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Authors: Jean-Pierre Alaux,Jean-Pierre,Balen,Noël

Tags: #Crime Fiction, #Detective, #whodunit, #wine, #Heist, #Mystery, #France

Grand Cru Heist

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Praise for

The Winemaker Detective

 

Twenty-two-book series

A hit on television in France

“Will whet appetites of fans of both
Iron Chef
and
Murder, She Wrote
.”

—Booklist

“Unusually adept at description, the authors manage to paint everything...The journey through its pages is not to be rushed.”

—ForeWord Reviews

“I love good mysteries. I love good wine. So imagine my joy at finding a great mystery about wine, and winemaking, and the whole culture of that fascinating world. And then I find it’s the first of a series. I can see myself enjoying many a bottle of wine while enjoying the adventures of Benjamin Cooker in this terrific new series.”

—William Martin, New York Times bestselling author

“An excellent mystery series in which you eat, drink and discuss wine as much as you do murders.”

—Bernard Frank, Le Nouvel Observateur

“Perfect for people who might like a little treachery with their evening glass of Bordeaux, a little history and tradition with their Merlot.”

—AustCrime

“A wonderful translation... wonderful descriptions of the art, architecture, history and landscape of the Bordeaux region... The shoes are John Lobb, the cigars are Cuban, and the wine is ‘classic.’ As is this book.”

—Rantin’, Ravin’ and Reading

“Combines a fairly simple mystery with the rich feel of the French winemaking industry. The descriptions of the wine and the food are mouth-watering!”

—The Butler Did It

“Benjamin Cooker uses his composure, erudition and intuition to solve heady crimes that take place in the exclusive—and realistic—world of grand cru wines.”

—Jean-Claude Raspiengeas, La Croix

“An enjoyable, quick read with the potential for developing into a really unique series.”

—Rachel Coterill Book Reviews

“A fine vintage forged by the pens of two very different varietals. It is best consumed slightly chilled, and never alone. You will be intrigued by its mystery, and surprised by its finish, and it will stay with you for a very long time.”

—Peter May, prize-winning, international bestselling author

“A series that is both delectable for connoisseurs of wine and an initiation for those not in the know.”

—Marine de Tilly, Le Figaro

“I finished it in one sitting! I learned so much about wine making… But more than that is was a good little mystery—nothing wasted. The book would be perfect for a book club to have a ‘wine’ night.”

—Bless Your Hearts Mom

“This is an excellent translation. You never have the feeling you are reading a translated text. The author obviously knows Bordeaux extremely well, and he knows quite a bit about oenology. The book should be a hit with lovers of Bordeaux wine.”

—Tom Fiorini, The Vine Route

 

Grand Cru Heist

 

 

A Winemaker Detective Novel

 

 

Jean-Pierre Alaux

&

Noël Balen

 

 

 

Translated from French by Anne Trager

 

 

 

All rights reserved: no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

 

First published in France as

Pour qui sonne l’angélus

by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

 

World copyright © Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2004

English translation copyright © 2013 Anne Trager

 

First published in English in 2013
By Le French Book, Inc., New York

www.lefrenchbook.com

 

Copyediting by Amy Richards

Cover designed by David Zampa

Proofreading by Chris Gage

E-book designed by Le French Book

 

ISBNs:

Trade paperback: 978-1-939474-04-9

Hardcover: 978-1-939474-12-4

E-Book: 978-1-939474-08-7

 

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual
persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Finishing off a bottle of wine together

is a fine sign of friendship.”

—Jean Carmet

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

Paris finally returned to its splendor at dusk. Lights from the cruise boats caressed the buildings on the Left Bank. The bridges cast wavering shadows on the waters of the Seine. At the corner of the Rue Dauphine, a few patches of half-melted snow, curiously saved from the passing footsteps, were shining under the streetlights.

