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Authors: Peter Lewis

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BOOK: Dead in the Dregs
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“And call me if you stumble on something you think I should know.”
“I promise. Really.”
He nodded and escorted me out.
“Brenneke tells me you used to be a pretty famous wine guy,” Ciofreddi said as we entered the main room. Two uniformed cops and another detective were talking and threw me supercilious looks as we passed. In one of their cubicles I saw signed photographs of Jerry Orbach, Dennis Franz, and William Petersen.
We’re all play-acting
, I thought to myself.
“Yeah, very famous. Once upon a time,” I said to the lieutenant and waved good-bye to Joan.
As I opened the door to leave, I heard Ciofreddi say, “He’s harmless. He has no idea what he’s doing. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Unable to quibble with that assessment, I decided to wander down to the water for a peek before driving home. The slime-green current of the Napa River moved sluggishly, an objective correlative to the way I felt. Just as I was about to turn away, an osprey fluttered momentarily, then dove precipitously and plucked a glinting, silver-spangled fish from the murky surface of the river.
11
I decided to call
Janie from the parking lot. Her secretary told me she was hoping she’d hear from me.
“How are you?” she said, slightly breathless.
“I’m all right.”
“Where are you?”
“The Napa sheriff’s department.”
“My God, Babe,” she said. “Danny said they questioned you in St. Helena, too. What’s going on?”
“Nothing. It’s fine. It just looked a little suspicious when I started searching for Richard.”
“Well, stop, will you? It’s over.”
Her concern for my safety touched me.
“How’s Danny?” I asked.
“He’s pretty scared. I wish you hadn’t involved him in this. I set him up in one of the labs. He’s got his own little lab coat and a microscope. You should see him. I just want to take his mind off all of this if I can.”
“That’s good. Thank you.” We were walking the thin line of caring about each other, and neither of us knew what to say. “Have you made plans for the funeral?” I asked.
“I need to wait for them to finish the autopsy. I’m not sure. Lieutenant Ciofreddi said he’d call and let me know when they’re ready
to release the body.” Janie paused. “There’s something you probably should know, something they’re not telling the public.” I waited patiently. “One of Richard’s hands was cut off,” she said.
“What do you mean, ‘cut off’?”
“Cut off. Amputated.”
So that’s what Brenneke had nearly told me and then decided not to divulge.
“Where is it?” I said.
“They haven’t found it yet. They’re looking.”
I pictured the hand adrift in the
foudre.
Would it have floated or sunk to the bottom? It was probably resting on the lees.
“Tell Danny I love him,” I finally said, the only thing I could think to say.
“Okay.” She paused. “Babe, take care of yourself, will you?”
“I’ll try,” I said. “You too.”
 
I was going
to have to confront Biddy—I had no choice—but I doubted that he’d unburden himself with a full confession. Clearly, he’d removed the issues of the
Maven
that might have implicated him so I wouldn’t see them. He probably didn’t want me spending an evening with Jordan Meyer either, dredging up old stories. That explained the look on his face when I told him I might call Meyer. I chided myself that I’d never asked him about his own résumé. He felt betrayed that I hadn’t told him about my relationship to Wilson.
Okay
, I said to myself:
We’re even.
It was a little before noon, but during crush, there’s no such thing as a lunch break. As I ran down 29 to Rutherford, I pieced together what I
did
know of my friend’s career. I had always assumed that Biddy’s having been named winemaker at Tanner had been a feather in his cap—a certain amount of prestige, certainly, but, especially, more money. It had never occurred to me that his position at Tanner, a large commercial winery, represented a step back, a demotion. Both Tucker and Clos du Carneros were small boutique operations known for their obsessive attention to detail. They were aiming for the top tier, and though they probably couldn’t hope to fly with Screaming Eagle, to hit the level of Colgin or Bryant Family, they might find themselves in the esteemed company of Staglin and Sir
Peter Michael. That is, if the wines had been any good. Biddy’s botching successive vintages at two quality wineries had forced him out of the heady precincts of the “handcrafted” and consigned him to the bottom soil of mass production.
