The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 16

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IMG_20151215_110009Within microseconds of entering Gustie’s apartment, Coldwater asked her what she had to drink around there. He had already drained his flask on the way over.

“You know where everything is.”

Coldwater opened the door of the pantry where Gustie kept her liquor. A respectable showing of a dozen or so bottles, including your big four base liquors: whiskey, gin, rum, and tequila—plus a selection of liqueurs. She had a big bottle of vodka, which she used for making tinctures, the only real use he had for vodka himself. There was an ancient bottle of pisco that she had picked up on a trip to South America back in the sixties and never actually opened, to her credit. Coldwater had never met a pisco he liked, or a cachaca for that matter. If he was ever going to drink moonshine, it would have to be the American variation. A few mason jars of her homemade bitters and other herbal concoctions sat in the back corner, protected from harmful sunlight.

Coldwater made himself a rocks Manhattan because he didn’t feel like looking around for a mixing glass and spoon. He added an extra helping of Angostura because her vermouth was an inferior brand and hadn’t been refrigerated.

“Damn, Gustie. How many times do I have to tell you to keep your vermouth in the fridge?”

“I go through it so fast, what’s the point?” she yelled back from her perch by the window where she was chain smoking again. There was no way her nurse didn’t know about this habit of hers. He sat down next to her with his glass. “What’s got you drinking before noon?”

“Funeral for the professor who got murdered. Just got back from there.”

“It must be an epidemic. Mrs. Manley upstairs has a son who was just found murdered.”

“Manley?” He drank the Manhattan in one big gulp and stood to make himself another.

“Don’t tell me this was another friend of yours,” she said. “You do know him, don’t you? Just what are you mixed up in, son?”

Genuine concern cast a gray shadow on her face, making her look even older and more frail than she actually was. Her mouth turned down, causing tiny lines to fracture and fragment into a river map that spread across her forehead. He took her icy cold trembling hands into his own.

“Don’t worry, Gustie. I know what I’m doing. And if what you’re telling me checks out like I think it will, it’s almost over.”

He pointed to the glass to communicate that he would explain when properly lubricated. If the authorities know about Manley now, he thought, it would be safe enough to follow up on his hunch about it with Detective Gatlinburg. Or maybe he could just take the widow’s money and make up a story that would protect her. He couldn’t believe he was considering it, but then he couldn’t shake off the way she had held onto his hands at the funeral. It was like she was hypnotizing him.

“I only met young Manley once,” he finally said, after taking his time in the pantry with an Old Fashioned. He added a little allspice dram to it for no particular reason. “But that one time was very informative. He is suspected of killing the professor, but he didn’t do it.”

“Who did?”

“I’m still working on that, but I have at least two viable ideas. Have the cops been here to talk to Mrs. Manley?”

“Yes—a detective was here early this morning.”

“Did you see him? Short, squat fellow that smells like a honey-baked ham and constantly sucks on an unlit cigar like it’s a pacifier?”

“Perfectly describes the man I saw.”

“Well, a’ight then,” Coldwater said, satisfied.

Probably why Gatlinburg wasn’t at the funeral, he thought. Gatlinburg was here following up on Manley. He leaned back on the sofa, satisfied that he’d wrap this thing up neatly, maybe even this afternoon, and deliver it to the cops on a silver platter. Unless they’ve already wrapped it up themselves, but that didn’t seem likely. There were still one or two stubborn little puzzle pieces that didn’t quite fit in the picture.

Gustie seemed to relax then too. She pulled a pint glass down from the cabinet and stirred herself a martini. She’d been the one who taught him how to make it properly, even though it had been her generation that had bastardized it in the first place, first by adding olives and secondly by using vodka instead of gin.

“What else is new around here, Gustie?” He took a sip of his own drink, decided it needed a touch more bourbon, fixed it, and sat down again.

“Oh, you know how it is at my age. I have a new pain in my back every day, but other than that, nothing changes. When are you gonna get yourself laid, young man?”

“When are you?”

She laughed. “Boy, you’ve got no idea what kinds of fun your old grandma gets into in this monkeyhouse. You’d be scandalized.”

“Alright, alright. I probably don’t want to know. Oh, by the way, I was going to give you your keys back, but I think I need your car for another day or two.”

“Ah,” she said, waving at him. “Just make yourself a set.”

He didn’t mention that he already had.

Read Part 17


The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 15

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P1000589Captain Fancypants seemed happy that Munford Coldwater was sleeping at home that night and remained curled up and purring behind the backs of his knees until morning. The detective, though, slept intermittently, his slumber interrupted by lucid dreams of the professor and his wife wielding various medieval torture instruments while he struggled to free himself from a sophisticated array of ropes and chains. When the alarm had the nerve to go off at 8 am, he groggily made the Captain breakfast and then fed himself copious amounts of black coffee, along with soft boiled eggs and dry toast. He had to refill the French press twice.

At 9:30, he fit himself into his most expensive black suit and a yellow tie with a pineapple motif that he chose specifically to add a little lively color to the ensemble. At the last minute, he filled a small flask with good bourbon and slid it into his breast pocket. It was a little early for that, but it was a kind of security blanket. He didn’t want to be caught without it if he needed it. For the same reason, the .25 was still in the glove box of Gustie’s station wagon downstairs.

The funeral home was the Ridout Valley Chapel on the main drag in Homewood, just over the mountain from his Southside neighborhood. The parking lot was full to about 80% capacity when he arrived, more people than he had expected would attend. The professor was more popular than Coldwater had given him credit for.

