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.