“I ought to begin by explaining just what I was doing in Argentina.” Rashid Sharif said after setting down his wine glass with care and deliberation, much as a priest would set down the chalice in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Ruth Agu, the tall and fashionable MP for Chipping Barnett, amused herself by presiding over lavish dinner parties every Saturday night. It suited her generous nature and a sense of egotism; she liked playing the part of the queen at a banquet, the mistress of ceremonies. As usual, she had dressed her voluptuous six-foot-two frame in rich fabrics and gold jewellery and sat on a gem-encrusted chair that looked suspiciously like a throne.
On this particular night she had invited three guests linked by a common factor: all three had at some point solved a strange murder. Sir Arthur Allen, a retired Detective Chief Inspector, had solved many in a professional capacity. His name was linked to some of the most infamous and grisly crimes in the British Isles. The two others were amateurs and had solved one each, owing to a combination of brains and luck. Claire Cooper, an Oxford medievalist, had helped nut out the Holy Island Horror. And Rashid, a confectionery mogul, dandy and oenophile, had uncovered the strange and terrible Mendoza Mystery.
“I belong, as you may know,” he said, “To a wine appreciation club here in London. It’s very exclusive—members must pass a stringent exam that includes oenology, soil profiling, chemistry, language, history, etiquette and the rhetoric of wine criticism.”
“From what I have heard,” drawled Ruth, “It is something like the Freemasons.”
Rashid waved a scornful hand.
“My dear Ruth, the Freemasons are as about as exclusive as the YMCA nowadays. This is more like the Knights of the Round Table or the Skull and Bones of Yale. In fact, there are only fifteen living members right now. We meet weekly at a little room on Curzon Street to exchange notes and pick one another’s brains. The advantages of membership are considerable—we are invited to taste wines at the best restaurants, we are sent bottles of by boutique houses who produce the most exquisite vintages. Not infrequently we are invited to visit one of these. Of course, they know that we have influence on buyers but it is really more than that. Most of them can already name their price. It is more that we share an appreciation for the tastes and confirm the quality in a semi-official way. “
“Yes, dear Rashid, but the murder?” Ruth said.
“Yes. In a nutshell, it all started with a little bottle of dynamite that arrived at my house one morning by courier.”
“Not real dynamite, surely?” Claire gasped. Hers was a brilliant but literal mind.
“No, though perhaps it would have been better if it was,” Rashid said. “It was a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Uco Valley of the Mendoza province of Argentina. The label was handmade and unusual in that there was no information about the vintage at all. It simply featured the black-and-white pen-drawn design of a labyrinth with a Minotaur in its centre. I must admit (though I hasten to add that I would never judge a wine by its label) that I was completely charmed by this drawing.”
“I’d like to see it some time,” Ruth, one of the most avaricious art buyers in the city, interrupted. “May I?”
“My dear lady, you may take it!” Rashid said. “I put it in a drawer and don’t want to set eyes on it again.”
“You exaggerate,” Ruth smiled.
“I assure you, I do not,” Rashid snapped.
Flustered, he smoothed back a silver lock of hair that had come loose and turned a signet ring of carnelian and gold around on the ring finger of his right hand. “But at that time, as I say, I was intrigued—no, fascinated. I opened the letter that had accompanied the parcel. It was written in elegant cursive by the winery’s owner, one Dedalus Brunier. He introduced himself as the scion of a Bordeaux winemaking family. His father had taught him viticulture and winemaking and had early on encouraged his independent scientific researches. The result was, he said (in a tone that seemed to me slightly defensive), that he had set out to produce a wine that would marry the best of tradition with modern science, a wine that would (in his words) transcend any other that had ever existed!”
Arthur Allen twitched his moustache.
“Well, but is that possible?”
“I would not have thought so, Sir Allen, but yes it is. The sip that I took of that unnamed wine…for half an hour I sat at my kitchen table with my mouth open. It was…indescribable. When the shock had worn off, I sent him a reply by email assuring him I’d be there as soon as I could. Not ten minutes later, he had already sent a reply expressing his pleasure in anticipation.
Well, I was so excited that I invited my friend Walter over for a blind tasting. He was amazed—of course he identified it as a Cabernet Sauvignon but he couldn’t guess where it was from and as for the effect, he was as shocked as I had been.
When I told him who the maker was, his face went through a series of contortions. At first it cleared up as if everything was explained. Then it crinkled in displeasure and he shook his head.
