It was a quiet afternoon, and I was busy alphabetizing my paperclips when I saw her standing in the doorway. Her hair was long and toasty blonde, and she wore a silk dress that shimmered blue and was so tight it cut off my circulation. She was dangling a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and two glasses.
“Sorry for intruding,” she said, “but your secretary is asleep.”
“Yes,” I said, “she’s an insomniac.”
We watched each other for a moment until she finally slinked toward my desk and leaned over it.
“You arrive well-equipped,” I said, glancing at the bottle. “I have a fascination with widows.”
She eased into the chair in front of my desk and said, “I have a problem.” Her eyebrows rose for effect.
“Only one?” I asked. “I find that hard to believe.”
She tried to hide her smile and then slid the bottle across my desk. I peeled away the foil and slowly coaxed off the cage when the cork suddenly shot out of the frothy bottle.
“Ooo,” she whispered. “That was rather … premature.”
I played it cool and filled the glasses, then settled back into my chair. “What can I do for you, Miss … ?”
“Van Dyke … Nora Van Dyke,” she said, pouting that I didn’t want to play anymore. I sipped my Champagne and waited. Finally she said, “I have in my possession a very rare bottle of French wine. It’s quite valuable. There are certain parties who would like to get their hands on it.” She looked me over. “Tell me, Mr. Magnum, do you own a gun?”
“Can you handle it?” Nora asked.
“I don’t hammer nails with it.”
She laughed and poured more Champagne in my glass, then turned serious. “Frankly, I’m scared. I know I’m being followed. I want to give you the bottle for safekeeping.” She placed a key on the desk. “I put it in a locker at the bus station.”
That was her first bad move. She was good. She almost had me, but the bus station was about as temperature-controlled as a Texarkana trailer park. Something wasn’t right about all this, but I played along.
An hour later I was in the bus station. I’d made sure I wasn’t followed, and I opened the locker. It was a big box, and the wood was old and discolored. Picking it up, it was heavier than I expected, a double magnum at least. I opened my pocketknife and jimmied off the lid. I was surprised, shocked even. This bottle could be worth a small fortune.
Three days passed…
… and no word from Nora Van Dyke. I’d spent the evening tasting the Merlots of Uzbekistan, and I was in dire need of a palate cleanser. There was a bottle of rye in my office; as I unlocked the door, the lights flashed on. Nora was there, looking glum, and next to her was a squirrelly guy with a gun. Sitting behind my desk was a familiar face, Miles Moretti—known to everyone as the Fat Man.
“Hello Fats,” I said. “Who threw a party and didn’t invite me?”
“Oh Vin,” Nora said, “I’m sorry but they made … ”
“Shut up!” the squirrelly man yelled.
“Civility, William, always civility,” Moretti warned him. “But we digress. The topic at hand is my bottle, Vin. Where is it?”
“Your bottle?” I asked.
“She told you otherwise?” Moretti looked at Nora. A laugh jiggled through his body. “My dear, you are not hindered by the truth.” He turned to me. “In actuality, she absconded with the aforementioned bottle.”
Nora smiled sheepishly.
“Now, Vin,” Moretti said, “we have previously searched your apartment to no avail.”
“You’re low on milk,” Squirrely William added.
“And the bottle appears to be absent from your office as well,” Moretti said.
“What do you mean? It’s right there under my desk,” I said skeptically.
He rolled back his mound of flesh and peered down. “Indeed sir, it is,” he said, turning to William. “How could you possibly overlook this?”
“I thought you checked the desk, boss. You were sitting there,” William said.
“Dear boy, I am the mastermind, you are the henchman. Masterminds do not search!”
William scampered over and lifted the box onto the desk. William pointed his gun at me and said, “You do it. I want to keep an eye on you.” I opened the box, and Moretti’s face brightened. “Finally, I have you,” he said, heaving the large bottle out of the box. “Vin, you have no idea of the value of this wine.”
“Try me,” I said.
“It is one of a kind: A jeroboam of Château d’Yquem 1915, bottled during the height of World War I when the Germans occupied Bordeaux, and signed by Kaiser Wilhelm himself. This is worth a king's ransom!”
“Worthless, you mean,” I said.
Puzzled, the Fat Man asked, “What are you blabbering about?”
“First of all, the Germans never occupied Bordeaux during the first World War,” I said. “I did a little homework. Turns out d’Yquem didn’t even bottle a wine in 1915.”
“You’re lying,” he said.
“Why would I?”
“Just to get your hands on it,” William barked.
“Would I have just stuffed it under my desk if I thought it was valuable?” I asked.
Moretti watched me quietly for a time, then said with a pained smile, “Knowing you as I do, I don’t believe so.”
He slid the box across the desk. I picked up the bottle, glanced at Nora, then tossed it toward William. Reflexively, he scrambled to catch it. When my fist met his chin, he stumbled back and cracked the neck of the bottle on the desk. I grabbed it as he fell.
Moretti applauded. “Quite an amusing display, dear boy. Most entertaining.” He held a wine glass to the bottle with a look of anticipation. I shrugged and poured a taste. He swirled and sniffed it, then sipped.
“Delicious,” he said, “but terribly overpriced.”
Thomas Matthews — New York City — August 31, 2009 3:48pm ET
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