A Kentucky Derby Noir by Josh Boldt
The morning rain flooded the storm drains on Vine Street. With each passing car, water from the gutter whooshed up on the sidewalk and then slid back to be displaced again. From his seventh floor office, Cal listened to the city under him.
His desk faced the door, and the window behind him was gray. He felt the heavy rain clouds, sensed the sogginess of the city. The wall clock ticked.
A knock at his office door.
“Just a second.”
He sat up. Rubbed his eyes. Smoothed his hair.
“Yes, come in.”
He could see the outline of his visitor through the frosted glass. Female. Shoulders slender and bare.
The window behind him was dark now and the street below was quiet. The hall light framed the shape of his guest and cast a yellow slice across the floor of the office to his desk.
The knob turned and the door swung slowly open, spilling light into the room. He squinted his eyes and blinked, adjusting to the change.
Before him stood the silhouette of a woman. The shadows obscured her features. Her hair was long and straight, cascading across her shoulders. Red, he thought to himself. His eye twitched slightly.
Her right hand rested on the knob she had just turned. The nails were polished and manicured. She was the first to speak.
“Hiding from someone?” she asked. Her voice was low and soft, but confident. She seemed to be joking, but he couldn’t be sure from the tone.
“Aren’t you?” he responded and reached over the desk to turn on a lamp.
He twisted the switch and the light snapped on. With the area around his desk illuminated, he could see her features for the first time. She was a beautiful woman. There was no other way to put it, and not a soul in this city would disagree.
She carried herself like a woman who never worried about money. She was confident, but graceful. She seemed friendly, though she could have gotten away with the opposite.
Cal could see that something was wrong. Her eyes were tired, frantic. She hid it well, but the anxiety was there when he looked carefully.
He nodded at the wooden chair in front of his desk. She sat slowly, gripping the edge of her dress and pulling it taut as she lowered herself onto the waiting seat. Knees together, she leaned slightly forward and stared at him across the desk.
“Is there something I can do for you?” he asked.
She looked over his shoulder, through the window and into the darkness of the city, but said nothing.
Seconds passed. He turned to look in the direction she stared. He knew exactly what he would see. The office building across the street with rooms intermittently lit. Men at desks, pecking at keyboards, opening drawers, scribbling notes, avoiding the inevitable, postponing whatever comes next.
He knew also the gym on the fifth floor. He could see the lap lanes from his office window. Back and forth they swam, splashing toward the wall only to flip, turn, and splash back again. Sometimes he watched the swimmers in the evening. The pool filled up around seven and he found it soothing to watch them exercise, to mindlessly observe as the swimmers cut strokes through the blue-tinted water.
He knew this scene was playing behind him, but he turned to look anyway. More out of an attempt to connect with her than to actually see anything. They sat quietly and watched the swimmers across the dark corridor between the two buildings.
“Do you know who I am?” she finally asked.
He turned his head back toward her with his body still facing the black window. He studied her face. It was familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it.
“My husband—” she started. “My ex-hus—I mean my late husband,” she finally managed to stammer. “He’s well-known. Or, he was well-known,” she breathed and then seemed to wilt into the darkness before his eyes.
She receded back into the chair and fumbled in her purse. She withdrew a silver cigarette case and flipped it open with a click. Raising the cigarette to her mouth, she placed it between two red lips and torched the protruding end. Inhale. Exhale. The light from the desk lamp clouded and then slowly the smoke dissipated into the darkness around it.
Her back straightened again and she crossed one leg over the other. The hem of her dress withdrew slightly above her knee. One high-heel poked out from the side of the desk. He could see the shoe was a shiny black with a red sole.
Returning his gaze to her face, he focused on the glowing cherry of the cigarette. She raised it again to her lips and its fiery tip flamed bright in response to her fresh draw of oxygen.
“Who is—was—your husband?” he asked.
“I hope you don’t mind if I smoke,” she exhaled and squinted her green eyes to avoid the smoke that wafted from the burning cigarette.
