did the authorities need to hear?—except, perhaps, this remark from the widow, kindly recalled by one of her friends: “Wasn’t Mrs. Kaber foolish to have her husband stabbed? Why didn’t she give him ground glass instead of poison?”

Excited Clevelanders didn’t know it, but the sensational story of the Black Widow was about to implode and disappear. Within five days it would vanish from the newspapers, Cuyahoga County coroner’s files, and police records forever. Almost everything known after May 5 consists of negative facts: We know that the supposedly infamous Black Widow was never indicted, never brought to trial, and never publicly exonerated from the terrible charges made against her. What happened?

In the absence of documented fact, conjecture rules—but it’s a pretty good guess that Stanton’s impressive case against the Black Widow was not so impressive after all. After the initial stories about the finding of arsenic in the corpse of No. 5, word leaked out that the amount was laughably insignificant. In fact, city chemist George Voerg at first reported that he could find no arsenic at all. Ordered to take a more scrupulous look, he eventually found the sought-for poison—at a concentration of one per three million parts in the dead man’s vital organs. This was considerably less that Edward Stanton’s indictment threshold of a tenth of a grain, so the body of No. 5 was once again dug up from Lake View Cemetery on the morning of May 6. Apparently, nothing more was found.

Nothing has been heard of the Black Widow since May 10, 1922, when Cuyahoga County authorities promised reporters that there would soon be “startling developments” in the flagging investigation. It is not known where she went, and whether she recovered her two daughters—whom the Red Cross had placed in foster homes—when she was finally let out of jail. Whether she was just a crass, unlucky gold digger or a fiendishly heartless serial killer remains an open question. It is only fair, however, to let her have the last word, considering the unproved charges against her. When she was first arrested, reporters could hear the Black Widow screaming from Stanton’s interrogation room, “It’s a lie! It’s a lie! I won’t answer another of your questions!” Her final word on her situation was issued through her attorney, G. W. Gurney, on May 8:

“I am the unnamed woman in County Jail. Much has been said unfavorable to me. I know the public wishes to know the truth . . . I am here because of false charges. It has been intimated that I may have poisoned my husband. The desire of public officials to gain applause for themselves soon opened the floodgates. If any of my accusers had any evidence that I had poisoned my husband, they kept it to themselves for nearly a year . . .

“I did not murder my husband. He died of natural causes. I loved him dearly . . . I have had many offers to marry since his death and some of the offers have come from wealthy men. If my business is to marry and kill for the love of gold, is it not a bit strange that I should have allowed a year to pass without any further pursuit of my profession? . . . There is no evidence of my guilt, for I am innocent. The county officials are merely trying to weave a chain of circumstances in my life that might make it possible for me to have poisoned the man I loved. How much easier it would be for them to weave a dozen chains to prove my innocence. My innocence would not please them. Meanwhile I must suffer . . . My greatest solace is that there must be someone who will believe me innocent, at least until some real evidence of my guilt has been discovered.”

Whatever her guilt or innocence, that “someone” was certainly not her one-time fiancé, piano mover L. P. Farrell. Upon learning of the charges against her, he replied, “When I read of her arrest, my blood turned cold. I am a lucky man to have escaped her . . . I had a feeling that I would meet a terrible end.”

Postscript

After years of persistent inquiry, I finally learned the identity of the “Black Widow.” Her name was Edith Murray, and her last husband was John Joseph Murray. They were living at 1907 East 40th Street at the time of his suspicious demise. Edith survived John by almost half a century before she died in Pennsylvania in 1969. She was buried with John in Lake View Cemetery. Her guilt or innocence in his death remains undetermined.


From the book The Corpse in the Cellar, © John Stark Bellamy II. All rights reserved.

Amazing Stories! (from The Great Indoors by Eric Broder)

The Great Indoors, a book by Eric Broder: Favorites 1987–1996Book Excerpt

From The Great Indoors by Eric Broder


I suppose you think that because this column is called “The Great Indoors” its author never goes outside. Just a couch potato who watches TV and eats Smokehouse almonds all night. A shlub who shuffles around the apartment giving himself carpet shocks. A guy to whom nothing happens.

Most of that is right. I do give myself shocks because I don’t pick up my feet when I walk. I’m trying to conquer this. I do watch a lot of TV, but that’s my job. I cover the waterfront. I admit I lie around on my can quite a bit. However, lots of things happen to me—amazing and exciting things. And they happen indoors.

I’d like to begin with my most exciting indoor incident. It involves Irma La Douce and a roach.

My friend Barbara and I went to the video store one summer evening last year and rented two movies on videodisc, Irma La Douce and A Thousand Clowns. We watched A Thousand Clowns, and enjoyed it very much. It was funny and heartwarming. Thought-provoking, too. It was dynamite entertainment, and I recommend it without reservation.

Anyway, we finished watching that and put on Irma La Douce. This movie was directed by Billy Wilder, one of my favorites. It wasn’t very good, but it was a handsome production, set in Paris and starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.

I should mention at this juncture that it was brutally hot and humid that night, and I was just wearing shorts. Total vulnerability! Naked human flesh that any vermin would be delighted to chew on! This is important to the story.

So we are watching this movie and having a fine time when we hear a small scuffling sound come from around the TV. We’re not children. We know this is a bug or a rat. In this kind of weather you expect them. But you don’t like them around, that’s for sure.

I instructed our cat, Vince, to flush the animal out and kill it, but she was not interested and went away. I tiptoed over to the TV and peered behind it. There it was: a roach, a good-sized one. I could say it looked up at me and spit, but that would be embellishing an already exciting story.

I clapped my fingers against my palm like a schoolteacher to frighten it out into the open. That didn’t work. I stomped my foot. The roach only moved his leg a little. At that point I decided to sit back down and just wait and enjoy the rest of Irma La Douce.

We didn’t have to wait long. The movie was almost over when the roach came out. We expected him to run off to the side of the room somewhere and disappear. But he didn’t. He came charging at us like L.A. Raider defensive lineman Howie Long! I can still hear him galloping across the room: pittapittapittapitta. I’d like to say I met him head on, but I squealed and bounded up onto the couch. Barbara moved fast but didn’t scream like I did. The roach went under the couch.

We determined that this roach had to go or we’d be hostages to fear. I lifted the couch and there he was, going to the lavatory. Barbara put a plastic cup down on top of him. Caught! But now the hard part. Sliding the top of the container under the bug. I told Barbara that I would do this, since it was my home and thus my bug. She held the couch up, and I carefully started sliding the lid under the roach’s legs.

I got him, and carried the cup to the incinerator in the apartment building’s back hall. I tried to throw the roach down the incinerator, but he flew back at me and landed with a thud near my feet. I jumped around a little, then raced back into the apartment, locking him out. It was a narrow escape.

That was the roach story. This next one is a little less heroic, but again proves there is as much danger indoors as there is out.

Several years ago, I was to take a car trip up to Northern Michigan. The night before I left, I foolishly drank to excess. I woke up early, and felt keen pain all over my body—and was not at my best mentally, either.

In my little second-floor apartment I had a Carry-Cool air conditioner balanced in the window, held down by the sash. I knew I had to bring the unit in because I would be gone three weeks.

I staggered over to the window and just lifted the sash. Instantly I knew I had made a mistake. I forgot to hold on to the air conditioner.

How can I possibly convey the thrill I felt at that moment, when I knew my air conditioner was falling out of my second-story window? I was conscious of the sound it was making: whizzzzzzz. And then crash, of course. It was an exciting few seconds in my life; perhaps the most exciting. I really knew I was alive. Though at that particular time I did wish I was dead.

I looked out of the window, and down. There was the air conditioner, all right, lying on the concrete driveway. It was broken. It looked like a cartoon burlesque of a broken thing, springs coming out of it, nuts and bolts scattered. It looked like that then, anyway. I rushed outside, gathered it up, and put it by the trash.

That was it for the air conditioner.

These are just a few stories from the indoor world of adventure. I could think of plenty more, like when the Great Blizzard of ’78 shattered my storm window when I had the flu. But I think I’ve made my point.


From the book The Great Indoors, © Eric Broder. All rights reserved.

Brown (from On Being Brown)

On Being Brown, a book by Scott Huler: What it Means to Be a Cleveland Browns FanBook Excerpt

From On Being Brown by Scott Huler


Brown is the color of my true love’s . . .

Start, naturally enough, with the ground. The ground on the field of Cleveland Municipal Stadium is as brown as dry, dead leaves, as brown as any ground has a right to be, as brown as any ground on which men play professional sports. On sunny days it is a yellow, sandy brown, but the first time I ever see it, during a dispirited 6–2 Browns loss to the Dallas Cowboys, it is a wet, muddy brown in a thick stripe down the middle of the field. The game is longtime coach Blanton Collier’s final home game, and the uneventful loss means more than I have any way of knowing at the time. Collier is the last man to guide the Browns to a championship, but to me this means little; I am only 10, and I know nothing of history. And this is, after all, the first time we meet.

Brown is the color of the milky coffee that my father pours out of his thermos, steaming into the damp November air, and sips to warm up. At home coffee is a bitter beverage, objectionable to my young tastes; at the stadium, coffee bespeaks halftime, the closeness of my father and my uncle, a momentary lessening of the tremendous pressure that fills the stadium while the game is in progress. The small, acrid coffee aroma mingles with the other rich stadium smells—of beer, of hot dogs, of liquor, of men’s breath. Above all, the coffee is brown.

Brown is the color of the crowd—a stadium Browns game is the first place that I experience the feeling of being in a crowd comprising many black people. To me they seem friendly, gentle, supportive in a deep, resonant way. They are brown; Jim Brown, something of a god in our household, is brown; the team is named the Browns. It all seems to go together in some inexplicable, mystical way, and I envy these brown people their more obvious identification with the team. In the distance, on the other side of the stadium, the crowd, a mixture of brown and white faces, gray and brown overcoats, and the white vapor of condensing breath, is the color of the coffee that comes out of my dad’s thermos, and so the crowd becomes in memory warm and steamy as well.

Brown is the color of the unfamiliar downtown buildings we pass as we drive in to the game, always arriving a half hour before kickoff. Brown is the color of the factories we can see in the distance under the low gray clouds beyond the bleachers. Brown is the color of the leaves by the side of the road, the mud at the schoolyard where my brother and I pretend we are football players. Brown is the color of autumn.

Brown is the color of my true love.


From the book On Being Brown, © Scott Huler. All rights reserved.

Where’d We Go? (from Feagler’s Cleveland)

Feagler’s Cleveland, a book by Dick Feagler: The Best from Three Decades of Commentary by Cleveland’s Top ColumnistBook Excerpt

From Feagler’s Cleveland by Dick Feagler


The day Cleveland came back, I was sitting in my bathrobe sucking on some coffee and trying to wake up. Then the telephone rang.

“We are calling from National Public Radio’s ‘Morning Edition’ program,” a nice young man from the East said. “We wonder if you will let us interview you. Cleveland has come back, you know.”

“I know,” I told him. “I read it in USA Today. They had a front-page story saying we were back, so we must be back.”

The young man assured me that we were. “The only trouble is, I’m not sure I’m the right person to interview about it,” I said. “I don’t feel as if I’ve ever been away. I’ve been here all the time.”

The young man considered this. But he announced it didn’t worry him.

He didn’t say this in so many words, but the impression I got was that he figured I had been away without realizing it. Cleveland had been away and, since I lived in Cleveland, I had been taken away with it. I had been like a passenger on a cruise ship who doesn’t realize the ship has left port until it is way out at sea.

But even if this were true, I still wasn’t crazy about being interviewed. I still had bad memories of the last time.

Back in 1980, they held the presidential debates in Cleveland. All the civic cheerleaders thought this was wonderful. They figured it was a sign that Cleveland had come back. Pretty soon they had me thinking so too.

Tom Brokaw came to town and wanted to interview me on the Today show. About how it felt to be back.

Full of confidence, I agreed. Soon after the interview started, Brokaw asked me about the weather in Cleveland. He had heard, he said, that it was pretty lousy between Christmas and Easter.

Flushed with pleasure at being back, I sprang to Cleveland’s defense.

“That isn’t our fault, Tom,” I said. “You see, it isn’t our weather. It comes here from someplace in the west. It stays around awhile and then it moves east. WE really aren’t responsible for it at all.”

I thought that was a pretty good answer and meteorologically sound, too. So you can imagine my dismay when, right after the show, all the civic cheerleaders gave me hell.

“What kind of a dumb thing was that to say?” they screamed at me. “Why didn’t you talk about our orchestra and our art museum? How are we ever going to come back if people hear stupid things like that?”

“I thought we WERE back,” I said.

“Not yet,” they said. “We’re coming back but we’re not back. And what you just said set our comeback back. Shame on you.”

