THE LOVELY PINES
By Don Travis
A figure watched from the edge of the forest as blustery night winds raced through undulating boughs to brush evergreens with feckless lovers’ kisses and oppress the grove with ozone raised by a rainstorm to the west. Ground litter, heavy with fallen pine needles, trembled before gusts—as if the Earth itself were restless.
Advantaging a cloudbank obscuring the half moon, the intruder picked up a heavy duffel bag and breached a four-foot rock wall. The prowler crossed the broad lawn, pausing briefly before a brick and stone edifice to scan a white sign with spidery black letters by the light of a small electric fixture trembling in the breeze.
THE LOVELY PINES VINEYARD AND WINERY
Valle Plácido, New Mexico Ariel Gonda, Vintner
Established in 1964 Fine New Mexico Reds
Prompted by the rumble of distant thunder, the wraith made its cautious way to a large building at the rear of the stone house and removed a crowbar from the bag to pry a hasp from the heavy door. Unconcerned over triggering an alarm, the black shadow vanished into the depths of the deserted winery.
Thursday, June 11, 2009, Albuquerque, New Mexico
I was reading an Albuquerque Journal article about the recent assassination of Dr. George Tiller, one of the few doctors in the US still performing late term abortions, when my secretary, Hazel Harris Weeks, tapped on my office door before ushering a dapper gentleman inside.
He held out his free hand—the other clutched a small bag—and spoke with a slight European accent. “Grüezi, Mr. Vinson, I am Ariel Gonda. It is good to finally meet you.”
Taking grüezi to be a German word for “hello” or “howdy,” I stood to accept the proffered handshake as my mind grappled for the meaning of his greeting. Then a memory dropped into place. Ariel Gonda was the corporate treasurer of Alfano Vineyards in Napa Valley. I ran across his name during what I mentally referred to as the Bisti Business, but I’d never actually met the man before. If I recalled correctly, he was a Swiss national, so the word in question was likely Swiss German.
“Mr. Gonda, how are Aggie and Lando doing?” I referred to the Alfano brothers to let him know I’d made the connection.
“They are well, thank you. At least, they were when last I spoke to Aggie. I am no longer with the organization. I am now one of you. That is to say, a bona fide citizen of New Mexico.”
I smiled inwardly as he neatly covered his tracks. It’s best to be precise when drawing comparisons to a gay confidential investigator. “Welcome to our world, Mr. Gonda.”
“Please call me Ariel. As you can see, I have become Americanized. In my native Switzerland, we would never have arrived at first names so swiftly. I find the informality refreshing.”
“With pleasure—if you’ll call me BJ. Please have a seat and tell me what I can do for you. Unless this is a social call.”
“Would that it were. Unfortunately, it is your services as an investigator I require at the moment.”
He settled into the comfortable chair directly opposite my old-fashioned walnut desk and glanced around the wainscoted room. I detected a gleam of approval in his pale blue eyes as he studied pieces of my late father’s cowboy and western art collection adorning the light beige walls. He brought his attention back to me, a clue he was ready to discuss business.
I took a small digital voice recorder from a drawer and placed it on the desk. “Do you mind if I record the conversation?” With his consent, I turned on the device and entered today’s date and noted the time as 10:15 a.m. “This interview with Mr. Ariel Gonda is done with his knowledge and consent.”
I lifted my eyes to meet his and asked him to identify the name and location of his business. He limited his response to “The Lovely Pines Vineyard and Winery, Valle Plácido, New Mexico.” After that was properly recorded, I asked the purpose of his visit.
He cleared his throat. “The matter that brings me here is a break-in at my winery precisely two weeks ago today.”
I consulted my desk calendar. “That would be May 28. What time?”
“Sometime during the night before. I learned of it when I went to work that morning.”
“How was entry gained?”
“The hasp was forced, rendering the padlock useless.”
“What was taken?”
“Nothing that I can determine.”
“Merely some papers in my office and lab disturbed. But nothing was destroyed or taken, and there are some quite valuable instruments in the laboratory.”
“Tell me a little about your business.”
I examined Gonda as he spoke. During my involvement in the Bisti affair, I’d built up an image of a rotund, stodgy European bean counter, but the man sitting across from me was rather tall—probably my height, an even six feet—solid but not fat, and darker than I pictured Europeans from the Swiss Alpine regions. His striking aristocratic face ended in a high forehead. Light brown hair brushed the collar of his powder blue cotton shirt. He might consider himself Americanized, but his pleasing baritone hadn’t yet mastered the art of speaking in contractions.
“The Lovely Pines is located northeast of here, just outside the village of Valle Plácido. Do you know it?”
I nodded. “The area, not the winery.”
“I began negotiations to purchase the business from Mr. Ernesto C de Baca last summer. However, he passed away before we arrived at an agreement. In January of this year, I completed the transaction with his heirs.”
Gonda lifted the small bag he’d placed on the floor beside his chair. The two glass containers he extracted looked to be green, hippy Bordeaux bottles often used for reds. The gold seal covering the cork was quite eloquently done.
“I brought samples. Please enjoy them with my compliments,” he said before continuing his narration.
