The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 6

Read from the beginning


Nitty Gritty

Photo by Katherine Webb

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you mind?”

“Suit yourself,” she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re being sarcastic.”

“You bet I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


Read Part 7

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 5

Read from the beginning


IMG_20150628_105107Stone came to on the floor of a dark, musty apartment. Based on traffic sounds outside, he placed himself on the second floor of a building close to a main thoroughfare. A train announced its presence at an intersection about five blocks to the north, if he could trust that his inner compass was still functional after whatever it was that hit him. As his eyes adjusted to the lack of light, the ponytailed thug he’d noticed at Rojo earlier came into focus, sitting on a stool with his arms crossed so his biceps bulged out like rippled boulders. Behind him was an impressive half-circle home bar with a black granite top and a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that was full of bottles. There was no other furniture in the place besides the bar and three backless bar stools with saddle seats. Ponytail whistled when he saw that Stone was awake. He could feel something on his face, a bandage. He figured he must have fallen forward right onto his nose when Ponytail knocked him out from behind. It hurt like a herd of buffalo had a knife fight inside his nasal cavity, and it made a susurrus sound when he breathed in.

As if carried by a beam of light, Ashley Rose herself strutted into the room, her tawny curls bouncing off her shoulders. Her skin was so pale, it practically glowed in the dark, and she didn’t seem shy about letting it be seen. She wore a low-cut black cocktail dress as if she were going out on the town, as if she hadn’t been holed up in hiding for the past two days. She smiled with her teeth bared.

“I apologize for the roughness, Mr. Coldwater. I patched you up as best I could. We didn’t want to take any chances of you knowing where we were bringing you. Bruce, make Mr. Coldwater a brandy cocktail, please. Make two.”

Ponytail Bruce stood, picked up a mixing glass and a bottle of cognac. His mouth was a flat line. Stone said, “Tell you what, Bruce. Just make it whiskey. I’ll just have a snort of that Redbreast I see on your top shelf. And you can call me Stone.”

“Bruce’s brandy cocktail is divine. Are you sure you won’t indulge me?”

“I’ll have a sip of yours. Why’d you bring me here?”

“Please join us at the bar, if you like. You can’t possibly be comfortable down there.”

He saw her point and made his way slowly to the central of the three bar stools. There was nothing on the walls, which hadn’t been painted lately, and there was a drab carpet with numerous bald spots and heavy curtains that blocked out the daylight. It was odd to have such an elaborate setup in a place where nobody seemed to live.
“I want to hire you. To prove that I’m innocent. You’ll be paid well for it.”

Stone laughed, but it rang out painfully in his head. “Christ on a cracker. You may not have killed that professor, but I can tell already you’re anything but innocent. Anyway, much as I’d like to take your money, the cops already told me they can’t connect you with Hornbuckle, despite the rumors going around.”

Bruce handed Ashley a coupe glass, filled with a golden-brown mixture, garnished with a generous and fragrant slab of orange peel. Stone could smell the citrus oil from across the bar, even with a busted up beak. Bruce gestured toward a cooler full of ice, and Stone signaled to give him two pieces. Up close, he could see freckles on Ashley’s shoulders and silver sparkles in her red nail polish.

“They will find a connection,” Ashley said nonchalantly. “They just haven’t looked hard enough yet. We were lovers, but not for long. I cut it off two weeks ago.”

“Okay, sister. You’re gonna have to level with me. Tell me the whole story and why you think you can’t just tell it to Detective Gatlinburg.”

It was a long yarn, and Ashley Rose was a sloppy knitter. Stone kept interrupting for repetitions and clarifications. The most straightforward part was on her relationship with the professor. The upshot of that was that she had been enrolled in Hornbuckle’s seminar on medieval poetry at the university where he taught. She had seduced him in an effort to improve her grade when she found that reading Chaucer in Middle English was beyond her ken. On her midterm essay, Hornbuckle had written a comment calling her writing “a curious exercise in stream-of-consciousness narration, but hardly an academic essay.” They thought they had been discrete about the nature of their relationship, but apparently they were found out because soon after, someone started blackmailing them both. The details of the blackmail weren’t so clear to him, but he’d get to the bottom of it. He’d ask her more about that later.

The more serpentine element of her tale was her own background. What Stone pieced together was that she was 26 and already had some sort of fine arts degree, but she was going back for an MBA. The lit class was an elective, and when Stone asked why she didn’t just drop it when she was failing, she said coyly, “Plan B seemed like a more fun route.” Her family had money and owned a string of restaurants out west. She and fun-boy were planning on opening a bar here in town, and her carousing with the best-known mixologists in town was a ploy to collect recipes and size up the competition. This pad was a test kitchen of sorts, rented under a false name so nobody would trace her.

