by Mark Best

The incessant hum of the alarm clock pulled me out of a beautiful unconsciousness and dropped me smack dab into the most perfect hangover of my life. Every sound, from the aforementioned timepiece to the perpetual drip in my bathroom sink to the diesel whine of the buses beginning their morning route, were amplified twelve times, echoing in the cavern where my brain should have been.

I wondered, as I dragged myself out of bed, how people do this to themselves all the time. Despite our reputation, not all reporters are two-fisted drinkers. The best crime reporter I know is a Mormon who never drinks, and the second best, me, has only been drunk twelve times. Take away college binges and the number drops to four, now five.

The worst part of the whole thing was that I came away empty handed. I had gone to a Russian social club to investigate a protection racket against immigrants from the former Soviet Republic. My source, Konstantine Borzov, the self-proclaimed Godfather of Pittsburgh’s Russian community, had promised names, access, and evidence. What I got was glass after glass of illegally imported vodka, a lot of conversation about John Wayne movies, and tall tales about resistance fighting in Czechoslovakia. And more vodka.

I managed to shower without drowning and shave without slashing my jugular. I wasn’t strong enough to try breakfast, but I managed to down half a cup of Tasters Choice with my aspirin. I don’t remember driving into work, but I was there and there were no new dents on my Mazda, so I assume it was an uneventful trip. I even managed to be on time, and was staring at my blank monitor when 8:30 flashed on the old newsroom clock. I had just clicked open the file on my Russian story when my phone rang. Hoffman’s secretary told me the boss wanted to see me immediately.

Hoffman’s office was one story down; a glass walled cubicle in the middle of the floor. The glass was smoked, and opaque from the outside. Inside, the whole newsroom was visible, and one never knew when the boss’s eyes were on you. That was why several of us old-timers (and I always laugh at being considered an old-timer at thirty-four) maintained offices in the old newsroom upstairs. Longevity brings the reward of limited independence.

Hoffman’s secretary seemed unusually curt when she told me to go right in. We had never been friends, but politeness was the norm. Today I felt like I’d run over her cat.

“Good morning to you, too, Erica, ” I said. “We seem especially chipper today.”

“You may go right in, Mister Masterson,” she growled, emphasizing the Mister, “and after that you can drop dead on the Parkway.” There wasn’t much more for me there so I went in.

A lot of men find it difficult to work for a woman. A lot of newspapermen find it impossible. When Caroline Hoffman was named managing editor of the Beacon, several of my less egalitarian colleagues moved onto other papers. Those who stayed had some stinging criticism of their new boss, but mostly she was greeted with grudging respect. As an UPI reporter covering the Middle East in the early nineties, she had proven she had at least as much courage as her male counterparts. Now she was proving it from the other side of the copy desk.

“What’s with Erica today? They start charging for coffee in the break room?”

Hoffman looked up from the stack of papers on her desk. “I was hoping you wouldn’t have your usual cavalier attitude about this, Mike, but I can see I was wrong.”

“Wrong about what? What are you talking about?”

Caroline tossed me the copy she was holding. “This will be running on page one today. Care to read it?”

I picked the paper off of her desk and started reading. The byline was by Max Antonucci, the Beacon’s sports editor, and the headline stated that Ivan Lermatov, the Penguin’s superstar, was out of tonight’s Stanley Cup playoff game. I am a diehard Pirate fan and haven’t missed a Steeler home game since college, but I never shared my fellow Pittsburghites fascination with hockey. In the past, they were lucky to get 500 people at a game. After a few good years everyone jumped on the bandwagon. I had remained disinterested, and wouldn’t even know how the Pens were doing if every single person in the office didn’t loudly recall every minute of every game the next day.

I read the piece, slightly disgusted. The player had hurt himself in a drunken brawl in a bar the previous night. My mind began listing all the athletes who thought the ability to hit a home run or score a touchdown gave them the right to flaunt society’s codes of conduct. But as I continued reading, I temporarily lost the capacity for thought and let the words roll across my brain like cold, numbing water.

“Beacon reporter Michael Masterson,” I read aloud, “reportedly insulted Lermatov while both were in Radovic’s Tavern in Verona. According to witnesses, when the hockey star’s entourage rose to leave, Masterson attacked Lermatov. Before several patrons had managed to pull him off, Masterson had inflicted a broken nose and a dislocated shoulder on the Penguin center.” I laid the sheet down on the table. “What kind of joke is this?”

“That’s what I was going to ask you. I know you hate hockey, but now you’ve got the whole city pissed at you.”

“Pissed at me?” I said. “I didn’t do anything. I’ve never met Lermatov, much less fought with him.”

