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Authors: Peter Lewis

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BOOK: Dead in the Dregs
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“No, I should get back,” she said quickly. “My father . . .”
“You’re right. Me too. The path’s growing cold.” But I knew that the only path that was cold was the one I was trying to beat back to my ex-wife.
“How is Bob?” I asked as we descended to the sidewalk, strangers again. “Danny said he’s weird.”
“You just never know. One minute he’s fine, and the next he’s lost.”
“That’s just what Danny said.” We both looked down at our son, who stood on the sidewalk kicking pebbles into the gutter. “Speaking of which, I’m really sorry that I need to give him up early, but this could get a little tricky. I don’t think it’s really appropriate . . .”
“I don’t think what you’ve already exposed him to was particularly appropriate,” she interrupted.
“Look, you asked me to do this,” I said.
Janie looked at me with the expression of endless disappointment that I seemed to elicit from her with everything I did. I turned, walked down to our son, and gave him a hug.
“Thanks for your help, pal,” I said. “I’ll let you know how it goes.”
“Be careful, Dad,” he said, and I stroked his cheek.
“I promise. You too. And take good care of your mom.”
Janie was still watching me as I plucked the parking ticket from my windshield wiper.
“Don’t worry. That’ll cover it,” she called.
I opened the envelope. It was a check for two grand. I blew her a kiss.
8
By the time
I reached the valley, it was dusk. Bats flitted through a grove of eucalyptus. The moon would be full in little over a week. In Provence and the Languedoc, the
biodynamique
French wackos—the organically minded winemakers who spoke fluently to insects in bug language and timed their every move to the phase of the moon and the ebb and flow of tides—would be picking once it hit full. They’d have to wait another month in the cooler climes of the Loire and Burgundy if they wanted to remain faithful to the credo. They don’t call them lunatics for nothing.
Before I headed up the mountain, I thought I’d stop by St. Helena and see if Brenneke was still around. He and the corporal I’d seen at Norton were going over their notes. He was none too happy to see me, but I thought I might be able to change his opinion by providing a little information.
“Wilson kept an apartment in the city. His sister met me there this afternoon. I didn’t see much, but you should listen to his answering machine. Carla left a message. Confirms what I said about their having an affair.”
“You already gave us that,” Brenneke said.
“I spoke with Michael Matson, a winemaker Wilson trashed in print, but I don’t think he had anything to do with it.”
“Brilliant detective work,” he said. “What the hell are you doing,
Stern? Tampering with evidence? Screwing with witnesses? You’re walking a fine line, my friend.”
“You told me to find out what I could,” I said.
“I told you to stand behind your bar and pay attention. We’ve got work to do,” he said, eager to get rid of me.
Two plastic evidence bags of marijuana lay open on the table. He followed my eyes.
“I can see that,” I said. “You could do one more thing for me,” I added.
“And what would that be?”
“Is Fornes still here?”
“Yeah. We’re going to have to transfer him to Napa in the morning. Ciofreddi and the task force want to sit him down in the Blue Room.”
“Mind if I speak with him for a minute or two?”
“Absolutely not. Out of the question.”
“Jesus, Russ, just for a minute. Listen in, if you want.”
He walked into the hallway to make sure the chief hadn’t snuck into his office unannounced, and checked the reception area.
“Okay, but two minutes. That’s it. And I’m right outside the door.”
He escorted me back to the tiny hallway of cells at the rear of the station. He glanced through the peephole and nodded for me to take a look. Fornes lay face up on a bare plastic mattress, his arms folded, eyes wide. Staring into the void of a doomed future. Brenneke unlocked the door.
“Mr. Fornes, you have a visitor. Two minutes. I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he whispered in my ear as he shut the door behind me.
Francisco Fornes swiveled on the steel bed frame and perched on its edge. There was no place to sit, so I took the toilet. I glanced around the cell. The cinder-block walls were the color of a healthy tongue.
“You my lawyer?” he asked.
“’Fraid not. I’m investigating on behalf of Richard Wilson’s sister.”
