Authors: Jean-Pierre Alaux
Praise for the series
“The perfect mystery to read with a glass of vino in hand.”
“Light and enjoyableâ¦ If you feel like taking an armchair tour of France, they hit just the right spot.”
âMystery Scene Magazine
“Decadent, delicious, and delightful, The Winemaker Detective series blends an immersion in French countryside, winemaking and gourmet attitude with mystery and intrigue.”
âWine Industry Network Advisor
“A fun and informative take on the cozy crime mystery, French style.”
“It is easy to see why this series has a following. The descriptive language is captivating... crackling, interesting dialogue and persona.”
“The authors of the Winemaker Detective series hit that mark each and every time.”
âStudent of Opinions
“Francophiles, history buffs, mystery fans, oenophiles will want to add the entire series to their reading shelf.”
âThe Discerning Reader
“Intrigue and plenty of good eating and drinking... will whet appetites of fans of both
Murder, She Wrote
“One of my favorite series to turn to when I'm looking for something cozy and fun!”
âBack to Books
“Wine lovers and book lovers, for a perfect break in the shadows of your garden or under the sun on the beach, get a glass of wine, and enjoy this cozy mystery. Even your gray cells will enjoy!”
“Recommended for those who like the journey, with good food and wine, as much as the destination.”
âWriting About Books
“The reader is given a fascinating look into the goings on in the place the story is set and at the people who live there, not to mention all the wonderful food and drinks.”
âThe Book Girl's Book Blog
“A quick, entertaining read. It reminds me a bit of a good old English Murder Mystery such as anything by Agatha Christie.”
âNew Paper Adventures
“I love good mysteries. I love good wine. So imagine my joy at finding a great mystery about wine, and winemaking, and the whole culture of that fascinating world.”
, New York Times
“It is best consumed slightly chilled, and never alone. You will be intrigued by its mystery, and surprised by its finish, and it will stay with you for a very long time.”
All rights reserved: no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.
First published in France as
Buveurs en sÃ©rie
by Jean-Pierre Alaux and NoÃ«l Balen
World copyright Â©Librairie ArthÃ¨me Fayard, 2006
English adaptation copyright Â©2016 Sally Pane
First published in English in 2016 By Le French Book, Inc., New York
Translator: Sally Pane
Translation editor: Amy Richard
Proofreader: Chris Gage
Cover designer: Jeroen ten Berge
Trade paperback: 9781943998005
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Wine is sunlight, held together by water.
lorence, I'd envy your life in this immense chÃ¢teau if it weren't for the ghosts. I'm sure you have one or two lurking in there,” Benjamin Cooker said as he dropped a packet of artificial sweetener
in his coffee.
“Benjamin, you always surprise me. I would have never guessed that France's most celebrated authority in matters of winemaking would be
Benjamin sipped his coffee and tried not to grimace at the bitter taste of the sweetener. Elisabeth was nagging him to lose weight again, and he had reluctantly given up sugar in his coffee to pl
ease his wife.
“Do you, of all people, really believe in ghosts?” Florence Blanc
“That would depend on what kind of ghost you're talking about. If you mean a disembodied soul, well, I do believe in the soul. It's the seat of life and intelli
Florence nodded. “That's one way of looking at it, I suppose. If I recall correctly, the Marquise de Deffand, the famous seventeenth-century hostess, was asked once of she believed in ghosts. She answered, âNo, but I'm afr
aid of them.'”
“I have to say that I'm more afraid of the living and our small-mindedness, which leads to so much deception and duplicity. To respond to your quote, I'll cite Pierre Corneille, who said, âDeceit is a game of petty spirits'âthose are the
ghosts I fear.”
Sitting in the garden with his host, Benjamin looked up and studied the small cupola atop the chÃ¢teau's slate roof. The morning sun was blazing down on the mansion, bleaching its Charente-
Dating to the 1870s, ChÃ¢teau Blanchard reminded Benjamin of the expression “castle in the sky.” It was the kind of estate that landowners with aspirations once dreamed of building. Only a few, however, could afford such opulence. The exterior was ornate and fascinating, with its intricate pinnacles above the top-floor windows. But as far as Benjamin was concerned, the place was entirely too impracti
cal to live in.
