Randolph Lincoln spotted a streak of lightning in the distance. Normally he would be shooting with his brand new Sony, but now he only hoped to make it back to the chateau without getting his photography equipment soaking wet. He pedaled down the path, stopping to get his bearing, his bike kicking up loose pebbles. Compounding his sense of panic, suddenly the path split into two. He veered right careening toward an unknown destination. His eyes scanned miles and miles of Burgundy vineyards.
The screaming wind drowned out his cursing and the increasingly dark, angry sky matched his feelings. The bike skidded off the winding path into the creek that ran alongside it. He climbed back on the bike, soggy pant leg bottoms dripping gooey mud. Randolph let out a long sigh of relief after checking that the backpack with all the expensive equipment was still dry. After passing rows of trees and walls of stones curving around a bend in the road, a bright distant light shined from a dormer window in a country cottage.
It began to rain, drizzling at first, teasing the lost cyclist. Randolph stood up on his pedals to get more power, racing with the wind, riding with abandon. Finally, he approached the house. The photographer smiled up at the window framing a gray haired woman. Leaning the bike against an old white stone wall, he climbed up onto the porch and knocked on the massive oak door. No one answered. He pounded harder.
“Come to the door, God damn it, I know you are there!” he screamed out of frustration.
All he got for his efforts were sore fists and a raw raspy voice. He sank to the ground, unlatched his heavy load and decided to wait out the storm. Then the door slowly creaked open as lightning flashed across the sky illuminating the porch with an eerie glow. Two brass lanterns dimly lit up the porch casting ominous shadows.
Randolph swept his wet hair from his eyes and quickly rose to his feet to face a short, muscular, bald-headed man and a frail old woman framed by the doorway. They stared at him saying nothing, so the open door was an invitation for him to enter.
“Sorry to be intruding on you. It’s a downpour out there.” He slowly enunciated his words looking to see if he was understood.
The woman’s wide eyes flitted around the room, then came back to rest on his. The man wore an expressionless face. A dead stillness filled the small entryway.
Then Randolph blurted out, “Oh, thank you…mercy?”
The short man suddenly gave him a crooked grin, ignoring the mispronunciation. He rubbed his bald head as if that would help him conjure up some conversation. Introductions were quickly made and suddenly they were talking like old friends. Claude the Frenchman and Randolph the American locking hands together in a firm grip of camaraderie.
Finally, the woman interrupted them by tugging on her son’s shirt, saying a few words in French before disappearing into a back room. A few minutes later, she came back out with a pink and red striped wool blanket and handed it to her son.
Claude said, “This is for you, monsieur, you must be cold,” wrapping the blanket gently around Randolph’s shoulders. He gave his mother more instructions in French. This time she shook her head in disagreement, but finally went back to the small back room.
Claude watched Randolph, covered in his mother’s blanket, step off the large entry rug without wiping his feet. His face retained its cheerful welcoming smile while he thought, Americans have no regard for anything.
The only thing interesting in the large room was a haphazardly stacked tower of Burgundy wine crates. Any mementos that made a place a home were missing. Packing boxes were lined up along the wall. Simple furnishings finished the sparse environment.
“Ah, wine!” Randolph boldly walked over to have a look, dripping dirty puddles onto the oak plank boards. On top of the pile of crates lied two pair of work gloves. He ran his fingers over the coarse leather. The small gloves had the fingertips removed and the larger glove’s pointing digit seemed to say, look what I found!
Stalking behind him, Claude stuffed the smaller pair of gloves in his back pocket.
Turning back to his host, Randolph’s eyebrows started to rise in a question about his observations, and then his eyes glanced at the single pair of gloves.
Claude gleefully watched the American’s curiosity unfold.
The rain smacked against a large window and a sudden boom of thunder caused Randolph to jump. As the storm got closer, a constant barrage of high voltage fireworks lit up the room. Then all hell broke loose as the lamps and ceiling fixtures flickered on and off animating sinister shapes on the walls.
After reassuring his guest, Claude took him by the hand and led him past a closed cellar door to a small table in the corner of the room. Retrieving a book of matches from his other pocket, he lit a candle waiting on the table. He watched his mother light more candles around the large room and smiled his approval.
“Just in case.” he informed Randolph.
A cat stalked out from the shadows and rubbed its body on the visitor’s soaked jeans, sniffing the dampness, lapping up the puddles. Then it scurried away to levitate upward into the safety of the old woman’s arms. She glanced at the muddy footprints, shook her head and then holding onto the cat, disappeared up the stairs, leaving the two men alone.
“I saw you admiring our fine wine. Chateau Beaubreian produces some of the best Burgundy in this region. My brothers and I are winemakers and this is part of our family’s reserve.”