I listened patiently as he described the operation in his pedantic manner. The winery was located on ten acres fronting the north side of State Road 165 running out of Valle Plácido east toward Sandia Peak. A three-story stone and brick edifice housed the public rooms, offices, and family living quarters. The winery and the cellar sat some distance behind that building. A hundred-acre vineyard lay to the east, bordered on the south by a fifteen-acre lake or pond. Roughly one-fifth of a square mile in total land area.
I tapped my desk blotter with the point of a gold-and-onyx letter opener fashioned like a Toledo blade. “Valle Plácido doesn’t have a police force, so I assume you reported the break-in to the Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office.”
“I did. However, since nothing was taken, the county officials decided it was a case of adolescent mischief and closed the investigation—such as it was.”
“Apparently you disagree with that conclusion. Have there been other incidents?”
“Certain small things have occurred. Things I would not have noticed were it not for the earlier break-in.” He leaned back in the chair and crossed his legs in a less formal manner. Covering the lower portion of his face with a palm, he pulled his hand down over his chin and neck as though smoothing a nonexistent beard. “I suppose I can best explain by telling you that two days following the actual burglary, if that is the proper terminology, I noticed some of my tools and equipment had been moved.”
“How many employees have access to the area?”
“We have a viticulturist and two field hands working the vineyard. I am the vintner and have three assistants in the winery. Marc, my nephew, acts as my outside salesman and assistant manager. My wife, Margot, is responsible for the operation of the office. Then there is our chocolatier, Maurice Benoir, who is invaluable in making our chocolate-flavored wines. His wife assists him in running a kiosk in the entry hall. She acts as cashier for all of the various profit centers and sells handmade sweets she and Maurice concoct. And, of course, we have a cook and waitress for the bistro.”
“A total of thirteen people, if I counted correctly. And all of them have access to the winery?”
“Most of them. Our viticulturist’s wife is also on the premises, since they live at the vineyard. She does not work for us but has the run of the place.”
“So the total is actually fourteen individuals. Let’s be clear. All of them have access to the winery?”
“Throughout the day, anyone other than the cook and the girl who waits our tables will be in and out of the winery numerous times. But I refuse to believe any of them were involved in what occurred.”
“I see. I must tell you in all candor, there is probably little I can do for you except to conduct background checks on your people. Chances are that a search might reveal something, but there’s no guarantee. You might end up spending a lot of money for nothing.”
He performed the palm-over-lip-and-chin maneuver again as he thought over what I’d said. “At least I would be assured of their honesty and would not walk around harboring darks suspicions about the people with whom I work.”
“Mr. Gonda… Ariel, anytime you do a thorough background check on that many people, any number of moles and wens and warts are going to surface. They might have nothing to do with your problem, but be warned. You will likely not look at some of your employees in the same light as before. All of us have secrets.”
“True. But I would appreciate your undertaking this task for me. I will gladly pay your going fee. It will be worth it to clear any lingering doubts from my mind.”
“Any exceptions? Your nephew, for example?”
“Please look into the history of everyone. Except my wife and me, of course.”
“Very well. I’ll need a complete list of employees with as much information as possible. Anything you give me will be held confidential. By the way, you didn’t mention your own children.”
“Margot and I have only one. A son. Auguste Philippe came rather late in our lives. He was born here, actually. He entered this world in Las Cruces in August of 1990 while I was working with the European Wine Consortium. He is presently a freshman at UC Berkeley pursuing a degree in chemical engineering.”
“Are there individuals from your former life—either here or in Europe—who would cause such problems for you?”
“I have made my share of mistakes with people during my career. But I cannot conceive of anyone so aggrieved he would come like a thief in the night.” Gonda gave a very European shrug, “Anyone who leaps to mind would certainly be more aggressive. The place would have burned down, for example.” He pursed his lips before honing in on precise details, which I suspected was his nature. “Of course, the building is brick and stone. But there are ample flammable materials on the inside.”
So there was someone. But was he willing to reveal enough of himself to name him or her? Or them? “You could be making a mountain out of a molehill.”
That comment brought a brief smile. “A charming analogy. I have worried over this for fourteen days before coming to see you. Deep down inside, something tells me not to ignore this. To get to the bottom of it quickly. And there have been two other incidents.”
“Tell me about them.”
“I am experimenting with a sparkling wine—what is commonly referred to as a Champagne—using an imported grape, of course. My cabernet sauvignon varietal produces reds, not whites. At any rate, I have a small, temperature-controlled room adjacent to my laboratory with a special wine rack used in the remuage, what you here call riddling. Are you familiar with the procedure?”
“You’ll have to forgive me. I am not a wine connoisseur. I enjoy a glass with my meals occasionally, but that’s about it.”
He nodded acceptance of my words. “After the second fermentation, champagnes or sparkling wines are racked upside down at a forty-five-degree angle so that sediments—mostly dead yeasts—settle in the neck. At regular intervals, usually every three days, the bottles are given hard twists so the sediment doesn’t solidify. At the proper time, the bottle necks are frozen, the offending plugs removed, and the wine is corked. That procedure is not, of course, limited to sparkling wines.”