“Mike, there are several witnesses, including the bar owner, who tell the same story. And you told me yesterday you were going to Radovic’s for your Russian investigation.”

“Come on, C.H., you’ve known me for a long time. Does that really sound like me?”

“No, Mike, it doesn’t. That is why we are talking instead of discussing a suspension. Tell me your side. What happened?”

I started to tell Caroline about the previous night when I had to stop. I remembered being at Radovic’s, and I remember Konstantine pointing out Lermatov and a few other Penguins. And I remembered the vodka and I remembered waking up in my bed. “I don’t know,” I said.

“You don’t know what?”

“I don’t know what happened. I mean, I know I didn’t get into a fight, but I can’t remember anything after a certain point last night.”

“Great. Are you telling me you got drunk and blacked out?”

“No,” I said, my thoughts suddenly arranged with great clarity. “I’m telling you I was set up.”

Hoffman stared at me for what seemed like ten minutes. “Do you know how that will sound, if you go around and tell people that the biggest sports star in this town since Mario Lemieux tried to set you up?”

“My instincts are never wrong. Never. It has to be tied in to the Russian story. You have to believe me.”

“I do believe you, Mike. But I’m not the one you have to convince. There are about a hundred thousand Penguin fans in this city, most of who want to introduce you to the business end of a hockey stick. And all of them subscribe to the paper. More than your reputation is on the line here.”

“Are you telling me this could cost me my job?”

“Could?” Caroline laughed. She laughed like a man, from deep in her belly. “You were already fired. For some reason the boys upstairs gave you another chance. You’ve got three days to dig yourself out of this. After that the paper cuts you free.” I knew how persuasive C. H. could be, and was pretty sure she was the reason I was still employed. I owed her one. I also owed someone else one, and I could pay both of them back by getting myself out of the frame.

Leo Radovic’s nose had been broken and set badly. As a result, he constantly had the sniffles. Not that it bothered the patrons. A bartender/owner with a runny nose was one of the reasons Radovic’s never became a trendy hangout. Of course, the disdainful glares in response to an order for a fuzzy navel or a light beer helped, too.

Leo was working the bar by himself this afternoon. The crowd consisted mostly of old men nursing long flat beers and a few confirmed alcoholics with bottomless glasses. No one paid any attention to me, and even Radovic didn’t recognize me until I was seated at the bar.

“You ain’t supposed to be here, Masterson. You ain’t welcome.” A few of the old men caught the tone in Radovic’s voice and looked up expectantly. This might be the most excitement since McDonalds announced free coffee refills for senior citizens.

“I just have a few questions about last night,” I said. “I want to talk to the witnesses who saw me attack Lermatov.”

“Everyone saw you,” Radovic said. “No one is going to change their story.”

One of the old men said something in Russian. Leo hissed back in the same language. It got so heated that the drunks actually looked up from their drinks.

“You do not scare me, the old man said, switching to English. “I ran away once, from Stalin, from my country. I do not do it again.” He turned to me. “Do not believe all you are told. Look to the ceiling. That is your answer”

The man with him put a hand on his friend’s arm. “Be careful of what you say, Josef Ilanovitch.” He looked at me. “This man can destroy our community.”

“Our community is being destroyed from inside, my friend. Destroyed by a cancer that none dare speak of, but all know. All of you,” he shouted at the crowd. “None of you are the cause, but you are all to blame.”

Radovic shouted something in Russian, and Ilanovitch’s friend took him by the arm and led him outside. The old man did not struggle. He no longer wanted to be in that bar.

“Looks like not everyone believes the story you gave the press,” I said.

Leo turned back to me. His breath smelled like stale kielbasa. “I told everything to the cops, just like it happened. Exactly as it happened.”

“You know, Leo, I have a feeling you’ll be giving a retraction real soon.”

I left Radovic’s a little discouraged and scanned the street for the old man. I couldn’t see him anywhere. I found a pay phone that had miraculously escaped having its white pages stolen and looked up the old man’s number, but there was no Josef Ilanovitch listed. I thought of asking around the neighborhood, but I was pretty sure Louis Farrakan smoozing at a white supremacists convention would get a friendlier reception than I would.

Instead, I called Martin Wilcox. Marty was the best researcher at the Beacon, and he wasn’t a Penguins fan. I left him a voice mail message, telling him what I needed. He called back thirty minutes later with Ilanovitch’s address.

I keep a Pittsburgh street map in my car, but even using it, I didn’t find Ilanovitch’s home for nearly an hour. His road was an alleyway, his apartment an unnumbered door next to an Indian dog groomer. A mural of a well-coifed poodle overlapped on the old man’s door, making it look like part of the canine chop shop. When I finally realized this was his place, I knocked on the dog’s rear end. The unlocked door swung open.