“I'm thinking we should restore the pond. You saw how overrun it is with algae and weeds,” Florence said, setting her cup down and casting her eyes over
At times Florence seemed overwhelmed by the family legacy. ChÃ¢teau Blanchard was too large and its amenities were too few, especially in the winter, when it was impossible to heat. But she loved it in the summer, when children overtook the grounds and dinners under an old magnolia tree at the edge of the pond extended well in
to the evening.
“One day I'll have the grounds looking like Versailles,” Florence said, turning back to Benjamin. “I remember how well my grandfather
As the estate's winemaking consultant, Benjamin knew all about the family's history. Florence Blanchard had been born into a family of farmers who had left Algeria during the war of independence in the early 1960s and had ended up in this corner of the Gironde, not far from ChÃ¢teau Margaux. This
family had poured all of their resources into their land in the MÃ©doc, and the wines they produced were their
pride and joy.
Florence and her brother, Jules, had lost their parents when they were young and had inherited the Blanchard estate from their grandfather. Of the two of them, Florence was the more attached to the fairy-tale chÃ¢teau. In her youth, she had spent hours with her grandfather, whose passion for the vine was tireless and unconditional. His cru bourgeois, generated on thirty hectares in the heart of the Listrac appellation, was an elegant and velvety wine approaching the nobility of a Margaux
or a Pauillac.
Under her grandfather's tutelage, Florence had developed a love for wine and the land. And as an adult, she had nurtured the vineyards, lush with merlot and cabernet sauvi
“Enough about my plans for the future,” Florence said, leaning toward the winemaker. “I have something more pressing on my mind at the moment. Didier seems on edge these days. Should
I be worried?”
Didier Morel was the cellar master for ChÃ¢teau Blanchard. After finishing his oenological studies, Didier had interned at ChÃ¢teau Pichon Longueville Baron and then at Lynch-Bages. Benjamin had met Didier at Lynch-Bages and was so impressed, he advised the Blanchard family to take him on. They hired h
im on the spot.
The young man had much in common with Benjamin's assistant, Virgile Lanssien. They both had a deeply ingrained passion for rugby, as well as the crafty intelligence of people of the earth. Each had the same diploma signed by the same director of the Institut d'oenologie, the winemaking institute of Bordeaux. These commonalities, however, did not make them allies. Benjamin knew that Virgile was a tad jealous and even reluctant to give his opinion when Florence, Didier, and he presided over the Blanchard blendings. He had concluded that the two were cut from the same cloth, consumed by the same ambitions, and blessed with the same instincts and charm that young women just c
Benjamin smiled. “I wouldn't be concerned. A winemaker's nerves are always on edge during malolactic fermentation. Didier's as vigilant as a lighthouse keeper in a hurricane. His watchfulness is a sign of h
Florence picked up the silver coffeepot, which was gleaming in the bright sunlight. “Another
“Gladly,” he answered, his gaze once again drawn to the cupola on the slate roof. It seem
Florence followed his gaze. “What do you think of the cupola? I find it rather elegant. It was actually an observation pos
t at one time.”
“Is that so?”
“Landowners used cupolas to watch over the vines during harvest. From up there, my grandfather could see as far away as the Garonne and spot any evildoers intent on stealing his grapes. It seems that grape theft was once
“Unlike the vines, trust has never thrived in the MÃ©doc,” said Benjamin. “The people here are capable of fighting over a single vine stalk for generations. They'd even
kill over one.”
