Driven Press would like to announce that our upcoming noir mystery novel
White with Fish, Red with Murder
by Harley Mazuk
to be released on 28 February 2017, is now available for pre-order.
PRE-ORDER SALE SPECIAL OF $3.99 for the e-book
(regular price after release $5.99)
San Francisco, 1948. Frank Swiver is a down and out private eye with a taste for wine and women, not necessarily in that order. Frank readily accepts an unexpected job offer from well-known wine connoisseur General Lloyd F. Thursby to find the murderer of his very good friend, Rusty O’Callaghan. Invited to attend an exclusive wine tasting on Thursby’s private rail car, Frank takes along his secretary-cum-lover Vera Peregrino to complete his cover. Thursby entices his guests with the promise of a taste of a rare California wine: the Ravensridge Blackbird Noir.
All does not go to plan, though, when General Thursby is murdered before the wine tasting has even begun. Frank is caught up in the allure of his former lover, Cicilia, who also happens to be the dead Rusty O’Callaghan’s widow. Locked into the private carriage until the passengers reach their destination, the guests proceed to pull some corks and theorize who among them could be the killer.
When Vera is arrested for Thursby’s murder, Frank must change his perceptions and find the real killer, or lose both Cici and Vera . . . and maybe even his life.
There’s promise in the air when you approach a passenger train from the platform. You can imagine it’s carrying everyone you ever wanted to meet and the baggage cars are hauling your dreams.
Steam coursed through the pipes along the undersides of the cars, like blood through veins. Vera Peregrino and I strolled along the side of the Southern Pacific Cascade on a foggy, damp April afternoon in Oakland until we came to the last car. She pointed a lacquered red fingernail at Vieux Désirs lettered in gold paint on its side.
The invitation in my pocket read: General Lloyd F. Thursby, (U.S. Army, Ret.), requests the pleasure of your company, 1630 hours, 2 April, 1948, aboard his private railway car, Vieux Désirs. Thursby’s private varnish had a canopy over an open rear platform, marking it as a coach from an older era, but it appeared spic-and-span, with a fresh olive-green paint job.
Vera was my secretary at Old Vine Detective Agency. She was more than just my employee; we were friends, and I wanted to let her know I cared. I bought Vera some calla lilies from a flower vendor alongside the tracks. Her grateful smile showed straight white teeth between apple-red lips.
I paused alongside the track and with my thumbnail, slit the cellophane on a new deck of Pall Malls. I prefer Camels, but the Pall Mall package bears a Latin motto: In hoc signo vinces. My Latin’s a little rusty—for all I know, it could have meant “Sign in here, Vince,” but whenever I start a new case I buy Pall Malls and read the motto for good luck. I shook two out, cupped my hands, lit them, and passed one to Vera, who was gazing at me with a Mona Lisa grin.
The Southern Pacific conductor climbed down from the side door of Vieux Désirs as we lingered a bit. He had a wad of tobacco in his jaw and must have been waiting to spit while he’d been in the private car because he let out a stream that sluiced between the train and the platform. He saw us and touched his cap as he passed by, and I gave him a friendly nod. After he passed me, he climbed back on board the train at the next door. From that I deduced that the doors between Vieux Désirs and the rest of the train were locked, which I understood to be common practice among the railroads when they were hauling private cars.
My gear for the weekend was packed in a duffel bag slung over my shoulder. I tossed it up on the landing and then held Vera’s bag and gave her a hand up. Her cocktail dress was short enough that when she raised a knee to climb the steps, she revealed some thigh up around her garter. As many times as I saw it, it was inspiring, a thigh of beauty, and I gave her a wolf whistle. She held the lilies across her legs with her right hand, and used her left to grab the rail in the stairwell. When she got to the top step, she winked at me as I climbed on board.
The door into the coach off the steel landing opened into a galley. We’d gone in the service entrance. A stainless gas range dominated the layout, nestled in between shiny cabinets like a king between two rooks. Pots, pans, and cooking utensils dangled from hooks. Everything about the kitchen spoke of efficiency and careful planning. It seemed as though we could count on a good meal later tonight.
