A Taste of Murder
by JH Wear
Wine is poetry in a bottle.
Detectives Moss Stone and Anya Roberts investigate the sudden death of a liquor agent and newspaper columnist at a wine festival by poison. There were a daunting number of suspects in Oscar Detrick’s death, including his women chasing business partner.
Stone and Roberts enter the world of wine festivals to determine the motive in poisoning Detrick and even if he was the intended victim. And was the missing the bag of garbage holding the clues they needed?
Oscar Detrick strolled past the security checkpoint, flashing his exhibitor badge as he moved through the reception area. The roped-off space, located on the lower floor of the Shaw Convention Centre, ensured that only accredited exhibitors were allowed inside the hall where hundreds of booths for the Stony Hills Wine and Food Festival had been organized in black-skirted rows.
Detrick didn’t bother to make eye contact with the two women seated behind the table, didn’t wait for acknowledgement that he could enter, and didn’t give a damn if it annoyed them. He was tired and even grumpier than usual, deciding his status allowed him greater latitude in dealing with others. In the world of wine enthusiasts, he had moved near the top of the local food chain despite his abrasive personality.
He entered the hall, puffing as he passed various booths. He noted most were in the process of being set up for the afternoon show, although a few were empty of any progress yet.
He turned in the direction of the male voice. An Oriental man wearing a dark sports jacket stood in front of a booth, adjusting the position of rye whisky bottles.
Detrick stopped then took a half step toward the booth. “Hello, Leon.”
Leon waved a hand. “I’ve made arrangements to send a couple bottles of our new maple whisky to your office.”
“Very good. I’ll have a taste and do a write-up in my column.” He proceeded down the aisle and, near the end, he slowed his walk, staring at one booth until a woman wearing long, dark hair noticed him. He gave a short nod and a grin, obtaining a discrete wave in return.
Marching past the various vendors along the next row, he headed to his own prime location. Some of the stalls had already been set up for the second day of beverage and food tasting and, as he walked, Detrick picked certain ones to acknowledge. Perhaps, in the future, he may have need of their resources, or, in the case of some of the women, he saw a chance to share an evening. He stopped at one of the tables that had matching curtains around the back and sides. Both wings of each booth had low, waist-height drapes while the back curtain reached eight feet and effectively separated the twin rows. Every booth was being decorated in an attempt to stand out from the other three hundred, some becoming fairly elaborate with lighted displays.
“Hello, Susan. How were the ticket sales yesterday?” Detrick referred to the tickets each renter took in as a way of payment for their samples. By the end of the event, they each hoped to obtain enough tickets to pay for the samples they had used.
“Not bad. Those who tried our wine really liked it.” The petite blonde tugged down her tight, yellow top over the waist of her short, dark-grey skirt. It was a game she would play with her outfit all day long. Left alone, the top would just expose a bit of her slender middle. When she pulled it down, the scooped neck would reveal a fraction more of her cleavage. She was well aware of where men’s eyes flicked to.
Detrick picked up a nearly-full bottle of Merlot. “I shall have to come back and try a sample later.” He looked at her eyes—a dark blue—and rapidly skimmed over her figure. He then studied the label of the wine bottle. He knew even a decent wine with an attractive label still might have poor sales. Consumers could be fickle in their choice of wine. A positive review of a wine, such as in his column, could give it the traction it needed to succeed in the marketplace. “If it’s of good value, perhaps I can do a write-up in my column.” Detrick smirked.
“Thank you, I would love to hear your opinion.”
He strolled away believing he could reel her in for a private tasting by dangling a carrot that he could easily snatch away later. He scoffed inwardly at her attempt to flatter him. He was aware that knowledge of wine alone wasn’t sufficient to put him at the top; the wine world was full of experts whose opinions carried little weight.
