Authors: Carlene O'Neil
TERROIR IN THE SHADOWSÂ .Â .Â .
Joyeux Winery was midrow on the first aisle. The winery flag, a golden fleur-de-lis on a background of royal blue and burgundy, fluttered on the roof. The booths were covered with temporary weatherproof curtains to protect the contents between now and the festival. I pushed the corner open with my shoulder and turned to enter the tent, box first. The curtain closed behind me, leaving me in the dark. With my hands full, I couldn't grab the flashlight on my keys and I crept to the tables just ahead of me. As I felt the edge of the table with my thigh, something exploded against the back of my head. The pain was blinding, and I could hear glass breaking as the world tipped away from under my feet. I dropped the box, grabbed the edge of the table and landed on my knees. Through the roar in my ears, I heard a soft laugh. I tried to concentrate, but my eyes closed. A shove into my shoulder ripped the table from my grip and I fell to the ground.
Just before the world went black I heard a soft whisper. “Just like a bad penny, always turning up in the wrong place. Bad, bad Penny.”
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ONE FOOT IN THE GRAPE
A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright Â© 2015 by Carlene O'Neil.
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-15433-9
Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / May 2015
Cover illustration by Robert Crawford.
Cover design by Danielle Abbiate.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
I'd like to thank Dawn Dowdle, my agent, for your help and belief in this book. When the call came in, your excitement matched my own. Also, thank you to my editor, Robin Barletta, for taking this book and giving it such a great home.
Finally, love and thanks to my family and friends who gave me encouragement and support along the way. You knew I could do it long before I did, and I'm grateful.Contents
Terroir in the Shadows . . .
ASIMPLEhouse rule, ignored once, and I end up with a dead body on my hands. Actually more than one, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
The rule is, never answer the front door. I learned growing up it was usually a tourist. The house, with its stone walls and copper roof aged to a green patina, drew visitors toting cameras. While my aunt loved guests at the winery, she protected our privacy at home, and had planted screen trees years ago. Now, I don't get many visitors, and I like it that way. The house is invisible from the street, flanked by my vineyards, rows of lush green soldiers standing tall and straight, shoulder to shoulder. Visitors have to manage the drive through my grape barricade. The occasional knock on the door first thing Saturday morning means someone has gone the distance. More often than not it's an attempt to sell me something, usually magazine subscriptions or membership to a church that doesn't let you drink.
I don't have time for magazines, and I wouldn't join a church that doesn't let me drink. After all, I own a winery. Until recently the knocking went unanswered. My niece Hayley, new to the household, didn't know the rules.
“Antonia Martinelli's here.” She lifted her eyebrows and disappeared down the hall.
Terrific. I'd rather buy magazines.
Antonia's a distant relative, my aunt Monique's cousin. They'd been close and, toward the end, Antonia had made it easier for my aunt and ultimately easier for me. I was grateful to her, although, to be honest, she'd never been one of my favorite people. When I was young she'd sneak up and grab us for playing in her vineyards. Used to spook the hell out of me.
The tap of her cane down the hall announced her arrival before Antonia stepped into the room. Her silver hair was swept up. It glinted in the morning sun as she stepped over Nanook, my malamute. As she passed by the faintest scent of lavender tickled my nose. She stopped at the armchair that held my gray tabby, Petite Syrah.
“Move.” Antonia pointed the cane toward the floor.
Syrah opened her green eyes, rolled to the edge of the seat and, with a surprisingly loud thump, landed on the ground and walked to the door with as much dignity as she could muster.
“Penelope, that cat is overweight, and why would you let it up on the furniture? I hope I don't get cat hair all over me.”
Good. Maybe she wouldn't sit and I could get back to my quiet Saturday morning. Too bad I had on my standard weekend sweatsuit. White. Antonia's ability to reduce me to the awkward teen I'd once been wasn't helped by my resemblingthe Michelin tire man. I stayed seated on the couch, gathered my own dignity, and turned to face her.
“Hi, Antonia. Want coffee?”
She looked at the clock on my desk, then at her wristwatch, as if to confirm the time. “No. I had mine hours ago.”
She eyed the photos on the side table and picked up the one closest to her. It was a black and white of her and my aunt as teens in the vineyards. Knee-deep in grapes, they smiled into the camera.
“I remember when this was taken. We were so young then.” She set the picture down and turned to me. “I can see Monique in you. You've got the blonde hair and you've inherited your aunt's good skin, but you've aged.”
Gee, thanks. “I haven't lived here for twenty years.”
“What are you now, forty?”
“No. I'm still in my midthirties.” Okay, late thirties.
She eyed my legs, curled up under me. “You get your height from Monique too. Enjoy it while you can. Soon you'll start to shrink.”
Wow. The church folk were looking pretty good right about now.
“Your aunt would be glad you've decided to keep the winery. Glad you decided to quit the city and come home.”
“Me too.” Six months earlier I hadn't been so sure. Antonia didn't need to know my return to Cypress Cove was prompted by my getting fired.
Antonia was once again focused on the picture and seemed lost in thought. She'd always looked the same to me, with her silver hair and black dresses. What could she want? She'd never come by before, not since I'd been back.
Something was different. She'd always exuded confidence,but now she sat with her foot tapping, and she twisted a ring on her finger. There was a slight tremble in her hands as she folded and pressed them to her lap.
She looked away. “You're probably wondering why I'm here. The truth is, I need a favor.”
Okay, this was a switch. Antonia never needed anything from anybody.
“Someone is sabotaging the wines at Martinelli. I want you to help me find out who it is.” She got up and walked to the window. “Don't suggest I talk with my children. The damage is being done by someone with access to the barrels.” She reached out to hold on to the windowsill. “It could very well be one of them.”
While I searched for an appropriate response, Antonia turned to face me. “First time I've ever seen you speechless. Say something, for heaven's sake.”
I took a second. “What makes you think someone is sabotaging you?”
“Martinelli Winery doesn't make the kind of mistakes I'm finding. Last year there were a couple of bad barrels. This year there are dozens.”
I relaxed and leaned back on the couch. “Wait a minute, Antonia. I've only been back at the winery for a short time, but I grew up in this business. Some years are just better than others.”
Antonia moved over to the French doors and looked out at the grapes, full and ripe in the autumn sun. “You aren't listening. One barrel is fine, another ruined. One is excellent, the next rancid. It's random. It's deliberate.”
I saw her point. Problems happened to an entire crop, not random barrels.
“You need to go to the police.”
“I don't want the publicity. It's bad enough people think our standards are slipping. If my customers suspect we won't be able to deliver our orders, they'll start pulling deliveries. I want you to help me.” She paused. “Monique would want it too.”
It wasn't fair for her to use my aunt as leverage, although I had to agree with her. Martinelli Winery was a mainstay of the wine industry in this part of California.
“Even if I agreed, why me?”
“I can't. If my family or employees are responsible they're already watching me. No one will notice you, a neighbor and fellow vintner. Frankly, you're the best choice I had.”
“I won't let that go to my head. What would you want me to do?”
“Listen. Watch. Find out who the culprit is and tell me.” Antonia looked at my desk, completely free of papers or work, and even I could see the light layer of dust. My camera and closed laptop were the only items on its surface. “Actually, I'm surprised you aren't more curious. After all, didn't you do that type of thing at the paper?”
I nodded. “Investigative photojournalism.”
“There. You see? You must like prying. You should be used to watching people. Asking questions.”
It's true. I'd worked for theSan Francisco Pressand been paid to do what I do best: stick my nose into other people's business.
That ended six months ago, when my editor wanted to digitally add spectators to a photo I took at a riot. I refused,assuming we were in the business of accurately reporting the news. I guess I was pretty vocal about it and, in the end, my boss and I reached an agreement. He agreed I could refuse to alter my work, and I agreed I was fired.
I rode my indignation right out of there and into every other paper for miles around. It didn't take long to realize computer software had changed photojournalism forever. Selling papers was more important than accuracy. Beyond that, I'd been labeled as rigid and inflexible, somebody difficult to work with.
Antonia waited patiently for an answer, which wasn't like her. It was strange the wines were in the barrels before the problems turned up. It didn't make sense. I'd begun to pick at the puzzle, trying to make the pieces fit.
Okay, I admit it. I'm nosy, I'm intrusive and, yes, I was curious. “Before I agree to help you, is there anything else you can tell me?”
Antonia took a deep breath. “About six months ago I began to notice little items missing around the main winery. Things out of place, paperwork moved, that kind of thing. At first I didn't think much about it. Then about a month ago, someone broke into the winery office.”
“Did they take anything of value?”
“A few hundred dollars and the account ledger, but that was it. Then last week a noise woke me around midnight. It came from the attic. I put on my robe and went out into the hall, but by the time I got to the stairway the house was quiet again. When I went up there the following morning, things weren't as I'd left them, but it was impossible to tell if anything was missing.”
“Do you think it has something to do with the ruined wine?”
