THE SOMMELIER: SEAN EADS & JOSHUA VIOLA

Nostalgia by Max Buchanan
Nostalgia by Max Buchanan

THE SOMMELIER
By Sean Eads & Joshua Viola
Part 1 Published Issue 076, April 2020


Detective Morton is working an old case with no leads when he visits a seedy winery in a district known for its corruption. The vintage there is different than anything else in the world. Rather than specializing in reds and whites, the sommelier’s bottles contain vintage memories of decades long past. Perhaps one of the bottles has the answers Morton has been looking for.


Part 1 published in Issue 076, April 2020. Skip down to this skull icon for Part 2 to finish where you left off reading in print.


Rick Morton stood across the street from Mneme and indulged a memory of honeybees. The persistent hum of the building’s neon sign and the low but excited murmur of the gathered patrons abetted his memory. He shoved his hands in his coat pockets and started counting the people whose line stretched down the street. Those nearest the entrance had been camping out for days like pharmafans determined to get their next fix. This crowd consisted of the middle-aged and older, men and women dressed in suits and dresses. Daubner must be quite the sadist, Morton thought. Not only did his winery lack a reservation system, he also insisted on a rigorous dress code.

Morton sucked in his stomach as he looked down at the grime on his dark shoes. Filth from the sublevel streets blackened the hem of his pants. His friends in the department always joked that he put the plain in plainclothes detective, and Morton supposed that was true. His outfit wouldn’t hold up to Mneme’s high standards.

But then he wasn’t going in through the front door.

The winery was set to open in an hour, at 9 p.m. It would close four hours later. Despite the long waiting line of hopefuls, Morton knew its serving room could accommodate only fifty people, and those fifty tended to stay the entire four hours. The winery’s slogan was, “One night, a lifetime of memories.”

A tram silently slid by on magnetic rails, hauling the district’s dregs from one sector to the next. The faces looking out belonged to those who drank to forget — alcoholics almost as old fashioned as the business card in Morton’s front pocket. The card’s edges were furred from many inspections, long stretches spent turning it over in his fingers. The card had arrived in an envelope, almost a relic inside of a relic. The accompanying letter also seemed antiquarian, handwritten in cursive. God, how Morton had stared at it in his office, remembering the grieving parents of Luca Garcia and Amanda Ryerson, and the crying, orphaned daughters of Steven and Rebecca Griegs. Those girls, ten and twelve at the time, were in their thirties now — almost the age Morton had been when the original cursive letter arrived to taunt him.

Dear Detective Salt—

Morton swallowed, refusing to let the entire memory resurface, though he’d always have a perfect recollection of the original letter. Cursive was unusual even decades ago, something no longer taught in schools, and he’d sat at his desk transcribing the antiquated script into print like some British archaeologist deciphering Akkadian clay tablets in a museum basement, each sentence a slow-budding flower of terrible revelation, the totality a bouquet of thorns.

After the tram passed, Morton crossed the street, head down as he slipped by the crowd. Excitement and anticipation gathered in their conversation—

“Something from the 1920s. Maybe a flapper! Could you imagine?”

“Anything from 2030 works for me. My parents used to say every single day of 2030 felt like the world was on the verge of something awful or something awesome.”

Morton fought the urge to identify the man who said that and shake some sense into him. Every year has its balance of births and deaths, but 2030 was the year of the deaths — the year of the letter. 

None of these people had a reason to remember and ruminate upon the victims, of course, any more than he felt grief over Annie Chapman or the Black Dahlia or JonBenét Ramsey or Stephanie Duggan. They might have been cultural icons in their day, convenient symbols for the social headshakers and religious scolders; but time had added their names to its greater, endless death scroll. How they came to be inscribed no longer mattered.

Morton kept moving, putting the crowd behind him. Mneme occupied a refurbished building in a former industrial sector, making it far larger than its limited serving space suggested. Morton got the floor plan from the district assessor’s office and knew the entire space to be 60,000 square feet. But what occupied all that area? Casks? Bottles?

A laboratory?

He came around to the hidden side of the building, where windowless garage panels and a steel security door gave evidence to its past life as a warehouse. Morton sighed, and the air had chilled just enough to cloud his breath. He stepped up to the door, wondering if its burgundy color was meant to suggest a red wine. Morton wouldn’t hazard a guess at how many layers of paint had preceded it.

