Sneak Peek at Château des Corbeaux
Sneak Peek Corbeaux
Château des Corbeaux
Gironde, Nouvelle-Acquitaine, France
Pascal d’Onscon felt the ache in his back that came from the long day of driving. He wriggled in his seat, behind the wheel of his old BMW, as he slowed on the gravel road deep in the vineyards of the Bordeaux. He’d been on the road since early morning. It wasn’t a terrible distance home to Merle’s cottage in the village of Malcouziac. But he’d taken more than a few detours, only some of which were official.
On one side of the road the neat rows of vines stretched up and over a low rise, neatly tended with a grassy strip down the center. At this time of year, early summer, the vines were growing rapidly and some were in need of more trimming as their tendrils bounced and twisted in the wind. The pale green berries, the nascent grapes that would one day be plump and juicy, were still tiny and hard, their winemaking future uncertain.
He stopped the car, gazing out into the vineyard. This was not an area he’d spent much time in. He didn’t know who this property belonged to. He’d never had a reason to investigate this estate in his role as a wine fraud detective for the French Republic. There were thousands of vineyards, vast and quite small, especially here in southwest France where grape-growing was both a hobby and a religion. Not to mention an obsession.
Pascal pushed his sunglasses up into his black hair and rubbed his eyes. He leaned into the steering wheel to stretch his back. He felt too tired to get out and stretch but considered it, briefly. In the west the sun was setting, turning the landscape a soft orange. He should get moving. Merle was waiting, probably with one of his favorite dinners on the stove.
All right, a moment to stretch. He opened the car door and leaned both hands against the hood of the car, feeling his back loosen. He frowned at the unsightly weathered patches on the once-pristine hood then looked up at the setting sun. Another vineyard lay on the other side of the road. It was nothing like the tidy property opposite. It was overgrown and unsightly, some vines brown and dead while others lay in heaps, last season’s leaves weighing them down. Yellow grass and fresh new grass tangled between the rows, with dandelions and thistles and other weeds. The stakes holding the wires for the vines were tilted and askew, some lying flat on the ground. Although some vines had green leaves, they were overgrown and obviously untended.
In other words, the vineyard was a wreck.
Straightening again, Pascal stepped through the ditch and into the edge of the neglected vines. He shaded his eyes against the sun and could see signs of healthier, manicured vines far down the long rows. So someone owned and cared for at least part of the vineyard. He wondered who it was, and why they had neglected this end of the not-insubstantial property. Over another rise he could see slate rooftops of several stone buildings, dotted with moss.
He felt his curiosity burble up. Who owned this property and why were they so neglectful? Were they old and losing interest in winemaking? Had they died and the heirs were trying but failing? Were they absentee owners and their workers not doing the job? Were they inexperienced and over their heads? Did they run out of money, staff, time? The possibilities were endless.
His head spun for a second. He blinked into the last rays of the sun. Maybe this was the one. The vineyard he’d been searching for. Visions of himself as a winemaking hero, swooping in to save the vintage, to refurbish the vineyard into all its glory, made him chuckle even as he felt light-headed with the idea, with the challenge.
He stood motionless at the edge of the mess of vines, listening to the wind rattle the brown leaves and the mice scurry in the grass. Lost in the fantasy that had been growing over the last few months, a dream of actually owning a vineyard and producing his own wine, he barely heard the car wheels on the gravel. He turned in time to see a gleaming silver Mercedes sedan slow and come to a stop behind his BMW.
A tall, slender man climbed out and rounded the front of the car. He was expensively dressed, in tailored slacks and leather loafers and a sports coat over a pressed white shirt open at the collar. His hair was dark with streaks of gray at the temples. His face tanned and gently lined, his age was about 50, Pascal guessed. His temperament? Not happy.
The man stopped, crossed his arms, and planted his feet. He glared at Pascal and asked, “Who are you?”
Three weeks earlier
The meeting at the Police Nationale headquarters in Paris was the usual mix of camaraderie, boredom, and rage. Always someone grew angered about the lack of progress on an investigation or a perceived lack of respect. This particular conference had a rich mix of all of the above, plus a mediocre luncheon catered by the state, never a good prospect.