I never got over that. So when the guy from Public Radio called, I was pretty nervous. Suppose we weren’t really back yet? Suppose I again said something that blew us back out to sea right in the sight of land?

I knew I had to be pretty careful this time. So when the interviewer asked me how it felt to be back, I said this:

I said that back in grade school there was always one kid that everybody made fun of. Maybe they started making fun of him because of the way he walked or talked. But pretty soon they were making fun of him just because it made the rest of them feel like big men. Cleveland was like that kid, I said. And the rest of the country was like the other kids.

But then, I said, if there’s justice and a God in heaven, that kid gets straight A’s and a scholarship to Harvard. And he becomes a brain surgeon and makes 500 grand a year. And when he comes back to the class reunion, he’s the only one with hair and he’s got a blonde on his arm who looks like a model. And that’s the way Cleveland feels today, I said.

That seemed to go over pretty well. At least nobody bawled me out for saying it.

But since we’re friends, I’ll tell you how I really feel.

I think Cleveland is like a pair of pleated pants. If you’d worn pleated pants three years ago, everybody would have laughed at you. But this year, pleated pants are the latest thing and so is Cleveland. It’s all a matter of fad and fashion.

The thing for us Clevelanders to do with our new national respect is to enjoy it and wear it with pride.

And make damn sure we keep the fly zipped.


From the book Feagler’s Cleveland, © Dick Feagler. All rights reserved.

Cracking the Show (from The Making of Major League)

The Making of Major League, a book by Jonathan Knight: A Juuuust a Bit Inside Look at the Classic Baseball ComedyBook Excerpt

From The Making of Major League by Jonathan Knight


As the clock ticked toward midnight on a cool spring Saturday night in 2013—just over 25 years since the day Bob DiBiasio first read the Major League script—the scene inside the Capitol Theatre on the near west side of Cleveland was a bit bizarre. Scurrying between the seats and carrying boxes of popcorn and snacks were similarly dressed patrons, each as excited as if it were Christmas Eve. They wore makeshift jerseys with names on the back that were neither their own nor those of actual big-league ballplayers, and their bellies were still full after devouring the special “It’s Way Too High” melt offered by a neighboring restaurant for the occasion.

When the clock hands joined together, the theater darkened, and as the opening piano chords of Randy Newman’s ballad “Burn On” tinkled through the speakers against a montage of downtown Cleveland, the crowd applauded and hooted, even though they’d seen these images dozens of times before.

Major League had reached a level (and time slot) of cult esteem reserved for such classics as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and was being played for an enthusiastic midnight audience, many of whom dressed up as their favorite characters, nearly a quarter-century after the film’s release.

Not all movies graduate to Saturday-midnight-showing status. Even box-office blockbusters and critical darlings don’t generally know the password into this proverbial cinematic speakeasy. It takes a true cult classic, the type of movie that nurtures a passionately dedicated base and subculture of fans who know each scene and each word by heart. Major League has become one.

Although not everyone is quite zealous enough to stay up until the witching hour for a viewing, many thousands of fans return to the film repeatedly and regularly. Maryhelen Zabas—previously known as Sister Mary Assumpta, and an iconic Indians fan who cameoed in the film—estimates she watches Major League at least once every three months. Like the prayers she committed to memory in her half-century in the church, she can recite every line of the film without hesitation. “Any time I need a good laugh,” she says, “I watch it.”

She’s certainly not alone in her repetitious viewing or rote memorization. In Key West filming a movie with Goldie Hawn, actor James Gammon (who portrayed Tribe manager Lou Brown on screen) was stunned when Hawn’s 12-year-old daughter, future actress Kate Hudson, came up to him and began reciting his lines from Major League. “It happened continually,” his wife Nancy says. “He’d be in the bank or the grocery store and people would come up to him. They’d know all of his lines.” Other members of the cast have experienced the same phenomenon.

“Out of all the movies I’ve ever done,” says Rene Russo, who catapulted from Major League into a fantastic Hollywood career, “that’s the one that more people come up to me to talk about. It really is a cult classic. Not even cult, really. Everybody just loves that film.”

The movie has become part of baseball’s life cycle. As the snow begins to melt in late March (and, all too often, then begins to fall again), fans gather in rec rooms and basements and replay the movie in a cherished ritual that indicates a new baseball season is about to begin.

Like peanuts and Cracker Jacks, Major League has become intertwined with the fabric of baseball. With self-deprecation, strong comedic writing, classic performances, and repeated viewing, the film gradually entered the lexicon of the game. By the early 1990s, sportscasters, particularly ESPN’s cadre of vivacious on-air desk jockeys, were borrowing terminology provided by Bob Uecker in Major League to describe actual game highlights, and the trend began to spread.

When you attend a major-league game anywhere in the country, you’re bound to encounter Major League references and influences, even if they’re so accepted you don’t recognize them.

“Fans bring it into real life,” explains Bob DiBiasio, who today is the Indians’ vice president of sales and marketing. “It’s the way they remember certain scenes and certain phrases from the movie. You’ll be sitting at the ballpark and there’ll be an outside pitch, and somebody sitting nearby will make the Uecker call: ‘Juuuust a bit outside.’ Somebody hits a long home run and you see guys in the bleachers saying, ‘It’s too high, it’s too high.’ It’s morphed into people doing their own play-by-play. And there’s such an age range—you’ve got people in their 50s doing it and kids doing it. You can’t go through a game without hearing that kind of stuff. I feel like it’s a part of us.”

The film has spawned a cottage industry. Sprinkled among the inventory of the sidewalk concessioners outside Progressive Field on game day, you’ll find dozens of different Major League-themed t-shirts and apparel. Once inside the ballpark, you’ll see a handful of fans wearing replica jerseys mimicking the one worn by Charlie Sheen in his portrayal of “Wild Thing” Rick Vaughn, who became the most recognized character of the film.

“When you think about other baseball movies, is there any equivalent to somebody wearing a Vaughn jersey?” DiBiasio asks. “I don’t think so.”

While Vaughn’s is the most commonly spotted, it’s certainly not the only Major League jersey you’ll see. There are jerseys for Pedro Cerrano, Willie Mays Hayes, and Jake Taylor. You’ll even spot a few Roger Dorn jerseys floating around big-league ballparks if you pay attention.

Major League is both baseball’s version of Star Trek and Cleveland’s version of The Wizard of Oz. At its heart, it represents the hybrid of frustration, eternal optimism, and good humor that has defined baseball and its fans for more than a century.

A scene early in the movie encapsulates both the origin and the intention of the film. Dinged-up veteran catcher Jake Taylor has just received one last chance to resurrect his big-league career and, in street clothes, he strolls out to home plate in an empty Cleveland Stadium. Standing alone, soaking in his surroundings, he intones the voice of an imaginary announcer.

“Two down, bottom of the ninth, game is tied . . . ”

He raises his arm and points to the center-field fence.

“Taylor calls his shot,” he says casually, as if this were something he did each time he stepped into the batter’s box. “There’s the pitch . . .”

He swings his imaginary bat at the imaginary ball, and we hear the satisfying crack of solid contact mingled with the ghostly roar of imaginary fans watching the ball follow Taylor’s projected path over the outfield wall.

He jogs triumphantly around the bases, pumping his fist. (He looks not unlike gimpy Kirk Gibson pumping his fist after his dramatic game-winning home run for the Dodgers in the 1988 World Series. Though of course on the day of this scene’s filming, Gibson’s celebration was two months in the future.) Taylor is offered congratulations by an invisible third-base coach and then is greeted by his jubilant, nonexistent teammates at home plate.

The exercise is as ordinary and understood as baseball itself, reflecting the dreams of youngsters who hope to one day make it reality as well as the nostalgic musings of adults on their unfulfilled—perhaps unrealistic—goals.

Although the scene sets up an ironic climax to the film, there’s otherwise not much remarkable about it. It’s overshadowed by funnier, more dynamic scenes that surround it. But in essence, the scene represents how and why this movie was made. Instead of acting out a baseball fantasy with an imaginary bat and ball, David Ward did it with a pencil and a pad of paper.

• • •

When you come right down to it, it was all the fault of Willie Mays.

The seed for one of the most memorable, most beloved sports movies ever made—and a piece of baseball cinema that wound up altering the game itself—was planted when Willie Mays made the most amazing play of his career and provided the game of baseball with one of its most iconic moments.

The 1954 World Series was supposed to be a coronation. The Cleveland Indians had spent the summer accomplishing two seemingly impossible feats: winning a record 111 games in a 154-game schedule and, perhaps more impressively, ending the New York Yankees’ five-year dynasty as world champions. The Fall Classic, which began in the Polo Grounds against the outrageously overmatched New York Giants on a balmy late September afternoon, was essentially the anticlimax to a magnificent season.

Indeed, when Cleveland first baseman Vic Wertz launched a Don Little pitch into the dark recesses of the Polo Grounds’ vast center field with the game tied and two on in the top of the eighth inning, it appeared the Indians had just secured a Game One victory. But anyone who knows baseball history knows what happened next. Mays, who was just beginning to show everyone how special he was, turned his back on the ball, sprinted to a part of the outfield seldom used in the course of a game, made an over-the-shoulder catch 460 feet from home plate for the out, then spun and whipped the ball back into the infield to thwart a rally.

Eight-year-old David Ward, his eyes glued to a minuscule black-and-white television screen back in Cleveland Heights, couldn’t believe it. Even at his age, he knew this was a play that shouldn’t—maybe even couldn’t—have been made. Instead of winning the game as they’d done so many times this golden season, his Indians went on to lose, two innings later, on a chip-shot homer that traveled barely half as far as Vic Wertz’s flyout.

Crazy as it sounds today, at the time, championships were not completely unexpected by Cleveland fans. The Indians had won a world title in 1948 and the Browns had captured three NFL championships in their first six years in the league.

This was the Cleveland that David Ward called home. Technically, he wasn’t a native, having been born in Providence, Rhode Island, in the fall of 1945. But by Christmas of that year, his father, an airplane mechanic during the war, had moved the family to Cleveland to sell piston rings for TRW. In this town, in this era, it didn’t take much to become a sports fan. Even at a young age, Ward could tell from his slender frame that he wasn’t a natural football player, so he gravitated to baseball, and with his dad regularly able to score Indians tickets, Ward quickly adopted the Tribe as his own.

In turn, cavernous Cleveland Stadium became almost magical to him. Each time he neared the stadium and saw the giant metallic sign with grinning Chief Wahoo posted atop the outer wall, Ward’s pulse would quicken.

“That was one of the first things you’d see walking to the turnstiles from the parking lot,” he remembers. “God, that was great. I felt I was going to a sacred place where only the initiates were allowed. Like you’d actually gone to someplace that exists on a higher plane of reality. I’d just stand there with my mouth open and look at all of it, thinking, This is where the gods play.”

The Indians’ dominance in 1954 came as no surprise to the young Ward as his mania for the team hit its peak. He felt he was simply witnessing the natural progression of greatness. Surely this would be the first in a long line of Indians championship seasons he would experience.

Then Willie Mays dropped an anvil on Cleveland’s head.

“I just couldn’t comprehend it,” Ward says. “As a kid you sort of looked to the adults around you to see how they process this. None of the adults I looked to knew how to process it, either.”

Things only got worse. The Giants won another close game the following afternoon to put the Indians in a two-game hole. Nervousness began to spread around Cleveland like a low-grade fever. “I could just see it in my dad,” Ward recalls. “I could see that creeping dread . . . the Cleveland disease.” Rocked on their heels, the Indians faithful watched in horror as the Giants wrapped things up in Cleveland over the weekend, pummeling the Tribe in the next two games to complete a stunning four-game sweep.

Ward was still three weeks away from his ninth birthday, but he’d just received his first harsh lesson of adulthood: Things don’t always turn out the way you want.

“After that, it felt as if the baseball gods didn’t want the Indians to win,” he says. “When a guy hits arguably the longest ball in the history of the World Series and it’s an out, that’s when you know that being an Indians fan is a real mixed bag. It’s been an uphill struggle ever since.”

Although Ward would continue to follow the Indians on what turned out to be their long descent into oblivion, he did so from outside Cleveland. Just over a year after the World Series sweep, Ward’s father moved the family again, this time to Kirkwood, Missouri, outside St. Louis. Ward adopted the Cardinals as his preferred National League team and envisioned the Cards and his beloved Tribe squaring off in an epic World Series.

And it was that kind of imagination that eventually paved the way toward David Ward’s career.

• • •

He was supposed to be a doctor.

Like most parents of that generation, Ward’s father saw a medical degree as the apex of the American dream, and always pressured his son to get grades good enough to get him into college and get him started on a solid career. After moving from Cleveland to St. Louis, the Ward family then moved to northern California, and finally to Fullerton, just outside Los Angeles, where Ward graduated from Sunny Hills High School.

