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 (7 page)

BOOK: Rob Cornell - Ridley Brone 02 - The Hustle
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Eddie’s eyes looked ready to pop from the sockets. “Do you or don’t you?”

I didn’t have a drink in front of me. I wanted one, but I feared the alcohol might upset an already twitchy stomach. “Tell me about the rest of your family.”

“What do you mean?”

“Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Cousins.”

He blinked while running a hand over his head. “Shoot, I don’t know. There aren’t many left of them.”

My stomach flipped.
Good call on the no booze decision.
“Why’s that?”

“What are you getting at?”

“Did you have a big family?”

He shrugged. “Not super huge. Probably average, I guess. The usual pair of grandparents. An uncle on my dad’s side. Two aunts on my mom’s. I had four cousins, but only two of them are still around.” He squinted. “I think one lives in California, or maybe it’s Arizona now. The other one actually lives here in Hawthorne. He’s the one comes over to my place to watch UFC.”

There aren’t many left of them.
The words chilled me. But the way he was so casual about it baffled me. “What happened to the family that isn’t left?”

“Grandpa on my mom’s side, Grandpa Wagner, died of a heart attack. He didn’t eat very healthy. Was about four-hundred pounds when he died. Grandma Wagner died a while later. She was ninety-two. Got sick with the flu, but never recovered. She just shut down.”

I started to doubt myself. Those two had clearly died from natural causes. I could hear the air hiss as my theory deflated. “What about the others?”

“Why are you asking me all this?”

I wanted to get unbiased answers from him, didn’t want him to coat his memories with wishful thinking. But the more questions I asked in this direction, the more likely he was to catch on. I came at it from a different direction. “Were you close to your extended family?”

“The Arndt side, yeah. I didn’t see much of Mom’s side, except during holidays. I got the feeling she didn’t really get along with them.” He shrugged. “Amy moved away right out of high school and never came back to visit much.”

“She the one in California?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s Arizona now. But yeah.”

The small-body-big-voice girl finished her song and left the stage while the whole bar erupted into applause. Eddie said something, but I couldn’t hear him over the noise.

Once the clapping and hoots died now, I asked, “What was that?”

“I was telling you about Gary. Amy’s brother. He was killed in action in Afghanistan.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I didn’t know him too well.”

I drew up a mental version of his family tree. “So Amy and Gary were cousins on your mom’s side?”

“Yeah.”

“And the one still living here? He’s an Arndt?”

“Shawn? No. It’s weird. He’s the only Wagner I talk to. Growing up I hardly knew him. But at the funeral…” He took a deep breath. “We sort of hit it off and started hanging out after that. Now he’s like a brother to me.”

“You said only two were left. What happened to the other cousin?”

“He—” Realization dawned in his face. “Wait a minute.”

“What happened to your cousin?” I asked, trying to barrel through and get an answer before he could finish putting the pieces together. But I could see in his eyes I was too late.

“You think they’re connected.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself.”

“But that’s why you’re asking, right?” He dropped back in his seat and slapped a palm against his forehead. “Jesus Christ, you think I really am cursed.”

Whoa. Not the direction I thought he’d take. “No, Eddie. I don’t think you’re cursed.”

He shrunk, shoulders hunched against his neck, color rising on his cheeks.

“While I was digging,” I said, “I found out about your grandmother and how she died.”

“She got confused. Took the wrong pills.”

“And Liz fell off a cliff. Your dad, mom, and brother also died from unnatural causes.”

A guy with a cowboy hat and platter-sized gold belt buckle sang “Achy Breaky Heart.” I wondered how much the business would suffer if I removed that song from our rotation. I made a mental note to check with Holly.

Meanwhile, Eddie didn’t look like he’d seen a ghost; he looked
like
a ghost. Pale face and dark, haunted eyes. His mouth opened and closed as if he wanted to say something, but couldn’t get his brain to connect with his tongue.

I leaned forward to get in range of his ghostly stare. “The other cousin.”

