The former KGB’s assassinations with plutonium now belong to the past. Or to John Le Carré’s novels, which feature the kind of poison-tipped umbrellas still used by Mossad. Yet only in rainy countries, because in the Middle East no one knows what an umbrella is. Or even worse, they do know and that’s exactly why, when they see a guy carrying one of these ingenious devices, they suspect that no good can come of it. There are other, more elegant ways to carry out certain tasks, as we shall see.
The Pearl of Aquitaine, Sleeping Beauty… Yes, yes; they refer to the famed port city, but many people only think of wine when these two syllables are pronounced in French: “Bordeaux”.
In vino veritas goes the widely known latin expression, which describes how the truth tends to come out after a drop or two of the age-old inebriant extracted from grapes and with a measure of technology (recently with cutting edge technology, which somewhat dilutes the character of the process invented by the Romans).
“I’ve created the perfect weapon. An impossible crop, an extraordinary combination of geographical and climatological factors… And an undetectable neurotoxin,” murmured Balthus in his laboratory, observing a wine-colored liquid (what else?) in a test tube.
Bordering the Landes de Gascogne are hundreds of vineyards, which supply the wine cellars of the most exclusive restaurants. It’s well known that these wineries hold the title “château” (castle In French), although there’s not a castle anywhere roundabouts.
Bordeaux’s most outstanding wine had its own name, however: Eternitas. And very apt it was, given that just one glass of this incredibly expensive and highly esteemed wine was enough to bring about the death of whoever drank it, quietly, unavoidably and after 48 hours had passed. This timeframe meant that no one ever associated the drinker’s unfortunate demise with a wine that enjoyed near timeless prestige. There are 57 varieties or appellations in Bordeaux; Number 58, Eternitas, was also known in the trade as the “definitive” glass. And that was by no means an exaggeration.
Inspector Claire Clouchet and Detective François Gallimard formed a strange professional partnership, well known among police circles in Bordeaux both for their undeniable success within the force and the equally undeniable success of their forceful physiques.
This time they had a solid lead provided by a police informer; a grass they’d been forced to include in the witness protection programme in exchange for immunity.
They crossed Pont de Pierre and the Saint Michel quarter, then arrived to Marché des Capucins. The pair were following a clue that couldn’t possibly be false.
On Saturdays and Sundays, Bordeaux’s legendary covered market — Marché des Capucins — opened its doors early at 5.30am, before the first rays of dawn had even thought about brightening anyone up. And our investigators took advantage of precisely that circumstance to uncover Professor Balthus.
Among the fruit stalls brimming with colour and texture, packed high with wicker baskets displaying their appetising wares to the earliest of clients and passers by, there was a tiny space, almost hidden by its neighbours’ exuberance, dedicated to Bordeaux wines.
For the uninitiated, we can explain that a game in a wine den is a bit like a game in a poker den, but without chance or gambling playing any part. These events are more often employed to settle particularly thorny business issues, and beyond the bounds of Law, which normally generated significant profits for the organisers.
The format was simple, though no less risky for that. In a land of legendary wines like the region that occupies us here, sommeliers and master winemakers had a rare kind of power. Each created their own network of clients, fit to resolve whatever kind of problems may arise… Or not.
The sommeliers were always received with pomp and ceremony, and accompanied by a reduced yet flamboyant entourage whose mission was to support their masters at every step. These followers acted as high stewards or specialist butlers and all aspired, one day, to occupy their Master’s place. As a result, quarrels and intrigue were frequent in the run up to one of these games.
Before our duo of detectives arrived, all the sommeliers and their crews had entered by the tiny door at the wine stall in the market, then descended a narrow flight of stairs which led onto a passageway lit with prison-like sobriety. And, after negotiating a final doorway reinforced with oak cross planks, they had emerged into a large hall, a space pervaded by the atmosphere of a bygone age. A jazz band were playing on a circular stage in the centre of the room and, spread around the musicians were a dozen round tables where the sommeliers and their assistants were tasting the different wines announced every now and again by the master of ceremonies, interrupting the band’s syncopated notes.
“François, I think we’ve got them this time,” said Claire as they passed through the little doorway and discovered the first passage, just fifteen minutes after the main group.
“Claire, what we have is an extraordinary opportunity to do something truly exciting,” said François, kissing her with a lust unbefitting the place and circumstances.
“Come on, there’s no time for that today!” she snapped, dodging out of the way. Seeing the disappointed look on the gorgeous detective’s face, however, she added, “Now we know this place’s secret, we just have to find the right occasion…”
When they arrived to the large hall where the crème de la crème of Bordeaux wine society were gathered, all the conversations ceased and the man they’d been trailing for years spoke to the pair.
“We were waiting for you,” said Balthus, ceremoniously, while he exchanged complicit glances with the leading sommeliers in attendance that night for the game. “Please, allow me the honour of serving you an extraordinary wine. Appellation 58…”
“But there are only 57,” Claire replied, with an air of mistrust.
“Out there, that’s what people believe. But you’re in the wine crypt. And here, everything is possible.”
He made a quick gesture and one of the stewards rushed, with consummate professionalism and elegance, to uncork a dust-covered bottle, cleaning it before the eyes of these unexpected visitors, then pouring the contents into two glasses.
“Let it breathe for a few minutes, that will be enough… And afterwards, please, before moving on to the more unpleasant tasks that have brought you here, give me your expert opinion.”
Claire and François looked at each other with a “why not?” kind of expression, raised their glasses, gazed into each other’s eyes and drank up.
“Excellent,” came François’ evaluation. “But it’s time to do our duty. You’re under arrest.”
“I’ll read him his rights,” added Claire.
Eternitas took effect two days later, just as Balthus had designed. The autopsies performed on the two detectives failed to reveal any kind of poisoning and no forensic doctor was ever able to determine the exact cause of death.
Balthus and the sommeliers were acquitted for lack of evidence.