The vineyards of the Willesford Wine Group occupy a particularly choice section of French wine country. From the grapes of Provence, the owners of this impeccably managed syndicate have squeezed international fame and fortune. Next to their spectacular estate lies the petite Peregrine Winery, whose shadowy owners suddenly make repeated requests to buy Willesford’s property—raising their offer each time. Unable to discern Peregrine’s motive for these persistent attempts, the Willesford group sends for London’s gourmet detective, a sleuth with impeccable reasoning and an even finer palate. When he arrives in Provence, he doesn’t even have time to sample the pâté before he finds a dead man leaning against a cart, dripping blood into the fine French terroir. For the winemakers of Provence, this will be an excellent year for murder.
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Dying on the Vine
A Gourmet Detective Mystery (Book Three)
By Peter King
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Peter King
All rights reserved.
The view from the top of Partington Tower was breathtaking, especially as it was one of those rare days in London when you could actually see the view.
The weather was clear and crisp and the windows had just been washed. The Thames was having one of its turgid days, looking like thin brown soup as it swirled languidly past. I amused myself by picking out the individual buildings in the complex that had begun as the Festival of Britain in 1951. The National Theatre and Festival Hall loomed as massive blockhouses of dirty concrete, but in contrast were the garish colored glows of the neon signs over the Hayward Gallery and the National Film Theatre.
In the other direction and past Blackfriars Bridge, the massive curved roof of Waterloo Station glinted green while close beside it was the soaring expanse of glass covering the International Terminal where the Eurostar trains crouched, ready for their threehour dash to Paris through the Channel Tunnel. Between the two bridges, restaurant boats sat at anchor, dreaming of their younger days on the open sea and now condemned to serving beer and sausage rolls to tourists lolling under gaily striped umbrellas on the upper decks. Up here at the top of the tower, a pretty young secretary came to escort me into a nearby office.
The room had large windows, almost floor to ceiling, so the view was even more impressive from here than from the lobby. That was fair enough considering that this office belonged to the chief executive—the man who had phoned me yesterday and asked me to come here to discuss a sensitive matter.
They always were, I thought as I studied the man at the big mahogany desk with the antique leather inset top. He had a head of silvery gray hair and a strong nose. His slightly red face was from a mixture of good living and exposure to rays, natural and artificial, but his skin was smooth and unlined. He probably worked out in a gym more than once a week which helped to keep his Savile Row suit such a good fit. An aura of aristocratic breeding sat lightly on his shoulders and his voice was deep and authoritative.
"Frankly, I'm not sure whether you can do anything for us or not ..."—he smiled disarmingly, showing even white teeth that probably got as much attention as his clothes, skin, and health—"... but we have to do something," he concluded.
In other words, I was the bottom of the barrel. They had already tried everything and hiring me was just window dressing. I smiled politely and waited for him to go on.
"It concerns the Willesford Wine Group. As you may know, we have distilleries, a soft drinks group, and a fruit juice division. But wine was our business for years before the others were added. My grandfather bought this vineyard in Provence and it brings in sixty percent of our wine revenue, the balance coming from Chile, Australia, and Italy as imports."
I nodded to show I was listening. I had run a quick check on his company after yesterday's phone call and it confirmed what he was telling me now.
"The problem is basically a simple one; the solution to the problem is, however, proving unexpectedly elusive. There is a vineyard adjacent to ours. It belongs to a group called Peregrine. Peregrine made an offer—quite unsolicited—to buy out our vineyard. It was marginally below what would be a market price. I say 'would be' because we had no interest in selling and turned the offer down flat."
I was not only listening now, I was hanging on Sir Charles's every word. This was different from what I had expected. Maybe this was going to be an intriguing case after all even if my chances of succeeding were small.
"We received another offer—this one substantially higher—and we turned it down too. Then we had another and yet another. The amount of money was now more than twice the market value. The fifth offer was much higher again." Sir Charles paused.
"What communication did you have with this Peregrine group while these offers were being rejected?" I asked.
"None. We tried to find out who the group consists of and who is behind them. All we learned is that Peregrine Holdings is Monte Carlo based. You know what that means."
"A closed door," I said. "Like trying to get hold of a copy of the Vatican's tax return."
"Indeed. We even couched one of our refusals in terms that suggested we might be interested if we could parley. Just to draw them out. No response."
"It's a fascinating story," I admitted, "but before you go any further, I should tell you that I'm not sure it's in my line. I'd be willing to look into it but I'm not a financial analyst. I seek out rare food ingredients, things like exotic spices. I advise on markets and opportunities for unusual foods and wines...."
Sir Charles was already waving a hand to stop me.