He blinked his way out of his daze. “Hunter. Went to school at Wayne State in Detroit while I was still in high school. He died in an accident. He fell.”

“Fell?”

Eddie looked down at his hands while he picked at the edge of his thumbnail. “Hit his head on a concrete floor.”

The hair on my arms tingled and stood. As crazy as it sounded, it looked like someone was plaguing Eddie’s life by killing off his family members (or soon to be, in the case of Liz). Too many unnatural deaths were either the biggest hunk of bad luck known to man, or an undeniable pattern. And still another pattern emerged within the larger one.

“Any others?” I asked.

I didn’t have to elaborate. He knew exactly what I was asking. “My dad’s brother. Car crash. He was drunk, I guess. But he never drank. It’s why I don’t drink. The one time Uncle Mike got drunk, he was killed.”

“All of the unnatural deaths are on the Arndt side.”

He narrowed his eyes, gaze dipped to the table.

The voice of the cowboy on stage cracked so loudly feedback whined in the speakers.

Eddie made a face, then brought himself back. “Yes. All on Dad’s side.” Then he shook his head. “Except Liz. She wasn’t even family.”

“Yet,” I said. “But if you married her—”

“She’d be an Arndt.” He jerked back, his back thumping against the seat. “Christ, Ridley, what does this mean?”

I signaled to Paul for a drink. To hell with my upset stomach. I waited until he brought it over and I had a sip before answering Eddie’s question. “Well, Eddie. Do you have any enemies?”

The following morning, I stumbled bleary-eyed into my office, suckling on my to-go mug of coffee, ready to take on the strangest case I had ever faced.

Then the damn phone rang.

I flopped in my chair, reluctantly set my coffee down, and picked up.

“Have you thought anymore about getting your daughter back.” His breathy act sounded all the more staged this morning. I had never thought someone pretending to be a perv could over-sell it to the point of sounding like a sniveling villain from a kid’s puppet show.

“Fuck off. Sheila told me all about you,
Hersch
.”

He pulled back on the hyperventilation shtick, but his chuckle still resembled one of the pair of cartoon idiots from that old MTV show. “She did, did she?”

“I already called bullshit on your con. But now I know who you are. You best drop this shit before I track you down.”

“Did dear Sheila tell you what else she let slip about you, Mr. Brone?”

“I don’t really care. You played her. I get it. I’m not interested in your grift.”

“Then hang up on me.”

“Fine.”

“How’s Autumn doing?”

That jammed a rock in my throat. I swallowed it down. When I spoke, I heard the abrasion to my voice and hated myself for it. “I wouldn’t know.”

“She still loves you.”

“I don’t know what you’re playing at now, but you can give it up. I couldn’t give two shits about Autumn.”

“Then why haven’t you hung up yet?”

My face burned as if I stared straight at the sun—on a clear summer day, not this disgusting winter gloom. The muscles in my arm turned to stone. I couldn’t hang up. Couldn’t move.

Hersch tittered. “That’s what I thought.” He cleared his throat which worked like a switch. When next he spoke, the dumb dropped right out of his voice, replaced by a clear and wicked-sounding baritone. “I went to visit your girlfriend in prison. She’s so desperate for visitors, she agreed to see me even though she didn’t know me.”

I wanted to say I didn’t care, he could suck it, I’m through with this conversation. I didn’t.

“She wants to see you, Ridley. She wants to know how your efforts to find her daughter are progressing. How
are
they progressing?”

“What do you want?”

“Money, of course.”

“You’re not getting it from me. Why are you wasting my time?”

“I’ve decided to play a game with you. I like games. Video games, board games, word games. Name it. That’s why I do what I do. I’m not a con man, Mr. Brone. I’m a gamesman.”

“See, I grew out of games when I was a kid. I don’t play anymore.”

“Not even poker? Blackjack? Solitaire?”

On slow days at the office, solitaire on the computer was my go-to before the porn. But I had no intention of playing along with him. “I’m pretty game free these days.”

“So you don’t want to play my game?”

“No thanks.”