Florence sipped her coffee. “Something seems to be on your m
The winemaker did not respond, mostly because he didn't think he was being overly pensive. Actually, he had arrived early so that he and Florence could have a conversation before her brother and Didier joined them for their tasting. He liked her quick wit, her candor, and he
Finally, Benjamin decided to weigh in on the cupolas. “Florence, I don't believe this story about lookouts for the vineyards. In Bordeaux, above the Palais de la Bourse, you see the same cupolas, and as far as I know, there aren't any vineyards around there in danger of b
“Benjamin, in the city those cupolas served another purpose altogether. They were for spotting the arrival of merchant ships, which were so vital to the city's economy. Did you know that in the port's heyday there were as many as two thousand ships trading in front of the rostral columns at the Place d
“Your knowledge impresses
“I do enjoy putting the famous
author in his place when I have the chance. After all, your expertise is said to be b
“I've never claimed to be infall
“I should hope not. However, I worry about anyone who believes in ghosts, has no faith in humankind's integrity, and uses artificial sweetener
in his coffee.”
The Blanchard heiress capped this string of reproaches with a warm smile that spoke volumes about th
Before the winemaker could respond, he spotted Jules and Didier hea
ding their way.
irgile Lanssien's bachelor pad on the Rue Saint RÃ©mi was one of those small apartments without much character behind old Bordeaux's beautiful eighteenth-century facades. It had a tiny living room with a modest amount of molding, a fireplace with a cracked marble surround, a wood floor, a hallway leading to a cramped bedroom with a window, a bathroom, and a kitchen barely larger than a t
The best feature of this home was its balcony. The landlord had described it as a “gorgeous little balcony with a view of the Place de la Bourse and the Fountain of the Three Graces.” Actually, it was a merely an opening with a metal barrier in front. From it, Virgile could see a muddy strip of the Garonne River and the plump hips of the muses scu
lpted long ago.
No matter. Virgile was fine with it. The apartment was neither spacious nor comfortable, but it was two steps from the AllÃ©es de Tourny and a stone's throw from the laboratory on the Cours du Chapeau Rouge. Good thing, too, because he was late. He was supposed to meet Alexandrine de La PalussiÃ¨reâCooker and Co.'s lab director. She wanted his help because of his ability to discern TCA, or 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, in wine at about two parts per trillion. Not all tasters could pick up cork taint in such sm
Thank Godâanything to get out of going to ChÃ¢teau Blanchard. He couldn't stand Didier Morel. His boss loved to compare them, but all Virgile could see was that Didier's shoulders were just that much wider than his, his features a tad more chiseled, his legs stronger, and, worse, everything Virgile did, Didier tried to do better. It had started at wine school. Virgile would propose a project about organic farming and the effect on wine production in Bordeaux, and two weeks later Didier would hand in something on biodynamic grape husbandry in Burgundy. Even at the bar, Didier would hit on the same women. It was annoyingâlike being trailed by a gnat. And now that bloodsucker was hanging around the labâwhere Virgile was supposed to have been fifte
en minutes ago.
Virgile rummaged through the jeans and underwear strewn all over the floor for something clean to wear. Housekeeping wasn't in his wheelhouse. Sometimes he paid his next-door neighbor to tidy the apartment, but she hadn't been there in a while. She was out of town, visiting her sister in Mimizan. The place was even grubbier and more cluttered than usual, a dump where a mother cat wouldn't be able to fi
nd her kittens.
He tripped on an empty wine bottle, catching himself on the coffee table, where he knocked over a box from the Indian
After brushing his teeth and splashing on some Gentleman by Givenchy, he headed to the kitchen to brew some coffee. Three days of dirty dishes were piled in the sink. He opened the refrigerator, and a rancid odor hit him in the face. Hi
s phone buzzed.
“Don't get your panties in a bunch, Alex.
I'm on my way.”
There was silen
ce on the line.
“Is this Mr. Vir
“Who's this? What are you doing with Alexandrin
“This is the emergency room at Saint AndrÃ© Hospital. Ms. de La PalussiÃ¨re is here with us. She asked tha
t we call you.”
enjamin! It's good to see you. How's that beautiful wife of yours?
” Jules asked.
“Elisabeth's positively giddy. My publisher is whisking us away to Hunga
ry via Vienna.”
