Creative, Cozy & Connected
Thanks to the 60 cozy readers who sent me the following words as inspiration to write a short cozy mystery.
Every word was included!
“But what no one had guessed was…,” “How cute is this,” Amazing, Awesome, Bamboozle, Banana, Blackberry jam, Blackjack, Blanket, Brouhaha, Bunny, Buttercups, Cacophony, Cacti, Cadaver, Cartwheels, Catawampus, Character, Chocolate, Coffee, Cold dark moonless night, Contrary, Conundrum, Country music playing on the radio, Crescent moon, Cupcakes, Determine, Discombobulated, Doohickey, Dward Farkward, Faith, Fireflies, Flabbergasted, Flummoxed, Gaslight, Giggles, Gob smacked, Grandsons, Gritty, Guitar, Gumshoe, Harmonica, Heart, Homesteading, Hope, Jumping Jahosephat, Juxtaposed, Kids, Kitties, Knackered, Love, Mandolin, Marmalade, Melancholy, Midnight, Moxie, Mugwump, Music, Narcissist, Nincompoop, Perfect, Pitbull puppies, Pluviophile, Prayerful, Prevaricate, Pulk (sled), Purr, Quarantined, Reading/Reading a good book, Reykjavic, Rubbernecking, Serendipity, Sincerity the angles admire, Sleepless, Smart, Smores, Snacks, Snickerdoodle, Sunny, Sunshine, Suspicious, Sweltering heat, Teacup, Teapot, Terrapin, Wafting, Walking, Weave, Widdershins, Wide-eyed… Wine
By Christin Brecher
I’ll admit, I surprised myself with that call. I was on my second straight day in bed, under my blanket, with the TV clicker’s buttons imprinted on my thigh. With no rush to rise to a whirlwind of breakfast or curfew negotiations or missing car keys, a melancholy had settled over me.
The glow of my TV screen had also failed to comfort me. Unfortunately, I’d deleted Candy Crush from my phone the night before, after Ernest suggested I was showing signs of game addiction, so I persevered scrolling through the channels. Finally, I found Silver Linings, a new reality show where guests’ friends make them fulfill a dream deferred. Someone did a cartwheel for the first time. Another made a pilgrimage to watch terrapin hatchlings head to the sea. Initially, I was grateful my own friends had had the quiet decency of suggesting a therapist to manage my malaise, rather than forcing me to appear on national television. But then, as I watched a woman jump out of an airplane with nothing more than a parachute between life and death, I remembered Dr. Frost’s advice to “reconnect with the things that inspired you before you had children.”
“I’ve been raising my children for over eighteen years,” I had said, seated on her couch, and determined not to need the box of Kleenex strategically placed beside me. “I don’t remember what inspired me.”
“Then what inspires you now?” said Dr. Frost, removing her eyeglasses.
“I guess I thought Ernest and I would clean out the garage,” I said, trying to be more constructive. “Maybe get a little drunk at Bertucci’s on a weeknight. Maybe even head into Manhattan every now and then, but Ernest hates the traffic. Last time we went to the City, he twisted his ankle in a pothole crossing the street. He also gets asthma attacks if we pass buildings under construction.”
“That can’t be easy,” she said.
“I don’t think he’s boring, if that’s what you’re suggesting. He’s the Northeast VP of Sales for Xcellerator. They sell all-inclusive technology solutions to small businesses.”
I was not interested in exploring the idea that Ernest was boring. From now on it was just the two of us. For the rest of our lives. Together. Feeling a bit flummoxed under Dr. Frost’s attentive eyes, I briefly had another thought. Maybe after years as a homemaker I was boring. I felt a little tightening in my throat.
“We like our sitcoms and Netflix originals,” I said.
Maybe we both were boring.
For fifty minutes and one hundred of my dollars, I told her about our town, it’s a little dot off Route 1 in New Jersey. We have a semi-inground pool that our friends congregate around on sweltering hot summer days. I volunteer at the town library three days a week, but I studied to be a nurse before I had my children. When I realized that daycare would cost about as much as my future paychecks, I decided to stay home and raise my family full-time. I like old movies, especially Hitchcock. Ernest likes Westerns. I was not sure why that was important, but Dr. Frost made a note of it.
It was Silver Linings, however, that finally reminded me of something I really wanted to do. The idea struck me with such force that I headed to the bathroom to brush my teeth, lifting from between our rose-colored wall-to-wall rug and the bathroom door a large, creamy envelope in thick card stock which I had used as a door stopper for the last month. Standing in front of the sink, I called Ernest.
“I’m heading to a meeting in mid-town,” he said in his warm voice that always makes me feel like everything will be ok. “These roads are like a third world country. If someone ran for mayor and said, I’m going to do nothing but fix the roads, I think I’d campaign for him. And education. Roads and education.”
Maybe it was the effect of two days in bed followed by my epiphany, but I looked in the mirror and considered what my hair would look like shorter. A stylist once told me I had the cheekbones for it.
