The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 9

Read from the beginning.


Coldwater had to give Detective Gatlinburg the whole song and dance down at the station. If Ashley Rose was dead, there was no point in covering up the fact that she’d tried to hire him or how she’d gotten hold of him. The bruise on his face was still tender from that meeting. The car and house turned out to belong to a Bruce Manley, aka Ponytail, who was still missing in action. Coldwater learned that Ashley Rose had been strangled.

“Maybe you did it,” Gatlinburg had said. “Maybe she fought back. Maybe that’s how you got that bruise on your face.”

But he wasn’t a real suspect. Ponytail Bruce Manley was number one on their list. Coldwater tried to recall if he had seen Manley that night at Collins, but he had no recollection of seeing him before the incident at Rojo. Coldwater was pretty observant, he thought, and Manley was memorable. When the coppers finally finished raking Coldwater over the coals, they kindly dropped him off at his apartment. “Say hello to Captain Fancypants,” Gatlinburg said. “Maybe one day you’ll introduce me to that cat.”

“Come on up for a nightcap, and you can say hello.”

“Duty.” Gatlinburg drove off.

Coldwater was glad the detective refused his offer because he fell asleep with his suit on the second his head touched the pillow. He woke up late with the Captain sniffing at his facial contusion. “Alright, alright,” he said. After feeding the cat, he tried to go back to sleep, but the details of the case kept swirling through his mind. He pulled up the al.com, the website for the local paper, and looked up all the recent articles on the Hornbuckle murder, but there was precious little information other than what Gatlinburg had already told him.

He then looked up real estate records for unincorporated Pickens County and found a property that was registered to someone with the last name Manley. Could be a coincidence, but it could also be connected to Ponytail. To check it out, he’d have to borrow a car, and there was only one person he could turn to for that, his grandmother, Gustie. It had been Gustie’s stories about his father and grandfather that had inspired him to go into business for himself a couple of years back.

Gusty lived in an old folks home just a couple of blocks away. In the art deco lobby, several residents were playing cards or board games. The receptionist was a light-skinned African-American girl named Myrtle. She was wearing a blue flowered dress and her hair was done up in a flip.

“You again,” Myrtle scowled from behind the pages of what looked to be a lurid vampire novel. He wasn’t sure what he’d ever done to offend Myrtle. When he first met her, she’d been almost too nice, like she wanted to jump in his lap. Maybe he should have asked her out to dinner, but he was always broke. He tipped his imaginary hat to her and signed in on the registry.

Past the elevator, the rest of the first floor housed various administrative offices, designated by smoky glass windows labeled in a thick black Helvetica. “Director,” “Events Coordinator,” “Nurse Administrator,” “Family Counseling.” Coldwater elevated to the fourth floor and knocked on Gustie’s door. She answered “Coming,” in her smoker’s gruff, and he heard her footsteps padding in from the living room. “Oh, it’s only you, sweetie. I put out my cigarette for nothing. I thought it was Vanessa.”

A trail of cigarette odor had followed Gustie to the door, and the mist of Febreeze she’d sprayed to cover it still lingered as well. Vanessa was her nurse who came by three or four times a day to administer some sort of IV treatment and make sure Gustie took her other various medications, a cocktail of white, yellow, green, and purple pills in various sizes.

The apartment was spacious and sparse with 1970s style cross hatched furniture and monochromatic floral paintings. Gustie sat in her big beige La-Z-Boy by the window, cracked open to let fresh air in and cigarette smoke out. As he passed through the kitchen, he saw mason jars lined up on the counter, her various “tonics” steeping in them. She’d been making things like this as long as he’d known her: rock and rye, bitters, herbal infusions. She always had something cooking.

“What have you been up to this week?” she said, lighting another cigarette drawn from the pouch in the side of her chair. Her dyed-red coif was set in a mushroom-like poof with rigid hairspray. He was always afraid it would catch on fire from her lighter flame, always set higher than necessary.

“Working on a case.”

She beamed. “Oh, you have a client!”

“Not exactly. The client is dead. But I’m helping the cops out.”

“In order to keep yourself out of trouble, no doubt, just like last time. It isn’t that murder that happened downtown earlier this week?”