Benjamin Cooker had felt deprived of light all day. He awaited this miraculous hour, when everything could be reborn in the fleeting glow of night. As he got older, he had less tolerance for the unchanging leaden sky that covered Paris in winter. Everything, from the pallid faces of café servers to the hotel concierge’s waxy complexion, the bare trees in the Tuileries Gardens, and the homeless camping out on the subway grates, seemed dull and gray. He had loved this city in his happy-go-lucky days, and now he found it suffocating.

Here, even the snow was hoary, dirty, and reduced to mud in a few hours with the constant comings and goings of the city. He missed peaceful Médoc, and he was impatient to return to his home, Grangebelle, the next day. The vineyards would be superb, all white and wrapped in silence. The cold would be dry and refreshing, and the sky nearly royal blue. He would go for a solitary walk along the Gironde just to hear the snow crunch under his boots. Elisabeth got cold easily and would probably remain in front of the fire in the living room, her hands around a steaming cup of tea.

Benjamin Cooker drove slowly, letting his gloves glide over the steering wheel while he whistled along with a Chopin nocturne on the radio. According to the too-ceremonious radio host, it was
Opus 19
. He was comfortable, settled into the leather seat of his classic Mercedes 280SL. He turned onto Pont des Arts to get to his hotel, which was near the opera house. The red light was taking forever. He lifted the collar of his Loden and turned up the radio as someone approached the car, flicking his thumb to mimic a lighter. Cooker squinted to get a better look at the man’s face. It was hidden under a hood, but he seemed young, despite his stooped, somewhat misshapen form. Cooker shook his head and waved his hands to indicate that he did not smoke.

The light turned green, but Cooker did not have time to accelerate. His car door opened suddenly, as if it had been ripped off, and cold air rushed in.

“Take that, rich bastard.”

The man pulled out a switchblade. Cooker did not move.
Don’t panic. Stay calm. Breathe slowly. Think fast.
He felt the tip of the knife on his Adam’s apple and gulped. A second man opened the other door and searched the glove compartment.

“Get rid of him,” he said, unbuckling Cooker’s seat belt.

The hooded man hit Cooker twice in the jaw, grabbed him by the tie, and dragged him to the ground. Then the thug kicked him in the stomach, head, and ribs—“Take that, asshole.” The taste of blood and thick grit from the pavement burned his lips—“Your mother’s a bitch.” A final glance, a few notes of Chopin—“Eat shit, dirtbag!”—and screeching tires. Then nothing.

§ § §

Staff hurried through the corridors at the Pitié-Salpetrière Hospital. The warm aroma of hot coffee filled the ward. Benjamin Cooker was trying to look at the small corner of white sky that was attempting—in vain—to light up the room, but he could barely turn his head.

“Don’t worry, sir. You’re safe here.”

The nurse had bright green eyes. A gold cross was hanging from her beautiful freckled neck. She had a soft voice; it was almost tender and sleep-inducing.

“You should get some rest. You are still in shock, Mr. Cooker. Your wife will be here soon.”

She spoke the way a child would speak to her father. Cooker thought about his daughter, Margaux. He hoped that Elisabeth had not told her what had happened. There was no sense causing worry. He could barely remember anything from the previous night, except the 1961 Latour he had shared with Claude Nithard, his publisher, at the Tour d’Argent.

The nurse took his pulse, explaining that he had been found unconscious on the sidewalk and rushed to the emergency room.

“What about my car?”

“Stay calm, sir. It is only a car. You are lucky to be alive.”

A tear rolled down Cooker’s cheek. He closed his eyes and sighed deeply to expel the feeling of powerless rage and isolation that tightened his chest. His old convertible also carried his tawny leather briefcase, which held the fountain pen Margaux had given him. A jeweler in New York had engraved his name on it. The briefcase also held some bank statements, his agenda, and the thick dog-eared notebook he was very attached to. Year after year, the winemaker had jotted down his impressions of all the wines he had tasted the world over, along with who had what stocks of the best vintages. How many pages had he filled with his meticulous handwriting? At best, the document would end up in some garbage can in the projects or the sewer.

