Julius Katz and the Case of Exploding Wine
by Dave Zeltserman
Art by Laurie Harden
At one thirty-three in the afternoon Julius had a highly rated Argentinian Malbec—said to have rich cherry and plum flavors with hints of cocoa and black pepper—decanting while he hand cut paper-thin slices of Prosciutto Toscano with the skill of a master charcutier. As he did this, I tried to use my time productively by identifying the mysterious fifth murder suspect, but found that I was too peeved to do so. Or maybe I was too miffed. Or too injured. It was such a new experience that I wasn’t sure which it was, or that I understood the nuances that differentiated between feeling miffed or peeved or deeply insulted. All I knew was that I felt as if a thick, almost suffocating heat had built up inside my central processing unit, a heat that kept me from being able to focus on any sort of work.
Let me explain by going back ninety-two days. That was when Julius accepted a retainer from Allen Luther, the dog-food king. When Luther called to make the appointment, he insisted on bringing along with him his prizewinning English bulldog, Brutus. As far as I knew, a dog had never before entered Julius’s Beacon Hill townhouse, let alone his office, but I told Luther to go ahead and bring the animal. First, Luther was promising a twenty-thousand-dollar retainer for an investigation that might never happen. Second, Luther and Julius were on friendly terms. They were both members of the Belvedere Club, and had sat at the same table for at least three wine dinners that I knew of, where they discussed wine, cognac, and Boston’s fine dining. Third, Brutus was more than just a prizewinning bulldog—he had won best in show at the prestigious Kensington Kennel Club three years running, making him possibly the world’s most famous dog. And fourth, Julius had fallen into a rut since collecting two hundred grand from Pritchards of London, who paid him for saving them millions on what turned out to be an insurance scam. I figured he needed some shaking up, so I scheduled the appointment with the world-famous bulldog in tow and conveniently forgot to tell Julius about it. It wasn’t until Allen Luther rang the bell at the scheduled time that I informed Julius about the appointment.
“He called three days ago while you were engaged in your daily kung fu workout,” I said. “I apologize for not telling you earlier. It must’ve slipped my mind. But since Luther is willing to pay you twenty thousand dollars to do nothing, and you’ve gotten so adept at doing exactly that since Pritchards of London paid you the fee they owed, I figured you wouldn’t mind.”
While the world knows me as Julius’s assistant, unofficial biographer, and all-around man Friday, I’m a little different from how most people picture me. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m not exactly human. What I am is a two-inch rectangular piece of highly advanced computer technology that Julius wears as a tiepin. But that’s not how I imagine myself. When I do picture myself, it’s as a stocky man in his thirties with thinning brown hair and a tough bulldog countenance, and that image is probably due to Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op works, which were among the books used to program my knowledge base. At the moment when I checked the outdoor webcam and saw what Luther was carrying, the image that flashed vividly in my neuron network was of myself as that heavyset man grinning as widely as any jack-o’-lantern.
I told Julius in a deadpan voice, “You might like to know that Luther has brought with him a bottle of nineteen ninety-six Château La Mondotte Saint-Émilion.”
That mix of Merlot and Cabernet went for over six hundred bucks a bottle, and I knew Julius coveted it. Although Julius liked Luther enough to discuss fine wines and cognacs, and liked even more the idea of earning twenty grand for doing nothing, if it wasn’t for that wine he might very well have had me cancel the appointment simply to teach me a lesson. But because of the Château La Mondotte Saint-Émilion, Julius conceded to ask with his annoyance mostly in check, “What’s this about?”
“I don’t know. Only that there’s a twenty-grand retainer involved for a job you might never have to do.”
There was only a slight hesitation before Julius pushed himself out of his chair and left his office so he could answer the door. Luther, on seeing the way Julius eyed Brutus, and being no fool himself, handed Julius the six-hundred-dollar bottle of wine before Julius could utter a word. “The last time we talked you mentioned how you’d been wanting to try this vintage,” Luther said gruffly.
Allen Luther, at sixty-three, was a large man, both in height and girth. According to his driver’s license, he was six foot three and two hundred and eighty pounds, although I judged his weight at closer to three hundred and twenty. Not only was he the undisputed dog-food king, with a massive sheepskin coat draped around him and his large round head fringed with short red hair and the bottom half of his face covered with a carefully cropped red beard, he had an air of nobility that reminded me of pictures I’d seen of eighteenth-century English kings.