He must have recognized he was lecturing, because he got back to the point. “I do the riddling in that room myself. The last time I performed the chore, I noticed a disturbance in the slight film of dust on the base of one of the bottles.”
“Did the sheriff’s deputies take fingerprints?”
“I noticed the disturbance only after they closed their investigation. But it bothered me enough to pay you a visit.”
“Has anyone handled the bottle since?”
“I picked it up before I understood the significance of the dust.”
“You mentioned two incidents.”
“At least one bottle of our chocolate-flavored wine has gone missing. And a bit of food stored in the place as well.”
“I’d guess several of your bottles go—”
He held up his hand and straightened in his chair. His posture and body language became formal again. “It is not what you are thinking. I have a very liberal attitude with my employees. I like them to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Each receives a ration of wine, and he or she is free to make special requests. I seldom refuse any reasonable petition.”
After submitting to another half hour of questions, Gonda executed my standard contract, handed over a check for the retainer, and made arrangements for me to visit the Lovely Pines. Then he took his leave.
“Such a distinguished gentleman,” Hazel observed when she came to collect the contract and the check. And the two bottles.
“You’re just a sucker for an accent.” I handed over the digital recorder for transcription as well. Earlier this year, Hazel had threatened rebellion if I didn’t do away with the tape recorder I’d used for years. I’d probably have ignored her except the thing was virtually worn out. Might as well join the twenty-first century, right?
My formerly dowdy office manager scoffed. “I can take them, or I can leave them.”
She had blossomed since she and Charlie Weeks were married in a civil ceremony held in my living room last New Year’s Eve. Like me, Charlie was a retired cop. But he’d put in his time at the Albuquerque Police Department, whereas I was medically retired by a gunshot wound to the thigh. Last year he earned his way into a partnership as the only other full-time investigator in the firm. After the legal documents formalizing this were signed, I made a big deal out of having the gold lettering on the outer office door redone to read “Vinson and Weeks, Confidential Investigations,” but Hazel insisted I’d only done it because someone scratched a hole in the paint on the letter C.
“There will be a lot of background investigations on this one,” I told her.
“Record checking for the most part, I imagine. Unless that turns up something that needs to be pursued.”
“Hmmm.” She left for the outer office.
I swiveled my chair to the window and took in the view that anchored me to my third-floor suite of offices in a renovated downtown historic building on the southwest corner of Copper and Fifth NW. I enjoyed looking out the north-facing window and imagining I could look down on my home at 5229 Post Oak Drive NW. By craning my neck to the west, I could almost see Old Town where the twelve original families settled the new Villa de Alburquerque in 1706. Day or night, the scene outside that pane of glass always grabbed me.
Like a lot of confidential investigators, I preferred working for attorneys. They understood the limitations of my profession. We were fact collectors, not sleuths in the popular sense of the word. Movies and TV programs and novels had skewed the public perception of my trade to the point that private citizens often suffered an unrealistic expectation of what our job really was. I worried that the dramatic outcome of that nasty Bisti business might have led Ariel Gonda to the same misconception.
Turning back to the desk, I picked up the file I was currently working. Local attorney Del Dahlman—who was my significant other before I was shot while serving with the Albuquerque Police—had hired me to look over the shoulder of the city’s fire department as they conducted an arson investigation. One of his client’s warehouses burned to the ground in a spectacularly stubborn blaze a few days ago. Del was concerned about where the inquiry might lead. I was beginning to think the case was heading precisely where he did not want it to go.
After phoning the lieutenant heading the arson investigation, I drove out to meet him at the scene of the fire for another walk-through. Like most cops—and ex-cops—I wanted to see the scene of the crime up close and personal. More than once.
That walk-through took the remainder of the day, so I headed straight for home from the South Broadway site to clean off the soot and mud. With any luck, the cleaners could salvage my suit pants. If not, I’d add the cost of a new pair to Del’s bill.
I was surprised to find Paul home when I arrived. In his second year of a UNM graduate program in journalism and holding down a job as a swim instructor and lifeguard at the North Valley Country Club, Paul Barton carried a lot on his plate. Although we’d been together for almost three years now, I sometimes felt we were ships passing in the night. The nights were perfect, of course, but our schedules didn’t allow us much time in between.
I’d offered him a job at the office, but he was an independent cuss and turned me down. He was still driving his ancient purple Plymouth coupe, even though he could have afforded a newer model. But he was determined to finish his education without any debt hanging over his head.
I returned his smile as he stood up from the kitchen table where he’d been studying. After a gentle but stimulating kiss, a pot of his very special stew percolating on the stove captured my attention. The savory aroma of green chili and chicken and potatoes sent my sudden hunger wandering back and forth between the gastronomic and the carnal.
“With warm flour tortillas?” I asked.
“And butter.” He grinned. “After dinner, I’ll expect a reward for my culinary efforts.”
I beamed like a smitten teenager. “Abso-fucking-lutely.”
NOTE: Maria Fanning of DSPP has not done the artwork on this on yet. We can only wait with bated breath.