“Lucky dog. Good thing you could come to see us before you go tasting the king of wines and the
wine of kings.”
“Yes, that is the reputation of the Tokay winesâever since the Prince of Transylvania gave a bottle to King Louis XIV, and the king called it
vinum regum, rex vinorum
. I admit I'm looking
forward to it.”
“Tokay or Tokaji, Mr. Cooker?
” Didier asked.
“Good point, young man. Tokay refers to wines from the Tokaj region in Hungary, although for centuries that name had been used for other wines: neighboring Slovakian wines, a pinot gris in Alsace, an Italian grape variety, and even an Australian sweet. Then in 2007, the Eastern European wine region won the right to be the only ones to use that name, no matter how you spell it. The âi' at the end of Tokaji means “from” Tokaj, where they make more wines than just the sweet nectar we commonly refer to as Tokay. So, you are right.
Tokaji it is.”
Didier flashed a grin and ran his hand over a head of curls. Then he added, “
“My daughter isn't budging from New York,” Benjamin said. It came out sharper than h
e had intended.
“So you're still keeping her away from the locals like Didier here?” Jules sa
id with a wink.
“Going by the scratches on his forearm, I'd say that's a good thing,” Benjamin said, pursing his lips. As much as he liked the boy, neither he nor Virgile were suitable matches for his beloved daughter. They were still busy pla
ying the field.
Didier looked down, then shrugged. “Rough mat
ch last night.”
Florence cleared her throat. “Why don't we start? Wh
“He won't be joining us,” Benjamin said. “A cork-
“Too bad,” Didier said. Benjamin couldn't tell by his tone if he was disappoint
ed or relieved.
The three men and Florence walked over the grounds to the wine cellar. Benjamin welcomed its coolness. He put on his glasses and took o
ut his notepad.
On a pedestal table covered with an oilcloth, several bottles awaited the verdict of this jury of tasters, just as several other bottles had awaited them the previous year, when, after a gloomy spring and a hot, dry summer, the grapes had been harvested under a copper sun, yielding a perfectly balanced wine bless
ed by the gods.
What would this tasting bring? Benjamin was eager to find out. His conclusions would make their way into his updated
The guide, five hundred pages long, had become the definitive wine bible, as well as a bestseller, to the great satisfaction of Claude Nithard,
Florence filled the wineglasses without spilling a drop. Benjamin plunged his nose into his glass, sniffed, and scribbled in his notebook. He sipped. Silence. Just as he was about to say something, his cell phone vibrated. He frowned and pulled the phone out of his pocket. It was Virgile. “Bad news,” the screen read. “Serious!
Call me, ASAP.”
“Please excuse me,” he muttered as he put his glass down and took leave of the Blanchards. He tapped callback and put the ph
one to his ear.
“Yes, Virgile. More troubl
es at the lab?”
“No, boss, worse. You've got to come. Someone attacked Alexandrine. She's in bad shape. Her face is a mess. I'm with her in the emergency room at
“I'll be there as soon as I can. Who would do such a thing? To Alexandrine,
of all people.”
“I don't know, boss. She hasn't told me anything, and I haven'
t pressed her.”
Benjamin ended the call. Hurrying back to the Blanchards, he asked that sample bottles be prepared for
him right away.
“There's something I must tend to, and I need to leave. It's an emergency. I'm terribly sorry. I'll share my tasting notes with you lat
er. I promise.”
“Nothing serious, I hope,”
The winemaker mopped his forehead with his linen handkerchief and collected himself. He didn't want to look as frazz
led as he felt.
“I'll know better when I get back to Bordeaux. Thank you. I'l
l be in touch.”
Benjamin hurried to his Mercedes convertible and sped away. Fortunately, traffic was light. Saint AndrÃ© Hospital, founded in the fourteenth century, was in the center of town. The buildings, situated around a garden, had managed to retain a certain his
Benjamin rushed into the emergency room, and a nurse pointed him to the cubby where Alexandrine was being treated. When he got there, another nurse was helping her int
o a wheelchair.