“You say you’ve already booked a flight?” he asked.
“Yes, I did it the same day I got his letter,” I replied.
Walter pushed his glass away from him gingerly, as if it contained Polonium. He looked me in the eyes and said in a low voice, “Rashid, I tell you now, for the sake of our friendship and of your own happiness, you must not take that flight.”
“What?” I was amazed. “Why not? Didn’t you just taste that miraculous creation? Walter, you know me, I simply must know more. I will not rest until I’ve seen the soil and placed a hand on one of the oak barrels, until I’ve been a witness to the alchemy of sunlight on vine leaves in the misty southern dawn. Why, this is the ineffable goal of our vocation!”
Walter paced the kitchen, his face strained, thinking carefully of how to word his disagreement.
“I know, Rashid, I know. That’s how it seems to you. The wine is…unusual, I grant you.”
“Unusual?” I scoffed at the inadequacy of the word.
“Of course it would affect you this way. You are the true devotee. Your spirit responds to what is exquisite, beautiful, fascinating in its make-up. It is right and natural that you should want to kneel at the temple.”
“So, what on earth is the problem?” I shrugged.
“The problem,” he took a deep breath, “After the nose of a dancing girl with a rose between her teeth, after the bouquet of parrots in ceiba trees, the chill of Andean snow…after all that, or behind it or under it, didn’t you notice anything else?”
“Well, yes. I noticed a subtle shadow, a movement, as of a Leviathan passing beneath a rowing boat. Of course,” I shrugged, “This only added to the attraction.”
“And? The scent of brimstone?”
“Sulfur, of course. But exaggerated to glorious, outlandish dimensions, just like all the other elements. Each aspect becomes larger than life, larger than imagination even.”
“My dear friend,” said Rashid with that serious face that was really starting to get on my nerves. “That is the smell of fair warning. If you like, it is the smell of Evil.”
I stared at the man, wondering if he’d lost his mind.
“What do you mean?”
He shook his head sadly.
“I can’t say more than that.”
“For goodness’ sake, don’t be so vague and dramatic,”
“I told someone close to me that I wouldn’t tell. You have to trust me as your friend.”
I laughed, thinking that this must be some kind of silly prank. But he took me by the shoulder and shook me angrily. His face was purple.
“I’m serious Rashid! You must not go to Mendoza!”
I wriggled free from his grasp and looked at him with horror. I had never thought that Walter was suffering from delusions. He’d always been expressive and dramatic but not to this absurd extent and for no reason.
Then a terrible thought struck me. He was jealous! He envied my discovery. Either he planned to go in my stead or, like the dog in the manger, he wanted to deprive me of what he couldn’t have.
“I’m sorry, Walter,” I said haughtily, “But I will go to that vineyard. Frankly, I think your objection absurd—at best.”
Walter wilted. He understood.
“You suspect my intentions? Then already the poison is having its effect.” He sighed and looked into my eyes once again, searching for a hint of our old friendship. “You’ll remember what I’ve said, won’t you? And if—when—something terrible odd happens, something you can’t quite explain…look out for yourself.”
“I promise,” I said scathingly, “That if Señor Dedalus turns out to have a forked tongue and cloven hoof, I’ll think of you.”
To my surprise and consternation, he seemed to be choking back tears. He spontaneously threw his arms around me and held my face in his hands, studying it as if for the last time. He kissed my cheek, then dropped his arms by his sides in a gesture of defeat.
“Goodbye, my friend,” he said and turned away.
This meeting seriously annoyed me, not least because it half spoiled my exhilaration at tasting wine and the prospect of going to Mendoza, which was effectively identical to the thrill falling in love. Walter had deliberately thrown a wet blanket all over my fire of passion and for this I found it hard to forgive him. I decided not to tell anyone else at the club in order to avoid more unpleasantness.
“Damn the man,” I muttered to myself. “Why should I be made to feel low and skulking? It is my duty according to our Oath to pursue with the best wines of the world.”
I decided to go ahead as I’d planned, to return with notes and sample bottles and to triumphantly present it to the club. It would be a fait accompli, and to hell with Walter’s envious objections.
By the time I arrived in Mendoza, I had almost forgiven Walter for his outburst. The novelty of the sights, sounds and smells of Argentina had dazzled my senses and put me in a generous frame of mind. And then, from the moment I met Dedalus, I was so swept up by his charm and enthusiasm that it was impossible to think of anything else.
