King of the Holly Hop is the 14th book in the Milan Jacovich (pronounced MY-lan YOCK-ovich) mystery series by Cleveland writer Les Roberts. Recently published in a new paperback edition, the book centers around the 40th reunion of Milan's St. Clair High School graduating class where he gets a rude surprise: One of his classmates, the philandering Dr. Philip Kohn, is found dead after a public altercation. Jacovich is hired by another former classmate, successful playwright Tommy Wiggins, to help prove his innocence and find the real killer. In the following book excerpt, Milan connects with Lt. Florence McHargue of the Third District Cleveland Police as part of his investigation.
When I arrived at my office fifteen minutes before nine the next morning, my voice mail light was flashing at me. I played back the single message, logged in at 8:07 a.m. The caller didn't have to identify herself. I'd recognize Lieutenant Florence McHargue's menacing voice anywhere.
"Jacovich, if I don't see your ass here within the hour, I'm going to set it on fire — personally."
Nice message. All the warmth of an Antarctic penguin who somehow missed out on the long march.
I didn't even take off my parka. I got to her office at the Third District just in time to save my ass from burning.
Having spent several years in blue and several more after I left the force just visiting, I'm as familiar with the Third District precinct house, on Payne Avenue and East 21st Street, as I am with the house in which I grew up. The station, built in Federalist style early in the twentieth century, had slowly but steadily fallen into disrepair, and was contemptuously called the Rock Pile until it was spiffed up enough to look clean and inhabitable to commuters who drove past it on the way downtown in the morning. The inside, however, still stinks of a century of lawbreakers and frightened victims, and to most cops, it remains the Rock Pile.
There was a time when the Cleveland gangsters hanging out in the Third were glamorous, exciting and even romantic in the literary sense — colorful, charming guys like Irish mobster Danny Greene and his Hungarian rival, Shondor Birns. They had good friends in the rich and fashionable social crowd as well as their pals from the criminal side, and athletes and entertainers, too. The outlaws laughed, rollicked and partied downtown in safety on the east side of the Cuyahoga River, and bought drinks for anyone who even said hello to them at places where they made their home away from home, like the Hickory House and the Theatrical Grill on Short Vincent Street — both just memories now. Everybody had a good old time with the smiling tough guys, who had style and class all their own. That's why they used to call the police precinct the Roaring Third.
Danny and Shondor died thirty years ago, in separate car bombings — Shondor on West 25th and Lorain on the bank of the river, and Danny in a Beachwood parking lot where he'd spent his last afternoon with his dentist — and when the smoke cleared there was little left of either of them to mourn. That's why the Third District doesn't roar anymore. Today the criminals who are escorted through the Third District doors are pond scum with gold teeth and gold-plated Caddys, and their imaginations begin and end with violence. They've forgotten that when you're rich, powerful and celebrated, you're expected to give back some of the money you've cadged and chiseled and stolen from honest people.
I was a patrol cop back then, not much more than a rookie. I'd met Birns and Green a few times — moments always strained with cops-and-robbers tension. But oddly enough I miss them today. They were part of the lively, colorful Cleveland history that's quietly faded away.
Florence McHargue — I never heard anyone refer to her as "Flo" — hasn't faded away, nor is she quiet. She rarely raises her voice, but her words are acid, and sound worse than yelling.
When I walked into her cluttered office, she checked her watch. "You're a lucky man, Jacovich. You're about six minutes away from big trouble."
"Good morning to you too, Lieutenant." I sat down.
She noticed, and her tone got even more sarcastic. "Please do sit down. Make yourself comfortable."
"I've got things to do today," I said. "So can we just cut the small talk? You can get to the business of chewing me a new one and then you can send me on my way."
"You're on my schedule. I'm not on yours."
Florence was a nice-looking woman when she wasn't snarling. She was in her mid-forties and had dropped about ten pounds since I'd last seen her. Her straightened hair was always done up in a severe bun, but long enough to fall below her shoulders if she let it. Her burnished skin was coffee-colored with a dash of cream, and her eyes large and brown behind her glasses. With more attention to her hair and makeup — and a concerted effort to smile occasionally — she'd be really attractive.
But she hadn't earned her lieutenant's badge by being cute. Her bad temper on the Job and perhaps off the job too, made sure she kept the rank — and the power. You can tell she enjoys the power.
"Jacovich, the way you're running your own investigation makes you seem like you look under beds the way old ladies do," she said. "You not only compromise this department's investigation, but you deny you're also a potential suspect in the murder of Philip Kohn."
"I'm not denying anything," I said. "So I guess I am a suspect, even if you know damn well I'm not."
"You're working for Ben Magruder." She mulled that over. "He was at the hotel Friday too, along with Wiggins. Now he's paying you to take the heat off his famous new client, who is a suspect too."
"So is everybody," I said, "including about a hundred hotel employees who were there that night, and the St. Clair grads who didn't show up at all. For all we know, it was someone from the medical community or the country club Kohn belonged to — or maybe an out-of-towner none of us has heard of. Come on, Lieutenant — give me some slack."
McHargue said, "You've been off the Job and out of a blue uniform too long. Did you forget police officers don't give slack — especially to hotshot private tin like you who get off on making us look bad?"
"How do I make the police look bad?"
"Let me count the ways." McHargue raised three fingers and began ticking the reasons off, starting with her index finger. "Showing up places you're not supposed to. Our people have to interview a witness or suspect who's pissed off and wrung dry because they already talked themselves out to you." After a pause, the ring finger went down too. "You find things out that might be important to our investigation — but you don't share them with us. Makes us look like holy asses."
The only finger still erect was the middle one — make of it what you will. "And when you do crack a case, which you can't legally shove your way into, your name hits the papers, and suddenly every mouth breather in town who believes half of what they read starts thinking you're the Caped Crusader — and that us real cops spend all our time eating free Dunkin' Donuts and taking kickbacks from guys we should throw in jail anyway."
I watched with perverse fascination as she mercifully lowered her middle finger. "Is that all?" I said.
Adapted from the book King of the Holly Hop © by Les Roberts. Reprinted with permission of Gray & Company, Publishers (grayco.com).