“Ernie, I’ve decided we should go to your cousin’s wedding in France,” I said. I opened the envelope, inspired by the serendipity of the wedding invitation we’d stuck under a door.
“I hate Lewis,” said Ernie about his cousin. “And we’re going to the Jersey Shore this summer. That’s travel. Listen, can we get that Stop & Shop meatloaf for dinner? I’ve been craving it.”
“I have too. And the pickles. But listen, we need to reconnect with things that inspired us before we had children,” I said. “Sam and Hilly both leaving has been hard for you, too. I heard you sneak out to Subway last night. The whole house still smells of onion.”
“I was watching High Noon. I needed a snack.”
“We’re going to the wedding.”
“Spending time with Lewis is not something we enjoyed before we had kids. We got him the fancy smoothie maker. He likes those banana drinks. That’s more than enough. Anyway, when have we ever travelled?”
“The first time we met. Two high school kids on pleather bus seats, heading toward a senior weekend in Montreal.”
I could almost hear his smile.
“That’s the only time we’ve ever left the country,” I said with a laugh. “In our whole lives. And look at what happened.”
“The stuff of love story legends,” he said.
“Exactly,” I said, through my toothpaste. “The invitation says that the bride’s family has a wine vineyard. Sancerre is famous for wine.”
I looked at the small pamphlet inside the invitation of an idyllic town on top of a small mountain. There were photos of sunny skies over the vineyeards, and of couples clinking glasses under a crescent moon.
“There’s a goat farm nearby. And swimming in the Loire River. It’s a hill town, a hundred miles south of Paris, with a wall surrounding it,” I said. “No crime, no driving over potholes. Just fresh air, sunshine, wine and cheese. Cheese, Ernest. And free food all weekend once we get there.”
Between the sound of a belligerent horn honking behind him and my description of wine and cheese, I could feel him softening to the idea.
“I’d need an extra inhaler,” said Ernest by way of saying yes.
“I’m on it,” I said, rinsing. “I’ll take care of the details.”
The minute we hung up, I called the airlines and found a very reasonably priced flight, albeit with two stops between Newark and Paris. I booked two tickets, and then I went online to make a hotel reservation, rather than struggle over the phone with my fourth grade French. My heart sank when I learned that the Hotel le Clos off Sancerre’s main square, where everyone was staying, was fully booked. The news got worse. This late in the game, the town’s other hotels were also booked, and I now had non-refundable plane tickets. It felt like a miracle when after a couple of Google searches I found an apartment rental for the weekend. The photos of the one-bedroom unit were of views which overlooked the rooftops of Sancerre. A former guest gave the accommodation four stars, and a thumbs up for a skylight in the master bedroom.
It sounded like heaven.
* * *
Three days and ten hours of flying later, we landed at Charles de Gaulle airport.
“You have snickerdoodle crumbs on your shirt,” I said to Earnest as we unbuckled our seatbelts. “The French are very chic. No crumbs, from now on.”
“I’m not a nincompoop,” he said. “I know how to behave in France.”
“I know that, dear,” I said, as we passed a stewardess.
“Merci,” he said to her to prove his point.
“Au revoir,” she answered.
Ernie and I couldn’t help it. We out and out giggled as we left the aircraft, giddy over the success of his first French interaction.
We’d also read that bed bugs run rampant on planes, so Ernie had found on Amazon protective luggage wraps with pictures of bright, yellow buttercups. Extra perk, we easily spotted our belongings at the luggage carousel. We only had one hitch upon arrival. The man at the Hertz counter gave us a stick shift car, and was very unfriendly when we tried to explain that Ernest hadn’t driven stick in ten years.
“Would you like the insurance?” he’d offered as a solution.
Well, that got us nowhere.
As it turned out, the hard part was Siri. She was completely discombobulated and kept mispronouncing French words. It took us a couple of swings around the airport before we finally got it. The good news was that by then Ernest had remembered how to drive stick. After that, I knew we’d made the right decision to come to France, especially when we stopped for gas about half-way to Sancerre. While Ernest filled up, I went inside for snacks. I wasn’t sure what was what, but I got a loaf of bread and a tub of pate.
“You’re crazy,” said Ernest when I rejoined him. “Pate at a gas station? It’ll kill us.”
“Let’s live a little,” I said.
I don’t think I’m ever going to eat bread, or pate for that matter, that’s as good as we had on the side of that road.
By three o’clock, we saw the town of Sancerre ahead of us.
“How cute is this?” said Earnest, wide-eyed.
I was so happy to hear those words. A part of me had worried I’d bamboozled him into the trip, but now I knew for sure that he truly shared my enthusiasm. What neither of us could have guessed, however, was how hard it would be to weave our car through the maze of narrow streets. It was four o’clock when we finally made it to our apartment building with its dusty-rose façade, white-shuttered windows and a charming French roof that was straight out of the 15th century.