Elisabeth would be here in a few hours, sitting on the edge of his bed. He would tell her everything. Well, what he could. The truth was, he couldn’t remember much. It had all happened so quickly.

§ § §

“Yes, my love, the light had just turned green.”

His wife would put a finger to his lips and said, “My poor darling, look at what they’ve done to you.”

Sadness filled his face. He stared at her and said nothing more. Then he looked down. He was disappointed with himself. He had fallen into a trap and had not even put up a fight. He felt like a coward. She knew the words to reassure him and make him feel better. She told him that she was thankful he was alive, that he should let the police do their job. Elisabeth then whispered a few sweet nothings. And they crossed their fingers and hoped for the best, as they always did when they faced life’s hardships.

“They’ll find your notebook, Benjamin. Don’t worry. I’ll call your editor.”

“No, I’d prefer that you didn’t. Don’t tell anyone but Virgile.”

Of course, Virgile Lanssien came with Elisabeth. He would not have left his employer’s wife alone in such a crisis. Elisabeth went to find him in the hallway.

“Boss, how’s it going? They really crushed you, didn’t they?” Virgile teased, trying to lighten the mood when he saw the winemaker’s bruised face.

Cooker smiled at the vineyard humor. His jaw hurt terribly, but he felt better with Elisabeth and Virgile at his side.

“I don’t remember anything. Can you believe it? Nothing! Except that 1961 Latour. I wish you could have tasted it.”

The nurse came in to change the bandages on Cooker’s swollen face and caught Virgile’s eye. He gave her a once-over, from neck to ankles, while Elisabeth hung up some clothes she had brought for her husband. Virgile winked at his boss.

“The snow has already melted,” the young woman said, clearly sorry about that.

Cooker’s eyes were half-closed. He winced when the nurse ran a damp cloth over his eyebrows to remove the dried blood.

“What handsome blue eyes you have, sir,” she said, trying to divert his attention from what she was doing.

“I believe they are why my wife married me. Isn’t that so, Elisabeth?”

“I won’t argue with you today, not with what you’ve been through,” Elisabeth said, kissing his hand.

Virgile seemed a little uncomfortable. He turned to the window. “I think it’s going to snow again,” he said to fill the silence.

The nurse looked at him and smiled with something less than innocence. To the impish grin she added, “From your lips to God’s ear.”

Virgile looked her in the eye and said, “If that were the case, the snowflakes would be angel feathers.”

“You are a lucky man, Mr. Cooker, to have such a spiritual son,” the nurse said.

§ § §

The week passed slowly, punctuated by bandage-changing sessions, lukewarm meals, temperature checks, and long periods of sleep. Christmas was a few days away. Large snowflakes were falling, as if covering the ground with a layer of protection. Carole was thrilled. The nurse had disclosed her first name to Cooker, perhaps in the hope that the information would get to Virgile.

“So he’s not your son?”

“No, he’s my assistant. He is very good at what he does.”

Carole blushed and quickly changed the subject. “You are healing nicely. You were incredibly lucky. The man was that close to slitting your throat. If he had, you wouldn’t have made it.”

When she leaned over the bed, Cooker couldn’t help staring at the three beauty marks on her chest.
This is ridiculous
, he thought, reproaching himself for his moodiness.
My face is not disfigured, it’s just bruised
. He felt old, even though he was just fifty. Admittedly, the graying temples, a rebellious lock of hair, bushy eyebrows, and crow’s-feet gave him a dignified charm. But was he still attractive? And why was he wondering this after having a narrow brush with death?

“Life is all about seduction,” his father would have said. It was a maxim the man had practiced until his later years.

Still, Cooker was regaining some of his appetite for life, despite the anxiety attacks he suffered in the middle of the night. He would wake up in a sweat, pursued by hooded teenagers who threw insults and lighters at him. Cooker knew he would need time to process the trauma.

Carole, who clearly had a thing for Virgile, was helping with her disarming innocence and the childlike euphoria she expressed when she saw snow on the rooftops.

“I hope it lasts until Christmas,” she said continually, like a child repeating a prayer without really believing in God or Santa Claus.

