Waiting for a new client who’s half an hour late arriving for his first appointment gets on my last nerve.
That’s because the wait-ee believes he’s a hell of a lot more important than everyone else and thinks he must be waited for. It doesn’t matter what type of business one conducts, but it’s especially exasperating for me because, as a private investigator, I make my money on the clock.
On this particular morning I was expecting my tardy visitor, Berton K. Loftus. He’s a long-time Cleveland city councilman from the 22nd ward, and I can’t even count how many times he’s been re-elected. He’d promised to be in my office at eleven o’clock—but he was a no-show at eleven twenty-five, and the clock resolutely ticked away.
I hadn’t bought a desk and chair yet for my new employee, Kevin O’Bannion, although there was a phone connection in the corner he would eventually occupy. I’d only known him for a few weeks and had actually hired him less than twenty-four hours earlier, so now he was hanging out by the floor-to-ceiling windows in my office, open to catch the summer breeze. He looked out at the Cuyahoga River flowing past the building toward Lake Erie, and across to the two back-to-back venues midtown where the Cleveland Indians and Cleveland Cavaliers play. The Indians were on a western road trip, and the Cavs don’t play basketball in August, but it was a great view nonetheless. Kevin—he prefers being called K.O., which has nothing to do with his impressive fighting ability—had been working part-time for a colleague and good friend, Suzanne Davis, a P.I. in Lake County, who suggested I employ him and teach him the ropes. It had taken me awhile to decide.
I’m getting older, as are we all, and an assistant could help me out when my cases get complicated—and they usually do. Also, I get headaches often, having been hit in the head a few times too many. K.O. turned up at the right time, wandering into my most recent investigation to save my ass. So Suzanne Davis talked me into putting him on full-time, at least until he earns enough working hours to secure his own private investigator license. He’s just a kid, but he’s very smart and tougher than hell. On this morning he’d dressed up a little—sports jacket and pressed slacks—to mark his first meeting with a client—but Loftus was late and the day was beginning badly.
“Are we going to spend forever waiting for this dick?” K.O. groused. “I thought you were running a business.”
I shrugged. “He’ll spend money with us, so we wait politely until he shows up. Bert Loftus isn’t someone to be jerked around, even if he deserves it.”
Those who know Bert Loftus—anyone who lives in Greater Cleveland—recognize him immediately. A bluff man with short, gunmetal-gray hair, Hugo Boss suits, and a huge selection of out-of-date bow ties, he walks ramrod straight, nodding royally to his constituents but rarely acting cordial to them, his personal magnetism convincing them how important he is. When you’re a Cleveland councilman, people tend to take you seriously. I had to the day before, when he phoned and said someone was trying to kill him.
The local press had already murdered his reputation. After a long, drawn out investigation—the usual M.O. for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which crosses every T and takes forever—he was indicted in federal court on thirty-one counts of accepting bribes and kickbacks from local businessmen who courted him for contracts to make them all richer, and the Plain Dealer and the local radio and TV newscasters reported his every malfeasance with relish. Even those fiercely loyal to his political party—approximately three-quarters of city voters—screwed up their noses when anyone mentioned his name now because his repute stank to high heaven. But no one deserves to die violently, so when he asked for my help, I set up his appointment for eleven o’clock. His tardiness might be a clue that he wasn’t in as much danger as he professed.
He finally arrived without his usual driver, who, along with his secretary, his aide, his cadre of lickspittles, and anyone else who jumped when he told them to, earned his salary from us taxpayers. He entered Milan Security alone, egotistical as usual, but he’d chucked the bow tie somewhere, today sporting a dress shirt with an open collar beneath his almost-gold suit. The last time I saw anyone wearing sunglasses as enormous as his, they rested on the nose of Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
Either he’d spent time at the beach or basked in a suntan parlor, because he glowed golden, blending into his suit. The skin around his neck was loose and wobbly, nearly a wattle. He took off his sunglasses to reveal a web of wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, matching the creases on his lips. Bert Loftus was growing old, whether he admitted it or not.
He skulked in like a bad actor in a melodrama, tendering me a dead-fish handshake and bestowing on K.O. somewhat less than that when I introduced them. Then he perched on the edge of a chair as if the smallest sound would send him flying away—like a bird on a power wire. My first-floor tenants ran a busy shop in which they constructed wrought-iron gates and screens and window guards that were really decorative bars, like in an upscale jail, and their banging seemed to bother Bert Loftus.
