The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 6

Read from the beginning


Nitty Gritty

Photo by Katherine Webb

After the car dropped him off, Coldwater was able to get the blindfold off just in time to see them race around the corner, down 55th Place, a quaint old Main Street type of block with a couple of recording studios, an art gallery, and some other shops that had come and gone. It had been a white Cadillac, vintage 1980s, and he made a note of the license plate number. When he first started his agency, he’d spent time practicing and gotten good at quickly memorizing numbers.

The Desert Island Supply Company stood in a storefront on the ground floor of an old Masonic temple in Woodlawn, a once-venerable neighborhood just east of downtown that white flight in the 1960s had left to rot. In recent years, some people had been trying to build it up again. Desert Island Supply, aka DISCO, ran creative writing programs for area kids but was disguised as a shop that sold supplies you’d need if you were in danger of becoming stranded in the South Pacific with only a volleyball as company. At night, they had other events, and this Nitty Gritty Magic City poetry reading was one of those.

When he walked in the front door, he was immediately confronted with a giant wooden pelican, the size of a cigar store Indian, facing the sky with its beak open in a state of creepy ecstasy. The front room was divided from the back by a large shelf where they sold Imagination Spray, empty wine bottles for sending messages across the sea, and an “Official Survival Kit” containing a pencil, notepad, compass, and other items. Against the east wall, next to a giant plank of driftwood, an unknown party was selling beer and wine, and (hallelujah) mixed drinks. Coldwater needed something badly and made his way to the bartender, a youngish fellow, prematurely balding on top, and tall, thin, and squared off enough around the corners to serve as a doorjamb. What hair he had was red, which matched his goatee. Only about half of the dozen people milling about had that long curly hair that English majors, both male and female, frequently seem to go in for. Coldwater asked Doorjamb what he was making.

“We call it the Nitty Gritty Cocktail. It was invented for us by a friend who died recently. It’s got rye whiskey, Fernet Branca, and tawny port in it.” A Manhattan variation. The stiff he was talking about had to be Professor Hornbuckle. Doorjamb said it was. “He used to make drinks for us. The reading tonight is, in some ways, a tribute to him.”

The cocktail was six bucks, a bargain, but it was a little heavy on the Fernet. Coldwater took a seat on one of the box-shaped stools in the back at a table that seemed to have been constructed from the door of an old ship. The room was infested with maps and globes, model ships, and other seafaring-related trinkets. A small p.a. system was set up underneath the formidable shadows of a swordfish and a hammerhead shark that were hanging from the wall. Everyone looked pretty gloomy, but a short-haired brunette with cat-eye spectacles sitting by herself in a corner looked gloomier than the rest. She was dressed more conservatively too, in a buttoned-up white blouse with a long, black skirt. The reading hadn’t yet started, so Coldwater moved over to the seat next to her.

“Do you mind?”

“Suit yourself,” she replied.

“I’m a private detective, and I have some interest in the case of Professor Hornbuckle. I’d like to talk to you if you have a moment.”
“What makes you think I have something to do with it?”

“Are you kidding? Among this bunch of hippies and hipsters, you stand out like a pink flamingo in a black velvet cape. My guess is that you loved him. Maybe he loved you. Maybe you know about some trouble he’d gotten into. Maybe he left out on you. Maybe you came here thinking you might get some answers.”

“You have some kind of ID that shows you’re a detective?”

He opened his wallet to flash his APIB license. Up until a couple of years ago, you didn’t need any kind of license to hang your shingle as a PI in Alabama. Now there’s a whole rigmarole of college courses and an examination and continuing education credits, and you have to shell out a couple of hundred dollars every two years to keep it current.

After examining the credentials, she said, “Shall we talk here, or do you have a better idea?”

“I got dropped off here. If you can give me a lift back downtown, I’ll buy you a drink.”

She looked at him slonchwise and pulled a smirk that knocked his necktie askew. “I’ll pass.”

“After the reading, of course. I wouldn’t want you to miss anything important.” He felt his phone vibrate in his pants pocket, but he didn’t want to disrupt the informative conversation he was having.

“Tell you what,” she said. “Let’s skip the poetry, skip the drink, and go straight to your place.”

“You’re being sarcastic.”

“You bet I am.”

“We can start here and figure out the rest later. First of all, maybe you could tell me your name.”

One of the curly haired English majors, a female who looked to be about 6’5”, took the mic. She thanked the audience for coming, etc. “Most of you know…knew Professor David Hornbuckle, who helped us out with this reading series from time to time by making some awesome cocktails. Tonight we have some of his friends, colleagues, and former students who will be reading work.”

Colleagues and former students made sense, thought Coldwater, but he didn’t know Hornbuckle had any friends.

“Some of these pieces,” the hostess continued, “were influenced by Professor Hornbuckle’s seminars on medieval poetry and medieval rhetoric; others are on topics that he was interested in, which ranged from basketball to beekeeping to the finer varieties of whiskey. Everyone here, I’m sure, has his or her own story to tell. We’ll start with someone who probably knew him better than anyone, also one of the most accomplished poets I know, his wife, Flora Hornbuckle.”

Coldwater felt a cold draft as the woman with whom he had been speaking quietly took the stage and pulled some folded sheets from her handbag. “Good evening, everyone. Thank you for being here. I know it would have meant a lot of David. For those of you who are interested, there will be a wake tomorrow at the Buck Mulligan’s in Five Points, starting at six o’clock. The poem I want to read for you is called ‘Hazel and Honeysuckle’. It references the tragedy of Tristan and Iseult, one of David’s favorite stories from Arthurian legend.”

She unfolded her packet of papers and began to read with a deep mellifluous voice. Coldwater wasn’t much of a literary critic, and he wasn’t familiar with the legend. He wished he had a hard copy to read along with. From what he could follow, the poem had to do with a kind of love triangle, and there were some trees growing out of graves. His ears perked up at the mention of “Lyonesse.” Obviously, there was something significant about this. It was what Hornbuckle and Ashley Rose had argued about at the Nick, but he still didn’t know what it meant. While he was still making a note about it in his pocket moleskein, the poem ended, followed by a steady stream of applause. When he looked up again, Mrs. Hornbuckle had already left the room.


Read Part 7

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