He shrugged his shoulders at her. “Related,” he said. Anyway, I need to borrow the car to go check out a possible lead in a little town called Lyonesse, in Pickens County.”

“You don’t say. Your grandfather had some relatives who lived near there, in Aliceville. I haven’t been back there in 40 years. From what I recall, there wasn’t much to see out there. Want a drink? I just finished up a batch of rock and rye that’ll set your hair straight.”

“No thanks, Gustie. No time for that today. I just need the car for a few hours.”

“Sure, sure,” she said. “Here are the keys. I should just give them to you. I almost never need to drive anywhere these days. Now, I know you have to go, but tell me real quick about the case. I read in the paper that this professor was poisoned and then stabbed when he was already dead.”

“That’s right,” he said. “They don’t have a toxicology report back yet. I’m hoping to get a jump by figuring out what kind of poison was used. I suspect it was something that was put into his drink that night.”

“Lots of things that could do that,” she said. “All these herbs and roots and things that I use for my tonics… Most of them could kill you if you take too much. But they’d take a while. You throw up, or you get the shits. You have convulsions. From what I read, none of that happened. Just boom, dead. Not so many things that could do that.”

“Any ideas on what it could be?”

She sucked on the cigarette thoughtfully. “You’re assuming it was a plant, but it could just have well been a chemical. Rat poison. Anything.”

“True, but this guy was really knew drinks. I’d think he’d be able to taste something like that. Or smell it.”

She got up without a word and fiddled around on the bookshelf for a little while, came back with a book called Poisonous Plants. “See if this helps,” she said. “Good luck. Come by for a real visit sometime soon.”

“I’ll do that.” He kissed her on the cheek and elevated back downstairs.


Read Part 10.

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Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 7

Read from the beginning.


IMG_20150709_205404When the widow Hornbuckle did not return to her seat, Coldwater leapt to his feet and burst out the front door, only to be confronted with humid air that smelled of fryer grease. He walked around the side of the building and found a rear door that must have been where she had made her exit. If her car had been parked right outside, she could have gotten two blocks away before anybody noticed she was gone.

He pulled his phone out to call a cab and noticed he had missed another call from Feizal Valli. He had the cab first take him home, and he left the meter running while he went upstairs to feed Captain Fancypants. Then he had the driver drop him off at Collins Bar so he could check in with Feizal.

Meanwhile, during the cab ride, he took a moment to call Detective Gatlinburg and leave a message that he had some information for him, and that he could meet him later that night at Collins. After that, he started looking up information about this Lyonesse place. It took him a few minutes because he was unsure of the spelling, but thanks to the modern giants of industry that are Google and Wikipedia, he soon found something. The first thing he gleaned was that it had something to do with King Arthur stories. He’d read some of those as a kid, so that held his interest, but he still didn’t get the significance. Next, he read that Lyonesse was the home of a knight named Tristan, and in some stories, it was the site of the last battle between Arthur and Mordred. More interestingly, Lyonesse was a lost city, sort of a Celtic version of Atlantis. He still didn’t know how it fit in, but it gave him something to chew on.

Joey’s tiki sign and hula dancers were gone, but the swarm of paper airplanes was a permanent fixture. Lively europop played on the sound system, but the general mood in the bar was somber. Josh was working behind the bar, wearing a white button down shirt and a gray vest. Feizal, looking uncharacteristically cowboy in a red checked shirt, made eye contact and signaled that he’d be with him in a minute. There were not many customers in the bar; perhaps the recent tragedy had been bad for business. It might take some time. He sat at the far end of the bar, what he assumed was Feizal’s station for the night.

Before long, the cocktail waitress Rachael brought him something brown and stirred in a coupe glass.

“This one’s on the house. Feizal said you’re doing a favor for him.”

Her tone was not altogether cheery, like maybe she didn’t approve of giving away free drinks to detectives. She was blonde and thin—you might call her features elfin, which reminded him some of what he’d been reading on the way over. Her outfit was simple and practical—blue jeans and a pink t-shirt—not at all the dress of the sort of fairyland creature she somewhat resembled. She was also Feizal’s girl, so he tried not to gaze in her baby blue eyes for too long, lest he be accused of flirting.