Dedalus Brunier was an elegant figure whose clothes fitted so well that they seemed an organic part of his person. He looked to be in his mid-fifties and was smaller than average with a shock of wavy grey hair on the verge of mutiny. He moved with the easy, efficient grace of a waiter at a good restaurant or of a gymnast. In all his gestures, his eyes and words there was a suppressed electricity that gave the impression that something extraordinary was about to happen—a revolution or miracle or cataclysm. This was partly due to his habit of taking me aside by the arm and talking in low tones, like a conspirator.
“Tell me, Mr. Sharif,” he murmured, “What do you think of my little wine? Ah!” He held up a finger, arresting my response, “There is no need to hold yourself back. I welcome criticism. Especially from one of your calibre.”
I thought this somewhat disingenuous considering I’d already praised the wine to the skies in our email correspondence, but as a matter of courtesy I repeated in detail the wonders of my initiation into that superlative taste, the first effects of the elixir he had wrought. He listened in rapt attention, his dark eyes thirstily absorbing my words. Finally, he threw up his hands as if releasing a dozen doves.
“Perfection! Mr. Sharif, today you have made me very happy. Yes, very happy. In these few words, you have managed to conjure the very essence of my life’s work, the expression of which I first felt only in my soul but after these many years have succeeded in wrestling from the soil, from the fruit, from labour and fortune. After so many disasters, failed attempts, mistakes, it was realized. But until I heard your words, I did not feel the sweetness of my success. You see, you understand!”
He seemed genuinely moved. Pushing aside my initial embarrassment, I felt the warm glow that rises between fellow enthusiasts.
“Mr. Dedalus,” I said, “That is why I’ve come here, to spread the gospel. Thanks to my connections, your creation will be known for the triumph of winemaking in our age. I plan to make you famous!”
I should at this juncture take a moment to describe the house where he lived. It was in the Uco Valley in Mendoza, near a big more commercially oriented vineyard whose premium wines sold well in fancy restaurants and whose box wine graced dinner tables throughout the world. At one corner of this large vineyard, Dedalus’ section occupied a conical hill, a little like a tumulus or earthern pyramid. The mound was terraced carefully so as to maximize growing efficiency.
What’s more, I noticed on approaching the property that the soil gave off a distinctive odour. There were hints of sulfur but also of chalk, white roses and something sickly and repellent, rather like an open-air abbatoir I’d seen in Morocco. It was the kind of dark olfactory mystery I was looking for when I came to explore the terroir, and my heart started beating faster in anticipation of what I would learn.
“My friend,” said Dedalus as we strolled through the trussed up vines, “Can you guess how old these plants are?”
I eyeballed them and made a quick guess, confident of the ballpark.
“They’re three years, roundabout. The right size, the green vigour, the tell-tale color of the budding leaf.”
He smiled slyly, like a child who has successfully duped an adult. He shook his head.
“Guess again!” he cried.
“They are certainly no more than five. The limbs are still green and flexile, not a trace of woodiness.”
“In fact, Mr. Rashid,” he said with barely disguised delight, “They are a hundred and fifty years old.”
“What?! I don’t believe it!” I cried. And I didn’t. I was offended that he would think I’d fall for such a big lie. No grape vine on earth produces decent wine after more than 70 years. And besides, he himself had told me that he’d only acquired the vineyard a few decades ago.
“How old are they really?” I asked.
“Really they are a hundred and fifty years. They were planted in the year 1870 by—well, it doesn’t matter who, but this is the truth. Not only is it the truth, but it is the secret of the wine’s very success!”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” I said. “What do you mean?”
He laughed and tapped the side of his nose with a finger. “Do you suppose I would part with my secret so easily? Have patience, my friend, and it shall perhaps become clear.”
Mystified, I brooded on his words and was hence only listening with half an ear as we continued walking and he pointed out the vines, the special methods of cultivating them, the influence of local weather patterns, and so forth.
In the distance, the snowy peaks of the Andes stood like ancient guardians of the valley. They were not going to give up their secrets either, I could tell just by looking at them.
