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The Vintage Vanished

A Detective Deng Mystery


An Old Friend's Plea


The buzz of his smartphone dragged Inspector Deng Tian'en out of a deep sleep. He cracked an eye to check the time: 5:52 am. Who in the seven hells would call at this hour? Groaning, Deng reached for the insistent device.


"Yes?" His voice sounded like crushed gravel.


"Tian'en? Thank god!" The trembling voice on the line was barely recognizable. "I need your help. Please."


Deng frowned, taking a second to place it. "...Wilson? Wong Wai-shun, is that you?"


"Yes, yes! Listen, something terrible has happened. I can't...damn it, Tian'en, you're the only one I can trust with this."


Sitting up now, fragments of a fading dream still clinging to him, Deng tried to focus. Wai-shun sounded genuinely panicked. They hadn't spoken in months, not since his friend landed that big shot wine job.


"Slow down, Wai-shun. What's wrong? Where are you?"


"At the vault. The office." A shuddering breath. "The collection, Tian'en. It's gone. All of it."


"Collection? What--" And then it clicked. That hush-hush project Wai-shun had slaved over for years, the one he couldn't discuss. The ice in his friend's voice chilled Deng to the bone.


"I'm on my way," he said. "Don't touch anything."


Ending the call, Deng threw on yesterday's rumpled suit, splashed water on his face, and speed-dialed his partner. No way was he facing this solo, not with Wai-shun in the state he was in.


"Ke-Ting? Meet me at Wai-shun's wine place, ASAP. We've got trouble."


Fifteen minutes later, Deng parked his beat-up Toyota outside the elegant high-rise housing Exquisite Collections Ltd. Spotting Ke-Ting's spotless Hyundai, he released a held breath. Backup had arrived.


Steeling himself, Deng buzzed the intercom. "Wai-shun, I'm here with Ke-Ting. Let us up."




The Vanished Vintage


The private elevator hummed its way down, impossibly far through layers of the city's bedrock.


Deng noted Wai-shun's ashen profile, tight jaw, and trembling hands - his friend was in shock.


Over wine? Granted, the security precautions to access this subterranean vault were impressive--keycards, passcodes, biometrics--but still. What vintage could justify such paranoia?


The lift doors finally opened with a muted ding. Beyond was a small concrete anteroom, a reinforced steel door dominating the opposite wall. Wai-shun led them to it, initiating another elaborate unlocking procedure.


"This level of security seems a bit..." Deng trailed off as the door swung wide.


The vault was empty. Bare metal racks lined the walls where bottles should have been. A chill seeped into Deng's bones as he tried to process the void.


Wai-shun made a choked noise, hands clasped behind his bowed head as if in prayer. "They're gone. Vanished." He gestured helplessly at the bare shelves. "Five years of my life... lost."


"Someone stole your wine collection? How?" Deng paced the small space, quick eyes scanning for points of entry. "And what, exactly? Paint me a picture."


For a long moment, Wai-shun gazed into the middle distance. Then, in a soft voice: "Forty-six bottles. The rarest wines in the world, each owned by a titan of history. Napoleon, Churchill, Mao... lives distilled into liquid."


Deng absorbed that, let out a low whistle. "This collection--it was meant to be revealed today, wasn't it? Some kind of unveiling gala?"


A bitter laugh. "Tonight, yes. Exquisite Collections' debut to the global elite. My magnum opus."

"Wai-shun... the public never even knew these existed. So how did our thief?" Gears turned in Deng's mind. "This was an inside job. Had to be."


"Inside? No, that's..." But Wai-shun's protest rang hollow, doubt etched on his face. Then, almost to himself: "But who? And why today of all days?"


Together they stared at the vacated racks, each lost in thought as they confronted the impossible. Finally, Deng clasped his friend's rigid shoulder.


"We'll find them, Wai-shun. Whoever did this, they won't get far."


But even as he said it, Deng wondered just how far the vanished vintage had already flown. And what dark motive laid behind its wings.