“I don't know.” The hand that held the cane trembled slightly, but her voice was strong and her gaze steady.“Martinelli Winery is the legacy of my family. If someone's trying to hurt it, or its reputation, I will stop them.”
I believed her. If I didn't help her, she'd pursue it without me.
“Okay, let's see what we can find out. On our own.” I stood and looked at her.
“Excellent, Penelope.” Antonia breathed deeply. Her shoulders relaxed. “Where do we start?”
“Please call me Penny.”
“You've been Penelope to me your entire life. I'm too old to start calling you something else.”
Right. “Who has access to the house, the winery?”
“I've thought of that. You know Marvin.”
“Yes. He's often at the house, usually in the library and kitchen.”
I was surprised. “The kitchen? He eats with the family?”
Antonia sniffed. “Of course not. He's allowed to come to the kitchen and have the cook fix him a tray to take back to his apartment. Certainly on most days he comes to the house for one reason or another.”
She turned to look out the window. “I believe you know Todd. He's in charge of the tasting room. Then there are my three children. Do you remember them?”
“Not really. I went to public schools.”
“True, they were gone most of the time. Francesca is a few years older than you, and then there's my son, Stephen.”
“Stephen must be about my age, but I don't know if I'd recognize him. I remember Chantal, though.” Chantal was Antonia's youngest, and she'd stolen a boyfriend from every girl in town, including me.
“Why would they do something to hurt the winery?”
Antonia stamped her cane. Even with a rubber tip, that was going to leave a mark. “That's what I want you to find out.”
Good point. “Okay, that's five people. Does anyone else have access to both the winery office and the house?”
“Of course. Two of my children are married and I also have servants and part-time help at the winery.”
“Let's start with the servants. Do they live in?”
“No.” She turned to face the window and I had to strain to hear her next words. “No one but the family. And Marvin.”
“So, if we assume the same person ransacked both the winery office and the atticâa big assumption, I understandâthen for the moment we can focus our efforts on the people with access to the house at night.” I looked at her. “Are you sure you don't want to tell the police about this?”
“Penelope, we've just established that someone intimately involved in the winery is trying to destroy it. Best case, it appears one of my employees is responsible. Going to the police, and the publicity that would ensue, is the very last thing I want.”
There were steps in the hall and Hayley came through the doorway. “I'm heading to the office and wanted to say good-bye.”
Antonia looked up from across the room, her brows creased. “Did you hear our conversation?”
“This is Hayley's home, Antonia. She's a grown woman and I won't allow you to speak to her that way.”
I looked at Antonia and realized I was no longer intimidated by her. “I didn't ask you here. You came on your own. If you no longer want my help, then that's fine too.”
Antonia raised her brow and paused. “Very well. You candiscuss the issue here, but please remember it's a private matter.”
No kidding. I rolled my eyes at Hayley.
Antonia moved toward Hayley. “I'll walk to the office with you. I want to ask Connor when he plans on bringing in the rest of the harvest. Perhaps we can coordinate the temporary workers so neither of us gets behind.”
Connor was the reason for any success my winery enjoyed. He'd had offers to manage other wineries, but stayed with my aunt because she gave him complete control of the vineyards, which is how it should be. He decided all of the day-to-day operations, from hiring the seasonal help to actually turning the grapes into wine. Connor came with an added bonus: he was great with tourists and visitors. I'd offered him the same arrangement when I'd returned to the winery and was grateful every day that he'd accepted.
“I can tell you when we're going to harvest,” Hayley said.
“That's right. I forgot you're the assistant manager now. You can learn a lot from Connor. I want to talk to him about a couple of other things as well.”
Antonia turned to me. “He's a fine man, about as good as they come.”
“I know that. That's why he's my manager.”
Antonia waved her hand. “I don't mean his skills as a manager. I mean as a man. He'd make a great catch for any single woman. Especially one recently back in town and not getting any younger.”
Antonia playing matchmaker? “Thanks. Especially for the not-getting-any-younger comment, but I'm not interested.”
“Don't take that tone with me, Penelope Lively. If you had any sense, you'd see Connor is about as good as theycome. You'd do well to snatch him up and get him off the market before someone else does.”
Running the winery was hectic enough without dating my manager. We got along great. That was enough.
“He's all yours, Antonia.” I got a small but satisfying glimpse as the pink in her cheeks deepened.
“Don't listen to me, then. You never did.” She moved toward the door. “I'll be off. We should talk again before the festival.”
The Autumn Festival was two days of wine, food and judging the local wineries' best selections. For the first time, the smaller wineries were invited to participate.
“Your first year to compete. Are you ready?”
“We've been ready for weeks.” I smiled.
“Your aunt would be proud.”
I nodded, not trusting my voice. Hayley and Antonia walked down the back steps to the winery office.
The sun had come out early and burned away the coastal fog that settled almost every night. The day was bright and clear. I opened the window, leaned out and breathed in the morning air. Sugar in the grapes is highest in the fall, and the vineyards fill the valley with a spicy, sweet fragrance.
I ran my hand over Petite Syrah, curled once again in her armchair, silver-gray fur luxurious in the morning sun.
“She doesn't think you belong on the furniture.”
Syrah pushed against my hand. I rubbed between her ears and stared out over the vineyards. If Martinelli Winery was in trouble, the entire central coast winery business would suffer, including our own humble efforts.
I picked up my camera. I'd always been fascinated with photography. If it was on film it was indisputable. At least ithad been. Photo “enhancing” was done every day and without public knowledge. I was right to refuse to alter my work, but that didn't help with the loss of my career.
I was back at the winery, but I still found comfort in the same place I always found it: behind a camera lens. Now, though, the focus was landscape photography. Nobody asked me to alter my work and there was never a lack of subject matter. Grape leaves wore their autumn finery, the russets, yellows and purples as beautiful in their own way as any maple or elm. Those who believe California doesn't have seasonal color have never lived on a winery.
Syrah followed as I stepped out though the French doors and onto the back deck. She curled up and resumed her nap in the sun's warmth.
The arbor was heavy with pale yellow roses, the last of the season. I took a few shots and walked down the back steps to look out over the fields. Sunlight glimmered through the vines and warmed my face. The chaos of life in the city seemed far away. If ever there was a place free from malice, sheltered from the evils of the world, surely it was here.
Of course, I'd been wrong before.Two
IWALKEDback into the sunroom, took a seat at the desk and downloaded the photos onto my computer. When I finished, I walked down to the winery and spent the next hour taking one last look at the barrels. Weeks before, we'd rolled them outside and washed them, rinsing them with water and citric acid. Every barrel needed to be inspected for cracks and defects. Nothing scientific. You stick your head in each one and look around.
Hayley walked up beside me. “Thanks for defending me earlier, but I didn't hear the conversation. What's up with Antonia?”
“Trouble at her winery. The vintages have been bad and she thinks maybe it's being done on purpose.”
Hayley nodded. “There's been talk their wines have been off lately. I've noticed it. The last time I had a Martinelli Chardonnay it was great, but the bottle before that wasn't drinkable. You think Marvin is slipping?”
“I can't believe that. He's impossible and has a mean streak, but he's extremely good at what he does.”
“So if Marvin isn't losing his touch, could someone be doing it on purpose?”
“That's exactly what Antonia thinks. She asked me to help figure it out.”
“Ha! A chance to be nosy. I'm sure you're dreading that.” Hayley knew me too well. Busybody, meddler, snoop. I'd been called these and worse.
“If you don't have anything else to do, you can help me soak these barrels.”
All the barrels, old and new, are “soaked up,” which is simply filling them with water to swell the wood. This tightens the staves and ensures the barrels are leak-free.
“Let me grab the hose.”
“The new ones come in tomorrow.” I'd ordered some additional barrels of French oak. Like most wineries, we used both American and French oak. The American oak imparted a stronger bite to the finish of the wine. I liked it, although many people finished with just the French oak, which left the wine smoother and more buttery.
When we were finished I looked at my watch. “It's lunchtime. Want to grab a bite?”
“It's later than I thought, and I still need to load the truck. I'll grab something later. See you in a bit.”
I returned to the house. The front door opened and footsteps sounded as Connor made his way down the hall. He had an apartment above the winery office but took his meals here.
“So, you talked to Antonia?”
He nodded. “She wanted to know about our inventory control.”
“She didn't ask you about when you were bringing in the rest of the harvest?”
“Not a word.” Connor poured a cup of coffee and sat down. “It would be a little odd for Antonia to ask about when to harvest. Now that I think about it, it's odd she's asking about inventory control. I'm sure they have a system as good as ours over there.”
“I might be able to explain that.” I told Connor of Antonia's suspicions.
“If she thinks something's wrong, then there is. No one is better at this business than Antonia.” Connor took a sip of coffee and studied me over the rim of his cup.
“Why would she come here to tell you something's wrong at Martinelli?”
“Antonia doesn't want to go to the police. She wanted to talk about it.”
