Authors: J.A. Lang
There was only one diner left, sat against the far wall across from the bar. He had only ordered one course—the confit duck with dauphinoise potatoes—and had proceeded to nurse a cup of black coffee so slowly that Patrick doubted if he would finish before the new year.
“You sure I can’t call you a taxi, sir? Snow’s coming down fast outside.”
The stranger shook his head. He hadn’t uttered a single word in the last hour.
Alf came bouncing into the dining room, a steaming mug in each hand.
“Reckon I’ve found the secret ingredient!”
He thumped the mugs down on the bar, spilling hot wine over the varnished surface.
“So was it the star anise in the end?” asked Patrick, taking a sniff of his mug.
“Nope. ’Twasn’t the cardamom either, or the cassia bark, or the dried coconut shavings”—Alf ticked the ingredients off his wine-stained fingers—“or the horseradish, or the tarragon, or the confit garlic—”
He stopped, and looked down in puzzlement at his missing sixth finger.
“How much have you had to drink?” said Patrick.
Alf leaned over the bar and waved his mug in Patrick’s face. “Don’t matter, just
this. Am I genius or am I genius?”
“You didn’t use chef’s best cognac, did you? You know how he gets about that stuff.”
“Aww, come on, just give it a go.”
As mulled wines went, it was fruity, warming, and spiced to the hilt. But there was something else in the mix, something dark and sickly, and oddly savoury . . .
“Alf,” said Patrick carefully, “answer me this. Have you gone and put beef gravy in the mulled wine?”
“Just a pint.” Alf grinned happily, and downed his own mug. “Good, ain’t it?”
Patrick could feel his stomach disagreeing already.
“It’s . . . It’s . . . ”—Patrick cast around for a suitable word—“
. And not in a good way. And what about the vegetarians?”
Alf’s shoulders slumped.
“Tell you what, let’s pour this stuff down the sink, and we’ll just wait until chef comes back tomorrow. Then we can make up a new batch. With the
“But chef said he’ll roast my head if I don’t get a batch ready for tomorrow lunch,” wailed Alf. “There’s that big group coming. And he was on about how we have to leave it simmering the whole night.”
“Well, then, he should have written it down right in the first place,” said Patrick firmly.
Alf was now clutching at his head. “Don’t wanna go in the oven . . . ” he muttered.
“Then you better give chef a call up at the Hall and ask him about the missing ingredient.”
Alf’s one remaining sober brain cell waved a little red flag. “’Tisat a good idea? Disturbing chef at his fancy dinner?”
“Well, it’s your head.” Patrick picked up his mug, took another sip and grimaced. And then another. It was ghastly—there was no way around that—but it was also surprisingly moreish.
He raised his mug towards the lone diner. “Want to try some of our special mulled wine, sir?” If that didn’t get the man moving, he didn’t know what would.
He spoke with an accent. East Coast American, was Patrick’s guess.
“You sure, sir?”
The man’s presence was starting to annoy him. Didn’t he have a home to go to? What was he waiting for, an extremely late date? Maybe he’d been stood up and was now in denial, refusing to leave, as if that would finally confirm the night’s abject failure.
The usual Cochon Rouge policy for dislodging an abandoned suitor who refused to depart (or at least stop crying into the tablecloth) was to get Chef Maurice to sit down opposite him and start commiserating in such loud tones that the luckless swain would soon flee out of sheer embarrassment.
Sadly, this wasn’t an option this evening, with the restaurant empty of an audience and Chef Maurice out at dinner.
Plus, the stranger had the kind of square jaw and hint of muscled bulk under his jacket that would suggest he didn’t have too many problems in the being-stood-up sphere.
,” hissed Alf, who was thumbing back and forth through the bookings diary in search of Sir William’s phone number. “Heard him on the phone earlier.”
“Suspicious, ain’t it? What’s he doing here on a night like this?”
“Could be visiting the area.”
“He don’t look like a tourist.”