Detrick could, on a whim, bolster his expertise by turning on his charm and wit during the appropriate moments. He also liked to use his physical presence to gain the upper hand: six feet plus a couple of inches spread over a Chardonnay glass-shaped frame of excessive weight went a long way toward achieving that goal. Apart from his bulk, he had otherwise aged well, keeping most of the grey hair that now covered his head in thin waves. He also sported a well-trimmed beard that refused to let go of its dark roots. When the mood struck him, he could use his sommelier status, charm, and physical attributes to become a rather engaging man. Of course, more than a few others had seen the other side of the coin he represented—it was a side not even his own mother had liked.
Besides being a co-owner of the Summer Spirits’ agency, Detrick wrote a wine column in one of the local papers. This served many purposes: not only did the paper pay him, it moved him up in the who-is-who wine registry, provided free advertising for his own agency’s wines, and acted as a means to torpedo the competition. Those things combined made Detrick a formidable man, and he relished every opportunity to flaunt it. His ego matched his waistline, believing the annoyance in his adversaries’ eyes was instead a sign of respect and jealousy.
He went by the end of an aisle, greeting the lone woman who was moving cases of beer cans. “Good morning, Laura.”
“Hi, Oscar. Ready for another day?”
“Yes, I have to do the setup this morning, but it shouldn’t take long.”
“Jay coming in today?” she asked.
“Yes, but he’ll be in later. I guess he had a late night.”
He stepped past the beer booth and into his own next door; a location he had ensured by telling the owners of the wine festival that, if they wanted him to mention their event in a positive light, he had better be on their list for a premium position. As per usual, they had initially resisted, but then they caved in enough to give him a discount on the rental.
“Life is good,” he mumbled as he began to fix decorations on the table, adding tasting cards to their plastic holders and placing bottles of wine in the display rack that sat upon the table. His agency handled a wide range of wines, spirits, and beer. The two breweries it represented produced a small variety of craft beer, and their lone spirit was a little-known brand of tequila. The agency’s wine portfolio, however, was extensive, specializing in Spanish, Italian, Californian, and Argentinian wineries. At the Stony Hill Wine and Food Festival, Detrick’s agency had decided to feature a winery from California—Gibbstown Highgate. The winery produced Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, a Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon-Malbec blend, Sauvignon Blanc, and a Pinot Grigio.
The wines were judged to be decent by most reviewers, although they were not quite worthy of the high praise Detrick gave them in his own column. The reds lacked the ‘feeling of immortality’ usually felt after being sipped from the glass, and the whites didn’t quite “bring back the blossoms of summer,” as he had written that they had. What Detrick lacked in ethics he made up for with his writing and poetic licence to describe wines. Those who read his columns thought of him as knowledgeable, humorous, and entertaining. Indeed, he could on occasion exhibit those characteristics in real life, if they were called upon.
Summer Spirits had been floundering a year ago, and Detrick could understand why. Despite both his advantage of being well-known and his ability to promote his own wines in his column, Detrick had simply annoyed too many buyers in liquor stores and managers in restaurants. He had known what to do, though. A leopard may not be able to change his spots, but it could hide in the bush. To do just that, Detrick had brought in a partner: Jay Fitzgerald became the sales personality of Summer Spirits. Tall and handsome with a personality that could warm up an ice wine, Fitzgerald was able to undo the damage his new partner had done. For Detrick, it was a great win. Not only did Fitzgerald quickly change the sales of Summer Spirits for the better, but he actually paid to be a partner. They had more than a few arguments about how Detrick did business but had accepted each other’s role in the agency.
Detrick became the administrator, dealing with the suppliers and procuring new products. He was able to use his wit and charm for long-distance negotiations as he was capable of restraining his dark side for the time it took to complete those deals. He was also smart and adept enough to do the paperwork when dealing with the two-headed monster of bringing alcoholic products into the province. The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission was the government side of the regulations, and it required various documents and the assurance that bottle labels met requirements. Connect Logistics was in charge of warehouse inventory and delivering the product to liquor stores and licensees. They, too, had their own particular set of rules to be followed.
Detrick looked across the aisle to where a woman was setting up her booth. She appeared to be busy and focused on her table display, ignoring his attempt at an exchange of hellos. He suspected she was still annoyed at him over a minor incident that had taken place a year ago in Calgary.
