Munford “Stone” Coldwater III mixed another round of cocktails for himself and the widow Hornbuckle. He could tell by the way she settled into the couch that she was winding up to tell a long yarn. He wanted to make sure she was lubricated enough to let it all spill out.
“I loved my husband,” she said first, pausing dramatically.
“I never doubted that.” He poured the drinks and encouraged her to continue. The room seemed suddenly a little too bright. He turned off one of the floor lamps in the corner, as well as the desk lamp, leaving her in the soft glow of the third lamp, which was just to the left of where she sat.
“He made his name as a medievalist by writing about the lost city of Lyonesse. You… asked me about that name last night. I assume you have done a little more research since then.”
Coldwater nodded. “Has something to do with Arthurian legend. I forget the details. Also, coincidentally, the name of a rural ghost town west of Tuscaloosa where Bruce Manley’s body is still rotting from a bullet wound. And you just admitted the bullet came from you. So what’s the connection? How did you know Manley?”
“Mr. Manley came to us each separately a few months ago. I think he approached my husband first, and then he found out that I was the one that had a family fortune. Anyway, he had this land out there, and was trying to sell us on this romantic notion of taking it off his hands and building ourselves a rural estate. We visited the property several times. My husband liked the idea, thought maybe we could turn it into a writers’ colony. But it just seemed like a bad investment to me. “
“Okay, I get the picture. How did the deal turn sour?”
She stretched her neck, causing it to crackle. It looked to him like an ideal place to lay his head. The lamplight revealed a light purple bruise there, just above her collar bone, underneath a light layer of makeup. Another round of drinks would soon be due, so he went ahead and emptied the extra ice and water melt from his mixing glass.
“We went back and forth for a while about it, but I had put my foot down. The next thing I know, we get a package in the mail with pictures, and a video on a CD, of my husband with that… girl.”
“Yes. Don’t get me wrong. I knew about their little dalliance. We had an understanding about that sort of thing. My only issue with it was that she was a student.”
Now it was Coldwater’s turn to down his drink in one gulp. He quickly made himself another one. The widow’s glass was still half full, or perhaps half empty. He didn’t know her well enough yet to be sure.
“I take it,” he said, weighing his words, “these weren’t just regular dirty pictures.”
“My husband and I had an interest in certain types of experimentation. The photos and video were staged in such a way as to make it look as if the girl had been coerced. You understand, this was just part of the fantasy. However, if it were made public, and she chose to play it a certain way, there would be quite serious legal and professional repercussions for my husband, not to mention the additional embarrassment to my family.”
Coldwater sat on the edge of his desk and pinched his lower lip thoughtfully. He tried not to get distracted by the mental images he had just conjured of the widow wearing black leather lingerie and brandishing a horsewhip. “So Manley was blackmailing you, in order to pressure you into buying his property in Pickens County, and we know now that he was partnered up with Ashely Rose. That gives both of them a motive to be involved in the killing, though there may have been others in on it as well. Did you tell Gatlinburg any of this?”
“Ha!” Her laugh was so sudden and violent that he almost fell off his desk. “Those bitches at Mountain Brook Country Club would love that. This is a small city, Mr. Coldwater. They may gossip about the murder and speculate that my husband was into something he shouldn’t have been. But there’s no corroboration. The gossip with dissolve away soon enough. But attach a sex scandal to it? They’d be calling me the new Louise Wooster!”
“Madame Wooster, despite her occupation, seems to be well regarded by local historians,” he said. “But you still haven’t answered my question. Why did you shoot him?”
“I went there to talk to him, to plead with him to turn himself in. I didn’t know at the time that he’d killed the girl…”
“Do you know that for sure?”
She blinked a few times. “No… I just assumed…. Detective Gatlinberg seems to be making that assumption too. Anyway, he started to get violent with me. He put his hands on my throat…”
“That’s how you got that hickey, I reckon. The makeup you covered it with is starting to fade. I’d recommend a scarf instead for the funeral.” She covered the bruise with her hand. “I guess that’s enough for one night. Come on, I’ll walk you to your car. It’s late, and you have a big day tomorrow.”
“Late? Oh, I suppose it is. I was kind of hoping…”
“Yes?” He’d been kind of hoping for the same thing, but he had too much information to chew on to nibble on her ear at the same time.
“Never mind. You’re right. Will you come tomorrow? I could use your… support.”
He nodded yes and lent her a hand as she stood from her seat.
The car was a silver Beamer with red clay caked on the tires from her trip out to Lyonesse. Otherwise, it was shiny as a newly minted dime. The same red clay was on Gustie’s tires from his own trip out to the country, which reminded him that he needed to return her car. He’d do that after the funeral.