Pascal d’Onscon had, despite his reservations about the food, devoured it all and found it palatable. The carafe of wine shared with six colleagues gave them each a thimble-full. Maybe because it was a wine fraud investigation the selection of vintage was a bit better than the usual, definitely a Côtes-du-Rhône, he thought, and mildly buvable.
Since he had joined the upper echelons of the organization within the government that kept wine producers on the straight and narrow (a sub-agency of the Direction Générale de la Concurrence, de la Consommation et de la Répression des Fraudes, the DGCRF), he had attended many of these meetings. Most did not include food and wine. Maybe there was some hidden message in that, even something as simple as—please attend this meeting. Or maybe just the timing, at midday.
The investigation involved a suspected smuggling ring off the Atlantic coast bringing in grapes from South America. So far he saw no great progress in the case. It was an old trick, nothing new there, but evidence and witnesses were hard to find.
As the sub-director in the Bordeaux region, this investigation should be his. Unfortunately it had attracted some sort of ministerial attention that was mucking things up. Now this lieutenant in the Police nationale, a young officious type, was explaining why the attempt to intercept the last shipment had failed so dramatically, without a grape in sight.
Pascal sighed and picked up his knife, checking his reflection in the wide blade. He touched his forelock and checked his hairline for further regression. His temples were getting grayer. Should he start dyeing them like the director? His boss, Étienne, looked as bored and old as Pascal himself felt today. Étienne’s belly bumped the table edge, making his normally very proper, upright stance look ridiculous. He had bluish bags under his eyes. His hair color was an embarrassment, a sort of oxblood shoe polish shade. Pascal pledged to himself to grow old gracefully but it was often an inner struggle when one was, well, naturally a bit vain.
Time ticked on, pride be damned. He replaced the knife on his empty plate. He pushed it away, toward the center of the table and scooted his notebook closer, as if that would make him look more attentive. The young field investigator next to him yawned loudly.
In three months time, Pascal would turn fifty. It meant nothing to him. Really, it did not. He sighed again, unable to fool himself. Fifty was the beginning of the slide to—what? Retirement, decrepitude, frailty, death. Of course, all that. But he was still vital and young, he also told himself. Again, not very convincingly.
He glanced around the table at his colleagues. The field investigator, as Pascal had been for many years, was fifteen years younger, at minimum. The boy— he barely had facial hair— had years of fun in the field ahead. The rest of them around the table were just plain old, either mentally or physically. Bureaucrats worn down by the system, clinging to whatever power they may have once possessed, blind to the ways others viewed them and the plodding trajectories of their careers. Even the young lieutenant had the dullness and lack of vigor of a man much older.
They were all successful, prosperous even. They did good work for the people, for the Republic, for the business of grape-growing and wine-making. They had been promoted over other, less-worthy men. No women at this level. This was France. There were women investigators but it was a perilous job, usually solo without backup, often undercover, often in danger. Pascal himself had some narrow escapes where only his physical strength and quick thinking had helped him survive. He shuddered slightly, remembering the guillotine and the blinding thirst that almost killed him.
Still, this department was his life. He would not turn his back on it, on these people, ever. He smiled slightly at Étienne who raised his eyebrows in question. Pascal shrugged, noncommittal. They both turned their attentions back to the lieutenant who droned on and on.
Pascal felt the air go out of him for a moment, suddenly, like a spent balloon. A hollowness, a shriveled nothing. Soon he would be a husk of himself, dust. He would grow feeble and die. Everyone dies, mon ami. Then, like clockwork, the man from Alsace exploded, angry about something, last year’s harvest, his reimbursements for expenses, the many injustices he’d suffered, his stalled raise, and so on. A litany of complaints washed over them and they all closed their eyes in despair.
After the meeting finally adjourned Pascal and Étienne took themselves off to a wine bar on a barge on the Seine, the sort of tourist spot where they would never see their colleagues. The wine was decent, nothing special, but the two of them managed to quaff several glasses to wash the horrid monotony of bureaucracy out of their systems.
“Do you ever feel,” Pascal began, twisting his bar stool around so he could look out onto the brown water of the river and the golden bridge beyond, “this is all a dream?”
