This year's Bordeaux Vintage Dinner would be a special event, Robbie Cutler thought, nearly bumping into the nervous, scowling little man who bolted into the taxi that left Robbie at the Willard Hotel. Set in the cavernous oak walled banquet room of the historic Washington hotel, on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Treasury Department and the White House, the evening was a sellout. Robbie fingered his black tie nervously as he walked downstairs towards the banquet room. He was never quite sure that it wouldn't come unraveled. Still, he couldn't bring himself to wear a clip-on. What he didn't like were bachelor arguments with himself over details that never got resolved one way or another. He wished that he had brought a date.
The dinner would feature visitors from the Bordeaux wine estates, and a fine menu prepared by guest chefs. Eight renowned wines would be served from the most recent vintage now on the market, more wines than were usually tasted at these affairs, but that was what Pryor wanted. What Pryor wanted, he usually got. But that meant numbered wine glasses so profuse at each place that there was barely room for plates and silverware.
Douglas Pryor was America's reigning wine writer. Robbie had met him several times in Bordeaux, when the wine writer had visited either the region's wine estates, or the American Consulate General, where Robbie served as Consul.
"Hi Robbie. Some turnout, isn't it?" Robbie greeted Ben Giliberti, wine writer and consultant, whom Robbie knew slightly.
"Good to see you, Ben. Yes, it's packed. Anything special going on?"
"That's what I was going to ask you, Robbie. There's word been spreading that Pryor has an announcement to make tonight. Something startling, his publicist tells us."
"I haven't read his columns for a while. But he's hardly the sort to do anything startling. It just doesn't seem in character."
"That's just it," Giliberti frowned. "It is out of character. That adds to the mystery. I got a personal call two days ago. She wouldn't add any details. From her tone of voice, I think she's as much in the dark as the rest of us. It's Pryor's surprise. The only hitch was that we couldn't write anything about it ahead of time. He made sure of that. Big mystery. But he's sure pulled in the wine writers."
He pointed over Robbie's shoulder.
Robbie turned and followed Giliberti's gesture. There was Frank Prial from the New York Times chatting with Jancis Robinson from The Financial Times. "Who's that fellow talking with Robert Parker?"
"That's James Suckling from the Wine Spectator."
"Come to think of it, what's Robert Parker doing here? Isn't Pryor his big rival?"
"Used to be," Giliberti agreed, "until Pryor stole his readers."
Robbie turned to admire a beautiful young woman on the arm of an older connoisseur. "Only at a Vintage Dinner would we notice the women after the wine writers," he said to Giliberti with a grin. Giliberti agreed, then left to compare notes with another writer.
Pryor would be introducing the main wines this evening. His approval spelled financial success. His sneer, which was more often seen, meant years of marginal operation for a winery. Robbie knew that since Pryor's widely read wine column had become successful, the pans had exceeded the plaudits. When Pryor had started his career, he had been more accommodating.
Those were the days when Robert Parker had been America's main wine writer. But Pryor had sensed that people were tiring of Parker's complicated system for rating wines, with scores ranging up to 100. He had simplified matters, with massive advertising and an A to F rating system. That's all you needed to know. Pryor had given a wine an A. Simple, and it worked. Parker lost readers, and Pryor gained them.
Champagne and hors d'oeuvres were passed freely, while the guests chatted and checked their tables on the posted seating charts, awaiting the open sesame of the banquet hall doors and the beginning of the Vintage Dinner. At length the moment came.
The room filled rapidly with formally dressed couples, all looking forward to a memorable evening. It was an expensive treat for many, but still, Robbie reflected, the wines alone could not have been purchased retail for the dinner's price. The wines had in fact all been donated by Bordeaux vintners.
That made commercial sense. As with similar Vintage Dinners that would soon be held in New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and Houston, this evening's actual purpose was the introduction of the latest Bordeaux vintage to an affluent and finicky public. The cost would be easily charged off to increased purchases of wines by the case if the vintage were a good one.