Connor lifted an eyebrow. “Really? Just wanted to talk about it? Just a couple of gals shootin' the breeze? Odd that Antonia never stopped by before, just to talk.”
I shrugged. “She wants me to help her figure out the problem, but quietly, especially since it's probably someone connected to the winery.”
“Did you think this through?”
“Why, because you think it might be a bad idea?”
“I owe her. She was here for Aunt Monique. I came down as much as possible, but with work it wasn't as often as I wanted.”
Connor kept his eyes on his cup. “You did what you could,and Monique knew that. Antonia was over all the time. The two of them talked nonstop for hours.”
“So you understand why I want to help her. This is my chance to say thanks.”
“It's just that if your snooping around doesn't go well, or she doesn't like the outcome, you might get caught in the fallout.”
I shook my head. “She knows she may not like the answers, but if I don't help her she'll try to find out who's responsible on her own.”
“That might be a better idea.”
“I already told her I'd help. Anyway, how do you know a good idea until you try it?” Truth is, I'm not very good at picking out the good ideas from the bad. I'll pretty much try them all.
Connor rubbed his eyes.
“Never mind. Okay, I follow you're going to help her, and I understand why. Where do you start?”
“Spending time with the logical people.” I ticked off the names on my fingers. “As winery manager Marvin has plenty of opportunity, but I can't imagine his motive. It only hurts him when quality is off. Same with Todd, but since he's limited to the tasting room, I don't know how he fits.” I shrugged my shoulders. “Then there are her three kids.”
Connor nodded. “Rumor is Stephen's being groomed to take over the winery. We'll see if that ever happens. I can't imagine Antonia handing over the reins.”
“You're probably right. He's going to be like Prince Charlesâin his sixties and still not running the place. Anyway, that leaves her two daughters.”
“Francesca lives in the city, but she's down here all thetime. I understand she bought some land nearby. There were stories about how she got it, but I've never heard what really happened.”
“Chantal still lives at home, even though she's in her thirties. Boy, that Chantal. I rememberher, all right. She's a real piece of work. I haven't seen her since I moved back. Does she still have that same, you know, figure?”
Connor smiled but avoided my glance. “If I remember correctly.”
He stood, got more coffee and paced around the kitchen, cup in hand.
“Will you come and sit back down?” I looked at him when he didn't answer. “What?”
“Well, the thing is, if you live here and you're single, or I guess if you're a single maleÂ .Â .Â . Actually forget the single. If you're a male, sooner or laterâ”
“Stop, you can't be serious. You're not about to tell me you dated her.”
I don't know why I was surprised or why it mattered. Chantal had rubbed every female in town the wrong way at one time or another, and if the stories were true, had rubbed up against most of the men as well. Not that they complained. Chantal was stunning. She was curvy in that classic Hollywood va-va-voom way, not to mention beautiful and rich. Man, she really ticked me off.
Connor held up his hands. “We went out a couple of times. She wanted to become an itemâ”
I lifted an eyebrow. “Yeah, Connor, ya think?”
“âbut I let her know I just wasn't interested. She's kind of a messed-up kid, if you want to know the truth.”
“Oh, please, she's in her thirties.”
“She hasn't figured out who she is, apart from the Martinelli family. Then there's the winery itself. She shouldn't drink. She's been in rehab a couple of times and I don't think she's ever held a job. She just doesn't seem to know what she wants to be when she grows up.”
“I guess.” Although the last time I saw her, she looked pretty grown-up to me. Not sure exactly how she could grow up any more. Or where. “She'd better get it together soon.” I shook myself. “Enough of Chantal. Anything else?”
“I know where you can see most of them tonight.”
“Do you remember the Monterey County Wine Growers Association?”
“Sure. MCWGA. Wasn't Monique the president?”
Connor nodded. “Now Antonia is. They're holding annual elections tonight. All the Martinellis will be there, if only because Antonia wants to be president again. She'll want their votes. Hayley and I are driving over together. You should come too.”
He moved around the kitchen. The sunlight caught his dark blond hair, full and with the hint of a curl. It fell to the edge of his collar. He wore a denim shirt in a sky blue that matched his eyes. He sat back down at the table, the earthy sweetness of grapes on his skin.
I thought about what Antonia said. He was a catch; I just wasn't up for the chase.
Connor caught my eye and smiled. I looked away and caught a reflection of myself in the glass door. Right. I'm sure the reason we weren't together was because I wasn't up for the chase. My sweatsuit had wine stains from the barrelsand highlighted my ten extra pounds. My hair was doing the frizz thing from the spray of the water. I tried to smooth it. Yeah, much better. I'm sure he found me irresistible.
I avoided his gaze. The invitation to the festival sat on the table and I picked it up.
The Cypress Cove Vintners Association
In Conjunction with Martinelli Winery
Invite Penelope Lively
Owner of Joyeux Winery
To Participate in the Twenty-fourth
Annual Autumn Festival
Penelope again. Antonia must have dictated the invitations.
“Antonia asked if we were ready for this.” I slid the invite across the table.
“What did you tell her?”
“We've been ready for weeks.”
“We've been ready for years.”
Connor had been at this winery, working with my aunt, since he'd graduated from UC Davis with a degree in viniculture.
“You know this invitation belongs to you more than me,” I said. “It's your victory. Not mine. Congratulations.”
“This is for all of us. Hayley too.”
“How's she doing?”
“Taking on more responsibility all the time. I really don't need to watch her anymore. She took care of most of the details for the festival.”
Connor filled me in on the wines we were entering intothe competition until Hayley bounded up the outside steps and joined us in the kitchen.
“The last of the cases are loaded on the truck and ready to go.” She ran her hands through her hair. “Marvin's going to wish he'd kept his mouth shut.”
Marvin had remarked the smaller wineries shouldn't be allowed to compete in the festival tasting. Ever since, Hayley had been anxious for the time when Martinelli and Joyeux could compete taste to taste.
“I need to get over to Martinelli Winery,” Hayley said.
Connor stood and stretched. “Give me ten minutes and I'll come with you.” He walked down the path, back to the winery office.
Hayley came over to stand next to me. Moments later she nudged me in the ribs. “Nice view.”
AFTERHayley and Connor left, I grabbed my camera and a pair of scissors. Nanook followed me outside and flopped down in the shade.
I tried to spend a part of every day in the garden. Things grew so fast in the mild climate I needed to come out most days just to keep up. I snapped shots of the garden with the winery in the background. This time of year the sunflowers managed to take over the garden, much to the delight of the birds. I cut several bunches for the house, leaving a few on the flat stones. Rabbits loved the seeds and I had more than enough.
After I finished in the garden, I went through my prints and postcards for various shots to sell at the festival. They were good publicity for Joyeux Winery and a nice reminder for visitors of their time here.
The seasons of the year were clear in the images. Earlyspring leaves, freshly unfolded green against the bluest of skies; summer shots, where the terrain of golden hills shimmered like waves in the background; autumn, the perfect time on a winery, when the fiery orange and deep purple grape leaves challenged seasonal colors anywhere. The winter shots, done in black and white to heighten the starkness of the barren branches, showed none of the life that would burst forth when the cycle began anew.
The doorbell rang just as I finished. What good was living in the middle of nowhere if people still managed to show up unannounced?
I might have ignored it but Todd Ryan from Martinelli Winery stood there. He spotted me and waved through the glass. I opened the door.
“Hi there.” I moved to let him in. “I thought I'd see you tonight at the Wine Growers Association, but here you are.”
In his late twenties, Todd wore his usual outfit: a white, long-sleeved cotton shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. He had his Stetson on and brown curls were tucked behind his ears. He had a nice smile. “I was driving by and thought I'd stop in. Hope you don't mind.”
“No, of course not.” I didn't really know Todd and couldn't imagine what he wanted. “Coffee?”
“Thanks, but no. I don't want to take up a lot of your time.” He took off his hat, turning it in his hands.
“It's no problem.” The curiosity was getting to me. “What's up?”
Todd smiled. “I'm getting married soonâ”
“I heard that. Congratulations.”
“Thanks. The thing is, Joanne, that's my fiancÃ©e, really loves your landscapes. She feels you're the best photographerin town. We know you don't do events, but if you're willing to be our photographerÂ .Â .Â .”
I looked at him. “Are you sure? It's your big day. You don't want to take any chances.”
“Believe me, we'd be honored. Um, we don't have a lot of moneyÂ .Â .Â .”
I waved my hand. “I wouldn't charge you. I'm more than willing to try if you're willing to take the risk.”
“That would be really great.” Todd smiled. “I didn't think there was this much to getting married. Joanne and I want something small and there's still a lot going on.”
“When's the date?”
“Ten weeks, December twenty-first. It's a good time of the year. Before Christmas and after all the tourists go home.”
If Todd was in charge of the Martinelli tasting room, he'd have access to every area of the winery. “So, you've been in charge of the tasting room for what, a year now?”