His grades were indeed good enough, and he enrolled at Pomona College in Claremont, California, then and now one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the nation. It didn’t take Ward long to realize that he couldn’t follow the path his father had planned for him. “I hit organic chemistry,” he says, “and realized I wasn’t going to make it through to being a doctor. It just wasn’t for me.”

He bounced among five different majors over the next three years, finally settling on government because it was the one for which he was closest to completing the credits he needed for graduation. He felt no real passion for the subject, though. So, in his senior year, when he was assigned to write an essay for a political theory class comparing Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he desperately tried to find a way to stave off the crippling boredom the assignment entailed. In an episode of slightly geeky 1960s counterculture rebellion, he wrote an essay comparing Rousseau to musician Bob Dylan and turned it in.

After class a few days later, his professor called him into his office. Ward cringed, thinking he was about to be berated and lectured for his lack of respect for the professor and his course. And that’s how it started out. “First of all,” the professor began, “your political theory is crap.” Then the conversation—and David Ward’s life—made a hairpin turn. “But,” the professor continued, “your writing is really interesting. I was fascinated reading this essay. I don’t get many like this. Have you ever thought of writing?”

In retrospect, he realized that the professor might have just been trying to get an uninspired student out of his class. Writing hadn’t interested Ward before. He had been equally bored by an American literature course he’d taken.

“I’d never done any writing,” he says. “I didn’t go around making up stories or anything like that, and I was probably the least well-read person on the campus.”

But the more he thought about it, he realized that even as a kid back in Cleveland, he’d always loved movies. From the day he came out of a theater swinging an imaginary sword after watching Prince Valiant, he had spent the rest of his childhood begging his dad to take him to the movies. And as it happened, the college class he remembered most fondly was a theater course he’d taken the previous year. Not long after, this convergence of realizations inspired Ward to gather some friends—one of whom was a photographer—and whip up an eight-minute movie just for the hell of it.

“It was the most fun thing I had done in college,” Ward says.

With graduation on the horizon, he contemplated the craziest notion of his life: maybe he should go to film school. He applied to the University of Southern California’s prestigious film school, in the middle of a golden era in which it produced George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, John Carpenter, and Ron Howard. With nothing to show the school but his eight-minute lark of a film, an existential vignette about a guy meeting a girl in an airport, Ward applied anyway and was accepted.

His decision to attend film school wasn’t well-received by his father, who told him if he wanted to take a misstep on his life’s journey, he’d have to pay for it himself. Juggling classes between jobs as a security guard and an assistant editor at an educational film company where he’d put together dental films shot entirely inside people’s mouths, Ward managed to make it through a year at USC before realizing he couldn’t afford to continue. With USC out of scholarships, he went across town and enrolled at UCLA’s film school, where tuition was about one-tenth that of USC’s.

In his second year at UCLA, Ward started kicking around ideas for his thesis, which for most students meant making a longer film. Ward began writing a script, but it took on a life of its own, quickly exceeding the boundaries of what he could produce. Instead of making a movie, he decided his thesis would be a screenplay for a feature-length film. Over an eight-month period, Ward worked on his script—a screwball, counterculture comedy about a group of misfits trying to repair an airplane to fly to a deserted island in order to live life as they wanted, away from the pressures and pitfalls of modern society. He titled it Steelyard Blues.

After scribbling the words by hand on legal pads—a method that would continue throughout his career—Ward needed to package them into a clean, readable format. He took his tattered pages across the street from UCLA to the Venice Skill Center, where he made a deal to have the stenography students type them. He became friends with the man who ran the place, who eventually provided a cleanly typed screenplay. Ward thought it was good enough to shop around Hollywood, even though it was the first effort of a complete unknown. He got nowhere fast. But then, foreshadowing the type of witty, intelligent stories he would later tell over the course of his career, Ward got his first big break by accident. Or more specifically, because of an accident.

Out of the blue one day, his new buddy from the Venice Skill Center stopped by Ward’s apartment with interesting news.

“Y’know what? Strange thing,” he began. “You’ve been looking for an agent, right?”

Ward admitted he had and leaned forward with interest.

“My wife just had a fender bender with an agent a couple of weeks ago. He’s a really nice guy. We settled it and actually had dinner the other night. Could I give him your script?”

And with that began a mesmerizing whirlwind that turned an unknown film-school student into an Oscar winner in fewer than 36 months.

The agent was Stu Miller, who loved Steelyard Blues and sent it to Tony Bill, a successful actor who’d just begun working as a producer. Bill also was enamored of Ward’s script and shared it with his new partners, Michael and Julia Phillips, who were on the brink of becoming the dynamic duo of Hollywood producers. Then the ball really started rolling. They sent the script to actor Donald Sutherland, fresh from his breakthrough roles in the film version of M*A*S*H and Kelly’s Heroes. Sutherland was eager to star in it. Jane Fonda, who was in a relationship with Sutherland at the time and was the up-and-coming star of Barefoot in the Park and Klute, in which she’d starred with Sutherland, also agreed to do it. Warner Brothers stepped in to finance the project, and in the proverbial blink of an eye, Steelyard Blues had gone from a stenography assignment to a major Hollywood production.

And just like that, David Ward had cracked the show.

But it didn’t take long for reality to nibble at the edges of fantasy. The studio balked at Ward’s casting suggestions, and the director seemed in over his head. Fonda refused to play certain parts of the script. Ward frantically rewrote scenes on the fly, but she still wouldn’t cooperate, and her character—and the story—began to change dramatically.

Although this was his first time at the circus, Ward recognized the situation for what it was and quickly decided he had had enough, eventually walking away from the movie. Naturally, when it was released in January of 1973, he was disappointed by the final product. But there was a silver lining to Steelyard Blues’s dark cloud.

“It didn’t hurt me that much because nobody saw it,” Ward admits. “That’s the only break we caught. If a film really bombed badly, especially back then, it didn’t hurt you that much because nobody saw it and nobody even associated you with it. If a movie bombed, it just disappeared.”

Steelyard Blues had come and gone in a puff of smoke. With it, Ward assumed, went his chances of succeeding in Hollywood. “I just thought I’d set a new world record for the shortest movie career in history,” he says.

As it turned out, though, the opposite was true. David Ward, just turned 27, would soon be off to the races—both figuratively and literally.

• • •

You could say that David Ward pickpocketed an Academy Award.

Not that there was any thievery or chicanery involved; rather, Ward took a simple concept and turned it into a beloved legend. And nobody knew he was doing it.

Although Steelyard Blues certainly never received Oscar consideration, it inspired an idea that did. The script included a pickpocket scene, and, knowing nothing about how the practice worked, Ward began researching it. He learned about grifters and a shadowy subculture of street crime in which grifters were at the bottom of the food chain and confidence men were at the top. He was fascinated by their means, motives, and relative morality, particularly the way con men generally didn’t use violence or technically steal anything, but leveraged people’s greed to manipulate them into handing over their money. He thought it would make a great movie.

Ward conceived a tale of an elaborate ragtime plot cooked up by a young grifter who teams with an experienced con man to outsmart a powerful criminal with a fake racetrack gambling operation. When Steelyard Blues was purchased, Tony Bill asked Ward if he was working on anything else. Ward described his new idea, and Bill was fascinated. “Tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t you put together a little story and record it on a tape recorder and I’ll take it up to Redford?”

“Redford,” of course, was 35-year-old Robert Redford, who’d just exploded into prominence with back-to-back hits Barefoot in the Park (with Ward’s favorite leading lady, Jane Fonda) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Bill had already established a relationship with Redford, so when he played the cassette of Ward explaining the story, Redford loved the idea and asked that when the script was done, they bring it to him first. Ward completed the script in late 1972, Bill took it to Redford, and the rest is history.

“That film came together in about two weeks,” Ward remembers. “It’s never, ever happened like that since.”

“That film” was The Sting, and once Redford was on board, things got real in a hurry. George Roy Hill signed on to direct and recruited matinee idol Paul Newman and venerable character actor Robert Shaw to star alongside Redford.

When it was released on Christmas Day 1973, it became a classic almost instantly. The Sting won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and, when Neil Simon opened the envelope for the winner for Best Original Screenplay, it was David Ward’s name he announced. Ward floated onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion unable to quite believe what had happened.

“I didn’t really understand it until I was backstage,” he remembers. “Photographers were taking pictures, and there were all these famous people. Then it started to hit me that this was a pretty big deal.”

The kid who’d never wanted to be a writer had reached the peak of his profession at the tender age of 28. He now had the financial and creative freedom to carefully select the scripts he wanted to write and take his time in developing them.

Yet as rewarding and thrilling as winning the Oscar was, it also became something of a burden. For the next several years, Ward felt that in order to meet expectations he had to deliver a script for another big movie. Eventually, though, the pressure eased. He turned his focus toward finding a smaller film—this time to both write and direct.

He scripted an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row, a book he’d always loved, but this one didn’t come together quickly, ultimately taking four years to make it to the screen. Along the way, the script landed on the desk of a young executive at brand-new Orion Pictures, Chris Chesser.

“I loved that script,” Chesser says. “And that’s how I met David.” Although Chesser and Ward wouldn’t work together on Cannery Row, the relationship they established would ultimately pay off.

Just prior to its release in February 1982, Cannery Row earned incredibly high preview-audience scores, and it appeared Ward had created another critical and commercial success. But on opening night, Ward walked into the cavernous Village Theater in Westwood and counted 20 people in the seats. It was a depressing moment that ranked with the ’54 Series and forecasted what was about to happen. Cannery Row made just $5 million—barely enough to crack the top 100 moneymaking films of the year and a figure that certainly wasn’t going to encourage studios to hire Ward as a director. For him to keep up his promising career path, he needed to be very careful about selecting his next project.

“I’d had a big hit as a writer, but as a director I’d only done one movie, and it was a flop,” he says. “I might get a second chance, but I wasn’t going to get a third chance. The next movie I did had to work. So I started thinking about what kind of movie I’d like to do.”

The concept came to him surprisingly quickly when he figured out a way to fuse two of his passions—storytelling and baseball—and use them to connect his future to his past.

Fresh from adapting John Steinbeck, David Ward decided to adapt the Cleveland Indians.


From the book The Making of Major League, © Jonathan Knight. All rights reserved.

The Ashtabula Hat Trick – Chapter One

The Ashtabula Hat Trick, a book by Les Roberts: A Milan Jacovich Mystery (#18)Book Excerpt

From The Ashtabula Hat Trick (a Milan Jacovich Mystery) by Les Roberts


“Not exactly the world’s most luxurious vacation resort,” Tobe murmured as we pulled into the parking lot of the little motel just off the I-90 exit toward Conneaut after an hour’s drive from her place on the near West Side of Cleveland.

We’ve maintained separate residences. We love spending time together, but each of us needs privacy, our “alone time.” I’ve been married, though she has not, but each of us independently decided we didn’t want an every-moment love affair. We’re committed and monogamous, but we’re individuals, and we like it that way.

The motel where the Cleveland P.D. had made a reservation for us—or rather, for Tobe, as I was just along for the ride—looked like those that appeared in many films noir of the 1950s. It didn’t seem run-down, and was apparently clean enough, but it was hardly a honeymoon resort, either. I’m not even sure it had a swimming pool.

“Not that I expected a Ritz-Carlton,” I said, “but couldn’t your department afford a nicer hotel?”

She rolled her eyes to the spring-blue heavens. “There aren’t a lot of hotels in Ashtabula County.”

I laughed; she pronounces the name of the county and city incorrectly. She says Ash-ta-BOO-la, but it’s really Ash-ta-BYEW-la. She also says LEEma for Lima, Ohio, as though it were the capital of Peru, instead of how all other Ohioans pronounce it—LIEma, like the bean. But then, she’s from Raleigh originally, by way of Cincinnati—I guess they talk funny down there.

Side note: I loathe lima beans.

“We should have brought Herbie,” I said. Herbie was my recently acquired dog. I had never had an animal of any kind, and Herbie was a surprise. His name wasn’t Herbie, either; he was Booger, thanks to his original owner, who didn’t survive my last murder investigation—but I refused to call any living creature Booger. Tobe and I together named him Herbie, after a courageous dog rescued and cared for until his death in a western suburb of Cleveland by a cop who was all heart. Despite my having to stay upwind of him, he’d grown on me—and my changing his diet from the dirt-cheap generic dog food he’d been fed all his life to a decent brand had minimized but didn’t completely stop his noxious gastric problems.

K.O. was keeping Herbie while I went out of town with Tobe—and probably his girlfriend, Carli, was less than thrilled about that. Life changes—but we get used to it.

I said, “Aren’t there any bed-and-breakfast inns around here?”