Robbie found his table, just next to the head table itself, and nodded to a wine grower from Bordeaux that he knew slightly while Pryor, at the head table, readied his notes. Then Pryor sauntered over to the rostrum to give his verdict for the first wine of the evening, a fine Pauillac first growth that his previous writings had now placed out of Robbie's buying range. He paused theatrically, cleared his throat, and surveyed the room and his fellow wine writers, with a forced smile that had a touch of acidity when he saw those writers whom he had bested for readers and for syndicated newspaper space.
Pryor was in a lecturing frame of mind. He had everyone's attention, and intended to take full advantage of it. "It took some doing," he began, "but for the very first time tonight, we're going to taste, and compare, the greatest wines from Bordeaux."
He cleared his throat. "I don't just mean the usual five first growths from the Médoc and the Graves," he said. "Lafite, Latour, Haut Brion, Margaux and Mouton. That's what you usually get at these dinners. That's because those estates have insisted that we only taste their five wines. But everyone knows that there are three other Bordeaux wines of the same quality, even though they weren't included in the 1855 Classification. So tonight, we're also tasting Château Pétrus from Pomerol, and Château Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone from the other side of the Garonne River."
Applause. Whatever his secret was, he was milking it for the time being.
"And we're going to do it in the right order. No more of this nonsense of tasting wines in alphabetical order. Latour comes AFTER Margaux, not before it. It's TOO DEEP a wine. You CAN'T TASTE Margaux properly after Latour."
He was right about that, Robbie thought. But did he have to be so damned irritating about it?
"We're going to take four little trips tonight, around the great wine regions. That will help you to understand clearly my announcement later tonight. All in turn. We'll touch on the Médoc and the Graves first, and then go on to St. Emilion and to Pomerol." He turned to a nearby table and nodded maliciously at a wine writer who was scribbling notes. "That's where Château Pétrus comes from, you know. Am I going too fast for you?"
"What a charmer," hissed someone at Robbie's table.
"Then, after we've savored these eight wines, I'll have a special announcement to make." Pryor underscored his comment with a stagey pause. He absentmindedly fumbled in his pocket, and found a silver, antique pill box, with the initial P ornately scrolled on the cover. He extracted a pill, then tossed his head back and swallowed it with some water.
Turning again to business, he held up his wine glass ceremoniously and made a display, watched by all and imitated by some, of swirling the garnet liquid around in the glass. An expression of pleasurable anticipation flitted over his features as he sniffed the wine. Then he took a generous sip, swirling the wine around in his mouth before swallowing it.
Verdict ready, he cleared his throat a bit too loudly, the impatient schoolmaster demanding attention from unruly pupils. "This Pauillac ..." he began.
The dinner crowd was too noisy. He started over again, voice rising to get attention. "THIS WHY-YN-NEHHHH," he gagged. Then gurgling sounds came, but no more words. His sentence ended in a screech.
Those who were still swirling their wine glasses in imitation of Pryor missed what happened next. But Robbie saw his contorted face and heard his astonished gasp of pain as Pryor tried to grab the rostrum to steady himself. Then he lurched forward, knocking over the microphone as he fell to the ground virtually at Robbie's feet. Pryor twitched spasmodically several times, and then was still.
It might have been a heart attack, but in the second or two that it took for a doctor attending the dinner to reach them, Robbie was able to catch a whiff of bitter almonds.
Decidedly, he thought, this was not a wine for the connoisseur of the grape.
But it just might do for an amateur sleuth.
Robbie Cutler's late Saturday morning Air Inter flight from Paris to Bordeaux put him in a good mood after the sleepless night he had just spent on the TWA flight from Washington to Paris. The coffee was fresh, the croissants were hot, and the Normandy butter and nippy red currant jam were delicious.
Like a contented cat he tried to stretch - a mistake for a sleepy tall man in such cramped quarters - and hit his knee sharply against the jutting edge of the metal seat in front of him. It was lucky for him that his overturned coffee cup was empty.
Robbie frowned and opened the newspapers. They were full of the death of Douglas Pryor in Washington three days ago. The Paris Herald-Tribune's account of the murder seemed straightforward enough, factual, no embroidery yet. "Hmmmn, what's this?" The leading Bordeaux daily, Sud-Ouest, had frontpaged the death in its Friday edition, the latest available on the plane, together with quotes from a number of the wine merchants of Bordeaux, regarding the "great loss that we all have suffered" with the death of Pryor.