“Not quite. I started last November.”
“How do you like it?”
“I enjoy the work, and Antonia's great.”
“Really?” I tilted my head as though this surprised me, which, in a way, it did.
“She's not bad. Not like the way she comes across. As long as you do your job, she leaves you alone.” He studied the brim of his hat and continued. “It's more than that. She goes out of her way if she knows you're interested in learning. I have my degree and want to run my own winery someday. Still, there's so much to the actual process of making wine. If it weren't for Antonia, I don't know if I'd be learning much at all.”
“Marvin isn't the best teacher?”
Todd grimaced. “He thinks if he explains something hisjob's in danger. No chance of that from me. Not for a long time. And StephenÂ .Â .Â .”
“That's right. I forgot Antonia's son is starting to take on more responsibility. How's it going?”
“Okay, I guess. My time is spent in the tasting room, but I know he's made some changes. They upgraded some of the equipment. He tries to keep up with Marvin and Antonia when they discuss the winery. Stephen seems so easygoing and they're both such strong people. I think he's caught in the middle. Lately, there has been more pressure. I know there's been some trouble with the consistency of the wines, and Antonia is relying on Marvin more than ever.”
I tried to look surprised. “What's been going on with the wines?”
He shrugged. “Could be a lot of things. The truth is, it's not a fun place to work right now.” His hand tightened on his hat, crushing it.
“What makes you say that?”
“There's a lot of tension. The wines have been disappointing, and now there's something going on withÂ .Â .Â .”
I waited. Sort of. “Todd?”
He put up his hands. “Forget it. I shouldn't have said anything.”
“Todd, at least finish what youâ”
“No.” He started for the door. “Honestly, forget it. We can talk about the photography later, if you're still willing.”
“That's great. See you tonight, Penny.”
He walked down the path. His shoulders were hunched and he walked with his head down. He didn't look back. What was going on that had him so agitated? Todd had somethingon his mind, and it wasn't Marvin. Marvin was a jerk, but that wasn't anything new.
I shook my head. Antonia was here this morning about troubles on her winery and Todd was here nowÂ .Â .Â . What had Todd said? There was something going on withÂ .Â .Â . what?
I turned from the window. Todd was getting married. Married and probably not earning much money right now. Todd struck me as a nice guy, and it seemed unlikely he'd take money from a competitor to sabotage Martinelli Winery. He also sounded like he enjoyed working for Antonia. Still, if he wanted his own winery, he needed to start a nest egg. Maybe he already had.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Ispent the rest of the afternoon with the winery sales ledger, my largest responsibility. The wine business, like most everything else, was at the mercy of the economy. I would have guessed alcohol was pretty recession-proof. I figured when things were good, people liked to indulge. When things were bad, they liked to indulge even more.
However, wine is a luxury item. Our clients were cutting back on inventory. Hotels were at 50 percent occupancy and restaurants were closing. If your wine didn't sell fast enough it got struck from the wine list. It took regular calls and visits to see if customers were out of stock or if they needed anything.
Hayley came in through the back door. “I need a handkerchief for my face. There's a lot of dust from the tractor.”
She tied a bandanna around her throat. This was the busiest time of the year at the winery and I wouldn't see much of her for the next couple of weeks. She looked a lot like her great-aunt and had a lot of the same traits as AuntMonique. The same smile, the same streaky blonde hair and the same habit of running her fingers through it.
Aunt Monique started Joyeux Winery in 1982. Joyeux means joyful in French and was my grandparents' name when they entered Ellis Island. Like so many immigrants of the time, they left the island and entered America with a different name: Lively, in their case.
I was glad my aunt revived the original family name for the winery. Joyful was how I felt every day here in the vineyards. Then I looked down at the ledger and the tension between my brows rose. Before I moved back I never paid much attention to the business end of running the winery. I assumed it did fairly well. Either Aunt Monique didn't go into this for the money, or I still had a lot to learn.
Hayley looked at me. “You don't look very happy with the accounts.”
“I don't care if we get rich doing this, but I'd like to know we can keep a roof over our heads.”
She walked over, her expression worried.
“It's not as bad as it sounds, but sales are down. I've called most of our clients, getting our name back out there. We just haven't been at the top of their list, probably because we haven't been in front of them. The response was good, though. Maybe soon we can start using more black than red ink in the books.” I stood and walked to the window. “The reality is we're going to always remain a smaller winery, with specialty wines, because of the grapes we specialize in.”
My aunt wasn't interested in producing a lot of one type of varietal, so she made a calculated move. She bought land that ran in a ribbon across the Carmel Valley, on the western side of the Santa Lucia Mountains. The three hundred acresran west to east and benefited from a perfect soil mix of gravel and loam. The winery sat at just over one thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean, which was nine miles to the west. The result was a much wider variety of grapes than you could normally get to flourish on a winery this size. The western boundary was lower and closest to the cooler air of the Pacific. The Pinot Noir grown there would probably burst with the heat found at the eastern end of the property, while the Cabernet grown on the protected, sun-drenched hillsides to the east wouldn't ripen on the cooler western boundary.
We produced Zinfandel, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah. About twelve thousand cases per year. Certainly on the small side, but respectable.
I turned to Hayley. “Wine Growers meeting tonight.”
“I know. Wouldn't miss it.” She smiled and gave a small laugh.
“What? Do you know something I don't?”
“Maybe. I went online to see who was running for office this time around. I figured Antonia would be there and of course she is, but you'll never guess who's running against her. Go on, guess.” She laughed and looked even younger than her twenty-seven years.
“Hayley, come on. Just tell me.”
“Okay. I can't believe it. I don't know if Antonia knows yet and I want to see her faceâ”
“Enough already. Who is it?”
“No.” I looked at her. “Her daughter? What is she thinking?”
Hayley threw up her hands. “Can you believe it? It's really going to rattle Antonia.”
I shook my head. “She must be planning on moving backfrom the city. She isn't here often enough to be president. How would she manage this and still live in San Francisco?”
“I think she's going to try. She has a successful law practice. She can't be thinking of giving that up.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Why would she take this on? It's a lot of work and she's taking on Antonia. Why she would go to the trouble?”
“You don't know the history. Two years ago Antonia gave Stephen his promotion. Until that time Francesca was really involved in the winery's future. After that, forget it. Even though Antonia had always said she was leaving it to Stephen, Francesca was furious.”
I nodded. “Antonia told Aunt Monique years ago that if she ever had a son, she'd leave him the winery.”
Hayley nodded and walked toward the back door. “Ironic, isn't it? Sometimes powerful women can be the most sexist of all. It's like they break through the glass ceiling and then repair it behind them. Francesca's determined to be a part of the winery community, even without her mother's help. I don't like Francesca, but I can see why she'd be angry at Antonia.”
“You don't like Francesca? Why? You like everybody.”
Hayley stepped outside, talking over her shoulder. “I'll let you make up your own mind tonight.”Four
HARVESTtime in wine country was always the busiest time of year, but Joyeux Winery had it easier than some. The wide selection of grapes we grew allowed us to spread out the harvest. The larger wineries that specialized in one particular type of grape kept a frenzied pace while they picked everything at once. Our grapes ripened from the west to the east, whites to reds, and over a longer period, but we still had a couple of late nights when we brought in the bulk of the harvest.
Although we're busy, this is the best part of the season, in particular after the harvest is complete. Relief sets in at having escaped a heavy rain or, our biggest fear in October, an early frost.
I glanced at the calendar. The election for the MCWGA officers was late this year. Usually they tried to get them out of the way in late summer, before harvest began. I wonderedhow it had slipped through the cracks. If Antonia meant to schedule it earlier and forgot, it was a symptom of something wrong. Antonia never let anything slip.
I snapped the ledger shut, headed to the kitchen and immediately was overwhelmed. I'll be the first to admit, success in the kitchen escaped me. The only thing I could reliably make was salad. I opened the fridge and got out lettuce, blue cheese, pears and candied walnuts. I put in a lot of walnuts. It tasted like dessert.
There was enough for Hayley and Connor, but this time of year they grabbed meals when they could. The tractor noise grew in the six acres of Zinfandel planted at the rear of the house. Connor stopped every few minutes to taste random grapes and gauge the color against the setting sun. The day you harvested was the day you could see and taste the wine the grape would become.
Hayley and Connor came in a while later.
“Two or three days, tops, on the Zinfandel.” Connor eyed the salad.
“I made extra. Help yourself.” I pushed the bowl toward him.
Hayley grabbed a serving spoon. “Move over.”
As they hunted for the last of the candied walnuts I stood and moved to the door. “While you finish, I'll go and get dressed for this evening.”
Connor looked up. “Dressed into what?”
I looked down at my white sweat outfit. “Pretty much anything would be an improvement.”
Connor shrugged. “You look fine to me.”
If I looked fine this way, then clearly I wasn't spending enough time on how I looked.