“The rules are simple.”

Last night, I ended up drinking six more gin and tonics than the zero I’d planned. Now I wished I had gone for an even ten and woke up with a hangover that would have kept me in bed and away from this stupid phone conversation. “Why don’t we play my game instead? It’s called ‘Hang up on the inept grifter and take a much deserved nap.’”

“I like mine better. It’s called ‘Who can find Ridley Brone’s daughter first?’”

A bolt of lightning cut through me as if I had dared God to strike me down. An electric ache shot from the top of my skull right into my groin and knocked the wind out of me.

“Would you like to hear the rules now?” Hersch asked.

I couldn’t answer. I didn’t have the breath to carry my voice.

“There’s really only one special rule. Obviously it’s a race. But you have a chance to win before the starting pistol even fires.”

I tried to say something and only managed a strangled gasp.

“Give me one-million dollars and I’ll step out of the race.”

I had to speak, no matter how hard. “Go fuck yourself.”

“Does that mean the race begins?”

“I’ll track you, Hersch. I’ll find you before you find anyone. And I’ll do something I haven’t done in a while. I’ll kill you.”

The laugh that came back at me was thick and sinister, the pervert stoner act fully shed. “My name isn’t really Hersch. You do know that, right?”

“I don’t care what your name is. I’m a damn good detective. You want to race? Fine. You can run from me.”

“Damn good, huh? Then how come you haven’t found her yet?”

I let loose, control out the door, reason a puddle at my feet. I popped off my seat and shouted so hard into the phone the tendons in my neck felt like a pair of hands trying to choke me. “You motherfucker I’ll fucking end you you son of a bitch cock-sucking piece of pig shit. You’re dead, you hear me? You are fucking dead!”

I dropped back into my chair, panting, throat raw. A cold sweat streaked my hot face.

“Are you finished?” he asked.

“Not by a long shot.” My voice sounded like gravel in a Vitamix.

“It’s your choice how you want to run this race. Come after me, if you’d like to try. But remember. You always have an out. One-million dollars and the game ends.”

I had my mouth set to spew another stream of curses, but he hung up before I got the chance.

I threw the phone across the room. The sound of it snapping apart against the wall satisfying, but not enough. I swept my arm along my desk. Pens, a legal pad, my to-go mug (coffee splattering as the top came off), a picture of my parents, a paperback copy of Stephen King’s
Salem’s Lot
all poured off the end of my desk like a knick-knack waterfall.

Gasping, I threw myself against my seatback and pounded my fists on the chair arms. I didn’t think I had ever thrown such a temper tantrum in my life, not even as a kid resisting another damned recital Mom and Dad forced me into.

And I could think of only one other time I had felt the bass-beat thrum of murder’s music pulsing in my body.

Chapter 8

I had to get out of my office. The place felt like a prison. The buzz through my nerves made it impossible for me to sit still. So I broke out of that prison and headed to another.

This is a bad idea,
I kept telling myself on the drive over. Yet I couldn’t stop myself, couldn’t turn around, like a lemming following the crowd to an inevitable plunge.

She agreed to see me.

I had hoped to do the whole phone through the glass kind of meeting. Instead, I was escorted to a room about the size of a café furnished with the plastic, metal, and fake wood kind of tables and chairs you’d find in a school room. Autumn came in from a door in the opposite corner of the room from the one I had entered through. When our gazes met in the middle I winced. Seeing her face sent a wind through my mind, tossing memories around like dead leaves.

She actually smiled, like we were old friends meeting after a long absence. We might have been old friends, but she was no friend of mine anymore. I didn’t smile. In fact, I could feel the corners of my mouth tug down. I wondered what the guard standing by would do if I crossed the room and slapped Autumn across the face. The guard’s rock-hard expression told me she would probably bludgeon me with her nightstick and take pleasure all the while. Not wanting to get beat up by a girl, I tamped back my urge and took a seat at the nearest table. Let her come to me.

BOOK: Rob Cornell - Ridley Brone 02 - The Hustle
5.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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