Secrets and Lies


"Absolutely not. I refuse to believe it."


Wai-shun crossed his arms, a bitter smile twisting his lips as he stared down Deng across the sleek expanse of his desk. They'd relocated to his office, a dozen floors above the ransacked vault.


"You can refuse all you like," Deng said evenly, "but we must consider every possibility. Even the uncomfortable ones."


"Such as? Out with it."


Deng made a show of consulting his phone. "Our techs confirmed the vault's security cams were remotely disabled from your computer. Last night, between 1:00 and 1:30 am." He met Wai-shun's gaze. "Where were you at that time?"


"Where was I?" Wai-shun shot to his feet, voice rising. "Right bloody here, working! Trying to ensure every detail was perfect for tonight. The night my career was supposed to--" He choked off, suddenly deflated. "Damn it, Tian'en, you know me. How can you even think--"


"I'm not thinking anything yet," Deng said, softening his tone. "But you know I have to ask. Just as I'll ask Ms. Wen, Mr. Yip, and every other person with access and knowledge of the collection."


Wai-shun sank back into his chair, suddenly looking every minute of his forty-two years. "I...of course. I'm sorry, it's just...this is a nightmare, Tian'en. Losing the collection, on today of all days..."


Deng held up a placating hand. "I know. And I promised we'll recover it. But you need to work with me here. The thief is counting on your anger, your pride."


A reluctant nod. They'd known each other too long for pretense.


"Alright," Wai-shun said. "What do you need from me?"


"Let's start with a list of everyone who knew the true nature of the collection. Not just that it existed, but what made it so valuable."


Wai-shun closed his eyes briefly, visibly switching gears. "Right. Well, there's myself and Mr. Cheung--he greenlit the entire venture."


"Who else? Think."


"The security team, I suppose, though they don't know specifics. Ms. Wen, my assistant. Oh, and David Yip in Acquisitions, the smug bastard."


Deng made a note. "Bad blood there?"


A grimace. "Office politics. He felt I stole the Head Vintner role from him." Wai-shun shook his head. "But he wouldn't... I mean, this is felony stuff."


"People can justify a lot when feeling wronged. Leave the psych profiles to me."


Silence stretched as Wai-shun stared out at the glittering spires of Central, seeing none of it.


Quietly: "I can't believe I let this happen, Tian'en. The collection...it was my world for five years."


"We'll get it back," Deng said again. It was becoming a mantra. He stood to leave. "One more thing. This unveiling tonight--what do you want to do?"


Wai-shun seemed to deflate even further. "I...I don't know. Cancel it?" A hollow laugh. "Invite everyone to gawk at my failure?"


"Your call. But I have an idea."


Sunlight glinted in Wai-shun's eye as he turned, a dying ember of hope. "Go on."


"Let it be known the event is still on. Business as usual. It may draw our thief into the open, thinking they've won."


"While your team hunts them down behind the scenes." Wai-shun nodded, spine straightening.


"Yes. I like it. I want to see their face when we drag this into the light."


Deng smiled thinly. "Then let's give them a show they'll never forget."


He palmed his phone as he strode out, already barking orders. The hunt was on.



A Vintage Most Foul


The woman who called herself Mei Ling smiled as she watched the live feed. Such hubris on display, Exquisite Collections touting their exclusive gala tonight. If only the reporter had panned down into that lavish vault below, shown the rows of purloined ambrosia...


But of course they wouldn't reveal their failure, not yet. They'd smile and pretend all was well, even as the wine world unknowingly drank vinegar. Mei Ling wondered which would drop more jaws: the impossible vintages on auction, or news of their theft hours before.


Not that the rubes attending would ever taste a drop, naturally. The true scope of the loss would only emerge long after Mei Ling had spirited the bottles out of reach. A dark vintage most foul.


