De Roché Manor hummed like a well oiled engine. The place was a hive of activity, people in white coats, all business, scurried to and fro carrying silver trays and steaming dishes, arranging furniture and lighting.
Doug roamed the rooms of the estate’s ground floor feeling like an intruder. He’d left Annie in her room with promises that she’d catch up later. It was still more than an hour until dinner, the guests had not yet arrived and Doug felt restless, praying for some convenient get-out clause, a means by which he could escape what he was certain would be an unbearable evening.
The banquet room contained a long mahogany table covered in fine linens and set with antique china, crystal and sterling silver. There were at least a dozen place settings.
Doug found Theo and another man he did not recognize hauling cases of wine and liquor into the banquet room. A worker in a white coat was busy opening bottles, some with dirtied and nearly illegible labels. The room was fragrant with mingled bouquets.
“Oh, Doug, there you are,” Theo said halting his activities and raising an inquiring eyebrow. “Caught some badly needed R&R did you?”
Doug made no reply. He felt like smashing the bastard in the face. “By the way,” Theo went on, “this is my assistant Don Savage.”
Doug’s interest piqued. Savage was older than Theo, built like a bull with close-cropped gray hair and a pencil-thin mustache. His body seemed solid and muscular beneath his dark-colored suit. Doug had no doubt the man could take care of himself in a struggle. He tried to read him, wanting very much to know if he’d truly confided in Joe Remy. But Doug realized he was no good at reading people. He stuck his hand out. “Nice to meet you,” he said.
“Pleasure’s all mine,” Savage replied.
“Had a little walk around the estate earlier,” Theo said. It was not a question.
“Not against the rules, is it?” Doug said.
“Not at all, but if you decide to roam after dark, I would advise staying close to the house. Electronic perimeter surrounds the main compound, keeps the dogs at bay. You cross that line, well . . .” Theo’s voice trailed off.
Doug got the picture. “Thanks for the warning,” he said.
Theo grinned. “Just doing my job.”
“Sure you are,” Doug said and walked away.
Between seven and seven-thirty the cars started to arrive at the estate. In the meantime Doug had found sanctuary in the library. The room was all his, at least for the moment, and for this he was grateful. He perused the shelves stalling for time, not much interested in the volumes they contained. Finally he heard De Roché’s voice, and those of women, one of them Annie’s. He set his ear to eavesdropping; listening for any nuance that might give him a clue as to why the old man was throwing a celebration so soon after the death of his wife. What he heard were words of sympathy and outrage for the terrible crime that had been visited upon this family. No one seemed to question De Roché’s motives for throwing a celebration so soon after his wife’s death. Or at least no one spoke words that would make Doug believe they thought it odd or out of the ordinary. The same was not true of Doug, of course. He remained adamant in his belief that this was all somehow wrong.
Eventually, when the conversation began to dwindle, Doug made his way out of the library, joining Annie in the banquet room.
“Where have you been?” she asked, turning her face up for a kiss.
Annie frowned but did not reply. Introductions were exchanged all around, but Doug’s mind, so thoroughly spent from the day’s events, retained few names. There was a thin trollish man named Voglar . . . Doug did not know if it was his first or last name and didn’t care. Voglar was with a young slouching, unattractive woman named Dena. No last name was given so Doug assumed Dena was Voglar’s wife, or mistress, or whatever.
The only familiar face in attendance was Greta’s, who occupied the place at the opposite end of the table that under different circumstances would have belonged to Rachael. Doug could tell by the look on Annie’s face that she did not appreciate Greta’s presence here.
Doug sat in silence through the multi-course meal which had a decided Greek feel to it; several crown roasts of lamb, heavily spiced with garlic, rosemary and mint, at least half a dozen courses of broiled and baked fish of varying varieties, rolled grape leaves stuffed with spiced meat and rice, salads accented with citrus and exotic flavorings, bowls of fresh fruit. The food was delicious and Doug ate ravenously. He did not have to be reminded that it had been more than twenty-four hours of stress and drama since he’d last eaten. Those twenty-four hours felt like a lifetime.