“Possibly,” Coldwater said. “He hasn’t told me what the favor is yet. What’s this?”

“A Martinez. Josh made his own Boker’s-style bitters. Ransom Old Tom gin, Cocchi sweet vermouth, Dolin dry, and maraschino.”

“Sounds perfect,” he said, making a lame pun. “Any idea what your boyfriend wants me to do?”

“No clue. It’s been kind of crazy in here the last couple of days. The cops just left again.”

“Yeah, they’ll be back more than once, I expect. Any new action or just follow-up?”

“Follow-up, but I don’t think they found out anything they didn’t already know. Enjoy the Martinez.” With that, she faded away. She and Feizal both seemed to have a way of disappearing when you blink.

Josh saw him and came down to the end to shake hands and say hi, ask how he liked the Martinez. Coldwater had only just then taken his first sip of it, and it was the sort of drink you have to describe with a ten-cent word—grandiloquent came to mind—and Coldwater told him so. Josh had made it by the book, that book being The Bartender’s Guide by Jerry Thomas, the 1887 edition, where the venerable drink’s recipe was first printed. The Old Tom gin had a strong cinnamon and clove kick, tamped down and gently sweetened by the vermouths. Two careful dashes of maraschino liqueur gave it a velvety texture, and the Boker’s bitters, even with just a dash of the stuff, brought all the flavors together harmoniously while bringing an unmistakable note of historical authenticity. It was a masterpiece. He’d almost forgotten what he came there for when Feizal came sidling up and landed on the barstool to his right.

“Coldwater,” he said in with mock authority. “How are things?”

“Fine. I meant to call you back, but I ran into an immovable object.”

“That bruise on your face looks pretty nasty.”

“Josh gave me some medicine for it.” He held up the cocktail glass, dipped in the air in a cheers pantomime, and took another luxurious sip. “What’s on your mind?”

“Well you showed up just in time actually. I have some personal business to take care of, and I need someone to watch the shop for a couple of hours.”

“I’d think Josh and Rachael are capable of running the place for a couple of hours without you here. What gives?”

“You’re right. But they’re working, and they might get distracted. I need someone to keep a very close watch, if you know what I mean. What do you get usually?”

“Two hundred a day plus expenses, and I don’t know what you mean exactly.” Coldwater looked him over. There was no sign that this was a joke. It didn’t make sense.

“That’s right. I haven’t explained it to you yet. Come with me.” Feizal walked him to the back and unlocked the door of a storage room where they kept their extra bottles. There was also a small wooden desk and a couple of chairs. The bottles were arranged almost haphazardly, some still in boxes piled on other boxes. Others were out on shelves. “Somebody is stealing from me,” Feizal said. “I don’t think it’s any of the employees, but it always seems to happen when we’re pretty busy. What I suppose happens is somebody comes to get something and forgets to lock the door. Next thing I know, I’m missing inventory, always whiskey. Sometimes bourbon, sometimes rye, sometimes Irish or Scotch.”

“Well, this is easy,” Coldwater said. “Tell your staff not to leave the door unlocked.”

“There’s only so much I can control. Look, it’s just for a couple of hours. We’ll get busy around ten. If I give you $40 and make sure Rachael comes back here frequently with liquid refreshment for you, will you do it?”

“I suppose so, but I should tell you, I have a tentative appointment to talk with that Detective Gatlinburg tonight. I told him I’d be here.”

“Perfect. Two birds, one stone. I’ll have Rachael show him back here when he arrives.”

They shook hands, and Feizal did his disappearing act again. The room smelled of sawdust. Pine, specifically—what the shelves were made out of. With nothing much else to do, he took a legal pad he found sitting out on the desk and started making notes about the case, trying to make sense out of it all. Ashley Rose’s relationship with the Professor and her desire to prove her innocence even when she wasn’t under direct suspicion; the mysterious widow that Ashley Rose had forgotten to tell him about; the strangely ubiquitous references to a sunken city called Lyonesse; this bizarre and seemingly pointless security gig he was doing for Feizal. No matter which way he ran the numbers, something didn’t quite add up.


Read Part 8.

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 1

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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.


Read Part 2