Fall Cocktails

Fall Harvest

In response to Joey Schmidt’s recent post about Pumpkin Spice tiki drinks (and the general pumpkin spice craze that seems to hit everywhere around this time of year), we are re-posting this story from last fall that includes our Pumpkin Spice Sour.


While seeking inspiration for the Fall Cocktails seminar we taught last week, we thought of three things we definitely wanted to use: Applejack, homemade Old Tom gin, and pumpkin.

We’ve said before that we really enjoy using Applejack in our cocktails in the fall. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Applejack is technically a brandy made from apples, though it drinks more like a whiskey than a brandy. Before prohibition, Applejack and strong cider were the the primary products for which apples were grown. Applejack has been making a gradual comeback in recent years.

The Laird’s company of New Jersey is the oldest and most prominent distiller of this product. Their 80-proof blended Applejack is the only variety available in here in Alabama. Out of state, you can get several others including our favorite, the Laird’s Bottled-in-Bond Straight Apple Brandy. There are also a few other companies that make similar products. In France, they make an apple brandy called Calvados, which is quite different in character from Applejack, but it is interesting to switch them out in recipes to see how they play with others.

We paired the Applejack with an equal amount of our Old Tom, which you can find the recipe for here. We’ll spare you the “History of Gin” lecture here since you’ll get most of it if you follow that link. Our Old Tom is heavy with baking spices, especially cardamom and clove, with a hint of orange peel, making it an exquisite partner for the Applejack. We added Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, a little cranberry juice, and bitters to round out the drink, which we decided to call Autumn Spice.

Autumn Spice

  • 1 ounce Old Tom Gin
  • 1 ounce Applejack
  • ½ ounce Domaine de Canton
  • ½ ounce cranberry juice
  • 3 dashes aromatic bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass filled ¾ with ice. Stir to desired dilution. Strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon peel.

We knew we wanted to make a pumpkin spice syrup. Everybody’s crazy about pumpkin spice these days, it seems. But unlike whatever is in your corporate cappuccino, we wanted to use actual pumpkin. We used a sugar pie pumpkin, baked the meat, and then pureed it in the blender. You can also use canned pumpkin puree, but where’s the fun in that?

Pumpkin SourPumpkin Spice Syrup (adapted from themessybaker.com)

  • ¾ cups water
  • ½ cup granular sugar
  • ¼ cup light brown sugar
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon ground clove
  • ¼ tsp ground ginger
  • 1/8 cup pumpkin puree

Add water and sugar to a small saucepan. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally until the sugar has dissolved. Add pumpkin puree and spices. Whisk to combine. Reduce heat to medium low for five minutes, whisking frequently. Remove from heat and let sit to cool. Pour the mixture through a fine mesh strainer or cheese cloth. Bottle and store in the refrigerator.

We tried this syrup in a variety of drinks, but our favorite was a variation on a classic whiskey sour.

Pumpkin Whiskey Sour

  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • 1 ounce pumpkin syrup
  • ½ ounce lemon juice
  • ½ ounce egg white

Pour all ingredients into a shaker. Shake without ice until you feel pressure building in the shaker. Add ice and shake again. Strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice.

For more Fall cocktails, see here, here, and here.


The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 13

Read from the beginning

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

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.