Read Rob Cornell - Ridley Brone 02 - The Hustle Online

Authors: Rob Cornell

Tags: #Mystery: Thriller - P.I. - Humor - Karaoke Bar - Michigan

Rob Cornell - Ridley Brone 02 - The Hustle (13 page)

BOOK: Rob Cornell - Ridley Brone 02 - The Hustle
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“Are you there?” Sheila asked.

I shook myself out of my trance. “I know you got a healthy cut of my parents’ inheritance, but I’m pretty sure you don’t have a million bucks lying around.”

“In my account I have exactly one-million two-hundred thousand dollars.”

“Two hundred grand won’t keep you in booze, let alone fancy hotels and limousines.”

“I could sell my condo. That would give me a cushion until I could find work.”

I stood up from the stairs, but clung to the railing, my mouth hanging open. Was she really willing to give up so much to help me? “What’s the catch?”

“I know it’s hard for you to believe, but I just want to make things right.”

A niggling feeling drove me to roll back over our conversation. I had missed a thread. Then I found it. “You said I was in danger. How does that tie in?”

A pause, the sad sound of the ballad out in the bar filling the gap. “He didn’t accept my offer.”

“He turned down a million dollars?”

“He said he didn’t want it from me. He wanted it only from you.”

I tipped my head to rest it against the wall. The drywall felt cool against my scalp. “What is going on?”

“He has it in for you, Ridley. The way he spoke, it sounded personal. Like he’s trying to get back at you for something.”

“I don’t even know the guy.”

“How can you be certain?”

I hadn’t recognized his voice on the phone, but that didn’t mean anything. With his dopey mouth-breather act, he had proven himself talented in the art of voice disguise. Shelia had described him to me, but I was no police sketch artist, so I had to do my best to picture him based on a vague verbal description. Besides, if he could disguise his voice, he could probably alter his appearance as well. I saw another enemies list in my future—my own. Mine would run a bit longer than Eddie’s.

“This is getting weird,” I said, more to myself.

“It’s more than weird.” Sheila’s voice shook enough to send some of her panic through the phone and down my spine. “He said one more thing to me.”

I braced myself on the railing, ready for anything—or so I thought.

“He said he planned on making sure you were committed to the race.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know. But it sure as hell doesn’t sound good.” The loudspeaker chattered behind her again. “They’ve started the boarding. I have to go.”

“I need those names, Sheila. Rice’s Club Med.”

“Of course. I’ll email them to you.”

“Thank you. And thanks for offering up all that money for me.”

“Be safe, Ridley.”

Chapter 14

I found Hersch’s “motivator” when I returned home from the bar just after three in the morning. It started at my front door with pictures. Taped all over the door like a collage, pictures of me with Eddie. Pictures of me going into the prison to see Autumn. Pictures of me coming
out
of the prison. A picture of me standing in the hallway outside Sheila’s room at the hotel. Pictures of me outside the
High Note
. Even a few snaps of me
inside
the
High Note
.

Impossible. Wouldn’t I have noticed someone taking photos of me in my bar?

That drop of panic Sheila had passed over the phone swelled inside of me. My nerves crackled. My skin grew tight and cold. Colder than the winter night.

I stood, stunned, on my porch, staring at the photographs until my face turned numb against the cut of the wind and my legs quaked in a struggle to stay warm. When I finally broke out of my stupor, I yanked down each photo and jammed them in my coat pocket. Then I turned in a slow circle, scanned my surroundings. The snow laden trees. The white dusted street. The shadows collected around the front yards and facades of the neighboring houses. I was looking for him, but I saw no one.

The last shred of warmth completely drained from my body, the winter drove me inside.

This is where I found part two of Hersch’s taunt—a trail of my clothes stretched end-to-end like a cloth line down a highway. Only this highway led from the foyer to the stairs. Up the stairs to my bedroom. From the doorway of my bedroom to the bed.

On the bed—a gold chain with a huge, shiny medallion. It took me a couple of seconds to recognize the gaudy piece of jewelry, it was so far out of context. Then the image floated up in my mind’s eye like the shimmering form of a swimmer coming up for air.

Wide collar, unbuttoned to expose a hairy chest and a gold medallion. The swaying hips. The broken voice.

Hal.

It didn’t mean anything. Hersch could have purchased a similar medallion as the one he saw on Hal. After all, he had obviously been in the bar. He could have marked Hal as a regular and taken note of his extroverted appearance. Then went out, bought something that looked like what Hal wore, then left it on my bed as a threat like a severed horse’s head, a la
The Godfather
.

None of this explanation covered Hal’s mysterious absence of late. I could try to pass it off as convenient coincidence. Even as Hersch taking advantage of the change in Hal’s routine to make it look like he was responsible for it.

Then again, I would be hard-pressed to find an exact replica of Hal’s famous badge of poor taste. Not unless I asked Hal where he got it from. Even then, who knew?

Hersch did, that’s who. And whether the medallion on my bed was the original or a copy, he had proven himself burrowed into my life’s flesh like a tick. The more he fed, the more dangerous he became.

I retrieved a pair of driving gloves, put them on, picked up the medallion, and dropped it into a zippered plastic bag. I didn’t know if I could get Palmer to pull a string or two and see if he got any prints off the medallion. I wasn’t sure it was even worth the effort. Hersch had consistently walked two steps ahead of me. I doubt he left any prints.

But he had.

Just not his own.

I looked at the couple sheets of the printout Palmer had handed me over his desk. My eyes burned from fatigue. I’d only managed a few hours sleep after finding the medallion on my bed. I gave up on sleep when the sun came up and I still lay awake, watching the minutes tick by on my alarm clock. That’s when I had climbed out of bed, had a coffee breakfast, and had called Palmer to set up a time to meet at his office.

