“Pony Express, Babe. The whole fuckin’ archive. A few issues may be missing. I’ve been haulin’ this shit around for years.”
“You ever hear of a guy named Eric Feldman? Used to work for Wilson?”
“Oh, yeah. What a story!”
He related that Feldman had started as an underpaid assistant, stuck in the New York office taking faxes, transcribing notes, and receiving phone calls. He did the grunt work while Wilson got the glory. Then Wilson decided to take him on the road, where Feldman played stripling scribe to Wilson’s high priest of
This went on for some time, two or three years. Trips to California, to France, to Italy.
The story had it—and Biddy had heard it from a reliable source—that at a prestigious château in Pauillac, Feldman had literally dropped his pen, aghast at Wilson’s disparaging commentary on a perfectly fine, if not spectacular, wine. Registering the mutinous disturbance, Wilson came out of his sacramental trance, incredulous that his understudy might be second-guessing him.
“I can’t believe we’re tasting the same wine,” Feldman protested.
The French were confused at first, then amused, and finally embarrassed as the exchange grew more heated. Eventually Wilson stormed out of the cellar and insisted that the château’s owner drive him back to his hotel. He refused even to get in a car with Feldman. It was a typically highhanded request, especially coming as it did after ripping the man’s wine apart. But how could the
refuse and risk antagonizing the critic further?
And that was that. Upon Feldman’s return to the States, he’d set up shop for himself.
“That’s it, huh?” I said.
“Oh, no, there’s more. Wilson had been screwing Feldman’s wife. And not only did she not loyally follow Hubby into exile, she went to work for Wilson. That’s why Eric moved to D.C. The humiliation was too much.”
“Maybe I should gag down my revulsion and call Jordan Meyer,” I said.
“Why would you want to call Meyer? He’s disgusting.”
“Because he loves to gossip and knows more shit about more people than anybody in the trade. If there’s dirt on Wilson, he’ll know about it.”
But Meyer was the last person in the world I ever wanted to see again.
“Do you actually know him?” Biddy asked.
“Not in the biblical sense. Not that he didn’t try.”
“I thought he had better taste,” Teukes deadpanned.
I’d met Jordan Meyer years before in Seattle. Portly, bearded, and dapper, he’d carved out a specialty writing about food and wine pairings for
Wine Watcher’s World
and by pairing himself with young sommeliers. He spent much of his time on the road, preferring the anonymity of hotel rooms for his seductions. I’d brushed up against him once and considered myself lucky to have escaped. In truth, I’d forgotten all about him. Until now.
“I doubt he’d even remember me, which is probably a good thing,” I said. “I was a lot prettier in those days.”
“Ah, those goddamn, good ole, never-come-again, fuckin’ old days!” Teukes said wistfully.
“Thanks for the archive,” I said.
Look, I’m beat. I gotta take off and get some sleep, but keep me posted. I want to know what you dig up.”
He cackled, slapped the saddlebag, took a hit off the bottle of Stags’ Leap, and ambled out of the bar. I watched him go. He was a lumbering child of a man with a mop of curly red hair that touched his shoulders. He towered over me, literally and figuratively. He’d been long gone from Berkeley by the time I got there, but I’d heard several versions of his story covering those years across the bar at Pancho’s. In one he’d been summarily expelled after a maintenance man discovered him mixing a batch of acid at six in the morning. Another had it that he’d blown up a chemistry lab while making explosives for a demonstration at People’s Park, then fled, abandoning his thesis in microbiology. Biddy did nothing to dispel the personal mythology that clung to him and, in fact, relished his own legend. He became a journeyman winemaker, kicked around Napa and Sonoma for years, knew everybody, and apparently had worked everywhere. It’d surprised me when he sought me out. Hearing that I’d arrived in the valley and taken up residence at Pancho’s, he introduced himself, claiming to know my entire CV, and, I have to confess, I felt flattered.
Other than Mulligan and Gio, he was the only person with whom I’d developed a friendship since I’d moved to California.
