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

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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.

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