"I'll just bet on that," he shrugged.
The article, by reporter Sylvie Marceau, also noted that the American Consul in Bordeaux, Mr. Cutler, had attended the dinner and witnessed Pryor's death.
He remembered that he was returning to post as Acting Consul General and reacted accordingly. Damn! Notoriety is one thing when war stories are being told long afterwards at the Foreign Service Club, but that wouldn't help him make inroads with the closed Bordeaux community now. Then he smiled. Loosen up, Robbie, he told himself. You're too young for that kind of posturing, thank God. Leave that to the older careerists.
Here's something interesting. Robbie saw that both papers also mentioned an upswing in Basque terrorism in Spain. There had been a series of car bombings along the coast, and written demands to local merchants for protection money. Perhaps it was time that he scheduled another visit to the French Basque region southwest of Bordeaux, to check things out for the Embassy in Paris. His visits were always useful, the Embassy said. Security police talked with him. Most people did.
Robbie scanned another article on the front page. "Tragic Wine Crop Loss." It was just a paragraph long. It seemed that an estate in the Graves had lost most of its Cabernet Sauvignon crop. After harvesting, the grapes had been pressed, and their juice siphoned as usual into enormous casks for fermenting. Then, a foreman must have set the fermenting temperature gauges too high. The juice had simply boiled away overnight.
The loss was total, and wine being a blend, the estate would have to sell its Merlot grapes to a local cooperative. What a shame, Robbie thought. Shows what drinking will do. They ought to be more careful whom they hire. The paragraph was accompanied by a photograph of the distraught estate owner.
Robbie folded the papers and put them in the pouch in front of his seat. His try for a quick nap before the Air Inter plane landed at Mérignac Airport in the Bordeaux suburbs hadn't worked. Now there was just too much on his mind. The plane landed, he exited, walked to the terminal building, retrieved his luggage, and caught a taxi to his apartment in the old section of Bordeaux near the Garonne River.
Minouette, his Siamese cat, was waiting patiently in the apartment, sitting on the window seat of the living room that looked onto the Quai des Chartrons, the wine merchants' quarter where Robbie had managed to find a furnished apartment that was just beyond his housing allowance.
Well, what of it? As a thirty something bachelor, Robbie saw no reason to save. Time enough for that later, after he had married and started a family. The familiar rationalization had served him well. He had used it to justify his getting good meals, travelling business class, and starting a growing and selective wine cellar.
Robbie dropped his bag, picked up Minouette and stroked her fur. The purring animal was something of a minor celebrity herself in Bordeaux consular circles. Friends, particularly married women, would make a point of asking him "How are you, and how is your Minouette?" as though the Siamese were a character from a novel by Colette.
Those who didn't know that Minouette was a cat probably assumed that Cutler was harboring a mistress on the Quai des Chartrons. Well, why not! It was time that these obsessive Americans began to enjoy life a little, some might say. Clearly Minouette had not suffered by Robbie's absence. Friends had stopped by and fed her regularly, as planned.
Robbie went to his upstairs bedroom, unpacked, showered, put on a robe, and returned to the kitchen, where he made sandwiches and poured a glass of wine. His twice a week housekeeper had done the shopping for him yesterday, as planned, so everything was fresh.
There was no mail to speak of, since letters usually came to the Consulate General. Sometimes he would get a card from a Brown classmate who had stayed with him at the apartment, sent from the next stop on a moocher's tour of Europe.
Robbie flipped through a few circulars, sent to the French equivalent of Occupant. Other than that there was nothing much, except for back issues of Sud-Ouest that he had missed during his brief home leave. These he scanned with more interest than he would have read the Washington Post back home. There was often a feature article about a town or castle or festival somewhere within the consular district, which would be worth a drive to see.
Robbie sometimes wondered how much his choice of a Foreign Service career had been inspired by a desire to do as much tourism as he could, far beyond the broad brush of a two-week tour of the capitals. The seasons came and went. The best time of all was fall, the tourist season's end. The leaves dropped and the tourists went home, but he could stay, enjoying himself.