“Tell me about Lyonnesse,” Stone said when she came to a stopping point. She looked away and started breathing through her mouth. “That’s what you and the professor were arguing about at the Nick last week wasn’t it?”

“That isn’t relevant,” she said.

“Well, ease my mind by telling me what it means.”

“It was just an inside joke, between Hornbuckle and me. A reference to one of the poems we discussed in his seminar.”

“I find it’s something else, I’ll be asking you about it again.” He decided he only had one more question he needed clarity on for the moment. “Tell me more about this blackmail scheme. What’d they have on you and what’d they want?”

“They threatened to expose our relationship, which wouldn’t hurt me, but the professor would have lost his job. They wanted me to pay to protect him. They had photos, copies of emails, text messages. I have no idea how they got all that.”

“So what would stop you from bumping him off just to get out of it?”

“Exactly.”

They blindfolded him, a little more gently this time, and then drove him around in circles in a rather lame attempt to disorient him. He could tell they hadn’t driven onto any major roads, and he felt the identical bump of a certain familiar railroad crossing no less than five times. When they dropped him off, he found himself on the corner of First Avenue South and 55th Street in Woodlawn. They must have known there was a poetry reading he planned on attending right around the corner.


Read Part 6

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 4

Sweating and sore from a hungover three-mile hike across town in the summer heat, Stone pulled a heap of papers from his mailbox and deposited them directly in the lobby garbage can. The elevator smelled like urine again. He heard Captain Fancypants mewing from hunger as soon as he got off on the tenth floor. As he prepared a bowl of feed for the Captain, he checked his cell and saw that he had missed a call. The message was from Feizal Valli, the bar manager at Collins, but there was no substance to it except to call him back. Could be related to the murder that happened there the other night, Stone thought, though he couldn’t figure what he’d be able to do to help, what with Detective Gatlinburg’s fat ass on the case.

Before calling Feizal back, he showered, shaved, and put on a fresh suit. And yes, he did always wear a suit when he was working. He even wore a suit when he wasn’t working. He sometimes wore one to sleep. Private investigator work may no longer be the glamour job that it was portrayed to be in old movies: the ambient saxophone music, trench coats, fedoras, sets of long legs that you could touch but never trust, mysteries that led to other mysteries, knocking bad guys out in one punch, falling in love with a pretty face that wants nothing more than to shoot you in the head. That was all a neat fantasy. But Stone still insisted on having a touch of class at his agency, even if he spent most of his time skiptracing, taking pictures of cheating husbands, and hacking into someone’s email or Facebook profile.

He’d been in this apartment for a little over two years, ever since he moved back to Birmingham from a brief stint in New York City, where he’d failed at love and at being an artist. It was a functional but depressing studio with a small kitchen and one large closet that he’d filled with suits he started collecting from thrift stores and estate sales when he started his business. The fridge held little except some beer, peanut butter, some vermouth, and assorted bitters. He kept no furniture except a bed and a small dresser. There was a wooden TV table from Target that he used as a night stand and another on which he kept a laptop. There was one window overlooking Rushton Park. Fortunately for him, it didn’t open wide enough for him to defenestrate himself.

The Captain had a scratching post in one corner, a litter box in the opposite corner, and a food and water bowl by the kitchen. The building itself was a utilitarian 1950s high rise that seemed to specialize in housing students who couldn’t afford a place closer to campus, divorcees in the process of rebuilding their lives, and retirees who were two steps away from moving into the nursing home conveniently located two doors down. In other words, people in transition, and he’d been in transition for as long as he could remember. There was an O’Henry’s Coffee downstairs, and also a restaurant, Rojo, which served a pretty good Bloody Mary and a better margarita, and he was thinking, since it was a little bit after noon now, it might be just about time for one of those margaritas.

The weekday lunch crowd was just starting to filter in, nobody he recognized except the familiar restaurant staff. Berkley didn’t usually work the day shift, but Stone was glad to see him there. The size of a linebacker and covered from the neck down in tattoos, Berkley seemed more like a bouncer than a bartender. He had served as both in some of the less reputable establishments of his past employment. He arrived in town an indeterminate time ago and quickly became a recognizable face at punk and metal shows and any bars that stayed open after hours, often behind the bar. It seemed at times as if he somehow worked at every dive bar in town simultaneously. But this was no dive, and it was daylight out, so Stone asked Berkely what he was doing there.

“Filling in for somebody. Still living upstairs?”

