Authors: Rob Cornell
Tags: #Mystery: Thriller - P.I. - Humor - Karaoke Bar - Michigan
|Rob Cornell - Ridley Brone 01 - Last Call|
|Ridley Brone |
|Paradox Publications (2013)|
|Tags:||Mystery: Thriller - P.I. - Humor - Karaoke Bar - Michigan|
A Ridley Brone Mystery
This is for my mom. How I wish she were here to see it.
“What do you mean we don’t have any Stoli?” I leaned over the bar while my bartender, Paul Dimico, crouched in front of the built-in cabinets, rummaging through the collection of liquor bottles.
Paul’s meaty head shook. He slammed the cabinet shut and stood. “I looked everywhere.”
In the mirror behind the bar I had a good view of the
stage, and Hal, an eighty year-old regular who had been coming to the place since my parents opened it. He stood before the monitor displaying the song’s lyrics, but looked out at his audience. He snapped his fingers to the rhythm of the music with one hand, held the microphone freely with the other, and belted “My Way” in an almost perfect impersonation of Frank Sinatra—except that every note from his mouth came out off key. A pitchfork to a chalkboard would have sounded more musical.
“Should I tell the customer to order something else?”
My gaze left the mirror and landed on Paul’s nose. The capillaries had all busted around his nostrils. “Is that customary?”
Paul cocked his mouth to one side. “Unless you can piss Stoli into glass.”
“Then why are you asking me?”
“You own the place.”
Sometimes it was hard to tell when Paul was joking.
“Do what you gotta,” I said and threw up a hand.
“Ridley?” a woman shouted in my ear.
I turned to the voice, found Mandy, my only waitress, standing next to me. Her face had turned a deep pink shade, and the way she wielded her empty drink tray made it look more like a weapon than something you served cocktails from.
She speared a finger toward a group of six sitting by the stage. They looked like college students, a couple wearing sweatshirts with WMU stitched across the front. One of the girls from the group had her bra off and swung it through the air above her head like a cowgirl twirling a lasso.
“I’ve served them only, like, a hundred rounds,” Mandy shouted, “and ain’t seen one tip.”
Before I could reply she adjusted the aim of her finger toward a younger-looking guy in the group.
“And I think
is using a fake ID.”
Just what I needed. “Have you served him?”
Mandy shrugged and gave me a crooked nod.
“Jesus.” I started over.
Mandy grabbed my arm. “He’s the only one tipping.”
Paul barked my name.
I spun around, a little dizzy.
He leaned over the bar. “We’re out of Tanqueray.”
On stage, Hal finished his number with a sustained wail, practically swallowing the mic, the sound loud and distorted through the speakers. The college kids applauded by screaming and pounding their fists on the table. Glass shattered.
I looked toward the ceiling and counted breaths.
When the music ended, and the pounding and cheering stopped, I started to answer Paul and caught a glimpse of a familiar face in the mirror. The chaos around me faded to nothing more than background noise, elevator music. I turned toward her, ignoring Paul who kept repeating my name, and Mandy rattling on about her tips.
The woman stood with her hands in her pockets, her head cocked to one side, cascades of straight black hair pouring over both shoulders. She used to wear her hair shorter, barely below her chin. I had to fight to keep from reaching out, touching that hair, touching her cheek, her lips. My skin prickled.
Mandy made a disgusted grunt and stormed away.
Paul didn’t give up so easily. I felt his hand on my shoulder.
“What the fuck do you want me to do about the gin?”
“Give them something else,” I said. “On the house.”
He started back around the bar.
“And that goes for anything else we run out of,” I shouted after him.
“So you’re back,” Autumn said.
“I’ve been back,” I said. “Eight months already.”
One dark eyebrow rose as she looked at the floor. “Can we talk?”
I guided her over to my usual table at the back of the bar, a corner booth. “What’s up?” I tried to make it sound casual, and it might have if my voice hadn’t cracked.
Autumn pulled a cocktail napkin from a short stack in the center of the table. She began tearing off small pieces, starting from one corner, and let the paper bits fall to the tabletop. “I need your help,” she said, staring at her fidgeting hands.
“Help with what?”
“Are you really a private detective?”
Everyone had assumed I’d run off to Los Angeles to follow in my parents’ line of work as a singer or song writer. No one wanted to believe I’d become a private investigator instead. Apparently, after my return to Hawthorne, my choice in profession had made prime gossip material. Except the gossip often left out one glaring detail.
“No,” I said. “I was a P.I. in California, but I’m not licensed here in Michigan.”
Her brow furled. “You don’t need a license?”
“Not to run a karaoke bar…except, I guess, for the liquor.”
Her confused expression highlighted some wrinkles around her eyes that hadn’t existed when I last saw her. Somehow they added to her beauty.
“I’m not a P.I. anymore, is what I’m saying.”
She looked down at her fingers, still plucking at the napkin. “Oh.”
“Why? You want to hire me or something?” I laughed.
She smirked. I tried to remember seeing her smirk that way before. I sensed a bitterness I didn’t recognize.
“Yes,” she said.
My mouth hung open, fly-catching style.
Autumn looked up from her shredded napkin and stared directly into my eyes for the first time since coming into the bar. Shadows hung around the corner booth and made her eyes look black, though I knew they were brown, their color one of many things I’d memorized about her.
“My husband,” she said. “He’s… Why hesitate? I think he’s cheating on me.”
