A Devil in the Grape, Chapter 1 (Sequel to Broke the Grape’s Joy)
A Devil in The Grape
by Patrick Hilyer
It’s just before dawn, and the lights are out in this wing of the hospital. Urged on by a devil, the young man gropes his way through the darkness, a room key clutched in one shaky hand, two syringes in the other. He pushes his devil away, unlocks the door and enters. In the dim light that filters through the window’s metal grille he can see her, asleep on the bed: his girl, his beautiful girl, the girl who murdered their child.
In her dream there are devils too; and there, amid a chorus of hellish cries, she hears the young man’s voice.
He calls to her. ‘Marguerite?’
She feels the touch of his cold hand on hers.
‘Is that you mon cheri?’
He has found her at last. He will save her, take her away from this place. She’s no longer scared, not even of death. She loves him, and he loves her.
‘It’s me cherie,’ he replies.
The drug is still with her, in her blood, in her brain. Her memories carry her back to the dirty backstreet where they first met, to the moment when their hands first touched. He was so gentle then, so kind. Does he remember?
He speaks again, more urgently. ‘We have to go, now.’
She recalls the jardin public where they used to meet at dusk, smells the springtime blossom.
He tries to lift her, but she won’t move. She must be crazy. His devil steps into the silence and urges him to do it – quickly.
He switches on the bedside lamp.
Slowly she sits up in bed and opens her arms, palms up. ‘The devil!’ she gasps. ‘Can you see his burning eyes?’
He fastens a tourniquet round her upper arm. Go on, save her, his devil says.
‘O God, help me, please,’ she cries as the needle slides into her soft flesh.
He turns away from her and injects his own arm with the second needle.
She’s delirious. ‘I can see the angels,’ she says.
He reaches out to embrace her.
‘Your hands!’ she cries. ‘So stained with blood!’
She’s finished, says the devil, leaving the room.
‘Saved,’ the young man whispers.
She falls back gently against the white pillow; he slips down onto the cold tiles.
An alarm bell rings. The lights come on.
The Dark Forest
I suppose I’m an old-fashioned kind of girl.
Okay, so I’m not exactly a girl any more. I may still feel twenty-two, but I only have to look in the mirror to remind myself that a quarter of a century has passed since I came to Saint-Emilion. Still, all those years spent turning grapes into wine haven’t been too unkind to me. Like my ‘95s, I think I’ve aged fairly well.
So, not old, but definitely old-fashioned. For me, the opera should be all gorgeous frocks, flamboyant scenery and men in tights. Not that I was complaining – I hadn’t paid for the tickets after all. But a modern adaptation of Gounod’s Faust set in the juvenile wing of a psychiatric hospital just wasn’t my cup of tea. Hospitals are among the few things I can’t stand – along with snakes, guns, early morning confrontations, goodbyes, pruning my vines. . . Alright, so there are lots of things I dislike, but hospitals are the worst.
The music, however, was sublime, and by portraying Mephistopheles as a figment of Faust’s drug-addled mind, the scary-looking baritone had given a very convincing devil. I shuddered, recalling his dark, gaunt features, blood-red eyes and the spike of crimson hair that crowned his sallow, shaven head.
I empathised with Faust; there was a time when I had my own demons to cope with. One in particular, whom I called my evil gremlin, would never leave me alone. But, strangely, after being shot in the neck I haven’t heard from him since. Now I talk to my Jack Russell terrier instead. He doesn’t talk back.
Of course, I empathised most strongly with the poor girl, Marguerite. I never did have children of my own; and now, halfway down time’s one-way street, I’ve accepted that I never will. A couple of years ago I resolved to try to help the young people around me, knowing that there are more than enough children in the world. Knowing is one thing; feeling is quite another.
I was delighted with the venue for our post-matinee dinner; my companion had brought me to Bordeaux’s best – well, second-best – restaurant. So far, I was enjoying my date with Police Captain Pierre Lefèvre.
The waiter served our drinks and we toasted each other’s health.