The widow wore a slightly more conservative black dress than the one she had worn to his office the night before. She was surrounded by some very stern-looking family members, so he kept his distance at first. When they accidentally made eye contact from across the room, he nodded to her, and she waved him to come over. Coldwater offered his condolences, and she introduced him to some of the pale skeletons in the vicinity: a mother, a father, and two prehistoric aunts.

The mother looked like somebody’s idea of a Halloween costume. A thick white mane flamed out from her skull like it was gasping for oxygen. Her face, in contradiction to her hair, was youthful but her eyes were too big for it, giving the impression that she was perpetually surprised. Whenever someone spoke to her, her features intensified horribly, like someone had just rudely woken her from a restful nap. Her funeral garb was shrouded with elaborate black lace. She reminded him of wrought iron.

The father and aunts shared the same distinguished Roman nose that the widow sported, but the family resemblance ended there. He was uncannily tall, at least six foot five, and he’d probably been handsome once, evidenced by a strong chin and wide shoulders. However, the rest of the man was a bony mess that looked to be on the verge of falling out of his suit onto the floor. His sisters, as Coldwater presumed, might have been twins, and they wore twin black shawls that seemed to have been imported from some other century. The two women were both chubby, though the fat on their bones appeared to have been hastily piled on in order to hide evidence of some wrongdoing.

“Mr. Coldwater is a private detective helping the police with their investigation,” the widow said, in a voice that accentuated the patrician elements of her Southern accent. “He also knew David when they were younger. Did you say you were in school together?”

The mother then asked if they had been schoolmates at Sewanee, startling herself at the sound of her own high-born voice.

“Something like that,” Coldwater said, hoping to evade further chit chat. “School of life, actually” he added after an awkward pause in which nobody else spoke.

Another strange silence festered in the air between them for a little while longer before he finally said, “Well, it was nice to meet your family, Mrs. Hornbuckle. My condolences to you all.”

He shook all their frail hands and removed himself to a corner.

Coldwater was surprised that Detective Gatlinburg didn’t make an appearance, but only a little bit. In one corner, a mass of youngsters who had probably been his students stood in a huddle, and near then were some tweed suits that were likely to be his colleagues from the English Department. He recognized a handful of other attendees from the poetry reading where he had first met the widow.

It was hard to believe that had only been two nights ago. Only four nights had passed since the murder. Nothing much happened during the service. There was no drama. Nobody dropped the casket, causing the corpse to roll out gruesomely into the aisles. The professor didn’t suddenly spring back to life and point out the person who had murdered him. What crying there was, was quiet and dignified.

After the chapel service, he followed the motorcade to Oak Hill Cemetery, the oldest in the city, where most of Birmingham’s founding fathers were buried, including several of the widow’s ancestors. The professor would be joining them in the family crypt.

P1000594On the way to the graveside service, Coldwater passed the resting place of Louise Wooster, the nineteenth-century Birmingham Madame who had been alluded to the night before during his conversation with the widow. She had converted her brothel into a hospital during the cholera epidemic of 1873. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was there also, that shining knight of the Civil Rights movement who had died only a few years ago. Near the eastern fence, one of the ubiquitous magnolia trees had uprooted a gravestone so that it was leaned up against its neighbor. These kissing tombstones were a popular landmark, and countless young wannabe scribes in the area had been inspired by them to write some tragic love story, but the truth was that it was just an accident of nature. The two people buried there had not even known each other.

It seemed fitting that Hornbuckle would be interred amidst all this history and local lore. Though he and the professor had not ever been especially close friends, Coldwater felt a twinge of sadness now over how many times they had been in close proximity without ever really getting to know one another. That was Birmingham, in a way, or maybe it was just him. He silently toasted the old boy and then slipped around behind a tall monument to take a swig from his flask.

Again, nothing very interesting happened while they were there. Before he left, he made a point of shaking the widow’s hand again. Her hands were delicate, but not frail like those of her relatives, and they were strong. She held onto him for a few seconds longer than seemed appropriate to him.

Read Part 16

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 14

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legsMunford “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.”

“Ashley Rose.”

“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.

Read Part 15

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 13

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legsColdwater 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

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 12

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The note simply said “Call me. Flora,” and there was a number. Coldwater unlocked the door to the inner chamber of his office, sifted through some envelopes that had been pushed through the mail slot, and browsed his modest liquor cabinet trying to decide what he was in the mood for. He kept about a dozen bottles in a sideboard that Gustie gave him when she moved out of the big house in Hoover and into the old folks’ home downtown, including bourbon, scotch, rye, dry gin, old tom gin, aged tequila, aged rum, white rum, and a few various liqueurs for mixing. In a mini fridge next to the sideboard, he had sweet and dry vermouth, lemons, limes, a soda siphon, and some syrups. The ice compartment held ice in various sizes and shapes. On top of the sideboard, he kept a Boston shaker, a mixing glass, bar spoons, strainers, straws, and a selection of glassware. He had restroom where he could wash dishes, and a Bunsen burner he sometimes used for cooking at the office if he was bored or hungry.

What could he say? He liked what he liked, and he enjoyed being able to mix a nice drink for a client. He decided to make himself a Brooklyn, a fancy-pants variation on a dry Manhattan. The dash of maraschino liqueur gave it a velvety texture, but it was the French amer he’d ordered over the internet that lent the drink its distinctive pungency. He stirred the rye whiskey, vermouth, and other ingredients carefully and strained the drink into a coupe glass. After a long sip of that nectar, he leaned back in his chair and dialed the widow’s number.

“This is Munford Coldwater”

“Mr. Coldwater. We met at the poetry reading last night.”

“Yes, of course I remember. Can you come by in the morning?”