In short, he enjoyed his life overseas, and if the next promotion was delayed, well, leave that for the pushers and shovers. He would savor this life while it lasted.
Robbie read some more details regarding the Pryor murder, including the fact that no arrests had yet been made. In Saturday's paper, local reactions to the murder were given.
These ranged from official tut-tutting to the discreet French equivalent of "It served him right!" The former were due to the decorations that Pryor had received from a grateful Bordeaux municipality, anxious to improve wine exports after several disastrous harvests. The latter were, Robbie thought with a sudden grin, literally sour grapes, from growers whose wines Pryor had panned.
Robbie flicked on the telephone answering machine while he finished his sandwich, a nice baguette roll with fresh butter and Bayonne ham. Four routine calls, then a message from Sylvie Marceau of Sud-Ouest referring to the Pryor murder and asking him for reactions and an interview.
The last call had been left on Wednesday from the departing Consul General, Eric Johnston, Robbie's boss and the man in charge of the American Consulate General in Bordeaux. Johnston brought him up to date on a few routine, unclassified matters, confirmed his Friday departure from Bordeaux on reassignment, and reminded him of the reception being held by the Spanish Consul General, Edouardo Dos Campos, that very evening.
Other matters could await the opening of the Consulate General on Monday morning, when he would compare notes with Vice Consul Stan Bartlett. Robbie set his alarm, then slept for several hours before it was time to walk to the Spanish Consul General's elegant home for the reception.
The walk was a pleasant stroll in the fine spring evening. Flowers were plentiful in the Chartrons district, and from time to time Robbie paused to enjoy the odors of something wonderful and elaborate cooking for a neighbor's Saturday dinner.
"Chartrons" meant wealth and the wine trade. It was odd to think that this neighborhood had once been a Carthusian monastery outside the city. It was still called the Chartrons, after that monastery. Later, the district had housed the protestant merchants who shipped Bordeaux wine throughout Europe. The opulent main street was now named Rue Xavier Arnozan. Residents said that a Socialist mayor who had not been received by the area's old families had given it that unpronounceable name, out of spite.
That made no difference, for everybody still called both the street and region the Chartrons. As a matter of fact, two centuries ago the first American Consul General, James Fenwick, had built the elegant Hotel Fenwick there at the edge of the Garonne River. Too bad we still don't own it, Robbie thought.
The reception would provide an easy grazing dinner, and a drink or two that would help him get back to sleep and over the time difference from his flights more quickly. Of Dos Campos's hundred or so guests, perhaps thirty would be from the consular corps. There would be twenty or so officials from the Gironde Department and from the Bordeaux municipality. The balance would be in private business, which here still meant mostly the wine trade.
Robbie glanced again at the invitation as he neared the door. The reception was being given for some Spanish academics. They were commemorating the painter Goya, who had worked and died in Bordeaux, in exile from the repressive Spanish court.
"Good afternoon, Monsieur le Consul," said the man just leaving the reception as Robbie arrived. He was surrounded by guards and by aides, and as always seemed the case to Robbie when he saw the man on television, his eyes seemed to twinkle from some inner amusement.
It was the Mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppé, the Gaullist politician who before the 1997 elections that had returned the left to national power, had also been Prime Minister of France. In 2011, President Sarkozy selected him as his Foreign Minister.
"You seem to be in the news recently. I hope that you are back with us for a while. Are you enjoying your stay in Bordeaux?"
"Thank you, Monsieur le Ministre. I'm glad to be back in Bordeaux. It's like home. So much so that I've become a sports fan. I couldn't wait to read the latest soccer results to see how our Girondins were doing!"
Mayor Juppé, amused, rewarded Robbie with an invitation to sit in the municipal box at the soccer stadium whenever he wished. "Since the Bordeaux team has become 'our Girondins,' you must see a game as my guest!" Juppé had said. With a final bow to his hostess, the Mayor left the reception.
Robbie knew that this chance encounter was fortunate. Juppé also represented Bordeaux in the French National Assembly, and had to attend its sessions in Paris during the week. It was said that if you wanted to see him in Bordeaux, Monday was the best chance, or perhaps Friday. He often stayed home on weekends.