I sat there silently awhile, nursing my scotch and trying to process everything that had happened since Norton’s phone call that morning, but I was too exhausted to think. As I was getting ready to leave, Russ Brenneke walked in. He stopped by the bar, placed an order with Frank, and kept coming. He collapsed into the booth. He looked haggard.
“Can you believe this? Can you fucking believe this?” he said.
“Not really. How’s Norton?” I said.
“Freaked out that he’s a suspect.”
“You don’t really believe that he killed Wilson, do you? Richard made their reputation.”
“You have to eliminate anyone who could have done it, one by one. But with his Mexicans locked up, he’s trying to figure out how to salvage what’s left of his harvest.”
“Hey, it’s just one tank,” I said.
Mulligan stopped at the table and set a rum and Coke down. It was the only cocktail I’d ever seen Brenneke order.
“Thanks, Frank,” Brenneke said, then continued: “He’s ticked. Claims the wine was in great shape.”
“I don’t think whoever did this gives a rat’s ass how the wine comes out.”
“He’s convinced that no one’s gonna buy his wine this year. Thinks the whole vintage is a write-off.”
“We could buy some for the bar, sell it as house wine. We could call it Blood Red.”
Brenneke rolled his eyes. “Very funny. Anyway, he says it’s not as if someone could just sneak into the winery. There are people around all the time.”
“A winemaker friend said the same thing,” I told him. “Do you bring in the INS?”
“We’ll lose our witnesses if we blow the whistle. Anyway, that’s out of our jurisdiction. But we can hold them, make ’em sweat a little, think we’re gonna deport ’em, and see if we can jog something loose. A week or two, at most, and they’re outta here.”
“Migrant workers would never risk something like this. They’ve got perfectly good jobs.”
“What do you make of Fornes?” I asked.
“He’s been working there for years. Norton tells us the place would grind to a halt without him.” He paused. “Don’t you ever try to pull a stunt like that again,” he added, referring to my impromptu interrogation.
“You talk to Carla Fehr?”
“Yablonski, my corporal, swung by her place this afternoon. She told him he just missed you.” He took the straw out of his drink and emptied half the glass. Then he squared off in his seat and stretched his hands on the table. “I’m pretty aggravated with you, Stern. What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Just trying to help Janie find her brother.”
“Well, we found him,” Brenneke said. “So, as far as you’re concerned, it’s ‘case closed.’”
He drained his drink and waved Frank to bring him another.
“Do you have any idea what you’re up against here?” I said. “Wilson’s huge. The press is going to be all over this. They were already setting up when I left the station. You need to brace yourself.”
“Tell me about it. The county homicide guys are breathing down our necks. The DA’s suits took the chief out for dinner and a lecture. DOJ is sending their characters from Sacramento first thing in the morning. If I don’t come up with something shortly, Jensen’s going to want my badge.”
“Give yourself a break, Russ,” I said. “You’re just getting started.”
“Yeah? Well, you’re all done. You’re gonna make your life very complicated, you keep this up. Jensen tipped over when I showed him my notes of our little conversation. And when Yablonski informed him you’d dropped by to pay a call on Carla, he went ballistic.”
Mulligan delivered the second drink, and Brenneke sucked most of it down in a single draught. I realized that I’d better cool it, or they’d start thinking that I was trying to mess with their evidence, compromise witnesses, or, worse yet, cover my tracks.
“You need to understand something,” I said.
“Yeah? And what’s that?” Brenneke said, sitting back in the booth with a thud.
“Richard Wilson and I were close. It was a long time ago, I admit that. But we were friends, good friends. He introduced me to Janie. There’s no fucking way. I was just trying to help her find him. That’s all. I know it looks a little fishy, but it’s a coincidence. Norton called
and told me to come out there this morning.”
He sat there, listening.
“You done?” he said.
“Yeah, that’s it. I get it. I’m out of it. It’s all yours.” I held up my hands.
He took my left one by the wrist, held it to my face, and leaned across the table. He was studying me as if he were trying to make up his mind about something.
“There’s one more thing, but it’s not for public consumption.” He paused for a moment, then said, “Never mind,” letting go of me. He lifted himself out of the booth, pulled a ten-dollar bill from his pocket, and tossed it on the table. “Tell your wife Jensen’s gonna call her tomorrow.”