“There are cabins by the lake you can rent by the week—but McHargue wasn’t sure how long we’d be here and didn’t want to nick the department for a few extra days. Geneva-on-the-Lake has several bed-and-breakfasts. But if the owners saw some black, gun-packing female cop investigating a double homicide show up with her Caucasian boyfriend, you think they’d give us the key to the city?”

The clerk at the motel was caught off guard when he got his first glimpse of us. There must be interracial couples in Ashtabula, but they probably don’t check into this particular establishment. He immediately stopped looking at us, but studied the reservation as if memorizing it. Finally circumstances forced him to talk to me. Not to Tobe, mind you, but to me. “Are you with the Cleveland Police Department, sir?”

I’m with the police department,” Tobe informed him, flashing her buzzer. “He’s a private investigator, also from Cleveland. Milan, show him your license.”

“That’s not necessary,” the clerk said too quickly. “So—do you wish adjoining rooms?”

“My department only booked one room, isn’t that so?”

“Well, yes—but . . .”

“Then one room is all we’ll need,” she said.

The clerk’s eyebrows rose to nearly meet his hairline—if he’d had one. His eyes were large and bulging, his nose upward bound and pointed, making him resemble a puppet that, like Pinocchio, had been magically brought to life. As he studied us both, dirty pictures stoked his imagination. “I’ll have to charge you extra.” He looked down at the countertop, fiddled with his clipboard, examined his fingernails, checked the weather outside the window. His job was to interface with the public; perhaps he was only comfortable interfacing with white people. “The reservation is for one. For two, it’s a different rate.”

“Then I’ll pay the extra in cash,” I said, “and you collect the regular fee from the Cleveland Police Department.”

Sniffing, he pushed the clipboard toward me. “You’ll have to sign in, too. I’ll have to see some identification from you,” he said.

“You said about sixty seconds ago it wasn’t necessary. Oh, well . . .” I flipped open my wallet so he could see my driver’s license, and fished out my P.I. license, too. He laboriously studied my name, Milan Jacovich, as though it were written in Farsi. Then he tried it aloud: “Mee-LAHN Ja-CO-vich.”

“Not even close.” I counted out five twenties and pushed them across the counter at him.

“How many days will you be here?” he demanded.

“It depends,” Tobe snapped. She signed the registration card with a flourish. “May we have an extra room key, or should we just break in through the window?”

He pursed his lips as he handed her two electronic cards that would open our motel room door. “I’m just being careful,” he said.

“Well, my friend here will watch to see I don’t steal any of your towels.” Tobe glanced at his cheap name plaque on the counter. “Feelo Ackerman, is it?”

“It’s Philo!” he said, offended. “Long i. Philo!”

“I’m Tobe Blaine. Long o. E sounds like Y, but isn’t. Long a. And a long memory.” She spun quickly and marched from the office.

I leaned over the counter. “A news flash, Mr. Ackerman. It’s not 1850 anymore, and we’re not in antebellum Alabama.”

Being six-three and weighing two-thirty, I like it when what I say leaves a person silent, with mouth gaping. Tobe and I found our motel room, with a queen-sized bed—the advertisement online had promised king-sized, along with Wi-Fi—and a view overlooking the I-90 freeway.

“Feelo?” I said.

“It takes so little to piss people off—like when someone calls you MEElan, or pronounces the J in your last name like J instead of Y.”

“Now I feel bad for poor Feelo.” I pulled aside the curtains and looked out at the busy freeway. Cars and trucks rumbled noisily by. “Should we ask for a quieter room?”

She hung her bag in the closet and tossed her suitcase on the bed. “If you want to stay in some five-star hotel, hook up with the ambassador to Spain and not a homicide cop.”

“The ambassador to Spain isn’t as sexy as you are.”

“You don’t know that. He might be.” She checked her watch. “We should head for the police department. The chief expects us.”

“A chief,” I observed, “with not enough Indians.”

“If he had more Indians, we wouldn’t be here. And while we’re at it, Milan, Indians are from India. You mean Native Americans.”

“If you say ‘a chief without enough Native Americans,’ the joke isn’t funny.”

“It wasn’t funny to begin with.” She opened her suitcase and removed her holstered gun, strapping it to her waist.

“Think you’ll have to shoot somebody today?”

“You never know. But take away my weapon and I’m just a middle-aged black woman with a lousy attitude.”

We went out to the gray Ford Taurus the Cleveland P.D. had assigned to her. When we began our trip from Cleveland, Tobe had said, “It’s a cop car. I’m the cop, so I drive. That’s the rules.” She’d slid behind the wheel and patted the passenger seat beside her. “Hop in, Milan. Pretend I’m Morgan Freeman and you’re Miss Daisy.”

A six-minute trip from Conneaut to Queenstown took us through lush spring greenery, with the lake stretched before us on one side, looking bigger, cleaner, and more tranquil than it looks from Cleveland. Then again, the summertime view from downtown, with all those white sails bobbing in the distance, takes your breath away. But we were on a more peaceful road—although two recent local murders didn’t make its citizens feel peaceful.

There wasn’t much of Queenstown that was nonresidential, and virtually no retail. They didn’t even have a movie theater, although I noticed a sign outside their library announcing a relatively new film showing every Friday evening. The police department in the “town center” was different from all other structures in the village, which are nearly a century old, and well cared for. The building also housed a small meeting room, and the offices of those who kept Queenstown running. Made of yellowish brick, it had been erected during the sixties—that crazy decade when everyone tried to decide whether they were a hawk or a dove, a hippie or the Establishment, a drunkard or a doper.

The P.D. itself boasted only two rooms—the large reception room, and the other room, the chief’s office. He sat with his broad girth spread out behind an executive desk that was too big for the room. Pinned to a tropical sports shirt, the chief’s gold badge looked silly. His head was shaved and very round, as were his face and body; he looked like a snowman. His name was on a plaque: Chief of Police Eino Koskinen. I wondered whether everyone in this county had a desk plaque.

Koskinen appeared as surprised as the motel clerk when he saw Tobe Blaine, armed and wearing her own badge. “Your mayor said you were coming,” he said pleasantly, “but he didn’t mention you were a—female detective.”

“That’s because,” Tobe said, “the mayor and I never shower together.”

Pursing his lips, he chose to ignore that. “And you, sir?”

I handed him my card and pronounced my name for him. “I’m accompanying Detective Sergeant Blaine.”

“Accompanying,” he said softly, reading my card. “Does this mean you’re entitled to all the same perks and privileges?”

Tobe answered for me. “You’d be surprised at his perks and privileges, Chief. He asks good questions, too.”

He nodded. “So where you-all staying at?”

I tried not to smile as I told him the name of the motel. “Yeah—just off the freeway. Well, listen now—I’m wondering,” Koskinen said, stroking his chin, “if we’re looking for a serial killer.”

Tobe leaned her elbow on a filing cabinet against the wall. “May we get info on the victims?”

He sighed. “You’re calling the shots.” He took two thick files and led us back out into the outer office, which doubled as his “conference room,” with a dinette-sized table seating six and mismatched chairs. He opened the first file and spread out the contents in front of me; Tobe had to crane her neck to get a good look.

“This was Number One,” the chief said.

The photograph was of a middle-aged white male wearing a gray suit, dark blue tie, glasses, and one of those comb-over haircuts ineffectively hiding a bald spot, smiling into the camera while sitting at a table in a restaurant. “Paul J. Fontaine. He has a ranch, right on the Queenstown-Conneaut border. Raised and sold horses—not good horses, but he unloaded lots of them to the Amish. Also sold scrub veggies. He made a good living, but no millionaire.” Koskinen puffed up his chest, or was he sticking out his gut? “I liked him.”

“You knew him?” I said.

“It’s a small town. Everybody knows everybody.”

“Married or single?” Tobe asked.

“Me or him?”

Tobe sighed and pointed to Paul J. Fontaine’s photograph. “Married to Maude Fontaine for twenty-one years,” the chief explained. “Two teen kids, a boy and a girl. Paul was born in Queenstown; Maude went to Conneaut High School, down the road.”

Tobe looked at me. “Locals. How did he die?”

Chief Koskinen moved the top photograph aside. The second had been taken at the crime scene—Fontaine at the wheel of his pickup truck, wearing a lightweight windbreaker over a white shirt, lying back against the seat, head back and mouth wide open. The left side of his chest was soaked with blood.

“Bullet wounds?”

“Knife wound—right through the heart.”

“Where’s the knife?”

Koskinen shrugged.

I asked, “Who did the autopsy?”

He looked annoyed. “The coroner. Who you think did it?”

“Where was the car?” Tobe wanted to know.

“In Sunset Park.” He extracted another photograph—taken about ten feet away from the car with Fontaine’s body still in it, in a small parking area next to a stretch of grass and trees on a ridge overlooking Lake Erie and an ancient beach that had been traveled by seventeenth-century Native Americans so often that it formed a natural road. “My officer Joe Platko found him. He was on his usual shift, just driving around, when he—uh—found Paul Fontaine.”

“Was this near Mr. Fontaine’s ranch?”

“About four or five miles away—between here and Conneaut.”

“Why did Officer Platko investigate a car in a parking lot?”

Koskinen fussily neatened the report pages on the table. “Sunset Park is—the kind of place people visit in order to—uh, meet other people, if you know what I mean.”

“I’m not sure I do know what you mean,” Tobe said.

He sighed. “Aw, hell. You go up there if you’re horny—hoping you’ll meet somebody else as horny as you are.”

“You mean prostitutes hang out in Sunset Park?”

Now the chief looked shocked and offended. “We have no prostitutes around here, Detective. This is a straitlaced town.”

She nodded. “So townies go up to Sunset Park when they want to get un-laced. Is that it?”

“Mostly kids, doggone it. Teenagers deal with raging hormones.”

Tobe’s eyes locked with mine and she silently mouthed “Doggone it” and tried not to smile. “Doggone it” isn’t an expression heard often in Cleveland.

I said, “How long had he been dead?”

“You’ll have to ask the coroner that.”

Tobe put in, “What kind of knife was it?”

“Ask the coroner that, too.”

Scribbling Coroner in my notebook, I said, “Was the second victim knifed, too?”

“Nope.” He opened another file. “Cordis Poole. Forty-nine years old—an insurance salesman for State Farm in Conneaut. Wife’s Gwen—teenage son’s Cordis Junior. Everybody calls him Junior, but I’m not sure he likes that.”

I said, “He probably hates being called Cordis, too. It’s a redneck name.”

Atop the file was a candid photograph of Cordis Poole the elder, a high school jock grown chunky with middle age, grinning at the camera, holding a football and wearing a Steelers jersey. The second photo was of Poole lying facedown in some sort of creek or river in the darkness, the back of his skull crushed. “Looks like some sort of hammer or iron pipe, but we haven’t found a weapon for either killing.” Koskinen sadly shook his head. “I’ve been a cop twenty-six years—but murder isn’t in my wheelhouse.”

“Where was this photo taken?” I asked.

“Tinker’s Hollow—at one end of the bridge.” Rising heavily, he pointed to an Ashtabula County map hanging on one wall, his finger almost caressing the thin blue line that was Conneaut Creek. “Who knows if he was pushed off the bridge? You can’t drive across it—it’s been closed for years. They say Tinker’s Hollow is haunted. I’ve never seen a ghost, but the rumor is that one of the Tinker brothers—from the nineteenth century—floats around there and says ‘boo’ and screws up your car. It’s a spooky place in the daytime—and at night, it’ll scare the piss out of you.” He blushed and said to Tobe, “Oh, sorry, Ma’am—pardon my French.”

Tobe waved it off. “I’m a cop, not a nun. What do these victims have in common?”

Koskinen said, “Similar incomes—Fontaine’s a little more than Poole’s. Decent homes, good marriages, no criminal records. Part of this community, like everyone else.”

“They were friends?” I said.

“They lived about a mile apart, attended the same church.”

“What church is that?”

Koskinen frowned. “The Baptist church. What difference does that make?”

“What else did they have in common?” Tobe wanted to know.

“They both came to town hall meetings, they were in Rotary—a big organization here—and far as I know, they never disagreed with one another.”

“BFFs?”

“BFFs? What’s that?”

“Internet shorthand for ‘Best friends forever,’ ” Tobe said. “So—no feud between them?”

“The only feud in Queenstown is two next-door neighbors. One has two cats crossing over into the other one’s yard and killing birds she feeds every day—and they both bitch about it all the time.”

“Where was Cordis Poole’s car?” I asked.

“In the lot of the Baptist church.”

Tobe said, “Is Tinker’s Hollow in walking distance from the church?”

“Not hardly. They’re a couple miles apart.”

She nodded. “Can we have a copy of these files, Chief?”

He glanced over at the copy machine in one corner. “These here are copies; I made them up for you. Addresses, phone numbers, job numbers, and everything else we could think of.”

