The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 12

Read from the beginning


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 Nitty Gritty Magic City Cocktails for August

IMG_20150812_093253In case you didn’t get the word on Facebook, we are taking a week or two off from our serialized detective novel to catch up on some writing and get ready for school to start. Munford Coldwater and the gang will be back before the end of the month.

Earlier this summer, we mentioned that we regular do cocktails for the Nitty Gritty Magic City reading series, which takes place the second Thursday or every month at Desert Island Supply Company and features local writers as well as travelling talent from across the country. We featured the series in chapter six of the novel, and then they promptly went on hiatus for the next two months. Well, it is back, and we are back, with two seasonal cocktails that we think you will like.

The fig tree in our back yard didn’t produce much this year, but our rosemary bush is doing just fine. We got some lovely figs at Whole Foods and made a fig and rosemary syrup. We used it to add some seasonal pizzazz to a simple (eggless) whiskey sour using Bulleit rye. A spear of rosemary for garnish brings out the rosemary in the syrup. We call it:

The Morris Avenue

  • 1.5 oz rye
  • 1/2 oz fig rosemary syrup
  • Juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • Rosemary garnish

We recommend shaking it and then straining it over fresh ice, as seen in the picture.

Next, we are doing a punch that uses local honey, house-made grenadine, and gin. A little Campari adds complexity to the flavor and keeps the sweeter ingredients from being too cloying. Soda on top makes it refreshing.

Downtown Punch

  • 1.5 oz gin
  • 1/2 oz Campari
  • 1/2 oz honey syrup (1/2 honey, 1/2 water)
  • 1/2 oz grenadine (we use Joey Schmidt’s recipe to make ours)
  • Fill will soda

Build in a tall glass full of ice and give it a stir. Garnish with something fun from your garden, or your neighbor’s garden.

The next Nitty Gritty Magic City is Thursday, 8/13 at Desert Island Supply Co. at 7:30 PM. This month’s readers are Kristi Houk, Jason Slatton, and Lynnel Edwards.

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 al.com, 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.

How We Beach

IMG_20150718_181102We went to the beach last week, and in the spirit of relaxing, didn’t write anything blogworthy. One thing we noticed down there is that everybody beaches a little differently. For example, some people just park themselves in the shallow water and let waves splash up on them all day. Others swim out to deeper water. There were people throwing footballs and playing other games. Some people build sand castles, and some people fish. We like to begin and end the day with a long walk. We tend to spend the rest of the daylight hours sitting in the shade and reading, with occasional breaks to splash around in the ocean for a while.

Almost every adult we saw was drinking beer, usually of the low-brow, mass produced variety. We like beer just fine, but we tend to get tired of it quickly. When it comes down to it, we can’t leave behind our cocktails for very long. In the picture to the right, you’ll see what we took with us. That’s just the liquor, of course. We also had lemons and limes, some fresh pineapple (pre-cut) and coconut cream for making pina coladas, sugar and honey for making syrups, a couple of shrubs, Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters, our top-secret homemade bloody mary mix, soda water, tonic water, and regular bottled water.

Most people know that they can save a lot of money at the beach by staying in, but a lot of people think that means you have to settle for junk food and cheap beer. We ventured out a few times for food and drink, but it was hard to beat what we could make ourselves, especially after visiting the local farmer and fisherman’s market to get some fresh local veggies and seafood. And with the small portion of our bar that we travelled with, we were able to have top notch cocktails, better than what was available at any of the bars we visited.

We were happy to find that the fridge in our rented condo made plenty of ice. We didn’t have to buy ice all week. The blender wasn’t all we hoped it would be, but it sufficed. Mornings, in addition to the obligatory coffee, we might have a shrub soda, a bloody mary, or an Americano with Ramazzotti amaro. Shrub soda was also a refreshing option for transitioning from the beach to the evening cocktail hour. For the beach, we batched cocktails in a pitcher, packing it in a cooler with ice and some plastic cups (and plenty of bottled water also). The pitcher might be filled with simple gin and tonics one day, margaritas another day, and fresh daiquiris on another day. In the evening, we might have a martini or a Manhattan before dinner (or a Sazerac, if we were feeling fancy).

IMG_20150720_105757Batch Gin and Tonic

  • Equal parts of your favorite gin and your favorite tonic
  • Juice of a couple of limes

We went ahead and threw the lime quarters in with the g&t in the pitcher. After a while, the lime peel infuses with the mixture, making it extra delicious. We could have gone with a fancier tonic brand, but we were on a budget.

Batch Beach Margarita

  • 16 ounces of tequila
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 6 ounces simple syrup
  • 2 ounces St. Germaine

Someone gave us a 2 oz sampler bottle of St. Germaine not long ago, which was great because we didn’t have to bring our big bottle from home. It was a perfect sub for the triple sec that we didn’t bring with us.

Batch Jake Barnes Daiquiri

  • 8 ounces of white rum
  • 8 ounces of aged demerara rum
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 6 ounces honey syrup
  • 2 ounces Luxardo maraschino liqueur
  • 1/4 ounce absinthe

This isn’t a true Hemingway daiquiri because we didn’t use grapefruit juice. The honey syrup was mainly because by the end of the week, we were running out of sugar, and it saved a trip to the store. It was delicious though.

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?”

“Deliriously.”

“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.

Breakfast in a Glass

IMG_20150709_094305Eggs in a cocktail? Raw? Preposterous! Well, no. It would be preposterous if the eggs were cooked perhaps, but there is a long history of eggs in cocktails. Lots of drinks, like whiskey sours, combine egg white with citrus to provide a frothy, creamy texture. When you use the whole egg, it’s called a “flip,” variations of which go back to the 16th century. Flips are mentioned in some of the works of Dickens. Jerry Thomas, in 1887, said that a flip “gives strength to delicate people.” Well, I was feeling a little delicate earlier this morning, and now I’m feeling as strong as a race horse. Of course, there is always some risk in consuming raw eggs. That’s our disclaimer. However, if you know where your eggs come from, that’s half the battle. We get farm fresh, free-range, hormone-free eggs every week from our CSA, and I try to pull out the smallest ones for cocktails.

One variety of flip that is still popular around the holidays is eggnog. A lot of people dont’ realize you can make eggnog by the glass with milk, an egg, sugar, and (optionally) the spirit of your choice (we like ours with brandy). But a flip can be enjoyed any time of year, particularly when you are hung over. Fortified wines are great in flips. These include sherry, port, madeira, marsala, and vermouth. Our favorite flip, is made with a combination of gin and sherry, and we make it thusly:

IMG_20150709_095020Solera Gin Flip

  • 1 oz London dry gin
  • 1 oz solera sherry
  • 1/2 oz simple syrup
  • 1 small farm-fresh egg

Put all the ingredients in a shaker and shake for 30 seconds with NO ICE. This will make it fluffy. Add ice and shake again. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with fresh-grated nutmeg.

A note on sherry: There are many varieties of sherry and also great disparity in quality. We picked solera sherry for this drink because it has a sweet, but not too sweet, nutty flavor that we enjoy.

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