IN VINO VERITAS


By Richard Ciciarelli



Mildred Bagshaw put down her newspaper and stared at her kitchen ceiling. The evening headlines had stunned her: LOCAL FOOD CRITIC DEAD: SUICIDE POSSIBLE.

"Not possible," Mildred murmured. "Not Barnett. He was too strong, too cocky. It's just not possible."

She pulled herself out of her chair and shuffled to the telephone to call a number she knew all too well.

* * *

"Sorry, Mrs. B," Sergeant Farley said the next day when Mildred stopped by his office, "but no one could have killed Barnett Quarto. He was all alone in a locked room when he killed himself."

Mildred shook her head. "I can't believe that. The paper didn't give much in the way of detail. Could you tell me a little about how it happened?"

"Sure," Farley shrugged. "Quarto and his family argued over dinner. I guess he was in an especially bad mood. Then he went to his wine cellar, got a bottle of port wine, and locked himself in his den.

"Several hours later his family called to him but he didn't answer. They got a spare key, unlocked the door, and found him dead."

"How did he die?"

"Poison. The wine was loaded with concentrated nicotine. And since Quarto opened the bottle himself, no one else could have poisoned it."

"What if the bottle was tampered with earlier?"

Farley shook his head. "Look at these pictures. See this disk? It's the part of the foil seal that covers the very top of the bottle. See how it's intact? No pinholes or tears where a needle might have pierced it. Same with the cork. The only hole was the one made by the corkscrew, and that didn't go all the way through.

"Nope. Unless that wine was poisoned at the winery, there's no way anyone except Quarto could have dosed it."

"But it's so unlike Barnett to do something like that," Mildred said.

"You sound as though you knew him."

"I did. His parents were friends of mine before they passed away, rest their souls. So I knew Barnett from the time he was a child."

"Was he always as nasty and sarcastic as I've been told?" Farley asked.

Mildred nodded. "It was his name, I suppose. Barnett. That was his mother's maiden name, you know. Barnett always hated that name. The other children would call him Barney or Barn and then would laugh. Poor Barnett was suspended from school several times for fighting because someone called him Barnyard. Yes, I'm afraid his name pretty much doomed him to a life of confrontation."

"Looks like he took that lifetime of trouble out on the restaurants he critiqued," Farley said. "If he ever wrote a kind word, I don't remember reading it."

"It wasn't only his job," Mildred said. "His family life wasn't pleasant, either, from what I'm told. Barnett was a bully and a martinet. The only reason his wife stayed with him was to enjoy a life of comfort she couldn't get elsewhere."

"Sounds like a motive for murder, all right," Farley said, "but you still can't discount the evidence. Suicide is the only answer."

"Yes, well," Mildred paused. "Barnett's wife and son could probably use a friend right about now to help them through this difficult time."

"Mrs. B, what are you up to?"

"Up to?" Mildred's eyelids fluttered like a semaphore light. "Why, I'm not up to anything, Sergeant. I'm just trying to be a good friend."

* * *

Farley pulled his car up the circular driveway to the front door of the Quarto house.

"I don't know how I let you talk me into this," he said as he held the passenger door open for Mildred.

"You're just being a good Samaritan," Mildred smiled as she made her way up the short walk to the house.

"Why Mrs. Bagshaw," a man in his late twenties said as he opened the door. "I haven't seen you in ages. Come on in."

"I heard about your father's passing, Robert, and felt I must come to convey my condolences."

"Thank you. Mother is in the living room."

"You remember Sergeant Farley?" Mildred asked as she was led into a huge room decorated in French provincial. "He looked into poor Barnett's death."

"Yes, of course I do. Mother, look who's here. It's Mrs. Bagshaw,"

A still youthful-looking woman in her late fifties, Helen Quarto rose to greet her guest.

"Mildred, how good of you to come. Barnett always thought of you as one of his favorite people."

"Thank you. I'm sure this must be a great shock to you. Were there any signs that Barnett was despondent or anything?"

"None." Helen motioned for Mildred to sit on a sofa and then joined her. Hands folded primly in her lap, she continued.