Claude glanced back at the crates, slyly smiling at the clueless American and chuckling to himself, let him think this wine estate is my rightful inheritance.
He watched Randolph relax, settling back in his chair.
“Yes, I’ve heard of the famous Beaubriean Brothers.”
“Oui, maybe not as famous as our wine, but poor mama has not been well lately and the chateau is not the place for her. Too busy and noisy with tourists.” He continued embellishing his story, acting out the role of a wealthy winemaker. His eyes clouded over while he talked about his poor mama, thinking, she deserves better and so do I.
“This cottage is very peaceful and it’s beautiful, here. But it looks like you might be moving?”
“Yes, that is the plan,” Claude stated while looking at the crates.
“I hope your mother regains her health. This is my first visit to France, part business and part pleasure.”
“Ah, pleasure. I will get us some wine, if you would like,” Claude said.
“Yes, oui,” Randolph added a little French.
Claude went to the back room. He was gone awhile, preparing a special goblet of wine for his guest. His goblet had a slight chip on the rim; he would save the ‘perfect’ goblet for his guest. He centered the wine bottle between the goblets on a silver tray and went back to the table.
He placed a filled goblet in front of Randolph. It shimmered in the candlelight.
“What a beautiful deep red color… oui?” He smiled at the American and returned to his seat. He picked up his wine, glanced at the dirt collecting under his nails, and remembered the hard work he did in the cellar, this morning. He glanced at his nosy guest who was busy looking around the room, eyes finally stopping on his photography gear.
“Don’t worry, it’s safe there. You like taking pictures of our beautiful country…oui?” Claude pointed at Randolph’s large backpack in the entryway. “Is that what you do for a living?”
“No, photography is just a hobby, an expensive one. I’m a lawyer from Chicago…that’s the job that pays for my hobbies and trips.”
“Never been to Chicago, that is in Illinois, land of Lincoln, and that is your last name, oui? 16th president, and also a lawyer. Hmm…maybe you have dreams to be president? In America anything can happen…oui?”
“You know a lot about America.”
Claude ignored the statement and instead asked his guest, “Are you alone on this trip?”
“You got that right. No place for the little missus, if you know what I mean.” Randolph laughed and stood up, holding the goblet high to toast his new friend. At the same time, a bolt of lightning lit up the room. “The storm is still not letting up. I hope the power doesn’t go out. But, I’m so glad I’m safe here with you.”
Claude’s eyes lit up with excitement as he in turn made a toast. “To friends who meet unexpectedly. To life, to your health – a votre sant!”
His voice turned serious. “You will like this wine…oui” But before you taste, swirl it like this. Then put your nose in and breathe in the rich Burgundy bouquet. Now let it roll on your tongue… sip it… slowly… savor it, feel the warmth. Mmm. So good.” He modeled the steps and then raised his own glass, the one without the powder, to his lips, feeling the chip.
Earlier in the back room, his mama carefully filled an antique apothecary jar. The pretty container made his mama feel better about the contents. His source claimed it was good stuff, dissolved well, no strange taste, and worked quickly. He knew this for a fact, remembering the perfectly delicious ending to yesterday’s wine tasting. He smiled thinking about the large pair of work gloves and the unlucky owner who talked about big plans for his share of the money while they drank wine together.
As he continued demonstrating the steps, Claude felt his work gloves stuffed in his back pocket.
“This wine will certainly make up for getting lost and caught in the storm,” said Randolph as his large hand clumsily grabbed the delicate goblet. He covered up his awkwardness with a wide show of perfect white teeth and a wallop of a laugh. Then for a grand finale, the American guzzled down the rest of the wine with the finesse of a beer drinker, smacking his lips loudly. “That was sure good. Mercy.”
Claude flinched at the repeated butchering of his native language and thought, he is turning this into a distasteful joke. He muttered under his breath, “Oui, you will need God’s mercy, soon enough.” His laughter again filled the room, building in intensity.
Randolph’s shoulders quivered slightly as he sighed. He turned quickly away after watching Claude pick at his dirty nails. Instead, he watched the water pellets bounce off the window. His eyes no longer making contact with his host.
Claude watched Randolph’s increasing uneasiness. “You are finally seeing who I really am, but you don’t want to face it.” Claude smirked, and then chuckled sardonically.
The crash of thunder brought Randolph back to reality.
“What did you say?” said a startled Randolph, his drained goblet slipping through his unsteady fingers, falling over onto its side with a clanking sound as the candle flame sputtered. Nervously he laughed, pulling the wool blanket around his shoulders while a chill ran up his spine. “I can’t be drunk.” His words came out slurred.
“You swallowed it down pretty fast. Good Burgundy, you should drink slowly,” Claude explained.
