Sneak Peek: “Win, Place, or Die”

Win, Place, or Die

Sample Contents

Prologue
Chapter One
Chapter Two

Prologue

Milan

And they’re off and racing!”

That’s how the track announcer always begins the race at Northcoast Downs in a suburb south of Cleveland. I’d never heard it before that particular evening, but this was the beginning of the fifth race, and I was getting used to his call. It was my first time watching a harness race—unique, different from a horse race like the Kentucky Derby. I was as oblivious to this sport as I was about curling or croquet, but I was having a good time anyway. Leaning forward in my chair, watching horses and racing bikes pound around the track, I rooted for number six; I couldn’t even remember the horse’s name, nor the driver’s, but I’d bet five bucks on number six to win and that’s what interested me most.

I’d been to horse races before. I’m no gambler, except on pro football games—which is usually not a winning proposition here in Cleveland. I’d visited a thoroughbred track, Thistledown, in Cleveland’s eastern suburbs. But I don’t get out of Northeast Ohio much, not counting my Vietnam tour in the 1970s, so I haven’t been to any other tracks.

Northcoast Downs was all about harness racing, though. It opened in 1957, and has gone from featuring races only a few months per year to more than two hundred events all year long. I can’t imagine horses running races in Cleveland’s January snow, but they do.

I’ve learned that Northcoast isn’t just a place to watch races; it’s a family-oriented entertainment venue—much more so than Cleveland Browns Stadium, which was built for the enlightenment of macho football fans—with a supervised facility in which younger kids can hang out and play while mommy and daddy watch and wager. Gigantic television sets all over the place show racing at many other tracks outside Ohio—a perq for dedicated gamblers—as well as other sports like basketball, even though one can’t legally bet on a basketball game at a racetrack. Several bars and snack counters are scattered around, and before the races began we ate dinner up in the white-collar clubhouse. Not much diversity on the menu, but most of the diners, who have their own TV sets at their tables, look a little bit dressed up for the occasion.

On this brisk October evening, I’d been invited to join a former client of mine, Glenn Gallagher. He owned an investment banking firm in the Key Tower, Cleveland’s tallest and most imposing skyscraper. Months earlier he’d engaged my company, Milan Security, to run exhaustive investigations on all his top-level employees because one of them—he didn’t know who—was ripping off his wealthier investors to the tune of seven figures. I’d discovered, contrary to Gallagher’s hopes, it wasn’t true; one of his rainmakers was the crook. The thief was fired, then indicted. My company earned a handsome bonus, and Gallagher and I began one of those relationships uneasily situated between friend and acquaintance. He urged me to bring my assistant to an evening at Northcoast Downs to toast our good fortunes.

In addition to the high-money, high-risk business that had made him a multimillionaire, Glenn owned a large stable of horses, both at Northcoast Downs and at several other tracks around the country, and went to a great deal of trouble and effort to secure his professional racing license so he could drive them in races himself. On this particular evening he wasn’t driving, so he joined us in the clubhouse to enjoy food and drinks and to excite us all about the sport of harness racing.

The “us” includes my young, eager private-eye-in-training, who’d worked with me for several months, Kevin O’Bannion. He prefers being called K.O., and not just because they were his initials. K.O.’s addition to Milan Securities in early summer marked the first time in my entire life I’d ever had an actual employee, one who gets a paycheck and deductions and medical insurance every week. It was also K.O.’s first job, other than several years he’d spent in the United States Army, including three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. His military job description: kill people before they kill you.

When Glenn Gallagher had dropped by my office to invite us to Northcoast, K.O. was his usual surly self. His late teens had been spent in juvenile detention because he’d attacked and nearly killed two neighbor kids who’d caught a stray dog on the street and cooked him alive in their backyard Weber Kettle for the fun of it. As a result, K.O.’s hot-button temper boiled over about anything remotely resembling animal abuse.

“Why would I watch horses getting beaten with a whip?” he asked when Gallagher extended the invitation. “Who in his right mind would like that and not get pissed off?”

I winced. One doesn’t fly in the face of one’s well-paying client and question his ethics. But Gallagher took the query seriously.

“A better question, K.O.,” he said, “is why anyone in his right mind wanting to make money with winning horses would abuse them? Like in any sport, these horses are well-trained athletes, and are groomed, fed, and treated very well indeed.”

“Nobody ever whips a football player,” K.O. pointed out. “I hate those goddamn horsewhips.”