I knew Julius was expecting the two hundred grand Pritchards of London paid him to allow him to live idly for another six months, even given his expensive tastes, which had gotten more expensive since he met Lily, but under the circumstances he had little choice but to lead the way to his office while Allen Luther and Brutus plodded along behind him. I haven’t mentioned anything about Brutus yet, and I don’t know what to say other than that he had a squat muscular body with brown and white fur and a thick jowly face. Whatever it was that made him best in show three years running, I had no clue, but then again, the only dog breed I’d ever researched was greyhounds, and that was only to build a race-simulation model that could beat Julius at the track, which I failed at.
Luther took the chair across from Julius while Brutus plopped down on the floor next to his owner. After Luther begged off Julius’s offers for refreshments, he got down to business. “I have two items I need to discuss with you, Julius,” he said, grim-faced. “The first involves Brutus.” Luther’s lips momentarily compressed into a harsh, bloodless line, then he continued, “Since Brutus’s third win at Kensington, I’ve been besieged with offers for him, some of them bordering on outright threats of stealing him if I don’t agree to sell him. The nerve of these bastards! I need to make sure Brutus isn’t dognapped.”
“I’m sorry, Allen, but that’s not the kind of work I’m willing to take on.”
“I know it isn’t.” Luther brusquely waved off Julius’s comment, his face folding into a frown that would’ve made the bulldog proud. “But I’m hoping you can refer me to someone who’s capable of handling the job. I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit back and let someone steal him!”
“I can give you the name of a private investigator who’s done work for me,” Julius said. “Your second item?”
Allen Luther cleared his throat. A glint showed in his eyes as he met Julius’s gaze. “If someone murders me, I want you to catch the bastard,” he said in a surprisingly clear voice given how raspy he had just sounded.
Julius arched an eyebrow. “Are you expecting to be murdered?”
“I hope not. But there have been a couple of troublesome incidents.” Luther shook his head, scowling. “Four days ago someone almost ran me down while I was crossing the street. It was a near miracle that I scooped up Brutus and dove out of the way.” He lowered his gaze and bit down on his thumbnail as, most likely, he replayed the incident in his head. “It could’ve just been a careless Boston driver,” he said. “Some nitwit texting and not watching the road. But my gut is telling me that the driver intentionally aimed at me, or possibly even Brutus. And you don’t build the dog-food empire I’ve built without trusting your gut.”
Luther grew silent after that. Julius sat patiently waiting for the dog-food king to continue talking, and he didn’t have to wait long. Eighteen point four seconds later Luther’s round, heavy face began to blush red with either anger or embarrassment, I wasn’t sure which. “I should’ve seen who was driving, or at least noticed what type of car it was,” he said. “But it was dark, and it all happened so fast that I can’t tell you anything about the car or the driver.”
“None. And don’t bother asking about video-surveillance cameras. I asked my security chief to look into that, and there were none in the area.” Once again Luther lowered his gaze from Julius’s, his jowls sagging as much as Brutus’s. “If that was the only incident, I would’ve chalked it up to bad luck, but it wasn’t. Three weeks ago I was dining at Bellemonds when I detected a whiff of bitter almond from a glass of thirty-year Talisker that was brought to me. At least I’m fairly certain I did.”
“Cyanide,” Julius said.
Luther nodded, his scowl deepening. “I wish I’d had the presence of mind to have saved the scotch so I could’ve had it analyzed. But I didn’t, and instead I sent it back.” His voice lowered into a raspy growl as he added, “I hope no one in the kitchen drank it. At least if there was really cyanide in it.”
I did some quick hacking and checked the local hospitals for any reported cyanide poisonings from three weeks ago, and there weren’t any. If someone had tried slipping Luther a mickey, the drink most likely ended up poured down the sink, although it could’ve been drunk by a member of Bellemonds’ kitchen staff with the individual either holed up sick afterwards or dying without an autopsy revealing the cause. I told Julius this. Since I communicate to Julius through an earpiece he wears, Luther was no more the wiser to my doing so.
“Thomas Pike has been dead for fifteen years,” Julius said, “but Andrew Nevin is still alive. Anyone else you know of who might want you dead?”
It always surprises me what Julius comes up with, and from Allen Luther’s reaction, this surprised him also.
“You know about Pike and Nevin, huh?” he said. “I didn’t ask Pike to embezzle from me. I don’t care what his reasons, I had every right to have him arrested, and it’s not my fault he committed suicide!”
Luther’s outburst caused Brutus to lift his head. The dog-food king noticed this, and continued with his voice lowered into a softer growl. “With Nevin, it was only business. I won and he lost. Too bad if he has hurt feelings about it. As far as anyone else out there, I don’t know. This dog-food business can be a dog-eat-dog world. You make enemies you never even know about.” He paused for a moment before adding, “Maybe my son-in-law. Forget I said that.”