We’d been told that the key for our apartment would be at the pizzeria on the ground floor of our building. The owner, Gil, was expecting us. Ernest said it should have been a creperie, but I explained that’s what you get when you book last minute. Most importantly, Gil was waiting for us on his steps, playing the mandolin while four kitties purred beside him. After a few broken words in French and English between us, he handed us the key, and we climbed three flights of stairs feeling like the world’s greatest adventurers.
It was then that we hit an obstacle more daunting than stick shift. At the top of the stairs we found no more than an arrow, drawn on a piece of paper and taped beside a ladder.
“Are we supposed to climb up there?”
“Oh my god,” I said. “My fear of heights. I can’t climb that thing.”
“How about the air? I’ll die up there,” said Ernest.
For suddenly weary travelers like ourselves, the arrow was a conundrum. The allure of a place to call home battled with our dread of what lay behind the door. In the end, I grabbed hold of the rope bannister.
“I’ll get behind you,” said Earnest.
He’s such a good guy. He stood behind me while I crawled slowly to the top, inch by inch. He even managed to pull our two bags behind him up the twenty steps of the ladder. I counted. I had to try four times before I could get the key to work and for us to confirm that I had rented an attic. One big room with a ceiling that was the roof; a kitchenette; and, a bathroom with one of those extra toilet doohickeys we couldn’t figure out. The saving grace was the bedroom. When we lay down, we looked up to the ceiling and through the infamous skylight that had earned our place four stars.
“Oh, Ernie. It’s the wall to the city,” I said of the view. “We’re in medieval times.”
“I don’t know how we’re ever going to get back down those stairs, but thank god we made it,” said Ernest.
He closed his eyes. I couldn’t wait for a nap either.
When I awoke, I could tell it was evening. I rolled over and looked up to see our view.
Instead, I saw a dead body staring down at me from the window.
* * *
After a moment of sheer, silent terror, I screamed, and then ran into the living room.
“What happened?” said Ernest, following me, still half asleep.
I pointed to the bedroom, but I couldn’t speak.
“What?” he said. “Was it a bug?”
I kept pointing.
Ernest returned to the room while I rummaged through my bag for his inhaler.
He came back into the living room.
“It’s already seven,” he said. “We should get dressed. Lewis’ engagement party starts in a half hour.”
“What are you talking about?” I said. “Did you see – it?”
Ernest rubbed his neck and headed back to the bedroom.
“Jane,” he said from the room. “You’re being very difficult. I don’t see any bugs. You said yourself, you get-what-you-get when you wait this long to book.”
“I don’t care about a bug,” I said. “I never care about bugs. I’m talking about the dead body.”
“Ha, ha. Did you iron my tan pants? I’m glad you made me bring my blue-striped tie.”
I marched back into the bedroom, now more upset about my husband’s blindness than the possibility of seeing a dead body again.
“There,” I said, pointing up.
We looked up.
There was no dead body.
“Oh my god,” I said. “Oh my god, this is bad.”
I sat on the edge of the bed.
“What is it? Are you having a hot flash?”
With all good intentions, he started to fan me, but I stopped his flying hands.
“No, I’m not having a hot flash. My friend, Melissa, from the library, gave me some Ambien for the flight. I knew I shouldn’t have taken drugs.”
“Should we stay home?” said Ernest, sitting beside me. “What if you have hallucinations all night?”
I suddenly I had a vision of us watching ESPN all weekend.
“You know, I bet it was jet lag,” I said, straightening up. “And I was probably just dreaming.”
… which was actually a more likely scenario than waking to a dead body. So, with all the moxie I could summon, I crossed the room and squeezed into my new blue bodycon dress, averting my eyes from the sky light. About thirty minutes later, we climbed very slowly down the ladder. I was a wreck at each step, and my dress crept up to my stomach, but I could tell Ernest was having fun below me.
“You’re not funny,” I said.
“You’re gorgeous,” he said, and kissed my ankle in a way he hadn’t in years.
If I hadn’t been so scared to climb back up, I’d have changed my mind about the party right then. Instead, we walked to Maison de Sancerre, a wine museum not far from us, where the party was being held.
“I hope Lewis isn’t a pain,” Ernest said as we headed down the quiet street, stopping only once to let a bunny pass us. The juxtaposition between the dream I’d had of a dead man on my skylight and the world outside our door was surreal, but I focused on my husband.
“Lewis was very gracious when I called him about coming,” I said.
“He should be,” Earnest said. “He’s the one who chopped off my pinky.”
When Ernest was seventeen, he found a dead fish one summer on the boardwalk of the Jersey Shore which for some reason captured his attention. Lewis, I think he was only about six at the time, approached with a gritty pocket knife and he stabbed the fish. Thing is, he also took off the tip of Ernest’s pinky. Personally, I think the more interesting angle is how a six-year old got a knife.
“Look,” I said. “He’s a big Hollywood agent, the success of the family, but he’s forty and he’s never been married. He’s nervous. Be nice.”