“Can’t I see you tonight? The memorial service is tomorrow morning, and I’ll be tied up with family all day…”

“Sure, sure. What time can you be here?”

“Is ten o’clock too late?”

“Absolutely not. I’ll see you then.”

Coldwater checked his watch. It was only half past six still. Perhaps he could go down to Collins Bar and see what was what. But he wouldn’t be able to confront Feizal until he had more information, and he didn’t want to do it on a Friday night in a Feizal’s own bar. Too many people around. However, if he did show up there for a drink or two, maybe some of that information he was looking for would just sort of float in his direction.

He downed the rest of his Brooklyn and put on his hat. For a place where a murder had happened on Tuesday, they were doing pretty well. About twenty people milled around the bar, and most of the tables were full. It was about time for the after-work happy hour crowd to dissipate, and then there would be a lull until the after-dinner party crowd started showing up.

Angel, Josh, and Feizal were all behind the bar, doing their constant dance of shaking and stirring. Rachael waved to him unceremoniously as she delivered a tray of drinks to a table outside. A second cocktail waitress, a lanky black-haired girl who Coldwater didn’t know, came up to the bar and asked Angel for a Ramos gin fizz. Coldwater sidled up to the bar in a space that had just opened up next to this new waitress. Angel cracked an egg and gently cradled it so the white slipped into the mixing tin, and then he discarded the rest with a graceful motion. While he was adding the other ingredients to the mix, he greeted Coldwater and asked what he was drinking.

“I’ll have a Brooklyn,” he said, deciding to continue on in the same direction he’d started at the office. The usual 80s-inspired party music wafted into Coldwater’s consciousness. He didn’t often drink the same thing twice in a row, but Angel would use a different brand of rye and a different amer. It would be more like a cousin to the Brooklyn he made for himself.

“I hear you’re on the case,” Angel said, while giving the Ramos a dry shake. He was tall with a shaved head, not quite as swarthy as Feizal, but definitely not as lily white as Josh or Coldwater himself. By training, Angel was a classical saxophonist, which to Coldwater was kind of like putting Scotch in a cocktail; you can do it, but only if you know how to properly balance everything else against it.

“Not officially on the case, meaning, nobody is currently paying me to be on it. But since I was here when it happened, and I have a relationship with the cops… you know. Let’s say I’m cooperating with them.”

Angel now added ice to the fizz and started building Coldwater’s Brooklyn in a mixing glass. With his musician’s sense of ambidextrous coordination, he shook the fizz again while simultaneously stirring the other drink.

“I didn’t realize you were here that night. That must have been… shocking?”

Coldwater shrugged. There didn’t seem to be much else to say about it. Everything important that had happened went down while he was in the john. It couldn’t have taken more than five minutes, maybe only three. He kept looking at the seat in the middle of the bar where the professor had been sitting, then looking to the back of the bar where Feizal had, according to Joey, hidden away Ashley Rose either just before or just after the professor had been stabbed. He still didn’t know how Feizal was connected to Ashely Rose, or why he would try to protect her, or at least go through the motions of protecting her. So he asked Angel’s opinion.

“Did you know that girl, Ashley Rose?”

“Only a little bit. She came around Lou’s on Sundays and Wednesdays for a while when we first started doing Church night. Do you think she did it?”

He wasn’t sure how much Angel had heard, and he didn’t want to show quite all of his cards, so he played it safe. “It’s possible. Did she ever have any sort of business relationship with Feizal, as far as you know?”

“No idea. I don’t ask about stuff like that.”

Angel passed a gleaming, beautiful, brown Brooklyn across the threshold, and that ceased Coldwater’s questioning for the moment. He had to admit it was better than the one he’d made at the office, but he couldn’t quite finger the reason. Angel was a magician of balancing flavors, and Coldwater noticed he was now mixing three different drinks at once, with doubles in two of the tins. It was a bit like watching an acrobat in a French circus.

Coldwater peeled his eyes from the spectacle and wandered semi-aimlessly toward the back of the bar, past the restrooms, to the storage room where he had sat vigil the night before. He was about to try the doorknob when suddenly the door swung open, and Feizal was standing there.

“Can I help you find something?” Feizal said.

“I was just trying to retrace my steps to see if I’ve missed anything. Any luck with your whiskey thief?”

“Oh that,” the thin man replied. He put his finger up to his mouth in a gesture that implied thoughtfulness. “Well, I’m sorry if I wasted your time. I found the missing stock. It had simply been misplaced.”

“Just glad to hear you got it straightened out.” Coldwater made like he was getting ready to go back to his seat, but then he turned around again. “Say, did you know that Ashley Rose girl well at all? Shame about what happened to her.”

“I was sorry to hear about it, but no, we were barely acquainted. Are you of the opinion that she… had something to do with the incident here? The police seemed to have dropped that angle.”

“I think she had something to do with it, but I’m not ready to say what just yet.”

Coldwater said goodnight, paid his tab with Angel, and left the building. He went down the street to John’s City Diner, where he wolfed down a slab of meatloaf alongside a martini that was made according to his strict instructions. In a couple of hours, he was going to meet the widow at his office, and it seemed to him advisable that he go home, shower, shave, and feed the cat before then, so he did just that.

Read Part 13.

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 11

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IMG_20150822_140356It was about five minutes until five when Coldwater pulled his grandmother’s Volvo station wagon onto jarring, narrow, brick-paved Morris Avenue. Despite it being late in the day, the sun still sat high in the sky. He parked the in the shadow of the 22nd Street overpass that bridges the railroad tracks and connects the north and south sides of downtown.