We passed through a swinging door onto a spiffy hardwood floor, mostly covered by a large and plush Persian rug. I’m no expert on Oriental carpets, but I think it was the Ardabil mosque pattern, done in dark red and a close, tight weave. It didn’t take an expert to tell it was genuine, old, and expensive. There was that unmistakable je ne sais quoi in the way my damp, dirty brogues skimmed across the pile.
A few lights were on in the lounge; I could see burgundy wallpaper with dark wood trim. To my right were two dining tables, each with four seats, and on the left an upright piano with a light oak finish. Beyond that, a group of folks sat in the far end of the car. I led Vera partway down, until the man facing us spoke.
“Ah, you must be Frank Swiver,” he said.
“I am, and this is Vera Peregrino.” There were nods and greetings, and the man who had spoken rose. I strode across to shake his hand.
“Lloyd Thursby,” he said. He was an older gent with gray hair and clear, alert blue eyes. He wore a camel hair topcoat draped on his shoulders like a cape, over a dark brown, well-cut suit. He stood a couple of inches taller than me, maybe six foot two, and he carried himself ramrod straight, so he appeared even taller. I had the idea he was fit and powerful for his age. “This is my majordomo,” he gestured at a man standing near the rear corridor of the train car, “Fenwick.” He was younger and three or four inches shorter than Thursby.
Fenwick stepped forward. “I’ll take your bags, sir.”
I gave him my duffel and Vera’s suitcase, and when he reached out his arms to take them, his sleeves slid up, revealing thick, dark hair on the backs of his wrists and hands. He carried the luggage into the corridor, and his wrists stayed down out of his sleeves making his arms appear long and apelike.
General Thursby held out his left hand toward a dame in a chair on my right. “This is Sally DeBains.” She was well dressed and well coiffed, fiftyish, and blond—though I suspected the hair color came out of a bottle.
“How do you do?” she said. She had plenty of ice on her fingers, and I clasped the hand she extended and gave it a light kiss. I thought about biting one of the rings, but she didn’t strike me as a big Three Stooges fan.
“I’m well, thanks,” I replied. “How do you do?” More jewelry drooped around her neck, and she obviously had gained a couple of pounds as she aged. She may have been shaking her maracas a bit lower than she used to, but she had probably been a hot number twenty years ago. For my money, she was still hot enough.
Thursby stepped back toward his chair and extended his right hand. “Over here, allow me to present Marcus Aurelius Wolff, our philosopher, and a fellow collector.”
Wolff was a huge, fat man, whose bulk blocked much of the light from the window behind him. His three-piece charcoal pinstriped suit oozed polish and quality, and he held a pearl-gray hat in his lap. Although it was cool, and I still had my trench coat on, the fat man was perspiring. He beamed and drew a silk hanky out of his breast pocket, then wiped his bald head.
“An honor, sir, an honor to meet you,” said Wolff.
I assured him the honor was all mine. “A collector of what?” I asked.
“Why wine, Swiver, wine, of course.” Thursby laughed. “That’s what brings our little group together, you know. We taste wine, we savor it, we debate about it.”
“And what do you do, sir?” Wolff asked me.
“I drink it.” I gave him a grin.
Thursby stepped in. “Frank is a writer working on my biography.” Writer was as good as anything. General Thursby had enclosed a hand-written note with his invitation:
I hear you know a little about wine, but that’s not the only reason I’m inviting you to my tasting. I’d like to hire you. I’ll brief you about the job on the train. You can bring another operative if you like. Make it look as if you’re along for the party—I don’t want to tip my hand. Whether you take the case or not, I’ll pay you for your time and you’ll get to taste some good wines.
That was all I knew; it wasn’t much, but it was enough to get me there. I hadn’t had a case for weeks, other than the contract work at the hotel, and I needed the money. He didn’t want to tip his hand. I would play along.