Turning away, he noticed the table in front of him was empty save for one business card. He picked it up, recognized the owner, and read the handwritten message on it. He tossed it back on the table and looked around, seeing another vendor standing by a security guard. She gave him a quick wave then continued her conversation with the guard. He was curious about the note she had left but decided he had to concentrate on setting up his own booth.
Detrick retrieved the partially-full bottles of wine from yesterday’s tasting. Two of the reds were empty, so he opened their replacements and allowed them to breath before tasting them himself. He set the ice bucket—an elegantly styled metal tub—on the table. He then placed the Sauvignon Blanc inside and removed the half-exposed cork from the previously opened Pinot Grigio. Other white wine bottles would be placed inside the tub as well, waiting for ice to be added. He hoped the trolley would be brought to his table soon and, if not, he would make sure the event organizers heard from him. He selected one of the two sample glasses that had been left at each booth for the vendors by the festival staff. Detrick was aware that an occasional bottle of new wine might be corked, and it was prudent to taste it before handing it out as a sample. The same was true for wine left overnight; infrequently, an open bottle of wine could change dramatically over even that short period of time. He opened the Pinot Grigio, knowing to always try the lightest wine first, and poured a small sample into the glass. He swirled it around, sniffed it, and creased his nose.
Detrick sniffed it again, unsure if he detected a strange odour. Frowning, he stared at the nearly-clear liquid as he held the glass up in the air. The dim lights of the hall did little to satisfy his decision, and he poured the contents of the glass into his gaping mouth. He swirled the wine around, pushing it from cheek to cheek.
He decided it was a bit off—a touch bitter compared to what he had come to expect from that particular wine. He swallowed it, deciding that he should try a second sample of the same. A poorly-washed glass could cause the same symptoms with the soap film changing the nose and the palate. He picked up the second glass and poured again; the flavours were the same as the first glass. Annoyed, he set the bottle to the side, knowing he would have to open a new one for the tasting.
Next, he reached for the Sauvignon Blanc, poured himself a generous sample, and breathed in the gooseberry and grassy notes. Pleased the second wine didn’t exhibit the same odd smell, he raised the glass to take a drink.
Suddenly, his stomach burned, tightening into a knot. Detrick bent over, gasping with pain. He reached out with his hand for the edge of the table, gripping the blue tablecloth. He felt his heart thundering in his chest and sweat beading on his forehead as he fell to his knees. The cloth, whose edges were locked in his fist, began to slide toward him. He dropped the glass and clung to the edge of the table with the now free hand. Slowly, he dropped onto his back; the table was no match for his poundage and tumbled to its side. Detrick didn’t have the breath to shout out for help as he collapsed. Bottles, glasses, and table decorations crashed to the floor around him. His jaw opened and closed like that of a dying fish out of water, and he foamed at the mouth. His eyes were open but refused to focus. He saw a blurred vision of faces from above and heard mumbled yells cascade around him during his final seconds of consciousness. The pain subsided. He tried to speak, but his tongue refused to move. Fifty-two years of life ended in a gurgle.
Confusion circled around the fresh corpse. Several voices uttered “Oh my God!” while more practical-minded persons dialled 9-1-1. No one moved to try mouth-to-mouth in hopes of reviving the dead man. A group stood in front of the upended table that fronted the booth, peering at the body that had been partially covered by the tablecloth. Shattered glass covered the inside of the stall, and wine seeped along the hard floor.
Finally, a voice of authority spoke. “All right, let’s clear the way. The paramedics have been called, and they’ll need to get in here.” The security guard turned on his radio microphone before continuing. “We need someone to clean up the area around booth number four-one-two. There is broken glass and wine everywhere.” He looked around at the debris as the spilled wine slowly spread out from the booth. He spotted a business card with handwriting on it, casually picked it up, and slipped it inside his pocket.
The group of onlookers dispersed as he directed the cleaning staff around the body. They tried to avert their eyes when they came close, and one woman crossed herself as she quickly mopped the spreading mess. The broken glass was removed, leaving only the security guard and a quite dead Oscar Detrick.