A sign outside the door of Matthew’s Bar & Grill advertised that Thursday was always biker night, but today was Friday, Coldwater remembered. He paused a moment to process that. This pace of this week had been disorienting. The professor had been killed on Wednesday, only two nights ago. Thursday morning, he’d been sapped by Ponytail Manley and brought to Ashley Rose who tried to hire him to prove she was innocent of the killing. By Thursday night, Ashley Rose was dead, and earlier this afternoon, he’d found Ponytail’s body in an old house in rural Pickens County. Two nights ago, Joey Schmidt was gleefully mixing tiki drinks, and this afternoon, Joey was going to tell Coldwater about something he’d seen on Wednesday night, something that had disturbed him enough that he didn’t feel he could go to the police with it.

Coldwater entered the cavernous dive bar, which resided in an old warehouse with high ceilings and was sparsely decorated with beer and liquor signage. A space had been made in the general seating area for a pool table that had not yet been delivered. An old, metal storage cabinet leaned oddly against the wall near the door. Through a door opposite the bar was a second barroom with a stage, used mainly for special events. Upstairs, there were two more barrooms, called M Bar and M-North. The deliriously enchanting smell of smoking meat wafted in from the kitchen. It had only been a couple of weeks since Zach Doss had re-opened the main downstairs bar after it had been closed for a few months, and the steel-gray paint was still fresh. The imposing, prematurely bald man behind the bar was Zach. Behind him were a dozen or so familiar call brands of liquor: Jack, Jim, Jose, etc.

Coldwater shook hands with the big man and asked what was on special.

“Two dollar High Life tall boys and the best smoked wings you’ve ever had.”

“I’ll take it.”

“Red sauce or white?”

“Both. I’m feeling patriotic,” Coldwater said. He took his beer and sat at the end of the bar. A minute later, Joey came in with his usually jaunty mustache looking a little on the droopy side.

“I’ll have what he’s having,” Joey said lugubriously. They took their beers to a small, square, black table in the far corner where they could talk privately. At the opposite end of the room, Zach turned some music on. “That’s a hell of a bruise you have on your face, Coldwater.”

“Thanks for reminding me. I keep forgetting about it.”

“You have a run-in with a water buffalo or something?”

“Something like that. Tell me what’s on your mind.”

“Well, okay. It’s like this.” Joey shifted uncomfortably in his seat, stalling. He took a long drink from the golden beer can. “Right before the dead guy, the professor, was found, I saw Feizal take Ashley Rose to the back room.”

“The storage room, where you keep the backup bottles.”

“That’s the one,” Joey said. “I think he stowed her back there, helped her hide until the police left, and then smuggled her out later.”

“I guess that’s possible. So you’re suggestion, Feizal and Ashley Rose were in on it together? The murder?”

“Maybe. Maybe they were up to something else, unrelated. But it made me wonder.”

“Is that it?”

“Isn’t it enough?”

Coldwater rubbed his chin. “Last night, I sat watch in that room for a couple of hours, while Feizal went to run an errand. It didn’t make much sense at the time, but by the time Feizal came back, Ashley Rose had been found dead in a house in Crestwood.”

“She’s dead too? You don’t think he…”

“Might have. He had the opportunity, and from what you are telling me, it’s shaping up that maybe he had a motive too. I guess I’m gonna have to follow up on this, but I’m not gonna involve the police until I have a better idea what it all means.”

“You can leave me out of it. Two dead bodies is enough.”

Coldwater didn’t feel the need to mention the third body to Joey, since he hadn’t yet told the police about it either. Zach came over with a plate full of wings, two plastic ramekins of sauce, and a handful of paper towels. Joey ordered another beer, and Coldwater seconded the motion.

When Zach was out of earshot again, Coldwater said, “Don’t worry. I don’t see any reason to bring you into it. Anybody in the bar could have seen what you saw. You were just lucky, I guess. Help yourself to some of these wings.”

“Thanks. I was trying not to stare at them.”

“No worries. Any idea what purpose would be behind Feizal and Ashley Rose conspiring against the professor?”

Joey shrugged. “Haven’t the foggiest.”

Coldwater worried his chin some more. They finished their beers and wings, and, though Joey made an attempt, Coldwater insisted on paying the tab. He and Joey left walking in opposite directions along the cobblestone street. It was almost six now, and the heat had become close to bearable. He decided to leave the station wagon where it was and walk the three blocks to his office, where he hadn’t checked in since he’d left there Thursday morning. Along the way, he passed Collins Bar and thought about going in to talk to Feizal, but changed his mind and walked on by, continuing up to his office.

He went in through the south door, the room he always kept unlocked for clients who might want to wait for him. More than once, he’d found a drunk bum sleeping on the sofa in there, and he always just let them sleep. Tonight, there was nobody there, but someone had left a note for him.

Read Part 12

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 10

Read from the beginning

dollseyeColdwater found Gustie’s Volvo station wagon baking in the sun on Highland Avenue across from her building. The steering wheel was hotter than a stripper’s backside, so he clicked on the ignition, cranked the a/c, and checked the directions on his phone one more time. It occurred to him that it might be a good idea to be armed for this excursion, but he’d left his .38 in the safe in his office. In the glove box, he located the .25 caliber pistol that Gustie kept there. When he could manage to grip the wheel without melting, he headed down I-59. In Tuscaloosa, he drove west on highway 82 until he was just a few miles from the Mississippi state line. At a crossroads, a gas station sat across from a diner, both abandoned years ago.