“Miss Peregrino is my research assistant,” I said. Vera smiled.
And so we circulated around the room and met the guests, and Vera and I shook hands like a couple of politicians at the Orange County Fair.
And then as the introductions were coming to an end, I saw her, to my left, by the piano. A short black dress, low cut, raven-dark hair, emerald eyes that almost glowed, over robust cheekbones—it was Cicilia Ricci, girl of my dreams.
“And last, this is Cicilia O’Callaghan,” the general went on. “Cicilia—”
“We’ve met.” A chill ran up my spine.
“Hello, Frank. It’s been a while.”
“Fourteen years. You look good, Cicilia.” The widow O’Callaghan, formerly Cicilia Ricci. Her hair was cut a little shorter than when I knew her—wavy on top, parted in the middle, and falling down to her shoulder blades in curls. Her dark eyebrows curved high over her big eyes in graceful roman arches. She’d been seventeen when I met her; she’d be thirty-two now. No longer a budding teenager but a woman in her prime, and more ravishing than ever, if that was possible.
“You look well too, Frank.” Her voice was deep, smoky, seductive. It was Cici’s normal voice.
I shook another Pall Mall out of the pack and fumbled with a box of wooden matches like a nine-year-old trying to light up in the schoolyard. “Having a little trouble, Frank?” Vera noticed. She tilted her head down and to her right, and angled an eye up at me, amused. She relieved me of the matches, struck one and held it out, steadying my hand as I lit up.
C’mon, Swiver, get a grip on yourself. You’re on a case. I clenched and unclenched my fists, and turned away from Cicilia to face the general.
Vera stepped forward and sunk down onto the settee. I chose the chair on the aisle by Cicilia. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, welcome,” said Thursby, returning to his seat. “It’s nearly 1700 hours, and the Cascade will be departing soon. On time, I’m assured. Our tasting this evening will begin at 1900.”
Fenwick had deposited our bags, crossed back through the lounge and was now coming out with a tray, which he put on the low table in front of Vera. “But for now, we have coffee, tea, and Fenwick will be opening some sparkling wine—Cava,” Thursby continued.
I knew Cava from my years in Catalonia. A cork popped over my right shoulder, and Fenwick came around with glasses and a thick green bottle. I took some bubbly, as did three other guests. Thursby and Vera had tea; Cici drank coffee.
Thursby continued, “Tonight my friends, I’ll be pouring a selection of wines for your enjoyment. Our theme will be comparing California wines and French wines. I have chosen the best from old world and new, and I leave it to you to decide: is one better than the other? Or are they simply different styles?”
“I’m sure it will soon be clear enough which is better,” said John McQuade. He was a sour-looking gent next to Sally, who hadn’t said much to me but leered at Vera during the introductions.
“Yes?” said Thursby. “Well, we’ll see, won’t we? Perhaps there will be some surprises. At any rate, I hope you’ll find them all worthwhile. We’ll be serving the wines blind, so you’ll be judging them based on your impressions of what’s in the glass, but without further knowledge of who made them, or where.” He sipped his tea. “And for the highlight of the evening, I’m pleased to be able to pour from a magnum of the latest vintage of Ravensridge Wines Blackbird.”
“That would be the ‘45?” asked Wolff.
“Yes, Marcus, the 1945 vintage. Many of you know the Blackbird is the rarest of California wines, bottled only in magnums—one and a half liter bottles—and I’m one of the fortunate few to whom it’s allocated.
“We thank our friend, Joe Damas, the distributor, for that.” He raised his teacup in a little salute to Joe, on the settee next to Vera. Joe raised his champagne saucer in reply, as smoke trailed up from the cigarette in his mouth toward his half-closed eyes.
“Pardon me, General,” Vera said, “the Blackbird you’re talking about, is that from the vineyard out on River Road in Sonoma?” Fenwick was just pouring for McQuade and arched an eyebrow at Vera.
General Thursby hesitated. “Yes, it is, Miss Peregrino. Do you know the wine?”