“Maybe I should just go get ready.” I quickly dressed inmy second-favorite outfitâa long heavy-knit sweater, jeans and heeled boots.
We took Connor's truck. Hayley sat between us. She looked out the window and didn't say a word for most of the trip.
“What's on your mind?” I asked.
“Just the harvest.”
I nodded. She'd taken on more responsibility and had complete control over a small portion of the vineyard. An entire year of work would be judged by what she did over the next seventy-two-hour period.
The junior college offered classes in viniculture and, in exchange for internships at the local wineries, allowed the MCWGA to use one of the lecture rooms for its monthly meetings.
We finally found a parking spot in the back. “Wow. Good turnout.”
“Election night always draws a big crowd. You know.” Hayley glanced at me. “You ought to run. How about vice president?”
“How about we not pursue that line of thought?”
“I'm serious.” She stepped out of the truck. “It would raise exposure for the winery, and you'd be really good at it.”
“We can always use more press,” Connor said.
Hayley nodded. “Besides, you'd easily win. Nobody wants to be vice president with Antonia as president. She forced Stephen to do it last year.”
“That's your best selling point? I'd win because nobody else wants the job? Wow, where do I sign up?”
“Just think about it. It would be good for you and the winery. Besides, it's a great way to meet men.”
Connor grunted. “Penny doesn't need to meet men.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I just meant you don't need to meet any men right now.” Connor stopped. “I mean, you don't need anyÂ .Â .Â .” He shook his head. “You know what? Forget it. It came out wrong.”
Damn straight it did. “Hayley, go ahead and nominate me.”
“Wow. That was fast. It was just a suggestion. Maybe you should think about it.”
“If I think about it, I'll come up with a million reasons why it isn't a good idea.”
I turned and walked away before I changed my mind, and made my way through my fellow vintners. Hayley was right. I couldn't recognize more than a few faces here and there. I needed to get out more.
I turned at the tap on my shoulder.
Todd stood behind me. “Sorry I left so abruptly today. I was rude and want to apologize.”
Given our earlier conversation, I couldn't help but take a closer look at him. Tension was etched between his brows.
“Todd, if you ever just want to chatÂ .Â .Â .”
Suddenly he smiled and his face relaxed. “I'm fine. I promise. Just with getting married and some family stuff going on and the jobÂ .Â .Â . everything is getting to me. I need to figure out a couple of things. That's all.”
“Well, if you're sureÂ .Â .Â .” I turned to go.
Antonia's eldest daughter, Francesca, walked up. “Hello, Todd.”
Todd nodded, tight-lipped and with every bit of tension I'd seen earlier. He turned away. “Talk to you later, Penny.” He didn't even glance at Francesca.
What was that about?
Francesca's eyes followed Todd. “Hello, Penny. You've been back, what is it, six months?” Francesca turned her pale face toward me. She wore her brown hair in a bun so tight it pulled the skin up around her eyes. She had on very little makeup and wore a tailored skirt suit. People in Cypress Cove dressed how they wanted. You didn't see many suits here, and she stood out.
“Hi, Francesca. About that long. I hear you're running for president tonight.”
Francesca laughed, but it didn't quite reach her eyes. “My idea of term limits. Mother's been in charge for far too long.”
“I'm surprised you're interested in the job. It's a lot of work.”
She shrugged and looked around the room. “I run a successful law firm. I think I can handle this.”
I didn't like her patronizing attitude. “I don't think you appreciate the amount of time Antonia puts into the association. There are a lot of afternoons during the week that Antonia meets with the tourist board, the local businesses, that kind of thing. How are you going to do all of that from the city?”
“As I said, I'll manage.”
Wow. I really didn't like this woman. “So, who's going to nominate you?”
Francesca pointed to the back of the room, where a tan man with silver hair was on a cell phone. “I don't believe you've met my husband, Brice. He'll nominate me and, in spite of the objections you've raised, Penny, I just might win. My mother isn't the easiest person to get along with, you know.”
She had me there.
“While I find your concern I might be taking on too much, well, touching, don't worry about me. I've decided to play abigger role in the valley. I intend to be around for a long time, with or without my mother's support.”
She flicked her hand as she turned to leave. I was dismissed.
I've been rebuffed before, by the best, and believe me, Francesca was nowhere near the best. I raised my voice. “Oh, that's right. I heard Antonia was leaving the winery to your brother, not you. What a shame. For you, that is. I'm sure, though, she knew what she was doing.”
Several people stopped.
Francesca turned and moved in close. “That's right. She's leaving it to my brother. She's leaving the winery to my unqualified, uninspired brother. If you think that's going to stop me, though, you'd better think again. It isn't enough to stop me. Not nearly enough.”
I wasn't sure how to respond.
“Speaking of the uninspired, here's my brother now, playing lapdog to my mother as usual.”
Antonia swept into the room, cane on her arm. With that silver hair, thick and swept up, Antonia was a formidable woman. She knew it too. You could see it in the way she walked, with her head held high and shoulders back, her stride long and sure.
Stephen followed Antonia. Francesca's lapdog comments about her brother, while nasty, weren't easily dismissed. Stephen did look something like a lapdog. I would never have recognized him if Francesca hadn't pointed him out. He was easily the most forgettable person I'd ever seen. Everything about him was beige: his hair, clothes and, even from across the room, personality. He followed Antonia to the front of the room.
“We'll continue this conversation, Penny. You can count on it. Now, however, I must go pay homage. After all, isn't that what one does with royalty?”
Francesca walked over to her mother. Antonia said something and Francesca shook her head. Without another word, Antonia walked away. Francesca, with a small, amused smile, watched her go.
I turned. Someone else watched the exchange with me. Todd's hands worked at his sides and there was tension along his jawline.
If someone was trying to sabotage Martinelli Winery, Todd was in a position to know. He spent most of his time there. He could have seen something, might have stumbled across the answer. He wouldn't go to Antonia if he suspected Francesca unless he had proof. Was that the source of Todd's anger? He either knew or suspected Francesca of the sabotage but couldn't prove it? Francesca certainly had motive. She was angry with both her mother and brother. She also had access. No one would notice her out at the winery, or in the fermentation building. It wasn't that every bottle had to be ruined. Inconsistent product was enough to destroy a winery's reputation.
Antonia took a seat at the head table and people began to file into the rows of chairs. Hayley and Connor were seated near the front and I slipped in beside them.
“I saw you talking to Francesca,” Hayley said.
“What a piece of work. She's going to run for office and thinks she can manage it from San Francisco. She doesn't want the job. She just wants to get under Antonia's skin.”
Antonia leaned in to the microphone. “Let's begin. The first item for discussion is label standardization.”
Most of the vintners that belonged to the MCWGA, including Joyeux Winery, produced sparkling wines, what is referred to as Champagne in certain parts of Europe.
Sparkling wine and Champagne are created the same way, referred to asmÃ©thode Champenoise. Sugar and yeast are added to wine and carbon dioxide is created, causing the bubbles.
Legally, we called our wine anything we wanted in the states and were restricted from the word “Champagne” only on bottles shipped to Europe. The Champagne region of France won this point, and I had no argument with it.
I looked around the room. This was a topic Aunt Monique fought for years. We used the “sparkling wine” label. Some wineries used both terms. The members were divided. Someone in the back said the “Champagne” label added panache. I raised my hand. Antonia nodded.
I faced the room. “Calling it Champagne only adds panache if you actually think the French product is superior, something I certainly don't believe to be true. Look, we can't call it Champagne in Europe. Fine. If we make this an issue, it appears even we feel Champagne is better. I want the world to know we make the finest sparkling wine in the world. It's fresh, it's unique and it's completely Californian.”
There was a smattering of applause and when Antonia called for a vote, a majority of hands went up, Antonia's included.
“That's it, then. Going forward, members will adhere to the âsparkling wine' moniker. Now, on to elections for the coming year.”
While the secretary and treasurer were elected by a show of hands, Hayley leaned over. “If you want to participate,you can volunteer for a project or two, a little at a time. You sure you want to run for office?”
I nodded but didn't speak. Like most things, you don't really know what you're getting into when you volunteer, but I didn't stop Hayley when, a few moments later, she nominated me for the office of vice president.
Once again, Antonia raised her brow at me. I shrugged.
“As she is running unopposed, I appoint Penelope Lively as vice president for the coming year.” She glanced around the room and her gaze settled behind me. I turned. Francesca sat several rows back.
“Now, are there any nominations for the office of president?”
On cue, Stephen raised his hand. “I nominate Antonia Martinelli.”
Antonia nodded at her son, and I heard my voice, along with several others, second the motion. Antonia was difficult, but she was committed. She worked hard at the job.
“Any other nominations?”
There was a moment of silence before a voice came from the back of the room. “I nominate Francesca Martinelli for president.”