“Mr. Cooker,” Alexandrine said. Her words were muffled, as she could barely move her swollen lips. Her face was puffy and bruised, her
“Don't speak, child. The doctors will take good care of you.” The nurse wheeled her away, down the bright
ly lit hallway.
“Did you see that? Her nose is probably broken, and the bone above her eye looks smashed. Whoever did this had it in for her,
” Virgile said.
“Has she told you
“No. She just wanted me to tell you not to worry and to go ahead and take that trip to Budapest, as you and Mrs. Cooke
r had planned.”
can't do that.”
“Listen, boss, it's not every day that your publisher pays for a cruise on the Danube. âThe Blue Da
nube' and all.”
“That, son, would be âOn the Beautiful Blue Danube' or, in the original German, âAn der schÃ¶nen
“Whatever. I know for a fact that Mrs. Cooker is packed and waiting. Go. Live it up. I'll make sure Alexandrine is okay, and I'll cover the wo
rk at the lab.”
Benjamin wouldn't leave. They sat in silence for a good hour, but Alexandrine had not
“Boss, getting her X-rayed will probably take forever, and who knows what they'll need to do after that. You should go. You've got some papers to sign at the office and
bags to pack.”
“I feel terrible about
“No worries, boss,” Virgile said, mustering a smile
. “I got this.”
“You'll have your work cut out for you while I'm gone. Keep me posted o
Benjamin left the emergency room more slowly than he had come in. He said a silent prayer for Alexandrine's recovery and got back in his car to drive to the Cooker & Co. office. If he couldn't be in Bordeaux over the next couple of weeks, at least he could make things a little easier for
enjamin had met Claude Nithard many years earlier, before he had even finished his first
Although he was already a leading wine expert, Benjamin didn't consider himself a writer. The publishing-house executive had taken the winemaker under his wing and given him both guidance and support. Since then, the
had succeeded well beyond expectation, and the two men had become good friends. Two or three times a year, they would go to LutÃ©tia in Paris and share an epicurean feast. Three saints would invariably join themâSaint Julien, Saint EstÃ¨phe, and Saint Ãmilion. They would spend a few hours in heaven and leave the restaurant in a serene stat
e of communion.
This year, Claude had called Benjamin a few hours before the newest edition of the
was scheduled to go to press. He wanted to do something more spectacular than going to the LutÃ©tia, as he was celebrating not only the updated
, but also a milestone birthday. Claude asked Benjamin and Elisabeth to join his girlfriend and him on a Danube
“We'll visit the Tokaji winemaking region,” he had told Benjamin. “It was my girlfriend's idea. She's already making the arrangements with my secretary. The publishing house will tre
at, of course.”
A romantic cruise on the Danube: as soon as Claude made the offer, Benjamin was envisioning himself gliding through the waters, his glass in hand and his preferred cigar between his lips. They'd board in Vienna and cruise to Budapest, where they'd take in the city's smoky cafÃ©s, Turkish baths, quaint hotels, and baroque character. And finally they'd get on the legendary BartÃ³k BÃ©la and travel by rail to Bald Mountain, which, ironically, was covered with for
ests and vines.
Claude claimed to know little about Hungary, except for having played an interminable game of chess in the well-known SzÃ©chenji baths of Budapest. The winemaker enthusiastically offered to be the ad hoc guide, knowing, as he did, all about the liquid gold that trickled down the languid slopes o
f Mount Tokaj.
That had been several weeks earlierâbefore someone smashed in Alexandrine's face. Although he knew Virgile would take good care of her and Cooker & Co., he didn't feel right
“What's wrong, darling?” Elisabeth asked as they headed
to the airport.
“You're such a worrywart. I talked to Alexandrine. She's shook up, but she insisted that you not concern yourself. Virgi
le's with her.”
Elisabeth leaned over and kissed him
on the cheek.
“Think of what awaits us,” she said. “The proud Buda, the boisterous Pest, the stalls of paprika, the Herend porcelain, the sweets at the Gerbeaud cafÃ©. How long has it been, sweetheart, since we've had a geta
way like this?”