“For free food, I can be very nice,” said Ernest.
We climbed a couple of steps to the museum which was catawampus to the corner of a street. Very charming. Two waiters stood out front with trays of wine. I took a red. Ernest took a white. We walked inside, to a room with several French doors which opened onto a stunning garden lit by the warm glow of the setting sun. Any fears I’d had about a cadaver on my roof disappeared and I found myself in an almost prayerful state, enraptured by a cacophony of sights and scents. Ernest came up behind me with a plate of cheese and crackers.
“Ernie!” A voice called out. “Awesome to see you, man.”
We turned to find Lewis walking towards us. He was aging well. Full head of hair, a tan. Beside him was a gorgeous woman who could not be all of thirty. I noticed Ernest pull in his gut.
“How’s it going?” said Ernest.
“Well, my Pitbull puppies have been quarantined at the airport so they won’t be making the wedding, but otherwise I’m the happiest man alive. This is Yvette DeMontagne,” Lewis said proudly. “My bride-to-be and a brilliant talent in Hollywood.”
“Bonjour,” said Yvette. “You must be knackered from your long flight.”
She kissed us both on each cheek, although I don’t think she got our names.
I was curious to find out what one did to be a brilliant talent in Hollywood. Before I could ask, however, there was the sound of a clink against a glass. We all turned to the end of the garden where fireflies had begun to blink their lights as if part of a movie set.
“Bien venue, welcome, guests. I’m Yvette’s father, Charles,” said Monsieur DeMontagne, a Charles Asnevore-type with graying temples. “They say that wine and love go hand in hand. I agree. Yvette and Lewis are like a bottle of wine and I have faith that they will grow better and better as each year passes.”
Everyone applauded. While Charles repeated his toast in French, I looked around the crowd. They were mostly a young group, mixed with family members. I was enjoying the wine and the soft breeze waft across the party, when I suddenly froze. I grabbed Ernest’s arm.
“I know,” he said, offering me a cracker with a cube of cheese atop it. “The Swiss is as good as the Camembert.”
“No. That man over there,” I said.
I tilted my head one way while still looking at our host, to be discreet.
“He’s the dead guy I saw.”
I felt like the woman in one of my favorite old films, Gaslight. It’s a Hitchcock-esque movie about a woman whose husband plays with her mind for his own gain. I knew Ernest wasn’t messing with me, but I felt like someone was.
“Butch Loverly?” he said.
“The movie star? Ernest, that’s not even funny. How is that a relevant joke?”
“It’s not meant to be. He’s Lewis’s biggest client. Did you forget?”
“Oh.” I let go of his arm, feeling very silly. “I guess I did.”
“Must’ve been why you dreamt of him on our roof earlier. Remember he played Dward Farkward, the President’s henchman, in The Mugwump Protocol.”
Ernest gave me a smile that said he’d be teasing me about this one for years to come. Fortunately, a waiter arrived and handed all of us small bowls of grapes.
“These,” Monsieur DeMontagne said over the crowd while raising one small grape to the setting sun, “are from our family’s vineyard. In honor of Yvette and Lewis, we will be making these grapes into a special wine. For them.”
He popped a grape into his mouth. I was still feeling a bit thrown by Butch Loverly’s uncanny resemblance to the dead man I’d imagined, but I followed suit along with everyone else. I chose a grape at random from my bowl and bit against the ripe skin to release a rich juice inside. It was delicious and I decided to relax, whatever it took. We were here to celebrate Lewis’s nuptials, and travel the world. I wasn’t going to let an Ambien-fueled dream ruin things, as odd as they were. At the front of the garden, however, DeMontagne did something to challenge my resolve. He began to cough.
He covered his mouth to muffle the sound, but I dropped my second grape back into its bowl as his spasms quickly became more violent. We all looked on, not sure what was happening. When he did not stop, Lewis approached and slapped him on the back. A waiter came and gave him a glass of water, but DeMontagne’s face was growing purple.
That’s when my nurse’s instinct kicked in.
“I’ll do the Heimlich,” I said as I ran blindly toward DeMontagne.
I wrapped my arms around him from behind and pulled his abdomen up and in. Nothing came out. I tried again. And again.
“Are you choking?” I said, confused.
I could have sworn the man shook his head as he fell to the ground. He pulled me down with him.
“Poison,” he said and then he closed his eyes.
This time there was no doubt about it. I was looking at a dead man.
* * *
Running contrary to everyone else’s instinct, Ernest and I slowly and quietly stepped back into the crowd during the panic which ensued. Yvette and her mother ran to Charles and wept by his side. The guests stepped up to comfort the bridal party. Before long, the police came, followed by an ambulance which took Charles DeMontagne away.
“He said poison before he died,” I said to Ernest, who had taken my shaking hand.
“That means fish in French. Maybe he knew about Lewis and my pinky and the fish.”
“Stop with the pinky,” I said, pulling my hand from him. Now was not the time. “How is this funny to you?”