Beakley was used to welcoming visitors from all around the globe, who came to the Cotswolds to coo over the little thatched cottages and the gently rolling meadows. But this visitor didn’t look like your typical tourist—he was dressed all in black, for one, and a large leather briefcase sat at his feet.
“Maybe he’s a spy.” Alf attempted a conspiratorial eyebrow raise.
“Just go make your phone call. Or I’ll have to start heating up the oven.”
Alf lifted the old handset to his ear and began to dial laboriously, muttering numbers under his breath.
“Hallo? Halllloooooo? Is that Bourne Hall? Halloooo?”
He dropped the phone back into its cradle.
“All crackly. Like crackling.” Alf giggled.
“Maybe the line’s down,” said Patrick, absentmindedly moving Alf’s mug out of the young man’s reach.
“Snowed under?” offered Alf.
Patrick noticed the lone diner was now staring at them.
“Did you just say your chef is up at Bourne Hall?” said the man.
Alf nodded. “At some fancy wine dinner.”
“And the phone line’s gone down?”
“Seems that way,” said Patrick. “Why do you a—”
But the man was already heading out the door, pulling his phone from his pocket.
Patrick and Alf wandered over to the front window and watched the stranger as he paced up and down, punching buttons on his phone and leaving thick troughs in the snow.
“What d’you reckon that’s all about? Can we lock up now?” Alf’s breath huffed up the window.
“No idea. And no, we can’t. He’s left his briefcase here, so I guess he’s coming back.”
Patrick stared out of the window. The man had now stopped pacing and was talking quietly into his phone, one gloved hand shielding his mouth. The cold didn’t seem to be bothering him.
“What could he possibly be up to?” He turned to his side, but Alf had disappeared. “Alf?”
“Cor, look at this!” Alf popped his head up from under one of the dining tables. “You’ll never guess what he’s got in here! Never seen a real one up close—”
Out of the corner of his eye, Patrick saw the man hang up and stride back towards the front door.
“Alf! Get away from there!”
“Just a sec—”
“You don’t have a sec!”
There was another ‘Cor!’ from under the table.
The man was now just two steps from the door.
Patrick did the only thing he could think of.
He turned the lock.
Arthur and Chef Maurice settled themselves onto the long chintz settee, opposite the two Lafoutes, who had resumed their seats. Lady Margaret, after throwing the present company a disdainful look, had retired to her book and fireside roost.
Resnick was sat next to Bertie Lafoute, in a high-backed leather armchair, stroking Sir William’s grey long-haired Persian cat, Waffles. It gave him the look, to Arthur’s mind, of the type of gentleman who likes to plot nuclear destruction and the annihilation of superheroes in his spare time.
“You really have a way with her,” said Bertie, admiring Resnick and the purring cat. “Last time I tried that, I needed four stitches on my arm. Remember, darling?”
“Yes, it was just before the harvest last year,” said Ariane. “It was most inconvenient.”
Bertie turned red and fell silent.
“Are you all staying here tonight?” said Arthur. “I hear Sir William did some marvellous renovation work on the guest rooms last year.”
“Oh, yes, they’re simply spiffing,” said Bertie, regaining his enthusiasm. “We’ve got the east-facing suite, looking out over the lawn. It gets some brilliant morning light in the summer.”
Ariane stifled a small ladylike yawn.
“So, Arthur,” said Resnick, “how’s the restaurant column going? I’m afraid what with all the travelling, I’ve not had a chance to pick up the
in a while. Distribution’s down nowadays, so I hear.”
“It’s down everywhere in this economy, but we’re puttering along just fine, I can assure you.”
“Quite. So I suppose you’ll be reviewing Jean Brosse-Dent’s new place? It’s quite the talk of the town.”
“I’ve got a booking next Tuesday, in fact.” Arthur permitted himself a little smile. The opening of Le Faucet was the highlight of the month’s culinary calendar and hotter than a Scotch bonnet sambuca. Admittedly, Arthur had had to force himself out of bed at four in the morning to make the call, and had waited an hour on hold—
food critics were never allowed to use their own names to gain a reservation—but still, it would be more than worth it.
