Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Party Central . . .

by Kit Ehrman

Yep. “Party Central.” That’s the best way to describe downtown Louisville as the first Saturday in May approaches.

There are over seventy Kentucky Derby Festival events, beginning with the spectacular Thunder Over Louisville (North America’s largest, annual pyrotechnic show). Other events include the Pegasus Parade and some wacky events like the Run for the Rose’ in which servers from area restaurants race around an obstacle course balancing glasses of wine. And these events, along with the actual horse racing, draw over 1.5 million visitors to Louisville.

In TRIPLE CROSS, I was putting Steve in the middle of all this, so I had to check out the party scene myself, for accuracy’s sake, of course. One of my favorite Derby Festival events is the air show and Thunder, the official start of the whirlwind Derby party.

Fairly early in the book, Steve is invited to a Thunder Party by Rudi Sturgill, a wealthy young man who has a runner in the Derby. After the fireworks wind down, Rudi decides to move the party to 4th Street Live! Louisville’s entertainment district. They settle on Sully’s Saloon, and this is where Steve gets his first hint that events have gone horribly sideways.

4th Street Live's pumpkin-colored, steel lattice supports a glass roof that covers an entire city block.

Colorful lighting and an elevator's exposed gears are some of 4th Street's unique touches.

Only in Louisville: Portable commercials in Sully's Saloon! If you can't tell from the photo, that's a laptop screen suspended above the guy's head. He wore a powerpack around his waist.

Later, in TRIPLE CROSS, Steve takes a friend to Maker’s Mark Bourbon House and Lounge. I just loved this restaurant. Very trendy.

Maker's Mark Bourbon House and Lounge's fabulous 58' bar.

Red-tiled pillars, sheer curtain walls, honey-colored floor.

During my research forays, I was frequently struck by the dissonance between the late night party scene and the early morning work taking place in the barns at Churchill Downs. The men and women who care for and worry over the horses’ health and wellbeing, well, their lifestyle and routine and focus is so far removed from the partying and the money funneling into the town, I couldn’t not think about them.

In any case, I enjoyed my time in Louisville. The party atmosphere was overwhelming and seemed to permeate every aspect of my visit, and I loved discovering the fancy restaurants and party spots, but one of the side benefits of writing is learning about unusual, unexpected places. Once of those places is Wagner’s Pharmacy.

The grill at Wagner's Pharmacy.

I first heard about Wagner’s from an adorable, elderly woman whose husband had been a racehorse trainer. I met her at a book launch for DERBY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, a collection of short mystery fiction revolving around the Kentucky Derby. At the time, I had no idea that I’d ever write a Derby book, but she was so enthused, I couldn’t help but remember her recommendation. And, I’d been curious. What could a pharmacy have to do with horse racing? She’d told me that backstretch workers and racehorse owners hung out there. I had to admit, I was intrigued.

Then I visited Wagner’s. The place is amazing.

Every inch of wall space is covered with racing memorabilia.

Directly across from where I sat at the counter hung a photograph of Secritariat, and I have no doubt that it was carried across the street some thirty years earlier.

If you're ever in Louisville, and if you love horses, don't miss Wagner's. It's located on 4th Street, right across from Churchill's Gate 5. And the food's great, too.

Of course, Wagner's is mentioned throughout TRIPLE CROSS because any backside worker with a pulse would have eaten there. So, here's an excerpt featuring a scene set in this amazing landmark. Steve's trying to avoid the police when he slips inside.

Wagner’s Pharmacy was a misnomer, really, because it was part café, part sundries, part liquor store, and one-hundred percent unique. The glass door eased shut behind me, efficiently dampening the street noise while jumbled voices and the sounds and aromas of sizzling food flooded my senses. I’d been inside once before, and I swear, the place was straight out of a forties movie. I looked for an empty seat. Booths lined the wall on my left. Tables and chairs filled the center of the room. A Formica counter stretched down the right-hand wall where customers sat on barstools upholstered with pumpkin-colored vinyl and watched the cook fry up their eggs. I stepped down the sloped floor and slid onto an empty stool at the end of the counter, planted my boots on the runner.

Wooden plaques hung above the grill and featured seriously dated paintings of eggs and bacon, coffee and toast. The damn things had to have been tacked up there before my mother was born.

First impressions are often flawed by preconceived, erroneous notions, and my initial look inside Wagner’s had taken me by surprise. The establishment that so many people talked about and patronized, backsiders and the wealthy alike, was a dump. But it had an irresistible charm, mainly because it could not have existed anywhere else in the world. Everywhere you looked, on every square inch of wall space, hung period photographs of horses and jockeys and the men and women who owned and trained them. Directly across from where I sat hung an eight-by-ten glossy of Secretariat after he won the Kentucky Derby in unbelievable fashion on May 5th, 1973, and I had no doubt it was an original that had been carried across the street and had decorated that space for thirty years.

Pure and simple, Wagner’s was a walk backward through time. And the food was damn good, too.

I ordered bacon and eggs and biscuits and gravy and was halfway through my meal when my cell rang. I wiped my fingers on a napkin and flipped the phone open. “Cline.”

“Coast is clear.”

I smiled. “Who’d they talk to?”

“Mr. K,” Jay said, referring to Kessler. “Bill Gannon and his employees, couple Hispanic stable hands, me, the guy Kessler was talking to.”

“Know who he is?”

“From what I heard, guy’s an owner. Maybe a potential client.”

“Did the cops interview with the press around?”

“Used an office. Even so, the reporters were buzzin’ round like flies on shit.”

“Apt description, there, Jay.”

He grunted. “Get your ass back here, and bring me something to eat.”

I closed my phone and was scraping the last bit of egg and biscuits and gravy into the center of my plate when someone stepped alongside my shoulder and placed a hand on the countertop. A small, feminine hand. I turned my head.

Detective Bonikowski stood at my side in her fashionable suit--this morning’s choice, a charcoal gray herringbone--paired with a pink silk blouse with the buttons left undone at her throat.


“Mr. Cline.” She swept the room with a practiced glance before her gaze returned to my face. “What are you doing here?”

“Taking a break.” I gestured toward my plate. “Eating.”

“You take breaks in the middle of walking a horse?”

I smiled. “Not usually.”

“Did you think we were coming to hook you up?”

“It crossed my mind.”

“And now?”

I glanced at her and sighed. “No. Your shoulders are relaxed. Your hands are nowhere near your weapon or cuffs, you’re unbalanced with most of your weight on your left foot . . . and you’re alone.”

Her mouth twitched. “I wouldn’t need backup to handle you.”

I swiveled around on my stool and squinted at her, wondering if the implied meaning was simply a case of wishful thinking on my part. “How’d you find me?”

“Driving past. Looked in the window . . . you know? Advanced police work.”

I grinned.



Laura Crum said...

Fun post! I loved the title juxtaposed with the first photo--it really got my attention. Some of your research sounds like lots of fun. Cheers--Laura

Kit Ehrman said...

Thank you, Laura! Researching TC was great fun. Though I'm not in Louisville right now, I know that party atmosphere is running full tilt as the Derby is almost upon us. It's odd when you realize that this massive partying gradually evolved over time because of the behind-the-scenes hard work of some horsemen.
Happy riding and reading!