“Maybe he’s allergic to fish,” said Ernest, penitently. “And he was trying to tell you.”
“I know I had the wine, and the cheese, and the Ambien before, but I think he said poison.”
“Jane,” said Ernest. “Let’s go. This has been an unnerving night for all of us.”
“We can’t go yet,” I said. “I was there with him. At the end.”
“No one is even looking at us,” he said. “Tomorrow they’ll thank you for trying to save him. Right now, let’s head out. Others are starting to leave. Soon it will be awkward, and frankly I think you need some rest.”
“Really?” I said with my mad face.
“Really,” he said with his don’t-mess-with-me-but-also-don’t-yell-at-me-either face.
I walked out of the museum without so much as a look behind at my husband. When we got to the sidewalk, by the side of the museum, I stopped and flared my nostrils.
“Poison and poisson are two different words,” I said.
“The man was French,” he said.
“I was speaking English. There’s something going on here, and you won’t accept it.”
“Oh no you didn’t,” I said.
“I think I just did.”
“And another thing,” he said. “I can drive stick shift perfectly well. In fact,-”
At that moment, a brick landed with a resounding crash not two inches from my foot.
We looked up.
“Did you see that?” said Ernest.
“Of course, I did,” I said. “We could’ve been killed. Everything here is so old.”
“No, I saw a person on the roof,” he said. “Come on. We’re getting out of here.”
It is amazing how certain fears disappear when others take over. Ernest and I were back into our attic apartment in a jiffy without even noticing the musty air or the ladder. Once inside, we kept the lights out and I made Ernest check every room which he did, heroically.
“Did someone try to kill us?” I said in a whisper as Ernest disappeared into the kitchen.
He returned with a lit candle, and sat down beside me on the old, dusty sofa.
“What if Butch really was on our roof?” he said. “But, like, knocked out by someone. Why would he slink off the roof and go to the party though?”
“What if someone is after everyone in the wedding party?” I said.
“Maybe Lewis has an ex who is crazy,” I said. “Or Yvette. And they’re sabotaging the wedding. The grapes could have been a symbolic choice.”
“Or it’s Butch. He had an altercation with Charles on the old fortification before the party about something. Butch falls from the wall but doesn’t die. Then Butch poisons the grapes to get back at Charles?”
“I like it. But why?”
“I don’t know, but this is so much more interesting than Netflix,” said Ernest.
“Listen, we can’t tell anyone about the poison,” I said. “Clearly, someone is afraid I heard something. We need to convince them I didn’t, to make sure they’re not suspicious of me. If we pretend like we didn’t hear, then maybe they won’t try again.”
“In the meantime, we have to figure out who killed Charles.”
“Obviously,” I said.
I leaned toward him, my lips coming close to his.
“How’s your breathing?” I asked.
“To hell with my inhaler.”
At that moment, there was a knock on the door.
* * *
Ernest slid quietly off the sofa, and picked up an old curtain rod that was lying by the window for protection.
“Ernest?” We heard from the other side of the door.
He lowered the rod.
“Lewis? Is that you?”
Relieved, I opened the door.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” said Ernest, rushing to his cousin as Lewis walked into our apartment, and flicked on the light switch.
“You have no idea,” he said. He seemed to barely notice our condolences as he pulled a laptop from a bag he was carrying and put it on our coffee table.
“What’s that?” I said, as if I’d never seen one.
“I need your help,” Lewis said, looking at my husband.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Bottom line, I’m just about broke,” said Lewis. He sat on the sofa and ran his hands through his hair. “Times have been tough for me. The Homesteading Agency, where I’m a partner, hasn’t been doing well. Butch Loverly is my last big client. The only reason I invited him is because I need to keep him out of trouble until his big opening next month.”
“The Pluviophile Papers: Mugwump Protocol 2.” I heard Earnest whisper, sort of to the room but to no one in particular.
“I hear it’s supposed to be great,” I said.
Lewis nodded, and in spite of the strain I thought we’d made him happy for one brief second.
“But, I was flabbergasted to find he showed up at the party tonight with a black eye,” said Lewis.
Ernest looked at me. I hadn’t noticed a black eye.
“The thing is,” said Lewis, “Charles DeMontagne’s business is also a mess. And, if it’s not too much to ask, I need your help with it, Cuz.”
He opened his laptop.
“You can hack into computers, can’t you? Now that my father-in-law is dead, Yvette’s going to have a lot of debts and I’m afraid I won’t have enough money to help her.”
“Jumping Jehosephat,” said Ernest.
I looked at him with my mouth open, and he shrugged as if to acknowledge it was an odd thing to say.
“I’m not going to alter account information for you,” my husband said, redeemingly – although I still thought the whole family was crazy at that moment.