Edouardo and Elena Dos Campos, portly and well dressed, greeted him warmly. They were genuinely glad to see him. Either that, Robbie suddenly realized, or his sudden press notoriety had made him a timely conversational catch for this reception.
He was still early. The residence was not yet so crowded that the elegant Dos Campos furnishings could not be seen and appreciated. Robbie recalled his father, "Trip" Cutler, now a retired Foreign Service Officer, once saying that you could usually tell a lot from the state of a career diplomat's furnishings. How many moves they had made, and whether college tuition was being paid, for example, or whether a senior couple were empty nesters.
This was a proud and seasoned diplomatic home, with plush area rugs and opulent furniture to match, and money, lots of it. Robbie's own apartment, furnished in basic late graduate school style, was all organized clutter by comparison.
Perfectly matched sofas and living room chairs in Empire style, from the bee insignias in the pattern design to the hand-finished mahogany legs, were grouped near the grand piano. Robbie was amused that a representative of Spain would have chosen furniture from the period named for Spain's invader Napoleon. Watching over it all from its perch on the grand piano was a signed photograph of King Juan Carlos to Dos Campos.
His hosts had, after all, a wry sense of humor.
There was just time to get a drink from a passing waiter before the friendly inquisition regarding Douglas Pryor's murder began in earnest. Which it did very shortly, led by Robbie's British and German colleagues, Richard Sanderson and Erika Lutz. Robbie repeated to them the details that he had witnessed at the Willard Hotel, resisting the temptation to embroider what he knew and had seen for the sake of improving the story.
Commissioner Jacques Moineau of the Bordeaux police joined the group, and heard what Robbie had to say with interest. Too bad he can't leave his duties at home, Robbie thought. Still, Moineau was a pleasant fellow, and had been useful to Robbie in the past, helping out with scrapes that involved American tourists, smoothing out things behind the scenes.
Moineau seemed to have as part of his responsibilities keeping a security watch on foreign consuls living in Bordeaux. His short stature and trim little moustache recalled Claude Rains in Casablanca. He stated his concern over the failed wine estate. "I liked their wine," he added.
"Some think it's a shame that this didn't happen earlier," said a musical female voice from the entrance way behind Robbie. He turned around. It was Sylvie Marceau, the reporter.
Robbie knew her by sight, but now looked more closely as she approached. Trim and graceful, late twenties, perhaps a bit taller than average, she had auburn hair that framed her hazel eyes and dimpled chin nicely. She had a warm and inviting smile, almost a visible aura of friendliness, and, he was sure, a nice sense of humor. He couldn't quite decide if she was beautiful or just very pretty. It didn't seem important. The bizarre thought occurred to him that his parents would like her. She looked as natural as a picnic, and made you smile to welcome her.
Her dress was fashionable, Robbie thought, for a journalist, even a French journalist. He couldn't tell a Chanel from a Versace, but he did know that her dress wasn't off the rack at the local Prisunic department store. It surely came from one of those specialty shops along the Cours Clemenceau across the park from the Consulate General. She must not be living on her salary, he thought. She either had money, or she shared with him an instinct for living just a bit beyond her means. Unlike half the officers in his Foreign Service class, she was at home in these surroundings, in this stylish consular reception. She didn't have to impress. She was naturally graceful, and she belonged.
"I just got your message, Sylvie," Robbie said, greeting her with a smile. "Sorry not to have gotten back to you earlier, but my plane just landed this morning. I'd be glad to talk with you about all this, but we'd better wait until I check into the office on Monday and see how things are going. Johnston has already left, so I'm in charge, for a while anyway, and I'd better take stock for a day or so."
She looked at him a few seconds too long before smiling in reply. He was a potential story, and as such she sized him up. His height was imposing, masculine and reassuring without being too tall. He was dark and moved with grace, probably like the cat everyone knew he kept as a pet. He looked too serious, too within himself, except when he tried to loosen up and make an awkward joke. Then despite herself she saw possibilities. Was he good-looking? He could well be. It was too early to tell. The canvas needed painting.