"I know what you do. I investigated your background very thoroughly before I asked you to come here. 'The Gourmet Detective,' that's what they call you, isn't it? I think you're the right man for this; you see, the financial part of this business is not critical—what I want to know is why these Peregrine people want our vineyard."
"Maybe they just want to expand and think this is the best way of doing it, even if it does cost money."
Sir Charles pushed his chair back and rose to his feet. "Come with me. I want to show you something."
He led the way to a richly carved mahogany door and we went into a large conference room with wood paneling, a long table with chairs around it, and a blackboard on one wall. It was actually light green but I can't think of them as anything but blackboards.
A rolled map was clipped to the top and Sir Charles pulled it down. It was big, about four feet by three feet, and appeared to be a French Ordnance Survey map. It had been hand-colored in red and green. The red area was roughly circular in shape and about the size of a tennis ball. It sat in the very center. The rest of the big map was shaded in green, dwarfing the tiny enclosed shape in the middle.
"This shows our vineyard and Peregrine's vineyard," Sir Charles said.
I studied it. A "D" classified road ran across the top from east to west. Smaller, unclassified roads ran from it into each area. To the northeast, the land rose rapidly, reaching nearly four hundred metres or well over a thousand feet.
"It reminds me of the classic old Western movies," I commented.
Sir Charles looked a little blank. Perhaps he wasn't a movie fan.
"The tiny family ranch, completely surrounded by the vast acres owned by the wicked land baron who's determined to acquire it by any means at all," I explained.
"Ah, I see ... no, no, you have it all wrong," he said, shaking his head.
"Have what wrong?"
"That is the Peregrine vineyard there." He tapped a beautifully manicured finger on the miniature red circle in the center. "And this"—the sweep of his arm encompassed the endless rolling acres around it, colored in green—"... this is Willesford property."CHAPTER 2
We had returned to his office and his secretary had brought coffee, I said, "I must say you surprised me. That little pip-squeak actually wants to buy you out?"
He smiled slightly. "I think that map helps you understand our predicament."
"It is a puzzler," I admitted, "if the idea of Peregrine wanting to expand is ruled out."
Sir Charles pursed his lips. "Their latest offer is nearly a million pounds over true market value. They can't be that desperate to expand."
"And all attempts at contacting them have failed?"
"Completely without success," said Sir Charles. "There's one other thing I should tell you ... we hired a private detective, a Frenchman, formerly with the Nice police—a man with a very good reputation."
"And what did he find out?"
"Nothing." A brown folder lay on the desk. Sir Charles put a hand on it. "Here are copies of his reports. You can take this with you. But I can tell you that it contains nothing of any real help." He hesitated. "There's another factor influencing us in hiring you. This French detective has had no contact with us for some time." I felt a pang of alarm but he added quickly, "That has no sinister connotation. We have checked and he has been seen recently in Nice. His last report was thoroughly negative and he inferred he wanted to drop the case due to his lack of success."
"Sir Charles," I said. "I'm not a detective. Oh, I know I use that sobriquet, the Gourmet Detective. It's good for business but I'm not really a detective at all and—"
"I know," said Sir Charles firmly. "As I've just told you, we hired a detective, a good one, and he got nowhere. Maybe a different approach is needed. Maybe some detail would be obvious to a man like you with a knowledge of the wine business where a detective might go right past it."
We both seemed to be assuming that I was going to take the assignment. I had already decided to do so—it was an intriguing problem even though the answer might turn out to be, as Sir Charles said, obvious.
"Tell me about your vineyard," I invited.
"The names and positions of all the staff are in that folder too," he said. "We have 147 acres under cultivation. We produce five wines. Top of the line is our Sainte Marguerite—an excellent white. It's an 'appellation controlee,' a very good 'vin de paille' made from Savagnin grapes. We bottle only one red but it's a near-classic and many critics have compared it to a Crozes-Hermitage, Then we have two white table wines, both made from Chardonnay grapes and with a good reputation in the neighborhood, in the Paris region and here in the U.K. We call one Pont Vieux and the other Bellecoste. Then we have a rosé which we call Val Rosé. It's not bad as rosé wines go though we probably should discontinue it and switch that effort to another white, but it sells well. And—as I'm sure you know—rosé wines are very profitable."
I knew what he meant by that last remark. Grapes that might not be good enough for any of the white wines could be used in a rosé and a clever wine maker could use up one hundred percent of his produce that way, getting rid of even the poorest-quality grapes. Furthermore, as rosé wine has no vintage, the cash flow is excellent, there being no delay between bottling the wine and putting it on the market for immediate sale.
"You're quite sure that there are no exterior factors which might make the vineyard desirable?" I asked. "Nobody wants to build a mammoth shopping center there, for instance?"
Sir Charles laughed, a deep, throaty chuckle. "Not a chance of that."
"Sean Connery doesn't want to build a golf course there then?" I persisted.
