Alain Arnaud followed the faint plume of dust the vehicle made as it climbed the unpaved road from the highway to his vineyard. The men inside that vehicle were coming to kill him. Of that, he had no doubt. And after him, his son. They couldn’t afford to leave any family member alive.
He picked up the phone. “The men, Marcel – the ones we’ve always feared – are here. You don’t have much time. Carefully check to see if everything you need is in the van, then call me back. I’ll alert Christophe you’re coming.”
He hung up and placed a call to Canada. A call he prayed he’d never have to make. His eyes filled with tears at the sound of his son’s voice. Quickly wiping them away with the back of his hand, he said, “Christophe, I have bad news. The secret is out. Now listen to me carefully. Men will be coming for you. Dangerous men. Maybe tonight. Maybe tomorrow. But they will come. I want you to leave your apartment immediately.” Arnaud shook his head vigorously as he listened to his son’s reply. “Christophe, stop,” he said sternly. “Don’t argue with me.” He swallowed hard and took a deep breath, bringing his emotions under control. “There are men on the way to the winery as we speak. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about it now. What’s done is done. It’s the future we have to protect. Your future. Marcel is coming for you. He will arrive tomorrow morning and meet you at the agreed upon spot. You remember where that is, don’t you?” Arnaud paused for the reply, then said, “Good. Now listen to me carefully. When we hang up, I want you to take all the money you have, put it in your pocket and simply walk out the door. From now on remember – you will use only cash. Leave your keys; credit cards; wallet; anything that would identify you as Christophe Arnaud. Destroy your phone or, better yet, dump it down a sewer. Just walk away. Don’t look back. Go to the spot where Marcel will meet you. He has your new identity papers with him.”
There was a moment of awkward silence as Arnaud remembered the last time he saw Christophe. Ten months ago. In this very room. The morning sun streaming through the window. Like now. He remembered tousling his son’s hair as they sat waiting for Marcel to take him to the airport. Choking back a sob, he said, “I love you, Christophe. May God be with you.” And hung up.
Arnaud walked over to the table and poured himself the last of the Domaine Arnaud, the red that won him the 2008 European Winemaker of the Year award. Staring at his reflection in the mirror above the fireplace, he cursed the day the American professor found him. Sighing in resignation, he raised his glass in a final salute. “To the secret,” he whispered by way of a toast. “May my son survive its revelation.”
The American had arrived unannounced the week before. His business card identified him as Matthew Conroy, a professor of history at St. John’s University in New York. He asked the assistant if he could speak with Alain Arnaud. He told her a colleague of his at the University of Laval in Quebec stumbled upon some startling historical information. Information that only Arnaud could confirm or deny.
Arnaud agreed to meet him. His son was a student at Laval. As soon as he heard Conroy mention the Laval connection, he knew his worst nightmare had come true. The family’s secret, the one so carefully guarded for the past five generations, had been compromised. The genie was out of the bottle.
While Arnaud denied all Conroy’s assertions, he knew Conroy didn’t believe him. He also knew it was just a matter of time before others found out. Those others would also come to his winery. Those others would be ruthless men who would do everything in their power to make sure the family’s secret never saw the light of day. Those others were here.
Marcel Toussaint called ten minutes later. “Everything we need is in the car, my friend. I am ready to depart.
“The passports, U.S. driver’s licenses, financial records? Are you sure?” Arnaud asked.
“Yes. And the two Fed Ex packages as well. I will be sure they get to Professor Conroy. I’ll send the first package as soon as I get to Paris. The second after Christophe and I settle in New York.”
“Excellent. Now promise me, Marcel, that by the time you leave Canada, Christophe will have completely taken on his new persona. You know how young people are – they haven’t lived long enough to appreciate how precious life is.” He paused, then said, “Or how quickly it can end.”
“I will, mon ami. You can count on me to keep him safe until you join us.”
“You know I’ll try my best,” Arnaud said, “but with these men …” He shrugged and let the thought drift into the ether. “Tell Christophe …” He felt his eyes starting to burn. “Tell him I love him dearly.” Taking a moment to compose himself, he continued, “And you, dear friend, I love you dearly, also. May God be with you.”
“And with you, Alain,” Toussaint said. “Know I will protect Christophe with my life.”
Arnaud watched from the window as the vehicle finally came into view. He felt at peace – confident that as of twenty minutes ago, the names Marcel Toussaint and Christophe Arnaud had vanished from the face of the earth. He smiled as he watched three men get out. Too late, gentlemen, he thought. Walking back to his desk, he picked up the .45 automatic, put it under his chin and pulled the trigger.
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