Outside the Airstream,
the edges of everything had lost their definition in the darkness. Bats described a terrible geometry against the eucalyptus, which cast a deeper shadow against the sky, black on black on black. The night wind whispered and a spotted owl hooted plaintively, “Who? Who?”
“Good fucking question,” I said.
I pulled out my phone and sat down at the picnic table.
Gio picked up on the second ring.
“I was hoping you’d call,” she said. “I can’t believe it.”
“Word travels fast.”
“The whole valley’s talking about it. Everybody’s stunned. What happened?”
I described the call from Norton, my trip to the winery, and the scene I’d walked in on. I tried to explain why I’d looked for Richard—Janie’s request and my history with him. Halfway through, I realized I was trying to justify myself and stopped.
“You don’t have to explain,” she said, her voice soothing me. “I
understand. Really, I do. I just wish you’d told me. That you felt comfortable enough to tell me. Why don’t you trust me?”
“I do trust you.”
“It feels like you’re hiding something from me.” I didn’t say anything and realized that my silence was damning me. After a moment, she said, “Do you still love her, Babe? If you do, you should go back to her. I mean it. I’d understand.” She paused. “I’d be angry, but I’d understand.”
“That’s why I love you,” I said. It wasn’t untrue.
“I love you, too,” she said. “You must be exhausted.”
“I’m dead,” I said and instantly regretted it. “Sorry, that wasn’t meant to be a joke.”
“Will you call me tomorrow?” Gio said.
We clicked off and I walked to the trailer, lugging Biddy’s saddlebag. Chairman Meow hopped up the steps, stalled, and threw me an inscrutable look. When I opened the door, he walked to the rear of the trailer, leapt onto the bed, and curled himself into an ouroboros of fur. I put the bag on the kitchen table, kicked off my boots, and followed him to the mattress, lifted him gently, and wrapped my body around his. He stretched and laid one paw gently on my cheek like a lover, then extended his claws.
I woke up early
the next morning but stayed in bed, thinking. I wanted to put Wilson’s murder behind me, but it wasn’t that easy. I thought if I could only tie up a few loose ends, I could lay it—and him—to rest.
I knew I had to catch Jordan Meyer before he headed out to lunch, if I was lucky enough to catch him in New York at all. The voice at the other end of the line at
Wine Watcher’s World
sounded like a sip of ’61 Lafite—if ’61 Lafite could talk.
Wine Watcher’s World.
How may I direct your call?”
“Jordan Meyer, please.”
While I waited I listened to a recorded voice touting the highlights of their forthcoming issue: “
. . . and look forward to Lucas Kiers, our correspondent in Burgundy, covering the recent vintage of French Pinot Noir . . .”
The silky voice came back on the line. “I’m sorry, but Mr. Meyer is currently traveling.”
“Shit,” I muttered.
“May I take a message?”
“Any way I can track him down?”
“Mr. Meyer is in San Francisco. You’re welcome to leave a voice mail,” and without waiting for my reply, she connected me. I hung up and redialed.
“Hi. I just spoke with you a minute ago. We were disconnected. Can you tell me where Mr. Meyer is staying in San Francisco? He’s expecting my call.”
She was clearly annoyed, and hesitated before coughing up the information.
“I believe he’s at Campton Place,” she said. “Anything else?”
“You’ve been very helpful.”
It was too early to call Meyer. I brewed a pot of espresso, put Bach’s cello suites on the CD player, and lit a cigarette. I needed to calm down. Over coffee, I dumped Biddy’s archive onto the table. There were several dozen copies of Wilson’s newsletters and half as many of Eric Feldman’s
American Wine Review.
I sorted Wilson’s chronologically, then weeded out the ones I already owned and had read. Each issue, while covering a range of varietals and appellations, focused on a particular country or region. While the more recent issues of
The Wine Maven
constituted a complete collection, it appeared that two California issues published after my move to Napa were missing. Biddy had said that might be the case. He had probably loaned them to friends who wanted to see how they had fared at Wilson’s hands.