She swiveled in her chair, contemplating the cases stacked in her Sai Kung safehouse. Forty-six bottles of liquid history, a potent phrase. Each vessel a message from a lost age, a gilded life distilled. Now hers.


Mei Ling had liberated them, saved them from the crass spectacle Exquisite Collections planned.


From greedy dilettantes and preening collectors. As if Churchill's champagne belonged at some tawdry auction. The thought made her nose wrinkle.


No, such a vintage deserved an appropriate palate. Someone to savor each complex note and historical quirk. The right buyer, properly motivated.


And Mei Ling knew just the connoisseur. Poor Wong Wai-shun, too naive to see how he'd been used. So quick to share his security codes with a sympathetic ear.


Her burner phone trilled, shattering the moment. She swiped to answer.


"Speak."


The caller sniveled appropriately. "It's me. Your tickets are booked. Pudong to Suvarnabhumi, midnight flight."


"Good." The pieces were aligning. "And my client?"


"Sends his regards. He'll meet you in Bangkok, as agreed."


"Excellent. Make sure the plane is stocked with Meursault. Let's start this trip off right."


"Of course. There's one more thing..."


An impatient sigh. "Yes, what?"


"Rumors from Exquisite Collections. They've brought in an ex-cop to investigate. A Deng something..."


"A thief-taker? My, they are desperate." Mei Ling laughed low in her throat. "Don't fret. They can chase vapor trails to Thailand and back--this wine has already vanished."


She ended the call, still smiling. Let Wong Wai-shun and his pet detective cling to hope a little longer. By midnight, the only bouquet would be ashes.


Time to decant a few more secrets from these lovely bottles. With luck, poor Officer Deng would be drowning his failure in supermarket Tsing Tao before the first cork popped.



In Vino Veritas


"I found something."


Deng looked up as Ke-Ting strode into the incident room, waving a sheaf of papers. They'd taken over a conference room down the hall from Wai-shun's office to coordinate the investigation. The wall of windows looked out on the Bank of China Tower, a symphony of glass and steel.


"About time," Deng said. "What is it?"


Ke-Ting brandished the documents like a weapon. "Invoices, from David Yip's computer. Our Head of Acquisitions has been a busy boy."


"Yip? Wai-shun's rival?" Deng scanned the columns of figures and eye-popping vintages. He crossed to the whiteboard covered in suspect photos and tapped Yip's smirking headshot. "Didn't think he had the brass for this."


"Nor I," said Ke-Ting. "But look at the numbers. And the dates."


Deng did, eyes narrowing at the astronomical sums. The list read like a who's who of wine legends: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Jayer, Lafite...


"Damn. Is that a '99 Richebourg?" The king of Burgundies, hammer price HK$6.8 million.

Ke-Ting nodded grimly. "It is. Along with dozens of similar caliber, all procured very recently.


Exquisite's been on a spree."


"I see why they needed that vault."


"But look closer, Tian'en." Ke-ting jabbed a finger at the dense columns. "Notice anything about the transaction dates?"


Deng blinked, thrown by her intensity. Then the figures leapt out at him and he swore under his breath.


"They're all from the past week. As recent as..." He double-checked the last entry, ice forming in his gut. "Yesterday. The 1959 Dom Perignon, mere hours before the theft."


Ke-Ting's face was grave, her voice low and urgent. "David Yip didn't just know about the collection. He helped build it, right up to the moment of its disappearance."


Deng turned to face the window, mind spinning. The morning sun flashed off the glass towers of Central, an infinity of dizzying angles that made his eyes water. Or was it the headache building behind them, an ominous pressure.


"Yip's dirty," he said finally. "He exploited his position to funnel these unicorn bottles into the vault, knowing full well his plans for them."


Ke-Ting nodded. "An inside job, like you said from the start. No one else had his access or knowledge."


"Poor Wai-shun." Deng shook his head. "He poured his soul into this collection. It was his legacy. And now, betrayed by his own colleague..."