I found him on the sprawling floor of Tanner, directing a crew of Mexican workers who were cleaning the facility after a long morning of crushing and pumping Cab into giant, temperature-controlled, stainless fermenting tanks. As I stepped into the winery, they were finishing up. They had rinsed the gondolas, hosed down the cylinders of the crusher and destemmer, and flushed the press and were heading out. Biddy was making the rounds of the tanks, checking that their temperatures were right.
I stepped over a hose snaking its way across the slab. Biddy saw me from a distance and waved me to his side.
“An early day,” he said. “Gimme just a minute,” he added, examining the controls on a tank and making notes on a clipboard. “So,
que pasa
?”
“I just had a conversation with the sheriff,” I said. “Very interesting.”
“Yeah? Have they arrested anybody yet?”
“Not yet, but they’re getting closer.” It wasn’t true, but I had a sudden urge to make him sweat. He looked up from the clipboard. “Why didn’t you ever tell me about your history with Wilson?” I said.
“Why didn’t you tell me he was your brother-in-law?” His voice had an edge to it.
“You left out a few very important issues from the saddlebag you gave me.”
“What issues would those be?” he asked with mock innocence as he scribbled up the chart, not bothering to look at me. Then he handed the clipboard to one of the crew and told him to hang it in the office. I followed him across the vast expanse of the winery floor to a door labeled HOMBRES.
He towered over the urinal and sighed deeply as he pissed. “Jesus, I needed that.”
“That he slammed you twice, nailed you at Tucker and Carneros,” I said.
“Ancient history, Babe.” His tone was genially dismissive as he rinsed his hands at the sink.
“Bear any grudges?” I said.
“Hey, man, life goes on. ‘Keep on truckin’.’”
“Thanks. That’s just what I came for. A little philosophy from Mr. Natural to allay my suspicions.”
He pushed the door open, and we emerged into the quietly humming, refrigerated universe of wine.
“You ever threaten Richard?” I asked. “Charlie Ciofreddi at the sheriff’s department says Wilson received a death threat a few years ago. Seems to think you might know something about it.”
At last he turned to face me. “I refuse to testify.”
“You’re incriminating yourself.”
“A youthful prank.”
“It’s a fucking crime,” I said, my voice echoing in the cavernous space.
He dropped his voice and knelt to retie a bootlace. “I just thought I’d shake him up a bit. He needed to understand that people’s livelihoods are at stake.”
“Ciofreddi’s gonna call you.”
“Whaddya go and tell him for?” He looked up in disgust and walked toward the hangar door.
“I didn’t tell him anything. He told me.”
“So, now what do we do?” I could feel him cutting distance, waiting for my next move, but the assumption of a
we
who were in this together presumed a complicity I couldn’t share. He rolled one of the two enormous doors shut. I followed him to the other side.
“Look, Bid, I’m not suggesting I think you did this. There are other people with motives.”
“That’s reassuring,” he said disgustedly.
He pulled the second door closed and locked up, walked to his motorcycle, hoisted it off its kickstand, and with one stroke set its engine aroar.
“What do you take me for, man? You think I’m a fucking criminal?” He glared at me from the saddle, revving the bike ferociously.
“You trying to scare me with that thing?” I asked.
“I’m beat, dude. Got one afternoon to crash. I need to be back before dawn.”
He roared off, the engine’s growl fading to a purr in the distance.
I decided to take the long route home. I wanted to soak in the air, the light. With harvest nearing completion, the vineyards looked skeletal, their leaves golden and browned. I took the Rutherford Cross past the Silverado Trail and followed Sage Canyon Road around Lake Hennessey. The wind had picked up. The willows lining its banks shook, and waves broke in tiny whitecaps across its face. The sun played on the hills as I cut through to Pope Valley. The farms were peaceful here, and its tranquility seemed a world away from the monstrous egos and petty vendettas that gripped Napa.