“Mr. Ilanovitch?” My voice echoed up the flight of stairs. “It’s Mike Masterson, Pittsburgh Beacon. We met at Radovic’s today?” I walked up the steps, continuing to talk out loud. The top door was also ajar, so I went in.

When I found the old man he was already dead. Ilanovitch was shot twice, once in each eye. It was obviously a message, as his frail bones would have succumbed to the obvious beating he had taken. I quickly called 911 from my cell phone, but I knew speed wasn’t necessary. St. Peter had scooped me on this one. I felt equal parts nausea and anger. I wasn’t mad up until then. The attempt to frame me I almost considered fair play, part of the game. This was no longer a game.

Ilanovitch had lived and died in a studio apartment that almost qualified as a closet. I didn’t have enough time to search the room before the police made it a reporter free zone, but I gave the ceiling a quick once over. It looked like the original plaster job, except around the ceiling fan fixture. But the spackling compound was yellow with age and the inch of dust on the blades had been undisturbed since the seventies. Whatever ceiling the old man spoke of wasn’t above me now.

The uniformed officer who answered the call was a Penguins fan, and after identifying myself, I felt the temperature in the room drop about twenty degrees. They brought me to the station where three cops asked me the same questions three different ways. Either I answered right or the power of the press (as well as the paper’s legal representative, who showed up during the interrogation waving papers around) scared them into releasing me.

I went back to the paper, avoiding the downstairs newsroom. Hoffman had given me three days, and I knew her word was as good mine, but I didn’t want to be on display. Besides, I needed to make some calls. Another feature of staying in the old newsroom upstairs is that, when the paper remodeled, they put in a new phone system that a degree from MIT wouldn’t help you navigate. But they never got around to our floor, which suited me, just fine. I like a phone you dial rather than program.

My first call was to a source at the County Coroner’s office. One bottle of good scotch each month guaranteed me a copy of any autopsy reports as fast as the police get one. I also called three other sources I was using on my Russian story. They were about as enlightening as a Hard Copy exclusive.

My last call was long distance to Chicago. It always struck me as ironic that Jeremiah Olsen ended up in the Windy City. Not that a town that sired both Al Capone and Boss Daley didn’t need the best crime reporter in the country. But Jerry was the straightest person I knew. His Mormon upbringing prohibited drinking, swearing, caffeine, gambling, and almost any other vice you can name. I guess that’s why he has seven kids in ten years of marriage. It’s the only thing he’s allowed to do that is any fun.

After some small talk and an update on my nine-year-old namesake’s first little league game, I switched to business. A few years back, Jerry had written a weeklong series about the Russian Mafia and their influence in Chicago’s ethnic community. I remembered that one article discussed ritualistic murder as threat. The eight articles had netted Jerry another shelf full of awards.

“It’s not Russian Mafia,” he told me. “That was some of my best work, but I was mistaken there. The hits weren’t Mafia. It was a penny-ante extortion racket. The guy claimed to be Russian mob, used ceiling on a few Slovakian business owners, and...”

I interrupted. “Did you say ‘ceiling’?”

“Well, that’s the literal translation. It doesn’t have a direct English counterpart. It means having something important over someone else. Usually it’s a relative back in the Motherland. Guy has a nice setup here, maybe a dry cleaners, a convenience store, maybe a liquor store. Someone approaches him, tells him that his sister back in the old country might get run over by a bus unless he pays a few thousand dollars insurance on her. It’s the way the Russian Mafia got their initial capital.

“But they don’t do that anymore. That would be like the Gambino family pushing drugs on the street corner. They are too big for that now. They take a cut of protection money, but they don’t get their own hands dirty.”

“So where do the killings come in?” I asked.

“There was a man, forgot his name, probably dead now, who tried the ceiling racket on a few folks. He didn’t have the connections in the old country, though, so he had a few people killed, signed the corpses by shooting their eyes out. He made two mistakes, though. He claimed to be Russian Mafia, which he wasn’t, and he never paid his own protection money. He fled town a few hours ahead of the killers, and no one’s heard from him since then.”

I laughed. For some reason, I saw what Hoffman’s face was going to look like when I gave her this story. It would either get me a raise or a transfer to puff pieces.

“Listen, Jerry, do you have a source with the Russians that I could talk with? I think you just solved my problem.”

The “CLOSED” sign on Radovic’s door didn’t deter several neighborhood barflies from trying to enter. One kicked at the door and one even started to cry. Radovic’s never closed, except on the Orthodox Christmas and Easter. Even Sundays the dedicated could go to the restaurant part and order a beer with their invisible sandwich. On Election Day the beers were free as long as you allowed supporters of whichever candidate Radovic favored to drive you to the polls. But today the blinds were drawn and the lights were out.