The words trailed off, bitter on his tongue. Deng knew all too well how fast professional jealousy could curdle into something monstrous. He'd talked down desperate men from ledges, seen the abyss yawning in their eyes. But this cold, calculated duplicity...


"We need to find Yip," he said, turning back to Ke-Ting. "Bring him in and break him, find out where he stashed the wine. It's our only shot at cracking this before the gala."


But Ke-Ting was already shaking her head, a rueful twist to her mouth. "Might be a problem. I sent a uniform to pick up our David twenty minutes ago. He's not home, not answering his phone.


And his office computer--the one I yanked these invoices from? Wiped remotely. Just like the vault cams."


Deng felt his headache pulse and swell behind his eyes, a dark star blooming. They weren't the only ones watching the clock. Yip was on the move--or moved already, slipping away like smoke on the wind. And with him, an impossible liquid trail.


"He's rabbited," Deng said flatly. "Gone to ground. Those stolen bottles won't be far behind."


Ke-Ting nodded. "I'll issue a BOLO, but he's got a hell of a head start."


"Not for long." Deng crossed to the door in three quick strides, shedding his jacket. "Update INTERPOL and the ports. I want his face on every screen in the city."


Hand on the knob, he glanced back at Ke-Ting. Backlit by the windows, she looked fierce and unflinching, a huntress denied her quarry. "And get Wai-shun in here. If anyone can guess where Yip's headed, it's him."


Then he was out the door, striding toward the forensics lab. A familiar seething awareness prickled his nerves, the ancient thrill of the chase. It tightened his focus to a needlepoint, the whole world narrowing to the gap between hunter and hunted.


He had nine hours until the gala. Nine hours to conjure David Yip out of shadows, to follow the vanished vintage's bitter bouquet. To summon truth, however unpalatable, from a wine most foul.

Nine hours to save Wai-shun from the cruelest vintage of all: regret

.

The hunt was on. And the next move would taste of blood.



The Blind Tasting


Deng found Wai-shun alone in the vault, a forlorn figure silhouetted against the bare racks. Head bowed, shoulders slumped, he looked almost relieved when Deng cleared his throat.


"No luck, I take it?"


"Ke-Ting told you about Yip?"


"She didn't have to." Wai-shun gestured vaguely at the emptiness. "Not hard to connect the dots. He's been off for weeks. I thought it was just wounded pride, but..."


Deng made a noncommittal noise. "His system was wiped. Along with any clue to the bottles' location. But we'll find them."


Wai-shun's laugh verged on despair. "How can you be so sure?"


"Because you're going to tell me."


"Tell you what? I already--"


"Who David Yip is beneath the surface. What drives him - not just at work, but in life. You came up together, studied wine at each other's elbow. That breeds insight."


Wai-shun's shoulders hitched defensively. Then, slowly, they lowered. He looked at Deng with grim resignation. "We interned together at Château Latour. Two kids from Kowloon, learning the Gospel of the Grape. Yip was... intense. Ambitious."


Deng waited. Wai-shun's gaze grew distant, memory hazing the present.


"He loved wine, but not like I did. For him it was a means to an end. Access to power, prestige, the right circles. He was a shark in sommelier's clothing."


"And the collection? This vault of unicorn vintages?"


Wai-shun shook his head slowly. "It would've been his white whale. The ultimate prize, held just out of reach. I thought he'd made peace with my promotion, but..."


"But instead, you handed him the most tempting bait imaginable, then yanked it away." Deng gripped Wai-shun's shoulder bracingly. "This isn't on you. Yip made his choices. And he'll answer for them."


Eyes haunted, Wai-shun looked at his friend. "But why steal the collection now, today? If status is his game, he must realize exposure will destroy him in this industry."


Deng frowned. "Unless..."


"Unless what?"


"Unless torpedoing your big moment is more important than his own reputation now. If he can't have the prestige of unveiling this collection..."