“Well, no,” she answered. “I’ve never had the wine, but the vineyard was part of the old Fenucchi spread, right?”
Thursby blinked his blue eyes. “Yes.”
“It’s adjacent to my dad’s ranch,” said Vera with a natural smile. “I grew up next door, practically in the shadow of Blackbird Hill.”
“My God. It’s a small world.” Thursby’s eyes were fixed on Vera now. Vera was a tall attractive woman with golden-brown hair. She was an eyeful in that red dress, but Thursby wasn’t ogling her the way most men do. He was studying her, concentrating on taking her in.
“I even know the legend of the Blackbird,” Vera said.
McQuade rolled his eyes, but Wolff said, “Oh, do tell it, Miss Peregrino.”
“Well, I used to hear about it as a little girl. I remember one time I was out there in the west block with Pop. I was about nine, so it was during Prohibition. ‘Vera,’ he says, ‘look up there.’ He pointed to an eastern-facing slope on the Fenucchi land.”
Vera raised her eyes to the ceiling of the car, as if she were gazing at a distant slope. “Pop showed me a hillside field of thick, gnarly vines, what the old timers called nero misto, mixed black grapes. It was nearly the middle of the day, but the slope was so steep, the vines still cast shadows, twisted shadows like an old witch’s fingers. ‘Vito Fenucchi planted that vineyard, around 1890,’ Pop said. Mr. Fenucchi was our neighbor. I used to play with their son, Niccolò.”
Vera paused recalling her childhood. Then, raising a dramatic finger to point at the ceiling as if it were the vineyard, “Pop told me to look up on top of the hill. I saw a tall eucalyptus tree. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the sunlight and the distance, and when they did, in the top of the tree I saw it, and it was thrilling—a huge blackbird!”
Vera was just telling it in her friendly down-home way, but she had cast a spell over the room. Except for Cici—I saw her eyes were on me when I stole a glance her way. She had crossed her legs, and her short black dress was sliding up past her knee. I turned away and yanked on an earlobe. When was the last time I had gazed at those gams? 1934? Fourteen years later, I remembered every inch, every sinuous curve.
“Yes,” said Thursby, “it’s a great black falcon. That’s where the Blackbird vineyard gets its name. Fog protects those old vines from the morning sun, and when the fog burns off, you’ll see that black falcon watching over the vineyard, watching in silence, perched in that eucalyptus tree, high on the top of the hill above the vines.”
“And no one knows where the blackbird comes from.” Vera glanced my way now. Maybe she wondered what was wrong with my ear. I let go of my earlobe and released a deep breath. “No one knows what year it first appeared. But the grapes it watches over are the best in California, year after year. Zinfandel, petite sirah, Alicante, carignane—that’s nero misto, you know? The fruit ripens slowly and late, and it is so rich, so concentrated, so dark, and so good.” The room was quiet.
“Well,” I interjected, breaking the spell, “if it’s that good, we’re in for a treat tonight.”
McQuade snorted as if he didn’t believe it.
“Oh, keep an open mind, Mr. McQuade,” said Wolff. “A wonderful story the way you tell it, Miss Peregrino. How exciting to grow up in such a legendary place.”
“And that same bird is there, every year, every day, from bud break in the spring until the last bunches are harvested—sometimes in October,” said Vera. “It’s true. I used to see the black falcon up there all the time when I was a little girl.”
True or not, it was the sort of story that you’d want to spread around if you owned the vineyard—a legend like that could inspire the imagination, maybe drive up the price.
Then the Cascade chugged out of the station, and even though it was smooth, almost imperceptible at first, it seemed enough to shake Thursby out of his reverie. Fenwick cleared his throat.
“Well,” said the general, “I foresee a late night for us, and I’m not as young as I used to be. I’m going to my cabin to rest a bit. I invite you all to make yourselves comfortable in your rooms, or avail yourselves of more tea. Thank you for joining me tonight, and I’ll see you in a couple hours.” He picked up a leather dispatch case that rested against his chair, turned, and headed up the corridor.
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