Brice was off the phone and I got a good look. The only man in a suit, he was as out of place as his wife. His hair was slicked straight back, held there with lots of hair gel. The sparkle of his gold bracelet and cuff links was visible from across the room. Francesca was several seats behind me, that amused looked still on her face. She smirked and gave me a phony little finger wave.
I felt my arm shoot up in the air.
Hayley grabbed my other hand. “What are you doing?”
“Not a clue.”
Antonia nodded at me. “Yes, Penny?”
I stood, stalling.
“Um, I was wondering, when do I officially become vice president?”
Antonia thought for a moment. “I suppose as of now. I haven't been asked that before. Why?”
“I'd like to make a recommendation. I propose all officers are required to actually live in Monterey County. It is, after all, the Monterey County Wine Growers Association.” I turned to face Francesca, now rigid in her chair, the amused smile gone. “It would seem to me being a resident should be an obvious prerequisite for the job.”
Francesca stood. “This is ridiculous. You can't do this.”
Stephen stood. “If Penny isn't the vice president, then I still am, and I second the proposal.”
“I didn't think he had it in him,” Hayley whispered.
Antonia looked over at her son. There was a slight nod of her head as she asked for a show of hands.
“Good job. The majority agree with you, although”âHayley turned over her shoulderâ“you're getting the evil eye from Francesca.”
It was a dark look indeed that Francesca cast my way. I looked about the room. Todd gave me a smile and a nod of his head, as did several other members.
“That's it, then,” Antonia said. “As I am running unopposed, I will continue as president through the coming year.”
Antonia closed the meeting shortly thereafter. As she passedby me, she stopped. “As vice president, you're now cochairing the Autumn Festival, which means I'll see you tomorrow evening at my house to review the schedule, say, around six?”
Right. Already I had regrets.
Connor and Hayley knew everyone, and I was soon alone in the back of the room.
“Well, well. I guess my mother has found another lapdog.” Francesca came up next to me. She lowered her head toward mine. “I don't like being embarrassed, and I don't like you. Stay out of my way.”
I'd met people like her before. Classic bully. At that moment, she reminded me of my previous editor. I moved close enough to feel her breathing. We locked eyes.
“You don't like me? Good. I must be doing something right.” Anger warmed my face. I wanted to grab that little bun and give it a good twist. “I bet you get a lot of opportunities in your line of business to treat people like dirt. Don't try it here. Not on me.”
“Watch yourself. I'm capable of more than you think.”
Could she be responsible for the events at Martinelli Winery?
“Really? Tell me exactly what you're capable of, Francesca, because I'd really like to hear. I know you wanted to take over your mother's winery and show you're capable of running it. Guess what. You aren't going to get that chance. Too bad.”
Francesca turned white. Her lipstick crept into the tight lines around her mouth. “My mother will regret her decision. Stephen is a fool.” She took a breath. “My advice to you is you shouldn't get involved in something you know nothing about.”
I shook my head. “I don't think I'll be taking any advicefrom you. Not now or any time in the future.” I paused. “So, you've made it pretty clear you hope your brother fails. What exactly would you do to make sure that happens? Tell me, Francesca, just how far are you prepared to go?”
Francesca moved back. “I don't know what the hell you're talking about. Just stay out of my way.”Five
ITOLDHayley and Connor about Francesca's remarks on the way home. The perfect responses, far too late to be useful, filled my thoughts deep into the night. As a result I woke up late, tired and more irritated than usual.
The jeans and sweater from last night went back on and I had my first cup of coffee in hand when I walked past the front door. There was a girl I didn't recognize about to press the bell.
I should just hang a sign down at the front gate: “Solicitors Welcome! This Way!”I motioned that whatever it was, I didn't want any, and she started to knock. She had spunk. I sighed and opened the door.
“Hi, my name's Sylvia. I work for theMonterey Centennialand I want to write an article on your winery.” She spoke around a retainer, and her enormous smile told me this was probably the first time she'd been able to say that to anyone.She wore a yellow sundress and had long blonde hair caught back with a white headband. She held a reporter's notepad. Probably an intern. Still, we're a small winery. Free publicity wasn't to be turned down. Sylvia reached into her yellow shoulder bag and pulled out a full box of business cards, enough to last about a semester. She practically shook when she handed me one, excited as could be to give one to somebody besides her mother.
I took the card and stuck it in the back pocket of my jeans. “Sylvia, how many wineries have you written about?”
“You'll be the first.”
“How many have you asked?”
She chewed on the inside of her lip. “It's kinda funny, now that you mention it. I thought everyone would want to talk to me, you know? But everybody's been too busy.”
I looked at her. “When did you set out to get this interview?”
“Your timing needs a little work. Wineries focus on the harvest this time of year. Give me a call in a couple of weeks and I'll give you all the time you need for an article.”
After Sylvia left, I ate a bagel and mulled over last night's exchange with Francesca. I was expected at Martinelli Winery that evening to discuss the festival. In the meantime, I was caught up on the ledgers and wasn't needed at the winery. Connor and Hayley would be busy and unlikely to get a break before nightfall, so I was free for the day.
Francesca had gone to Layton Law School. I decided that would be my first stop and managed to get myself out the door a short time later.
My car was already twenty years old when I discovered it under a tarp behind a neighbor's house. I don't know how the1963 Jaguar XK-E Roadster made it to Northern California, but the owner thought I was doing her a favor when I offered her nineteen hundred dollars for it, a lot of money back when I was a teenager waiting tables. Sure, it was filthy and needed paint, new tires and a major tune-up, plus the windows wouldn't roll down. The body was mint, the leather interior was perfect, and she handled like a dream. It's the only car I've ever owned, and I still get a thrill every time I start the engine.
The drive went too quickly, as it always does when you're fortunate enough to be on this stretch of Highway 1. I left the ocean behind, parked in the Layton lot, and decided to start at the library. They'd have back issues of the yearbooks and most kept some current information on alumni. Hopefully they'd share it.
The school was busy, students everywhere, but when I tried the library door it was locked. There was a sign in the window that announced it was closed for an earthquake retrofit. Most of the public buildings over a certain age in California needed to have this done. With any luck we'd never have to find out if it actually worked.
The school administration office would be the next place to find information on a graduate. I pulled open the doors and tried to figure out what to say. I try not to lie if I can help it. If I don't, though, it's almost impossible to get people to tell you things they had no business telling you. Besides, lying comes naturally to me. I'm not proud of it, but there it is.
I walked in and looked around. The office was drab and gray, the same standard school administration office found everywhere. The linoleum, the walls, the two ladies that satthere with piles of paperwork, all gray. The one nearest me looked up from her work, peered over her bifocals and sighed. “It's Sunday. We're officially closed.”
“Oh. Well, since I'm here do you mind if I ask you a quick question?”
She just looked at me.
No great burst of inspiration. I had nothing. “Ah, I was wondering how much longer the library would be closed?”
“Several weeks. They tried to get the retrofit done during the summer. Now they'll be lucky to get it done by the end of the year.” She paused. “You can't be a student here, or you'd know about the library. That's all anyone's been talking about.”
“No, that's right. I was just wondering where I could learn more about the school.”
She leaned toward me, over her paperwork. “Why?”
Right. Why. “My name's Sylvia, and I'm from theMonterey Centennial.”
I pulled Sylvia's card from my back pocket and slid it across the counter. This was an easy one. I even had identification.
Gray Lady sighed again and shuffled over to the counter. “Yes?” Her name tag read “Ethel.” No kidding.
“The paper is starting a new column on nationally recognized institutions and businesses that have been around for at least one hundred years. We're calling it âThe Sensational Centennials.' Sort of a play on our own name, you know?”
It's shameful how I come up with this stuff. Ethel just gave me a blank look.
“Well, anyway, we decided it would be great to start the column with a story on our very own Layton Law School.”
Again with the sigh. “How can I help you?”
“Would it be possible to take a peek in the library, at the school archives, just to get information on the history of the school? I'd also love to feature comments from some of the local graduates.”
Ethel gestured toward a room to the rear of the administration area. The odor of mothballs floated across the counter. “You don't need the library. You'll probably find everything you want in there. Old pictures, school curriculum, yearbooks, that kind of stuff. We even have letters from Layton to his father, asking for money to establish the school.”
“I'm sure I'll find everything I need there. Thanks so much for your help.” I picked up my bag and walked around the end of the counter. After Ethel motioned me into the proper room and I was left on my own, I searched the shelves and found the yearbooks from the mid to late 1990s. The classes were small and Francesca's picture was in the fourth book, 1998. She was one of those people who had never been young. Her hair was pulled up in the same tight bun. She was never a pretty girl, but at least nowadays she had style; back then she was just plain. I thumbed through the rest of the book and spotted candid shots of her taken throughout the yearâin the library, as a member of the debating team, with her hand raised in class. Under Francesca's picture it stated her goal: “To one day run the largest and most successful winery in Monterey County.”
As I returned the book I scanned the walls and spotted class pictures with the graduates listed underneath. I found 1998 but couldn't find Francesca. I took a second look and scanned the names. No Francesca.
