Sweating and sore from a hungover three-mile hike across town in the summer heat, Stone pulled a heap of papers from his mailbox and deposited them directly in the lobby garbage can. The elevator smelled like urine again. He heard Captain Fancypants mewing from hunger as soon as he got off on the tenth floor. As he prepared a bowl of feed for the Captain, he checked his cell and saw that he had missed a call. The message was from Feizal Valli, the bar manager at Collins, but there was no substance to it except to call him back. Could be related to the murder that happened there the other night, Stone thought, though he couldn’t figure what he’d be able to do to help, what with Detective Gatlinburg’s fat ass on the case.
Before calling Feizal back, he showered, shaved, and put on a fresh suit. And yes, he did always wear a suit when he was working. He even wore a suit when he wasn’t working. He sometimes wore one to sleep. Private investigator work may no longer be the glamour job that it was portrayed to be in old movies: the ambient saxophone music, trench coats, fedoras, sets of long legs that you could touch but never trust, mysteries that led to other mysteries, knocking bad guys out in one punch, falling in love with a pretty face that wants nothing more than to shoot you in the head. That was all a neat fantasy. But Stone still insisted on having a touch of class at his agency, even if he spent most of his time skiptracing, taking pictures of cheating husbands, and hacking into someone’s email or Facebook profile.
He’d been in this apartment for a little over two years, ever since he moved back to Birmingham from a brief stint in New York City, where he’d failed at love and at being an artist. It was a functional but depressing studio with a small kitchen and one large closet that he’d filled with suits he started collecting from thrift stores and estate sales when he started his business. The fridge held little except some beer, peanut butter, some vermouth, and assorted bitters. He kept no furniture except a bed and a small dresser. There was a wooden TV table from Target that he used as a night stand and another on which he kept a laptop. There was one window overlooking Rushton Park. Fortunately for him, it didn’t open wide enough for him to defenestrate himself.
The Captain had a scratching post in one corner, a litter box in the opposite corner, and a food and water bowl by the kitchen. The building itself was a utilitarian 1950s high rise that seemed to specialize in housing students who couldn’t afford a place closer to campus, divorcees in the process of rebuilding their lives, and retirees who were two steps away from moving into the nursing home conveniently located two doors down. In other words, people in transition, and he’d been in transition for as long as he could remember. There was an O’Henry’s Coffee downstairs, and also a restaurant, Rojo, which served a pretty good Bloody Mary and a better margarita, and he was thinking, since it was a little bit after noon now, it might be just about time for one of those margaritas.
The weekday lunch crowd was just starting to filter in, nobody he recognized except the familiar restaurant staff. Berkley didn’t usually work the day shift, but Stone was glad to see him there. The size of a linebacker and covered from the neck down in tattoos, Berkley seemed more like a bouncer than a bartender. He had served as both in some of the less reputable establishments of his past employment. He arrived in town an indeterminate time ago and quickly became a recognizable face at punk and metal shows and any bars that stayed open after hours, often behind the bar. It seemed at times as if he somehow worked at every dive bar in town simultaneously. But this was no dive, and it was daylight out, so Stone asked Berkely what he was doing there.
“Filling in for somebody. Still living upstairs?”
“Rent’s still cheap as ever. Get me a margarita and an order of your namesake tacos.” Berkely’s Tacos were a spicy combo of chicken, wing sauce, tomatoes, cilantro, and feta—a perfect foil for the sweet, sour, and salty Margarita that was on its way to him.
While he mixed the margarita, Berkley asked him if he’d heard what happened, and he didn’t have to be any more specific. It appeared everyone had heard by now about the murdered English professor, and everyone was eager to spread gossip about it too. “Isn’t any of my business, but the girl they say did it… I’ve seen her and the professor together…. A couple of weeks ago I was working at the Nick. They were having an argument about something, and she ended up leaving in a huff. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop or anything, but they kept mentioning a place called Lyonnesse. Mean anything to you? I remember it ‘cause I thought it was odd.”
“Nope, and it’s none of my business.”
“Just wanted to get it off my chest.”
“Talk to the cops?”
“I’m not too interested in talking to them.”
“Christ on a caterpillar. I just remembered something.” He hadn’t called Feizal back yet. He took his margarita outside to the patio, which was already filling up fast since it was a beautiful, clear June day. A cool breeze wafted under the canopy and filled the air with the scent of honeysuckle. There was no answer from Feizal, so he sat down and enjoyed his drink at a shady table in the corner to wait for his tacos, which arrived promptly.
A muscular gentleman broad as a truck—also by himself—sat at a nearby table with a glass of tea. His black hair was bisected by a severe part that stretched down into a greasy looking ponytail, and his small dark eyes seemed to wander in Stone’s direction a little too often. He wore a tight black t-shirt and a thick gold chain like he’d just come from a casting call for thug #2.
To keep himself from staring back, Stone studied the flyer for the poetry reading he’d put in his wallet earlier and pretended to make some notes on it. He wrote the word “Lyonnesse” down. There was a little town by that name in Pickens County, near the Mississippi border. The poetry reading was happening later that night, so he’d have to figure out a way to keep himself occupied for a few hours. He finished his food and had started to make his way back upstairs through the building’s garage when someone came up from behind him and knocked the lights out.