“What do you know about the Kentucky Derby?” she asked pointedly, almost accusingly.
He had lived in Kentucky long enough to know what the Derby meant to the state. Both Louisville and Lexington shut down on Derby Day, and the people of these cities are devoted to the sport of horse racing. You don’t desecrate the hallowed event to a Kentuckian, no matter what your personal opinion is on the annual holiday.
“I’ve been known to visit the track for a Mint Julep or two,” he responded.
Her eyes narrowed and he thought she smiled slightly.
“Then you’ve probably heard of my husband. Sterling Leighton Halcott.” She drew again from the cigarette and recrossed her legs.
He turned fully around to face her now with his eyes opened wide. He rarely ever betrayed surprise to a potential client, but this time he couldn’t suppress his incredulity.
“Wait a minute. You’re telling me that you’re Harper Halcott?”
“Of the famous Halcott family, who owns practically every thoroughbred that matters in this state?”
“Your husband? He’s, he’s rich.”
“Was,” she replied, and lowered her eyes to the desktop.
She paused for a second before spotting a thick glass ashtray. It was a heavy amber piece from the nineteen-fifties and it was the only souvenir he had taken from his late grandfather when they cleaned out the house to sell it.
She reached for the ashtray and, as she stubbed out the cigarette, a strand of red hair slid off her shoulder and dropped like a pendulum between them, resting on the front edge of the desk.
She quickly leaned back in her seat and waited for his response.
Of course he had heard the news. It was all over the wire. Millionaire playboy and horse racing darling Sterling Leighton Halcott had died suddenly last week in what the media was reporting to be a suicide.
The police had called it an open and shut case. Suicide note and a bullet in the head. Case closed.
According to reports, Halcott had intimated in the suicide note that he believed his life had peaked and he could see nowhere to go but down. He was exhausted with his jet-setting lifestyle and worried that public interest in the horse racing industry was waning. His empire was on the verge of collapse and he couldn’t bear to watch it happen. So he had chosen to quit while he was on top.
A press leak from the autopsy report indicated that Halcott’s blood contained high levels of alcohol and cocaine, and the authorities believed he had simply acted impulsively early one morning after coming down from one of his notorious binges.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “He seemed to have everything.”
“He did. And that was his biggest problem,” she responded and then she was quiet again.
“How are you dealing with this tragedy?” he asked after a few seconds of silence. Frankly, he didn’t much care, but he knew it was a question people ask.
Without waiting for her to respond, he stood and walked over to the cabinet against the wall. He swung open the door and produced two glasses and a half-empty bottle of Wild Turkey. He lifted the bottle and raised his eyebrows inquisitively. She nodded. He popped the cork and poured a shot of the brown liquid into both glasses.
Taking a drink in each hand, he turned toward her. He handed her one of the lowballs and leaned against the front edge of his desk, still palming his own glass of bourbon.
She took the drink and raised it to her lips. Her eyes closed as she swallowed the liquor. When she opened her eyes, they shone brighter and appeared to be slightly damp. He couldn’t tell if this effect was produced by tears or the burn of the alcohol.
She reached forward and set the empty glass on the lip of the desk. He noticed her faint perfume for the first time as she reached past him. It was familiar, nostalgic somehow. Had he experienced the scent in his youth? Couldn’t be.
She tilted her head toward him and her eyes were again clear. Ignoring his question, she instead asked one of her own to no one in particular.
“Why would he do this now? One month away from the Derby? It just doesn’t make any sense. He loved the Derby. It was his favorite time of year.”
Cal could tell she didn’t believe the police reports. And, frankly, he didn’t either. Something wasn’t matching up. Something appeared to be off with the whole story. He had been keeping an eye on it himself for the past week, scouring the press reports for clues, for some indication of foul play. So far he had come up with nothing but questions.
Of course, he had no idea that one week after Halcott’s death, the widow would be seated in his office sharing those same suspicions
“I’m glad you’re here, but I have to ask. Why? Why did you knock on my door tonight?”