“Milan, I appreciate your seeing me on such short notice,” he said, nodding his head for no discernible reason. His fingers dug into his pants legs, nervously kneading bread dough on his lap. He said my first name correctly—it’s MY-lan, but his use of my surname sounded too familiar, considering we’d never had a conversation before. It’s pronounced YOCK-o-vitch but spelled the Slovenian way, Jacovich.
“Not so short,” I said, looking at my watch and making no effort to disguise my annoyance. “You’re late, Councilman.”
“Bert,” he corrected me as he’d done on the phone the day before. “Call me Bert. I couldn’t just drive here openly. I might be followed. I’ve been tailed for two weeks now.” He seemed fearful, as though monsters of his nightmares lurked in every shadowy corner. “So I drove around, turning where I shouldn’t have, going down twisty streets—and I eluded my tail, because here I am.”
“No one’s driving around out there,” K.O. said, jerking a finger toward the window. “You’re okay.”
“Whew,” Loftus said. Maybe he learned that word from a dialogue balloon in a comic book. He settled into his chair, breathing deeply. “Where should I start?”
“You asked for this meeting. We’re listening.”
He cleared his throat as though about to deliver a speech in council chambers. Then he frowned, listening to the noise from downstairs. “What the hell are they doing down there, anyway?”
“Making a living,” I said, “like I’m trying to do up here.”
Loftus frowned, then shifted in his chair. “Oh, well . . . Listen, Milan, I guess you know what’s been going on with me and the federal government.”
K.O. said, “Why don’t you start with that?”
Loftus looked at him, annoyed. “Don’t you read the newspapers?”
K.O.’s eyes got small and squinty. I but could already recognize a squint as a dead giveaway that he was pissed off. “I live in Lake County.”
“Jesus!” Loftus caught K.O.’s sarcasm and glared at him. Now we were all mad for various reasons. But Loftus had been across the street a few times and knew when to blow his top and when to calm down. Finally he said, “I’ve been indicted for accepting bribes.” Loftus wriggled in his chair, unused to being questioned. “Oh—different things. Campaign contributions, remodeling work on my homes, business people looking for government contracts.”
K.O.’s eyes opened wide when he heard the plural of “home.” Loftus lived in one of Cleveland’s better sections, and he kept a Florida vacation home on Sanibel Island—a very expensive piece of real estate—and a condo in the Short North in Columbus.
“Also, gifts from friends,” Loftus admitted. “Football tickets, free dinners, that kind of thing. And trips. Plane tickets, hotel rooms, to New York sometimes—or Florida or Vegas.”
“Does that include the Las Vegas hookers?” K.O. said, moving from the window over to where Loftus sat. He was more aggressive than I’d expected, and he did follow the news—he knew about the councilman’s extramarital activities. I assumed K.O. was more of a puncher than an inquisitor. “Or just the ones you spend time with in an apartment in the Warehouse District?”
That was one jab too many, and Loftus drew himself as tall as he could, ridiculous considering he was sitting down. “How dare you say that to me? Who do you think you are?”
“I’m like everyone else,” K.O. said, “who watches the local news.”
“Well, fuck you!”
“Hey,” I said, trying to soothe. “Let’s not get pissy.”
Loftus pointed what he presumed to be the finger of God at K.O. “Tell him to watch his mouth.”
K.O. backed off a few steps and jammed his hands into his pockets.
“Bert,” I said, “you can turn blue trying to deny what you’ve done already, but nobody believes you. Your lawyers can take the sting away, but that’s not my job. You’re here because somebody’s trying to kill you?”
“Of course that’s why I’m here. I’ve never been threatened before. Everybody loves me, everybody kisses my ass,” He said, lifting his head proudly. “They treat me like I’m Jesus of Nazareth.”
“Well, it’s almost time for the crucifixion.”
“Everybody used to kiss your ass, Bert. Now they just want a piece of it.”
Now he looked sad. “You disapprove of me, don’t you?”
“Not really. I just don’t live in your world.”
“I do favors for people who do favors for me—and you run around shooting people or beating them up. No, you don’t live in my world, and I sure as hell couldn’t live in yours.”
