Uniformed police and EMTs pushed their way through the crowd gathered in the smoking area just outside the Collins Bar. At the epicenter of the excitement was the body of the professor—most people who knew him called him by his last name, Hornbuckle. Within seconds, the rumors starting flying around like sparrows—whispers that Professor Hornbuckle was stabbed, that it was that blonde girl, Ashley Rose, who had been sitting at Josh’s station all week and now mysteriously wasn’t. All Stone could think about was how he was going to insert himself into the case to work alongside the police. Screw waiting for a client.
Back in the late ’80s, Stone had been a punk teenager with a foot-high green mohawk, hanging out with the other freaks of the day by the fountain in Five Points. His friends from back then often didn’t recognize him in the grey or black suits he wore today. The professor had been one of those teenagers also. They’d known each other from a respectable distance for two and a half decades. That Hornbuckle had become an English professor was no surprise. Because of his habit of reading enormous tomes and dressing in second-hand tweed jackets, they had called him the Professor as a nickname long before he became an actual professor. More of a shock was that Stone had become a detective, though it was sort of the family business.
Stone’s grandfather had started as an investigative reporter for the paper in Tupelo, which had led him into a second career as a gumshoe. His pop had started his own agency in Birmingham, but he’d vanished without explanation right about the time Stone was sporting that green mohawk. There had been some press back then about the old man’s disappearance—speculation that it might have been related to a case he was on or it might have been a dame, or both. He’d resisted the call to the order of shamus until he was in his thirties, when, after failing at being an artist and a lothario, he finally found that he wasn’t qualified to do anything else.
Meanwhile, the rumor that Hornbuckle had been stabbed was confirmed. The rumor that it had been Ashley who stabbed him was not, but she would most certainly be a person of interest. There were varying stories about why she did it and where she went afterward, and Stone didn’t believe any of them. It just didn’t seem to hold together. It was like somebody whisked her out just before it happened. In short order, the police kicked everybody out of the bar other than a few people who had claimed to be witnesses, so Stone stumbled down Second Avenue North with the rest of the crowd, thinking about having a martini for a nightcap.
He was very particular about his martinis. A martini had to be made with gin for one thing. Just how a vodka martini had come to be a thing, he wasn’t sure. It had to be stirred, not shaken, and the garnish should be a nice thick slab of lemon peel, not an olive, and for godsake not a pickled onion. The vermouth was important too. It couldn’t be one of the cheap brands that you can buy in any grocery store, and there should be enough vermouth in the martini that you could taste it. Because you shouldn’t put anything in a martini that you wouldn’t be willing to drink on its own, and if you go to the trouble and expense to use good vermouth, it should damn well be noticeable in the drink. Plus it keeps you from getting malaria, and in Alabama in the humid heat of a summer night, one feels the need for that kind of protection from nature. The thought of a “dirty” martini made his skin crawl. Above all, a martini should be clean, refreshing, like a dip in a cool swimming pool on a scorching day.
He ended up at Carrigan’s Pub. The pub sat in an old masonry warehouse down on Morris Avenue, the brick-lined street by the old railroad tracks that marked the center of town. It was cloudy, so nobody was sitting at the tables outside where globe lights were strung like a canopy. Stone was lucky to find Eric Bennett behind the bar and asked for a classic martini with Plymouth gin, Dolin blanc vermouth, and orange bitters. Eric happily indulged him.
“You hear what happened at Collins earlier?” Eric asked. His dark almond skin contrasted with the bright white shirt he was wearing. His square jaw was outlined by a square black goatee that gave him a sinister air.
“I was there, but I didn’t see much of anything. Cops made everybody leave.” Stone took a sip of his martini. It was as advertised.
Eric said, “That Ashley Rose, she’s been making the rounds. Kind of a bartender groupie. It was just a couple of weeks ago, she was doing the same routine with Hamrick over at Saturn, and before that, it was me. It started with Angel, of course.”
Most Birmingham bar stories did start with Angel Negrin. He had been instrumental in starting cocktail programs at several places in town and worked at Collins on the weekends. Since it was Wednesday, Angel would be working at Lou’s Pub in Lakeview. It was too late and too far of a walk for Stone to go down there tonight, but he’d try to catch up with Angel later. Angel was the kind of fellow who noticed things, and he might have noticed more about this girl than most of the others.
“Do you have an angle on this thing?”
“No,” Stone replied. “I’m just curious. It’s really not my business.”
He was still looking for a reason to make it his business. Stone found it interesting that Eric had already heard so much about the incident. Some of the crowd that had been at Collins evidently walked—and talked—faster than he did. He heard Pat Floyd and Will Batson with a group of unknowns at a table behind him snickering like mischievous elves. Either of them would have gladly brought the gossip down the block. He was pretty sure they had been at Collins also.
He’d already finished his martini and found himself ordering one of Eric’s originals, the Wisp of Judgment. It had a bourbon foundation, enhanced by the bittersweet pungency of Chartreuse, Byrrh, and Aperol. The eponymous wisp came from a smoky hint of mezcal that gave his nose a suspicious glare with each sip. Christ in a Chrysler, it was powerful, and perhaps Stone was beginning to personify the ingredients a little too much. Maybe it was the mezcal, but he was feeling a little paranoid. He realized there was something he hadn’t asked Eric.
“Did you know Hornbuckle? The poor sap that was stabbed?”
“Forty-ish English professor? Brown and stir?” Stone nodded affirmation. “He came around here sometimes, mainly early or on slow nights. He didn’t seem to like crowds. But we never talked that much. I don’t know what Ashley Rose could have had against him. Maybe she was a student of his.”
Like everyone else, Eric seemed to take for granted that Ashley Rose was the guilty party. However, Stone knew she was not in police custody, and there were at least a dozen other possible suspects. Any of the staff at Collins could have had opportunity, if not motive. But if the motive was to frame Ashley Rose, there could be some bartender jealousy at work. It was curious. Stone downed the remains of his drink and paid his tab. He said goodnight to Eric and the vaguely familiar faces who were lingering until closing time.
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