Randolph’s glazed eyes stared at Claude, crinkling with confusion and then apprehension. “Something’s wrong. One glass of wine shouldn’t be affecting me this way. What is happening to me?” His body shook with sudden trepidation while he watched his goblet rock back and forth on its side on the table. His body did its own erratic swaying. He braced himself with trembling legs.
Claude, watching with amusement, pulled out his work gloves, and slipped his hands through until his fingers poked out. He wrapped them around his goblet still half-filled and took another sip. Then picking up the wine bottle that sat on the silver tray, he said, “As you can see, these gloves allow perfect dexterity because broken bottles are not good for business. I know my wines. I should have inherited this estate. But it doesn’t matter, working in the wine cellar will end up paying out the best in the end. I believe in fate. It’s just too bad you had to pick today to show up. But that’s your fate.”
“You are freaking me out, Claude. I thought we liked each other.” Randolph eyes widened with realization. “Oh, my God! What was in that wine?”
“It took you long enough. Americans are so trusting and foolish. You really thought I was a winemaker? I should have been, but we were too poor to fight the wealthy Beaubreian’s lawyers.”
“What are you talking about?… Oh my, the crates. I won’t say anything.” He stared at the empty goblet now lying like a fallen soldier, never to rise again. He grabbed the edge of the table trying to steady himself causing the candle to precariously rock in its holder, the flame shooting up. His pleading eyes burning bright into Claude’s cold stare.
“Oui, you are right, you won’t.”
Then deep from his gut came a rolling, rattling groan, crescendoing into the most grotesque sound, his mouth stretched open, frozen in time, resembling Edvard Munch’s painting –The Scream.
Randolph slid off his chair, turned into a wild animal yowling out in pain, thrashing and convulsing, throwing the wool blanket off as if he was a wild bronco. His body crashed into a table leg causing the candle to flare up again.
Claude watched the flickering shadows dance on the table above and Randolph’s bizarre dance of death below. When it was finally over, he bent over and blew the candle out. He thought to himself this was a worthy encore to yesterday’s performance of the ill-fated cellar worker.
He wiped the spittle that dripped from the corner of Randolph’s mouth and positioned him sitting up against the wall. It took a few times, for the body wanted to droop. The end-result was an alcoholic with his wine bottle in his lap.
The photography backpack sat deserted in the entryway. Claude took out the fancy camera and took a few quick shots of the ‘drunken’ American. After his plan was all done, he would have fun using this new toy.
Claude leisurely lit up a cigarette and finished his wine. Then he picked up Randolph’s goblet, checked it over for chips, it was still perfect. He tossed in the smoky stub, watched it sizzle, and die out.
His mother came down the stairs, the cat in her arms. The curious animal leaped down and stalked over to the dead body now placed near the cellar door.
‘It is all over, mama.’
She nodded as she quietly mopped up the muddy prints.
“I’m the Baron’s bastard son and I will never be anything better to them. Don’t get mad, get even!” Claude’s wicked laughter was contagious and his mother joined in.
He took the bottle of wine from Randolph’s lap, wrapped it carefully in a cloth napkin, and placed it and his goblet into an old metal lunch pail along with his mama’s fresh baked bread.
“I always get hungry after working in the cellar,” he said to his mother.
He gathered a plastic tarp to wrap the body in, picked the American up over his shoulder, and carried him down the steep cellar steps. A mini-tractor was conveniently located at the bottom of the steps. The body was placed on the attached trailer bed that usually held bottles and barrels of wine and most recently the stolen reserve. He went back up for the food and then kissed his mother on the cheek.
“My partners in the Milieu will be picking up the special wine reserve, tomorrow. Get packed, mama, we are going to the Riviera. But first a final celebration with my new American friend.” He swung the pail as he headed back down into the wine cellar.
Claude knew the tunnels well, a complex labyrinth that connected the chateau and cottage. He had already picked out the perfect spot, never imagining he would be revisiting it. A crack in the cellar wall provided just enough fresh air to keep the area ventilated. By the time both bodies would be discovered, he would be long gone. He turned on the engine and proceeded through the massive labyrinth toward the chateau 5km away.
“We’re almost there. I can almost see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel,” Claude told the wrapped body lying behind him. As he drove down the winding tunnel, he thought, two rotting corpses would make the perfect present for his father’s two sons. How apropos.
He pulled up to the perfect burial place, spread out the cloth napkin and made a final toast, drinking the expensive and rare Baron Beaubreian Burgundy named for his father. He finished the wine and his mother’s bread and then discarded the corpse next to other one, behind rows and rows of wine bottles stacked to the ceiling.
His maniacal laughter echoed off the cellar walls when he thought of the word, ‘corps’ in French meant body — a wine term. How apropos.
copyright © 2015 Elaine Fisher