Wai-shun paled. "You think he means to, what, burn it all down? But the gala--"


"Would be the perfect stage to humiliate you, if that's his goal." Deng could see it unspooling now, the spiteful endgame. "Maximum impact in front of the crème de la crème."


Wai-shun looked ill. Then, abruptly, he strode for the door, purpose and dread mingling in his movements.


"I have to warn Mr. Cheung. Delay the auction, shore up security. If Yip dares to show his face..."

"We'll be ready," Deng vowed, matching his stride. "But first, I need a crash course in the way our David thinks about wine."


"What do you mean?"


"Walk me through his ideal vintage. The flavors, structures, and profiles that define quality for him. If I'm going to beat Yip at his own game, I need to know what rules he's playing by."


And so, retracing their steps through the eerily vacant vault, the sommelier and the detective wove a psychological sketch in the language of tannins and terroir. A portrait of a dangerous man, revealed in the negative space around his deepest tastes.


In vino veritas, the old Latin phrase echoed between the bare racks. In wine, truth.

And the truth they were assembling had a long, bitter finish.


Smoke and Mirrors


Mei Ling reclined in her first class seat, relishing the plush leather and ample legroom. Amazing how a few well-placed bottles could elevate one's travel arrangements. She signaled the attendant for another flute of Krug.


Her phone vibrated, spoiling the moment.


"You're cutting it close," sniveled the voice on the line. "The auction begins in--"


"Spare me the countdown. Is everything ready on your end?"


"Yes, yes, of course. Your suite at the Mandarin Oriental is waiting. And your buyer..."


"Will be the one waiting, for me and for his precious prize." Mei Ling smiled thinly. "Just make sure--"


She broke off, the expression congealing as she spotted a familiar figure hurrying up the jet bridge.


Deng Tian'en, looking rumpled and harried, was flashing a badge at the gate attendant.


"Is there a problem?" the phone voice demanded.


Mei Ling killed the call. The attendant was pointing in her direction, and Deng...Deng was striding straight toward her, grim purpose etched on his features.


Keeping her composure with the icy poise of a woman long-accustomed to inconvenient surprises, Mei Ling rose smoothly and headed for the rear of the plane.


Deng's voice boomed behind her. "Mei Ling, stop right there! Hong Kong police!"


She didn't stop. She ran.


Fourteen minutes later, Deng hauled a struggling, snarling Mei Ling out of a lavatory and up the jet bridge in handcuffs. Her cream Chanel suit was askew, her chignon loosened to wisps, but her eyes flashed pure defiance.


"Get your hands off me, you thug! What is the meaning of this outrage?"


"Oh, I think 'grand theft merlot' about covers it," Deng growled. "Quite the vintage you tried to abscond with. But not quite first class after all, was it?"


Mei Ling writhed in his grip, threats and demands tumbling out in a froth. "You can't prove anything! I'm merely a traveler, on my way to visit--"


"Old friends in Bangkok. Yes, I know." Deng's smile was mirthless. "I think you'll find the accommodations at Central more to the point. We've rolled up your little wine club, Mei Ling. The game is over."


She blanched then, porcelain face going slack as the magnitude settled over her. All the arrogance and presumption draining away, until only a small, hard woman remained, glaring at him through narrowed eyes.


"They'll never stick," she spat. "And the bottles are long gone. Enjoy sniffing out dead ends."

Deng just looked at her a long moment, taking in the wounded vanity, the unrepentant greed. At last he shook his head.


"Oh, I think you'll find I can be dogged on the trail. And this little stunt of yours?" He propelled her through the terminal, past a growing crowd of gawkers. "It's barely a stage whisper. Wait until you see my final act."


As he bundled Mei Ling into a waiting cruiser amid a storm of press flashbulbs, Deng allowed himself a small, grim smile. Her part in this drama was finished, but the larger play wasn't over yet. Not by half.


The endgame still waited, hovering in the wings. And David Yip had one last scene to chew.