Lefèvre and I have known each other for three years but we’ve never settled on a mutually agreeable language. When speaking French we’ve always used the vous form of address which doesn’t suit me at all. English is my preference – it’s far less formal.
Lefèvre took a sip of his kir royal then looked at me, smiling.
‘Merci, Jeanne,’ – at least he’d stopped calling me Madame – ‘and sorry for . . . you know.’
I understood the apology but he had no need to thank me. ‘No, thank you. You saved my life remember?’
He eyed the fizzy, pink contents of his fluted glass. ‘Oh, not really. You made sure that everything worked out fine.’
‘But if you hadn’t turned up when you did––’
‘––then we would not have made the drugs haul, I would not have got a promotion, and we would not be here enjoying these incredibly expensive aperitifs.’
Should I have offered to go Dutch? Oh please, I thought, don’t let him be a cheapskate.
‘Pride comes before a fall,’ I said, teasing.
His face darkened. ‘You know, in my line of work that is not an expression we like to use.’
He didn’t need to explain. I’d been on the receiving end of a pistol barrel only once in my life, but for Captain Lefèvre gun crime was a frequent hazard.
‘No, sorry.’ I raised my glass. ‘Let’s drink to your success.’
His smile returned. ‘And to yours, too, Jeanne.’
Now how the hell did he know about that?
I’d barely begun to peruse the list of delicious-sounding hors d’oeuvres on the menu when Lefèvre’s phone buzzed.
‘Let me take this call, then you can tell me how terrible the opera was.’
He picked-up, gave his name. His expression said bad news.
‘Where? . . . In a what? . . . Merde. Okay, I will be there as soon as I–– . . . No, I’m in the city . . . What’s the ad––? . . . But that’s in the Dordogne, n’est-ce pas? . . . No, of course not, I can be there within the hour . . . No, he’s still on vacation . . .’
He closed the flap of the phone and frowned. ‘I am sorry, Jeanne.’
‘What is it?’
‘Something has come up. I have to go.’
‘But you haven’t eaten—’
‘A body has been found, north of Libourne.’
Adrenalin replaced the empty feeling in my stomach.
‘Oh, I see. Well, of course. I understand.’
He’d already put on his jacket and waved a twenty euro note to signal for the bill. I stood up and picked up my handbag. Lefèvre flashed his police ID card at the waiter, mumbled his excuses and left the bank note on the man’s tray. Then, as we made our way to the door, Lefèvre related the scant details he’d been given by his commandant.
‘A winemaker has been found dead in one of his vats, Jeanne. It does not look like an accident.’
For a moment I thought: my goodness, how exciting – then told myself to calm down.
‘Oh, dear. Can you drop me at home on the way?’
He stopped on the pavement outside and turned to me.
‘Er, there is not enough time. Perhaps you could come with me? I might need your expertise.’
Again, I felt my pulse quicken. Calm down, Jeanne, calm down.
‘Well, of course, if you think I could help – if I won’t be in the way. . .’
He was already striding towards the car with his phone pressed to his ear.
‘Wait for me,’ I called, running after him across the boulevard.
He stopped, put the phone to his chest. ‘Do you know a winery called Château Lacasse? In Les Eglisottes?’
‘No, I’ve never heard of it.’
‘Good. Come on then, let’s go.’
In less than half an hour we’d crossed the bridge that spans the broad, brown waters of the Gironde estuary and were cruising along the four-lane Transeuropéenne highway past Libourne. Lefèvre drove too fast. I glanced at the speedometer but had to look away when the needle skipped past one-forty – speeding is another of my pet hates. He was a cautious driver though and he didn’t scare me too much. If anything, I was disappointed by the lack of a blue flashing light to stick on the roof of the anonymous-looking Peugeot.
The sun was behind us when we came off the autoroute at Saint-Médart. Long shadows, cast by the road signs, stretched across the tarmac of the exit road. Summer had passed so quickly.
After crossing the River Isle we left behind the vine-dominated landscape of the Libournais and turned onto a narrow wooded lane. The darkness of dusk replaced the sunshine and my mood darkened too.