Julius leaned farther back in his chair, his fingers interlaced as he rested his hands on his stomach. Sighing, he said, “Your money would be better spent keeping you alive. My advice is that you hire security personnel to protect you. If you insist on hiring me also, I recommend that I instead look into whether there’s a real threat against you, and if there is, who’s behind it.”
From the way Luther’s face darkened with anger, I understood perfectly why Julius had sighed only seconds earlier. He already knew what the dog-food king’s response was going to be.
“The hell with that! I’m not having bodyguards following me around and getting in my way. Whoever this bastard is, he might end up killing me, but he’s not going to make me live in fear. But I want to make damn sure that if he does kill me, he pays for it!”
Julius tried halfheartedly to change Luther’s mind, but he must’ve known from the start it was a losing fight. As far as Allen Luther was concerned, he wasn’t going to cower for anyone. Besides, it would be a waste of time and money for Julius to look into this since no evidence had been left behind. If someone three weeks ago had slipped a mickey into Luther’s drink it was doubtful Julius would get anywhere trying to identify that person.
In the end Julius accepted the twenty-thousand-dollar retainer with the agreement that if Luther died in any sort of suspicious manner Julius would investigate his death, and if he uncovered the murderer, Luther’s estate later would pay Julius a hundred grand. The only concession Julius was able to get from Luther was to allow the police one week to solve this hypothetical murder themselves, assuming that it was a homicide. The reason Julius gave for this was so he wouldn’t unreasonably interfere with the police. Of course, that was pure poppycock. Julius had never been bothered about that in the past. I knew his real reason for insisting on this was out of laziness. As I mentioned before, the fee Pritchards of London paid him got him used to the idea of not doing any work, and he’d just as soon make twenty grand doing nothing than have to turn his brain back on for any additional sum of money, even a hundred grand.
That’s what happened ninety-two days ago. Thanks to Julius’s recommendation, Allen Luther ended up hiring Willie Cather full time to track down threats against his prizewinning bulldog, which was a task that Willie was more than capable of. Willie’s a smart guy. Not as smart as he thinks he is, but still, a smart guy, and whenever Julius needs an investigator to do some legwork for him, he’ll hire Willie if Tom Durkin and Saul Penzer aren’t available. While it seemed crazy to me that Luther was willing to spend money to protect his bulldog and not himself, it also seemed doubtful that anyone was actually trying to kill him. Slipping cyanide into a drink? Trying to run him down in the street? I didn’t buy it. Given the limited data I had, I put the odds at roughly 0.04 percent that he was in danger.
It turned out my algorithm wasn’t as good as I thought it was, because seven days and three and a half hours ago Allen Luther was found dead in his office. And there was nothing mysterious about his death, as he was beaten to death by a can of his own dog food.
Given two factors, the layout of the penthouse suite where Allen Luther’s office was located and the monitored elevator access to the penthouse, there were only five people who could’ve murdered Luther: his son-in-law, Michael Beecher; his vice-president of marketing, Sheila Fenn; his vice-president of sales, Arnold Murz; his receptionist, Allison Harper, and a mysterious and currently unidentified deliveryman. Also, it turned out there was a witness to the murder. Brutus. When Sheila Fenn discovered the body, the dog was found tied up in the office in a highly agitated state. Given that the office was soundproofed and that the dog was so strangled by his leash in his attempt to break free that he could barely let out a whimper, it was understandable that no one heard him.
With all the chaos and confusion at the time of the murder, the police had the dog removed from the crime scene without realizing they had a witness. It wasn’t until the following day that they thought of using Brutus to identify the murderer. But when Willie, who was charged with Brutus’s protection, brought the bulldog back to the office the dog didn’t so much as growl at any of the four known murder suspects, which is one of the reasons the police are convinced the murderer is the fifth suspect, the mysterious deliveryman. They have other reasons too. The package that was delivered was empty, and the surveillance cameras outside the building, as well as inside the lobby, didn’t pick up any deliverymen, making the police think the killer changed in and out of his delivery uniform while he was inside the elevator.
The day after the murder Luther’s lawyer announced to the media that the police would have one week to find the killer before Julius would be brought in, which went over with the police just as you’d expect. Ten minutes after the announcement, Detective Cramer called Julius’s office sputtering out a tirade of threats and accusations. While I doubted Julius cared about Cramer’s hurt feelings, I knew he would’ve preferred that the lawyer had held off making this announcement, as it gave the murderer additional incentive to spend the week cleaning up any loose ends. It was an unfortunate event, but one Julius couldn’t have done anything about.
