What fun I have for you today!
We get to experience another new title from Le French book. This title, Deadly Tasting, isn’t due to be released in print until October; but look at you: you get a sneak preview now!
Let’s take a look:
Drinking unsweetened Darjeeling tea was not a problem. Resisting the three crispy little biscuits taunting him from the white porcelain dish was another thing. The evening before, his wife had told him the time had come to shed the extra pounds that were making his shirts gape between the buttons. Benjamin Cooker had, indeed, filled out a bit over the past few months. He preferred to think that his heavy neck and chin, full cheeks, prominent belly, and belt hooked in the first notch gave him the look of a bon vivant, a well-off and satisfied man in his fifties.
Elisabeth Cooker, however, did not agree. The extra weight wasn’t good for his looks or his health, so she had taken matters into her own hands. She had gotten hold of a cabbage soup diet purportedly prescribed by the cardiology department of a large urban hospital for obese patients who needed to lose weight before surgery. Elizabeth had cut a large head of cabbage, four slivers of garlic, six large onions, a dozen peeled tomatoes,six carrots, two green peppers, one stalk of celery, and plunged them into three quarts of water with three cubes of fat-free chicken broth. The mixture, seasoned with salt, pepper, curry powder, and parsley, had been boiled for ten minutes and then simmered until all the vegetables were tender. Benjamin was supposed to eat this soup whenever he was hungry over the course of seven days. It was not meant to be the only source of nourishment, and to avoid nutritional deficiencies, he would be allowed fruits, additional vegetables, rice, milk, or a piece of red meat, depending on the day.
The first day promised to be especially grueling. Other than the soup, fruit was all that Benjamin was permitted. And that was limited. He couldn’t have any bananas. Benjamin surmised they were too tasty for this Spartan regimen. For drinks he could only have unsweetened tea, natural fruit juice, and water. The wine expert had initially rebelled, citing his professional obligations, upcoming wine tastings, and business lunches. Elisabeth had responded by giving one of his love handles an affectionate pinch. Surrendering, he had leaned over her and planted a grumpy kiss in the hollow of her neck.
There were only a few patrons on the terrace of the Café Régent in downtown Bordeaux, and the damp morning foreshadowed the first chill of fall. Benjamin drank his scalding-hot tea,reached for the small white dish without looking at the perfectly golden crust on the biscuits, and offered it to the person at the next table: an elderly lady with hair pulled back in a bun who was attentively reading the last pages of the local daily newspaper, the Sud-Ouest, which contained the weather forecast and the horoscopes. She thanked him and gobbled the pastries in three quick bites. He stood, nodded good-bye, and resolutely took off toward the Allées de Tourny.
He was about to climb the large staircase to his office when a digital toccata rang out from the cell phone deep inside the pocket of his Loden. He dug the device out, pressed the answer button, and Inspector Barbaroux’s gravelly voice assaulted his eardrum. Getting straight to the point without so much as a greeting, the police inspector asked Benjamin to come immediately to 8B Rue Maucoudinat. The detective had a clipped, authoritative tone, perhaps to give away as little information as possible. Irritated, Benjamin made a quick about-face and headed for the Saint Pierre neighborhood. He was not in the habit of complying so swiftly, and he was almost angry with himself for doing what the captain wanted without getting any explanation.
Arriving at the Place Camille Jullian, Benjamin spotted two police cars blocking the narrow street, their doors wide open and lights flashing. An ambulance was parked nearby. The street hadalso been cordoned off. A uniformed officer recognized Benjamin from afar and unhooked the crime-scene tape to let him pass. He explained that the captain was waiting for him on the third floor of the small building at the corner of the Rue des Trois Chandeliers. Other police officers were holding back a crowd of onlookers, many of whom were standing on their toes to catch a glimpse of whatever was happening behind the flowerpots on the balcony. Benjamin rushed up the two flights of wooden stairs without so much as holding onto the railing and made his way down the hall where two plainclothes detectives were talking with a woman in a white coat. They all turned and looked him up and down without a word.
“Hello,” Benjamin panted. “I believe the inspector is expecting me.”
“I don’t know if he can be disturbed,” said one of the men. “Access to the area is prohibited.”
“This way, Mr. Cooker,” Barbaroux bellowed from inside the apartment.
In the hallway, an empty gurney sat next to an umbrella stand, which was also empty. The wallpaper, with tedious rows of droopy floral bouquets, oozed a musty odor. Faded prints of religious scenes, shepherds on the heath, and dove hunters added little charm to the stuffy dark tunnel that opened onto a cramped living room furnished in birch veneer.
“Sorry to trouble you, but I needed to see you right away,” the inspector said, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his trousers. “Thanks for coming so quickly.”
“What happened?” Benjamin asked, overlooking the fact that Barbaroux hadn’t bothered to shake his hand. “It must be serious if you’ve blocked the road off.”
“Everyone says you’re the most brilliant wine expert of your generation,” Barbaroux said.
“Some even claim that you’re one of the best in the world. Is that true?”
“You didn’t bring me here to shower me with compliments, I hope.”
“Don’t think I’m being sarcastic, Mr. Cooker. That’s not my style. But it happens that I need your expertise right now.”
The woman in the white coat came into the room. Her hand was raised, and she appeared to be asking permission to cut the conversation short. Two morgue attendants wearing serious expressions were standing behind her.
“My team has finished, Chief. Can we remove the body now?”
“You haven’t forgotten anything?” Barbaroux growled.
“Everything’s ready to go. We have what we need.”
“What about those samples we rushed to the lab?”
“They should be getting back to you any minute.”
“In that case, get him out of here!”The men pushed a gurney through a doorthat Benjamin had not noticed before, leaving it open as they attempted to lift the half-naked and bloody body. It took several tries, and at one point they almost dropped the corpse. The wine expert averted his eyes and made a sign of the cross.
“Jules-Ernest Grémillon, ninety-three years old,” said Barbaroux. “Not a bad age to die.”
“Are you going to tell me what happened in this apartment or not?”
“Do you really want to know?” he asked, looking Cooker in the eye. “Well then, follow me.”
They went into the kitchen, which looked hardly bigger than a few square feet. The floor, laminate counter, and wall tiles were splattered with dark stains that looked nearly black, except where the dim ceiling light reflected ruby red spots. Cooker felt his stomach lurch, and he was grateful there wasn’t much in it. He frowned.
“Total carnage!” Barbaroux said. “The old man was butchered like a pig. What a mess! According to preliminary findings, the victim tried to defend himself before he was struck. Itlooks like the killer attacked quickly. Over there, the clean dishes on the drain board fell onto the dirty dishes in the sink. They’re all smashed. Andthere, the pans were knocked off the hooks. A box of macaroni is spilled all over the floor.”
Benjamin looked on without a word, trying to control the revulsion he felt in this ravaged, bloodstained kitchen, a repugnant cesspool where the most barbaric violence had mixed with the ordinary misery of everyday life.
“But the strangest thing, Mr. Cooker, is behind you,” the inspector said, touching the winemaker lightly on the shoulder. “Turn around. I want you to see this. Odd, isn’t it?”
On a small wooden table wedged behind the door, right beside the refrigerator, a dozen wine glasses were arranged in a semicircle. Only one, the glass on the extreme right, was full.
(cue scary music).
Wow. I’d better watch myself with my wine, right? See you next time!