What Settles After The Stars
The receptionist at Maison Vulpeque asked what brought me to Reims, and I almost blurted the dead monks were out to get me. They were, of course, those shorn and vengeful bastards. Even so, I couldn’t risk saying “dead monks” out loud, no one could, not and land a ticket down where those monks surely haunted the champagne caves.
“Tasting,” I said too loudly. My voice echoed across the lobby, deserted for off-season. “I’d very much enjoy a tasting.”
“Ah, excellent! Here we have the finest in La Champagne.” She basked in the idea a moment. “So, one for the tour?”
I nodded by degrees, worried the twitchier version I fought would shake loose a bead of sweat or, worse, my fake mustache. I was persona non grata here, since my column mentioned their flagship label Anserre evoked all the passion of kissing a rich aunt. Hence the mustache, and a wig to cover the signature sheen of my scalp. Carl Haplinger of Haplinger’s Guide to Sparkling Wine and, recently, of Vino Veritas magazine, of countless hair-challenged headshots and personal appearances, sporting a mop-top and handlebar? No one would guess it.
The receptionist took my twelve euros and went about assembling the paperwork. So as not to hover, I paced the swank gleam of the lobby. The gleam of a swindler’s eye, reflex begged me to write. Precisely the sort of line that got me a monk’s curse. Across the marble tile, flanked by art nouveau fashionista posters and spotlit magnums, beckoned the oak doors that led to the caves.
She slid over my ticket. I was in. Maison Vulpeque, Champagne’s grand marque of grand marques, their wines first plucked, stomped, and fermented centuries ago by those blasted monks. If there could be peace, peace would be brokered here. “As if carrying on from the monks,” I’d written once of Anserre, “at a hundred bucks, it pairs well with a vow of poverty.” Soon afterward, my taste buds started going in and out like faulty wiring, a nuisance become a demon. As of this dismal afternoon, I’d tasted nothing but metallic ash for a month. The doctors swore it was gastrointestinal, manageable if not yet managed. No, it was the monks. What brought me to Reims was surrender.
The desk phone bleated as if on a rising note of alarm. The receptionist picked up and listened. Her look my way soured into a j’accuse.
She cupped a hand over the receiver. “I am sorry,” she said, not sounding it, “but there has been a mistake. Today we are sold out.”
Around the lobby I counted myself and her and the art nouveau ladies in their poster frames. “Sold out?”
“Completely. Booked all the day.”
“But I have a ticket.”
She produced my twelve euros atop her desk. “Yes, I will need that back, Monsieur Haplinger.”
Damn and double damn. “You don’t understand. It’s urgent.”
Apparently she didn’t feel the need to understand, and neither did the security guard she summoned. Clamping onto my other arm was Jean-Pierre Vulpeque himself, stylishly dressed and flinty-eyed, and together the men hustled me out onto Rue du Champ-de-Mars.
“Please,” I said, “I need in the caves. Just for a second.”
Jean-Pierre assessed me as he might a rot on his grapes. “You wrote we bottle extortion with a hint of jam.”
“For which Grand Cru dubbed me a braying American ass. All in good fun.”
“Our wines, Monsieur, are only for those of taste.”
I froze. Lacking taste had been lobbed at me by countless wine growers, readers, and the oddly monkish street person who harassed me outside my building. I’d heard it, too, from the psychic who ran off with my ex-wife, but as clearly he got the notion from her, I’d dismissed it as a message from the spirit world. Now, I glimpsed the full depths of the plot against me. My mind reeled with visions of Jean-Luc in the maison’s crypts and chanting the monks upon me.
I trudged back for the hotel. My ramble took me through centre ville, past the showroom compounds of champagne royalty clean and bright amid gritty Reims. Each chateau, like a dragon atop its treasure, squatted upon kilometers of chalk caves, each cave layered with racks of champagne aging in the cold and dark. In the hush between street noises, I could almost hear the monks down there laughing.
At the hotel bar, I ordered a ratafia, the brandy made from leftover grapes. I didn’t taste the hard stuff any better, but at least its embers burned in my stomach. I sipped, and in rushed filed-away memories of past brandies—better ones—my brain cells firing like tiny phantom limbs. Surely, there would be excess wood smoke and cloying raisin.
There was a sucker born every vintage. I’d written that about Anserre, and the French howled blue murder. Comments and letters surged, topping even the monthly haul for Wynndi, the model-turned-foodie adventurer. The more creatively I flogged champagne’s nosebleed prices, say as highway snobbery, the more cheers and protests flooded in, the more the French returned fire, the more it had built Carl Haplinger, bad boy bon vivant.
One ratafia became two, and two became courage. A short trundle later, I stood beside the greeter stand at Le Comptoir d’Or, the home brasserie of gourmand Marc Balustre. He owed me, whether he’d admit it or not. He’d only broken through to B-list after he devoted his column in Grand Cru to lambasting mine in Vino Veritas. “Haplinger couldn’t choose a wine to christen a ship” was his go-to jibe. The monks had made certain of it.