"Fine," she replied. "You check it out and get permission from the Embassy,cher ami, and then we'll have a talk. This story is not going away."
Robbie winced at her little dig, which was right on target. There was no way that he, as an American diplomat, could talk with a French journalist about a pending murder investigation involving the death of an American citizen without talking things over with someone at the Embassy in Paris. CYA it was called. All the practiced bureaucrats did it. Was that what he was becoming?
The point of contact would probably be the Embassy's Consul General Tim Everbright, a pompous timeserver who was in theory supposed to supervise the activities of Consulate General Bordeaux, as well as other American consular missions in France. But Everbright would be sure to give the wrong answer. He would say no.
Robbie made a mental note to call Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) Elliot Hawkins instead. Robbie liked Hawkins, a savvy career professional who as number two at the Embassy outranked Everbright. The word in the career service was that Hawkins was mainly charged, like most DCMs, with keeping the Embassy's politically appointed Ambassador out of trouble.
Robbie wanted to go ahead and talk with Sylvie, and he thought that DCM Hawkins would see things his way. To put the best face on it, Robbie could say that all he knew was public knowledge anyway, and that he was sure that Hawkins would appreciate the importance of being on the good side of an enterprising reporter from the region's leading newspaper.
He could even imagine Hawkins's second take on their conversation, wondering what Sylvie Marceau actually looked like, after he had given permission and hung up the phone. Robbie decided to make her the horned rim glasses librarian type. Oh well, he rationalized, white lies were the oil that kept diplomacy gliding forward.
Robbie drew Sylvie aside and asked what she meant by her remark about Pryor. "Surely some wine makers had been put off by his ratings of their wines, but that wasn't enough reason to wish him dead?" he ventured.
"Come on, Monsieur le Consul." Was he testing her, drawing her out? She knew that a shrewd person being interviewed often tried to turn the tables like that. He was intelligent and didn't lack a certain charm, this American diplomat. Some instinct told her to play along. "You know that he ruined many wine château owners by his scathing reviews, just as he made the fortune of others," she said. She caught sight of two men, who made her point. "Look at our friends Yves Crespier and Charles de Tourneau, for example, our Mozarts of the vine."
She gestured towards two men talking across the room. They couldn't have been more different in appearance. Yves Crespier, intense, short and brooding like a storm cloud, had worked up step by step to owning Château La Source in the Médoc, by sheer drive and determination. Charles de Tourneau, on the other hand, was a tall, fair and languid aristocrat whose family had owned Château Montmorency in the Graves region for generations. They seemed to be arguing about something. "That looks intriguing," Robbie said. "I wish I knew them well enough to interrupt."
Robbie remembered that Sud-Ouest had once staged a wine tasting. Their wine columnist had had an intriguing theory, that there could be, like perfect pitch for a musician, something approaching perfect taste for a winemaker. To test his idea, the newspaper had provided dozens of unlabeled wines. Many winemakers were conveniently out of town when the blind tasting was held. Crespier and de Tourneau had taken part. They had achieved nearly identical scores, virtually perfect, naming many wines and vintages exactly.
"You may be right about Pryor," he said. After the success of his first book on Bordeaux, the writer had turned his welcome into the region into a device for selling his newspaper column. All over the United States harassed husbands, before driving home from the office on a Friday night, searched at their favorite wine retailer for Pryor's latest recommendations. So did many others who wanted to appreciate wine more, make a favorable impression, or display a bit of borrowed erudition over dinner. "And those two prove your point. I wonder if they are talking about him."
"Pryor may have been the most detested wine writer in Bordeaux," Sylvie said. "He was good at first, pointing out improvements that had to be made in winemaking. But then he started to play favorites in order to sell his wine columns. People who didn't know the difference took him at face value. Whole vintages were lost to producers he didn't like because of a few bytes from Pryor's word processor. And his system is ridiculous anyway. Why does it make any sense to grade wine as A or C or F?"
"It doesn't," Robbie agreed, "but it's understandable. That's the secret. People got fed up with trying to figure out the specialized world of wines. Then along came Parker, and his scoring system. That helped. Pryor just made it much easier for everybody to understand. The fact that he is good on television, and comes across as someone who really knew his wines in detail, gave the customers even more confidence. Now you can see the 'A Buys' everywhere wine is sold."
