In a previous episode, Steve Noir, wine critic, has been approached by a mystery woman, who claims to know secrets about certain Napa Valley Cabernets. They meet at the Rutherford Grill, but the woman leaves suddenly, upon seeing someone or something. The plot now resumes:
What had scared “Lola” half out of her wits? None other than Wilfred Wong.
But what was the famed cellarmaster from BevMo doing here on this stormy night? And why had Lola been so frightened of the mild-mannered Mr. Wong?
Wilfred espied me at the bar and walked toward me, extending his hand. He had a grin on his face as if he’d not only eaten the proverbial canary, he’d had a couple parakeets, too.
“Wilfred,” I said, shaking it. His hand, I mean.
“Doctor Noir,” Wilfred said. He always calls me by some honorific. After some chit chat, we got down to business.
“I noticed you were having drinks with Anastasia,” Wilfred said. A wry, amused smile played on his lips.
“She told me her name is Lola.”
“Negative on that, Steverino. She’s Anastasia La Flambé. Been working the fringes of the community for years. A little Mossad, some MI5, CIA black box stuff. Even couriered for the Chinese during the diethylene glycol days.”
“Yeah,” Wilfred said. He summoned the barkeep. “A Pink Mojito, and don’t forget the cherries.”
“That it for you?” The barkeep looked at my empty wine glass. Before I could answer, Wilfred said, “He’s having the same.” He glanced at me. “On me.”
“You — or BevMo?” I asked, arching an eyebrow. It was an innocent question, but the answer might shed some light on what was really going on.
“Me personally,” Wilfred said. “I’m not here on official business.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I might ask you the same, counselor.”
“Just found myself in the neighborhood,” I shrugged.
“Kind of far from Oakland,” Wilfred parried. “Take a wrong turn on Broadway?”
The barkeep brought our Pink Mojitos.
“Cheers!” Wilfred said, his face as bland as a poker chip. His eyes gave nothing away. This was a man of secrets deep as the sea, dark as the far side of the moon. Secrets of the tomb, of the grave, of the inside of a magician’s saw-the-lady-in-half box. The kind of secrets “Lola” was about to reveal before she’d fled at the sight of the man now sitting next to me.
“To Lola!” I replied, raising my glass.
“The alluring Ms. La Flambé!” Wilfred shouted.
“So how do you know her?” I asked.
“Who do you think? Lola — the La Flambé woman. What’s up with you two, anyhow?”
Wilfred plucked one of the maraschino cherries from his Pink Mojito and plopped it in his mouth.
“Long story,” he said, chewing.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
He looked at me, as if weighing alternatives. “It involved a wine.”
“Doesn’t it always?”
Wilfred laughed, for the first time that night. I had the feeling he was stalling for time. Eventually, he would tell me a story — but whether or not it had any relationship to the truth was another question.
“Or rather, two wines,” Wilfred began. “Because, you see, I could only buy one of them for BevMo, and I needed to make a decision, fast.”
“And Lola — Ms. La Flambé — helped you make your decision?”
“Ahh, Detective Noir, we are getting ahead of ourselves.” He drained his Pink Mojito and summoned another from the barkeep. “No, not exactly. Let’s just say that Anastasia was instrumental in my deciding to buy one, and not the other.”
“I see,” I said, although I didn’t. “You mean, she had something to do with your decision — some role she played, some influence on your eventual choice, although she did not, herself, personally persuade you which wine to buy?”
“You might say that.”
“I just did.”
“True,” Wilfred said, stirring his Pink Mojito. “But tell me, my esteemed Doctor Einstein, did you ever consider this?”
I sat. Waited. And waited. Wilfred was eating more maraschino cherries.
“I’m sorry, Wilfred, but you were saying–?”
“Exactly!” Wilfred smiled at me indulgently, like an Aunt who’s just given her favorite grand-nephew a shiny new quarter for Christmas, like a cop who let you off on a speeding ticket because you reminded him of his first girlfriend, like the electrocutioner at Sing Sing who’s the last human face the condemned murderer will ever see on this earth.
But suddenly, my napkin rose an inch, hovered in the air like a flying fish, sailed across the bar, then flopped lazily down to the sticky floor. The front door of the bar had opened, bringing in a cold gust of wind — and coming right through that door was none other than Herself, Lola, the mysterious Anastasia La Flambé. Only this time, she was not alone.
Part 1: A mysterious stranger
It was dark and stormy in wine country, a night so wild, no one dared venture out — no one, that is, except me: Steve Noir, Wine Critic. My job: to undercover dirty laundry, in a valley that knows how to keep its secrets — and has every reason to.