Now, he stared at me intently through his black-framed glasses while rubbing his stubbled head. “You know him?”

I nodded. The top sheet had a large reproduction of Hal’s driver’s license. The photo of him stared back at me, almost unrecognizable. He had a haggard, unkempt look to him. Mussed hair, sunken eyes, deep grooves cut into his skin. The pic looked more like a mug shot than a license photo. I didn’t get it. He didn’t look like the Hal I knew. I recognized him, but I couldn’t reconcile the differences. Then it occurred to me that I seldom saw him out from under the stage lights, except when he sat in the dark of the bar waiting for his turn back at the mic. I saw him up close even less often.

Maybe he put on some make-up to go along with his karaoke duds. I wouldn’t have put it past him.

More interesting than his photo was Hal’s full name—Harold Fennimore Zelinski. Even more surprising? His address. A north side address. Not one of the posh neighborhoods, but definitely upper middle-class. I don’t know why, but I had always assumed Hal came from more working-class roots.

The next thing I noted on his license was his birth date. The guy was pushing eighty. Even his rough-and-not-so-ready driver’s license picture didn’t look like he was that old. Had I tried to guess while he was at the bar, I would have placed him in his mid-sixties, late sixties max. His picture made him look more worn, but not really much older.

“He’s the guy who’s missing?” Palmer asked.

“Yeah.” I flipped to the second sheet. This one made all previous surprises look positively mundane. “He’s got a rap sheet?”

“That’s how we got the hit with his prints.”

I scanned the list. All his pops revolved around burglary or attempted burglary. It hit home how little I knew about a guy I saw nearly every day for the last three years. Some folks knew more about their penthouse doormen than I did about Hal. Maybe that’s how he could afford to live on the north side.

I looked up at Palmer. “I appreciate this.”

“Don’t make it a habit.”

“Trust me. The looks I got on my way in? I’ll be lucky enough to make it out of here alive, let alone come back.”

He slid his hand back and forth on his shaved head, the sound like sandpaper on wood. “You can’t exactly blame them.”

“Why not? They blame me. Fair is fair.”

Palmer shook his head. “Whatever. You want to file a missing persons?”

“You think I can?”

“You can.” He dropped his hand from his head. “Don’t know it’ll do you much good. No one’s going to follow up on an MP just because he stopped coming to karaoke.”

I didn’t want HPD help anyway. Their version of help would involve thwarting me at every turn. And I didn’t want to waste Palmer’s time with it. Besides, this was the kind of thing a PI had more dexterity (and time) to deal with.

I shook my head. “Forget it.”

“What about the B and E?”

“Why bother, right?” I lifted the printout. “Can I keep this?”

Palmer has this way of staring at a person that makes you feel like melting into a puddle. He gave me that look—half disappointment, half pity—and snorted. “That’s all I need, you getting caught with that and having it traced back to me. I already get enough shit just for talking to you.”

“Fine,” I said. “Can I borrow a pen and a sheet of paper?”

He drew a pen from a bouquet of ballpoints in a coffee mug with a faded ghost of lettering that read, “#1 Dad.” He handed me the pen and a pad of lined paper.

While I copied down the info from the printout, I said, “I didn’t know you were a dad.”

He didn’t say anything.

I stopped writing and looked up. His expression was unreadable. “Christ, Palmer, I’m just making conversation.”

“The less you know about me, the better. You saved my life, but you’re also the one who put it in danger. That puts you in neutral territory for me.”

“Is this your way of telling me you don’t want to be friends anymore?”

“Never were friends, Brone.”

“Get yourself a dictionary and look up the word ‘sarcasm.’”

He looked down his nose at the pad of paper. “You done?”

I tore off the page I had written on, dropped his pen on the pad, and pushed them across his desk. “I’m good. Thanks again. Sorry I pried.”

As I stood, Palmer grumbled my name.

I folded my page of notes and tucked it in my coat pocket while I waited for him to say whatever he had to say. I didn’t hold my breath for an apology. Really, he didn’t owe me one. Just like he didn’t owe me any information about his personal life.

“He’s gone.” Palmer rubbed his chest as if struck by a sudden case of heartburn. “My son.”

“You don’t have to tell me anything,” I said. “I over stepped my bounds.”

“I want to tell you.”

I nearly asked why. Why did he feel he needed to confide anything in me? Besides, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. When someone says ‘gone’ about a loved one, they usually don’t mean on a trip to the Florida Keys. I nodded, signaling that I was listening and ready for him to go on.

“My son died from leukemia when he was six.”

“Jesus, Palmer. I’m sorry.”

A painful weariness pulled his posture down as if he sat in a circle of extra gravity. “Now you know.”

Why he had suddenly decided to open up to me, I couldn’t say. I made sure not to take it lightly. “Thanks for that.”

“For my attempt to depress you?”

“No, for… Forget it.” Us guys don’t like to get into the mushy, share-my-feelings kind of stuff. Palmer and I had come close enough to skirting that territory. The last thing either of us needed was to ruin our manly reputations by revealing our sensitive sides. “See you around.”

“If you must.”

There, back to the comfortable crusty banter. Satisfied that we had properly reestablished our working relationship, I left the PD, feeling the laser beams from every set of eyes I passed on the way out.

I wondered how many donuts it would take to get back on the police department’s good side. Hey, I was rich. Why not buy them their own personal Dunkin’ Donuts?

When I reached my car, I realized all the donuts in the world wouldn’t change a thing. The flattened tires and long key marks carved into my car’s paint cinched it for me. The fine folks of Hawthorne PD would never like me. More precisely, they would never stop hating me.

BOOK: Rob Cornell - Ridley Brone 02 - The Hustle
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