I leaned forward, elbows on the desk. “That remains to be seen. Why haven’t you told your lawyer to hire me? That way we’d have attorney-client privilege, and I won’t have to answer to anybody.”
“My lawyer? Fuck him in the ass—he let me get indicted and hardly lifted a goddamn finger! So now he only knows what I want to tell him—and I don’t want him spreading all this around.”
“That’s your call, Bert. Tell your lawyer whatever you want. But if you want us to work for you, we have to know everything. And I mean everything! So now—about these murder attempts . . .”
Loftus crossed his arms in front of him, defensive, almost sulky, and breathed hard for about twenty seconds.
“How do you know someone’s trying to kill you?” I said.
“Things have been happening, and I’m getting scared. It causes me—uh—undefinable tension.”
Undefinable tension. Holy crap. I took out a yellow pad. “What kinds of things?”
“The first time,” Loftus said, “was about three weeks ago. I’d met a friend out at Bass Lake Tavern in Chardon for dinner. We stayed for quite some time, as it was dark by the time we left.”
“You were drinking?”
“Not excessively. A few drinks—I didn’t really count them.”
K.O. said, “Who was the friend?”
“You said you met a friend for dinner. Who was the friend?”
Loftus sniffed angrily. “That’s hardly pertinent.”
“We’ll decide what’s pertinent,” I said.
“Oh. Um—her name is Dolores Deluke. She lives in Chardon, so it was convenient to meet at the Bass Lake Tavern.”
K.O. stifled a snicker, but not very well. “Dolores Deluke. You have that written down, Milan?”
I waved the pen at him. “She was in the car with you?”
Loftus said, “No, we each arrived in our own car.”
“And after dinner—and drinks—you were heading back to her place?”
“For a nightcap?” K.O.’s eyes were innocently wide.
“What the fuck’s the difference where I was heading?” Loftus snapped.
I was weary of calming things down. “Get to what happened.”
Reluctantly: “So all of a sudden there’s some kind of pickup truck coming up behind me, fast as hell. It banged my rear bumper hard enough to jar my brain. Then it zoomed over next to me on the driver’s side—and nudged me hard. I fought the wheel but I lost control, and I went off the side of the road and into a ditch.”
I nodded. I’d been the victim in a very similar Lake County road assault only a few days earlier, and I was currently driving a rented car—a Kia—while my Honda was being repaired. “You look okay,” I said. “Were you hurt?”
“Just shook up. Bruised my elbow and my thigh—on the steering wheel.” He gently tapped where he was talking about. “It scared the crap out of me.”
“Did the truck stop or slow down?”
“I was too concerned about my own ass to even look.”
“What did the police have to say about it?”
Loftus reached up to his throat to straighten the bow tie that wasn’t there. Feeling foolish, he scratched his neck instead and then let his fluttering hand fall back into his lap. “I didn’t report it to the police.”
Loftus studied his well-shined shoes. “I didn’t want this getting out, y’ know? Because of—my current problems.”
“Bert,” I said, “everyone knows about your problems. Why keep this a secret?”
He half-closed his eyes. “Personal reasons.”
“If you’re going to keep secrets from us, we won’t take your case. I don’t like working blindfolded.”
“It’ll stir up more shit than there is already, and I can’t take much more of it.”
I considered it. “Okay—for now. What about your car? Is it totaled?”
Loftus shook his head definitively. “A friend of mine owns a body shop—Deuce Auto Body. He fixed the damage for me—quietly.”
“What kind of car do you drive?”
“A Lincoln Town Car. Leased.”
“Did you see the truck’s license plate?”
“No,” Loftus said. “I was more worried about me than checking license plates.”
“Not even two or three numbers or letters?”
K.O. jumped in. “What make was the truck?”
“Ford? GMC? Dodge Ram?”
“I don’t know.” The councilman’s eyelids serial-blinked.
“What color was it?”
Now he lost his temper altogether. “It was the middle of the goddamn night!” he shouted at K.O. “All I saw was bright lights in the rearview mirror, and then boom! By the time I got my ass together, it was gone down the road.” He whipped his head around at me and demanded, “Who is this fucking kid, anyway?”
“I introduced you,” I said quietly. “Kevin O‘Bannion. My associate.”
“Now here’s what I’m wondering, Bert,” K.O. said. If Dolores Deluke was driving behind you, she’d have seen the entire thing. And if she was in front of you, she must’ve noticed the truck barreling by her. Is that right?”