“Well, a driver mostly uses that whip to hit the saddle pad or the wheel disk to get the horse’s attention and make him focus. Sure, horses are hit sometimes, but if he’s running slow and a whip doesn’t make him speed up, there’s no point in hitting him again. And if a driver or trainer uses the whip too often, or too hard, we do something to stop it. There are sadists who enjoy hurting animals; enjoy hurting people, too. But they’re rare in horse racing, and when they’re caught, they’re reported.”

“Sickos!”

“Sure they are, but you can’t tell everybody they can’t own a dog or a horse because a tiny group of them enjoy cruelty.”

“Or a cat,” I added; K.O. lived with a gray cat named Rodney and would gladly lay down his life for him.

“Most of us in this business love horses,” Glenn said. “Why would we be here otherwise? Caring about horses is what got us into racing in the first place.”

“Yeah,” K.O. argued, “but some of those harnesses and bits and stuff hurt them.”

“It doesn’t hurt them, exactly,” Glenn said. “Sometimes it’s a little uncomfortable—to remind them they should run where they’re supposed to and not take off over the fence somewhere.”

“Uncomfortable! Man, that’s barbaric!”

“K.O., football players are uncomfortable, too—all that padding along with helmets and mouthpieces. And every one of them is uncomfortable after the first play because the object of the game is to crash into other athletes wearing different uniforms.”

“Yeah,” K.O. said, “but what happens when horses get too old to race or just aren’t good enough? Do they wind up in a dog food can?”

“We try to make sure that doesn’t happen. I re-train my horses to gait so they can become riding horses, and then I sell them or donate them to a non-profit agency, New Vocations, which finds good homes for them.” Glenn smiled broadly. “They aren’t wild mustangs, they’re domesticated animals, but most of them live good, long lives.”

“Racehorses at tracks die every day,” K.O. said. “I read that on the Internet.”

“Mostly thoroughbreds. I don’t think there’ve been more than three horses die at Northcoast Downs in the last thirty years.”

“Yeah, okay,” K.O. muttered, “but they’re still prisoners. They have to live in those little stalls, and they only get to go outside for like an hour a day—if that!—to be trained or exercised so they can win some goddamn race. They’re beautiful animals; they need to be free.”

Part of me agreed with K.O., but I was at least mollified by the fact that trotters and pacers aren’t really abused or mistreated. Besides, both of us had worked with Glenn Gallagher over the summer, and we liked him. “Chill out, K.O.,” I said.

K.O. didn’t answer. Silent and sullen is his way of life, especially when he’s pissed off, but Gallagher had made sense, and K.O. wasn’t mad enough to continue the argument.

“I’ve never seen a harness race, either,” I said. “Bring Carli, too—I’ll bet she’ll enjoy it.”

Glenn Gallagher walked over to K.O.’s desk and stuck out his hand. “I’m delighted you’ll be joining us, K.O. I look forward to meeting, uh, Carli, is it? My guess is you’ve got pretty good taste.”

“Damn right I do.” K.O. rose for the handshake. He’s five-nine or so, and the difference between his size and Glenn Gallagher’s made him look like lunch bait. “Sorry about bitching. Animals are one of my big things.”

“Mine, too,” Gallagher said.

Shortly after Glenn Gallagher had left the office, K.O. called his girlfriend Carli and told her to save the date for the big outing. Carli, by the way, is Carli Wysocki, whom K.O. met while on his first assignment with Milan Security. She is around K.O.’s age, mid-twenties; she’s astonishingly pretty and she smiles all the time. She’s been front and center in K.O.’s mind every second since he first laid eyes on her. I knew my suggestion to bring Carli to the races would mollify K.O. enough to convince him to accept Glenn’s invitation.

I waited until that evening to invite my own significant other, Tobe Blaine, with whom I was having dinner at the Lockkeeper’s Inn in Valley View. That’s Tobe, as in Detective Sergeant Tobe Blaine of the Homicide Division of the Cleveland Police Department, and she pronounces her name “Toby,” even though she doesn’t spell it that way. She and I met months earlier while working on different levels of the same case—and our relationship just sort of happened.

I’d never dated a cop before, even when I was a policeman myself. I’m not sure why, because all cops look at life—at least the life in which we function, that of law and order—in the same way. Tobe had never been to a horse race before, either, and now that we were here she seemed to be having fun. For whatever reason, she bets better than I do. I’d won one race bet and she’d aced three of them.

In case you’re interested, this is my very first interracial relationship; Tobe is in her late forties and African American. If anyone has a problem with that, deal with it, because I don’t have a problem with it at all.

This story, however, is not much about romance. It’s not much about having a good time at the racetrack, either. This one is all about murder.

Chapter One

Milan

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!”