"We had guests for dinner that night &mdsh; Jonathan Riesart and his wife, Katherine. Jon was trying to talk Barnett into going into partnership with him in a restaurant, but Barnett wouldn't hear of it."

"Conflict of interest?"

"Sort of. He couldn't very well write a scathing critique of his own establishment, could he?"

"No," Mildred agreed.

"Anyhow," Helen went on, "Barnett was in a particularly foul mood that night. He complained that the cheese was salty, his sea bass wasn't cooked properly, and the strawberries in his shortcake dessert had no flavor at all."

"Did he take his anger out on the chef?"

"I was the chef." Helen tilted her head to one side. "And yes, he took his anger out on me. And everyone else for that matter."

"How do you mean?"

"He argued with Jon Riesart, ignored Katherine, and when Robert suggested he take Jon up on his offer, Barnett told him to mind his own business. Then he got up from the table, went to the wine cellar and came up with a bottle of his favorite port, and locked himself in his den."

"How did you come to discover he was dead?"

"At about midnight the Riesarts prepared to leave. I sent Robert to get Barnett so he could at least say goodnight. Robert came back saying Barnett wouldn't answer his knocks, so I went upstairs to our bedroom and got the spare key to the den."

"Mother and I went in together," Robert said. "We saw Father slumped in his favorite chair. His glass and a half empty bottle of wine were on the end table nearby. At first we thought he was asleep, but when I looked closer I could see he wasn't breathing."

"I sent Robert out to call a doctor and keep the Riesarts out of the room," Helen said. "I sat there with Barnett until he returned a few minutes later."

"Then we both waited until Dr. Basar came," Robert said. "He had two policemen with him and they shooed us out of the room."

"I know this sounds strange," Mildred said, "but could I see Barnett's den?"

Helen looked questioningly at Farley.

"We've sealed the room." The sergeant explained. "Even though we're sure Mr. Quarto committed suicide, we want to keep the scene untouched. Just in case, you know."

"Well, Sergeant?" Mildred asked.

"I don't know what you expect to find, Mrs. B, and it's highly unusual, but I suppose I could give you a peek. Just don't touch anything."

Farley led Mildred to the den of the late Barnett Quarto and unsealed the door.

Mildred wandered about the den, taking in the oak paneling, the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and the huge desk, upon which sat a computer, printer, and several pictures of Helen and Robert.

"I assume your men have examined this room thoroughly?" She asked.

Farley nodded.

"Did they see anything unusual?"

"Nope."

"Was anything removed?"

"Barnett's body, of course. And the port bottle, cork, corkscrew and glass he drank from. Why?"

"No suicide note?"

"No. Not on any paper or on the computer."

"Isn't it unusual for a person to kill himself and not leave a note?"

"Unusual but not unheard of. Especially if it was a spur-of-the-moment decision."

"Then I'm afraid Barnett was definitely murdered," Mildred said with a shake of her head.

"Mrs. B, how can you say that?"

"If this room was sealed and you didn't find anything unusual and you removed only what you told me you removed, then where is the container Barnett kept the poison in before he poured it into his wine?"

* * *

Mildred wriggled for the fourth time, trying unsuccessfully to get comfortable in the chrome and plastic chair. She sat in a darkened room, looking through a two-way mirror into a police interrogation room.

"I thought Barnett committed suicide," Jonathan Riesart said after Farley had explained why the tall, balding man was there.

"Certain things have come to light recently that make that a questionable assumption," Farley answered with a look toward the mirror.

"Surely you don't think my wife or I had anything to do with his death."

"Of course not," Farley lied. "But we'd like you to help us reconstruct the events of the night Mr. Quarto died."

"Well, I'll tell you this," Katherine Riesart said, "I didn't like the man. Not one bit."

"Oh really? And why is that?"

"Barnett Quarto was the rudest, most obnoxious man I ever met. He ignored me all night long and made mocking remarks about all my husband's suggestions."

"He even called me a moron," Jonathan Riesart added. "If he didn't want to go into partnership with me, that was fine, but the name calling was completely unnecessary."

"So you had proposed a restaurant deal with him?"