By the end of our little tour, I was feeling quite fatigued. My shoes were not designed for long hikes and, besides, my mind had been running around in circles trying to discover what Dedalus meant by saying the vines were 150 years. I said I felt the need of a little rest and he showed me to my room and pointed out an electric bell I could ring if I needed anything. We settled on meeting in the banquet hall for a tasting session at seven o’clock that night.
While folding up my jacket and setting it on a chair by my window, I happened to see something that made me freeze like a statue. There, walking along the path below my window, was Walter! He was disguised, wearing a pair of faded blue overalls and with his long hair cropped short, but there was no doubt about it. The handsome, ox-like face, the height, the grace of his movements: these all belonged to my erstwhile friend.
He was walking from the main house to the large barreling shed, carrying a hammer and a set of keys. There were about four different locks on the door and he unlocked each one with a practiced hand. Then he looked around him, entered and closed the door behind him.
After my initial amazement, I was consumed with indignant anger. That snake-in-the-grass had gone to great lengths to dissuade me from coming here. When that didn’t work, it seemed he’d smuggled himself into the staff and now he was actually snooping around the barrels, no doubt collecting samples for analysis.
For a few minutes I sat down on the chair, heedless of rumpling my jacket, and wrestled with my conscience. After all, despite our recent falling out, Walter had been a dear friend for many years. On the other hand, what he was doing was certainly criminal and could potentially compromise Mr. Dedalus’ business. Mr. Dedalus was my host and, what’s more, a charming person. Suddenly, too, I realized that if Mr. Dedalus discovered my friendship with Walter, he would immediately think we were colluding against him. The prospect horrified me. My reputation would be ruined! I cursed Walter’s foolishness and pushed the bell.
“My dear Mr. Rashid! What is the matter? Are you feeling well?”
Shortly afterwards, my host appeared in person. His happy beam faded as he saw the anguish on my face.
“I am not, I’m afraid. I have bad news, Mr. Dedalus. The fact is, I have just seen an intruder enter your barrelling shed.”
He left. In a few seconds a piercing whistle filled the house. Dozens of people dressed in blue overalls appeared. I hadn’t seen any of them before and was surprised that his staff was at once so large and so discreet.
“An intruder!” he exclaimed. “I have been afraid of exactly that. Thank you and please, excuse me.”
Walter emerged from the door still holding his hammer and I expected him either to flee or to attack his assailants. My heart was in my mouth, fearing that he would meet his death there in Mendoza and that I would bear responsibility for it. But, as it happened, after a few heated words, he shook his head. The leader of the blue-overall brigade touched him on the shoulder in a friendly way, then Walter shrugged and went back inside with a couple of other men. They were in there for about five minutes. My eyes remained fixed on the door and finally they came out together, all laughing and joking. They said a few words to the crowd, which then dispersed as quickly and quietly as it had appeared.
I was now thoroughly confused. Somehow, Walter had convinced them that he was genuinely a member of the staff. It became clear to me that I ought to speak privately to Dedalus to tell him the risk he was running.
Again, I pressed the button. After three or four minutes, Dedalus appeared again, all smiles.
“I am happy to say that we have searched the shed thoroughly and there was no one there except Mr. Lyons, my right-hand man.
“Mr. Lyons? Is he quite a tall fellow in overalls with a broad forehead and a Roman nose?”
“Yes, that is he,” my host nodded.
“I regret to inform you, then,” I said with a heavy heart, “That the man you know as Mr. Lyons is in fact Walter Boniface of London. I don’t know why he should be here under false pretences but I’m sure it is against your interests to give him free reign of your establishment.”
“Walter, you say? But my friend, that is impossible! Mr. Lyons is my oldest and most trusted employee. He helped me plant the first vines so many years ago! He has not left the vineyard for more than a week at a time. I’m afraid you are mistaken.”
I gaped at him.
“A case of a doppelgänger, that is all,” he shrugged. “And lucky for us that it is so, eh?” he laughed. “Forget it. In one hour, you will come downstairs to the banquet hall and I will present to you Mr. Lyons and to some of our vintages, yes?”
“Yes, of course,” I murmured, forcing myself to break out of my trance to answer as civilly as possible.
He departed in a buoyant mood and I was left in a fog of misapprehension. A doppelgänger? Could that be it after all? A coincidence of fairly giant proportions. It didn’t satisfy me, not at all. It was then that I remembered Walter’s warning to me:
If—when—something odd occurs, something you can’t explain, be careful!