I know what it is that I’ve got. There’s a name for it, of course. I just don’t like to talk about it, that’s all, and I refuse to let it define me. But here’s a clue: did you hear the one about the manic depressive penguin? He had the misfortune to bump into a bipolar bear.
Not funny? No, perhaps not, but nor is my condition.
Anyway, the lithium tablets didn’t agree with me and I stopped taking them years ago. Since then, as long as I keep a check on my manic flights of fancy and surround myself with those I love – especially when the black thoughts threaten to strike – I get along just fine. And after the fairly manic series of events that led to my getting shot, I’d managed to stay away from anything, well, too exciting. Until then, that is; until the phone call that put paid to my romantic evening with the captain. The grape harvest was almost upon me, I’d been elected to join La Jurade – the hallowed Saint-Emilion brotherhood – and now I was racing towards the scene of a gruesome-sounding murder. Oh well, I said to myself, just remember two things Jeanne: remain calm and keep smiling.
I was still trying to smile when I began to wonder if Lefèvre had taken a wrong turn. I’ve always trusted policemen, but I was beginning to suspect that this one had no idea where the hell he was going.
‘Do you know this area,’ I asked, peering out at the dark forest.
My driver slowed to navigate a crossroads.
‘Er, yes, yes I do. My father used to fish here when I was a boy, and then when I was about fifteen or sixteen we would camp here near the lake, you know – friends from school.’
I pictured the captain as a boy scout; it wasn’t difficult.
‘I never knew there was such a wilderness right on the doorstep.’
‘No, it is quite remote. These woods are part of the great forest of Le Double – hundreds of square kilometres of trees that go from here right across the Perigord. Good hunting, too – wild boar, roe deer, some muntjac.’
My thoughts turned to the captain dressed in huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ gear – a not unpleasant mental image.
He took his phone from an inside pocket, flipped it open and pressed a couple of buttons.
‘Okay, Theroux, I’m in the woods a kilometre-or-so past the junction . . . On the left or the right? . . . Fine.’
He looked across at me. ‘But it is not all trees; there is one huge vineyard in this section. Ah, here it is.’
The car slowed. There, on a rough verge, was a small hand-painted sign:
Propriété Privée – Défense de Pénétrer
Keep out – not the usual advertisement that wineries put up to entice the passing trade.
We drove through the open gates, followed a winding, potholed drive, and there before us was the château, silhouetted against the orange glow of the western sky. With all its lights ablaze, the house resembled an enormous Halloween lantern. The windows in the tops of the two towers glowered at us threateningly; below them a row of stone mullions on the ground floor formed a malevolent grimace. If houses could speak, this one was saying: turn round and go home. Had I been on my own I’d have done just that because, although I was curious about the owner’s demise, I was far from prepared for what we were about to discover.
The Corpse in the Cuve
Lefèvre parked between a couple of Police Nationale vehicles: a Traffic and a 308. There were several other cars on the drive including an expensive-looking Mercedes, plus a Libourne ambulance. I could see that quite a crowd had assembled indoors. The lights were on in the winery too, but first we visited the house.
I followed the captain up a half flight of stone steps and went in. By the door a uniformed officer took notes from a seated man who appeared to be answering a series of tedious-sounding questions. After one muttered response, the man shook his head slowly and exhaled a loud sigh.
In the centre of the room a huddle of people, their expressions mirroring one another’s concern, were talking in hushed, anxious tones. Lefèvre joined them, shook hands and listened solemnly to the information he was given. The seated man was helped to his feet and escorted past me towards the front door. His face was deathly pale, and he looked oddly out of place. Oblivious to my presence, he exited the house unnoticed by the others.
I took in my surroundings. The room, which must once have been an impressive grand entrance hall, was now almost empty of furniture or ornament. The tiles were grimy, the windows uncleaned, the cobwebs in the high ceiling’s baroque mouldings unswept. Empty milk cartons and takeaway pizza boxes spilled from a collection of over-stuffed bin bags in one corner.