He turned the business card over and studied the twelve digits written there. The handwriting on the card was different from the letter. The numbers were written with a shakier hand — perhaps fearful, perhaps stricken. But a forensics analysis revealed the same pen was used for both.

Morton punched in the code.

A subtle click came from lock. He pulled the door open and stood looking at a space lined with several hospital beds. It’d been years since any discovery startled him into pulling out his taser, but Morton did so now. It took a moment to realize some of the beds were occupied, and the people were awake. Or at least their eyes were open. Many seemed to be whispering.

“Shut the door behind you, Detective,” an unseen man said. “This part of the winery needs temperature control just as much as the barrel room.”

The voice’s cadence carried erudition, the unhurried affect of a butler. Morton gave a quick scan of the vaulted ceiling and saw multiple security cameras.

“I recognize your voice, Daubner.”

“I’m not trying to disguise it. Now please shut the door. The memory’s not as clear if the donor is too hot or too cold.”

Morton holstered his taser and closed the door. He entered the room and got an immediate, complete look at the scene. There were fifteen beds in all. Four were in use — two men and two women. A very tall and lanky man who appeared to be in his late thirties stood observing each of them, moving back and forth between monitors. Each bed had a dedicated array of attending apparatus, with white pads attached at each occupant’s temples, forehead, cheeks and throat. Morton also saw IV drips, though the tubes appeared to drain into the back of each patient’s neck. Two of the IV bags contained a pale yellow liquid, the other two ruby red.

“Is that—”

“Wine?” the tall man said, still not looking at him. “Yes.”

Morton took two steps forward. “If I hadn’t done my research, I’d think you cater to hardcore drunks, Daubner. Why bother tasting anything when you can have the mother’s milk put right into your veins?”

“But you have done your research and know better about these—”

“Guinea pigs?”

Daubner cast a critical glance at him. “Perhaps you’ve not researched me after all.”

 “It doesn’t take detective skills to read about you in the media, Daubner. You’d be hard to escape notice even if I wasn’t trying to learn about you.”

Now the tall man, Mneme’s unmistakable owner and sommelier, left the monitors and approached Morton with his hand extended. Morton shook it.

“I wasn’t sure if you’d come at all, but I never expected you to come alone.”

“Who says I did?”

“Ah,” Daubner said. From one of the beds, a woman began whispering and he excused himself to attend to her.

Morton followed. “Is something wrong?”

“Some people verbalize their memories during the transfer. I prefer that doesn’t happen if possible. Not that I have any proof, but I believe speaking dilutes the quality of what gets imprinted into the wine.”

Morton studied the woman’s face. Her eyes stared at the ceiling but he did not think that’s what she saw if her words were indicative. “Yes, Adam, of course I will. I’ve been waiting so long for you to ask. I love you.” Morton judged her to be in her eighties. Her thin lips smiled and her delicate arms were crossed over one another at the stomach. She looked happy and peaceful, though similar observations had been made by people looking into many an open casket.

“I’ve read about your process a handful of times and I still don’t understand exactly what’s happening here.”

“But that is everyone’s experience about most things in life, Detective. What percentage of drivers can explain the chemical reactions that power their car engine? How many people could send email if doing so required the knowledge to construct a network first? Experiencing my wine requires nothing more on the user’s part than a willingness to swallow what I and my memory vintners create.”

“Memory vintners?”

“A recent coinage,” Daubner said. “I wanted to be as inclusive — and accurate — about my product as possible. Where would I be without people willing to share their memories?”

“Share? I understand you pay quite well.”

“But it’s hardly the same thing as selling blood plasma or eggs. Each memory needs to be special, a unique experience. So yes, these people are vintners just as much as I am.”

Daubner began to wax about the philosophical and ethical aspects of his business, and under other circumstances Morton might have been content listening all night, even though much of it rehashed considerations discussed countless times in prior interviews. Daubner billed himself as sommelier of the mind, an expert at pairing the right memory with his customers’ specific needs and desires. The crowd outside had come to experience some aspect of another person’s life. An evolutionary step, perhaps, in virtual reality. 


Start here for Part 2 to finish where you left off in Issue 076.

