Coldwater had just caught himself dozing off in his office chair when the widow showed up in his doorway. She was wearing black, but not very much of it. The skirt of her little cocktail dress barely covered her hips, and the low-cut top left little to the imagination. If the dress were any slinkier, it would be a tattoo. She showed a lot of leg, and she had a lot of leg to show. Magnificent leg. Her vast brown eyes were magnified behind trendy cat-eye glasses, and she carried a handbag too small to carry anything more than a house key, a condom, and a couple of business cards.
“You still want to buy me that drink?”
He rose and gestured to the array of bottles in the sideboard. “What can I make for you?”
“I assumed we would have to go out, but this is quite cozy. Can you make a negroni by chance?”
Coldwater nodded and pulled the sweet vermouth from the mini-fridge, the better of the two brands he kept. He filled the mixing glass with ice and stirred in the gin and Campari. It smelled nice enough that he decided to make it a double and grabbed two rocks glasses off the sideboard while the drink was resting. The widow seated herself on the sofa across from his desk and watched silently, sitting so lightly that the ancient couch didn’t even creak. He cut two generous slices of peel from an orange and patiently ran the flame from a wooden match over both sides of the first peel. After a few seconds, he shot a few drops of oil through the flame and into the glass, creating a burst of light.
“Impressive,” she said. “Can you also juggle?”
He repeated the ritual for his own drink. “Only if I use my hands. What can I do for you Mrs. Hornbuckle?”
“I know you’ve been looking into my husband’s death.”
“Not anymore. I don’t have a client, and the cops would prefer I stay out of it, except for the odd times when they seem to think I did it.”
She stood and slowly approached the window next to his desk, the one overlooking Second Avenue, the cocktail glass cradled in her hand like a bridal bouquet. A light rain had started. The only sounds were the cars splashing thorough the wet streets and the gentle hum of the mini fridge. “Why would they think you did it? Did you know my husband?”
“We were acquainted years ago, when we were young. I happened to be sitting next to him at the bar earlier that evening. Wrong place at the wrong time. Gatlinburg knows I didn’t do it, or at least he’s pretending to know it for the time being. If all the other suspects keep coming up dead, he might look at me again.”
“I would like to hire you then,” she said, turning away from the window and looking at him with a hungry smile. She sipped at the drink and made an approving face at him. “I imagine you could use the money. Carpano Antica isn’t cheap.”
This reminded him that the Carpano vermouth bottle was still out on the sideboard. He capped it and settled it back in the refrigerator. “Just what do you plan on hiring me to do? Specifically.”
“Catch the killer, of course!”
“Catching killers is police business. Detective Gatlinburg…”
“Your Detective Gatlinburg couldn’t catch syphilis in an Indonesian brothel!”
Coldwater nodded. He didn’t disagree exactly. She returned to the sofa while he paced the small room three or four times, scratching his chin, trying to decide what to say. “I get a hundred a day plus expenses,” he said. “And you have to tell me everything, even what you’ve held back from Gatlinburg.”
“Like what for instance?” She had taken off her glasses. Her big brown eyes, all wide an innocent, as wet as freshly laid eggs. They bore an eerie resemblance to the alluring, poisonous berries of the doll’s eye plant that grew along the hedges on Ponytail Manley’s farmland in Lyonesse. He poured himself some bourbon, neat, into his now empty coupe glass and sat on the edge of his desk. The whiskey swished around his tongue, leaving sweet traces of oak, tobacco, and caramel that he left there to linger for a full thirty seconds before he swallowed. She was polishing the lenses of her glasses. “Well?”
“For instance… You know a gentleman by the name of Manley, first name Bruce? Used to run around with that Ashley Rose before she got the same treatment your husband got?” She placed her drink on a coaster that Coldwater brought over, looked down and brushed at the crinkles in her skirt.
“I think the police might have mentioned him.”
“Did you kill him? I won’t say anything if you did, at least not yet.”
“I… I don’t know what you’re talking about? I don’t even know him. Are you suggesting… Are you trying to blackmail me?”
“That’s not my racket, but there are some other people I could name that might aim to do just what you just said. I’m asking you so I can protect you. Do you own a small caliber handgun, Mrs. Hornbuckle? A .25 perhaps?” She got quiet then for a little while. After a few deep breaths, she drained the second half of her negroni in one gulp.
“I do. And yes, I did kill him.”
“Do you mind if I ask why?”
Read Part 14