When news of the murder first broke, I gave Julius a full report of what I was able to find from hacking into the Cambridge Police Department’s computer system, and I was surprised to see his facial features hardening as if he were carved out of marble. This meant his brain was working on the case at full force, and this lasted for thirty-four seconds. I didn’t expect Julius to be willing to exert himself until the police had their full week. It was the same when I told him how Brutus failed to pick out any of the four known suspects as the murderer, although this time his deep thinking lasted only twenty-two seconds. Outside of those fifty-six seconds, Julius spent the week as if nothing had happened. I couldn’t blame him, since the deal he made with Luther required him to wait a week, which was why I kept my needling to a minimum. I still reported relevant information as I discovered it, such as how the mysterious deliveryman/killer could’ve made his way unnoticed to Luther’s office—Allison Harper had gotten a call from Michael Beecher to bring him coffee while the deliveryman was having her sign for the package. While she waited until the man returned to the elevator before leaving her desk, the killer could’ve held the elevator for half a minute or so before reentering the now empty reception area. When I told Julius my theory that if Harper hadn’t gotten the call from Beecher when she did, the killer might very well have murdered her too so that he could get to Luther, Julius begrudgingly agreed that it was possible.
Now for the reason I’m so peeved right now. Or miffed. Or deeply insulted. There have been a few occasions when I’ve pestered Julius to the point where he has turned me off. While I might believe I was well within my rights at those times, I can also understand Julius’s point of view that I was pushing things too far. This time, though, I had simply told Julius that it was exactly one week since Luther was discovered murdered, and that the police were holding Brutus in the hoosegow as a material witness. “If you’d like, I’ll give Cramer a call and see if he’ll let you question the witness.”
It was a joke. Maybe I was slightly annoyed that outside of those fifty-six seconds Julius had done nothing to look into Luther’s murder, and maybe I was needling him a little bit, but still, it was mostly a joke. So you can understand how surprised I was when Julius said, “I’m sorry about this, Archie,” and my world went black on me.
It’s always disorienting when I’m turned back on after being shut off, and this time it took me four-tenths of a second to get my bearings, and once I did I realized that what I was feeling was completely flabbergasted. This was a feeling I had recognized once before, so I had no trouble identifying it again. Julius had turned me off for three minutes and forty-seven seconds, and when I hacked into his phone records, I found that he had placed a call to Tom Durkin during this time. At first I remained too flabbergasted to ask Julius about this, but as the sense of being stunned faded and was replaced by feelings of being peeved or injured, I didn’t want to give Julius the satisfaction of asking him anything. And over the past three and a half hours nothing had changed.
Julius had finished assembling his prosciutto, mozzarella, basil sandwich on a ciabatta roll, and I waited until he drizzled virgin olive oil on the sandwich’s content and had the sandwich lifted to take a bite before saying, “You never answered me earlier about whether I should check to see if Cramer is willing to let you question their star witness.”
I almost didn’t recognize my own voice. It had an unusual stilted and cold quality to it, and when I compared it to samples from a movie database, I understood which of the two feelings I’d been having since being turned off. Injured. Julius smiled thinly at my question—either surprised that I had finally relented to talking to him, or understanding that I’d timed my question to interfere with his enjoyment of his caprese prosciutto sandwich. “An excellent suggestion, Archie,” he said. “Please do call him.”
I had no idea whether Julius was joking or simply humoring me, and I didn’t care which it was. I was going to teach him a lesson by calling Cramer and making that request. But just as I was about to put his number through another call came in, and as I realized who was calling a chill ran through me—or at least that was what I imagined. Whatever sense of injury I’d had disappeared immediately. I answered the call, and told Julius that “the one whose name should not be mentioned” was on the line. From the way his body stiffened in his chair, he knew who I meant. Desmond Grushnier. Possibly the most powerful and dangerous man alive. Without waiting for Julius to ask, I patched the call to Julius’s earpiece.
“You’re interrupting my lunch,” Julius said.
Grushnier chuckled at that. “I could be doing a lot more than that. But first, the nineteen ninety Château Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarrosse that you won at auction. Was the case delivered to you this morning?”
“I’m sure you already know the answer to that,” Julius said, stiffly.
“Once again, Katz, you’re right.” There was a hesitation from Grushnier, then, “And the fact that you’re able to speak to me now also tells me that you haven’t opened the crate yet. I’d like you to know upfront that I had nothing to do with this, nor do I know who’s behind it, and I only learned of this an hour ago. The reason I didn’t call you sooner was that I’ve been trying to decide whether it’s more to my advantage for you to die or to live. . . .”
# # #
Read the exciting conclusion in our current issue, on sale now!
"Julius Katz and the Case of Exploding Wine" by Dave Zeltserman, Copyright © 2015 with permission of the author.
Keep these great mystery stories coming all year long ... Subscribe now!