“We?”

“Well—Officer Platko discovered these murder victims, so we included everything we could for you.”

“Officer Platko found both bodies?” Tobe asked.

“Teenage kids found Cordis Poole—they called Joe Platko.”

“What time was this?” I said.

“Nine thirty at night, when he’s on duty.”

“What were kids doing in Tinker’s Hollow at night?”

“What did you do when you were a kid? Either drinking beer, smoking weed, or making out.” Koskinen rubbed his face as if it were dusty. “When Joe found the bodies, he called Highway Patrol; they’re no better at these murders than me.”

“Did Platko take these photos?” Tobe said.

“Joe doesn’t carry a camera. He called me—I called the Messenger.”

Tobe said, “Is the Messenger the Queenstown newspaper?”

“We’re too small to have a paper of our own. It’s the county’s—located in Ashtabula. And both times Amy Klein drove over and took the pictures. She’s their photographer, reporter, co-editor, and she probably sells ads, too.”

“And who’s on police patrol late at night, like midnight?”

“Nobody!” Koskinen snapped. “There’s no gangs here. This isn’t Newark or Vegas. It’s a small town; nobody does crime. We don’t need an on-duty cop in the middle of the night.”

“Well,” I said, “maybe now you do.”


From the book The Ashtabula Hat Trick, © Les Roberts. All rights reserved.

The Bone Lady Ride Begins!

The Bone Lady, by Debra Darnall: Life Lessons Learned as One of Football’s Ultimate Fans – A MemoirBook Excerpt

From The Bone Lady by Debra Darnall


Driving up from Columbus to Cleveland in the Bonemobile with my dog Molly, Tom and I would go to Browns games. We would sometimes drive up the night before, staying at my brother’s, sister’s, or mom’s house. We had tickets with my brother and his wife. That first season, fans were so full of excitement that the Browns were back and there was a special positive energy in the air. We weren’t so concerned with winning because we were football-starved and just happy to have our team back.

Tailgating was not only fun, it was a spectacle, with fans from all walks of life. Some had also painted their vehicles. Many set up tailgate camps with tents and Browns flags waving on tall poles, devoting the whole day to grilling, playing cornhole, throwing a football, eating all kinds of food, hearing all sorts of music, dancing on top of RVs and buses, visiting with old friends, making new ones, and celebrating that our Browns were finally back. That phrase “Browns fans never lose a party” was never so true.

Game days were like a major holiday celebration, with all of the fanfare and decorative festivities. I was too young to have experienced Woodstock, but judging from accounts of people who were there and from documentaries, it was similar in a way to our tailgate experience every Sunday. Instead of music, we gathered to revel in the game of football and our Browns. Every week, fans got more creative with expressing their deep connection to the team. People who during the week worked very structured jobs were let loose and free to be themselves in the parking lot on a Sunday morning. It was all about having fun. We didn’t really expect the team to win, at least not right away. But as the years went by and losing became the norm, “Thank God for tailgating!” became our mantra. We couldn’t control what happened on the field, but we could create our tailgate party however we wanted. Each year, the parking lots seemed to overflow with more and more Browns fans painting their vehicles and adorning themselves in team colors.

We would pull into the Muni lot around six a.m. to claim our spot. Soon there was a whole group of us who tailgated next to each other and saved spaces for each other. Making new friends and meeting so many Browns fans was the best part of it for me.

At first, I partied right along with everyone else, enjoying the adult beverages. I was just having fun and still had no idea what was starting to unfold. After one of those first games I was walking back from the stadium with a herd of fans, not paying much attention to my surroundings, and suddenly my beehive wig was knocked from my head by a tree limb. Immediately two little kids behind me screamed, and my buddies cracked up. “Those kids are gonna be in therapy for years!” They just stood there laughing while I pleaded with them to pick up my hair and put it back on my head! At that moment I began to realize there was a responsibility that went along with being a visible fan, especially when little kids are around. The Bone Lady would have to stop partaking in alcoholic beverages on game day.

During the week, I worked at my decorative painting business. Columbus had been booming, so I was quite busy. I was a regular at the local paint store and was always striking up conversation with the guys who worked there and the contractors buying their supplies. (I think you can tell by now that I’m not shy.) I got to know the regulars, and most of our conversations were about football, especially the Buckeyes. One of the guys, knowing of my Bone Lady character and my car, told me that at every Buckeye home game he worked parking cars at the Horseshoe, the stadium where the Buckeyes play. One of the cars he always parked belonged to Lou “The Toe” Groza and his wife. If you’re a Browns fan, you already know about the legendary Hall of Famer, the former Browns kicker and tackle. If not, you need to. Anyway, the painter/parking guy (I’m sorry not to remember his name) said I should come down early on a game-day morning with my Bonemobile, dressed as the Bone Lady, and he would park me next to the stadium where I could meet Lou Groza.

As with most opportunities that now seemed to be constantly presenting themselves, I jumped at the chance even though I had no idea what to expect. That game was Ohio State’s homecoming, and I was one of the first to arrive that morning. I parked right next to the stadium entrance and put on my Bone Lady garb. I was hanging out, meeting some nice people, when these two guys from Sports Radio 1460 in Columbus came by and interviewed me. After we were finished, they invited me to go into the stadium with them. I went, not knowing what was to happen, and soon found myself on the field before the game, where I got to get a photo of me standing right at midfield and got to sit on the Buckeyes’ bench!

When I finally returned to the parking lot, Lou Groza and his wife, Jackie, had just pulled up. I showed him my car, which made him laugh, and we took a photo standing in front of it. He and Jackie were both so nice and I was thrilled to meet this football legend.

I thought the day couldn’t get any better, but it did. A gentleman who was in his fiftieth year as an usher at the Horseshoe asked me if I wanted to go to the game. “Yes!” I said. He took me into the stadium, and we sat in the box belonging to the Galbreaths, a well-known Columbus family. During a halftime ceremony, the team retired number 45, which was worn by two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin. What I would have missed had I not dressed up in my Bone Lady outfit and driven my Bonemobile to the stadium that day! That was such an empowering moment for me—when I realized what I would’ve missed if I had worried what other people would think of a woman dressed in an orange beehive showing up at a Buckeye game.

Someone told the Columbus media about my car, and Dom Tiberi of WBNS Channel 10 came to the house to interview me. I took him for a ride in the Bonemobile. He sat in the back while the cameraman sat next to me in the passenger seat. Dom was so full of energy, and he laughed during the whole ride! After my story aired that night, he called and asked if I would be willing to bring my car into the studio after the Browns’ first win for Wall to Wall Sports, a show that aired after the news on Sunday nights. Of course I agreed, thinking it might be fun. Kirk Herbstreit was the host. I listened to him every day on sports radio and was a big fan, so the opportunity to meet him and show him my car was exciting. The first game the Browns won was against the New Orleans Saints, with a Hail Mary pass from Tim Couch to Kevin Johnson. And it was an away game, so I watched it at home in Columbus. As soon as my excitement over the win subsided, though, reality hit me.

“Oh no!” I thought. “Now I have to go do that TV show!”

Fear seeped in like a colorless, tasteless poison, turning my enthusiasm into total panic. I thought, “What am I gonna do? I can’t do this! I’m not prepared. I don’t know anything. Who do I think I am that I’d be qualified to go on a sports show?”

Anxiety and self-doubt engulfed me, and I almost called the station to tell them I couldn’t make it. My dear designer friend Don called while I was in the midst of my panic, and I told him about it. He gave me the best advice ever, which I still use to this day. He said to just think about every question that they could possibly ask, and have my answer ready. He also told me to visualize the whole TV show experience. I had done that before with my painting projects, so it made sense to apply it now. Don and I were used to helping each other along our paths. He’s always been a teacher to me over many years because every book and seminar he ever suggested changed my life in a profound way. So I always listened to him. This time was no different, and I followed his advice.

The station wanted me to bring a few fans with me, so I called my friend Jim Madden, who was the president of the Mansfield Browns Backers. He agreed, and I met him and a few others at the station. I pulled my car in the studio, and because I had listened to Don’s advice and was prepared for anything, my nerves subsided. The whole experience was fun! Kirk was awesome, and cracked up seeing my car. I also met Andy Baskin, who worked at the station and now is a sportscaster in Cleveland. He’s one of the nicest guys in sports, and a few weeks later, when I asked him to come to Mansfield for our Browns Backers Christmas Party for kids, he graciously agreed and said he was honored that we even asked!

I had met Jim Madden in the Muni lot while tailgating before a preseason game that returning season. He was living in Mansfield and had just become the president of the Browns Backers club there. The day he walked up to me and introduced himself, I had no idea that I was meeting not only a best friend but my true Angel on Earth. He had heard that I lived in Columbus, and he asked me if I would be interested in leading their three buses up from Mansfield for their club’s home game of choice. I was flattered to be asked, and said yes immediately. On the day of that game, very early in the morning, I left Columbus in the dark and headed north towards Mansfield. Jim said he wanted to ride with me as I led the bus parade. To this day, he swears he took his life in his hands riding in my car! Like everyone who sits in the passenger seat, looking over the pile of paraphernalia on the dashboard, he asked, “How do you see?” And like always, I replied, “People see me and get out of my way!”

As we got to know one another during that fateful ride, I knew we would be great friends. If you were to ask him today what he thought of our first meeting, his reply would be, “I thought she was f—ing nuts!” Ah yes, my kind of friend! Jim has a kind and caring heart with a witty, outgoing personality. He has many stories from his life experiences and from with his dealings with many Browns and Indians players over the years. His business, National Pastime, arranged player appearances at various venues, and that first season he included me. So I started appearing at Browns Backers events, player signings, parades, and whatever event Jim would think up in his head. It was all new to me and so much fun! We’ve been unconditional friends ever since that first meeting in the Muni lot, and he has been my consistent confidant—there for me during the saddest times in my life and the best ones. If you have a friend like that, you are truly blessed.

* * *

The Browns won just two games in 1999. But we had a blast anyway! That first season was full of excitement, with so many Browns-related events and activities. One was a Christmas Parade that the City of Cleveland organized to kick off the holiday season. My friend Jim thought the Mansfield Browns Backers should participate and wondered how I’d feel about leading our group with the Bonemobile. I thought it sounded like fun, and soon my creative ideas were flowing. I decided that the Bone Lady should play Santa Claus and ride on the hood of my car. I made a chair with a tall back in the shape of a bone and covered it in Browns fabric with orange fabric balls lining the edge. I attached letters spelling out “Bone Throne” on the back.

Jim always was full of ideas, too, and he suggested that Browns Backers club members act as reindeer. So thirty “Reindeer Dawgs,” dressed in Browns t-shirts with antlers on their heads and dog noses on their faces, pretended to pull me and my Bone-sleigh-chariot while I sat perched on my throne, holding the reins in one hand and a whip in the other. On top of the eight-foot-long, white plastic bone on top of the car, I placed a fake, white, four-foot-tall Christmas tree decorated with brown and orange ornaments.

Tom, my sister, her husband, and their kids all participated, too. Tom drove the Bonemobile sleigh, with my brother-in-law riding next to him. We were quite a spectacle as we paraded down the street towards Public Square.

One minor detail hadn’t occurred to us: with me on the hood, Tom couldn’t see anything as he drove! So he and my brother-in-law were like a tag team driving crew, with Tom steering the wheel and working the pedal and the brake while my brother-in-law stuck his head out the passenger window to give directions. It was hilarious, but I wasn’t laughing—I had my own issues: I didn’t feel very stable sitting on my Bone perch and thought I would fall off the car, becoming Bone Lady road kill! No catastrophe occurred, however, and we won Best of Show! How appropriate for a bunch of Dawgs!

That night Tom and I headed back to Columbus, where we did it all over again by participating in the Gahanna Christmas parade. Yes, as my friend Jim said, I must’ve been f—ing nuts!

* * *

A final exclamation point for the Browns’ return and the Bone Lady’s first season was a trip to the Super Bowl. No, you didn’t miss the Browns finally playing in the big game (hopefully that happens before I leave the Earth!). The Browns didn’t make the trip—but the Bone Lady and well-known Browns Super Fan Big Dawg did!

For the season’s last home game, I was out in the Muni lot tailgating with my buddies when Big Dawg came out to the lot. He was with a couple of people representing Jose Cuervo tequila who were looking for the most outrageous fan to join Big Dawg on a trip to Atlanta for a week before the Super Bowl—and then attend it! A few of my buddies were also in the running, but I was the chosen one. I couldn’t believe it! I did feel bad for the others because they probably deserved to go more than I did. So before we left, I symbolically took them with me by having their pictures made into buttons that I then pinned onto my wig.