“Mrs. Palmer here lived much of her life among the Amish,” Daubner said, pointing to the old woman who was still whispering. “The story of her husband’s courtship is as gentle and endearing as any romance novel. No fiction writer could capture the reality of it, yet the audience for that reality remains just as popular as when Beverly Lewis launched the genre almost a century ago.”

He always sells the sweet side, Morton thought as Daubner asked him to come and see the cellar. The recaptured romance, a warm parental experience, a dazzling historical foray. Staring up at the back of the sommelier’s head, Morton could only wonder where the grey area began and what the red line might be. If Daubner had ever been posed the question in the media, the detective was unaware of it. But when it came to the latest technology trend and breakthrough, journalists always wanted to keep the picture rosy.

Or in this case, he thought, rosé.

Daubner ushered him into a room isolated by a glass wall. It was lined with racks made from walnut that went twenty feet from floor to ceiling. Bottles after bottle—more than a few thousand, at least—almost overwhelmed his vision, though Morton did notice certain color distinctions in the wax seals, which included red, blue, green, yellow and orange. Afraid he’d been silent too long, he decided to question their relevance.

“Here we don’t classify the way a traditional winery would,” Daubner said. “There isn’t much concern as to Merlot or Shiraz, or to the year of the grape.”

“You categorize by memory?”

“Precisely.”

Daubner went to the nearest rack and swept his finger along the bottlenecks. “Yellow for love and safety. Green for comedy. Blue for adventure, and so on. Of course, these are broad categorizations. We drill down with far more specificity than that when the customer’s deciding time comes.”

Morton reached for a bottle, but just as he did, he heard a loud whir come from the ceiling. An articulated metallic arm moved fast down a track affixed to the walnut wine rack and delicately slid the bottle from its spot, handing it to Morton with laser-guided precision. The glass was a rich green and unlabeled except for a barcode. The detective held it in both hands and turned to Daubner as if offering it.

“What’s this one?”

“I couldn’t tell you without consulting the database.”

“The wax seal is red.”

“Yes.”

“What does red mean?”

Daubner cocked his head to the left. “What does red usually mean, Detective?”

“Danger. Aggression.”

“Or a Valentine’s Day heart, or—”

“Sex.”

“Certainly sex,” Daubner said.

“Then you cater to the whole range of . . . experience?”

“Not yet. The spectrum you’re talking about is as vast as the population, after all. But in time, when enough suitable candidates have been contracted as memory vintners—yes.”

“What counts as suitable?”

Daubner reached forward to take the bottle from Morton’s grasp. He held it up to his face using both hands, the way someone would lift a child.

“I would love to bottle some of your memories, Detective.”

“They’d turn the wine to vinegar in an instant.”

The sommelier’s face became pale. He pivoted to the rack and returned the bottle to its place. Without looking back at Morton, he said, “It’s been good of you to let me talk in order to avoid the conversation you came here to have. I doubt a man like you tolerates prevaricators under normal circumstances.”

“There’s nothing normal about what brought me here.”

“The letter,” Daubner said.

“Are you confessing to sending it?”

Daubner turned back to him. “Confirming. Confessing is too loaded. After all, I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“The law might disagree. I know I do.”  

Sweat broke out the sommelier’s forehead. There was a moment when Morton thought Daubner would faint, and stepped forward, prepared to catch him. Instead the man leaned against the bottle rack and held up a conciliatory hand.

“After I mailed the letter I had almost no notion of what I’d done. I remember trying to fight it.”

“Fight what?

“The memory, Detective Morton. A memory unlike any other. More like a demon than a recollection.”

“Whose memory?”

“Slipping in my business card was a supreme act of resistance. Giving you the access code to our back door was as close as my mind could come at the time to a plea.”

“I said whose memory?”

“Now I realize I was begging you to come. The part of me that was subsumed by the overpowering memory cried out for rescue. Maybe I feared the memory wouldn’t leave—that should be impossible, of course, but then I thought what had already happened to me was impossible. The shadow that seized control of my mind saw you as a direct threat. I must have latched onto that feeling. One man’s threat is another man’s hope, after all.”

“The handwriting was a perfect match to the original letter. Are you telling me—”

“Yes, I’m telling you that the memory was so powerful that I became the man it belonged to. I felt his thrill and his dread, his anticipating and his giddiness as the two of us spelled out every word both thirty years ago—and last week. You can’t understand the elation he felt when he placed the envelope into the mailbox.”