What was going on? I went back out to the office.
Ethel looked up. “Yes?”
“You know, it occurred to me a friend of mine graduated from here in 1998. We lost track of each other years ago, but I'd love to see her again. Does the school have any way to get in touch with its graduates?”
She looked over her glasses. “Sure they do, but it's just for graduates.”
“Oh.” I waited.
She sighed. “Maybe I can help you. I was here in '98 and might remember the name.”
“That would be terrific. It's Francesca Martinelli.”
Ethel gave a snort and pulled off her glasses. “She didn't graduate. Not from here, anyway. She was expelled.”
“Really? I can hardly believe it. You don't remember what for, do you?”
“Of course I do. When a student from one of the most prominent families in the area is expelled during finals, you remember. We weren't supposed to know. Of course, we all did. She was kicked out. For cheating.” Ethel turned back to her paperwork. “Never did like her.”
She was finished with me, so I gathered my things and left. Maybe Francesca finished law school elsewhere. Maybe not. I know she still told people she'd gone to Layton. I'd ask Francesca if that could be considered false advertising. She'd know. After all, she was the lawyer.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
AThome I was greeted by the phone ringing and checked the caller ID. Ross Sterling, one of my closest friends.
I grabbed the phone. “Hey.”
“Haven't seen you. Feeling neglected.”
“Me too. I just haven't been to town. How's business?”
“Oh, you know.”
“You're so understated.”
“That's me. The blasÃ© gay.”
Last year Ross, a chef, opened a restaurant called Sterling. He'd opened in the old city hall right in the center of Cypress Cove, a beautiful old structure owned by Antonia. Since her grandfather founded the town, it would be difficult to find real estate she doesn't own. As fate would have it, the second week he was in business, Hollywood's most illustrious leading lady, the one with the big teeth and even biggerâwell, you know which oneâwas quoted inRestaurant Reviewsayingthat his salmon bisque was the nectar of the gods, or something like that. Now he was booked ahead for six months, and it was considered the best restaurant in town.
“Before I forget, Thomas says we need more of your postcards in the store.”
Two years ago, I introduced him to Thomas, another friend of mine. Thomas now owned the gift store and coffeehouse adjacent to the restaurant, called Beauty and the Bean.They are perfect together. Both big and gorgeous. When they met, hopes fell and hearts shattered from here to Santa Cruz.
“Glad to hear they're selling well. I can drop them off this afternoon, before I go over to Martinelli Winery. Now that I'm vice president of the MCWGA I get to cochair the festival. Lucky me.”
“Antonia came in for lunch and told me. She has most everything done, though, so don't even think you're going to have any input.”
“Antonia's been running this thing for so long she doesn't need my opinions.”
“Oh, I don't know. Some fresh eyes won't hurt. As for the postcards, you don't need to worry about dropping them off. We can get them tonight at Martinelli Winery.”
“Why have you and Thomas been summoned?” I knew Ross had little patience for Antonia. He said she was the most ostentatious queen he'd ever met, which, coming from him, meant something.
“Well, aside from our booth, Antonia wants me to feed the judges at the festival during the wine competition, as if I didn't have enough to do already. Plus, I'm sure she expects me to bring a little something for tonight.”
“Oh, please. You love showing off your culinary expertise. Plus, there are worse things than having Antonia on your side.”
“I suppose you're right. Anyway I don't want her raising my rent. I promise I'll bring your favorite.”
“The spinach ricotta tart?”
“None other. See you tonight.”
I rang off and spent the rest of the morning with my stock of prints and postcards.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
ITwas early afternoon when the door slammed behind me.
Connor walked in. “Do you still have the ledger in here?”
I nodded and pointed at the book on the desk. He walked over and took a seat. He skipped through the pages and added entries. Connor is very structured, and it shows in the records he keeps. Every expense as well as technique is recordedthere, which proves invaluable come planting season or tax time.
In a decidedly different approach to life, I couldn't be less organized. Connor likes a game plan, while I trust my instincts. Connor looks at morning glories and thinks cutting back. I don't prune any more than necessary, and barely even then. Hayley is pretty much in between us. I couldn't imagine the winery without either one of them.
I walked to the desk, looked over his shoulder and checked how many tons of grapes we'd brought in. So far it was a good year. Hayley came through the back door.
I looked at both of them. “We have an hour before we need to leave for the Martinellis'. Care for a glass of Cabernet?”
Hayley smiled. “Sure. Just don't tell the boss.” She paused and looked at her watch. “Do I really need to be there tonight? I sort of made a date.”
“Okay, putting aside that I want to hear about this date, it was your idea I run for office. If I need to be there, I won't be there alone. Besides, you need to know the schedule of the festival as much as we do. Can you go out later?”
“I suppose. I just don't feel like an evening with the Martinellis.”
“It's only for a couple of hours. How bad can it be?”
Hayley looked at me. “You haven't spent much time with them, have you?”
“Why, what exactly am I in for?”
“Don't even try to explain it,” Connor said. “She'll just have to see it for herself.”Six
IDIDN'Task Hayley about her date, but only because I didn't get a chance.
When we were on our way to Antonia's, Hayley looked over at me. “I know you want to ask, but I've only been out a couple of times with this guy. It's new, and I don't want to jinx it, you know? I just want to make sure it actually turns into something first.”
“I understand. I'm just curious.”
Connor didn't take his eyes off the road, but I saw his smile.
The ornate gates stood open when we arrived just before six. The Martinelli logo, a blue-and-gold shield with a silver falcon caught midflight, embellished the arches above the entrance. The road through the vineyards leads upward to the circular drive of the home, known as Martinelli Manor. Wepassed the gardens, a formal design that showcased Antonia's roses. Built by Antonia's grandfather, the house is three stories in front. Circular turrets balance the corners of the structure. These were almost entirely concealed by ivy, now bronze and copper in the chill of an early fall. The roof, shingled in hand-chiseled slate, glowed in the setting sun. To the left of the house were the storage buildings, the fermentation building, the tasting room and the winery office. Antonia's grandfather had finished them in the same Italian renaissance style of the main house. All of the buildings featured stone and plaster exteriors topped with slate roofs. The overall effect was of a small village frozen in time.
“I never get over how beautiful this is,” I said.
Connor nodded. “It's impressive all right. Our entire operation would fit in the fermentation building alone.”
Hayley jumped out as soon as the truck stopped. “Marvin's in charge of the winery locations at the festival. I need to make sure he gave us the tent we were supposed to have.”
The location of each winery's exhibition tent was decided on a lottery basis. We had a great spot, center and on the main row.
“I've seen the map where we're going. Marvin wouldn't move us anywhere else.”
Hayley spoke over her shoulder. “I want to check anyway.” She walked down the path.
“Maybe if she didn't react, he wouldn't keep trying to bait her.”
Connor shook his head. “I think she's right. He's one of those people that needs to make trouble.”
I turned to look over the sweep of the valley below us,bordered on two sides by the Santa Lucia Mountains. In the distance sat the Pacific, where the sun balanced on the horizon. At the bottom of the bluff, just below us, was the area where the festival took place.
“Well, you ready to enter the lion's den?” Connor asked.
I reached into my bag and grabbed the smaller camera I usually carried. “Let me take a couple shots of the house. The setting sun is perfect.”
Connor waited patiently while I snapped several of the winery and grounds. The final rays of sun tinted the slate roof a glowing bronze, while the ivy blazed in a brilliant golden hue.
“It's perfect, isn't it?” Chantal Martinelli sauntered up to where we stood, balancing both a martini glass and herself on four-inch red heels.
Chantal hadn't bothered, though, to actually glance at the sunset. She watched Connor. She looked stunning. As if long chestnut hair and enormous green eyes weren't enough, when she gets around an attractive man she seems toswell. She must have an air pump hidden somewhere in her demi-cups.
“Hello, Chantal,” Connor glanced at me. Amusement pulled at the corners of his mouth. “It's incredible. Your mother's done a terrific job with this place.”
Chantal gave an impatient shrug. Red silk rippled in the early evening breeze, and a heady whiff of Obsession perfume filled the air.
“She had a lot to begin with, you know. Most of the vineyards were established years before she inherited.”
I knew some of the history. Antonia's grandfather leftthe winery to both sons and they fought over it. Antonia's father eventually bought his brother out.
“What's impressive is how Antonia has continued expansion of the winery. That's not an easy thing to do,” Connor said.
Chantal sniffed. “Lately it's been Stephen. My brother's dedicated to improving this place, but she'll never give him credit.”
I faced her. “Todd told me Stephen had gotten involved only recently. What improvements has he made?”
Chantal didn't bother to look at me, just finished off her martini and smiled at Connor. “My brother's updated the fermentation building, if you'd care to see it.”
“I'd like to take a quick look.” Connor turned toward the building.
“Penny, you can go keep my mother company. We'll be right back.” She tucked her hand into the curve of Connor's arm.
