Note: This is the first part of a novel that will be serialized on this blog over the coming weeks and months. All characters are the creation of the author. However, Ii features likenesses and names of real people and places connected to the Birmingham, Alabama bar scene, and those likenesses and names are used with permission. Otherwise, any resemblance to actual people, either living or dead, is coincidental.
It was tiki night at the Collins Bar, and despite the exuberant lively music, colorful cocktails, eclectic décor, and scintillating conversation all around him, Munford Coldwater III was feeling sorry for himself. None of this lightened his mood. A Hawaiian muzak arrangement of The Police’s “King of Pain” played softly and ironically in the background. A luftwaffe of large paper airplanes hung from the ceiling. Leis and hula girl figurines littered the bar. The usually amiable English professor sitting to his right seemed to be in a strange mood, staring fixedly into his drink and constantly scratching at his salt and pepper hair, unleashing a blizzard of dandruff around his barstool. They were the same age, just about, but the professor seemed to be aging faster in that way that men under a lot stress age rapidly, like presidents and people on death row. Munford left the professor to his misery so he could wallow in his own. He had no clients, no girl, and no prospects in either category. He didn’t even like his name, so he always introduced himself as Stone Coldwater, or simply Stone, and he called his business the Stone Detective Agency.
In front of him, in a ceramic Easter Island monolith, was a Haunted Hut Daiquiri—an original recipe by the Collins’ resident tiki expert Joey Schmidt, who looked just as Teutonic as his name sounded, right down to the handlebar mustache that could have been just imported from the Black Forest. Tonight he played up the tiki theme by wearing a straw sombrero and a red Hawaiian shirt with an umbrella motif. The daiquiri mugged him like a team of Caribbean gangsters. The citrus juices held him down as the rum and Campari punched him in the throat. The cinnamon syrup—that was the moll who flirted with him so he didn’t care that he was getting the hula beat out of him.
The usual deal at Collins is that there is no menu. The bartender asks you about what types of things you like and crafts a cocktail specific to your taste. Coldwater liked to think that he stretched their imagination a little bit, though he was probably being too cute by half. “Give me something that smells purple,” he’d say. “Or make me a variation on a whiskey sour, but with tequila and something spicy.” However, on tiki night, Joey brought his own menu, so Stone decided to keep it simple and just work his way down the list. Next up was another one of Joey’s originals, the Coral Snake. He read the ingredients on the menu—overproof rum, Barbados rum, cacao, blood orange juice, lime juice, cinnamon syrup, and coffee syrup. It sounded like he was in for another beating. Good thing he was wearing protection.
To his left, an attractive brunette, who had likely been the queen of her sorority twenty years prior, chatted amiably in his general direction while her schmucky husband nodded in agreement over her shoulder at everything she said. “We’d come here more if it wasn’t, you know, a bar. I’m 40, and he’s 42, and bars just aren’t our scene anymore. We just want to have some nice food, some nice cocktails, and then go home and fuck. We don’t need all this excitement…” She had on a blue dress that she probably reserved for their weekly date night and a tasteful string of pearls. Her hubbie stammered something about getting the bill, but the wife interrupted. “Josh, will you make me one more?”
Josh Schaff was working at the other end of the bar. He would be head and shoulders over most people in a crowd, and behind the slightly elevated bar, he seemed onstage. His lankiness made the smooth movements of his barcraft all the more mesmerizing to watch. Stone had placed himself strategically in the middle so he could talk to both bartenders whenever one was free. He’d noticed a skinny blonde—curly hair, black cocktail dress, no older than 25—perched in the corner across from Josh’s station, worshipfully following his every move.
The gregarious, cotton-haired bar owner, Andrew Collins, noticed him looking. “Name is Ashley Rose. She’s been hanging around the bar for the last couple of weeks,” Andrew said. “She gets there at four, sets up in front of Josh’s station, and stays until eleven. Every day.” The professor accidentally knocked over some banana liqueur that had been precariously perched, sending sweet banana perfume wafting through the air. Andrew went to get a wet bar towel to help clean it up. The steel guitars and ukuleles in the sound system began playing “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
A voice from behind said Stone’s name. It was jolly Joey delivering his Coral Snake. “Christ in a kayak! I didn’t know it was going to be on fire. How do I drink this?” A straw would have melted in the flames erupting from the shelled out half lime, nesting in which was a dice of pineapple that had been soaked in overproof rum and ignited.
“Make a wish and blow it out, but don’t drink what’s in that lime. I’ll get you a straw,” Joey said. His mustache danced on his face like a Mexican tarantula celebrating Cinco de Mayo.
“What could go wrong?” Andrew said, gesturing to the lacquered wood of the bar top. Andrew whisked away a few empty glasses and left Stone to enjoy the Coral Snake. Once the flame was out and straw inserted, Stone found the drink supremely delicious. He noticed the professor distractedly playing with one of the hula girl figurines. He was wearing a lei too. Perhaps he was feeling a little better.
The bar’s manager, Feizal Valli, appeared behind the bar and got another drink for the professor—looked to be a Manhattan, or at least it was something brown and stirred. A slight man with a Mediterranean complexion, Feizal was one of the most recognizable bartenders in the area. He carried himself with a certain grace, as if he were waltzing rather than walking. Unlike the rest of the staff, he wasn’t dressed in tiki regalia. Instead he wore a black vest, white button-down, and maroon tie. A lick of jet black hair strayed down on his forehead, away from his otherwise perfectly pomaded coif. He’d cut his teeth bartending at a strip club in the French Quarter and then started his own place in South Africa, where he’d apparently run into a little trouble and gone back to New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina had blown him up to Birmingham. Feizal said hello to Stone and the other regulars who were hanging around and then disappeared again into the back like a phantom.
Feizal ran around with a canary named Rachel Roberts, who was also a cocktail waitress there. Stone hadn’t seen Rachel much tonight, but she was around, busily filling orders for the larger parties sitting in the booths on the back wall and tables outside.
Meanwhile, sorority mom to his left continued on about how much she hated bars. “Don’t get me wrong,” the lady continued. “The people-watching is great. Take Blondie down there… Probably the product of divorce, has daddy issues, just wants somebody to buy her drinks…”
She was referring to Ashley Rose, the girl Stone had noticed earlier. Currently, Ashley Rose was asking Josh what was in the drink he made her. Stone didn’t hear the details, but Josh always delivered the goods. A short while later, when the chatty lady and her hubby had left, Josh formally introduced Stone to the girl.
“Are you a bartender too?” she asked.
“No, just a fan. I did do a little bartending in college.”
“Stone is a private detective,” Josh volunteered.
“Oh,” she said—turning back to her daiquiri. Obviously not impressed.
Stone excused himself to go to the restroom. The music changed to an island arrangement of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” muffled slightly through the bathroom door. There were no paper towels, but someone had left a flyer for a poetry reading on the sink, so he dried his hands with it. While Stone was reaching to unlock the door, he heard a scream from the front of the bar, and he smiled for the first time that day.