Richard Young was born and educated in Sydney. He graduated from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature.
Most of his career has been spent in advertising, but he has also worked in teaching, journalism, marketing and with the Australian Trade Commissioner Service. He has lived in Chile and New Zealand, and travelled extensively in Europe and Latin America.
His published writing includes short stories, poetry and essays in Australia and the United Kingdom.
Death Among the Vines is his first novel.
Just after five o’clock Phil Deakin set about locking up the winery for the night. It was his regular Sunday afternoon task – and he was in his regular Sunday afternoon mood of sullen forbearance. He loathed the winery on Sundays. The stillness that shrouded the place always struck him as unnatural – it reminded him of a cemetery after the mourners have gone. Some of the staff, he knew, embraced the quiet. It meant they could complete their deskwork without distraction. But Phil Deakin had come up through production. He only felt at home with the noise of industry – the regular rattle of the crusher, the clinking lines of bottles as they progressed in their long ceremonial arcs, the thump and hum of pumps.
There were few people working in the winery that Sunday. A couple of female casuals had come in to label Chardonnay bottles for an urgent export order, but they had left mid-afternoon, as soon as the labelling was finished. He could hear no voices now, no sound of activity, but he dutifully began his rounds to make sure no one would be locked in when he slammed the doors shut, switched off the interior lights and set the security code.
He padded along the concrete passageways, passing the soaring stainless steel cylinders and the refrigeration compressors and poking his head morosely into cellars and tank-rooms. It wasn’t until he reached the distribution dock that he came across anyone. Des Wells was repairing one of the forklift trucks. He told him it was time to knock off.
‘Got a couple more hours on this,’ Des said, looking down on the disabled forklift with an expression close to affection.
‘Might be a couple,’ Phil agreed. ‘Might turn into four. Why don’t you go home and have dinner with the family? That’s where I’m headed.’
Des began wiping his hands on a greasy strip of waste. ‘Don’t suppose anyone’ll be using it before the morning.’
‘Give me five minutes to get my gear. Got everyone else out?’
‘Still checking,’ Phil said curtly.
Des had unknowingly touched a sore point. The responsibility of making sure nobody was left inside the winery before locking up had always galled him. In his opinion, the general manager of a winery with the worldwide reputation of Ashcombe Estate should have been above so menial a job.
He’d once approached Col Ashcombe to air his concern, to explain that he could be giving his time to more important matters. But Col had his own opinions on how the business should be run. One of his many maxims was Managers have to get their hands dirty too. He’d ignored the complaint and since then Phil had nursed his grievance secretly, like a weakness, admitting it to no one.
He pushed on towards the administration section. Earlier that afternoon he’d seen Col talking in his office with Titch Elrinton, the assistant winemaker. Neither of them was there now.
Col’s desk was in its usual confusion – documents, folders, magazines, wine bottles with the corks sticking up. Phil stood beside the disorder, wondering whether he might find some plan for the future of the business there. He looked quickly up and down the corridor, toying with the idea of sifting through the papers on top. But he feared Col’s sudden appearance and told himself it wasn’t worth the risk. His eye caught a mobile phone and house keys lying on the corner of the desk, half-concealed by a spreadsheet. Col must still be around. Without thinking any further about the items, without knowing that later he would remember that half-conscious observation as the circumstance that impelled him towards his discovery, he went on his way again.
All the other offices were deserted. The accounts staff seldom came in on a weekend, except at the end of the financial year. He loped on until he came to the metal stairs that led up to the mezzanine floor – to the roller crusher, the observation gallery, the laboratory.
‘You there, Titch?’ he called.
A faint echo of his voice came back from the distant roof like a mockery.
‘Col?’ he shouted, less certainly.
Shaking his head, he hauled himself up the stairs by the handrail and went into the laboratory. Titch was on a stool at the bench, slumped over, his head on his arms. The three computer screens along the bench were blank.
‘Titch? You okay?’
Titch Elrinton slowly raised his head and looked around. His gnome-like features, normally cheerful, appeared strained.
‘I was calling you. I’m about to shut the place.’
Titch slid off his stool and closed a notebook, then began tidying up an array of beakers. ‘I was thinking,’ he said. ‘Sorry. Lost in thought.’
Titch seemed hardly aware of his presence.
