Chapter 1

 
 

THE BLACK FOREST

 

A pretty postcard.

The dark trees stand still to put on robes, arms raised like obedient children. Their green sleeves slowly whiten.  

Snow settles over the Black Forest.   

Here’s a stone cottage, hidden from any traveler.  In its derelict, frost-clumped front garden, a weathered wooden statue of a boy greets visitors.  

Clean snow collects atop the statue’s carved cap.  One of the child’s blue eyes wears a cataract of ice.  

His rosy cheeks and red smile never looked happier.

The painted figure silently welcomed twenty five people this evening, the longest night of the year. Twelve exclusive couples, plus one solitary guest, arrived in a whitening storm.  The visitors creaked through a snow-dusted iron gate and churned the stone path to the cottage door.  

Inside the cottage, thirteen tables wait, candles dancing.  Against stone walls, the colossal shadows of these men and women flicker and jerk like projections from old movies.  A phonograph plays Wagner, the soaring Rings.  Aromas sing from the kitchen, tastes that will tease appetites until the main course.  The warm room blends tantalizing smells, bread and spices and soup and sauces and truffle. Citrus and sweets and roasting potatoes.

Potatoes go with anything.

The Epicureans are gathered.  This is their night.  

This solstice, they chose a secret place in Baden-Wurttemberg.  Next December 21 will be in Alabama, the Deep South of the United States, home to the single gentlemen in the white Stetson and fringed jacket at the candlelit table against the far wall.

In two years, the group will gather privately near Rio de Janeiro (for tropical sun with their feast) or maybe Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Hua Hin.  Votes on the venue will be tallied at the end of the evening.

This night, the gifted chef chosen to prepare this year’s feast will weep in front of his twenty-five guests, his white toque blazed in firelight, its tall shadow quaking against the stone cottage walls.  The Epicureans will reassure him, pat his back, murmur there, there, delicious, you’ve outdone yourself, it was a meal of a lifetime … of two lifetimes!  

Indeed, the annual feast will be sensational, the best so far in a quarter century of December meetings.

After a fine dessert, the chef will roll out Persian plums, quince, pomegranates, and apricots.  He will offer an exquisite rare coffee, an astronomically expensive French cheese board, a Cuban rum, and a 400-year-old grappa found in a wreck at the bottom of the Aegean.

With their final toast, the Epicureans will watch as the chef is strangled to death before their eyes.  He will eventually quit his silly twitching, slump to the floor still wearing the white apron, his face purple as crushed grapes.  

For now, The Epicureans wait patiently at their places.  

***

The lion-headed duke and his fiercely rouged duchess, these from their famous old estate near Nottingham, hold hands atop the cottage’s Burano tablecloth.  

White and lacy snow gathers on the window mullions.  

The Duke comes from old British Empire tea trade money, enough wealth to buy and sell Prince Charles and the boys.  (The British monarchy fully acknowledges this reality, cognizant of the Duke’s political and financial power.)  The Duchess – magnificent, bejeweled, once insanely beautiful – will never in her life be photographed alongside the Queen.  

This is the Queen’s decision.  Even in royal finery, Her Majesty appears diminished, made most plain, lower class, posed next to the Duchess.  A joint photograph reveals the monarch as a commoner.  Queen Betty.

The next table seats equally remarkable guests.  

An industrialist from Nagasaki and his handsome partner light a private brand of opium-laced tobacco.  They lift glistening 20-karat lighters to long cigarettes rolled in papers of gold leaf.  A sweet, heady smell lingers over their table.  

The elegant, entwined fingers of both the Japanese businessmen bear permanent gold stains.  One shows off a streak of gold dyed into his jet-black hair.

The Japanese gentlemen have fasted for two days, preparing for their winter solstice feast.  Imperially slim, they watch the kitchen door of the cottage the way hawks watch a field for baby rabbits.  

Out the windows, snow falls, beautiful, fast as rain.  

The spear tips of the black iron gate turn white.  

A lone bare bulb burns over the cottage door, and the heavy flakes swarm crazily around it like midsummer moths.

***

Tables, of course, must be served.  The two men of the staff know what to do.  They have worked this special night for 24 years now.

A bald, blocky waiter, thick through the shoulders as an ox, moves quietly from couple to couple.  His thin fingers, long and delicate, don’t seem to match his enormous body.  The hands might belong to a young girl, a harpist.  

Stefan places down on the snow-white tablecloths sets of antique Dresden plates and four-hundred-year-old Colombian silverware.  He carries the settings casually, like workman’s tools, at the end of massive arms.  His black tuxedo is the style with a split tail – the tail of a tern.  

Terns wear black and white, travel island to island.  

A second servant, Ronaldo, has very black skin and a white tuxedo.  He delivers to The Epicureans the last case of an extremely rare Reims champagne, stopping at each table to proudly display in his white-gloved hands the faded labels of the last ten bottles known to the world.  He deftly pours the chilled bubbly into ancient flutes, containers that have seen a great deal in their seven-hundred unbroken years of service.  