I wandered through an open door and into a small study. On a leather-topped desk there sat a computer screen and a small stack of paperwork in neat-and-tidy contrast to the grubby disarray outside. The room contrasted, too, with my own study where groaning filing cabinets, sagging shelves and all untrod areas of floor space were home to an ever increasing deluge of paperwork. Apart from the desk, the screen and a tall louvered cabinet that stood against the back wall, this office was bare.
‘Come on, Jeanne, we need you in the vat house.’
The captain appeared in the doorway, glanced at the sparse contents of the little room and disappeared again. I hurried after him and we went outside, watched by the nervous delegation of officials in the hallway.
‘Madame Coleville – le maire,’ he explained, as we wove our way through the parked cars towards the winery buildings, ‘her deputies and her secretary from the town hall, a journalist from Le Sud Ouest, the doctor of the deceased and a few others. Luckily not too many of them have––’
We ducked under the cordon tape blocking the open door to the winery. The winemaker in me couldn’t help feeling a pang of jealousy as I gazed at the rows of shiny stainless steel vats, heat exchangers and other pristine items of expensive equipment – couldn’t help it, that is, until I looked up at the rim of the furthest vat. A red liquid appeared to have burst forth from the vat’s top hatch, spilled down its polished steel sides and congealed there in long, russet-coloured rivulets: not wine, but blood.
‘Mon Dieu, I wish Lieutenant Dauzac was here,’ Lefèvre muttered.
We walked to the far end of the winery where we were greeted by two men wearing white body suits and another man – younger than the captain but dressed, like him, for an evening out – who was introduced to me as Docteur François Wissant, the pathologist.
‘Got yourself a new lieutenant then Lefèvre?’ the man said, turning his smile on me.
‘You know full-well that he’s on vacation, Wissant. This is Madame Valeix – she has offered to advise us on the . . . retrieval.’
I had no idea what he meant.
‘Ah, yes. You’ve been briefed by the locals then? It’s full to the brim, you know.’
‘Yes, François. Two questions: how and how long ago?’
‘A single clean cut to the throat. Looks like it goes right through the carotid, jugular and the windpipe. We think he was still alive when he was taken up there. There’s not much blood on the steps or on the outside of the tank, so we assume that he bled to death inside. As for the time of death, I can’t tell you yet. Perhaps a week.’
‘May I?’ the captain said, pointing at the high walkway that ran the length of the winery, just above the level of the tops of the vats. The white-suited men, who were collecting fibres from the steps of this metal scaffold, moved aside to let him pass.
Wissant tossed him a pair of latex gloves. ‘Be my guest, Pierre, but put these on and try not to touch anything you shouldn’t.’ He turned to me and added, ‘Perhaps you should move back a little, Madame, in case anything . . . falls.’
I took two steps back and watched the captain climb the scaffold and open the metal lid of the vat. His expression barely changed, but he recoiled at the sight of whatever floated on the surface of the vat’s contents. He lowered the lid again carefully and a putrid aroma, the like of which I’ve never smelled in any winery, preceded him as he descended the stairway.
‘Not a bad job, eh?’ Wissant said, stony-faced.
‘Putain de merde. The poor bastard.’
The men stood there silently, staring up at the lid of the vat, as though waiting for the stench to go away.
‘Why you, anyway Pierre?’
‘What, you mean apart from the fact that it’s still the holidays and half the boys are away?’ He released his grip on the metal banister and folded his arms. ‘No, they think that there might be a drugs connection. It’s such a professional job.’
‘And is it?’
‘Do you mean is it drugs related or a professional hit?’
The man shrugged. ‘Either.’
‘I don’t know,’ Lefèvre said quietly, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so medieval.’
Wissant sighed. ‘Murder’s murder, my friend. Murder is murder. But whoever did this certainly knew what they were doing.’
Not for the first time that evening, I wondered why I was there; Lefèvre had the answer.
