The days were always shorter this time of year, thought Van Helsing, but they seemed to be getting even shorter — and darker. He shivered.
“It’s the damnedest thing,” said Jonathan Harker. “About Lucy, my fiancee?” Van Helsing nodded, took a sip of his brandy. “Lately, she has been drinking 15 percent, overoaked California chardonnays. And even some of those wretched zinfandels,” and he shuddered as he said it.
“That is damned odd,” said Van Helsing. He had known Lucy for years, and she had rarely spent more than $10 a bottle, and always for Old World wines, lighter and with character instead of alcohol. She had even introduced him to Gascon wine. Suddenly, Van Helsing understood why Harker was so worried. “How can I help, old chap?”
“Would you talk to her? She just brushes me off, calls me an old fuddy duddy who likes wines that suck.”
Lucy was in the library, a bottle of 15.2 percent California pinot noir open on the table. A pile of wine magazines was on the floor. Her face was pale.
“My dear, you don’t look well,” said Van Helsing. Lucy ignored him, all her attention focused on the glass of wine, dark and brooding. “Is everything all right?”
“I don’t know,” she said, fighting back tears. “Lately, I’ve felt so strange. I don’t sleep. I dream about Parker 98s — and I don’t even know what that is. I have this urge, all the time, to buy the most expensive wine I can find, even if I don’t like it.” She broke down, started sobbing. Van Helsing sat next to her, took her hands in his. “What’s wrong with me?” she asked.
“It’s serious, I know that,” he said, trying to fit the pieces together in his mind. “When did this start, my dear?”
“I’m not sure. I went to a party a couple of weeks ago, and one of the guests was a Count Cabacula, from Napa Valley. All my friends were impressed. He knew so much about wine.”
A chill went through Van Helsing, and the pieces started falling into place. “Count Cabacula, you say?”
“Yes, a very charming man. He’s new to this country, and was saying how much he liked it. So many young women who didn’t know about California wine. He’s even coming here tonight. He wanted to meet Jonathan’s sister, Mina.”
Van Helsing stood up quickly, trying to hold back the terror sweeping over him. “Lucy, did Count Cabacula mention something called scores?”
“Yes he did. How did you know? He said they were the best way to learn about wine.”
“Lucy, I want you to find Jonathan and Mina and get as far away from the estate as possible. Go to France. Cabacula still has enemies there. But please, for God’s sake, hurry. We don’t have much time.”
“What about Count Cabacula?”
“I’ll give him your regrets. He and I have unfinished business.”
There was a full moon. Van Helsing was in the drawing room, waiting, when he heard a voice cackling behind him. “So we meet again, my old friend.”
Van Helsing turned. Cabacula was standing in the window, holding a copy of the Wine Spectator’s buying guide. “A present for Lucy and Mina,” he said, and then laughed, and the sound filled the room. Van Helsing choked back a scream, fought to keep his composure.
“No more, Cabacula,” he said. “Your evil and twisted ways end here.”
“And how will you stop me, Van Helsing? Your puny weapons, those reviews that describe wines but don’t judge them, those critics who aren’t part of the Winestream Media? All are useless against me.”
“Not anymore,” said Van Helsing, pulling a book out of his overcoat. The book’s cover, with the brown hat and green bottle, glistened in the moonlight. Cabacula saw it, shrieked, drew back. “No, not that. Not that accursed thing.”
Van Helsing held the book in his right hand, arm outstretched, cover facing the count, moving toward Cabacula. “And this isn’t the only weapon we have now,” he said as the count kept backing away, fear spreading across his face, until he was trapped against the wall. “We have wine drinkers, lots of them, who drink what they want — sweet red wine, even — and don’t care about the other.”
“No, I don’t believe it,” said Cabacula, and he howled, such a dreadful wail that Van Helsing hesitated for a moment and Cabacula almost got to the window and freedom. But Van Helsing wasn’t going to miss his chance, not after the years of wasted opportunities. He blocked the count, pushed the book closer to his face, and Cabacula howled again, slumping against the floor.
Van Helsing worked quickly, taking a bottle out of another pocket. He unscrewed it and put the bottle, a $10 Sicilian nero d’avola, to Cabacula’s mouth and forced the liquid down his throat. The count gagged, tried to spit it out, but Van Helsing was the stronger one now, and the count swallowed the wine.
“You know something? That’s nice,” said Cabacula, “kind of earthy and interesting. Guess that shows what I know about wine.” And then he died, his body shriveling into nothing, and the wine poured onto the floor where the body had been.
Van Helsing took a deep breath, closed his eyes. “I just hope you stay dead, you damned fiend,” he said, and wondered: Could his quest finally be over?
A tip o’ the Curmudgeon’s fedora to Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Hammer Films for giving me something terrific to steal. The photo is courtesy of Hammer Films, using a Creative Commons license.