“Damnit, tell me whose memory it was!”

Daubner’s eyes watered. He shook his head.

“If you don’t,” Morton said, stepping nearer, “I’ll make sure every one of these bottles gets smashed. It’ll be like a raid out of Prohibition. And then I’ll track down every single vintner you’ve ever sampled because one of them has to be the man who wrote that letter. The man who killed all those . . .”

Morton squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his face into his right palm.

“I’m so very sorry,” the sommelier said. “When the memory finally died away, leaving me a wreck, I sat in my office debating how to proceed. The letter had been mailed, and my business card with it. Should I wait for you to visit? Should I do a preemptive explanatory call to you? A week passed. I began to entertain the hope the letter was never received.”

“Oh, I definitely got it.”

“Then I must confess I’m surprised you simply showed up like this. For all you knew, this could have been an elaborate ambush.”

“If it was and I happened to die a bit earlier than the actuarial tables predict, it’s no great loss. The truth is no one but me knows about your letter, Daubner.”

Don’t call it mine!”

“Most of the people on the force were children when I got the original, but there are still a few old guys around who remember. It’s not something we go reminiscing about. After thirty years, why should they care? They never got taunted. They never failed. Now tell me his name, Daubner.”

The sommelier’s throat bobbed. Morton thought he could strangle the man if he tried to obfuscate any longer. He pictured himself taking one of the bottles and smashing it across Daubner’s stricken face.

“Come to my office, Detective.”

“Another damn delay?”

“No—no. I’ll tell you. But I need to show you, too.”

Morton frowned and shrugged. “Make it quick.”

“I will. I promise. Thirty years might be a fine age for a wine, but this memory should have been uncorked a long time ago.”

Daubner led him from the bottle room and up a flight of stairs. Morton’s hackles raised, wondering if there might yet be a trap waiting. His suspicions ebbed when Daubner opened the door to an office that had no walls other than a railing. The open-air office was positioned some twenty feet above the serving area. The doors had been unlocked, the lucky few ushered in. Morton gripped the railing and watched Daubner’s staff attending to each table. He saw smiles. He heard warm laughter.

“Detective.”

Morton turned as Daubner took a seat at his desk. He opened a drawer and pulled out a bottle.

“A true pinot noir,” he said as Morton came to sit across from him. “The contents of this bottle came from the blackest of grapes.”

God, Morton thought, unable to move. The bottle was dark with no trace of a label or sticker of any kind. He couldn’t quite explain his own emotions to himself just then. He felt as if there was a personality coming off the bottle, an essence, a consciousness. If this really was the distillation of a person, Morton felt he could pour the wine into the air and have it take shape. He sat and stared at the bottle, squaring off against it as he would any suspect in an interrogation room, until the glimpse of a dim cameo of his face in the glass made him flinch like a rookie.

“You’ll know from my interviews that my first career was in memory care and technology. The goal was to imprint one’s own key memories in a consumable form—sipping the past, saving time in a bottle as the old song goes. The concept of sampling someone else’s experiences came much later.”

“As you said, I know the background.”

“But not all of it. I’ve never been truthful about my first patient—my first successful breakthrough.”

Morton shook his head. Daubner stood up and held the bottle up by its neck.

“My father,” he said.

Morton wondered if anything about his face revealed how fast his pulse was going. He swallowed against an immediate, sharp dryness in his throat.

“He was always an enigma to me, Detective. He was distant—he traveled often for his job. I knew he had a dark side. I found a stash of his pornography when I was fifteen.”

“Did he know you found it?”

“Oh, I doubt it, based on how he’d punish me for even minor infractions. I lived in fear of him until he grew old. Dementia changed him—softened him. Illness made him more like a father to me, and triggered my forgiveness. I’d ask him to tell me stories, tell me all the things about him I never knew as a child.”

“He told you about the murders?”

“God, no,” Daubner said, looking at the bottle. “He told me memories that didn’t seem real. It was as if he had just enough to change the details, or perhaps he was just relaying the truth of his life as he saw it in the fog of his condition. Regardless, I could tell there was something artificial about what he told me, and it made me greedy for the real thing. So, against all medical ethics, I brought my lab equipment home and began to use it on my father. He could not consent. He did not know what I was doing, and in a very real way I didn’t know what I was doing, either. My memory capture and transfer process wasn’t anywhere near as precise as it became. This bottle represents a jumble of memories. Each glass is unpredictable—and based on my experience, far more powerful than anything being served to the customers below us.”