He turned left at the crossroads down a county highway dotted with old homesteads, some burned out, some boarded up, all of them overrun with pokeweed, crabgrass, and red sorrel. Behind and between the houses were overgrown fields, thick with vines and more weeds. The address he was seeking looked no different than the others except for an alien-looking bush in the side yard. It red stems jutting out of dark green jagged-toothed leaves, and on the stems were little white berries with black dots. It was easy to find in Gustie’s book, a plant called Doll’s Eye. The leaves and roots are sometimes used in folk medicines. The berries are sweet, the book said, which makes it dangerously enticing for children. “Ingestion of the berries can lead to cardiac arrest and death,” it added.

An oak tree hanging over the road a hundred yards down past the house provided a relatively shady parking place on the road. Coldwater pocketed the .25 and got out of the car to take a closer look at the place. A gravel and dirt drive started from the road and led around to a barn at the back of the house, and there were recent tire tracks in the dust. He slowly opened the barn door and identified Ponytail’s white Caddy.

A rough outline of the events that brought him here started to formulate in his mind. Someone—Ponytail, Ashley Rose, Feizal, or one of the other bartenders on duty that night made a syrup from the Doll’s Eye berries and slipped it into Hornbuckle’s drink. Perhaps more than one drink. Or there was always the possibility that he was suicidal and poisoned himself on purpose. But it was Feizal that was making him drinks that night. He would have had the most opportunity, but no clear motive. In any case, the professor has a heart attack at the bar, which nobody notices in the midst of tiki revelry, and frankly, the professor just wasn’t that noticeable. He was quiet, kept to himself, and drank himself into invisibility. After the heart attack, someone shoves a knife in his chest, which would divert attention away from the bartenders, which again points to Feizal, though he would have to know that the poison would be detected eventually. Meanwhile, Ashley Rose has been blackmailing Hornbuckle to get money out of his wife to help her and Ponytail raise startup money for a new bar. That part made sense to him. Ashley tries to hire him to prove her innocence, and then she turns up dead. Feizal was MIA when that happened, so he could have done it. Perhaps he was in on the blackmail scheme with Ashley Rose. That might have given him motive, especially if the professor had found out who was blackmailing him. But the choking seems more Ponytail’s style, and now Ponytail was on the lam. It could have been jealousy, or maybe Ashley Rose was pushing him out of the action. Or maybe he was just mad that their plans didn’t seem to be working out. Coldwater suspected this was just a pitstop on the way somewhere else far away. The cops would eventually trace his steps here, to his mother’s property in Lyonesse, Pickens County, and though Ponytail had about as much brains as a ham sandwich, he had to know this was a terrible place to hide.

It was all making Coldwater a little dizzy. As he stood in the musty barn thinking it through again, he felt a vibration in his pocket, his cell phone. It was Joey Schmidt.

“I’ve got to talk to you, Stone,” Joey said. “I’ve got information, and I’m scared to go to the cops.”

“I’m on an errand out of town, but I’ll be back in a few hours. The cops probably have my office on a 24 hour watch right now. Meet me at Matthew’s Bar and Grill on Morris Avenue at five. The drinks are terrible, but it’s quiet, and nobody will be watching us there.”

Joey agreed to the meeting time, and Coldwater put the phone away. Leaving the barn, he saw a screen door ajar in the back of the house. He used a handkerchief from his pocket to creak it open enough to slip inside. Dust and pollen floated through the dim strands of sunlight that fought their way through the weak spots in the boards. Underneath the smell of dust and cedar and mothballs and cobwebs, the sickly sweet odor of rotting meat accosted him. Ponytail had to have been dead for less than twenty four hours, so the scent was faint, but noticeable.

Shining the light from his cell phone on the corpse, he saw a bullet hole in Ponytail’s head. Probably shot at short range with a small-caliber bullet, not unlike the .25 he was currently carrying in his hand. He didn’t need the cops knowing he was the one who found this particular body, especially while he was carrying something that looked an awful lot like the murder weapon, even if a ballistics test would show a mismatch down the line. He decided he’d leave Ponytail here for someone else to discover.

Read Part 11

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 9

Read from the beginning.

Coldwater had to give Detective Gatlinburg the whole song and dance down at the station. If Ashley Rose was dead, there was no point in covering up the fact that she’d tried to hire him or how she’d gotten hold of him. The bruise on his face was still tender from that meeting. The car and house turned out to belong to a Bruce Manley, aka Ponytail, who was still missing in action. Coldwater learned that Ashley Rose had been strangled.

“Maybe you did it,” Gatlinburg had said. “Maybe she fought back. Maybe that’s how you got that bruise on your face.”

But he wasn’t a real suspect. Ponytail Bruce Manley was number one on their list. Coldwater tried to recall if he had seen Manley that night at Collins, but he had no recollection of seeing him before the incident at Rojo. Coldwater was pretty observant, he thought, and Manley was memorable. When the coppers finally finished raking Coldwater over the coals, they kindly dropped him off at his apartment. “Say hello to Captain Fancypants,” Gatlinburg said. “Maybe one day you’ll introduce me to that cat.”

“Come on up for a nightcap, and you can say hello.”

“Duty.” Gatlinburg drove off.

Coldwater was glad the detective refused his offer because he fell asleep with his suit on the second his head touched the pillow. He woke up late with the Captain sniffing at his facial contusion. “Alright, alright,” he said. After feeding the cat, he tried to go back to sleep, but the details of the case kept swirling through his mind. He pulled up the, the website for the local paper, and looked up all the recent articles on the Hornbuckle murder, but there was precious little information other than what Gatlinburg had already told him.

He then looked up real estate records for unincorporated Pickens County and found a property that was registered to someone with the last name Manley. Could be a coincidence, but it could also be connected to Ponytail. To check it out, he’d have to borrow a car, and there was only one person he could turn to for that, his grandmother, Gustie. It had been Gustie’s stories about his father and grandfather that had inspired him to go into business for himself a couple of years back.