I got back to the trailer and lay down. My head was spinning. I wasn’t sure where I stood with Janie. We seemed to be dancing around each other, not certain whether we were in this together. I was worried about her, and about Danny, and my fears for them kept fighting with my affection for Gio. I couldn’t make up my mind whether to drop the whole thing and declare my undying love for my girlfriend, or if I should tell Gio that I still loved my wife and hoped to return to her, or at least try to. The only thing not in doubt was that I adored my son and regretted having involved him at all. That I had been shortsighted and self-serving. I seemed to be more interested in proving to him that his old man could step up to the plate and hit it out of the park. Who was I kidding? Fat chance, as Fornes had said. Try to make peace with your ghosts and see how far you get.
Teukes was another matter altogether. We had assumed there was a friendship, a shared set of interests and passions, but it ran only skin-deep. I hadn’t really told him much about myself, and he hadn’t opened up to me about the setbacks he’d suffered in his peripatetic career. More than that, the story Ciofreddi had told me suggested that Biddy had a violent streak I didn’t know was there, something bottled up just beneath the surface that threatened to erupt if you crossed him or rubbed him the wrong way. I had felt it on the floor at Tanner.
I thought about canceling the dinner with Jordan Meyer. What was the point? Wilson was dead. Both Ciofreddi and Brenneke had
warned me to back off. I was out of my depth, as Ciofreddi put it. But there was something gnawing at me that wouldn’t let me drop it.
It was time for a nap. I put on a Bill Evans CD.
At least I’d get a decent meal out of it
, I said to myself as I drifted into an uneasy sleep.
12
Jordan Meyer was
seated on the edge of the dining room at a deuce on the banquette. I’d remembered the man as tastefully put together, but the image collapsed as I neared the table. He was now huge, his shirt straining across his gut and his jacket tight on his swollen limbs.
“Babe, how nice to see you” he said with exaggerated warmth, looking me up and down, visibly disappointed. Time had worked its sorry magic on us both.
“Nice to see you again, too, Mr. Meyer.”
“Let’s pick something to drink, shall we?” he said hurriedly, hiding behind Bouchon’s oversize
carte des vins
with relief. “Any suggestions?” he queried
.
How would I know? I couldn’t see a thing. “So,” he said, settling back and rather too obviously feeling the lurid pleasure of the topic at hand. “The estimable Richard Wilson crushed and fermented. That must have been some barrel!”
“An oak
foudre
,” I said. He’d obviously already made inquiries and knew at least a few of the details of Wilson’s murder.
“Excuse me!” Meyer called out to a passing waiter. “Get us the
grand plateau de fruits de mer
! And an order of the caviar. You do like caviar, don’t you? Oh,” he looked up at the waiter he had waylaid, “and a large bottle of Vittel and a bubbly Badoit. I never know what
I’m going to want, flat or sparkling, so we’ll have them both. And find the wine steward, pronto. We want to order some wine.” As soon as the waiter was certain Meyer had finished with him, he evaporated.
My companion turned back to me.
“The curious thing about our dear and departed Mr. Wilson is that he thought of himself as the great crusader, the champion of the consumer. Yet, by setting himself up as an arbiter of fine wine, he opened the Pandora’s box of wine scores. Now people cower in fear at ordering any bottle with less than ninety points. I think it’s safe to say that Richard Wilson might be held personally responsible for inflating the market value of wine by at least four hundred percent in the past decade, don’t you?”
His look was challenging, and he expected an answer.
“Your magazine followed suit, didn’t it? You use the hundred-point system.”
“What is one to do? You have to keep up with the Joneses,” he said.
“I can’t say I follow it all that closely anymore. I used to. Back when I first met you.”
“Yes, when was that? I’m sorry I couldn’t place you immediately, but then, I meet so many people.”
“Seattle. At Diva.”
“Ah, yes, of course, of course.” It was obvious he had no recollection of it at all. He sent his eyes to the menu. “So, what do you think? I’m contemplating the
gigot.
Have the
steak frites,
and we’ll order a nice bottle of red.”
“I was thinking about the roast chicken. You know what Julia says.”
“Seems a bit pedestrian, but have it your way. And I think we should have a little intermezzo. The salmon
rillettes
, perhaps. But you’re from salmon country, so that would be silly, wouldn’t it?”
“I left Seattle a while ago. I’m living here now.”
A pert brunette approached the table, radiant in her crisp white apron and black vest.
BOOK: Dead in the Dregs
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