“Rent’s still cheap as ever. Get me a margarita and an order of your namesake tacos.” Berkely’s Tacos were a spicy combo of chicken, wing sauce, tomatoes, cilantro, and feta—a perfect foil for the sweet, sour, and salty Margarita that was on its way to him.

While he mixed the margarita, Berkley asked him if he’d heard what happened, and he didn’t have to be any more specific. It appeared everyone had heard by now about the murdered English professor, and everyone was eager to spread gossip about it too. “Isn’t any of my business, but the girl they say did it… I’ve seen her and the professor together…. A couple of weeks ago I was working at the Nick. They were having an argument about something, and she ended up leaving in a huff. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop or anything, but they kept mentioning a place called Lyonnesse. Mean anything to you? I remember it ‘cause I thought it was odd.”

“Nope, and it’s none of my business.”

“Just wanted to get it off my chest.”

“Talk to the cops?”

“I’m not too interested in talking to them.”

“Christ on a caterpillar. I just remembered something.” He hadn’t called Feizal back yet. He took his margarita outside to the patio, which was already filling up fast since it was a beautiful, clear June day. A cool breeze wafted under the canopy and filled the air with the scent of honeysuckle. There was no answer from Feizal, so he sat down and enjoyed his drink at a shady table in the corner to wait for his tacos, which arrived promptly.

A muscular gentleman broad as a truck—also by himself—sat at a nearby table with a glass of tea. His black hair was bisected by a severe part that stretched down into a greasy looking ponytail, and his small dark eyes seemed to wander in Stone’s direction a little too often. He wore a tight black t-shirt and a thick gold chain like he’d just come from a casting call for thug #2.

To keep himself from staring back, Stone studied the flyer for the poetry reading he’d put in his wallet earlier and pretended to make some notes on it. He wrote the word “Lyonnesse” down. There was a little town by that name in Pickens County, near the Mississippi border. The poetry reading was happening later that night, so he’d have to figure out a way to keep himself occupied for a few hours. He finished his food and had started to make his way back upstairs through the building’s garage when someone came up from behind him and knocked the lights out.


Read Part 5

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 1

IMG_20150508_101620

Note: This is the first part of a novel that will be serialized on this blog over the coming weeks and months. All characters are the creation of the author. However, Ii features likenesses and names of real people and places connected to the Birmingham, Alabama bar scene, and those likenesses and names are used with permission. Otherwise, any resemblance to actual people, either living or dead, is coincidental.

It was tiki night at the Collins Bar, and despite the exuberant lively music, colorful cocktails, eclectic décor, and scintillating conversation all around him, Munford Coldwater III was feeling sorry for himself. None of this lightened his mood. A Hawaiian muzak arrangement of The Police’s “King of Pain” played softly and ironically in the background. A luftwaffe of large paper airplanes hung from the ceiling. Leis and hula girl figurines littered the bar. The usually amiable English professor sitting to his right seemed to be in a strange mood, staring fixedly into his drink and constantly scratching at his salt and pepper hair, unleashing a blizzard of dandruff around his barstool. They were the same age, just about, but the professor seemed to be aging faster in that way that men under a lot stress age rapidly, like presidents and people on death row. Munford left the professor to his misery so he could wallow in his own. He had no clients, no girl, and no prospects in either category. He didn’t even like his name, so he always introduced himself as Stone Coldwater, or simply Stone, and he called his business the Stone Detective Agency.

In front of him, in a ceramic Easter Island monolith, was a Haunted Hut Daiquiri—an original recipe by the Collins’ resident tiki expert Joey Schmidt, who looked just as Teutonic as his name sounded, right down to the handlebar mustache that could have been just imported from the Black Forest. Tonight he played up the tiki theme by wearing a straw sombrero and a red Hawaiian shirt with an umbrella motif. The daiquiri mugged him like a team of Caribbean gangsters. The citrus juices held him down as the rum and Campari punched him in the throat. The cinnamon syrup—that was the moll who flirted with him so he didn’t care that he was getting the hula beat out of him.

The usual deal at Collins is that there is no menu. The bartender asks you about what types of things you like and crafts a cocktail specific to your taste. Coldwater liked to think that he stretched their imagination a little bit, though he was probably being too cute by half. “Give me something that smells purple,” he’d say. “Or make me a variation on a whiskey sour, but with tequila and something spicy.” However, on tiki night, Joey brought his own menu, so Stone decided to keep it simple and just work his way down the list. Next up was another one of Joey’s originals, the Coral Snake. He read the ingredients on the menu—overproof rum, Barbados rum, cacao, blood orange juice, lime juice, cinnamon syrup, and coffee syrup. It sounded like he was in for another beating. Good thing he was wearing protection.