Maybe it was his baby face, maybe it was the dark brown pools of his eyes, or maybe it was the simple humility with which he looked at me, but if Francisco Fornes was guilty of murder, my name was Bob Mondavi. I knew tomorrow I’d be ashamed to show my face at
the bar, to stand opposite his countrymen and serve them beer. I had to break the tension. His impotence was killing me.
“Did you know Wilson?”
“Know him? No. I would see him when he came to the winery.”
His accent was perceptible, but his English was flawless.
“What did you think of him?”
“I am not paid to think of him, and I paid him no thought.”
His smile let me know that he knew perfectly well he’d turned a clever phrase.
“What was he like?”
“Arrogant. He considered himself infallible, like the pope. Except that he treated the
campesinos
like shit. Maybe worse than shit; we didn’t exist.” He paused and looked up at the filthy grate that covered the fluorescent light fixture. When he returned his gaze to me, his enormous eyes were lit up like a little boy’s. “But kill him?” The question defied comprehension. On its face, it was ludicrous. “For what?” he continued. “I have work to do. My job is to bring in a crop. To keep it as fresh as I can. Keep the grapes from crushing each other until we can crush them. His corpse in a tank? Are you kidding? Why spoil the wine? With a fat pig like Wilson? What do you take me for?”
An extremely intelligent professional
, I told myself. Why hadn’t the cops copped to the exquisite logic of this argument? Too eager for a collar, perhaps. They certainly hadn’t exhausted their options.
“Maybe they think you resented his power?”
“I can’t afford myself that luxury,” he volunteered. “I follow the work. And I have been at Norton ten years. Let the gringos look after themselves. Anyway, why would I risk my green card? Have you ever vacationed in Sonora?”
He shot his eyebrows toward the light, a quizzical look that was more answer than question. And then broke into a grin.
“How late were you at the winery the night before last?” I asked.
“I left earlier than usual.”
“Meaning?”
“Maybe six o’clock. Something like that,” Fornes said.
That meant he’d left not long after I had.
“Was Wilson alone?”
“I don’t know. I was in the winery. He was in the tasting room. He didn’t mix with ‘the help.’” Fornes smiled.
“Anyone else around?”
“The crew was cleaning up,” he said.
“The crew?”
“Javier. Pablo. And Jean.” He pronounced the name properly.
“Jean?”
“A French kid. He’s here to learn how we Mexicans make wine,” Fornes said.
The guy cracked me up.
“I thought Jean left to be with his sister. He stuck his nose into the tasting room and told Colin he was leaving,” I said.
He thought a moment, then said, “Maybe. I don’t remember.”
“What about Norton?” I asked.
“Yes, he was there, too.
Tout le monde
,” he joked. “Nothing unusual. But like I said, I left.” He paused. “So, what do you think?”
“I don’t know. I’m going to do what I can,” I said, unable to convince even myself.

Gracias
,” he said as I rose from the toilet. I turned and saw Brenneke’s eye through the peephole. I nodded and he unlocked the door.
“Stay strong,” I said at the threshold of the cell. “
Mucha suerte
.”
“Fat chance,” Francisco Fornes said.
Brenneke relocked the cell. We stood facing each other in the narrow hallway.
“No fuckin’ way,” I told him.
“Get the hell outta here,” he said and pushed me down the hall, past the booking station to the rear exit. I glanced at the wall. All the questions for incoming prisoners were printed in Spanish and English on a crib sheet for monolingual cops.
“You’re goin’ out the back. Anybody sees you, I’m screwed,” Brenneke said.
In the parking lot, four squad cars stood in silent formation, awaiting the next dispatch. I stood under a bespangled sky. Brenneke stood in the doorway.
“Maybe you should drop this,” he said, already regretting his call for a little help on the side. “We can handle it.”
“Sure you can,” I said and turned toward Main Street.
Just as I predicted, three television vans were already in town, setting up by Lyman Park, preparing for the morning feed.
 
I decided to
stop by the bar on the way home. I needed a drink. It had been a long day. As I walked in, I could make out Biddy’s silhouette against the backlight of the jukebox. I walked up to the bar. Mulligan pulled an Anchor Steam from the reefer, popped it, and left it in the bottle. He took one look at me, then grabbed a tumbler and poured me a double shot of Oban.