Morton asked to see the bottle. Daubner extended it but did not surrender it entirely into the detective’s grip. Morton guessed the sommelier was afraid he’d smash the bottle on the ground.

But Morton was just interested in seeing how much of the wine had been drunk. What he saw suggested less than a glass.

“Is he still alive?”

“No,” Daubner said. “He’s been dead almost two years.”

At least the monster’s dead, Morton thought.

“When did you uncork the bottle?”

“Three months ago.”

“Why did you wait?”’

“Fear, perhaps.”

“Not grief?”

“No. The warm relationship we had toward the end didn’t make up for years of pain.”

“Then why open it at all? I don’t understand.”

“Like wine, all relationships have an aftertaste, Detective. Some are very complex. As I came into my new career as a sommelier of other people’s lives, I decided I wanted to sip at my father’s memories and understand him. Maybe I was looking for a better comprehension of myself. The first few tries were unusually strong, but not terrifying. Then came the night I had half a glass—the rest you know about.”

Morton took his hands off the bottle and rubbed his temples. “Well,” he said, and for a minute or so he found he had no other words or notion of how to proceed. The killer had died of old age, perhaps forgetting he was even a murderer. It wasn’t fair, but when had fairness played any part in the world’s affairs?

“I can’t arrest a bottle,” he said. “But it must be confiscated. There could be other memories—memories of other crimes.”

“The only way to know is to drink.”

“So be it. If nothing else, there’ll be closure for the relatives of the people he killed.”

“What about for you, Detective?”

Morton shook his head. “Not after receiving that letter. Even if he didn’t kill again the rest of his life, I’ll never be able to forget that he escaped. There’s more than wine and memory in that bottle. It’s also got the last drop of my blood, and more than a few tears.”

Daubner hung his head at this and Morton found the sommelier wouldn’t even meet his eye for the rest of their encounter. They waited for Mneme to close before summoning an evidence response team to take possession of the bottle. Morton then took a full deposition from the sommelier that went into the early morning hours.

When it was over, Daubner said, “What happens next?”

“We go on living with the past until we die. I’m glad I’m old-fashioned and only drink to forget.”

Morton went downstairs and headed for the security door. It didn’t seem like Daubner was going to follow him. But as he reached the door, the sommelier called to him.

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry,” Daubner said. “I feel like my father ruined your life.”

“He ruined the lives of the people he killed. He only soured mine.”

“Thirty years is a long time to live with the feelings you’ve endured. The last drop of blood and the tears, you said.”

Morton nodded and stared.

“Forgive me, Detective. There’s something I’d like to offer you. A new vintage. Something different than any other bottle in this building. Not a human memory, you see, but an invented one. One I’ll invent for you. Call it Perfect Happiness.

“There’s no such thing.”

“Since my career change, I’ve been focused on listening to people and pairing them with the perfect memory. The best thing to pair with failure is success. If that has to mean pairing reality with fantasy, then so be it. Mankind was doing that long before the first grape was ever harvested.”

Morton squinted. “Just what the hell are you offering me, Daubner? A wine that will make me think I caught your father?”

“The world would have been better if you had. You can live in that world one glass at a time, Detective. I’ll make sure you have an unlimited supply. Please, let me do this for you.”

Morton took a deep breath. He didn’t have a fireplace in his home, but he could imagine himself beside one, alone and weary in the early morning hours, ruminating on failure while his fingertips rolled the delicate stem of an empty wineglass back and forth. Where was the promised bottle in his fantasy? Was it lying empty on the floor? Was it sitting on the table untouched containing the genie of an alternate reality just waiting to be uncorked? God help him, wouldn’t he drink? Wouldn’t he drink deep?

“I don’t mind a good Shiraz,” he said, and hurried out the door. 


Sean Eads is a writer and librarian. He is a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Colorado Book Award.

Joshua Viola is a #1 Denver Post bestselling author, four-time Colorado Book Award finalist, and the owner of Hex Publishers.

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