"The former 007 has bought several parcels of land in Provence for that purpose but none are in this area."
"What about an industrial park? Land can be very valuable to a group contemplating one of those."
"What is probably the largest industrial and scientific park in Europe is already not far away—at Sophia Antipolis, near Antibes. A second would be out of the question."
"The route for the alternative A8 autoroute must run somewhere through there—"
"Much farther north," said Sir Charles. "Believe me, we've considered a great many such possibilities and we could find nothing. We've talked to all the local authorities and we also had Morel—that's the French private detective we hired—we had him check independently."
"No possibility of gold or oil deposits?" I smiled to show that I wasn't really serious even though I was.
"We had a geological survey conducted recently, just in case modern techniques might show up something that had not previously been apparent. There was nothing—and even if there were minerals of any kind, under French law the right to exploit them doesn't have to be sold with the land."
"Hmm," I said, "I think I'm running out of ready answers."
Sir Charles waved a deprecatory hand. "My dear fellow, perfectly reasonable suggestions, all of them. No," he went on, "we've spent a lot of time, money, and effort trying to guess what's behind these offers. We've come up with absolutely nothing." He glanced at me sharply. "Which is why we hope that you can do better."
"When you say 'we,' who does that—"
"Our board of directors. It consists of my son, Nigel; Richard Willoughby; Tommy Traynor, who recommended you; and myself."
I had known Tommy Traynor for many years. He was a good businessman and a shrewd judge of wine—not to mention horses and women. Willoughby, I had heard of and knew to have fingers in many pies.
Sir Charles was still regarding me keenly.
"If I take this assignment, I would want to know how many people are aware of it," I explained.
"Of course. When we hired Morel, we didn't impress upon him any particular need for secrecy. I know he didn't go around Provence trumpeting who was paying him—he is, after all, an experienced private detective. But when he asked questions, people knew who he was. With you, we want to use a different approach."
"What exactly do you mean?" I wanted to know.
"One of Richard Willoughby's interests is a publishing chain, magazines and newspapers mainly. We propose to arrange a cover for you as one of their reporters—doing a series of stories on vineyards in Provence owned by Englishmen."
"Oh, that's all right," I said, relieved.
"So only the four of us on the board and Willoughby's senior editor will know about this."
"So what are your terms?" he asked.
"A hundred pounds a day plus expenses."
He nodded, but before he could speak, I added quickly: "Plus a bonus of five hundred for a satisfactory answer to the question 'Why does Peregrine want to buy you out?'"
He hesitated, then nodded again.
"When can you start? The sooner the better as far as we're concerned."
"Today's Tuesday. I have a few loose ends to clear up ... I can do that tomorrow ... I could leave Thursday morning."
He pushed the brown folder over to me.
"There's a voucher for first-class return travel on British Midland, Heathrow-Nice in there. They'll exchange it for a ticket when you tell them which flight you want to take. Mildred will give you a week's advance in cash and she will make a reservation for you at Le Relais du Moulin. It's one of the better places in the area and convenient for both vineyards. She'll also reserve you a car at Nice airport."
I don't have a car in London. I hate driving and in a metropolis like London, a car is more trouble than it's worth, but in a widely spread region like Provence, I knew I had no choice.
"I suggest you phone me in two weeks," said Sir Charles. His tone implied that if I didn't have any results in that time, I wasn't going to get any. "We can decide then if we want to continue."
It wasn't very long but it wasn't altogether unreasonable. I might not have solved the whole case by then but I should have some clues as to where the answer might lie.
I picked up the folder and we shook hands.CHAPTER 3
By choosing the first flight departure of the morning for Nice, I hoped to avoid any "delays due to late arrival of incoming aircraft," but it still didn't work out that way. We left twenty minutes late, but the breezy voice of the captain assured us that we would make up the time, and so we did.
The snowy masses of the Alps were slipping away to our left and the blue sparkle of the Mediterranean was straight ahead as we began the descent. We swung out over the water then turned in for the run to Nice airport which, despite its popularity, seldom seems crowded.
Passport control was a mere glance and a wave through to the glass doors into the baggage claim area. Next to it, the car rental desk was empty of customers and within ten minutes, I was on the Promenade des Anglais and edging into the autoroute lane marked Autoroute du Soleil, A8—direction Aix-en-Provence.
I had temporarily forgotten how traffic moves in the South of France. It's fast and furious, with little regard for the other driver and the devil take the hindmost. I was taking it carefully until I became readjusted and that meant I was attracting glares and squawking horns, a few shaken fists and—from the numerous convertibles—some choice epithets blended from bawdy provincial French and contemporary porno TV.
Excerpted from Dying on the Vine by Peter King. Copyright © 1998 Peter King. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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