Loftus looked as if he’d been struck by lightning. “I’m not sure; it was a dark night. Besides, I didn’t see her afterwards. I gave it a few minutes and then called her home to tell her I wasn’t coming. Uh, it’s better if we don’t mention Ms. Deluke’s name.”
“You don’t want that ‘getting out’ either?”
Loftus took half a minute wrestling with his problem before nearly collapsing in his chair. “You know how things are. I mean, I’m married.”
I had other questions, but I’d save them for awhile. “You said that was the first time—the first attempt on your life. What were the others?”
“I have to be careful what I put in my mouth. I could be poisoned,” he said à la Cardinal Richelieu.
“In a downtown restaurant?”
“You never know.”
“So there wasn’t a second attempt on your life?”
“Oh, there was! The last one was three days ago. I was having a drink at the Tiny Bar. You know where that is?”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s just off West Sixth. Small, quiet little street.”
Loftus nodded. “I was leaving sometime after midnight—heading back to my car. Then this big black sedan cruised by, and somebody took a shot at me. Took a little piece out of the brick wall it hit. Thank God somebody was a lousy shot.”
“A handgun or a rifle?”
“How the hell do I know? It was probably a handgun, but I couldn’t tell. They were driving fast and I didn’t bother looking at them until after the shot.” He looked grim. “I hit the sidewalk pretty fast, I can tell you. Ripped my pants!”
“And the police didn’t show up?”
Humiliated, Loftus forced himself to admit it. “I didn’t report it. I couldn’t hang around waiting for the police. It would have sounded like a car backfiring to anyone else. Besides, there were no witnesses.” He coughed nervously.
I’d scribbled notes, but I put my pen down and pushed the legal pad away. “You keep lots of secrets. That makes it hard to do our job.”
“What? To be my bodyguard?”
“We’re not bodyguards. Other people can provide private security if you want it. What’s important is finding who’s out to get you—and stopping them cold.”
Loftus looked awestruck. “You can do that?”
“I thought you knew about me, Bert. You must have checked me out before you even called me.”
“Yeah, I know you’re good, but I didn’t think—I mean, can you help me?”
“That’s what the job will be.”
“And what about the federal indictments? Can you fix those?”
“Fix the federal government? What are you smoking? I’m no lawyer; I won’t touch that. But if your life is in danger, that we can find out about—and fix.”
That made him surly again. “Whaddya mean, if? Are you calling me a liar?”
“Nobody called you anything,” K.O. observed.
“If things played out the way you say they did, we’ll find out.”
“We, huh?” His mouth became a nearly disappeared straight line. He jerked a thumb at K.O. “What about him?”
K.O. wandered over slowly to stand over Loftus. He was only about five foot nine or so, but there’s something about him—gravitas, they used to say when talking about a possible presidential candidate—that rendered him intimidating. “If you don’t talk about me as if I’m not in the room, we’ll get along fine. You can call me K.O.”
Loftus got angry again. His frequent outbursts wore on my nerves. “K.O.? What is that? Like in boxing? A knockout?”
“K and O are my initials. Kevin O’Bannion.” He made a fist with his right hand and massaged it with his left. “But if you want to think ‘knockout,’ be my guest.”
I jumped in again. “K.O. is my outside guy—researching. You’ll spend more time with me—but you won’t like me much better.” I pulled a contract out of my drawer and slid it across the desk.
Loftus perused each word as if it were written in Lithuanian. “Your rates are sky-high! This is a hell of a lot of money.”
“My rates are what any private investigator charges.”
He ran his fingers over the contract as though speed-reading. I didn’t think anyone did that anymore. “Yeah, but you’re a Clevelander—and my business is solving your problems. Maybe we can work a little discount here—like I’ll just pick up your expenses.”
“You want me to save your life and give you a discount?”
The scorn reappeared around his eyes. “Everyone gives me a break.”
“That’s why you’ve been indicted. Only the government calls the breaks something else. Don’t play games with our heads. Don’t make shit up or only tell us half. Tell everything—the whole truth—or hire somebody else.”
“That’s a pretty big order,” Loftus said.
“And you’re a pretty big pain in the ass. So sign the contract, Councilman—or take a hike.”