“Lunch or dinner?”
“Dinner. They threw the diary quite wide open.” In reality, they’d grudgingly offered him a ten o’clock dining slot, as if bestowing a great favour, but Resnick didn’t have to know that. “Of course, it might be that they recognised my voice on the phone, but what can you do?” Arthur shrugged a world-weary shrug, as if indicating that having a voice that all top restaurant phone operators could recognise at the drop of a ‘hallo’ was a heavy cross he’d have to bear.
“Indeed. Well, when you go, I do recommend you try the pressed duck pâté on caramelised onion sourdough. Quite a hard one to match a wine to, but I felt I did a more than adequate job.”
“Ah, you have visited already?” said Chef Maurice. He gave the now stone-faced Arthur a playful poke. “Come,
, you must act faster.”
“My dear fellow, I designed their wine menu,” said Resnick. “Though I can’t claim it was a hard task, not given the budget that Brosse-Dent’s investors had to play with. But such an honour, to have the chance to work with such a
It was now Chef Maurice’s turn to go red in the face.
The hallway door flung open and Paloni stomped back in. He looked around at the little congregation by the fire. In this light, his grim cast of features made him look at least a decade older.
“Save me some fizz, will ya? I need to go make a business call.”
The door slammed shut, and they could hear him marching up the big oak staircase in the hallway.
“I thought the telephone did not work,” said Chef Maurice.
“From the look on his face, I think that was a euphemism for ‘I really need to go thump something’,” whispered Arthur.
“Ah, I see.”
“Wonder what got into
bonnet,” said Resnick.
Waffles, who until this point had been accepting Resnick’s attentions like a quietly regal pile of fur, gave a sudden yowl, leapt off the wine critic’s lap and disappeared into the dining room.
“Gosh, what’s got into her?” said Bertie.
“You can never tell with cats,” said Arthur, a dog person through and through. “Can’t tell what they’re thinking, never know what they’re up to when you’re not looking.”
“They say cats can see things that people cannot,” said Ariane, her gaze darting to the dark corners of the room.
“It seems, Monsieur Resnick, that the cat has marked you as her territory,” said Chef Maurice.
Resnick looked down. His trousers and jacket were now covered in long grey cat hairs.
“I think,” he said, standing up with an obvious conscious effort not to shake himself down, “I will retire upstairs to change for dinner.”
He stalked off, but not before shooting a venomous stare towards the dining room.
This left the four of them, not counting Lady Margaret, who had dozed off by the fire.
“Did you travel from Bordeaux this morning?” asked Chef Maurice.
“Oh no, we were in London before this,” said Bertie. “Seeing old friends, meeting a few potential investors. Chuck gave us a lift down this morning, or at least his driver did. Quite a bit of luck, he’s staying at the same place as us near Piccadilly.”
“The Belvedere,” said Ariane. “We always stay there when we are in London.”
“They have simply the best beds in town,” enthused Bertie. “I don’t know how they do it. I’m a terrible sleeper back home, tossing and turning all night, but give me a bed at The Belvedere and I’m out like a lamb.”
“Impressive,” said Arthur, who personally rated hotels based on the availability and quality of the complimentary slippers. “So I take it you’re already acquainted with our famous filmmaker then?”
“A little,” said Ariane, with a shrug. “He came to Chateau Lafoute a few years ago to see our vineyard processes. He said he wished to bring out the flavours of Bordeaux from the
of the Napa Valley,” she added with a mildly amused expression.
“Come on, darling, one has to admit he’s made a rather good job of it so far, you even said it yourself.”
“Thanks more to the winemaker he pays, I am sure.” Ariane looked up at the clock on the mantelpiece. “Do excuse me,
, but I think if Sir William is not starting the dinner yet, I will go close my eyes for a short moment. I have a headache beginning.”