“No. The problem is that the last couple of harvests for the DeMontagnes were terrible,” said Lewis. “So bad that Charles entertained bids from three adjacent neighbors to buy the vineyard. My future father-in-law was about to agree to one of the offers, I don’t know which, nor does Yvette. Last week, however, he suddenly decided against selling altogether. We asked him for an explanation, but he wouldn’t give us one. It made no sense. Someone or something had scared him though. Or, and this is just my gut, but maybe he had a secret he was suddenly afraid would be exposed.”
Ernest, who had still been holding the curtain rod in one hand, now put it down. I knew only one thing for sure at that moment. My husband would try to help Charles DeMontagnes now that he couldn’t do so for himself. Before I knew it, Lewis was giving him a web address, and the man I’d been married to for twenty-five years was hacking passwords with a sincerity that angels would admire. I actually would have objected to the hacking part if it hadn’t been so exciting. Twenty minutes later, Ernest handed Lewis the computer.
“Jane, can we talk privately?” he then said to me.
I followed Ernest to the bedroom while Lewis studied his computer.
“I think we should we tell him about the poison,” said Ernest when we had some privacy.
“Ok,” I said.
“Ok,” he said, and then he gave me the kiss we’d started before Lewis had interrupted us.
“Wait,” I said.
“I know,” he said. “Obviously. Lewis is still in the next room.”
“No,” I said. “I mean, I don’t know about telling him. What if he’s here just to see if I heard Charles say “poison”? Maybe he made up the story about Charles’ vineyards to feel us out.”
“Come on. You think my cousin tried to kill us outside the museum?”
I didn’t have to answer. Ernest looked at his pinky.
We headed back down the hallway, to the living room, with some trepidation. A few steps away, we stopped short.
“What do you mean they’re after you?” Lewis was saying, presumably into his phone.
Ernest looked at me, then entered.
“I’ve gotta go,” said Lewis.
“Who was that?” I said.
“I couldn’t find anything strange with the accounts,” said Lewis, ignoring me and heading hastily to our front door. “But I appreciate your help. See you at the brunch in the morning?”
He shut the door before we had a chance to answer. Ernest made strangling gestures toward where his cousin had just stood.
“I can’t believe I hacked a website for that man,” he said.
“But now we can access it, too,” I said, and handed him my phone. “Can you do your magic on this?”
“Yes. Yes, I can. My wife’s so smart.”
He gave me a wink, which I very much appreciated. He then took the phone, pulled out his readers, and got to work.
“I can’t find enough information to make heads or tails of their overall financial health, but it looks like DeMontagne invested quite a bit in vitamins for his grapes’ health,” he finally said, well after midnight. “The strange part is that, in spite of this high-end care, the grapes were dying, like Lewis said.”
“Could we have all died from those grapes?” I said, wondering if we might have all been in danger of a simple case of food poisoning.
“But we didn’t die,” said Ernest. “Only DeMontagne. What does that mean?”
“I don’t know, but you have a good point. I think we need to see those grapes. There’s a goat cheese tour tomorrow morning, followed by a trip to the DeMontagne vineyard.”
We agreed to go on the tour, but even with a plan we had a sleepless night, and not in a good way. In addition to the anticipation of what we might find at the vineyard, we stared up through the now-ominous skylight at a cold, dark, moonless night.
* * *
We entered the Hotel de Clos for the wedding party’s breakfast at eight the next morning. Ernest and I wore our sneakers and sporty clothes in case we had to make a run for it during the day. We were underdressed compared to some of the Hollywood types invited, but we didn’t care.
“Did you take Lactaid?” I said as we perused the buffet.
“Bah,” said Ernest in a French accent I found very sexy.
“There’s Butch,” I said. “Let’s sit at his table.”
I couldn’t believe we’d missed Butch’s black eye in the dimming light last night, but I could see it halfway across the room this morning. I picked up a teapot and tea cup and prepared myself a mint tea. As Ernest piled a bit more blackberry jam and orange marmalade onto his plate, I headed across the room, telling myself that Butch Loverly was probably nothing more than a narcissistic actor who had gotten himself into trouble.
“I’m such a fan,” I said, sitting down next to him. Under normal circumstances, I’d never have had the guts to sit down next to a celebrity, but here I was.
“You shoulda seen the other guy,” he said with movie star charm.
“Are you going on the cheese tour today?” said Ernest, joining us and jumping straight to the point. I noticed he’d also found a chocolate cupcake somewhere.
Suddenly, Butch stopped stirring his coffee. I thought he was going to prevaricate after my pointed question, but then I followed his gaze across the room to see a shady looking guy. He searched the room until his eyes fell on Butch. Ernest grabbed my arm. I knew why. I saw a gun peeking out from his jacket.
Yvettes and Lewis stood up in front of him, blocking our view as they held hands and faced their guests.
“Thank you for coming this morning,” Yvettes said with a tear. “As you know, we had many activities planned for you all. Please do not feel obligated to spend your day sitting around, feeling sad for my family. My father was excited about the activities we planned, and I think he would want you to enjoy them.”
“In the same spirit,” said Lewis, “Yvettes and I, with some bittersweet emotion, have decided to continue with the ceremony tonight.”