Gusty lived in an old folks home just a couple of blocks away. In the art deco lobby, several residents were playing cards or board games. The receptionist was a light-skinned African-American girl named Myrtle. She was wearing a blue flowered dress and her hair was done up in a flip.

“You again,” Myrtle scowled from behind the pages of what looked to be a lurid vampire novel. He wasn’t sure what he’d ever done to offend Myrtle. When he first met her, she’d been almost too nice, like she wanted to jump in his lap. Maybe he should have asked her out to dinner, but he was always broke. He tipped his imaginary hat to her and signed in on the registry.

Past the elevator, the rest of the first floor housed various administrative offices, designated by smoky glass windows labeled in a thick black Helvetica. “Director,” “Events Coordinator,” “Nurse Administrator,” “Family Counseling.” Coldwater elevated to the fourth floor and knocked on Gustie’s door. She answered “Coming,” in her smoker’s gruff, and he heard her footsteps padding in from the living room. “Oh, it’s only you, sweetie. I put out my cigarette for nothing. I thought it was Vanessa.”

A trail of cigarette odor had followed Gustie to the door, and the mist of Febreeze she’d sprayed to cover it still lingered as well. Vanessa was her nurse who came by three or four times a day to administer some sort of IV treatment and make sure Gustie took her other various medications, a cocktail of white, yellow, green, and purple pills in various sizes.

The apartment was spacious and sparse with 1970s style cross hatched furniture and monochromatic floral paintings. Gustie sat in her big beige La-Z-Boy by the window, cracked open to let fresh air in and cigarette smoke out. As he passed through the kitchen, he saw mason jars lined up on the counter, her various “tonics” steeping in them. She’d been making things like this as long as he’d known her: rock and rye, bitters, herbal infusions. She always had something cooking.

“What have you been up to this week?” she said, lighting another cigarette drawn from the pouch in the side of her chair. Her dyed-red coif was set in a mushroom-like poof with rigid hairspray. He was always afraid it would catch on fire from her lighter flame, always set higher than necessary.

“Working on a case.”

She beamed. “Oh, you have a client!”

“Not exactly. The client is dead. But I’m helping the cops out.”

“In order to keep yourself out of trouble, no doubt, just like last time. It isn’t that murder that happened downtown earlier this week?”

He shrugged his shoulders at her. “Related,” he said. Anyway, I need to borrow the car to go check out a possible lead in a little town called Lyonesse, in Pickens County.”

“You don’t say. Your grandfather had some relatives who lived near there, in Aliceville. I haven’t been back there in 40 years. From what I recall, there wasn’t much to see out there. Want a drink? I just finished up a batch of rock and rye that’ll set your hair straight.”

“No thanks, Gustie. No time for that today. I just need the car for a few hours.”

“Sure, sure,” she said. “Here are the keys. I should just give them to you. I almost never need to drive anywhere these days. Now, I know you have to go, but tell me real quick about the case. I read in the paper that this professor was poisoned and then stabbed when he was already dead.”

“That’s right,” he said. “They don’t have a toxicology report back yet. I’m hoping to get a jump by figuring out what kind of poison was used. I suspect it was something that was put into his drink that night.”

“Lots of things that could do that,” she said. “All these herbs and roots and things that I use for my tonics… Most of them could kill you if you take too much. But they’d take a while. You throw up, or you get the shits. You have convulsions. From what I read, none of that happened. Just boom, dead. Not so many things that could do that.”

“Any ideas on what it could be?”

She sucked on the cigarette thoughtfully. “You’re assuming it was a plant, but it could just have well been a chemical. Rat poison. Anything.”

“True, but this guy was really knew drinks. I’d think he’d be able to taste something like that. Or smell it.”

She got up without a word and fiddled around on the bookshelf for a little while, came back with a book called Poisonous Plants. “See if this helps,” she said. “Good luck. Come by for a real visit sometime soon.”

“I’ll do that.” He kissed her on the cheek and elevated back downstairs.

Read Part 10.

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 8

IMG_20150709_204759Read from the beginning.

The storage room at the back of Collins Bar wasn’t exactly Coldwater’s idea of cozy, but Rachael did check on him before long and asked what he was drinking. He considered sticking to the Martinez, but he’d never had much luck staying with one kind of drink all night. Perhaps he had commitment issues. So instead, he decided to have Josh improvise something for him.

Coldwater had a tendency to get a little cute with his instructions for an improv drink. For his first one, he asked for something that with a medieval flare to it. He was thinking about the sunken city of Lyonesse from Arthurian legend and how it might be relevant to this crazy murder case. Josh didn’t disappoint. Rachael came back with a take on an improved brandy cocktail that involved absinthe, Hellfire bitters, and lavender. Detective Gatlinburg came waddling in behind her.

“This is my night off, Coldwater. It better be good.”

“If you’re off duty, why don’t you have a drink with me?”

Gatlinburg looked over to Rachael and grunted, “All right. I’ll have a sazerac.”

Rachael left to get the drink, and Coldwater commented, “Sazerac. That’s a pretty sophisticated drink for an illiterate like yourself, no offense.”

“You’d be surprised Coldwater. I went to school in New Orleans. I’m not as rustic as you might think. Now what’s this about?”

“Do you still have an interest in talking to the girl, Ashley Rose?”

“We still have some questions for her. Yes. Do you know where she is?”