“Your husband.” I reached for a gin and tonic that wasn’t there, let my hand rest on the table instead. “Yeah. I heard about him.”
“You heard about him?”
“I meant I’d heard you were married now.”
“Almost four years.” She dropped the last bit of napkin onto the table, stared down at her hands. “He’s a good guy.”
“Except you think he’s cheating on you.”
“Except that. Yeah.”
A large woman with a margarita in hand started singing something by Donna Summers—if you could call it singing. A hideous disco ball twirled above her head, sparkling and practically blinding me whenever I looked up. I made a mental note to toss out everything by Donna Summers from our collection, and use the disco ball for free-throw practice into the trash bin out back.
“You want a drink?”
Autumn moaned as if I’d asked her a question she’d waited all day to answer. “Jack on ice.”
I took my time getting the drinks, giving myself a chance to decide what I thought about having Autumn suddenly back in my life. On the way, I passed my parents’ Wall of Fame—autographed photos of old-timers like Sammy Davis, Jr., Gladys Knight, and Mel Torme.
The fat lady on stage squealed a
, making the speakers crackle.
Paul cringed as he poured our drinks.
When I got back to the table, I found Autumn working on her third napkin. She drained her drink to the ice cubes faster than Paul had poured it.
“Thirsty?” I asked.
She smirked again and rested her cupped hands on the table. In front of her sat a pile of shredded napkin that looked like fake snowflakes from a snow globe.
“You must hate me,” she said.
Then why did each heart beat feel like a detonating grenade? Why did my palms sweat? Why did I feel like I was back in high school and this was our first date?
“I needed time,” she continued. “I tried calling you, but by then you’d already left.”
My hand made a fist next to my glass. “I gave you plenty of opportunities before that.”
Her gaze moved up from my fist, along my arm, to my chest, and finally to my face. I forced myself to stare back into her eyes, give her a glimpse of whatever emotion might stir in my own.
“What do you want, Autumn?”
“To hire you.”
“I’m not for hire.”
“Not even for me?”
I took a large swallow from my drink before remembering we’d run out of the good gin. My mouth puckered at the bottom-shelf bitterness. I swallowed hard and forced another sip, trying to get past the taste so I could savor the alcohol’s numbing effects. Autumn watched me struggle with the drink. I tried to read her expression. Amusement? Regret?
“I’ve missed you,” she said.
“You cut me out of your life without a word.”
I gazed beyond Autumn, toward the stage. One of the college girls had started in on “Brown-Eyed Girl.” She screamed to hit the
s, not that the notes in “Brown-Eyed Girl” were all that high.
I looked into my glass. “You should leave.”
“You’re going to let an over-emotional eighteen year-old girl from forever ago get between us now?”
“This isn’t about getting dumped,” I said. “It’s about strolling in here and acting like you don’t owe me at least an explanation.”
“Fine.” She swiped the table, fluttering her paper snowflakes across the surface, some of them flipping and tumbling off the table’s edge. “But not like this. I’m not going to talk about it in an argument.”
Neither of us spoke through the harrowing climax of the song. When the girl finished singing, someone in the bar made seal noises. A few others joined in.
“Jesus Christ,” I heard Paul shout from behind the bar. “What a fucking headache.”
I tried to glare at her, but the smile on her face brought me back to days when Autumn and I made each other laugh by staring at one another as if telling telepathic jokes.
“You could run me over with a monster truck, and still I keep thinking about how good things used to be.”
“I hate you for that.”
She looked down at her paper mess and used the edge of her hand to rake the flakes back into a neat pile. With her other hand she shaped the pile into a square. “Adultery’s such a cliché these days. I thought maybe I didn’t have a right to get upset, like I wasn’t hip if I thought my husband would actually stay loyal.”
“You’re sure he’s cheating?”
“Something’s keeping him busy.”
“Job? Extra work load?”
“He’s a journalism teacher at the high school. He helps with the school newspaper and the yearbook, but he’s always done that. Whatever extracurricular activities he’s got going, school-stuff it’s not.”
“He have an excuse?”
“I ask him what’s on his mind, where’s he going. He denies it. ‘I haven’t been acting distracted.’ Or ‘What do you mean I’m never home?’ Like I’m an idiot or something.”
My karaoke host, Holly, mercifully took over the mic and sang a Whitney Houston number. Her breathy soprano didn’t quite work with the song, but Holly made it her own.
I slid my glass—ice cubes mostly melted—aside and leaned into the table. “You been arguing? Financial problems?”
“Nothing like that. One day, life as usual, the next, Doug’s got a secret.”
“Maybe it’s only that,” I said. “A secret. Why another woman?”
“Just a feeling.”
I watched Holly tackle the bridge to her song, one hand fluttering above her head as if touching the spirit of the music. My mother had sometimes done that when she sang gospel, even though neither of my parents, as far as I knew, had spent a single Sunday in a church.
Asking Autumn the usual questions, getting into the detective groove, felt like a warm bath after some heavy lifting. For the last eight months I’d been so caught up in taking over the
, I’d forgotten how much I missed the job.
“Why don’t we pick this up tomorrow morning?”
“Does that mean you’ll do it?”
I didn’t feel like anything had changed. She looked a little different, especially the longer hair, yet I couldn’t believe how easily I had stepped over the gap in time, talking to her like it was a year later, not fifteen. Thinking nothing had changed was a dangerous track to follow. I’d seen and done things that moved me a million miles from my eighteen year-old self. I’m sure the same held true of Autumn.