Throughout the meal, De Roché kept a light banter going with his guests. He talked mostly to the men, and the bulk of the conversation had to do with business and financial dealings. Occasionally someone would rant on about the government and about controls and regulations hurting the free economy. Doug cared little for such things, so, for the most part he tuned it out. He was alert, however, for any nuance that might implicate one or more of the guests in Rachael’s murder. He heard nothing that would lead him to that conclusion. As far as he could tell Rachael’s name was not mentioned once.
The wine flowed freely. Doug drank his first glass down and motioned for the waiter to pour him another. It was a deep, rich red with an astonishing flavor and bouquet. The best wine he had ever drunk.
De Roché, seeing Doug’s satisfaction, commented. “I had these wines brought up from the cellar for the occasion,” he said. “That one you’re drinking is a 1949 Chateau Margeaux.” His eyes gleamed.
Doug nodded without speaking, tipped his wine glass toward the old man in a one-sided toast and downed the second glass. From there he went back to his plate and attacked the food with renewed relish, as if De Roché hadn’t spoken. Annie, who sat on Doug’s left and just to her father’s right, gave Doug a narrow gaze.
“It is wine meant to be savored,” De Roché commented blandly.
“Let the young man drink, Edmund,” said an overweight middle aged man who sat just to De Roché’s left. “He’s probably never had an eight hundred dollar bottle of wine before.” The man gave a short, condescending laugh. Doug paid him no mind. Earlier the man had been introduced to Doug and Annie simply as Mr. Du Lac. Doug knew a little French and so he had loosely translated the name as The Lake. For some reason the name struck Doug’s funny bone and he was having trouble keeping a straight face. That’s when he realized he’d had too much to drink. The wine had gone to his head and loosened his inhibitions. Mr. Du Lac was accompanied by a young woman half his age introduced as Lilly, who wore too much makeup and too revealing a dress. Although pretty, to Doug she looked like a call girl. She kept glancing at Doug with a look that seemed to undress him from head to foot. Her scrutiny was a little unnerving.
Finally, Doug put his fork down, wiped his mouth on a linen napkin and said, “For the occasion, Edmund?”
“What was that, Douglas?” said De Roché, a sour smile forming on his mouth.
“A moment ago you mentioned that you had these wines brought up from the cellar for the occasion. What occasion would that be?”
Annie kicked Doug under the table. Doug acted like he hadn’t noticed although it hurt like hell.
De Roché’s sour smile congealed. “I would think it obvious, Douglas.”
“The occasion of your wife’s murder? Is that what you’re celebrating? Oh, yes, I forgot. Rachael was murdered last night. Let’s all rejoice.” Again Doug lifted his wine glass, this time toasting the entire congregation. No one moved.
De Roché stared at Doug, his eyes livid pinpricks.
A tall, owlish woman of perhaps sixty, who sat just to Greta’s right, and whose name Doug could not recall, conspicuously cleared her throat and said, “The occasion of Rachael’s passing, Mr. McArthur. We are all aware of the fact that she was murdered. There’s nothing any of us can do about that. We are here to celebrate her life. Rachael was a dear friend of mine and I can assure you she would have been moved by this show of affection.”
Doug glanced around the table from guest to guest. There wasn’t a serious griever among these phonies. Although they had all seemed initially shocked at Doug’s impertinence, most had renewed the task of attacking food and drink with relish. Doug saw fat business types with over-fed florid faces, grease running down their chins, busy gorging themselves on the delicious cuisine and draining bottle after bottle of De Roché’s most expensive vintages. These men were all greed and no substance, each with a young trophy on his arm. Doug doubted that any of the women even knew Rachael. The only real woman in attendance other than Annie and Greta was Ms. owlish I-can’t-remember-her-name and she seemed to have an honest measure of affection for Rachael. Doug wondered what her place was in the scheme of things.
“I see,” said Doug, picking his glass up and discovering it empty.
De Roché snapped his fingers. A waiter came round the table and refilled it.