“I don’t have the exact address, but I’m pretty sure it’s on 9th Avenue in Crestwood, somewhere east of 56th Street. You’ll find a white Caddy there, probably registered to a pony-tailed gorilla named Bruce something or other. I wasn’t able to get his last name, but I wrote down the license plate number.” He pulled a slip of paper from his wallet and handed it over to the detective, who didn’t look impressed.

“Where’d you get the information?”

“I bought it with my good looks. Didn’t you notice I don’t have them anymore?”

“You getting cute?”

“Does this big bruise in the middle of my face look cute to you?” Rachael came back with the sazerac, as rose pink as the detective’s pig-like face. It looked delicious. Coldwater decided he might have one of those next, or something like it. Gatlinburg reached for his wallet, but Coldwater stopped him. “It’s on Feizal. You’re doing him a favor.”

Rachael said, “I’m keeping a tab for you, Coldwater. I still don’t know what you’re doing here.”

“I’m a little confused about it myself, actually. All I can say is I doubt there is a whiskey thief in your midst.”

She crossed her eyes. “What does that even mean?”

Coldwater raised his hand. “If Feizal wanted you to know about it, he’d have told you himself.”

She shook her head and left again mumbling some sort of ancient curse. Gatlinburg called into headquarters and handed off the information Coldwater had given him about Ashely Rose’s probably whereabouts. He said that someone was going to investigate, and they should hear something before long.

“What do you know about this professor’s wife?” Coldwater said. “I didn’t know he had one, but I ran into her earlier this evening, and she struck me as an odd bird, a rara avis if you will.”

The detective sat back and sipped his drink. “Sounds like you’ve been doing crossword puzzles again. I can’t discuss the details of an ongoing investigation, Coldwater. You know that.”

“Oh, come on. I just gave you the blonde.”

“We don’t yet know if anything will come of it.”

“This is what I know. She’s an academic type like him, and also a poet. One of her pieces talks about a town called Lyonesse. Ever heard of it?”

“There’s a town by that name in Pickens County, a little west of Tuscaloosa. I have a cousin with a farm near there. Not much there to speak of but an abandoned train depot, a couple of old homesteads. A ghost town if I ever saw one. Why’s it important?”

“I’m not sure.” Coldwater wanted to keep something in his pocket, and the argument Ashley Rose and the Professor had about Lyonesse seemed as good a piece of information as anything he might be giving away.

“You working for somebody related to this case?”

“I might be, but if I were, I couldn’t tell you who. What kind of P.I. would I be if I didn’t keep my clients confidential?” In a strict sense, he could consider Ashley Rose his client, though he hadn’t gotten any money from her yet. She wanted him to prove she didn’t kill the professor, and she wanted to stay hidden until he had done that. However, he had other ideas. If she was in police custody, he might actually be able to help her. As things were, she was a liability.

“Okay, okay,” Gatlinburg said. “The widow, as you said, is an odd bird. But she’s on the up and up. Published a few books. She was out of town on a book tour when this all went down on Tuesday. She came back immediately, of course, and cancelled her other dates. She’s not a suspect, and she didn’t tell us anything that would lead to one. Happy?”


“Oh yeah, and she’s also loaded. Independently wealthy, you might call it. Her great grandfather was one of those steel barons that built this town, and her grandpa and pops owned an insurance company.”

“I assume you have the knife,” Coldwater said. Gatlinburg gave him a blank look. “That the professor was stabbed with.”

Gatlinburg sat back in his chair, pulled a cigar out of his pocket, and started chewing on it, unlit. “Jesus, Coldwater. Don’t you read the papers? Sure, we have the knife, but Hornbuckle was already dead when the knife went in his back. Coroner said he was probably poisoned, but we still don’t know with what or how. The knife was just for show. This is all public knowledge.”

Coldwater said, “I’ve been a little out of it the last couple of days. I haven’t had time to catch up on the details.”

Gatlinburg’s phone whistled a tune at him, and he went outside to talk. Coldwater asked for another round of drinks from Rachael, another sazerac for the detective and a Vieux Carré for himself. He read back over the notes he had made on the legal pad, adding what Gatlinburg had told him about the widow, the poisoning, and about the ghost town in Pickens County. About then, Feizal returned.

“You changed,” Coldwater said. The bar manager’s checked red shirt had been exchanged for a white one.

“Very humid outside tonight. I had a shower before I came back. Any trouble here?”

“Quiet as a church on Thursday. Gatlinburg is outside on the phone.”

Feizal nodded and handed over two twenties. “Well, thanks anyway. You don’t know what help you’ve been.”

When Gatlinburg came back in the room, he looked troubled. He wiped his sweaty face with a handkerchief.

“We found the house,” he said. “We found the car. We found the girl. She’s dead. Don’t leave town, Coldwater. I have a few more questions to ask you.”

Read Part 9.

Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 7

Read from the beginning.

IMG_20150709_205404When the widow Hornbuckle did not return to her seat, Coldwater leapt to his feet and burst out the front door, only to be confronted with humid air that smelled of fryer grease. He walked around the side of the building and found a rear door that must have been where she had made her exit. If her car had been parked right outside, she could have gotten two blocks away before anybody noticed she was gone.

He pulled his phone out to call a cab and noticed he had missed another call from Feizal Valli. He had the cab first take him home, and he left the meter running while he went upstairs to feed Captain Fancypants. Then he had the driver drop him off at Collins Bar so he could check in with Feizal.