Already, two odd things had occurred: Dedalus’ assertion that the vines were 150 years old and now Walter-who-wasn’t-Walter. What did it all mean? And be careful of what, exactly? Determined to forget the situation for a moment, I pulled my dog-eared copy of Donaldson’s Wine Guide from my briefcase, threw myself into an overstuffed chair and lost myself in the old familiar lines.
At a ten to seven, the dinner gong sounded downstairs. I dressed with care and descended with a renewed sense of anticipation. Already my initial excitement had returned and the strange dread occasioned by the afternoon’s strangeness had receded. After all, a lot of people resemble others. And prior to my journey I had been admittedly a little obsessed with Walter’s bizarre Beware-the-Ides-of-March routine. I had strained my mind and so was inclined to see Walters everywhere, that was all. Not only that, but the window of my room was a little dirty and smeared with the dust of ages. Probably that had obscured my view.
Such were my thoughts as I entered the banquet hall such as they were, they immediately vanished when I met Walter there, for now I was sure it was him and him alone. He stood up smiling to greet me and extended a hand.
“How do you do?” he said. “My name is Bernard Lyons.”
“Like hell it is!” I snarled. “Your name is Walter Boniface and you are playing some kind of elaborate prank! I demand an explanation for your behaviour.”
I glared at him expectantly. To my astonishment, the man laughed a little and even slapped and on his thigh. His teeth looked unnaturally white in his sun-browned face.
“Of course!” he cried. “I should have guessed.”
“I see nothing funny about it whatsoever,” I said grimly.
“No, no, of course,” he assumed a serious expression. “Look, but it all makes sense! You’re a friend of my brother. That’s why, when you saw me enter the shed, you assumed I was intruding. You see, he’s my identical twin. You know him as Walter but his given name is Ralph Lyons.”
I looked at him suspiciously, not sure if I could credit such a bizarre statement. But now I noticed that the back of his neck was brown and leathery from long exposure to the sun, whereas Walter wore his hair long and his skin had been rather pale. And his hands, too, were calloused and wrinkled. Walter’s had been as white and slender as a girl’s.
“Walter never mentioned having a brother,” I said dubiously.
“I imagine,” said Bernard, “That he never mentioned family at all. Did he?”
I had to admit that this was true.
The man dug into his pocket and produced a wallet, from which he extracted a print of a painting of two angelic little boys, both dressed like Ottoman generals, riding a toy horse and waving little swords.
“That’s us when we were five,” he smiled. “I keep it with me to remind me of happier times. Tell me, when did you first meet Walter?”
“About twenty years ago.”
“He used to work here, you know.”
“Did he?” I was starting to believe him in spite of myself. His eyes were wide and limpid.
“Yes, we both joined at the same time, when we were still in our teens. It was our dream to plant our own vines. Dedalus already had a reputation for genius and we thought we would do well to follow him.”
“So, what happened? Why did Ralph leave and change his name?” I asked.
Bernard shrugged. He crossed over to a table where several bottles sat breathing out in readiness for the tasting. At that moment, Dedalus entered.
“Shall we begin, gentlemen?” he asked, rubbing his hands together.
That night I lay awake for hours. It was not because of my excitement over the wines. No, that had been eclipsed by what I’d learned of Walter. He was one of my oldest friends and now I realized that everything I thought I’d known of him had been a lie: his name, his background (he always insisted he’d been born in Spain). Nor was I satisfied by Bernard’s casual explanation of his departure for England. There was something in Bernard’s face that suggested it was a lie, that story about him leaving on a whim. Something, I was convinced, had happened. And now that I had his name, Ralph Lyons, it might be possible to get to the bottom of it.
The next day was a Monday. As soon as I’d dressed, I sent a message to Deirdre, a close friend of mine who works as a librarian. I asked if she could locate for me any news stories containing the name Ralph Lyons.
Downstairs, bright and fresh at the breakfast table sat Dedalus. He told me he had a full day’s programme mapped out for us. He’d invited experts to lunch with us and discuss the composition of the local soil. Then he would take me to the vineyard’s archives.
Lunch was a pleasant enough affair, Dedalus’ personal chef was of a calibre that you might find at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The pairings were analogous to duets played by two virtuosos in perfect sympathy in their prime. But though my mouth watered and my nose was bewitched, my mind was perpetually busy with the puzzle of Walter’s true identity.