Chapter Two

Milan

We were back inside on the first floor where all the gambling addicts hung out, sitting around one of those large round tables, counting our winnings. Yes, Proud Milan won by three lengths, and we all collected five times what we’d bet. K.O. was jazzed about what he considered a big score, twenty-five bucks on a five-dollar bet. He’d probably never even been near a horse before, but he’d studied the program all evening as if there’d be a pop quiz on it, making scratches in the margins with his pencil.

“Are you turning into a big gambler now, K.O.?” I said.

“What should I bet with? My fourteen year-old Honda? My twenty-buck watch from Target?”

Carli Wysocki was draped over K.O.’s shoulder, studying the line-up for the next race, pointing out horse’s names that interested her, that she thought were “cute.” She said, “This is the first time I’ve been to a racetrack in my life.”

“I hope you’re having fun, then.”

“Kevin and I always have fun.”

Tobe Blaine rolled her eyes. She was more than twenty years older than Carli, and observing breathless young love probably drove her up a wall.

We’d all bet on Proud Milan because his name was close to my own. Glenn Gallagher had said that first-time gamblers often got lucky betting on a horse that was pretty, or their favorite color, or had an interesting name. We’d probably never get that lucky again, but it was a race to remember.

“Sometimes,” Glenn told us, “gambler virgins will bet on dead money. That’s a horse everybody knows doesn’t have a chance in hell of finishing in the money. A useless bet, unless some weird thing happens during the race, like the favorite getting boxed in behind another horse, or the stone-cold front-runner that has great early speed runs out of gas in the stretch. People don’t use that expression, ‘dead money,’ so much anymore, unless they’ve been around a long time, like me.”

K.O. happily waved his money around, as if he’d just collected five grand instead of twenty-five bucks. “I’m not bitching because I won,” he said, “but are these races ever fixed?”

Glenn said, “It’s hard to do because the racetrack management watches for odd results. They’ll investigate a shady-looking race, and there’s a state racing commission watch-dogging things, too. Every winner is drug-tested after the race, and randomly chosen horses are drug-tested each night. They even make sure the right horse is in the right place.”

“How do you know,” Carli asked, “whether it’s the right horse?”

“Tattoos. They used to tattoo the inside of the horses’ lips, but now mostly they do it on the side of their necks, under the mane. Right before the race they test all the drivers to find out if they’d been drinking or doping. If they have, they don’t race. It’s pretty strict here. Screw up enough and you get suspended—or even banned for life.”

“All over the country?” I said.

“Generally not. If you’re banned at this track, you might be able to drive somewhere else. But if it’s a serious enough offense, every track in America might cast a jaundiced eye on your working there. A veterinarian comes around every morning to check the horses and take care of whatever’s wrong with them—and there’s an ambulance parked down near the far end of the track every evening in case, God forbid, anyone gets hurt—horses or people.”

K.O. looked at his own winnings with new respect, then at me. We saw each other at least five days a week, if not more often, and I was feeling the stirrings of liking him, or at least getting more comfortable working with him. The good news, I guess, is that he’s not always so pissed off about everything.

Glenn went off to get another drink. He knew practically everyone around the track and he kept disappearing to talk to them. K.O. and Carli headed toward the refreshment stand. After our recent dinner I couldn’t imagine them being hungry again, but they were young, so what did I know? I wished I’d waited and ordered a couple of hot dogs down here, because the stand offers Stadium Mustard for its hot dogs—one of my favorite Cleveland foods. Stadium Mustard, pierogi, thin-crust pizza, klobasa (I know, everyone else calls it “kielbasa,” but that’s the way Slovenians pronounce it), and Buffalo wings are foods that keep Cleveland alive, healthy, and happily diverse.

Tobe and I studied the eighth race to decide how to lose all the money we’d just won. Tobe considered backing whatever horse was in the first position on the inside track; I looked for another interesting name. The only one I found, however, was a 30-to-1 underdog on the tote board, so I decided to skip the race altogether.

Then I saw Glenn Gallagher approaching again, another Armagnac snifter in his hand. He stopped at the table, licking his lips more than seemed necessary. His eyes were glassy. He bent down to speak to me.

“Milan, are you hung up on staying here for the rest of the races?”

“We planned to, but I don’t think anyone is hung up about it. Why?”

“All of a sudden I feel odd—dizzy, feverish. I can’t seem to keep my eyes focused. Blurred vision—and I’m having trouble breathing.”

I looked at him more closely. I’m no doctor but something was obviously wrong. His skin and clothes were sweat-drenched, his face ashen, and he held onto the back of Tobe’s chair to keep from falling on his face. I took the snifter from his hand and helped him sit down. “Relax, Glenn—take deep breaths.”

