The Body on the Barstool (A Top Shelf Mystery)
By Lolli Powell
New Yorker Erica “Ricki” Fontaine’s n’er-do-well uncle has dropped dead and left her a dive bar in a small Ohio River town. With a lousy apartment, less-than-promising job prospects, and even worse romantic ones, the inheritance comes at just the right time. Ricki packs up her cat and heads for the Buckeye State.
Now she’s trying to change the Top Shelf from a bar known for its Friday night fights into the kind of drinking establishment where you can bring your granny. But finding her ex-husband dead on a barstool at opening time one morning just might put a kink in those plans.
You know that saying “if only walls could talk?” The walls of Ricki’s Top Shelf—Ricki, that’s me, by the way—were talking up a storm. You should have stayed in New York, the walls said, followed by, You think business was bad before? Wait’ll the customers hear about the dead guy on the barstool, and finally, You are one cold-hearted witch worrying about business when a man has just died. I don’t think the walls actually said “witch,” but close enough.
The walls were right on all counts. I should have stayed in New York, this wasn’t going to help business one iota, and, yes, I can be a cold-hearted…well, you know. Or at least that’s what Michael said once or twice when we were fighting. But Michael is the kind of guy who gets teary-eyed reading a Hallmark card, so I’m not sure I put too much stock in his analysis of my emotional warmth or lack thereof, especially when he’s angry.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering why I’m rambling on about my ex instead of screaming my head off at the sight of a dead guy sprawled on a stool in my bar. I don’t have a clue—either for why the dead guy is here or why I’m not freaking out. When I first saw him, I jumped and yelped, but that was a startle reflex more than fear. Once I saw he was dead, all these other thoughts crowded in. I’ve always been good at changing the subject.
Of course, this is my first dead body. Maybe the next one will scare the pants off me.
You also might be wondering how I know he’s dead and not just passed out. For one thing, he smells like he’s soiled his pants and that’s what dead people do. Of course, passed-out drunks do it, too, and it wouldn’t be the first time one had done it in my bar. Not so much lately, but when I first inherited the Top Shelf from Uncle Lymon, it happened from time to time. His clientele wasn’t the best in town.
Another dead giveaway—sorry, I couldn’t resist—that the guy on the barstool is deceased is his left hand. It’s hanging down next to his side and it’s deep purple. I watch enough CSI reruns to know that’s caused by blood pooling to the lower points after the heart stops beating. Since I don’t recall ever seeing a customer in the Top Shelf with purple hands, I figure the purple means this guy’s heart has stopped.
But the main thing that makes me pretty sure this guy has breathed his last is the knife sticking out of his right side and the pool of blood on the floor under the barstool. Am I a sharp cookie or what? Nothing gets past me.
Except what to do now. Oh, yeah, call 9-1-1. That’s what people do in situations like this, right?
I’m still standing just inside the Top Shelf’s front door. The beer clock hanging above the center of the back bar shows it’s a few minutes before ten in the morning. I’d locked the place at two-thirty, did a little spot cleaning, and was upstairs in bed by three-thirty. I usually try to get all the cleaning done before I head to my apartment, but I was whipped last night and decided to come in a little early to finish up. I open the Top Shelf at eleven six days a week to try to capture some of the town’s lunch trade, but I had a feeling I wouldn’t be serving any spicy and succulent burgers or fresh greens topped with grilled chicken today.
I pulled out my cell phone and pressed the speed dial key I’d assigned to 9-1-1. Speed dial for emergency assistance is a good idea for anybody working a bar, but a necessity for anyone trying to turn a bar known for its Friday and Saturday night fights into a respectable establishment where you can bring your granny. I’d been starting to make inroads on that goal, but the body on the barstool was going to set me back a bit.
Like I said, I’m a CSI fan so I knew not to disturb the crime scene. But I’m nosy, too. I couldn’t see the man’s face from where I stood. The bar is shaped like a backwards L, open at one end with a hinged piece of counter so the bartender can get in and out. The other end—the bottom of the L—ended at the wall next to the entrance to the hall that led to the restrooms, my office, and the back door. The last stool by the wall was the dead man’s stool.
He was dressed in khakis, a light blue button-down shirt and brown loafers that looked expensive. Since most of my clientele from the evening before had favored jeans, T-shirts, and dirty sneakers, I figured I would have remembered this guy if he’d been in. His left side was propped against the wall and his head was on the bar, his arms hanging down to his sides. His head was turned away from the wall, but his face was mostly resting on the bar surface. I moved a little closer and tried to get a look at his features. If he was a regular customer, I was pretty sure I’d recognize him.
“9-1-1, what is your emergency?” A robotic female voice sounded in my ear.
“Uh—this is Ricki Fontaine—uh, Erica Fontaine. I own the Top Shelf.” Get to the point, Ricki. Dispatchers are busy people. “I just opened the bar and there’s a dead man here.”
“What is the address?”
Oh, come on, I thought. Every cop in a three-county area knows where the Top Shelf is. They’ve been called here often enough. Maybe I really was talking to a robot.
“236 Harrison Avenue,” I said. “Just tell the cops responding it’s the Top Shelf. They all know where it is.”
I took another step closer to the bar. There was something familiar about the guy. Had I served him last night? And if so, why was he still here? Once, right after I’d inherited the place, I’d found a couple showing their love for one another in the ladies’ john after I’d locked up, so I was careful to make sure the place was empty at closing time. I’d checked the place thoroughly last night, and no one had been here. I was sure of it. Yet here he was in all his stinky, purple glory.
“How do you know the man is dead, ma’m?”
“Uh—there’s a knife sticking out of his side, blood, and he’s pooped himself. I think he’s dead.”
“Stay on the line,” the robot ordered. She sounded a little irritated with my tone. I’ve been told I can get under anyone’s skin with my smart mouth. Apparently I can be just as irritating to a machine.
While I waited for her to dispatch units, I moved a little closer. As I took another step, a cloud moved away from the sun and a beam of light shot through the porthole window to the left of the door. It struck the face of the man on the barstool like a spotlight shining on an actor on a stage, and I felt my world spin. I grabbed hold of the nearest table for balance and dropped into a chair before I fell.
“Officers are on the way,” the robot said. “Do you know the identity of the victim, ma’m?”
“Yes,” I said, my voice no more than a cracked whisper. “Michael West. My ex-husband.”
Thank you Lolli Powell for providing this excerpt for her novel Body on the Barstool! It sounds amazing and I can’t wait to read it!
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