Over dessert, a dulce de leche macaron, my phone vibrated and I excused myself to take a cigar outside. Standing under a rose-laden bower, I checked: it was Deirdre. She said she’d found a few matches but nothing from Mendoza in the period I’d mentioned: no birth announcements, no mentions of any kind. Disappointed and puzzled, I put my phone away and gazed a few moments at the looming peaks of the Andes.
Was Bernard Lyons lying? Was Walter not his twin brother? It occurred to me that there was a way I could check—quite easily—whether Bernard and Walter were one and the same person. I called Walter on a video chat. He answered immediately.
“Rashid! Hi! What a surprise!” he exclaimed.
I was conscious of a feeling of awkwardness.
“Hi! Walter, listen…” my mind was working, trying to buy time as I checked him out. “I wanted to apologize to you for my behaviour the other day, you know, losing my temper like that.”
His hair was still long, his face was still pale, the hands soft and pale. He was in his kitchen in his central London apartment. Through his window, I saw a double-decker bus go by. It was Walter, and Walter was not Bernard.
“Oh, don’t mention it!” he waved a hand. “So how are you? How was the flight? Everything OK?” he asked and his face had assumed a worried expression. I had half a mind to share my thoughts with him then and there, but something in me resisted.
“Oh, yes, everything’s tip-top,” I said. Looking up, I saw Bernard walking towards me. “Listen, I have to go…just wanted to make sure things were OK between us. I’ll call you later. Ciao!!” I hung up quickly, not wanting Bernard to see who I’d been calling.
Bernard nodded a greeting. In the sunlight I could see once and for all that he definitely wore no disguise and even looked very different from Walter in some respects. His skin was leathery and brown from countless days spent in the summer sun. His hands were brown, and calloused. His eyes had none of the romantic, limpid quality characteristic of Walters. Instead, they were rather hard, with a boring intensity.
He nodded a greeting.
“So, you’re a friend of Ralph, eh? How’s he keeping these days?”
I had the uncomfortable sensation that he’d been reading my mind.
“He’s good,” I said as naturally as possible. “You know…healthy, good job, owns his own apartment, a lovely spot near Piccadilly. He’s one of the country’s leading wine critics. Well,” I laughed, “I’m sure that comes as no surprise.”
“And what sort of work does he do these days?” Bernard asked lazily. “That he can afford an apartment like that?”
I realized, with a flush of embarrassment, that I didn’t know. I’d always assumed that he’d had family money. Our friendship was a longstanding one but it was firmly rooted in our mutual interest in and passion for wine, nothing else. Well…that is not strictly true. We cared for one another too, of course. It was just that our friendship had grown up out of wine, was nourished by wine and needed little else to flourish.
“I believe,” I hesitated, reluctant to admit my ignorance, “He has an important position in finance. He doesn’t talk shop much—I assume so as not to breach confidentiality.”
Bernard smiled wryly. “Sure. Well, I’m happy he’s made such a success of himself.”
He took his hands out of his pockets and one was holding a set of car keys.
“So, Dedalus suggested I drive you to the archives. Unless you wanted coffee first?”
“No, no, let’s go,” I said.
We walked to a silver sports car very sleek and low to the ground. For the first five minutes we were silent. The drive was incredibly smooth, the spectacular landscape seemed to fly by. I was starting to enjoy myself when Bernard started humming a little tune. I recognized it as “Le Veau d’Or” from Gounod’s Faust. It seemed to me that he was humming it in an unpleasant, insinuating way and wished that he would stop.
I decided to make conversation to stop the humming.
“So…these archives. What sort of information do they contain?”
Bernard didn’t answer, he just smiled in a way that was a little grotesque.
I was a annoyed at the vague insolence of his response but was determined not to show it. “I suppose it’s records of the land and the like, things like where the vines were sourced from and the chemical composition,” I was babbling, I knew, but the sound of my own voice was comforting.
The car stopped abruptly outside of an architectural curiosity, a very low pearl-grey building with tinted windows.
“Here it is,” he grunted.
We got out and as we crunched over the gravel I had the feeling, the image flashed into my mind of a man being led unwittingly to his execution.
He unlocked the entrance door with an electronic key and I stepped into a vast hall whose ceilings were very high and of glass, so we were standing under the blue cloud-scudded sky. I gasped.
“The building looks low from the outside,” Bernard explained, “But its walls are made of tall mirrors. It’s a trick.”