‘Ah, yes, Jeanne. It seems that Madame le Maire would like Monsieur Rougeard – the dead man in this tank – to be tucked up safely in the morgue before bedtime. But – and in this respect I must agree with my colleague here – we cannot just pluck him out like a goldfish from a bowl. It would be the devil of a job, and these men would get their lovely white clothes dirty. And I do not want any accidents. What we would like to do is drain the vat, collect a sample of the . . . liquid, and then retrieve Monsieur via this little door here.’ He finished by indicating the small portal at the base of the vat.
‘How big is he?’ I asked.
‘We are told that Monsieur Rougeard was a slight man, and what I have just seen would confirm that.’
‘Then I imagine he’ll fit through the hatch.’
‘Good, good,’ Lefèvre said, gently leading me back towards the door. ‘And you can drain the tank so that we can open it? You will not have to . . . see anything, believe me.’
‘Okay, shall we get a breath of fresh air first?’
Leaning against the side panel of the Renault Traffic were two uniformed officers. They whispered to each other like naughty schoolboys, suppressed laughter punctuating their private conversation as they puffed on their cigarettes. As we approached I caught a few words and understood the source of their mirth.
‘. . . oh, my God, yes. It’ll have lots of body, that’s for sure.’
‘Yes, imagine the health warning on the label: this product may contain traces of the winemaker––’
They noticed us and both stood to attention.
‘Bonsoir, Capitaine,’ they said in unison, almost poker-faced.
Lefèvre introduced me. ‘Messieurs, this is Madame Valeix, our expert witness.’ The younger man was desperately trying not to laugh. ‘In order to remove the body we need to empty the wine into the drain. She will show you how.’
The older of the two policemen furrowed his brow in mock concern. ‘But chief, that’s such a waste. Couldn’t we save it for the brigade Christmas banquet?’
The young guard looked like he was about to burst.
Lefèvre ignored the leg-pull. ‘Madame Valeix, how much wine is in that vat?’ he asked me.
I didn’t need to think about it. ‘Sixty-three hectos – about eight thousand bottles.’
Lefèvre made a calculation in his head, silently mouthing the sum, before addressing his subordinates. ‘A coffee spoon, Messieurs,’ he said.
‘What?’ the older man asked.
‘Monsieur Rougeard bled to death in that vat of wine. In his final moments he endured a most terrifying experience. So, that wine, boys, contains at least six litres of blood plus several other bodily fluids and waste products. Now, speaking as a detective, I would say that for every bottle of wine in there, there is about a coffee spoon full of blood, piss and faeces mixed in. Would you really want to drink that?’
The men nodded; point taken. The younger man grimaced.
‘Sorry about that Jeanne,’ said Lefèvre. ‘L’humour macabre. It is what keeps us sane.’
We went back inside, and I asked the guards to fetch a wide-bore hose from the opposite end of the vat house. They ambled off, still talking in lowered voices. ‘I think I’ve tasted wine like that,’ said one. ‘Yeah, they serve it in the station canteen,’ said the other.
‘Quickly!’ Lefèvre called to them, ‘we don’t have all night.’ He sighed as we watched them fumbling with the tubing. ‘Nearly fifteen years of service but only three stripes between them. Good men though.’
‘I’m impressed with your mental arithmetic, Capitaine.’
‘What? Oh that. I just made it up. Go on, show them what to do, then we might go and have a quick chat with the neighbour before I take you home.’
After emptying the vat, I was invited to go and wait in the house. I don’t know why but I’d asked if I could stay. It wasn’t that I wanted to see the body, particularly; I just had to remain connected with the events. Or perhaps I was simply drawn to the captain, reluctant to leave him.
Apart from the time when I glimpsed my own mortality at the wrong end of a gun, I’ve witnessed death three times in my life. I’ve buried three men. Three men whom I loved, in different ways, and still mourn: my young husband, Olivier, who was killed in a road accident delivering his Saint-Emilion wine; his father, Henri, who died of a broken heart; and my mid-life love, Andrew, whose extended stay at the vineyard changed my life forever and marked the final chapter of his. I’m familiar with death, you see, so the blood-stained vat in Rougeard’s winery held no fears for my toughened sensibilities.
Or so I thought.