"Yes. I felt that his name as a food critic carried a lot of weight in this state. With his name on a restaurant, people would assume the quality would be top-notch and business would be steady."

"And he didn't agree?"

"He said no chef in the world could meet his expectations and he wasn't going to be embarrassed with second-rate food being served in any establishment with his name on it."

"He even complained about the meal we ate that evening," Katherine put in. "And I thought everything was excellent."

"So after dinner he left all of you?"

"Sort of," Jonathan said. "He made some remark about needing an after-dinner drink and left the table. I followed him into his wine cellar, trying one more time to convince him to take me up on my offer."

"You followed him? What did he do?"

"Well, for one thing, he acted as if I wasn't even there. He never commented once about my offer."

"You watched him pick out his wine, though?"

"Yes. He looked at three or four different bottles before selecting one. He brushed some dust off the label and carried it back upstairs."

"He didn't open it?"

"Not while I was with him, no. He came straight up from the wine cellar, took a wine glass from the kitchen counter, and went into his den. He closed the door and I heard him lock it from the inside."

Farley turned to Katherine. "And where were you while all this was happening?"

"In the dining room with Helen and Robert. It was very awkward for poor Helen, having to make excuses for her husband's behavior."

"May I ask what kind of poison killed Barnett?" Jonathan asked.

"Our coroner says he ingested a large quantity of concentrated nicotine, the same poison that was found in the wine he drank and in his glass."

"Nicotine? Like in cigarettes? Can people really get nicotine poison?"

Farley nodded. "It's not hard to make, actually. There's a classic case of a woman in 1968 who mixed several cigarette butts into a jug of water, strained it, and put it where here elderly sister would drink it. The poor sister died a horrible death."

"Does this poison kill instantly?"

"You mean like in all the mystery stories? According to our forensics experts, concentrated nicotine can kill in anywhere from five minutes to four hours after being ingested. It depends on the poison's potency and the victim's health."

"Barnett went into his den at about nine," Jonathan said, "and his wife and son found him dead at about midnight."

Farley nodded.

"Neither my husband nor I smoke, you know," Katherine said.

"Yes, but even non-smokers can buy a pack of cigarettes," Farley said.

"You know, Sergeant," Jonathan said as he rose from his seat, "I don't like the direction this conversation is taking. My wife and I will be leaving now. And if you need us again, we'll have our attorney with us."

And the Riesarts left the interrogation room, leaving Farley staring at the mirror behind which Mildred sat.

* * *

"Do I smoke?" Robert Quarto repeated Farley's question. "I enjoy a good cigar from time to time. Why?"

"No special reason."

"Of course Father had a tantrum when I did."

"Worried about your health?"

"Hah! That's a laugh. No, he complained that the smoke affected his ability to taste his food properly. Said that's probably why I thought everything tasted good. All that smoking was ruining my taste buds."

"You smoked in the house?"

"Good God, no. He'd have killed me for that. I couldn't even keep the cigars in my room. I had to keep them in the garage. No, Dad said the smell of smoke on my clothes was enough to upset him."

* * *

"No, I don't smoke," Helen Quarto said. "That's one of the few bad habits I never cultivated. Expensive clothes, five star restaurants, twenty-year-old scotch, yes. Smoking, no."

"Do you know if any of your guests that night smoke?"

"The Riesarts? No, I'm afraid I don't. Even if they did, Barnett would never allow them to smoke in the house. We don't even have any ashtrays. Barnett felt it was a filthy habit that interfered with a person's ability to discern good food from garbage."

"But your son smokes."

"A cigar now and then, yes. And Barnett hated it. Personally I think it was Robert's way of antagonizing his father. They were constantly at loggerheads, and Barnett could be very demeaning at times, so Robert would go into the garage and have a cigar. Then he'd come back into the house reeking of smoke and Barnett would get livid."

"Not exactly the father-son relationship one would wish for."

Helen's eyes looked at the tabletop.

"None of Barnett's relationships were what one would wish for."

* * *

"Well, Mrs. B," Farley said when he had joined Mildred in the observation room, "have you got any ideas?"