Benjamin relaxed a little and cleared his throat. “I see we even got a new set of luggage. Was that rea
“Oh, don't be a curmudgeon. Wait until you see the clothes I bought. There's a little lacy thing that I think you'll es
s soon as they arrived at the Hotel Sacher in Vienna, Benjamin called Alexandrine, but she didn't answer her phone. He left a quick message telling her he was thinking of her. Then he
“She'll be in the hospital for a few days, boss, and won't be able to work for more
than a month.”
“What's the extent
of the damage?”
“The attack was brutal. Her brow's fractured. Her nasal septum's broken, and her optic nerve may be injured. The doctors think she might need reconstru
Benjamin pictured her delicate and perfectly shaped nos
e and grimaced.
“Has she talked
to the police?”
“Yep. She gave them a short description of the man. Late forties, square face, short hair, crooked teeth. That's all. She said he seemed to have it in for her. He called her names and hit her hard several times. Then he grabbed her purs
e and ran off.”
's that, boss?”
“That's a lot of violence for a purse snatching. Where did
it take place?”
“In the AllÃ©es des Tourny p
“It's a busy place. There must be cameras. Check with the police and make sure they're lo
oking into it.”
“Um, boss, do you think the police will want me to tell them how to
do their job?”
“Call Inspector Barbaroux. H
e owes me one.”
“Doesn't he work homicide? This is j
ust a mugging.”
“Just a mugging?” Benjamin could feel his blood pressure rising. “How can you say that? This is Alexandrine we're
Benjamin ended the call without saying good-bye. He took a few deep breaths, straightened his jacket, and joined Elisabet
h in the lobby.
enjamin found Elisabeth in the grand salon. Her simple beige dress accentuated her slender frame and classic good looks, and she looked effortlessly chic in her go-with-everything trench coat, HermÃ¨s scarf, and buckled low-heeled pumps. Elisabeth smiled and took his arm as he cast his eyes over the luxurious banquettes and marble pedestal tables laden with sweets. Clearly, the sin of gluttony was
a virtue here.
“You did promise there'd be no mention of the word âdiet,' right?” Benjamin whispered as they sat down at
hard to resist a Sachertorte with all that decadent chocol
ate, isn't it?”
“Especially with a dollop of whipped cream. Turning it down would
Elisabeth looked him in the eye with a gaze that caused Benjamin's heart
to skip a beat.
“Okay, no diet, but only if you keep your part of the deal.” She leaned over and nu
zzled his neck.
Benjamin Cooker, the staid half-English Frenchman, felt himself blush li
ke a schoolboy.
He cleared his throat and looked up when he heard his name called. Claude Nithard, wearing a perfectly tailored jacket, narrow trousers, and pointed leather shoes, was waving and walking toward them with a ravi
“Let me introduce Co
The Cookers stood up to greet Claude and Consuela with the traditional French cheek kisses. Despite a marked difference in age, the Nithard-Chavez couple seemed compatible. They were holding hands, and Consuela was giggling. Benjamin wondered where she was fromâperhaps from Central or South America? She was beautiful, indeed. And one who seemed to crave attention. Benjamin hadn't missed the smoky eye makeup and the way she swayed as they were walkin
g to the table.
“I hope we haven't kept you waiting
,” Claude said.
“We had just enough time to decide that our first adventure would be Sachertorte.” Benjamin started to pull out a chair for Consuela, but Claude hastened to do it himself, giving his lover an intimate look as she sat down. Benjamin wrinkled his nose. Their bond smelled
of fresh paint.
“Will that be four servings?” Benjamin asked
, sitting down.
Consuela declined. “I'll have a Viennese coffee, without too much whipped
“Oh, but you must try the Sachertorte,” Claude pressed, explaining that the confection was a specialty of the grandest hotel in Vienna. Generations of Austrians had been willing to sell their souls for just a taste. Such grand words were a bit too much, e
ven for Claude.
