Stone woke up on the black leather sofa of his office, not entirely remembering what he was doing there. He had an apartment on Southside, but judging from the snare drum blasting through his skull, he’d had about twelve too many the night before and had been unable or unwilling to walk that far. It all started flooding back to him—the murder of the professor, the blonde bartender groupie that everyone suspected but nobody had seen, the expensive bar tab he hoped he had remembered to pay. He opened the cabinet at the bottom of the side table and pulled out a bottle of Fernet Branca, an Italian herbal liqueur that was supposed to prevent or cure hangovers. It didn’t always work, but he tried to always keep a bottle within arm’s reach of anyplace he was likely to crash for the night, whether it be his office sofa, office chair, his actual bed, or his bathroom floor.
When the Fernet had had a few moments to seep in, he began to sort through the recipe rolodex in his mind for something uncomplicated and fresh, and he decided on a Corpse Reviver #2, a workhorse that originated in The Savoy Cocktail Book from 1930, a copy of which he kept handy on the bookshelf above his liquor cabinet. With equal parts dry gin, Cointreau, Lillet Blanc, and fresh lemon juice, as well as a dash of absinthe for zing, it was just the thing to bring him back to life after the events of the night before. He always kept fresh lemons and limes in a mini-fridge in case the need arose.
As he was squeezing the lemon, Stone’s thoughts were interrupted by a note slipped under the door. It was a flyer for some sort of poetry reading happening later that night called Nitty Gritty Magic City. It was free, and maybe there would be drinks. He folded the paper into his wallet so he would remember to look at it again later. They call Birmingham the Magic City. To the locals there’s no worse cliché, but to a stranger in town, this enigmatic epithet provided a certain understanding and attraction that would otherwise elude. When Stone lived in New York, party people would ask him, “Birmingham? What’s that like?” He would sigh… as if such a question could be answered without summarizing a hundred years of violent history. So he would simply say that they call it the Magic City and leave them to wonder about it.
The poetry reading would be held in a storefront in the basement of an old Masonic lodge in the old Woodlawn neighborhood, just east of downtown. Nitty Gritty was a good descriptor for this part of town, a formerly middle class neighborhood that had gone to seed, though in recent years a few people had been trying to build it back up, filling the empty buildings with useful things like art galleries and recording studios. By day, the store hosting the poetry reading posed as a purveyor of survival supplies, though it was actually the headquarters of a creative writing and tutoring center for area kids. It was a cute idea, and an ideal space for writers to utilize at night for events.
The last drops of his Corpse Reviver #2 slipped down his throat like honeyed butter on roller skates. His office door was open just a crack, and when someone knocked on it, it creaked open. The warthog silhouette of Detective Gatlinburg of Birmingham’s finest stood lingering in the doorway, backlit by the frazzled fluorescent bulb in the hallway that buzzed off and on, day and night, like a broken strobe in a hellish discotheque. Stone wasn’t fond of overhead light of any kind, so his office was lit entirely by floor and desk lamps, casting a warm amber glow over whichever part of the office needed visibility, which was currently his liquor shelf.
“Holy Christ in a cannoli shell, Detective. What brings you over here at this early hour?”
“I hear you were at Collins last night. I thought you might give us some help with the case, like you did with that case over in Avondale last year.”
“As I recall, I was the primary suspect in that case until some random junky fessed up to the murder. I don’t know that I did your case any good. Come on in and close the door. You look ominous.”
The detective stepped into the softer light so his porcine facial features were more prominently on display—still not a pleasant sight but easier for Stone to focus on. His lower teeth gleamed like polished tusks. “You remember right, Coldwater. You may also remember that I never really believed you were innocent in that case and still don’t.”
“Am I a suspect now?”
“Don’t get tough with me if you know what’s good for you. You’re a person of interest, to use the technical term.”
“When I decide to get tough, you’ll know it. Word on the street was that you had that girl, Ashley Rose, pinned for it.”
“One. Can’t find her anywhere. No known address. Two. Witnesses say she never said a word to the victim last night, and I have no evidence that connects them. Three. You were sitting next to Hornbuckle at the bar all night, and I know you go back. You were juvenile delinquents together back when I was a rookie working the beat on Southside.”
“So, I smoke weed with a guy twenty years ago, and somehow that means I killed him? I barely talked to him myself last night, and I was in the john when the deed went down.”
“The bar manager couldn’t vouch for your whereabouts.”
“Feizal wouldn’t vouch for me, eh? I see how it is,” Stone said. “Are you taking me in, or can we do this here? Want a drink?”
“It’s ten in the morning, and I’m on duty. You always drink this early in the day? Have a guilty conscience perhaps? And to answer your other question, I don’t need to bring you down to the precinct yet, assuming you’ll cooperate.”
“I’ll answer your questions, but try to make it quick. I have to go across town to feed my cat.”
“The elusive Captain Fancypants, amiright?”
“You have a good memory.”
“I’ve still never seen that cat.”
It was true that when they had previously collaborated, Stone had fabricated the cat as an excuse for being in a place where he wasn’t supposed to be. He had a bad habit of being elusive with Detective Gatlinburg even when it wasn’t necessary. However, since then, he had acquired an actual orange creamsicle tabby whom he called by the name that had spontaneously popped into his head that day two years before, Captain Fancypants. For the next hour or so, he did his best to answer the detective’s questions about the night before, though some of it was rather fuzzy now in the light of day. For his part, the detective didn’t give up any interesting information about the case to Stone. When he finally left, Stone took another shot of Fernet to fortify him for the walk across town to shower, change his clothes, and, of course, put out a can of cat food for the Captain.