In Atlanta, there were two fans each from five different teams. It was fun to meet and hang out with them for a week. We were to travel around the city and encourage fans to do outrageous things to win tickets to the game. The only drawback was the weather—cold, with ice storms. Many of the activities were outside, so it wasn’t as enjoyable as it might have been. We did, though, get to soak in the atmosphere that the Super Bowl brings.

The night before the game, I went out with a couple of the other fans: Spiking Viking from Minnesota, who sported a purple and gold Mohawk, painted face, and Viking garb, and the Titletown Clown from Green Bay, who wore a green and yellow Bozo wig and Packers-colored clown attire. The bar scene was really happening in Buckhead, a suburb of Atlanta, so we headed there dressed in all of our garb. We’d had so much fun being dressed up all week that not dressing as our characters seemed boring. Of course, with the Rams and Titans playing in the Super Bowl there were tons of fans from both those teams out in Buckhead that night. It was quite a festive atmosphere as the night progressed, until the bars began closing and everyone poured out into the street looking for a cab home. There were lots of limos picking up players, and young women were getting in and out of them. The area quickly seemed to turn seedy. We had trouble getting a cab, and I started to feel very uncomfortable. While waiting for a cab I decided to huddle in the doorway of a storefront to keep warm. Spiking swung his plastic sword while Titletown kept an eye out for an empty cab.

All of a sudden, two guys walked towards me into the vestibule where I was waiting. They said something to me in Spanish that I didn’t understand and I had a bad feeling as they got closer, forcing me to back up into the doorway. My two fan compadres were paying no attention and then one guy went to reach in his pants like he had a knife or a gun. I screamed, pushing the one guy out of my way, and took off running—the best I could in my Bone Lady platform shoes! My buddies immediately snapped out of their goofing-off mode and followed me down the street. When they caught up with me I started yelling at them to get us a cab because I didn’t want to die in Buckhead that night dressed as the Bone Lady! We eventually made it back to the hotel in the wee hours of the morning and I climbed into a warm bed, feeling very lucky to finally be there. The next night, after the Super Bowl, two people were killed in Buckhead (the incident involving Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis), and after my scary experience there it didn’t surprise me.

It was exciting to be at the Super Bowl, but as I walked around observing all of the festivities I noticed that there was a definite line of demarcation between the haves and have-nots. The regular fans seemed to be left out of a lot of the parties and activities. It was a very exclusive atmosphere with lots of corporate sponsors who seemed to be there to do business, and it wasn’t so much about the game.

On our way into the dome, Big Dawg and I were constantly stopped for photographs. I understood why they wanted a photo with him, because he was so well known, but I was surprised that they wanted photos with me—especially since these weren’t even Browns fans. I even missed the whole pregame show because so many people wanted photos. That was a moment when I realized that there was something about the Bone Lady character that people were attracted to, and it wasn’t just about football. Back then, I couldn’t quite figure it out because I was just at the beginning of my journey. Later on I would find the deeper meaning beneath the beehive.


From the book The Bone Lady, © Debra Darnall. All rights reserved.

Torso Prologue: The Mystery Begins

The Maniac in the Bushes, a book by John Stark Bellamy II: More Tales of Cleveland WoeBook Excerpt

From The Maniac in the Bushes by John Stark Bellamy II


With the possible exception of the 1954 Marilyn Sheppard murder, Cleveland boasts no bigger or better “signature” crime phenomenon than the baker’s dozen of “Kingsbury Run Torso slayings” that terrified Clevelanders and puzzled lawmen during the latter part of the 1930s. It is Cleveland’s greatest and most malevolent mystery and hardly a year goes by without a renewal of media interest in this serial saga of Depression-era killings. It is no small irony, therefore, that when the “Torso” killings began on a gray morning in September 1934, there was no thought—much less a mention—of Kingsbury Run.

It’s even questionable whether it is proper to begin the Torso melodrama in the 1930s, much less in Kingsbury Run, the topographical remnant of an ancient stream that once fed the Cuyahoga River south of the Flats area. Headless torsos have ever been an attractive resort for killers with inconvenient corpses on their hands, and the first historical mention of a headless body found in the Run appeared in the Cleveland Leader on November 13, 1905. A poor woman scavenging for saleable refuse in a Case Avenue dump came upon the body of a man who had been fatally shot in the chest, decapitated, and dumped in the Run. No suspects were forthcoming, and the unsolved homicide was soon added to a roster of fascinating contemporary mysteries, like the brutal killing of Anna Kinkopf in Payne’s Pastures and the locked-room mystery of Minnie Peter’s hammer murder. Questions regarding the chronology of the Torso murders become all the more confusing when one discovers that for decades Cleveland police refused to acknowledge the Kingsbury killer’s first undoubted casualty—a headless human female washed up on the Lake Erie shore near Euclid Beach on September 9, 1934—as one of the fabled serial murderer’s hapless victims.

No one was thinking of Kingsbury Run in the late summer of 1934, least of all twenty-one-year-old Frank La Gossie of Beulah Park (a residential development just west of Euclid Beach Amusement Park) as he walked along the Lake Erie beach adjacent to his street that cloudy September morning. It was about 8:00 a.m., and La Gossie was up early collecting driftwood and cleaning up the beach area when he noticed something that didn’t look right sticking out of the sand. And it wasn’t right. It was, La Gossie soon realized, the lower half of a human torso. Neatly severed at the waist between the second and third lumbar vertebrae, it was still attached to the thighs, but its missing lower legs had been cut off at the knees. La Gossie ran to the house of his friend Charles Armitage at 12 Lake Front Drive, and Armitage telephoned the Cleveland police, who took the torso to Cuyahoga County coroner Arthur J. Pearse at the Lakeside morgue.

Examination of the torso that afternoon by Pearse and his assistants disclosed all that was ever to be known about the mystery corpse. It was a female, most probably in her mid-thirties, five foot six, with a projected weight of around 120 pounds. The woman’s uterus had been surgically removed at least a year before her death, and the discoloration of her skin indicated that some kind of chemical—probably chloride of lime or calcium hypochloride—had been used on the corpse. (Coroner Pearse theorized that the presumed killer had tried to destroy the body with something like quicklime but had mistakenly used slacked lime, which preserved it instead.) Nothing else could be ascertained from the torso, except that it was not waterlogged, suggesting that it had not been floating in the lake for very long. No other clues to the dead woman’s identity were found, and police began sifting through the sixty-odd files on women reported missing in Cleveland between January and July of 1934.

The mystery now shifted thirty miles away, far from Beulah Park and even farther from Kingsbury Run. Madison handyman Joseph Hejduk, after reading newspaper accounts of the murder, reported to Cleveland police that he had found some human remains on the beach near North Perry two weeks before. Previously he had informed Melvin Keener, a Lake County deputy about it, but Keener had concluded the remains were animal and persuaded Hejduk to bury his find on the North Perry beach. Extensive digging eventually unearthed Hejduk’s fleshly find on September 7: part of a shoulder blade, a partial spinal column, and sixteen vertebrae (twelve dorsal and four lumbar). All the pieces found in Hejduk’s beach burial matched the Beulah Park torso perfectly. They also revealed similar exposure to a lime-based chemical preservative. The next day, two brothers, Denver and Brady Fleming of Evergreen Street in Beulah Park, found a compatible collar bone and shoulder blade while digging in the sand near the original torso discovery.

In the wake of Cleveland newspaper headlines about these mysterious lakeside finds, less useful discoveries were also made by the curious. A clerk working in the Cleveland prosecutor’s office recalled an incident six weeks before at a Lake Erie beach area near East 238th Street in Euclid. A fourteen-year-old girl had run screaming out of the water, crying that she had stumbled over a pair of human legs about fifteen feet from shore. The legs had not been located, nor the “ghastly hand” that another Cleveland girl had espied “waving” from the Lake Erie waters a week before Labor Day. The latter girl’s father corroborated his daughter’s story and further averred that he had actually stepped on the ghostly hand...but he had become too distracted by other matters to tell the police about it at the time.

The police would soon begin to lose patience with the growing number of torso clues, including a “gray mass” thought to be a human brain, found by two boys at the foot of East 256th Street (it proved to be suet); a steamer trunk found not far from the first torso find by two boys from nearby Bonnieview Drive (it, like a small box unearthed from the North Perry beach by a young boy, proved valueless in the search for either the killer or the identity of his victim); and a sensational report out of Painesville that a woman’s liver had been found on Lake Road near Willoughby (this lurid news was not even investigated by weary Cleveland sleuths). Nor did any concrete clues emerge from a fruitless search for a skull made after two fishermen reported snagging strands of blond hair in their lines off the shore by West 58th Street.

The police and Coroner Pearse did the best they could, having little forensic or circumstantial evidence to go on. Miles of odoriferous neighborhood sewers were searched by detectives, and hundreds of residents of the Euclid Beach and North Perry areas were quizzed for clues. But without the unknown woman’s head or an unequivocal match to a missing person report, it was impossible to say who she had been. One baffled detective confessed, when asked by a reporter whether it was a perfect crime: “No, but so close to being perfect that we don’t know what to do next.”

Lack of conclusive evidence, however, did not dissuade Coroner Pearse from theorizing about the how and why of the mystery torso to avid reporters. Pearse’s initial judgment was that the body was dismembered by someone with professional medical skill, although he qualified this judgment in light of later evidence that the presumed killer had cut straight through the shoulder blade instead of around it. Pearse was probably correct in his conjecture that the body had been cut up and placed in three separate packages, which were then dumped into the lake from air, water, or land—possibly even from as far away as Canada. The grisly parcels then simply floated until the containers disintegrated and washed up at various locations on Lake Erie’s southern shore. It was even possible, Pearse allowed, that the body was that of a suicide that had been later churned to pieces by the propeller of a passing ship. After consultation with authorities at local universities, the possibility that the body had been the result of some medical-school prank was ruled out.

Even Cleveland’s newspapers were somewhat at a loss to properly contextualize the appearance of the autumnal torso at Beulah Park. Old-timers recalled the Pearl Bryan case, a macabre 1896 murder in which a headless, and indubitably pregnant, torso was eventually identified by means of some unusual shoes. Younger reporters resurrected the tale of the “Battersea Body Mystery,” the 1925 discovery of a red-headed male corpse—with its face beaten to an unrecognizable pulp—on Lake Road. (Ten thousand Clevelanders had viewed that corpse at the county morgue in a vain effort to identify it.) More historically mindful souls wondered whether the torso belonged to Betty Gray, the still-missing star witness at the first William Potter murder trial in 1931 or to Miss Agnes Tufverson, a well-to-do lawyer who had disappeared shortly after her marriage to Captain Ivan Poderjay, a notorious Yugoslavian bigamist and adventurer. On September 6, the Cleveland News offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer. Like all rewards for the Torso killer or killers, it was never collected.

After five days of sensational headlines, the nameless torso—christened “The Lady of the Lake” by romantic copydesk personnel—disappeared from the headlines. The collected remains of the female victim were placed in coffin No. 102/3 and carefully buried in the Potter’s Field section of Highland Park Cemetery at 10:00 a.m. on September 11. Clevelanders moved on to other matters and other murders.

No one had yet whispered the chilling name “Kingsbury Run”. . .


From the book The Maniac in the Bushes, © John Stark Bellamy II. All rights reserved.

Ghoulardi – Life Begins at 11:20

Ghoulardi, a book by Tom Feran: Inside Cleveland TV's Wildest RideBook Excerpt

From Ghoulardi, by Tom Feran and R. D. Heldenfels


God, thought the thirty-nine-year-old veteran of a checkered career in radio and TV. Comfortable in his staff job, he had lucrative side gigs as an on-camera spokesman for Ohio Bell Telephone and other companies, and he still entertained dreams of being an actor.

He later would say he didn’t mind going on camera because of the performing opportunity and the extra money—about sixty dollars a week to start. Still, he knew that his more prestigious work could dry up if he became too closely associated with the likes of The Leech Woman.

So he put on a fake mustache and beard, adopted a weird voice, and took on an assumed name: Ghoulardi.

Almost instantly the persona became more famous than the man cracking wise behind it. Adults shared his comments at work the following Monday, some shaking their heads in dismay. Newspaper columnists took sides—for and, more often, against him. Kids treated him like God, his face lodged in their minds, his hip lines becoming playground mainstays. Some left reel-to-reel audio tape recorders rolling during his show to capture the moments; they still cherish these precious bits more than thirty years later.

WJW had launched the show as, both literally and figuratively, a shot in the dark, hoping it might draw a bit of attention and a few more viewers at a time when the station ranked third (and last) in local ratings. They created an icon of popular culture whose legacy, decades later, would defy the disposable standards of modern media.

Television was growing, still rough around the edges, into the common thread of community consciousness. Ghoulardi would first conquer it, amassing an audience of a size unimaginable today; and then transcend it, surviving in the memories, attitudes, and language of a generation who would carry him to even wider attention.