Still, the woman refused, giving her lover a pouty look with her own version of
Elisabeth glanced at Benjamin, and he knew she was going to roll her eyes. He hastened to make som
“Did you know that the pastry chefs who make the Sachertorte here go through more than a million eggs every year, plus eighty tons of sugar, seventy-five tons of chocolate, thirty-seven tons of apricot jam, twenty-five tons of butter, and no less than thirty
tons of flour?”
Elisabeth raised her hand to quiet her husband. “Stop showing off, Benjamin. I love chocolate cake as much as anyone else, but all that tonnage is mak
ing me queasy.”
“Not me,” Claude said, motioning to the waiter. “Benjamin, you and Elisabeth should write a cookbook for us. I don't know why I didn't think of it sooner. You have the perfect name: Cooker. I can see the title now:
Cooking with the Cookers
. With the dishes Elisabeth turns out and your wine pairings, we'd have the makings of a bestselle
r, I tell you.”
“Claude, you were the one who said no work on this trip,” Benjamin answered. “And now you're trying to convince me to write another book? As if there weren't mountains of cookbooks already. And who buys them anymore? Margaux says that everyone gets recipes off the Intern
et these days.”
Across from him, Consuela was fingering the silverware and giving him a provocative look. The winemaker caught himself feeling intrigued. Elisabeth's quick jab under the table stopped him. He gave his wife a sheepish look and was grateful when their sweets arrived. He picked up his spoo
n and dived in.
“Did you know that there's a fascinating story behind this cake?” the w
t was Consuela.
“Yes,” Benjamin said, wiping his mouth with his napkin, stamped with the hotel's coat of arms. “It was at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich ordered his bakers to create a unique dessert for some dignitaries he wanted to impress. âDo not disappoint or shame me,' the prince told the kitchen staff. Unfortunately, the head pastry chef was bedridden, and it fell on his sixteen-year-old apprentice, Franz Sacher, to take up the challenge and prepare an amazing chocolate cake. You can imagine how his knees were shaking when he presented the cake. But as it turned out, his creation delighted both the prince and his guests. It wasn't long before the cake became renowned throughout Vienna. And today, as you can see, people come from all over to order this ve
“It's good,” Elisabeth said, putting down her spoon. “Very good, even. But legendary?
I don't know.”
Benjamin smiled at his wife. She was a discerning woman. One of the many qualities he lo
ved about her.
“Things aren't always what they seem,” he said. “Perhaps the legend doesn't come from the actual cake, but from the story surrounding it. Franz's son Edouard carried on the family tradition and perfected the cake while working for the competitionâthe Demel Bakery. He did well enough to open his own hotelâthe Sacher Hotel. But it wound up going bankrupt, and Edouard's son returned to Demel. By 1938, however, the Sacher Hotel was up and running again under different ownership. It began making the cake too. The rivalry was on, eventually leading to litigation. Each side laid claim to the origina
“Sounds like a classic copyright dispute,” Claude s
aid. “Who won?”
“The tussle lasted for years. The two sides set in motion the entire Austrian legal machine, whose rulings were challenged one by one. Pastry chefs from all over the world were asked to give their expert testimony. Finally, in 1965, the Vienna Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Hotel Sacher, affirming it as owner of the original Sachertorte. The recipe was placed in the establishment's vault, where it remain
s to this day.”
Benjamin took his fork and poked at the confection. “The two cakes are a bit different. Here it's filled with apricot jam, while at Demel's it's covered with a warm layer of apricot marmalade and frosted with chocolate. If we have time before boarding the ship to Budapest tomorrow, we can
“I don't know, Benjamin,” Elisabeth said. “That's cutting i
t a bit close.”
“So what about the rest of today?” Claude said, finishing his cake. “Would you care to join Consuela and me? We're thinking of checking out the Gustav Klimt paintings at the SchÃ¶
Benjamin wasn't surprised, considering the erotic nature of Klimt's work. Elisabeth gave him a don't-you-dare glare. He smiled at Claude and said they had their own plans. The Cookers accompanied the publisher and his companion to their cab and
“So, my love, if not Kli
mt, then what?”
