Stone came to on the floor of a dark, musty apartment. Based on traffic sounds outside, he placed himself on the second floor of a building close to a main thoroughfare. A train announced its presence at an intersection about five blocks to the north, if he could trust that his inner compass was still functional after whatever it was that hit him. As his eyes adjusted to the lack of light, the ponytailed thug he’d noticed at Rojo earlier came into focus, sitting on a stool with his arms crossed so his biceps bulged out like rippled boulders. Behind him was an impressive half-circle home bar with a black granite top and a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that was full of bottles. There was no other furniture in the place besides the bar and three backless bar stools with saddle seats. Ponytail whistled when he saw that Stone was awake. He could feel something on his face, a bandage. He figured he must have fallen forward right onto his nose when Ponytail knocked him out from behind. It hurt like a herd of buffalo had a knife fight inside his nasal cavity, and it made a susurrus sound when he breathed in.
As if carried by a beam of light, Ashley Rose herself strutted into the room, her tawny curls bouncing off her shoulders. Her skin was so pale, it practically glowed in the dark, and she didn’t seem shy about letting it be seen. She wore a low-cut black cocktail dress as if she were going out on the town, as if she hadn’t been holed up in hiding for the past two days. She smiled with her teeth bared.
“I apologize for the roughness, Mr. Coldwater. I patched you up as best I could. We didn’t want to take any chances of you knowing where we were bringing you. Bruce, make Mr. Coldwater a brandy cocktail, please. Make two.”
Ponytail Bruce stood, picked up a mixing glass and a bottle of cognac. His mouth was a flat line. Stone said, “Tell you what, Bruce. Just make it whiskey. I’ll just have a snort of that Redbreast I see on your top shelf. And you can call me Stone.”
“Bruce’s brandy cocktail is divine. Are you sure you won’t indulge me?”
“I’ll have a sip of yours. Why’d you bring me here?”
“Please join us at the bar, if you like. You can’t possibly be comfortable down there.”
He saw her point and made his way slowly to the central of the three bar stools. There was nothing on the walls, which hadn’t been painted lately, and there was a drab carpet with numerous bald spots and heavy curtains that blocked out the daylight. It was odd to have such an elaborate setup in a place where nobody seemed to live.
“I want to hire you. To prove that I’m innocent. You’ll be paid well for it.”
Stone laughed, but it rang out painfully in his head. “Christ on a cracker. You may not have killed that professor, but I can tell already you’re anything but innocent. Anyway, much as I’d like to take your money, the cops already told me they can’t connect you with Hornbuckle, despite the rumors going around.”
Bruce handed Ashley a coupe glass, filled with a golden-brown mixture, garnished with a generous and fragrant slab of orange peel. Stone could smell the citrus oil from across the bar, even with a busted up beak. Bruce gestured toward a cooler full of ice, and Stone signaled to give him two pieces. Up close, he could see freckles on Ashley’s shoulders and silver sparkles in her red nail polish.
“They will find a connection,” Ashley said nonchalantly. “They just haven’t looked hard enough yet. We were lovers, but not for long. I cut it off two weeks ago.”
“Okay, sister. You’re gonna have to level with me. Tell me the whole story and why you think you can’t just tell it to Detective Gatlinburg.”
It was a long yarn, and Ashley Rose was a sloppy knitter. Stone kept interrupting for repetitions and clarifications. The most straightforward part was on her relationship with the professor. The upshot of that was that she had been enrolled in Hornbuckle’s seminar on medieval poetry at the university where he taught. She had seduced him in an effort to improve her grade when she found that reading Chaucer in Middle English was beyond her ken. On her midterm essay, Hornbuckle had written a comment calling her writing “a curious exercise in stream-of-consciousness narration, but hardly an academic essay.” They thought they had been discrete about the nature of their relationship, but apparently they were found out because soon after, someone started blackmailing them both. The details of the blackmail weren’t so clear to him, but he’d get to the bottom of it. He’d ask her more about that later.
The more serpentine element of her tale was her own background. What Stone pieced together was that she was 26 and already had some sort of fine arts degree, but she was going back for an MBA. The lit class was an elective, and when Stone asked why she didn’t just drop it when she was failing, she said coyly, “Plan B seemed like a more fun route.” Her family had money and owned a string of restaurants out west. She and fun-boy were planning on opening a bar here in town, and her carousing with the best-known mixologists in town was a ploy to collect recipes and size up the competition. This pad was a test kitchen of sorts, rented under a false name so nobody would trace her.
“Tell me about Lyonnesse,” Stone said when she came to a stopping point. She looked away and started breathing through her mouth. “That’s what you and the professor were arguing about at the Nick last week wasn’t it?”
“That isn’t relevant,” she said.
“Well, ease my mind by telling me what it means.”
“It was just an inside joke, between Hornbuckle and me. A reference to one of the poems we discussed in his seminar.”
“I find it’s something else, I’ll be asking you about it again.” He decided he only had one more question he needed clarity on for the moment. “Tell me more about this blackmail scheme. What’d they have on you and what’d they want?”
“They threatened to expose our relationship, which wouldn’t hurt me, but the professor would have lost his job. They wanted me to pay to protect him. They had photos, copies of emails, text messages. I have no idea how they got all that.”
“So what would stop you from bumping him off just to get out of it?”
They blindfolded him, a little more gently this time, and then drove him around in circles in a rather lame attempt to disorient him. He could tell they hadn’t driven onto any major roads, and he felt the identical bump of a certain familiar railroad crossing no less than five times. When they dropped him off, he found himself on the corner of First Avenue South and 55th Street in Woodlawn. They must have known there was a poetry reading he planned on attending right around the corner.
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