Word spread fast. No one had tried to get in for almost a half-hour before Ivan Lermatov showed up. When he knocked a very haggard looking Leo Radovic opened the door for him. No words were exchanged as the hockey player slipped inside. It wasn’t more than five minutes before Konstantine Borzov, accompanied by his bodyguard, stepped out of a new Mercedes. The bodyguard stepped to the door of Radovic’s and unlocked it. He took a quick look inside and held the door open for his boss. After Borzov entered, the bodyguard closed the door, and looked around furtively as he walked away.

As soon as the large Russian was gone, I climbed out of the back of the van and walked over to Radovic’s. I entered quietly and tiptoed towards the back room, reaching the door just in time to hear Borzov say; “You are crazy. Why would I summon you? You asked me to come here.”

“Actually,” I said, entering the room, “I called this meeting.”

All three men turned towards me. Borzov looked towards the door expectantly. “I wouldn’t expect any help. Your large friend received a call. He knows. I’m afraid you are all alone.”

“Knows what?” Radovic piped in.

“Leo, how much do you pay Konstantine in protection money each week?” I answered his question with one of my own.

Radovic looked at Borzov but didn’t speak. I turned to the hockey player. “How many games have you thrown for him, Ivan?”

Lermatov’s face turned crimson. “Never! I play only to win.”

“Maybe not yet. So far, I’m sure you’ve just paid him off, or helped him with stories like the one about me.” He didn’t say anything. “I’ll take your silence for a confirmation. But how long will that be enough? You’re the leading scorer in the NHL. Someone with ceiling on you could make a fortune betting against the Pens. Well, boys, good news. The ceiling is about to fall in.”

“You see, fellas, Borzov is a phony. He’s been playing you guys for suckers.”

“You better shut up, Mr. Masterson,” Borzov screamed. “You are in enough trouble.”

“Actually, Konstantine, you are the one who is in trouble. I should have caught on when you approached me to talk about my protection story. I already figured you to be part of the scam, but when you called, I figured maybe it was bigger. I assumed you had an axe to grind with whoever was masterminding everything, and by letting me break the story you could get rid of the people above you and take over. But it wasn’t bigger, it was smaller.”

I addressed Leo. “Who is it? A daughter? A son? Maybe an old girlfriend? And you,” I said to Lermatov. “Who do you have back in Mother Russia that Borzov threatened to kill? Parents? Grandparents?

“The truth is, they are safe. Konstantine tried this trick once before. In Chicago.” At the mention of Chicago, Borzov went pale. “You shouldn’t have told me over and over again that The Searchers is your favorite John Wayne movie. That little trick about shooting a dead man in the eyes was what tipped me off. It’s how I found out about Chicago. There are some old friends of yours who were very helpful in sharing information with me. I reciprocated. That’s who called your men and suggested they leave. By now, they are probably at your home, and your office, looking for you. They might even be outside right now.”

Things never work as well in real life as they do in the movies. After that line, I was hoping the door would open and scare the devil out of Borzov. It didn’t. But Lermatov did. He threw his 200 plus pounds at Konstantine and delivered a half dozen blows to him before I was able to pull the hockey player off him. When the police did finally arrive, almost 45 minutes after I called them, Lermatov had calmed down, Leo was wiping the bar, and Borzov was quiet.

An old newspaper adage is that accusations go on page one, apologizes on page 14. Not this time. My byline story on the front page cleared up my image, as did the open letter from Ivan Lermatov apologizing to me and to the people of Pittsburgh for his behavior. The league suspended him for seven games, but on the eighth day, Lermatov scored a hat trick to beat the Flyers, and all was forgiven.

Caroline Hoffman also took of her editor’s cap and wrote a flowery column about freedom of the press, presupposition of innocence, and praise for our employers for believing in me when all others condemned me. “I know damn well the only reason they gave me a chance was because of you. Never hurts to butter up the money men, though.” I wiped an imaginary stain from Hoffman’s nose. “Is that printer’s ink, or something else?”

“Beat it, Masterson,” she said, not without affection. “Remember, you are only as good as your next story.”

“I’ll try to remember that, boss,” I said, as I went back out looking for that next story.

Mark Best's short fiction has been published in, among other places, Murderous Intent, Hardboiled, Blue Murder, and judas_ezine. With a degree in Film Studies and a background in retail management, Selling everything from videotapes to swimming pools to eyeglasses, the only consistent has been his writing. He has several other short stories set for publication this year, and is working on his first novel. "Ceiling" is the first, but not the last, Mike Masterson story. Mark lives in Knoxville with his wife and two stepchildren. His email address is mysterymarkbest@aol.com

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