In a self-doubting city ever in search of an identity, and in the unsuspecting calm before the storm of Beatlemania, he landed with an impact surpassing that of any other local broadcaster, before or since.

The magic began, in that winter of the century, on Friday nights at 11:20, in the old Channel 8 studios at Playhouse Square on Euclid Avenue.

City Camera news would be winding down and Ernie Anderson would just be cranking up. Most likely, he was at the Seagram Bar, informally known as “the Swamp,” finishing off a Ballantine Ale and a cheeseburger; or at Pierre’s, sipping martinis and playing dominoes with Pat the bartender, watching the clock as well as the game. He usually waited until the last possible moment and then had to hurry to work.

As the Shock Theater logo appeared on TV screens across Northeast Ohio, viewers heard strains of Ghoulardi’s theme song, a Duane Eddy B-side called “Desert Rat.” As the song rang through the hallways of Channel 8, Ernie’s footsteps thundered an accompaniment. He grabbed the gear laid out by his teenage gofer Ron Sweed—a mustache, beard, fright wig, and glasses with only one lens—and transformed himself while still in motion, hitting the door of the studio at a dead run and almost sliding out of range as he zoomed in front of the camera. What’s tonight’s movie? he might wonder, then, Bleep it. Doesn’t matter.

He now perched on a stool, a light at his feet casting eerie shadows on his Ghoulardi face, the omnipresent smoke in hand—a Philip Morris cigarette, sometimes in a holder; occasionally a cigar—and began to speak in a voice combining a hint of Bela Lugosi with liberal doses of hepcat—man, baby, diggin’ and the all-purpose group or groups, as in “Hey, groups, we’re gonna have fun tonight…”

He would not promise a great movie. It was a point of personal pride to assure the audience that the movie was bad, spectacularly so, even when it wasn’t. Whether the feature was The House on Haunted Hill or Attack of the Crab Monsters, a grade-B effort or something tumbling to Z, or not even a movie at all (sometimes old TV shows were substituted), it would be mocked by Ghoulardi.

While hundreds of thousands watched Ghoulardi in Northeast Ohio, the late-night studio audience was much smaller, occasionally including a few teenage fans. Off-camera, Sweed would be helping out (and soaking up information he would use years later, as the Ghoul). Sometimes an old friend of Ernie’s dropped by, like actor Tim Conway, on a return visit from Hollywood, or local acquaintances like Bill “Smoochie” Gordon from WEWS (Channel 5) and KYW radio deejay Jay Lawrence. Jack Riley, another buddy, then on WERE radio, might be on hand—or on the phone from his Lakewood home, trying to satisfy Ernie’s pleas for jokes.

There was a director—Ken Clark the first year, but over time whoever was on shift for the telecast, Ernie later said—and one or two cameramen, who could draw Ghoulardi’s derision. On the air, if there was a foul-up, Ghoulardi snapped “Can’t you take a picture? Dummy!” at the cameraman. It was supposed to be a joke, and off the air, demeaning comments were sometimes lightened by his admission that the technicians, too, were part of the Ghoulardi team. One cameraman, Don Quigley, Ernie delighted in tormenting on air and off, according to Ron Sweed; Ernie would set up Quigley for a small electric shock, or blast him in the face with a squirt gun during the telecast.

The inner circle consisted of three men: Ernie, his sound man and sounding board Chuck Schodowski, and projectionist/editor Bob Soinski. The job of the latter two was to organize the chaos around Ernie, to figure out where to drop joking film clips into the movies—in fact, to find the clips, not to mention the music that would become as familiar to fans as the pictures. They were also involved with the filmed sketches in which Ernie starred (and Chuck sometimes co-starred) and—a high honor from Ernie—the butt of his practical jokes.

As Ghoulardi talked to one camera, a second focused on a nearby table which held a model to be blown up with a firecracker—sometimes a car, an airplane, the new Revell line of Beatles (action figures only because Ernie gleefully sent their parts flying), or an unknown construction of a viewer’s own devising. There was also a cutout of talk-show host Mike Douglas punctured with dart holes, with still more punctures likely. On Fridays, there wasn’t much more visible; the Saturday and weekday shows had a complete, and constantly growing, set.

Besides the night’s movie, another film often waited for telecast: a public appearance by the Ghoulardi All-Stars, the traveling softball-basketball-football team that was Ernie’s pride. The movies of the team playing local schools, community groups, and other celebrity teams were a favorite with audiences as viewers recognized themselves in the crowds at the games.

Ghoulardi’s monologues during and between the movies consisted of rambling jokes about local matters, staccato bursts of catchphrases— “stay sick,” “turn blue,” “purple knif,” “cool it with the boom-booms”—or a shot at his target du jour. That could be the legendary local broadcaster Dorothy Fuldheim from Channel 5, or Cleveland’s mayor, Ralph Locher, a charisma-free placeholder sandwiched between the beloved Anthony Celebrezze and the groundbreaking Carl Stokes. Sometimes the target was closer to home; in one surviving clip of Ghoulardi in action, a flatulent noise off-camera prompted Ernie to say, “Howard Hoffmann is not well”—an allusion to Channel 8’s weatherman.

The show could also bring a new installment of “Parma Place,” the bizarre soap opera that raised mockery of Cleveland’s Poles to a new level, or some other sketch that had caught Ernie’s fancy, like an eighteen-minute parody of Gunsmoke noteworthy mainly for being unconscionably long. (When Schodowski urged Ernie to trim it, Ernie replied that the mind-numbing length was the whole point.) Or he would offer a film of one of his pantomime performances, as a hapless bowler or a man on a progressively disastrous date. Then, antagonizing management once again, Ernie could decide it was a good time to give out an executive’s home telephone number.

With seeming ease, he leapt into the movie, joining a herd of victims at a monster’s feet; placid among the terrified, Ghoulardi raised his hand to ask to go to the bathroom. Just as casually, he slipped in a line—“My favorite game is poker . . . You get a girl and you poke ’er”—meant to make adult viewers choke on their late-night snacks. He got away with that line, by the way, but something was always bound to happen that left his bosses apoplectic; Ernie’s chat with management was a Monday-morning ritual.

The fun lasted a little over an hour and a half. There was less here than memory suggests: the movies usually filled about seventy percent of the time, and there had to be room for commercials. Some of Ghoulardi’s tricks had been done before, by other hosts in other cities. But not, for the most part, in Cleveland. The movies are less prominent in fans’ memories than the Ghoulardi moments forming a seamless loop of pleasure.

Some viewers were shocked. They wanted Ghoulardi stamped out, and they caused weekly trouble for the host and his associates until the day Ernie hung up his lab coat.

Others, though—the viewing majority—loved Ghoulardi. They were kids and adults, black and white, blue-collar workers sitting at home, and night owls in bars who correctly sensed in Ghoulardi a kindred spirit. All thought he was funny, some thought he was hip, in time many considered him profoundly influential. That reaction would baffle Ernie. But not us. Because the story of Ghoulardi is not just about a horror host: it’s about Cleveland in the ’60s, and our deep ties to television, and a man who was able to be himself while hiding behind a costume and an assumed name.


From the book Ghoulardi, © Tom Feran and R. D. Heldenfels. All rights reserved.

Cleveland’s Saddest Fourth – The 1908 S. S. Kresge Fireworks Explosion

They Died Crawling, a book by John Stark Bellamy II: And Other Tales of Cleveland WoeBook Excerpt

From They Died Crawling, © John Stark Bellamy II. All rights reserved.


You wouldn’t know to look at it now. If you drive by 2025 Ontario Street today you might easily miss it: the sign simply says “Society Corporate Center,” an anonymous-looking business office. But on July 3, 1908, that address became history—terrible history, indeed—although it is almost completely forgotten today. You’d never guess, to look at its modern glass-and-trim front, that it was once the scene of a fiery, exploding holocaust that brought death to seven, injury to dozens, and a day of terror, tears, heroism, and shame to the city of Cleveland. For this is the site of the S. S. Kresge fireworks explosion and fire.

Let us set the stage for the chief actors in this melancholy tale. For Anna and Freda Trefall, sisters and fellow clerks at the Ontario S. S. Kresge store, the fateful day began early. They got up at 6 a.m. at their 2308 Carnegie Avenue boarding house, lest they be tardy when the dime store opened at 9 a.m. sharp. Anna and Freda were orphans from Wisconsin, who had come to Cleveland a year previously to live with their sister-in-law. Everyone noticed how close they were to each other; the coming day would offer sublime proof of their sisterly bond.

Mary Hughes, 27, of Whitman Avenue didn’t work at the Kresge store. She was an assistant to a downtown dressmaker. But the necessities of her job would bring her to the Ontario dime store that morning to buy some material for her work.

Ed Bolton didn’t work for the S. S. Kresge Company either. But his day as a shipping clerk at the W. P. Southworth store next door began early, too, and he expected to spend it slaving over the mountain of orders that had to go out before the July 4th holiday. Ed came from a surprisingly heroic bloodline: his uncle, Captain John Grady, had bravely lost his life fighting a terrible 1891 Cleveland fire, and three other uncles were members of the Cleveland Fire Department.

The day came early, too, for Jimmy Parker, four years old, of Ham­­p­den Avenue. Jimmy’s father, George Parker, had promised Jimmy that this year he could join in the noisy fireworks at the Parker home. But first, Jimmy Parker had to go shopping downtown with his mother, Minnie . . .

Up early also that fine July morning was Luther Roberts, the janitor of the Kresge store. Luther was short, quiet and self-effacing—but his incredible courage would resound throughout the city before the day was done.

Winifred Duncan was excited that morning. Only 18, one of the many teenaged clerks at Kresge’s, she usually sold postcards on the first floor. But today she was going to do something unusual . . . and thereby step unwittingly into history.

The S. S. Kresge store occupied the first two floors of a four-story structure, with a restaurant in the basement and offices on the third and fourth floors. Toward the center and rear of the ground floor, a stairway rose upward, dividing at a landing into left and right flights to the second floor. From the right side of the landing, a balcony stretched out over the right rear of the store, forming a mezzanine level that contained the manager’s office. The second floor was generally unobstructed, with windows both at the front on Ontario Street and the back, facing an alley, where there was also a fire escape. The only dangerously obscure aspect of the building was this: although there was a rear exit to the building on the left side of the first-floor staircase, there was no exit whatsoever in the identical-looking area to the right of the staircase. There, instead of an exit, were three windows, blocked with temporary shelves and further secured with steel bars, wire netting, and sheet-iron doors to prevent break-ins from the rear alley. Under normal circumstances this layout presented no problem. But if someone were in a hurry to get out the back of the store and turned to the right of the staircase instead of the left . . . it might make all the difference between life and death.

Owing to the ensuing deaths and the confusion of the tragedy, we cannot know the exact sequence of events that day. We do know, however, that at about 10:50 that Friday morning, Mrs. Minnie Parker and her four-year-old son Jimmy entered the Kresge store.

Jimmy had been lured there by the sight of clerk Winifred Duncan, demonstrating a sizzling sparkler near the store’s front window. D. E. Greene, the store manager, had just ordered her to do so and had assured her that the sparklers were “harmless.” Winifred stood in the aisle, three feet wide, separating the postcard department from the ample counters of firecrackers, Roman candles, rockets, and sparklers that were stacked all over the first floor in that era of virtually unregulated Fourth of July mayhem.

This was the scene in Kresge’s as 10:50 a.m. arrived: Minnie and Jimmy Parker were watching Winifred demonstrate a sparkler. Manager Greene was in his mezzanine office with Cashier Celia Zak, scanning the day’s mail. Mrs. Fannie Frank, 50, a Collinwood Village matron, was shopping on the second floor with her four-year-old granddaughter, Grace. Mary Hughes, the dressmaker’s assistant, was probably in the sewing section on the second floor. Ed Bolton was next door at the Southworth Company, busily getting out the day’s orders. Miss Carrie Bubel, a clerk, was selling goods at her counter on the second floor. Erma Schumacher, 18, was pacing the floor, keeping a vigilant eye on the 50 or so female clerks who worked the floor. Although only 18, Erma had just been promoted to floorwalker, and it was well known that she aspired to even higher rank. Muriel Mayes, a Kresge clerk, was at her second floor counter. So, too, was Freda Trefall, while her older sister Anna worked downstairs. Mary Podowski, a charwoman, was awaiting change from the $20 bill she had handed a clerk. Andrew Lempke, a Kresge employee, was trimming lamps as he worked atop a ladder on the first floor. And staff pianist Hazel Thompson, one of the several Kresge pianists who demonstrated the store’s sheet music for curious customers, had just launched into a rendition of “I Don’t Want to Go Home in the Dark” . . . when all hell broke loose on the first floor.