“A little like a trompe-l’oeil,” I nodded appreciatively.
“Anyway,” he looked at his watch, “Dedalus said I should show you a film
We entered an auditorium with seating for about 200 people. He showed me to a seat and then left to go through a door at the back. I suppose it was the projection room.
The movie began with a bird’s eye view of the vineyard—a leafy expanse with the snowy mountains in the background. Then it switched to an oil painting, supposedly done in 1795, by a well known portrait painter. I knew it must be a joke because the proprietor in the painting was Bernard himself. He was dressed in old fashioned clothes but it was certainly him.
The movie continued, describing the business’s various setbacks and successes. From the late 1800s there were daguerotypes of the land. These also featured figures that looked just like Dedalus and the Lyons twins. It was like that the whole way through: in each period the same people appeared without having aged at all. In the 1920s they wore bowler hats. In fact, in 1926, there was old film footage of a horse-drawn coffin.
“Then, in 1926, tragedy struck: Ralph Lyons died of tuberculosis.” I read the English subtitles with disbelief.
The film rolled right along. In the ’50s they were in polo shirts, in the 1990s they were in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. I noted in passing that Ralph Lyons had left the vineyard in 1926 “for personal reasons”.
The thing was intriguing. I wondered at the effort the filmmakers had gone to in constructing such an elaborate illusion. Why? Was it to make the vineyard seem older than it really was?
When the movie ended, the room suddenly flooded with natural light. I saw that Dedalus had entered and was making his way down the aisles towards me.
“Well, what did you think?” he asked with his usual smile.
“Fascinating! I was wondering who the director was. They did an excellent job, it all looked quite convincing.”
“What was that? Convincing? Well, of course! It’s a documentary. It’s real,” he shrugged.
“But Mr. Dedalus, I mean…the gist might be true but the way you and the Lyons brothers kept appearing in every decade without aging in the least, I mean that was really clever cinema.”
“Like I said,” Dedalus spoke slowly, smiling slyly, “It is all completely true.”
I was now convinced that he was trying to con me but I didn’t quite know how to contradict him without creating an ugly scene. After all, I was still his guest. So I shrugged and smiled and hoped that we might change the subject.
“That is what I wanted you to see, Mr. Rashid,” Dedalus said softly. “The truth about me, about us. I thought that you would be someone who could comprehend, in a way that most ordinary people couldn’t.”
My toe started twitching with impatience but I exerted some self control.
I waited for him to go on.
“This is not just about wine,” said Dedalus in a stronger voice. “This is about you and your potential. You have before you a choice, my friend! Sit down, let’s watch some more.”
Suddenly the lights went out again and the screen was filled with golden flames. I froze in place, clutching the arms of my seat, not completely sure of what was happening.
A woman’s voice calm, suggestive and assured oozed over us.
“Has it ever occurred to you how much you might do if you had more time? What about if you had many centuries more time? One of the tragedies of mortal life is how briefly our brightest lights burned. Mozart—dead at 35, Catullus at 30, Evariste Galois at 20! What if they had been allowed to live, how much they might have shown us, how much they might have done.”
Dozens, hundreds, thousands of faces flashed across the screen in fast, flickering motion.
“Now you may choose anonymous, futile oblivion or you may choose an eternal life in which you are able to create masterworks, solve theorems, invent machines all for the greater benefit of humankind.”
The screen showed a helicopter, a defibrillator, an intubator, a cellphone and dozens of other everyday items. Finally, it showed a bottle of Dedalus wine.
“This is the product of what ordinary men can do with 150 years. It is the best wine you have ever tasted. You know why? Because one team has devoted that amount of time to one project: testing, developing, improving it without interruption, without the informational loss that accompanies the physical loss of a life. The elixir that you can’t believe is real, is real. It’s a miracle that whispers to you of your own potential. Don’t ignore that whisper.”
The film ended.
Dedalus turned to me.
“Don’t ignore that whisper, Mr. Rashid.”
“What are you saying?” I asked.
“I want to propose a partnership with you.”
“What kind of a partnership?”
“Join us,” he said simply, “And live forever!”
“I’ll have to think about it,” I said.
“Of course, of course,” he patted my sleeve. “It is not something to do lightly. I understand. But I will also tell you, you won’t regret it! Come, let us head off to the house. You must be tired.”
“Yes, yes,” I said faintly, “I do feel tired.”