He all but collapsed in the chair, his long legs sticking out into the main aisle. I took off my jacket. “Here—use this as a pillow.”

He didn’t move, though, just sat there with his hand on his chest.

“Is it your heart?”

Glenn shrugged with great effort. “I’ve had heart problems,” he said through clenched teeth. “A-fib.” I knew nothing about cardiac medicine, but I was aware that a-fib was shorthand for atrial fibrillation: too-fast, irregular beating in the upper chambers of the heart.

Glenn didn’t want to discuss his health. “Nothing to worry about.”

Not until now, I thought. “Are you in pain?”

He closed his eyes, not answering me.

“Can I do anything?” K.O. said.

I wondered whether he could. K.O. doesn’t talk about it much, but he was in combat action; perhaps he knew a smidgen of medical training. But Glenn shook his head violently. “Milan.” Speaking seemed like a superhuman effort. “Could you—drive me home?”

“Sure, Glenn. We’ll go now.”

Tobe stood quickly. “You drive his car, Milan; I’ll follow in yours.”

“He only lives a few minutes from here,” I said.

K.O. was standing as well, looking worried and concerned. “We’ll follow you, too.”

I shook my head. “You and Carli stay as long as you want; you’ve got your car.”

“We were probably heading home pretty soon, anyway. Call me at Carli’s later, let me know what’s going on.”

It took a while, but the four of us managed to get Glenn on his feet. A big man, with little strength left in him. We all stumbled through a little-used corridor and finally out into the parking lot. Glenn had parked his Jeep Grand Cherokee very close to the door—being a horse owner, he had that privilege—and we helped him into the passenger seat. When I closed the door he leaned his face against the window, as if the coolness of the glass soothed him.

I handed Tobe my car keys and told her to follow me.

“How many drinks did you have tonight, Glenn?” I said as I started the car—but he was more than half out of it and just mumbled an answer I couldn’t understand.

I’d only been to Gallagher’s house once before, during the daytime. Now, at night, I wasn’t sure where I was going. Once we cleared the parking lot, Glenn seemed incapable of giving directions, so I tried to re-create the neighborhood in my mind as I made a left turn on what I hoped was the correct street. In the rearview mirror, I saw Tobe following at a respectful distance.

I drove around looking for the street on which Glenn lived. Finally I recognized the street sign and turned left again to see his large, impressive home on a slight hill at the end of a cul-de-sac. There were lights on downstairs and floodlights illuminated the driveway. “We’re almost there, Glenn,” I said.

He opened his eyes, clutched his chest with both hands, and violently vomited all over his own lap.

I pulled the Jeep around to his front door, got out and ran around to the passenger side. When I opened the door, he raised his head slightly, staring directly into my eyes with what I imagined was terror. He reached out one hand to me, and then it fell into his lap as if he’d been shot. His head dropped onto his chest, and the entire upper half of his body lurched forward, hitting the dashboard. His other arm hung loosely at his side and the final breath of air escaped quietly from his lungs.

Tobe pulled up behind me, leaving the car running, and quickly joined me at Glenn’s Jeep.

“Is he all right?” she asked.

I put my hand on his neck, feeling for a pulse that wasn’t there. “I’m not sure,” I said, “but I think he’s dead.”

* * *

It’s one thing for a friend to die; it will make you sad for a little while. It happens often, especially when you get older. But you learn to live with it, to spend the appropriate time grieving, and then move on.

It’s quite another thing when a person dies while looking into your eyes. It’s happened to me before. My best friend, a guy I grew up with and the only man I could ever really talk to honestly and without bullshit, Cleveland Police Detective Marko Meglich, died in my arms under the arches of the Detroit-Superior Bridge in the dark shadows of a nightmare—shot to death off-duty but out there covering my ass nonetheless. I’ll never really recover from that one.

Glenn Gallagher hadn’t exactly been a friend. We’d grown to like each other; he was wealthy, powerful, and consumed with harness racing and the love of horses. I’m a lower middle-class working stiff, long divorced and living in a rented apartment for the last quarter of a century, a guy whose friends are almost all cops. Glenn and I had little in common.

But slumped over in his Jeep Cherokee, his heart fluttering and eventually failing, he had looked straight in my eyes, reached out to me, and died. And I couldn’t do a damn thing about it.

About Les Roberts

Author, Internet and Radio Personality (www.greenlightreviews.com), Teacher, Critic, not a bad jazz piano player, Cleveland lover.
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