Oh, Marc saw me just fine there at his fern, Marc wearing his too-tight apron and a snarl. He had to seat me—I was that famous—but he didn’t have to make it snappy. I wasn’t that famous.
A junior waiter deposited me at a table by the kitchen. No bread arrived, no water, and I sat enduring the stares of the tourist set. Victim of my own success, that was what I’d become. Turn of phrase had launched me from piecework fluff to dinner parties, charity auctions and socialite divorcées, from hand-to-mouth freelancing to the must-read column on sparkling wine. I’d slept with Wynndi. Only the once, but still!
In time, Marc brought my ratafia and slapped a menu on the table. “Tonight we have a monkfish casserole. For apéritif I suggest a fine champagne, though you will think it priced to shame a blackmailer.”
“What did you say?”
“Blackmailer. It was you who said this of my cousin’s Brut Reserve.”
“No, you have monkfish tonight?”
“In a saffron broth.”
Monkfish: fate’s casserole. “I need your help, wine man to wine man.”
“I’m out, Marc. Done.”
He drew up straight. “Out how?”
“At Vino Veritas. As of last month, I’m special features only. Except, they haven’t assigned a feature yet.”
No more than I deserved, his sniff seemed to say, but after my deep pull of brandy, his air of victory evaporated. “What cause did they give?”
I could have said my editor had long grown suspicious of my ever more erratic tasting notes, how she had interns check my adjectives. I could have said reader mail had skewed of late toward threats of bodily harm over ruined weddings and romantic getaways. Sales of Haplinger’s Guide had ebbed to where the next edition might be digital only, stripped of coffee table book status. All symptoms of the deeper truth.
“The dead monks,” I said. “They’ve cursed me.”
Bound to happen, his next sniff seemed to add. Bound to happen.
After closing, we drank ratafia and I told Marc about that street person with patchy hair and a poncho who’d chased me down Gansevoort Street—“no taste!” he’d cackled. How I’d spent a month officially staring into the abyss. Staring back was a dead monk brandishing a bottle.
“So,” Marc said, “I am to intercede, yes?”
“It’s just you’re a respected figure about Reims. And you buy Anserre by the truckload.”
“To apologize, this is a most good thing. But your regret must be sincere.”
“Look at me. I’m a wreck.”
He peered over his snifter at me.
“I don’t know why they have it in for me,” I said. “Yes, I stirred the pot. And Vulpeque ladled all the way to the bank.”
Marc savored his ratafia. “The stars.”
“One night, long ago, the great Dom Pérignon, after a life dedicated to his cellars, he samples the first champagne and he cries out, ‘Brothers! Come quickly! I am drinking the stars!’”
“Pérignon. I’ll bet he’s the ringleader.”
“Champagne is of the heavens, and you call it a whore.”
I coughed a brandied cough. I’d been particularly proud of that column, deeming some new vintage as yet another French prostitute: a high-priced headache, and she and your cash were gone come morning.
“Well, there are cheaper wines.”
“You may tell them this at Vulpeque yourself.”
“Hold on. It was a game, that’s all. Someone ought to jab at hundred-dollar bottles, shouldn’t they?”
“And you believe the monks think champagne a game?”
“I’m through with it, whatever they think.” I stomped to roust the monks in their caves. “You win, brothers. You win.”
Marc agreed to make inquiries come morning, if I promised to dwell that night on my situation, which I did, and to stay clear of Vulpeque, which I didn’t. The monks dogged me from the moment I dropped into bed. On the back of my eyelids, dour men in dark robes seeped out from their caves and cranked up their wine presses. After a bland croissant and coffee for breakfast, I was dodging the early tour buses outside the maison’s stucco walls. Above me, the day turned an intense blue. A French blue. The air simmered with a great gathering of spiritual forces. Judgment at hand.
Except, Marc neither called nor returned my voicemails, and my roaming turned further afield. Soon the grand compounds were some blocks behind me. Hard to say how many, given I’d become lost in the zigzag of backstreets. Doubling back, I stumbled upon a timeworn villa of dingy sandstone and barred windows, its wrought-iron fence topped with spikes fit for displaying heads. Its sign warned: Chateau Des Mendiants. The House of the Monks.
Over the years, I’d sprayed zingers at every house in Champagne worth the spray, or so I thought. Either Mendiants was new on the scene or these were the gears of fate in motion. I needed a hard blink to spot a dark-haired woman of about fifty in the gravel courtyard, smoking meditatively. She said, “You want to taste?”
“You have no idea.”
She stubbed out her cigarette, flowed past a gray cat dozing in the sun, and vanished inside the chateau. There was nothing for it now but to give what pounds of flesh the monks demanded. In case this might be my last known location, I texted Marc my plan and angled through the compound gate.
The cat did not give way. I shuffled around it and into a tidy foyer decked out with photos of the woman and what had to be the husband posing in this or that vineyard. I found her banging around in a living room converted to a makeshift bar. She introduced herself as Elodie, and she presented a flight of champagnes arranged from sweet to dry. The rosé came first, its foam the color of watered-down blood.