The Epicureans raise their toasts with this shell-thin glassware every year – two dozen unusual feasts and counting.

At the finale of every meal, through the uneven glass of the upraised stems, The Epicureans have seen this:

The huge bald waiter, Stefan, with the garrote in his hands, approaches the weeping chef from behind.  He pauses to raise the chef’s chin just so with one finger before a final, nearly tender, embrace.    

The red-faced duke and duchess, the taciturn Japanese partners, the ten other couples, mostly male and female, plus the lone man from Alabama, all sated, all impossibly wealthy, applaud the great chef’s final act of service.

***

Who are they, The Epicureans?

The Duke and Duchess, of course.  The men from Nagasaki.

The other characters are equally colorful.

The two Danes started out stealing jewels.  The lovely, aging sisters from a wealthy shipping family in Copenhagen used connections available through their father and mother and rich uncles and aunts to meet ex-Nazis who lived in the palmy shadows of South America after the world war.  

The sisters were beautiful then.  

They picked the rings and earrings and necklaces off their corpses, off the corpses of their families too, and emptied safes and bank accounts.  From one of the victims, the sisters learned of a hiding place, an Alpine cave, used by the Third Reich to store art pieces raided from manses and museums all over Europe.  The trove made the sisters shamelessly wealthy.  They sold … they sell … one canvas or one statue at a time to obscure buyers willing to pay most any price to cap off a private collection with a missing masterpiece.  

The sisters have giggled, naked as worms, on antique rugs with their priapic clients above them and moving, circling, in the radiant light from a Rembrandt, the cool marble smile of a Praxiteles.

The black waiter makes his rounds again.  

Clos d’Ambonnay sparkles in the delicate flutes, the champagne bubbles spiraling upward in the glass as fast as the snow outside spirals downward.

A cuckoo clock, ornately carved from Bavarian silver fir, sticks out its bird-shaped tongue and cries the hour – midnight.  

It’s officially the solstice.

The room catches its breath.  

Now.  

Now it’s time.

Perfectly on cue, headlights appear far out in the storm, a moving vehicle many miles from paved road. The beams bounce once or twice wildly in back of the inked-in branches of the deep woods.  

A car makes its way down a long white drive toward the cottage.  

It’s slightly against decorum when a small African man rises from his table, leaves his swan-necked black bride, steps to the cottage window.  

The small man rules a large sub-Saharan African nation.  He is what the New York Times calls “a ruthless warlord.”  His wizened face shows no emotion, but his nostrils spread broadly as he exhales.  

A white ghost of vapor appears on the window pane.  A holy spirit.  

Name *
Name

“This sort of holiday feast is a tradition among you African people, isn’t it Mr. Okar?”  

The jest, spoken in English by a tall man with a French accent, turns the African’s head.  A wide smile reveals teeth filed to sharp points.

“You surely know.”

“Know what?”

Mr. Okar answers the taunt in his perfect Oxford accent.  

“That your comment is deeply racist and highly insensitive.  My wife and I find your bigoted French humor most deeply offensive.”  

The statement hangs in the air like fresh meat on a hook.  Then Mr. Okar adds, “Monsieur Grenouille.”   

Mister Frog.

A shriek of laughter, the Frenchman’s included, shakes the room.  

“Touche!” the shipping magnate from Marseilles cries.  “I shall give your black princess a string of black pearls as my act of contrition!”

So merriment rules.  

The Epicureans, January through November, lie awake in the dark, eyes shining, dreaming of this solstice night.  They will not waste these few precious hours in quarrels and petty insults.

Headlights jounce once more into view, twin pencils of illumination sketching snowy branches, thick evergreen trunks.  

A long-awaited delivery grows closer, easing its way toward the cottage.

A heavy log shifts.  The fire in the huge stone hearth at one end of the cottage flares furiously, throws gold doubloons.

Through a frosted kitchen window, the chef also sees the vehicle approaching.  

He turns even more pale, if that were possible, under the dazzling spotlights of his elaborate, lavishly appointed kitchen.  

The kitchen of a lifetime.   

Every surface gleams – carefully customized Viking stove and counters of Carrera marble, burled maple cabinetry and rows of steel knives, a hanging rack of seasoned pots and pans.  

The chef tests again the long curved blade he has been sharpening on an ancient whetstone – a Sumerian relic – for the last five minutes.  The knife flashes when he holds it up, and he catches his reflection in bright steel, the worried face, the little brown moustache, the eyes black, mortal, so afraid.

A thought crosses the chef’s mind – he will plunge the knife into his own thin chest now, to avoid the shame of what he must do, what he must be part of.  

The knife will slip in so quickly, a surprise to himself, to everyone.  His heart will simply sob to a halt.  He will die as innocently as any man who has lived fifty-five years working hard and caring for his craft with all his might.