The former imperial palace was grand, but Benjamin was hoping to see the house where Mozart had composed the
“All right. I'm too thrilled to be in Vienna to argue,” Elisabeth said, smiling and taking her husband's arm. “Let's go see Wol
ack at the hotel, Benjamin
“Boss, something's off with Alexandrine's story. The police checked the surveillance cameras, and they didn't pick up anything. There weren't any traces of blood in the garage, either. The cops came to see Alexandrine again. I was there. They asked the same question you did: why would someone attack her so brutally just to take her purse and run off. They think she may know the attackerâand they were tough on
her about it.”
t did she say?”
“Nothing. She was a real clam. She said she passed out after the guy started beating her and barely remembers how she got to the hospital when she came to. A blessing, if you ask me. She's still having a hard time thin
do you think?”
“I think is it's odd that I'm the only one with her at the hospital. Doesn't she have family, boss? Why di
d she call me?”
Benjamin knew the PalussiÃ¨res were an old family from the Gironde that, apart from some vines and a neo-Gothic chÃ¢teau in the haut MÃ©doc, had made its fortune in the slave trade rather than wine. Of course, Alexandrine's ancestors had invented a more glorious past involving the sale of spices on Bordeaux's Cours de la Martinique, as well as a lucrative brokerage business on the Cours de l'Intendance, when Bordeaux wines were shipped all over the world and
fixed the prices on behalf of the owners of gra
nd cru estates.
These days, the family drew most of its profits from real-estate holdings. Rumor had it that they owned a private mansion on the Rue du Palais Gallien in downtown Bordeaux, two single-story houses called
in the upscale suburb of CaudÃ©ran, an old monastery property in the town of Latresne, and a waterfront villa on the Arcachon Bay, at the tip
of Cap Ferret.
It didn't matter how much money the family had or where it came from. None of it was Alexandrine's. They'd given her an apartmentâit wouldn't do to have her homelessâand then cut her off. She
was on her own.
“Virgile, her lifestyle choices alienat
ed her family.”
“That's so provincial, boss. Hardly anybody thinks that way anymore. And even if they disagreed with her so-called lifestyle choices, you'd think they'd come to see her in the hospital. How could parents abandon their daug
hter this way?”
“Her parents haven't spoken to her for years, not since she came out. They might not even know that she was attacked. She called you because we're her family now. Do we know
“The investigator asked if she received any threats or got any suspicious phone calls in the weeks leading up
to the attack.”
ell, did she?”
“She insisted th
at she didn't.”
There was a moment of silence on the phone as Benjamin watched Elisabeth come out of the hotel bathroom in an off-the-shoulder black evening dress and the sexiest spike heels he had ever seen. They had red soles and were nearly see-through. How much had they set him back?
He didn't care.
“Um, yes. Anything
in the papers?”
“No, I'm doing my best to keep it low-profile. Cooker & Co. doesn't need this kind
“You're right, but our priority is Alexandrine. We need to protect her privacy and take care of her. Thank you, son, for stayin
g by her side.”
“No problem, boss. I gave her flowers and said they were from all of us, and yesterday I came with some
from the Baillardran bakery. She loves them, especially when the crust is caramelized just right around the c
“Is the work piling
up in the lab?”
“If you need to, call in Didier Morel to
help you out.”
There was another silence. This tim
e from Virgile.
Elisabeth had finished her makeup and looked ravishing in her usual understated way. How could any other woman look more beautiful in this luxurious room, with its crystal chandelier and view of the Vienna Sta
te Opera House?
“Virgile, let me share a bit of sage advice: âKeep your friends close, and your en
“You and your quotes. Well, I know that one. It's from Sun Zi's
The Art of War
I heard it
on the radio.”
“Wrong, my boy. It was Michael Corleone
who said that.”
ther, Part II
ulling my leg.”
frequently misattributed to Sun Zi. I'll give you that. Now, I'm off
to the opera.”