I watched its bubbles roil. “I expected monks.”
“Not live ones.” I leaned in conspiratorially. “I’m Carl Haplinger.”
“Hello, Carl.” She topped off my rosé and began reciting the property’s winemaking heritage back to a monastery on these grounds, how she remained committed to the old methods. In front of me the champagne fizzed away, an invitation or a dare. I gave it a swirl and quaffed it, wet and ashen down my throat.
Elodie said, “Okay.”
Very well then. The monks might have snuffed out tasting their wine, but there wasn’t a blessed thing they could do to stop my getting good and drunk on it. I plowed through a cuvée and a Blanc de Noirs and informed Elodie she could keep them coming. She did, and with no other business around, she brought out a flute for herself.
“Where’s your husband?” I asked. “Let’s make it a party.”
“Yes. Too sad. But is this not the way of things? They go on. Every day the sun and the moon.”
While we drank, she talked of her husband and their dream of running a winery, how they had taken early retirement and bought this tumbledown villa, so renamed Mendiant as a monastic money trap. He passed away before their first pressing. She had buried him and forged on alone through the blending, the aging and, now after years, the pouring.
We were deep into the Blanc de Noirs, me explaining about the monks, when in my swirl I caught Marc there, trading pecks with Elodie. He plopped on the next stool and made a show of sniffing the champagne.
“What about at Vulpeque?” I said.
“We must give them time. After the fake mustache, Jean-Pierre is doubly suspicious.”
“Tell them I take it all back. Everything. I’ll make a sacrifice.” I slumped in Elodie’s direction. “Could I trouble you for a goat?”
She laughed, and not the good-idea-let’s-offer-up-a-goat kind, either. “You have the stress.”
“Says you and a bunch of quack doctors. Here’s a surefire cause of stress: a curse from beyond the grave.”
“You’re right. Too bloody. It’s not like I sliced open a Benedictine, did I?”
Marc said, “Take them a ham.”
“They’ll like that?”
Elodie blew out her lips. “Enough, yes? You need a cave? I have a cave.”
A flutter washed over me. Over Marc too, by his sudden suck of air. If you believed in dead monks avenging the slightest slight to champagne, Elodie’s theory went, then any champagne cave should be as good as the next. She made the fatefully perfect sense that only ever came with heavy drinking.
We took a flashlight, a chilled Blanc de Noirs, and a cold sandwich plate out toward a stone outbuilding. The sun had dipped below the horizon, and the moon hung fixed in a smoky-blue sky. Elodie unlatched the outbuilding and shepherded us into a varnished A-frame of tasting counters and souvenir barware. Along the back wall, a stairwell plunged below ground. There, shrouded in gloom, waited the cave.
Marc gripped my shoulder and wished me bon chance. Elodie clunked and clanked the cellar door open and issued me the wine and sandwiches. I drew a stale breath and, with prodding, wobbled down spiral stairs cut into the chalk. Finally, however many circles Dante would put me beneath Reims, I felt my way out into a passage spared from pitch-black by emergency lights. Ahead ran a straight-shot corridor with a rough masonry arch grazing my scalp. My eyes adjusted to the murk, and I could make out racks of bottles riddling, then whole antechambers of racks melting off into darkness. Elodie had been spot on: this looked as good a place as any to encounter a dead monk.
I edged further inside. “All right, here I am.” My voice burst through the corridor and washed back over me, dying as it passed. No ghostly wails broke the quiet. “I brought a nice Blanc de Noirs. And sandwiches. Cold beef.”
No wisps through the spider webs. No spectral moans.
I wrestled open the champagne. The pop of the cork echoed and faded. Not even a rattle of glass.
“You want to see me suffer, is that it?” I saluted them with the Blanc de Noirs. “Santé.”
I guzzled long and hard from the bottle, wine trickling off my chin. It might have been champagne or formaldehyde, for all I tasted. If the monks appreciated the gesture, they didn’t show it. I eased down to the floor, shadows curling around me, and between swigs and cold beef, I told whoever haunted the place about the rise and fall of Carl Haplinger. The pittance-per-word freelancer, the jolt of celebrity, the social gadfly, the bridezillas, and the agonizing loss of taste. The damndest thing dawned on me: I wasn’t sorry. I had slept with an ex-model. Flabby and hairless Carl…in bed with a former cover girl. It was simple, really: no monks, no champagne, no hell of a run.
“Thank you,” I called out.
The words rolled around and off into the blackness. No monks dead or alive emerged to argue the point. That was that, then. I made it to my feet and hobbled for the stairs. Like Elodie said, things went on. I toasted the idea with champagne copper-ash on my tongue. Old coins, that was how I’d have written the taste. Old coins with stardust on the finish.
About the Author
Robert Mangeot lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife and cats. His short fiction appears in various journals and anthologies, including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Lowestoft Chronicle, Mystery Writers of America Presents Ice Cold: Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War, and The Oddville Press. His work has won contests sponsored by the Chattanooga Writers' Guild, On The Premises, and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. When not writing, he can be found counting things or wandering the snack food aisles of America and France.