Etienne huffed a laugh. “Eh? A bad dream— a nightmare?”
Pascal shrugged. “A meaningless Faustian puzzle, trapped like a rat in a maze, doomed to frustration? Or the sort you can perhaps wake up from someday.”
Etienne drained his glass. “I am definitely waking up soon. Sunshine ahead. I retire in eight months and four days.”
Pascal knew this but it still made him sad. The two of them had worked closely for years and thought alike on so many things. “But who’s counting, eh?”
“Not getting any younger, mon ami. I want to play with my grandchildren one of these days.”
“You have grandchildren?” Pascal asked.
“Not yet. But there is always hope.” He slapped Pascal on the back. “It is not so bleak, my friend. Cheer up! Have some more wine. I will talk to you tomorrow. You head south tonight?”
Pascal looked at his watch. “I am on the train soon. Plenty of time to drown the nightmare on board.”
An hour later the TGV, the speed train to Bordeaux, left the Montparnasse railway station, moved slowly through the suburbs then picked up speed in the countryside. Pascal sat in a window seat in first class, one of the perks of his job. He hadn’t even spent the night in Paris this time. With the fast train service it seemed unnecessary. And his love, Merle, was waiting for him in Bordeaux, always a pleasant prospect.
Chin in hand he caught sight of his reflection in the glass. Who was that sour, despondent old man? Why did he hate this job, this department that was so good to him, that had nurtured and fed him all these years? Because he was turning fifty. It was hitting him hard. Merle had turned fifty two years before— or was it three? Anyway she breezed right through it. She had reinvented herself at fifty, with a life in France. Upturned her whole world, for him supposedly but France had wooed her too. Was it easier for women? He doubted it. She had left her family, especially her son Tristan, behind in the States. That can’t have been easy.
He leaned back in the seat and shut his eyes. He was tired, maybe that’s all it was. He wasn’t going to the club car for more wine. No, he would just rest his weary head for a moment. Before he could drift off, the family across the aisle began to eat their supper, popping the cork on a bottle of Bordeaux and distributing baguette sandwiches of ham and cheese, oranges, and bags of chips. The man, presumably husband to the woman and father to the two children, looked rich and happy, a flush to his youthful cheeks. He wasn’t as old as fifty. He looked content, smiling at his wife, joking with his children.
Pascal closed his eyes again. Maybe they would quiet down. He wasn’t sure how much time passed before he felt the nudge on his elbow.
“Monsieur? Pardon.” The man had a plastic cup of wine in his hand, offering it across the aisle. He smiled at Pascal. “It is my own wine, my first real vintage since taking over the winery from my father. Celebrate with us?”
Pascal straightened and smiled politely as he took the glass, holding it aloft in a salute to the vintner. “Salut. À santé.” Even the children raised their plastic cups of juice and smiled sweetly at him.
He sipped the proffered wine. It was silky and soft, tasting of berries and woodsmoke. He smiled appreciatively at the man and nodded his approval. “Can I see the bottle?”
The young vintner passed him the open bottle. Pascal read the label and felt a pang of envy. It was uncharacteristic for him, this feeling. He had examined thousands upon thousands of bottles. He rubbed the classic-style Bordeaux label. He had seen this vineyard in his travels. It was in the Medoc, on sacred wine terroir. This man was lucky to have been born into this family.
Pascal passed the bottle back. “It’s excellent, monsieur. Merci. Félicitations.”
The young man beamed. His little daughter was talking loudly about something she wanted for her birthday. Pascal looked back out the window. The silly fantasy that had flickered in and out of his mind the last few months rose up again. A winery of his own. Rows of perfectly tended vines, soil full of clay and rocks and the smell of old leaves. A southeastern exposure perhaps, as long as one is fantasizing. A stone tasting room. Modern vats and a large barrel cave, deep underground.
He shook his head, smiling at himself. He could never leave the department. Never. They would take him out feet first, no doubt. He sipped the delicious wine, savoring the last drops. No, he would keep vintners honest, carry on the grand traditions of French wine-making with all his legal authority.
That was all he could do.