To his left, an attractive brunette, who had likely been the queen of her sorority twenty years prior, chatted amiably in his general direction while her schmucky husband nodded in agreement over her shoulder at everything she said. “We’d come here more if it wasn’t, you know, a bar. I’m 40, and he’s 42, and bars just aren’t our scene anymore. We just want to have some nice food, some nice cocktails, and then go home and fuck. We don’t need all this excitement…” She had on a blue dress that she probably reserved for their weekly date night and a tasteful string of pearls. Her hubbie stammered something about getting the bill, but the wife interrupted. “Josh, will you make me one more?”

Josh Schaff was working at the other end of the bar. He would be head and shoulders over most people in a crowd, and behind the slightly elevated bar, he seemed onstage. His lankiness made the smooth movements of his barcraft all the more mesmerizing to watch. Stone had placed himself strategically in the middle so he could talk to both bartenders whenever one was free. He’d noticed a skinny blonde—curly hair, black cocktail dress, no older than 25—perched in the corner across from Josh’s station, worshipfully following his every move.

The gregarious, cotton-haired bar owner, Andrew Collins, noticed him looking. “Name is Ashley Rose. She’s been hanging around the bar for the last couple of weeks,” Andrew said. “She gets there at four, sets up in front of Josh’s station, and stays until eleven. Every day.” The professor accidentally knocked over some banana liqueur that had been precariously perched, sending sweet banana perfume wafting through the air. Andrew went to get a wet bar towel to help clean it up. The steel guitars and ukuleles in the sound system began playing “Save the Last Dance for Me.”

A voice from behind said Stone’s name. It was jolly Joey delivering his Coral Snake. “Christ in a kayak! I didn’t know it was going to be on fire. How do I drink this?” A straw would have melted in the flames erupting from the shelled out half lime, nesting in which was a dice of pineapple that had been soaked in overproof rum and ignited.

“Make a wish and blow it out, but don’t drink what’s in that lime. I’ll get you a straw,” Joey said. His mustache danced on his face like a Mexican tarantula celebrating Cinco de Mayo.

“What could go wrong?” Andrew said, gesturing to the lacquered wood of the bar top. Andrew whisked away a few empty glasses and left Stone to enjoy the Coral Snake. Once the flame was out and straw inserted, Stone found the drink supremely delicious. He noticed the professor distractedly playing with one of the hula girl figurines. He was wearing a lei too. Perhaps he was feeling a little better.

The bar’s manager, Feizal Valli, appeared behind the bar and got another drink for the professor—looked to be a Manhattan, or at least it was something brown and stirred. A slight man with a Mediterranean complexion, Feizal was one of the most recognizable bartenders in the area. He carried himself with a certain grace, as if he were waltzing rather than walking. Unlike the rest of the staff, he wasn’t dressed in tiki regalia. Instead he wore a black vest, white button-down, and maroon tie. A lick of jet black hair strayed down on his forehead, away from his otherwise perfectly pomaded coif. He’d cut his teeth bartending at a strip club in the French Quarter and then started his own place in South Africa, where he’d apparently run into a little trouble and gone back to New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina had blown him up to Birmingham. Feizal said hello to Stone and the other regulars who were hanging around and then disappeared again into the back like a phantom.

Feizal ran around with a canary named Rachel Roberts, who was also a cocktail waitress there. Stone hadn’t seen Rachel much tonight, but she was around, busily filling orders for the larger parties sitting in the booths on the back wall and tables outside.

Meanwhile, sorority mom to his left continued on about how much she hated bars. “Don’t get me wrong,” the lady continued. “The people-watching is great. Take Blondie down there… Probably the product of divorce, has daddy issues, just wants somebody to buy her drinks…”

She was referring to Ashley Rose, the girl Stone had noticed earlier. Currently, Ashley Rose was asking Josh what was in the drink he made her. Stone didn’t hear the details, but Josh always delivered the goods. A short while later, when the chatty lady and her hubby had left, Josh formally introduced Stone to the girl.

“Are you a bartender too?” she asked.

“No, just a fan. I did do a little bartending in college.”

“Stone is a private detective,” Josh volunteered.

“Oh,” she said—turning back to her daiquiri. Obviously not impressed.

Stone excused himself to go to the restroom. The music changed to an island arrangement of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” muffled slightly through the bathroom door. There were no paper towels, but someone had left a flyer for a poetry reading on the sink, so he dried his hands with it. While Stone was reaching to unlock the door, he heard a scream from the front of the bar, and he smiled for the first time that day.


Read Part 2