Meanwhile, during the cab ride, he took a moment to call Detective Gatlinburg and leave a message that he had some information for him, and that he could meet him later that night at Collins. After that, he started looking up information about this Lyonesse place. It took him a few minutes because he was unsure of the spelling, but thanks to the modern giants of industry that are Google and Wikipedia, he soon found something. The first thing he gleaned was that it had something to do with King Arthur stories. He’d read some of those as a kid, so that held his interest, but he still didn’t get the significance. Next, he read that Lyonesse was the home of a knight named Tristan, and in some stories, it was the site of the last battle between Arthur and Mordred. More interestingly, Lyonesse was a lost city, sort of a Celtic version of Atlantis. He still didn’t know how it fit in, but it gave him something to chew on.

Joey’s tiki sign and hula dancers were gone, but the swarm of paper airplanes was a permanent fixture. Lively europop played on the sound system, but the general mood in the bar was somber. Josh was working behind the bar, wearing a white button down shirt and a gray vest. Feizal, looking uncharacteristically cowboy in a red checked shirt, made eye contact and signaled that he’d be with him in a minute. There were not many customers in the bar; perhaps the recent tragedy had been bad for business. It might take some time. He sat at the far end of the bar, what he assumed was Feizal’s station for the night.

Before long, the cocktail waitress Rachael brought him something brown and stirred in a coupe glass.

“This one’s on the house. Feizal said you’re doing a favor for him.”

Her tone was not altogether cheery, like maybe she didn’t approve of giving away free drinks to detectives. She was blonde and thin—you might call her features elfin, which reminded him some of what he’d been reading on the way over. Her outfit was simple and practical—blue jeans and a pink t-shirt—not at all the dress of the sort of fairyland creature she somewhat resembled. She was also Feizal’s girl, so he tried not to gaze in her baby blue eyes for too long, lest he be accused of flirting.

“Possibly,” Coldwater said. “He hasn’t told me what the favor is yet. What’s this?”

“A Martinez. Josh made his own Boker’s-style bitters. Ransom Old Tom gin, Cocchi sweet vermouth, Dolin dry, and maraschino.”

“Sounds perfect,” he said, making a lame pun. “Any idea what your boyfriend wants me to do?”

“No clue. It’s been kind of crazy in here the last couple of days. The cops just left again.”

“Yeah, they’ll be back more than once, I expect. Any new action or just follow-up?”

“Follow-up, but I don’t think they found out anything they didn’t already know. Enjoy the Martinez.” With that, she faded away. She and Feizal both seemed to have a way of disappearing when you blink.

Josh saw him and came down to the end to shake hands and say hi, ask how he liked the Martinez. Coldwater had only just then taken his first sip of it, and it was the sort of drink you have to describe with a ten-cent word—grandiloquent came to mind—and Coldwater told him so. Josh had made it by the book, that book being The Bartender’s Guide by Jerry Thomas, the 1887 edition, where the venerable drink’s recipe was first printed. The Old Tom gin had a strong cinnamon and clove kick, tamped down and gently sweetened by the vermouths. Two careful dashes of maraschino liqueur gave it a velvety texture, and the Boker’s bitters, even with just a dash of the stuff, brought all the flavors together harmoniously while bringing an unmistakable note of historical authenticity. It was a masterpiece. He’d almost forgotten what he came there for when Feizal came sidling up and landed on the barstool to his right.

“Coldwater,” he said in with mock authority. “How are things?”

“Fine. I meant to call you back, but I ran into an immovable object.”

“That bruise on your face looks pretty nasty.”

“Josh gave me some medicine for it.” He held up the cocktail glass, dipped in the air in a cheers pantomime, and took another luxurious sip. “What’s on your mind?”

“Well you showed up just in time actually. I have some personal business to take care of, and I need someone to watch the shop for a couple of hours.”

“I’d think Josh and Rachael are capable of running the place for a couple of hours without you here. What gives?”

“You’re right. But they’re working, and they might get distracted. I need someone to keep a very close watch, if you know what I mean. What do you get usually?”

“Two hundred a day plus expenses, and I don’t know what you mean exactly.” Coldwater looked him over. There was no sign that this was a joke. It didn’t make sense.

“That’s right. I haven’t explained it to you yet. Come with me.” Feizal walked him to the back and unlocked the door of a storage room where they kept their extra bottles. There was also a small wooden desk and a couple of chairs. The bottles were arranged almost haphazardly, some still in boxes piled on other boxes. Others were out on shelves. “Somebody is stealing from me,” Feizal said. “I don’t think it’s any of the employees, but it always seems to happen when we’re pretty busy. What I suppose happens is somebody comes to get something and forgets to lock the door. Next thing I know, I’m missing inventory, always whiskey. Sometimes bourbon, sometimes rye, sometimes Irish or Scotch.”

“Well, this is easy,” Coldwater said. “Tell your staff not to leave the door unlocked.”

“There’s only so much I can control. Look, it’s just for a couple of hours. We’ll get busy around ten. If I give you $40 and make sure Rachael comes back here frequently with liquid refreshment for you, will you do it?”

“I suppose so, but I should tell you, I have a tentative appointment to talk with that Detective Gatlinburg tonight. I told him I’d be here.”

“Perfect. Two birds, one stone. I’ll have Rachael show him back here when he arrives.”

They shook hands, and Feizal did his disappearing act again. The room smelled of sawdust. Pine, specifically—what the shelves were made out of. With nothing much else to do, he took a legal pad he found sitting out on the desk and started making notes about the case, trying to make sense out of it all. Ashley Rose’s relationship with the Professor and her desire to prove her innocence even when she wasn’t under direct suspicion; the mysterious widow that Ashley Rose had forgotten to tell him about; the strangely ubiquitous references to a sunken city called Lyonesse; this bizarre and seemingly pointless security gig he was doing for Feizal. No matter which way he ran the numbers, something didn’t quite add up.

Read Part 8.