When we got back to the house, Dedalus offered me a liqueur to assist my sleep. I drank it like an automaton and went up to my bedroom. I texted my librarian friend Deirdre and told her I urgently wanted information about a vineyard in Mendoza in 1925 or 1926. She promised to find out within a half hour.
Then I must have drifted off to sleep because the next thing I knew, my phone was ringing and buzzing in my hand, just in time for me to see Bernard Lyons come into my room with a hammer in his hand.
Despite my drowsiness, adrenaline forced me into action. I took a picture of him and sent it to Walter.
“I have just sent a picture of you to your brother, Mr. Lyons. He will transmit it to the police. I’m afraid that if anything happens to me, things will not go well with you.”
He dropped the hammer on the floor and laughed.
“Why, Mr. Rashid! What do you mean? I was simply coming to ask whether you were comfortable!”
“In fact, I am very far from being comfortable. I would like you to leave. I am leaving this den of weasels in five minutes flat.”
He left and I quickly stuffed my belongings into my bag. I also took a pill to keep me awake and to counter the fluffy feeling in my head. I half expected Bernard to brain me with some other implement the moment I stepped out of the door, so instead I escaped through the window. I knew it was a few kilometers to the nearest village but I was prepared to get a few blisters for the sake of my life.
As I walked along the dusty road, the phone rang. It was Walter.
“Are you all right, Rashid?” he asked breathlessly. “The police are on their way.”
“Excellent, then I won’t have to walk so far after all.”
Back in London a few days later, I asked Walter to come clean with me.
He looked haunted. Unusually for him, he hadn’t shaved and looked thinner.
“I hoped he wouldn’t do it. I believed he’d changed,” Walter shook his head sadly. “The temptation was too strong, I suppose.”
“You’d better tell me about it from the beginning,” I said.
“Dedalus was born in 1750, the son of a French aristocrat from Bordeaux who’d attended the Academy of Bordeaux, determined to discover the perfect methods for creating wine. He taught his son everything he knew and instilled in him a passion for scientific investigation into the art of growing grapes.
“My father discovered something remarkable, that the fabled Phlogiston exists, though the process of distilling it had been soiled with medieval superstition. After years of experimentation, he used the distillate to create an elixir that effected rejuvenation. Unfortunately, this elixir also required the extract of a human marrow bone.”
“How did he…acquire this…?” I stammered.
“Our poor mother,” Walter said with a catch in his voice. “Once he had discovered this, he couldn’t be stopped. He fed the formula to us as infants. Bernard and I are his sons,” he said. “The three of us are immortal.”
“My father was on the verge of presenting the formula to King Louis XVI. He hoped to become a member of the court. After all, with his secret, what monarch would be without him? But then the Revolution broke out.
“Our family fled to North America. My father was distraught because we had to leave our instruments behind. In a way, he’d left his powers behind. We kept moving south, ending up in Argentina. It was here that he began his life’s work: the vineyard.
“But after a hundred years, he noticed something: he was starting to age. So were we. He figured out that he needed to make another sacrifice. There was a woman who worked on the vineyard. Her name was Eloise. She was a kind-hearted, simple woman, devoted to my father.” He hung his head.
“Bernard killed her with a hammer. I didn’t know about it. They knew I was squeamish, that I might report it to the police. My father prepared the solution and I’d drunk it before I knew what it was. Eloise’s husband suspected something, though. He came around asking for her. He became an annoyance to my father. And one day he stopped coming around. I decided then that I didn’t want any more part in his world. I left for Europe.”
“In 1926,” I said.
“Yes,” he nodded. “And now, I suppose, they were starting to feel the effects wearing off again and they needed another sacrifice. I shouldn’t have let you go,” he said.
“You tried to stop me,” I said.
“Not hard enough,” he had tears in his eyes.
“I wouldn’t have believed you,” I scoffed and hugged him. “But there’s one thing I’ve been wondering. Why me? Couldn’t they kidnap any local and brain them with a hammer?”
“I’ve been wondering about that,” said Walter. “And I believe I know the answer. My father cares about wine. It is my belief that he had so honed the process that he wasn’t satisfied with the marrow of any old human: he needed the marrow of a connoisseur.”
The guests all shivered at the conclusion of the story.
“Well!” said Ruth “I sincerely hope you keep an eye on your colleagues at your wine appreciation club!”