Sylvie nodded again towards Crespier and de Tourneau. "There are two of his latest victims. That's probably why they are conspiring now. So all you will see here from wine producers is a sense of relief, properly masked of course. I wouldn't be surprised if one of them did him in. If the murder had happened in Bordeaux, after all, half of them would be suspects!"
That was perhaps precisely why Pryor had gone to his reward in Washington, Robbie thought. No wonder Sylvie wanted to talk with him more fully about that dinner at the Willard.
Later on, Consul General Dos Campos filled him in on the latest bombing outrages by the Basque terrorist organization, ETA. The initials stood for "Basque Homeland and Freedom" in the Basque language. Basque terrorism had a checkered history on the French side of the border with Spain.
The traditional Basque homeland straddled the border. A proud people with a rich history, many now seemed content with growing regional autonomy. Others still hoped for an independent Basque nation. Like the IRA in Ireland, the ETA had long been the violent and illegal expression of that aspiration.
For many years Basque extremists living in France had operated only across the border in Spain. Their unholy silent bargain with French authorities seemed to be that they would not stage bombings and killings in France. In return they would not be hounded by French authorities on their side of the frontier.
Those days had gone, however, in the latter part of President Mitterrand's second seven-year term, when French authorities began to cooperate openly with Spanish police, making arrests and even granting extradition for Basque prisoners back to Spain, which for a while had set off a new round of terrorism aimed at French targets. The current French administration under President Sarkozy continued that policy of cooperation with Spain.
"It's the same old story," Dos Campos said. "First, we had hoped this terrorism was all over when the ETA offered publicly a cease-fire in 1998. Their murders of Spanish elected officials in the year before that had only alienated their support in the Basque community itself. But then, they started the killings again. Then after the tragedy at your World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, we had hoped that the ETA would come to its senses. But after a while, their violence continued. So did the announced ceasefires. There is supposed to be one in effect even now," he sighed.
"There have been so many missed opportunities. And now there seems to be a new phase. Stop by the office next week when you can. We'll compare notes in more detail."
Dos Campos seemed to think for a moment, and then added in a lower, confidential tone, "There may be something going on within the ETA. I can't tell for sure. It used to be that their leadership was solidly in control under Raul Izquierda and Alberto Aguilar," he said, mentioning two nearly legendary leaders of the ETA based in France. "Now I'm no longer so sure."
Robbie was grateful for the update. The American Consulate General in Bordeaux, which had the French Basque country within its vast consular domain, tried to track Basque terrorist incidents, and keep the Embassy informed. That was probably, Robbie thought, the most interesting part of his job, checking out the scene on the Basque coast, in beautiful towns like St. Jean de Luz and resorts like Biarritz and Bayonne, as well as the picturesque interior, such as St. Jean Pied de Port, nestling at the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Robbie thanked his host and hostess and left the reception. It was a pleasant evening., so he made a detour and stopped at a sidewalk cafe on the Place des Quinconces. The site of the medieval Château de la Trompette before it was hauled down during the Revolution, this was now said to be the largest open square in Europe. Robbie enjoyed his coffee, savoring its sweetness and waiting for fatigue to hit him.
He realized that with Consul General Johnston gone, and a replacement Consul General not expected before the fall, that he would be in charge of the Consulate General for several months. Why not have a look at the mission from the point of view of the Boss? The idea amused him, and he walked the few blocks over to the Cours Maréchal Foch.
He must have just missed them. The front door of the unguarded Consulate General building, a large townhouse that was rented from its French owner, was covered with red spray-painted letters.
Approaching the building cautiously to read the message, Robbie recalled that the last time this had happened was years ago, about the time that the American Consul General in Strasbourg had been gunned down with five bullets as he was leaving his residence. At the same time a splinter Middle East terrorist group had defaced this Consulate General door, also using spray-paint, with political slogans.
That had clearly been the work of political fanatics. This time the message seemed a bit more personal. It read, in French and in English, "Death To The American Consul."
It was signed by the ETA.