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

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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

Read from the beginning


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