The room applauded with laughter and tears. A lot of brouhaha if you ask me. All I could wonder was if Lewis was pushing for the nuptials given his personal financial difficulties. Charles DeMontagne might not have wanted to sell his land, but Lewis hadn’t waited one night before he’d come knocking on our door for help to peek under the DeMontagne’s covers. He needed money, and he had an opportunity to sell to one of the neighbors. Sounded like a motive to me.
“Bonjour Mesdames and Messieurs,” said a bus driver, arriving beside them. “If you will join us, the tour of the cheese farm and the vineyard will depart soon.”
“I think I will join you,” said Butch.
As the room emptied, we watched Butch slip around the shady man and board the bus. We followed cautiously behind him, but the gun-slinging stranger did not join us.
After twenty minutes of bumping down the medieval town’s road, we arrived at a goat farm. This part of our investigation was no more than a delay in reaching our real goal, but it helped us avoid suspicion and keep our cover. I think, however, we’d been expecting something like a cheese tasting at this point. Instead we entered a stinky, fly-filled stable to hear the history of goat cheese.
I used the time to size up the rest of the crowd, but no one seemed to fit the part of DeMontagne’s murderer. I counted Ernest’s great-aunt Maura, who looked to be about eighty and who I knew was independently wealthy; plus, Sarah and Stacey, Ernest’s second cousins who had come out of the woodwork for a trip to France but would never stand a chance at gaining anything financially from DeMontagne’s demise. There were also Yvette’s designer friends from Hollywood, all of whom seemed genuinely shocked that their colleague had such a wealthy background. Many were also coupled up, so they didn’t fit our jealous lover theory. The only unexpected character was Butch, but even he cracked jokes worthy of a movie star without seeming at all like a hunted man. Perhaps he was only playing a character, but, either way, we were getting nowhere. Halfway through, Ernest clutched his stomach.
“You were right about the Lactaid,” he said.
We walked outside and Ernest headed straight to the bathroom. I stood in front of the door in solidarity, kicking the dirt. Suddenly, I saw the shady man in the dark suit. He was lingering by a car across the street. I nodded. He nodded back. There was something about his look, however. If he’d walked three time widdershins around his car and then stolen one of the goats, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
Ernest exited the bathroom looking a little worse for wear. Fortunately, our group was finally heading to the bus.
“He’s in on it,” I said, motioning to the shady man. “He must be.”
“Butch or the man?” said Ernest.
“Or both?” I said as we found a seat at the back of the bus where we could keep an eye on Butch. As it was, our group’s screen idol fell asleep.
Ten minutes later, we were rewarded with the most breathtaking view of a vineyard. The vines tumbled over each other, while the scent of the grapes permeated the air. It did not look to me like half the vineyard was dying, but the land went on for acres. In spite of our exquisite surroundings, I noticed that everyone looked sober as they got off the bus. I chalked it up to our experience last night.
Halfway through the tour we entered a technical area where a glass wall separated us from what looked like a lab. While our guide began to explain the inner workings of field irrigation, most of the crowd glazed over, but Ernest and I stood transfixed. This had to be the key to what we had investigated last night. When the crowd moved on, Ernest and I stayed behind.
“Come on,” he said, heading through the door to the work room before anyone could see us.
I stood at the door as a look out, while Ernest did his thing.
“All the pumps are working,” he said, looking at the computer screens.
At this point, I abandoned my post to join him.
“But they’re not all equal,” I said. I pointed over his shoulder at the reports of the vitamins and minerals being delivered to the vines. It was like reading a medical chart. There were six charts. Five were the same. The sixth was different.
“Allo? Alo-o,” said our guide from down the hall. “Are we missing anyone?”
“Coming,” said Ernest.
He stood in front of me so that the guide could not see me collect a print out of the report and stick it in my pocket. We rejoined the crowd in the tasting room as guests were being treated to a glass of wine. A waiter came and handed us a plate of cheese.
“Merci,” I said.
I was lifting a piece of cheese to my mouth, when Ernest stopped me. He took the morsel from me and studied it. Then he threw it in the garbage. After two days of gorging on cheese, I realized he’d become an expert.
“Poisson,” he said in code. “We’re definitely close.”
Across the room, I saw that the waiter serving us had also worked at Yvette and Lewis’s party. When not posing as a waiter, did he work in the DeMontagne’s lab?
We also noticed that Butch had disappeared.
* * *
We returned to Hotel de Clos about thirty endless minutes later to find three police cars were parked out front. The members of our tour group looked nervous, but Ernest and I breathed a sigh of relief. We’d spent the ride home wondering about our safety now that we were getting closer to the truth.
“This is a sign,” said Ernest, as we disembarked from the bus. “I think it’s time we went to the police.”
“Mesdames et Messieurs,” said a man who looked like an old gumshoe from a ‘30s movie. “I am Inspector Genou. I will have some questions for you regarding the incident at the Maison de Sancerre last night, if you will follow me please.”