“A little more lubricant for the tongue,” De Roché said, now seeming to relish Doug’s rapidly slipping sobriety.
“Here, here,” said Voglar, holding his glass out.
“This is good,” Dena, his slouching female companion said, speaking of the wine. She giggled drunkenly before upending her glass and drinking it down like soda pop. De Roché nodded his approval.
“No, Daddy,” Annie cried. “Stop this now!”
“Stop what, darling?”
“This . . . insanity.”
“I am merely celebrating your mother’s life, darling, and as usual your husband is making a fool of himself.”
“You haven’t spoken of my mother once during dinner,” Annie said. “Doug’s right. This is all wrong. This isn’t a celebration of Mama’s life. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not that.” Annie stood up. “These people don’t care about Mama. They’re here to gloat, to eat gourmet food and drink expensive wine. I don’t even know them. I want to know why you’re doing this!”
“I have my reasons,” De Roché said. “Now sit down, please.”
“I will not sit down!” Annie said.
“Think of the baby,” Greta said from her place at the opposite end of the table. Her dark stare seemed to pierce Annie’s abdomen like a knife.
“You go to hell!” Annie snapped. “I’ve had enough of you . . . of this . . . of everything!”
“Annie,” De Roché began but Annie, now in tears was already halfway to the door.
“No, Daddy,” Annie sobbed. “I can’t do this.” With that, she was out the door and gone.
Annie’s sudden departure elicited whispers from around the table. Doug sat quietly, taking it all in.
“Annie will come around,” said De Roché. “She’s a good girl. She knows the rules.”
“Yes,” said Du Lac, standing. “I’m sure she will. A toast to Annie then.” He held his wine glass out before him, his ample belly swaying. “To Annie, to the heir and to the future.”
“Wait a minute,” Du Lac’s mistress, the woman named Lilly said. “My glass is empty.” Doug looked along the table and several of the guests were pouring themselves more wine. Du Lac was still standing, holding his glass out in front of his massive belly. A waiter came forward to assist in the pouring but De Roché waved him away. With a sweep of his arm he took in the entire catering staff.
“All of you out,” he said. “We would like to be left alone now. Greta will accompany you to the kitchen. She’ll give you your instructions.” He smiled at Greta. The woman rose obediently and left the room, the workers following.
Doug had taken about all of this he could stand. His mind had latched onto something Du Lac had said a moment ago. Something about the heir and the future. “What the fuck are you talking about?” he said, looking narrowly at the man.
“Douglas?” De Roché warned.
Doug stood up so quickly his knee contacted the underside of the table upending several wine glasses. The effort caused his head to spin wildly. “I want to know what that fat fuck’s talking about.”
“I’m talking about the future, my boy,” Du Lac said. “Where’s your sense of history?”
“The future of the heir will be determined by me and Annie,” Doug said, “not by a bunch of drunken businessmen and their whores.” He turned and looked directly at De Roché. “And certainly not by you.”
De Roché’s hooded eyes were steely with hate. “That’s where you’re wrong, Douglas.”
Doug jabbed a finger in De Roché’s direction. “I should never have brought Annie here,” he said.
“But you did bring her here,” Du Lac said. He spoke as if to an imbecile.
“You shut the fuck up!” Doug said, turning on the man. Fighting back the urge to smash him in the face, Doug leaned forward, and with one sweep of his hand he cleared half a dozen place settings and nearly as many bottles of wine off the table. Lilly screamed as everything shattered to the floor around her and Du Lac’s feet. Doug didn’t wait to see how much damage he’d done. He backed away and stumbled to the door.
By the time he’d reached the top of the back stairway he knew he was going to be sick. He lurched down the stairs, hand outstretched against the wall for support. He reached the back door without falling, threw it open and staggered out into the night, breathing in the warm, thick air. He staggered blindly across the lawn not knowing which direction to take. He thought briefly of the silent Dobermans and the estate’s perimeter. Fuck it, his reeling mind said. It seems to be a night for feasts. Why not one more. He saw the outline of the woods in the distance. He ran towards them hoping to find sanctuary in their midst.