But then the chef thinks of little sweet Marie, of his brave boys, Jean-Louis and Richard.  His wife, Celeste.  He knows what will become of them if he does not go through with the perfect solstice feast.  

The Epicureans have made the fate of his family crystal clear.

He has been chosen.  His bad luck.  He knew good luck most of his wonderful days.  

Now he has this.

At least the rewards will come to Celeste forever.  She and the children will never want.  The Epicureans have made that perfectly clear too.  If his kitchen delights The Epicureans on this single unique night, this night of nights, his family, when he is gone, will never know want.

All has been made ready.  

The chef has constructed his kitchen for six days now, secretly, at great expense.  

How curious, that he will cook just once here – just once more ever, one more meal.  The Feast of the Solstice, this night.  

How curious that back in Paris, where he made his name, where he earned the Michelin stars, he lacked for nothing, but had nothing – nothing even close – to the extravagant culinary equipment of this cottage on this black night in this place at the end of the world.

Now not even heavy snow can muffle the rumbling diesel motor of the arriving vehicle.  

The African warlord has been joined at the window by the Arabs, two men and two stunning women, unveiled, modern.  Oil billionaires.  Royal family.

Other tables now empty too.  

Eager faces crowd the glass, patrons gathering to welcome special guests.  The Shanghai realtor and his tiny bride. The fashionista from Milan and her bad-boy Argentinian soccer star. The Jews from Hollywood wearing the jewelry they designed and the perfumes they manufactured. The bearish Russian arms merchant and his sultry, red-lipped Ukrainian actress.

A low chatter runs among The Epicureans like a kind of voltage.

Only one of The Epicureans remains at his table, his broad back to the wall.  The man from the American South, the Alabamian, supports his heavy bald head on one thick fist and stares without blinking at the door.  

He has a western jacket, the kind a cowboy wears, white as the snow outside.  The man’s looming head and hat by candlelight seem somehow even larger than their enormous shadows on the wall.  

His eyes wear hoods. His mouth takes up much of his face.  As he waits like the others, two thick fingers lightly tap his lips.  Another place, another night, somewhere warm with the crackling music from an old radio, he might be blowing kisses.

Voices pierce the snowfall.  German.  One higher, childlike.  

The whump of a car door shuts them off.

The Epicureans jostle to see.

“Now they are our gifts!” breathes one of the Arab women.  Diamonds brilliant as Venus on a summer night glitter in her ears.  

The voices approach. The thick oak door makes a sound.  Shoes scrape.  

Cold hands fumble with a heavy iron latch.

“Kommen!”  

Coming in.  

An Epicurean nearest the door, a white-curled Russian in a heavy black wool coat, thrusts an arm out like a police barricade.  The gorgeous, high-heeled escort of the Frenchman falls back from the sudden brawny barrier.  She’s annoyed, her thick black hair a little wild, her lips tightly pursed.

She has no time to curse.  

The cottage door cracks.  Shards of ice tumble from its corners.  

The door swings wide.

Through the opening gusts a big bluff German in a heavy coat.  Dieter Felty is the Epicurean host of this year’s feast.  As customary, the host picked the private venue.  He selected the chef.  He set up the kitchen.  He made the arrangements.  

Dieter’s ice-blue eyes water with cold, but his smile beams like a searchlight.

“Gute nacht!  Gute nacht!  Good to see you, my friends, so good!  Sorry about the weather!  I asked for better!”  

“Dieter!  Dieter!” they answer, delighted.

The German unbuttons his long black coat, and snow avalanches down his shoulders.  His hand grips something curious.  A length of rope.  It stretches through the door behind him into the snowy yard.

“Welcome to my Germany!” he exclaims, stamping his feet to shake off more snow.  “And now … an introduction!”

He jerks the rope, and pulls something into the room.

Two children, noosed at the neck like geese, stumble over the threshold.  Snow blows in around them, stinging, cold as North Sea spray.  The boy is no more than six.  The girl can’t be older than four or five.  They are completely naked, except for gags of bright yellow silk.  They tremble violently, stare with terrified eyes.

“Here, my friends … welcome our Hansel und Gretel!”

Ahhh,

The Epicureans sigh.

The Duchess reaches out red-nailed fingers, takes the bare flesh of the little girl’s upper arm in her grip.  She gives a sharp pinch.

“Very nice work, Dieter,” she whispers to the German host, her ghastly mouth smiling.  “This feast will be most special.”

The little boy manages to yell out in terror around his yellow scarf.

“Hilfe! HILFE! Mama!  Ich habe Angst! …”

Dieter’s jolly big hand claps firmly down over the garbled cry, and this year’s host lifts the boy and his sister by their waists, carries them upside down, heads nearly bumping the stone floor, along to the kitchen.  

The chef furtively falls to his knees in front of the hot steel stove.  He prays the most furious prayer of his life.

He hears them.  He senses them.

The Epicureans enter the kitchen.

The chef rises, wipes his knees.

The knives are very sharp.  They will not hurt the children.  

Not much.

God forgive his black damned soul.