"Only one, but I really need to know more before I say anything. Could you drop me off at the library? I can take a cab home from there."

"The library?"

"Yes. I need to do some research."

"If you'd like, you can use a search engine on my computer."

"Oh, no, Sergeant. That modern folderol may be okay for you, but for an ancient old biddy like me, there's nothing like the feel of a real book."

Farley smiled and shrugged.

* * *

Sergeant Farley sipped coffee, chewed one of Mildred's homemade chocolate chip cookies, and looked questioningly at his hostess.

"Mrs. B," he said finally, "I assume you called me over here for more than coffee and cookies."

"Yes, Sergeant, I did. I believe I know who poisoned Barnett Quarto and how."

From the tone of her voice, Farley knew she wasn't finished, so he waited.

"But I have a problem. I don't know how you can prove my theory. I'm afraid all the evidence will have been destroyed by now."

"Let me worry about that. Just tell me what you think happened."

"Well, once I knew for certain Barnett didn't commit suicide, I had to find out how that poison got into his wine."

Farley nodded and chewed a cookie.

"You see, I knew very little about nicotine poisoning except what I heard you tell the Riesarts. That's why I visited the library.

"All the books on poison I could find said the same thing: Nicotine has a fishy smell to it. That told me all I needed to know."

When Mildred paused, Farley said, "Go on."

"Well, Barnett was a connoisseur. He made his living tasting food and wine. Before he drank that port he'd taken from his wine cellar, he'd have swirled it around in his glass and sniffed it. If it had a fishy smell, he may have taken one small sip just to check it, but he would never have drunk a half bottle of fishy smelling wine."

"But he did," Farley said. "The post mortem showed that much wine in his stomach."

"Yes," Mildred wiggled a finger at the sergeant, "but that wine wasn't poisoned. The wine in the bottle wasn't tainted until after Barnett was dead. He was actually poisoned another way."

"But how...?" Farley began.

"We know from both Helen Quarto and Katherine Riesart that Barnett complained about his dinner. And what was that meal?"

Farley thought a second. "Sea bass."

Mildred nodded.

"What better way to hide a fishy smelling poison than by putting it into a fish meal. But Barnett's taste buds were so acute he could still taste something wrong."

"But Mrs. Quarto prepared that meal herself," Farley said.

Mildred nodded again.

"I'm sure she had some clever plan worked out, but when Barnett locked himself in his den with a bottle of wine, she saw a chance to make his death look like a suicide and take all suspicion off her.

"When her son couldn't get Barnett to open the door, Helen went to her bedroom for the key. But she also got the supply of poison she'd used on his dinner. I'm guessing she made it by stealing one of Robert's cigars and soaking it in water like that lady you told the Riesarts about.

"Then, when Robert found his father's body, Helen sent him out of the room to call the doctor and keep the Riesarts out."

"Then that's when..."

"She was the only person who was ever alone with Barnett and the bottle," Mildred went on. "She spiked the wine in the bottle and put a drop or two in his glass."

"But why? After all the years they were married, why now?"

"Maybe it was the restaurant deal. I'd guess it would be worth a lot of money, and Barnett was against it. With him dead, Helen could give permission to Jonathan Riesart to go ahead and use Barnett's name — for a price, of course."

"And at the same time she'd be rid of an abusive husband and inherit his estate," Farley said. "Certainly a strong motive."

"But as I said," Mildred shook her head, "I'm afraid all the evidence will have been destroyed by now."

"Maybe. Maybe not. We'll check Mrs. Quarto's computer. Maybe she researched nicotine poisoning on line and there's a record of it on her hard drive. That would give us a starting point."

Mildred smiled. "Let's hope Helen Quarto isn't as old fashioned as I am."

"Mrs. B," Farley rose to leave, "I'm glad you're on my side. I think you'd be a very difficult criminal to chase down."


Richard Ciciarelli is a member of Mystery Writers of America and since 1982 has seen over 70 short stories published in some of the country's top magazines and on-line mystery sites.


Copyright 2011 Richard Ciciarelli. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


Return to Over My Dead Body! Online.