‘Titch? Col – have you seen him?’
‘What? No, not for a while. We had a meeting earlier – had to make some decisions on the Semillon blending. I left him in his office.’
‘See you tomorrow then.’
Outside in the blaze of the late afternoon sun, Phil Deakin noted without curiosity that only one car remained in the visitors’ parking area. The tourists up from Sydney for the weekend had already set out on the tedious journey home. Cellar Door Sales would be closing down too. He stood by the winery doors in indecision. Should he continue searching for Col, or could he assume he’d already walked down to The Estate – gone for the night? In the end his recollection of the mobile and the keys on Col’s desk decided him.
A couple of years earlier when they extended the winery, they’d moved Cellar Door Sales to a separate building. Col often went down there at the end of the day to hear some of the feedback on his wines. Phil followed the curve of the road past the machinery sheds to the row of ancient peppercorns shading the visitors’ picnic area. A young couple came out as he reached the door of the new cedar structure, each carrying a couple of bottles, both laughing. He stood to one side to let them through. They were so caught up in their joyfulness they scarcely acknowledged him.
Inside, Rod and two of the sales assistants were settling down to a bottle of white. Behind them a young girl gathered up used tasting glasses.
‘Col not here?’ he asked Rod.
‘Hasn’t been here all day. Saw him around four, going out on a tractor.’
‘Going out? You mean to one of the blocks?’
‘Looked like it.’
Phil glanced at his watch. It was twenty to six. None of the staff had been working outdoors in the vineyard that day. If Col had gone to check some problem with the vines or the irrigation lines he should have been back long ago.
He went outside again and stood with his hands on his hips, scanning the rise and fall of the land under cultivation. There was no sign of a tractor. In the visitors’ parking area the last car was reversing out of its space. He wondered sourly if the young couple were still laughing at their joke, whatever it was.
Taking his Range Rover, he drove slowly along the machinery tracks from block to block. At times, in a hollow, he could see nothing beyond a few lines of trellises under vine. At others, on a crest, the property undulated away on all sides. Not once did he catch a glimpse of the tractor.
Eventually he reached the lowest of the blocks and stopped. To one side lay the belt of scrub beside Stony Creek. If he continued straight ahead he would cross the wooden bridge over the creek and climb up Colliers’ Hill. From where he sat he could see the bulge of the hill above the scrub, patches of gum and rows of Chardonnay vines shimmering in the fiery afternoon light. Maybe Col was up there somewhere.
Afterwards Phil claimed he’d acted on premonition. Not foreboding, he went to great lengths to explain. Some attribute more positive, more judicious than that – intuition, a sixth sense.
Instead of continuing on to Colliers’ Hill, he left the Range Rover and pushed through the trees and bushes until he came out in a small clearing beside the bank of the creek. The tractor stood there, abandoned.
Again he called Col’s name.
In that distant part of the property, he felt a strange desolation. The only sounds came from the rasping pulse of cicadas in the trees and, distantly, the lonely and persistent call of a koel.
Moving a few paces along the clearing, he was brought to an abrupt halt. Col’s motionless body sprawled headlong down the bank. He rushed forward, his boots slithering on the slope, launching a volley of small stones and grit into the water, exploding a swarm of maddened blowflies into the air. His slide brought him to a standstill and he braced himself, using one hand flat on the ground. The back of Col Ashcombe’s skull had been smashed into a bloody mess. His face was submerged in the water.
Phil had no doubt he was dead. The body was too still, his impulsive and noisy arrival had produced no movement at all, not even a catch of breath. For a few moments he remained balanced against the incline of the bank, staring down at the gruesome wound and trying to sort out a conflict of feelings – horror that the life of a personality like Col Ashcombe could be brought to such an unexpected end, relief because now the winery could be sold, and satisfaction knowing Janet would inherit enough money to set him up for the new beginning he so badly wanted.
He knelt beside the body, grabbed one shoulder and wrenched it over. Col Ashcombe’s half-open eyes, streaming water, stared up at him unseeing.
‘Oh, Jesus.’ He patted the pockets of his jeans, in desperate need of his mobile, and remembered he’d left it in the Range Rover.
Phil Deakin seldom exerted himself, but he began running now, running fast, across the clearing and through the scrub, until his breath came in long searing gasps.
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