Cooker used whatever ploys he could to keep her in his room. They would look out the window and watch the snow swirl between the zinc rooftops and chimneys.

One afternoon, the winemaker loosened up enough to tell her a personal story. He wasn’t positive it was true, but that didn’t seem to matter.

“My father rarely left London, but one day before the war, he went off exploring southwestern France. He ended up in Toulouse, visiting the Basilica of Saint Sernin. He stayed at Le Grand Balcon, the hotel where the famous aviators Jean Mermoz and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had met.”

“I loved Saint-Exupéry’s
The Little Prince
,” Carole said, slipping her cross back and forth on its chain.

“At the time, my father dreamed of being a pilot. He was only twenty. He stayed in Saint-Exupéry’s room, where there was an old radio. He tried to tune into Radio London but got distracted by Radio Toulouse and the advertising slogan ‘
Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet.’”

The nurse laughed at Cooker’s attempt to imitate the nasal tone of old-time radio hosts. He exaggerated it to please her.

“From his room, my father could see the Place du Capitole. Have you ever been to Toulouse?”

The nurse said no and mentioned her roots in Grenoble.

“The sky was gray, the weather uncertain, and Radio Toulouse announced, ‘Dear listeners, direct from the Toulouse-Blagnac weather station, ninety-nine flakes of snow have fallen on our fine city, and the temperature is freezing. We are expecting more snow tomorrow, so get out your mittens. And now, Jean Sablon will sing ‘
Vous qui passez sans me voir
.’”

“Ninety-nine snowflakes. That was news in the day,” Carole said.

“That’s when my father said it was best to watch out for the French. He wrote his mother a letter to tell her about the ninety-nine snowflakes, and she told him to come home to London as soon as possible. She thought he was losing his mind. He even admitted to standing at his hotel window and counting snowflakes until dusk, coming up with far more than ninety-nine.”

“I don’t believe you,” Carole said.

“It’s true. I promise you it’s true,” Cooker answered in a deadpan voice. “My father did eventually get an explanation, something about how at the time, nobody improvised on the radio. They just read from notes. The radio announcer confused some shorthand for nine centimeters for ninety-nine snowflakes. He apparently got a good reprimand from his boss.”

Cooker puffed up when the nurse laughed at his story, showing her flawless teeth. Then Virgile burst into the room. Carole turned around quickly, smoothed out her scrubs, and nearly knocked the winemaker’s IV bag off the stand.

“Your torture is nearly over, Mr. Cooker. You should be getting out tomorrow.”

Virgile watched the way Cooker and the nurse looked at each other as his assistant handed over the morning paper with a mischievous grin. The front-page story in the newspaper
France-Soir
caught the winemaker’s eye immediately: “Grand Cru Heist. A hundred bottles of the famous 1989 Angélus premier grand cru classé were stolen last night from the renowned cellar at the Place de la Madeleine in Paris. The burglar stole only this internationally acclaimed Saint-Émilion and selected the very best vintage, which received top ranking in the
Cooker Guide
.”

Cooker pulled out the latest edition of his guide, which Virgile had brought him, and read his tasting notes in full.

“Who could want anything more for Christmas than some 1989 Angélus?” he asked.

Behind the attempt at humor, there was concern in his voice. He was thinking about his friend Hubert de Boüard de Laforest, who owned the premier grand cru mentioned in the article.

“How are you feeling today, sir?” Virgile asked.

“Like an ass who wasn’t brave enough to fight and ended up in his shorts on the sidewalk.” Cooker suddenly felt enraged. He tensed his jaw and pushed out his chest, as if he could not breathe. “They took everything, Virgile. Everything! All my notes. My entire guide. And my memories, my pride, my honor.”

Virgile stared at his boss. Cooker pulled himself up on the bed and grimaced when he tried to turn to the window to hide the sob he felt coming on. Carole touched his shoulder.

“It’s nothing, Mr. Cooker. Calm down. You’ll be home tomorrow. You’ll forget about it over time.”

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