“How’d you know?” I said, and he smiled.
“You okay?” he said.
“I’m not sure yet. It’s pretty rough.”
He stood with his hands spread on the bar, his eyes taking in the room. A group of vineyard workers had just gotten off work and had gathered around the pool table. They were laughing and carrying on. Two pitchers of beer stood on a small round, one already three-quarters gone.
Without shifting his eyes, Mulligan said, “Gio called. She’s looking for you.”
“I ticked her off last night. She didn’t know Wilson was my brother-in-law. You can imagine how that went over.”
Jake Watson, a winemaker we knew, walked in, came up to the bar, and ordered a gin and tonic.
“Hey, Babe, Frank,” he said, nodding.
“Hey, Jake. How’s it goin’?” I said.
“It’s a beautiful thing, man.
Vendange
bliss, baby.”
Mulligan set his drink on the bar, and Jake walked to a booth and fell onto the bench, putting his feet up.
“The man at the end of the bar has been waiting for you,” Mulligan said.
I glanced down the bar. I didn’t recognize him.
“He say who he was?”
Mulligan shook his head. I took the scotch and the bottle of Anchor Steam, walked down the line of stools, and sat down on the one next to him.
“Babe Stern,” I said.
“Daniel Hauberg,” he said, extending his hand.
“My son’s name is Daniel,” I said, shaking it.
The pink-and-green neon ironed out the wrinkles in his face, but I put him close to seventy years old. The great gray bushes of his eyebrows cast his eyes in deep shadow. The light off the Pyramid sign caught them for a moment, and when it suddenly flickered, he looked as if he’d blinked without closing them.
“Michael Matson was at my château last night,” he said, his French accent tempered by a patrician and unmistakably British overlay. Realizing that his statement might not be enough, he added, “He was there all day and spent the night. He slept on a cot in the
cuverie
and never left.”
I sipped my scotch, then said, “I was at an apartment Wilson kept in San Francisco this afternoon. On his calendar an appointment he had with you was crossed out.”
“You know, I sold my property in Bordeaux before Wilson gained his influence. And I’m grateful that I did. My wine would not have fared well, I’m afraid. But here, I wanted him to come. I could have used a little help,” Hauberg said, smiling sardonically. “But Michael doesn’t want to ever see him again. And I must take the side of my winemaker. I’m sure you understand. So I canceled the tasting. Anyway, I make wine to please myself.”
“Do you think Wilson maybe wanted to patch things up with Matson, maybe felt guilty about the way he’d treated him?”
Hauberg pondered this and took a sip of wine. “This is quite nice,” he said, indicating his glass. “No, I don’t believe that Richard Wilson ever experienced any qualms of guilt over his judgments. He considered himself completely objective and never apologized for anything he wrote. An occasional retraction or clarification, perhaps, but never an apology.” He stood, lifted his glass, and emptied it. “Well, that is what I came to tell you.”
“Thank you,” I said. “
Bonne chance.
” Now I’d wished two people luck.
“I think, maybe, you need it more than me,” Daniel Hauberg said.
9
After Hauberg walked
out, I grabbed my drinks and joined Biddy in his booth. There was a bottle of wine on the table and two glasses. Teukes poured me some.
“Incoming,” he said, our code word for a fruit bomb, a block-buster bottle of Zin or Syrah that threatened to break 17 percent alcohol and rip your jaw off. Teukes knew I hated these wines and took perverse pleasure in laying a bottle on me whenever he could.
“I’m fine,” I said, taking a slug of beer.
“Stags’ Leap Petite Syrah,” he said to tempt me, pouring himself another glass. “Just gets younger every day.”
“If only it were true,” I said.
“Well?” he said, peering intently at me through steely blue eyes. He waited, hoping for an expansive tale, but when I didn’t fall for the bait, he went on, “This is wild, man. Wilson up in smoke.” He chortled fiendishly and took an enormous gulp of wine.
“He wasn’t distilled, asshole. He was plopped in a cask of Cabernet.” I paused. “You make any calls?” I asked.
“No time.”
“You bring the stuff I asked you for?”
He hoisted a saddlebag from the bench and set it on the table.
BOOK: Dead in the Dregs
7.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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