This is probably what happened. After remarking to Minnie and Jimmy Parker that her sparkler was “perfectly harmless,” Winifred turned sideways toward a fireworks display that included an American flag. Sparks from the sparkler in her hand suddenly ignited the fabric of the flag, which in turn set fire to Mrs. Parker’s voluminous, flammable dress. As the two terrified women attempted to beat out the flames, sparks from the dress fell on adjacent fireworks counters and the fire and explosions began their deadly race through the store.

It was about as close to instantaneous combustion as you can get. The store contained about $30,000 worth of fireworks, and within seconds of the initial spark, the entire stock ignited in an inferno of blazing colors, dense smoke, and terrifying, deafening explosions. In a minute or less the entire first floor of Kresge’s was a fiery nightmare, with up to 200 panic-stricken shoppers and clerks trying to flee the sudden conflagration. Max Zucker, a customer on the ground floor, had a typical experience. One moment he was staring at the sizzling electric sparkler, and the next: “I heard a sputtering noise—a skyrocket whizzed past my face and darted over the heads of the crowd and set fire to combustible material on the counters. People around me stood aghast for a few seconds. A giant cracker exploded with a roar that set all into a mad dash for the front and rear exits.”

The fire spread with shocking speed, setting merchandise and people alike on fire as it raced from counter to counter, aisle to aisle through the store. The next morning’s Plain Dealer well conveyed the horror of the next few minutes:

Big piles of fireworks exploded and added to the noise and confusion. Giant crackers pounded and boomed, skyrockets whizzed through the crowded room, roman candles sputtered and flashed. It was a mimic battle, magnificent if it had not been so full of terror and death.

Several patterns of movement developed during the fire’s first minutes. On the blazing first floor, customers tried to escape in three directions. Those near the front headed for the Ontario exit. For those toward the rear, the aisles to the left and right of the rear center staircase beckoned toward seeming safety. This was true of the aisle to the left, a corridor that led to an unlocked door on the back alley. The corridor to the right of the staircase, however, led only to the rear wall of the store, blocked there by shelving and barred windows.

Things were better on the second floor. When it became apparent there that the first floor was afire, movement surged toward the front and rear windows, the elevator, and the staircase. The elevator was not working, and it was immediately abandoned after one attempt to use it. Most of the shoppers and clerks fled to the front and back windows and most of them survived, albeit injured and traumatized. Some, however, tried to escape down the stairs, and the vast crush and hysterical panic there quickly precipitated a pile-up of screaming, suffocating women, girls and children on the stairs and the landing on the ground floor. All of them were pulled out or managed to wriggle free and stagger into the inferno waiting below.

The evidence is that the fire department arrived soon after the fire started, but by the time the engines got there, Kresge’s was already a fiery pyre, with smoke pouring out of every door and window. Customers and employees were still streaming out of the exits and frightened women were leaping out the second floor windows. Firemen quickly deployed ladders and nets. The nets saved many lives but could not prevent some terrible injuries. Owing to the smoke, many could not even see the nets and fell beyond them to the pavement below. And quite a number of people jumped into the same nets simultaneously, injuring each other and bringing the nets crashing to the ground.

Let us see how our cast of characters fared. Poor little Jimmy Parker disappeared into the interior of the store during the first few panicky moments of the fire. His mother, although badly burned, frantically searched the burning store for Jimmy. Told, however, that a little boy had been rescued from the store, she was persuaded to leave and return home. By the time she got there her husband George had already identified Jimmy’s corpse at the county morgue.

D. E. Greene, the Kresge store manager, did his best. As he was in the middle of sorting his mail, an exploding firecracker alerted him to the danger. He immediately seized cashier Celia Zak and rushed her to safety outside on Ontario Street. He then returned and tried to save others until flames and smoke drove him back out into the street for good.

The chief hero of the Kresge tragedy was Luther Roberts, the Kresge janitor. Realizing that the elevator was useless, he began to smash open the windows on the second floor. He then went to the fatal staircase, clogged with screaming, writhing, piled-up bodies and began to drag and throw them out the back windows of the second floor onto the fire escape. Time after time, Roberts returned to the staircase, until the flames and smoke drove him back, “blinded and dizzy.” But he had cleared everybody from the staircase.

Roberts’s courage, if not his fate, was matched by that of Anna Trefall. When the fire started, 24-year-old Anna was working with several clerks on the first floor. Her companions immediately seized her and tried to drag her out the Ontario exit. She resisted, saying, “I must find my sister!” She broke free and ran toward the staircase to get to Freda on the second floor. Her first attempt failed; the hysterical sea of bodies surging down the staircase soon forced her back toward the Ontario exit and safety. But she again freed herself from the crowd and resumed the search for her 17-year-old sister. We don’t know the exact sequence of events after that, except that Freda was one of the last to make it down the staircase during the fire. Upon reaching the ground floor, she was immediately overwhelmed in the pile-up of terrified women there. An eyewitness saw Anna try to pull Freda toward the Ontario exit, and then saw both sisters stumble and fall to the floor. Freda and Anna Trefall died with the rest of those trapped by the three barred windows, their arms around each other’s necks. Freda’s dead face was so crazed with fear that her fellow employees could not identify her corpse.

Ed Bolton, too, proved himself a hero that July day. Becoming aware of the fire, he ran into the burning building. He dragged several persons out of the building onto Ontario and then reentered the store on his hands and knees to search for others, until the fire drove him out again. He then held nets for those leaping from the second floor.

This almost proved Bolton’s undoing. As a girl prepared to leap from the second floor, she opened her umbrella like a parachute to aid in breaking her fall. By the time Bolton shouted, “Never mind your umbrella,” it was already too late. As the young lady landed in the net, her umbrella smashed Bolton’s arm, breaking it and sending him out of the fray. Staying in character, Bolton merely had his broken arm set, returned home to change out of his wet clothing, and resumed shipping out the holiday orders for Southworth Company, Grocers Wholesale and Retail.

Mary Hughes was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The dressmaker’s assistant survived the crushing pile-up at the staircase—only to die with the rest of the victims by the three back barred windows.

Mrs. Fannie Frank of Collinwood was a heroine, too, that July day. On the second floor with her four-year-old granddaughter, Grace, Mrs. Frank quickly led the child to a window and out onto a projecting ledge. From there she jumped, holding Grace so as to shield her from the impact of the fall. Fannie hit the ground, injuring herself but saving Grace from injury. As Fannie put it, “I could not bear to think of what my daughter would say if the child was hurt.”

Erma Schumacher, the newly promoted floorwalker, died in character. When the fire started, she tried to stem the panic of her employees at the flashpoint—the staircase—and it was near there and by the three barred back windows that firemen found her body later in the afternoon.

Muriel Mayes, a second-floor clerk, was one of the first to escape from the second floor. At first she thought the explosions were the work of mischievous boys blowing off fireworks in the rear alley, but she eventually made her way to a front window and was the first person to jump into the nets below. She survived the jump, but was badly injured by the force of collision with the bodies that jumped into the net after her.

Miss Emma Schaef, 17, was something of a heroine, too, after a fashion. She had fled to the second-floor windows looking out on Ontario. There was a woman with a child there, afraid to jump through the suffocating smoke toward the nets below. So Emma pushed them out toward the net below. The woman missed it, hitting the sidewalk. Then Emma jumped—and missed it, too. The child was unhurt.

Miss Carrie Bubel, 18, had one of the fire’s typical injuries. Selling goods on the second floor when the fire started, she was paralyzed by terror for some minutes. By the time she got to the windows, everyone else had already jumped. She jumped, missing the net, breaking her left leg and spraining her right.

Let us not forget charwoman Mary Podowski. Just as she handed her $20 bill to a clerk, the fire exploded around her. Initially disoriented by the blaze, Mary recovered her nerve and began searching through the burning, smoky store for the clerk who had taken her money. After fighting her way into the store through the frightened crowd surging out, Mary finally spotted the clerk who had taken her $20 bill: “I want my money! Give it to me!” she shrieked. The clerk, who must have marvelled at Mary’s single-mindedness, muttered, “Haven’t got it!,” as the surging, terrified mob swept the clerk by Mary and toward the Ontario exit. After the fire was extinguished, Mary could be seen, still in front of the smoldering store, weeping and sobbing over and over again, “My money! I want my twenty-dollar bill!”

The fire was over in about an hour. It had quickly gutted both floors of the dime store and outside the smoldering ruin milled multitudes of firemen, policemen, and spectators—the latter doing their usual best to impede the work of safety forces. The initial belief was that everyone had been rescued from the burning building. It wasn’t until about 12:30 p.m. that Fire Chief George A. Wallace and a crew of searchers entered the sizzling building and found seven bodies in the rear right alcove by the three barred windows. Captain James Granger of Cleveland Fire Company #1 (later chief of the Cleveland Fire Department) described the gruesome scene to a reporter from the Cleveland Leader:

“I heard what sounded like the mewing of a cat,” he said. “I had heard that sound before, however, and I shuddered. . . . [There] was a mass of humanity, it seemed, intertwined. There were [six] women. It seemed all had huddled together in the belief they would get air at that particular point, and when the fumes of the powder and paper became too strong all had given up at the same time. The arms of [most] of them were free, but their legs were intertwined so that it would have been impossible for any one to have dragged herself out. At the farther end of the bunch was a little lad. He was living.”

The lad was Jimmy Parker, who died soon after his removal from the store. The fact that he was still living when found may have led to the false report that convinced his mother he had survived.

By now, it had begun to rain, and the bodies were removed and laid in the muddy back alley behind the Kresge store. It soon became apparent, however, that two of the victims were still breathing. Two female trained nurses forced themselves through the police line and tried to revive the two survivors. Their efforts were in vain: Erma Schumacher was dead on arrival at Lakeside Hospital later that afternoon. The other survivor, S. S. Kresge clerk Elizabeth Reis, recovered consciousness at Huron Road Hospital before dying at 6:30 that evening.

The awful afternoon was not yet finished. While police and firemen searched the smoking ruins of the store and questioned survivors, heartbreaking scenes unfolded at the county morgue, where most of the seven bodies had been taken. Through it streamed a mournful procession of relatives, survivors, and a goodly proportion of the morbidly curious to see and identify the dead. Catching sight of his dead four-year-old son, George Parker collapsed, sobbing, “My son, my son! My poor little Jimmy!” Two sisters of Mary Hughes identified her corpse—by her teeth—but then became hysterical and had to be led away. Throughout that ghastly July afternoon crawled a sad procession of stunned men and women through that house of death, all with the same, simple, sad question on their lips, “Is my girl here?”

The rest of the S. S. Kresge fire saga—except for the ultimate legal result—is the stuff of sour anti-climax. The inquest, managed by Coroner Burke, began on July 9 and featured a parade of witnesses, rigorous cross-examination, and a lot of contradictory testimony. Winifred Duncan testified about her sparkler demonstration—but firmly denied that it caused the blaze. All witnesses corroborated her belief and that of the store management that the sparklers were “harmless.” Testimony disclosed that no one in the store knew that the right rear windows were barred—or even that there were windows there at all. Testimony also revealed that there had never been a fire drill in the Kresge store—and that it was not legally required. As to the display and storage of fireworks, all officials and witnesses agreed that it was in full compliance with all Cleveland fire and safety laws. Or as Coroner Burke lamely summarized the inquest: “I am satisfied that the law was violated in spirit, while it seemed no one was legally culpable. It was morally wrong for that condition to be permitted to exist.” The inquest concluded with the finding that while the fire was due to “carelessness in handling fireworks,” no one was legally at fault because everyone involved acted under the belief that the sparkler was “harmless.”

That wasn’t quite the end of the matter. Cleveland newspapers cultivated public outrage over the fire for several weeks afterwards. And the enduring outcome of the Kresge tragedy was a public demand for an end to the homicidal mayhem that had become the norm for Fourth of July celebrations. On July 6, 1908, Cleveland Councilman Daniel Pfahl introduced the following ordinance in Council:

That no person, firm or corporation, shall, within the city, sell, offer for sale or have in his or its possession or custody any toy pistol, squib, rocket crackers or roman candles or other combustible fireworks, or any article for making of a pyrotechnic display.

The Pfahl ordinance passed Cleveland Council by a vote of 21 to 11 on the night of Monday, July 13, 1908, and was soon signed into law by Mayor Tom Johnson. This landmark legislation and the tragedy that precipitated it were important milestones in the movement, ultimately nationwide, to end the annual toll of deaths and injuries due to fireworks. Other cities and states copied the Cleveland fireworks law and the Pfahl ordinance is remembered now as a pioneer triumph in the crusade for a “safe and sane” Fourth of July. So the Kresge Seven did not die entirely in vain—something to think about the next time you are stalled in traffic opposite 2025 Ontario Street.


From the book They Died Crawling, © John Stark Bellamy II. All rights reserved.