“Chuck DeMontagne was murdered,” I said to the inspector.
“I’m – how do you say? – gob smacked by your insight. You see, we know,” he said. “The toxicology reports just arrived. But I must ask. How do you know?”
I handed him the grape’s medical report.
“The DeMontagne’s grapes have been poisoned. And not merely for the purpose of murdering DeMontagne. This has been going on for two years,” I said. “You need to interview the waiters from the party. The one who served the poison grape to DeMontagne also probably works in their lab, fudging numbers which would otherwise reveal that someone he works for, likely that man, has sabotaged the DeMontagne’s business.”
I pointed to the shady man who was still on our tail. The moment he saw us, he ran away.
“Jacques Fallon? That man is a gambler, not a murderer,” said the inspector, without making a move to follow our suspect. “He is well-known at the black jack tables.”
At that moment, Lewis stepped outside of the hotel. As much as I’d suspected him earlier, I now realized he would have neither the means nor the motive to poison the grapes. I wanted to make things right for him somehow. I knew from a shift in Ernest’s breath that he did too. We headed straight for him.
“Jacques Fallon is shadowing Butch,” said Ernest.
“Who?” said Lewis.
“Fallon, the gambler,” I said.
“Oh crap. I feared Butch would stop in Monte Carlo first. I guess he lost again. That would explain the black eye. And the paranoid call I got from him last night that someone was following him,” he said and stormed back into the hotel.
“And the reason I found him lying across our window,” I said, wincing.
“If Fallon and Butch aren’t part of this, then who is?” said Ernest.
“Someone who has access to the grapes?” I said.
“That means everyone in the world is a suspect. The grapes are out in the open for anyone to toy with,” said Ernest.
“But the whole world doesn’t have motive. What about the neighbors?” I said, pulling out the chart I’d printed. “Can you find out if either party has been purchasing any of these poisons? A dying vineyard would be a lot cheaper than a thriving one.”
“Allons-y. Let’s get inside,” said Inspector Genou.
I took a step forward, but Ernest stopped me.
“If you think I’m going to let us sit in a hotel lobby like sitting ducks with a murderer who has made two attempts on your life, while that inspector takes his time interviewing us, you don’t know me one bit,” said Ernest.
A few feet away from us, a young man pulled up to the hotel on a motorbike. Before he could turn it off, Ernest took off the watch his grandfather had given him and thrust it toward the man.
“I’ll bring your bike back in an hour,” he said. “But you can hold on to this as collateral.”
“Keep your watch,” said the man with a laugh. “Where can you go? I can find it easily.”
We appreciated his generosity, but the idea that anyone could find us was unnerving. I felt as if we were in a showdown in a small Western town. I realized Ernest felt the same.
“Hop on,” he said, taking the saddle.
I jumped on behind him, and we flew down the street to Gil’s café as the inspector busted out of the hotel to see us leave the small town’s square.
“Gil,” I said as we entered the pizzeria. “Can we close the windows?”
“Are you hiding from the gendarme?” he said. “I saw the lights.”
“Oui,” I said, sure that Ernest and I were headed back to the Hotel du Clos in handcuffs.
“Then hide away,” said Gil with a mischievous laugh. “I’m originally Italian. I don’t surrender as easily as these Frenchmen.”
I wasn’t sure what he was getting at, but I had no time to explore cultural differences. Ernest and I rolled the motorbike into the pizzeria and closed the shutters. An hour later, we had the answer.
“The Brillands,” I said.
“You were right,” he said. “A neighbor.”
“They kidnapped the vineyard by injecting poison into the grapes. It’s amazing, but unlike any other valuable asset in the world, grapes lie along the open roads for anyone to access.”
“That’s why DeMontagne was so confused by his grapes’ failing health.”
“He must have figured it out,” I said. “That’s why he called off the sale. But that sealed his fate. The Brillands could not let him live.”
At that moment, there was a knock on the door.
“I know you’re in there,” said Inspector Genou. “We followed the tires tracks.”
I picked up a white napkin and waved it outside the window.
* * *
Two weeks later, I was sitting by our pool, reading a good book with a very snappy new haircut, when Ernest came and sat beside me with the mail.
“Lewis sent us an invite to the opening of Butch’s movie,” he said. “In Hollywood.”
“You’d hate the traffic,” I said. “They’re known for road rage. Rubbernecking, too.”
“Still,” he said. “I was thinking we could rent an RV and make a trip out of it. We could put a little country music on the radio, and with the familiar sounds of guitar licks and a harmonica wafting through the car, we can drive from east to west, enjoy the desert cacti, make s’mores at night.”
“And maybe visit Reykjavic later this year. I want to try a pulk sled.”
“Those are in Finland, not Iceland,” said Ernest.
“Let’s add both to the list,” I said. “We need good stories to tell our grandsons and granddaughters one day.”
“We empty nesters need to keep busy.”