I’d had a tweet from a mysterious stranger who identified herself only as Lola:
need to see you urgently!! scandals in wine country. much wrong-doing. public would be shocked! can we meet? can name names, starting with B
And with that, her 140 characters had run out. B? That could be — who? I tweeted my mystery interlocutor back:
Rutherford Grill. 2nite, at the bar. 11 p.m.
I was sitting there, nursing a sassy little Sauvignon Blanc, wondering what she looked like. Her voice had been dusky and dark, like the low moan of a cello, like a lump of coal you find on your dinner plate. Suddenly, the door opened. A cold gust of wind blew my napkin from the bar counter to the floor. I knew who it was from the moment I laid eyes on her.
She was as pulchritudinous as Dolly Parton in her better days, sculpted from butter, with wavy blond hair that spilled over one eye and down to a sloping shoulder. She should have worn a warning sign: Slippery when wet.
“Mr. Noir,” she said, extending a white-gloved hand as sultrily as the tail of an alleycat in heat.
“How did you know what I look like?” I queried.
“I recognized you from your blog. You’re just as, umm…unique as I pictured,” she said, a nervous smile crossing her lips.
I motioned for her to have a seat. “Can I get you something?”
“That depends,” she purred, “on what you mean by ‘something’.”
“Barkeep! A Shirley Temple for the lady.”
“Is that the best you can do?” She turned away and called to the bartender, “Bring me a Cabernet. Your best cult — in a Riedel Sommeliers Bordeaux glass.”
Uh oh, I thought. One of those.
“Lola,” she said. “Just like I told you.”
“Have it your way, ‘Lola’,” I said, tossing back my Sauvignon Blanc. “Now, what’s this all about?”
She leaned in close. I felt her hot breath in my ear, down the side of my neck. “Can I trust you?”
“That depends,” I replied, “on what you mean by ‘trust’.”
“There are people who would do bad things to me if they knew I was talking to you.”
“Then why are you?”
“Because,” she stammered. “Because–”
I was getting impatient with her stalling.
“All right, Missy ‘Lola’, if that’s your real name, which I doubt. I didn’t come out in this weather to play games.”
She sighed. Her breasts heaved like a 5.4 on the San Andreas Fault. The barkeep brought her Cabernet in a glass the size of a hot tub. I noticed the label on the bottle. It was Meming Siegel, ‘94, the most famous kosher wine in the world. A wine to peel your sox off, to fry the skin on your back, to get you dancing on tabletops, without clothes, with a lampshade on your head, to singe your beard, if you had a beard, a wine to make you run out of metaphors faster than a bowl of beer nuts during Happy Hour.
A wine to drain your checking account.
“You win, Mr. Noir,” she said, looking directly at me, eyes hooded, like a cobra’s. “All right, I’ll tell you the truth. I didn’t want to, but–”
“Good. Now we’re getting someplace.”
“There are Cabernets in this town that are not what they seem.” She spoke these words, of course, but they sounded italicized, which is why I’m writing them that way.
I ordered another glass of the sassy Sauvignon Blanc. “What do you mean, ‘Lola’?”
“Just what it sounds like.”
“You’ll have to do better than that.” I grabbed her wrist and gave it a twist, the way Master taught me in the dojo. She winced.
“You’re hurting me.”
“Good. I want to. Now,” I said, releasing the arm. “You were saying–”
She rubbed her wrist. “I see you play a rough game.”
I smiled. “If you think that’s rough, ‘Lola’, you don’t know the half of it.”
She drank her Cabernet. She didn’t swirl, didn’t sniff, just gulped it down, like a Lodi Merlot. In one long chug, she drained that $500 bong hit — which I was paying for. Then she gave a little burp.
“Classy,” I said. “I can see you’re not local.”
“I’m a Jersey girl.” She opened her purse, removed a stick of gum, and plopped it into her mouth.
“What part of Jersey?” I was just making conversation.
“Peoria.” I was about to twist her wrist again when her eyes widened and her skin color drained to white. She was staring at something across the room, sheer horror writ large on her face. A trembling hand rose to her mouth. Her shoulders shook, as though she were about to sob. She rose from her seat.
“I must go,” she hissed. “Please, ask me nothing. I can say no more. I’ll be in touch, on Facebook. Friend me.” And with that, she spun around on one open-toed Manolo Blahnik cherry red Mary Jane, and was out the door. For the second time, a gust of wind blew my napkin to the floor.
What had frightened ‘Lola’ half to death? I looked across the barroom floor, through the blue smoke, past the lurid glare of the jukebox light, toward where she’d seen her apparition. The hairs on the back of my neck crackled as I saw a familiar face, the last person I ever expected to see on that dark and stormy night.
Next episode: The plot thickens