Loftus thought it over. Finally he took a pen from his inside pocket—a silver Mark Cross he probably hadn’t paid for; one of those “gifts” from someone who wants him to do something for them.
“You people,” he muttered as he slashed his name across the bottom like a crazed rebel with a machete, “will drive me fucking crazy!”
I suppose if I were African American, the use of “you people” would have offended me. Since I’m not, I chose to let it go.
When Loftus left, he offered neither of us a handshake, probably enraged that he’d written me a sizable check. K.O. and I listened to him clatter down the stairs, then heard his car engine kick over in the parking lot. I made out a bank deposit envelope as K.O. watched.
Finally I said, “You were pretty rough with our client.”
“He’s an asshole.”
“He’s a scared asshole who’s hired us to save his ass.”
“What would you bet that Dolores Deluke—or whatever her name is—is a hooker?”
“Loftus is arrogant, too.”
“Can you think of anyone elected to public office who isn’t arrogant?”
K.O. laughed. “If they had sense they wouldn’t act arrogant.”
“It’s part of their job. Now, here’s what comes with your job, K.O. Sit down.”
He frowned slightly. “I’m just fine standing up.”
“I don’t like people looming over me. Sit down.”
Sulking, he unwound his body into the chair Loftus had recently vacated. “Will this be Lecture 101?”
“You’re being almost as obnoxious as he is. I suppose acting like a jerk worked for you in juvie—or in the army. It’s a shitty way to be in business—any sort of business. So start thinking like a P.I. in this job—not like we’re good cop/bad cop.”
“Loftus throws his weight around like he’s got brass balls.”
“Brass balls and an Achilles heel,” I said. “But if he really is in danger, he deserves to be protected like anybody else. And if he’s not in danger, he’d love everyone to think so, just to work up public sympathy.”
“Why didn’t he tell the police about the shooting? He’s a city councilman—the cops work for him.”
“Cleveland’s tough,” I said. “If word gets out he’s hiding behind police skirts, he’ll get known as a wuss—and become history.”
“If he’s telling the truth—and not inventing stories like the Brothers Grimm.”
“Did you like Grimm’s Fairy Tales when you were little?”
“Only the one about that king who turned everything he touched to gold.”
“More like Loftus. So we take his money even if he’s faking?”
“We already took it. He might be making it all up. But if we blow him off and he’s not lying—and somebody shoots his head off—we’ll feel like shits. Can you take that chance?”
K.O. made a face. “I’ll still feel like I’m stealing money for nothing.”
It was past noon. I suggested we have lunch together before we set out on our separate assignments. That felt strange; I’d always worked alone, but K.O. was bright and aggressive, and I hoped he’d handle himself, and my business, in the right way.
We drove in separate cars to The Harp, an Irish restaurant nearby on Detroit Road overlooking Lake Erie, and chose to eat inside. They have an outdoor patio, but the lake is on the other side of a freeway and it gets noisy out there. Besides, I hate eating right next to heavy traffic and watching my food get dirty.
Harp’s menu offers excellent meals, especially the too-fattening boxty cakes; the bad reputation about Irish food is a mean-spirited myth. And the paintings high on the wall, along with quotes from Yeats and Oscar Wilde, contribute to the Celtic experience. I rarely miss Harp’s dessert—ice cream flavored with Guinness Stout! On this particular day, though, I foreswore it. I’ve learned that at my age I can’t indulge myself in the foods that have kept me smiling all my life, or else I’d rapidly gain weight and become a type 2 diabetic.
“Will you be okay?” I asked K.O. as we made our way back out to the parking lot.
“I promise to look both ways when I cross the street.”
“I didn’t mean that.”
His look was sour. “I’m all grown up. I didn’t get killed in Iraq, so I’ll survive in Cleveland.”
“I want you comfortable in this job. The other stuff was part-time. This is—well, you’re really an employee.”
“Is that another word for wage slave?”
“It is until you open your own firm and be your own boss, and you have to put in a certain amount of legwork before they let you have the license. Until then, you’re stuck with me.”
“And unfortunately,” K.O. said, opening his car door and sliding behind the steering wheel, “you’re stuck with me, too.”
[End of excerpt from the book Whiskey Island by Les Roberts.]
[Excerpted from Whiskey Island, © Les Roberts. All rights reserved. Gray & Company, Publishers.]