Deng meant to be there for his swan song. With a vintage even rarer than the purloined bottles: justice, well-aged and unfiltered.


A Full-Bodied Finish


"A Jayer Richebourg '99? You must be joking."


"Would I jest about wine, Tian'en? After the ordeal we've been through?" Wai-shun grinned as he carefully decanted the ruby-dark vintage. "Besides, if anyone's earned a taste of the sublime, it's Hong Kong's thief-taker extraordinaire."


Deng watched the play of candlelight in the decanter, the liquid catching fire as it flowed. All around them Wai-shun's roof garden dripped with nighttime quiet, an oasis of green and shadow amid the city's restless neon heart.


"The sublime's more of a working man's vintage, I've found."


Wai-shun laughed at that, warm and genuine in a way Deng had despaired of hearing again. "Then we'd best get to work. Here."


Accepting the balloon glass with only slightly unaccustomed fingers, Deng reflected that he'd spent more time handling fine stemware this past month than in his previous forty-odd years combined.


Between the legal wranglings, press conferences, and tux-mandated victory laps that seemed to multiply in the scandal's wake, his attendance had been very much in demand.


For depositions, for photo ops, for the negotiations surrounding rights to Wai-shun's story. And of course, for the occasional clinking of glasses as the city's sommeliers and 1-percenters toasted the man who'd saved their investment-grade indulgences.


Deng found he didn't mind the last obligation so much these days. At least when the company was select and the toasting sufficiently discreet.


Not that he'd gone soft or anything. But a little appreciation from certain key quarters - starting with the haggard friend sharing this 5-figure bottle - well, it certainly helped the bitter pills of the job go down smoother.


Settling into the chair beside Deng with a gusting sigh, Wai-shun cradled his own glass like an chalice. Turning it slowly in his fingers, he stared out at the glimmering spires of Central and Admiralty, the view marred only slightly by the fresh crop of silver at his temples.


"To getting what we deserve," he said, meeting Deng's eyes over the darkly shimmering wine. "And to partnerships old and new."


"To old partners," Deng nodded. "And the rarest of vintages: trust, aged in adversity."


They drank, the Richebourg spreading across Deng's tongue in a cascade of black cherry, tobacco, violets; a wine plush as crushed velvet yet muscled underneath. Powerful, complex, revealing its layers gradually as it opened to the air.


Not unlike the man sitting beside him, Deng thought. Not unlike their history together, their strange alchemy. Decades of living distilled down to this pregnant quietude, this communion of battle-scarred souls.


Beyond the garden's ivy-shrouded parapet, the lights of Hong Kong pulsed and flowed like some vast, multi-hued circulatory system. Deng knew those lights, that unceasing rhythm. It was his lifeblood too, the bright, jagged imperative of standing between the sheep and the wolves, no matter how thankless or soul-grinding.


But here, cloaked in sanctioned shadows, he could rest from the fray for a time. Could savor a darker, headier vintage: the peatsmoke rasp of justice served, the subtle notes of a shared ordeal transmuted to understanding. To kinship.


As if hearing his thoughts, Wai-shun leaned back with a long, satisfied sigh. "We should do this more often, Tian'en. Catch up over something other than pilfered wine or a dead body."


Deng felt a rare smile crook his lips. "What, no more stolen vintages to recover? I was just getting a taste for it."


"Very droll. You know what I mean. We shouldn't let time...evaporate between us again."


"No. No, we shouldn't." Deng held out his glass in salute. "To staying in touch, then. Come felony, misfortune, or cru classé."


"To old friends, and new reasons to drink deep."


The crystal rang sweet and pure as temple bells as they touched glasses. Muted laughter floated up from the distant street, the city's vibrant hum gentled by the garden's emerald hush.


Deng drank, and tasted a quieter, headier intoxicant beneath the wine's mellow heat. A distillation of years and incident, each glass a ponderous, savory mouthful.


Years, vintage, friendship.


Trust.


The rarest pressing of all.

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