Connor stopped. “You should come take a look, Penny. See if there are any ideas you think we can use.” He was just being polite. We both knew he made all decisions concerning improvements. Maybe he wanted to avoid being alone with Chantal. That thought cheered me and I smiled at Chantal. She rolled her eyes and dropped her hold on Connor, but went ahead and opened the large double doors.
Fermentation has its own perfume, and either you like it or you don't. I love it. It smells like yeast and, depending on the type of wine, a mix of fruits. I smelled the apples and citrus from the Chardonnay, the blackberry and plum from the Cabernet and the reds. When yeast is added to the grapes most of the sugar in the grapes is converted into alcohol. The rest turns into carbon dioxide that escapes into the air andcarries the scent through the room until, in the older wooden buildings, the fragrance is captured by the walls.
The building has its own sounds too. You can put your ear to a barrel and listen to the grapes turning into wine. The juice bubbles from the center to the top, and it has always reminded me of the ocean captured in a shell.
“Stephen replaced our steel tanks and added a new destemming area.” Chantal laughed and pulled Connor down a side row. “I don't really know what all of that means. As you know I tend to just stick to consuming the family wine, not necessarily worrying about how it's made.”
“Yes, Chantal, we're all aware you're the happy beneficiary of your family's hard work,” I said.
Connor glanced over his shoulder at me but I refused to look at him. “Antonia told me about the destemmer. It's supposed to be state-of-the-art.”
Chantal glanced at the equipment. “What's it supposed to do?”
“It will keep more of the fruit whole and still destem the majority of the grapes.”
He inspected the equipment then turned back down the aisle. “I thought Antonia installed this a while back, before Stephen got so involved.”
Chantal stopped. “No, this was entirely Stephen's doing.” Connor shook his head but didn't pursue it.
Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, in sixty-gallon oak barrels, rested in a dozen rows that ran down the center of the building. To the rear of the structure were the open-top tanks. The fifteen-hundred-, three-thousand- and six-thousand-gallon tanks were now made of enclosed stainless steel, but atMartinelli they used both steel tanks and wooden barrels. We did the same. The time spent in oak barrels gave the wine a depth and flavor you couldn't achieve any other way.
We walked down the center aisle to the rear of the building. At its most active stage, fermentation generated considerable heat, and the room was warm and humid. Fans whirled in the background to keep the heat down and clear away the carbon dioxide.
Chantal stayed close to Connor. At the rear doors, she turned her back on me and again put her hand on Connor's arm. “Would you like to see the new crushers?”
Crushing is gently squeezing the grapes to break the skins and release the juice. In traditional winemaking, the fruit was crushed by trampling it barefoot. Now, the grapes are loaded into large metal containers, where blades and hooks move them through the machinery. There were two at Martinelli, one each for red and white wines, to avoid color problems.
“I think we should get back. Your mother's expecting us.” Right. Like I was going to hang around and let her ignore me any longer. Besides, Connor was too good for her. Maybe he didn't need my help, and at the moment he looked amused. It didn't matter. I'd seen the best of them act like idiots when women like Chantal set their sights on them. Better I save him from himself.
“Of course, we can't keep mother waiting, now, can we?” Chantal's face betrayed nothing as she settled in beside Connor, took his arm and led the way back out through the building. He tried to remove his arm from hers and Chantal tightened her grip. He couldn't very well pull away without it being obvious and causing a scene. As we walked up the front steps, his face reddened. I gave him a big smile.
We entered the main hall. Portraits of Martinelli ancestors lined walls plastered in cream, which glowed against polished parquet floors. Stone details framed the doors leading to separate rooms off the entry, and the entrance itself was bordered by grapevines carved in marble. Breathtaking crown molding and vaulted ceilings capped the space, with filtered light coming from the leaded windows flanking the entrance doors. Chantal entered the hall and set her empty glass on an antique Italian walnut console table. Right on the wood, without a coaster. I couldn't take it, and moved over to slide a copy ofArchitectural Digestunder the dripping glass. Chantal didn't notice and walked farther into the space.
“Mother, Connor's here.” Chantal glanced over at me. “Penny too.”
A voice came from the room on the left. “In the library.”
As we entered, Chantal headed to the bar and Connor and I walked over to where Antonia sat, sliver-handled cane in hand.
“Good evening, Antonia,” Connor said. “We've been admiring the view of your vineyards. They're absolutely superb.”
“Thank you. I'm especially pleased with this year's crop. Provided we don't make any mistakes”âher voice faltered a bitâ“we should have an outstanding vintage. Tell me, would you like to open a bottle of our 2000 Cabernet? I find it exceptional.”
“That sounds perfect. I don't believe I've had the pleasure,” Connor said.
Antonia smiled. “It's scarce. We didn't produce a lot, and over the yearsâChantal, do you think you should have another?”
Chantal stood at the bar, her back toward her mother. Shedidn't turn but raised the vodka bottle off the counter. The sound of ice cubes, slowly and deliberately dropped into a martini shaker, filled the room.
“Yes, Mother, I most definitely think I should.”
The splash of alcohol hitting the ice was broken by footsteps in the outer hall. Stephen Martinelli entered, followed by his wife, Veronica. It struck me once again how different he was from his mother. None of the vibrancy was passed along. With watery gray eyes, he even managed to miss the vibrant green eyes that were the Martinelli trademark.
He walked into the room and went directly to the bar, where Chantal added an olive to her drink. Gently, yet with surprising firmness, he removed the drink from her hand, tucked her arm in his and led her to the couch. I was surprised Chantal allowed this. She sank into the corner of the couch, kicked off her shoes and tucked her legs under her.
Veronica remained near the door. She stood in sharp contrast to Chantal, who watched her sister-in-law with a small, amused smile.
“Good evening, Mother.” Veronica fingered her pearls. “Can I get you anything?”
“You can have a seat. I'm not an invalid, for heaven's sake.”
“Of course not. I just thoughtÂ .Â .Â .” Veronica looked around the room for a place to sit. Chantal saw her eye the sofa. She uncurled her legs and sprawled out, taking over the rest of the couch. Nice.
Veronica moved to a chair near the window. She perched on the edge and smoothed the pleats of her gray skirt.
I stood there, sized up the distance to the bar, andwondered if I could slink over and grab the martini Chantal had left behind. I'd been here fifteen minutes and already the tension in the room had given me a headache.
“I've always wanted to see the famed Martinelli cellar,” Connor said to Antonia. “Care to show me?”
Antonia nodded and they walked toward the main hall. When they were near me, she paused. “Perhaps we can talk later? I'm curious if you've given any thought to our conversation yesterday.”
Antonia raised her voice. “Veronica, please listen for the bell. I gave the servants the night off.”
“Yes, of course, Mother.”
Connor and Antonia continued through the main hall toward the wine cellar stairs.
Veronica tilted her head and continued to rattle her pearls. Stephen turned on the couch, eyebrow raised. Chantal even managed to focus on me.
“It's just more festival stuff,” I volunteered, to no one in particular.
To my relief the front bell rang, and Veronica shot out of her chair. For a woman in pleats and pearls, she could move. Moments later she led Ross and Thomas, loaded with platters, into the room.
“Hello, everyone,” Ross and Thomas chimed in unison. “Pen, would you mind moving that vase over just a bit?”
I helped Ross arrange the trays of food, glad to be busy. Thomas immediately went over and pulled up a chair next to Stephen. Within minutes, they were deep in conversation.
“Look at Thomas. He can get anyone to talk,” Ross said.
I cut into the spinach tart. “Stephen doesn't say much, does he?”
“He's never had much to say, and lately he says even less. You'd think with the additional responsibilities around here he'd be more confident, but to me it seems just the opposite.”
A loud rap on the glass doors stopped us. Hayley stood outside the door along with Marvin Karp, and neither looked pleased to be there. Hayley had her arms crossed and her cheeks were pink. Marvin was turned away from her and had his hands on his hips.
Antonia kept Marvin because if anyone knew more about wine, I'd yet to meet them. I looked at his sullen face, wondering if he was worth it. I was lucky to have Connor as my manager. Except for their skill, the two men couldn't be more different.
I unlocked the door. Hayley dove through and pulled me over to Ross.
“What a jerk,” Hayley whispered. “He told me our Cabernet would make a good cooking wine.”
My face grew hot with anger. “He's always got something nasty to say. It's time we had a talk.”
Ross handed me a cracker with mushroom patÃ©. “Don't. That's what he wants. Besides, it does make a good cooking wine. I drink it all the time while I'm cooking.”
I took a deep breath. Ross was right. Marvin would love to know he'd gotten to me. I ate the cracker while Hayley ran her hands through her hair and smiled at Ross.
Marvin took a seat on the edge of the fireplace hearth and pulled out a newspaper from under his arm. He hadn't acknowledged anyone in the room, and they in turn ignoredhim. Stephen and Chantal spoke together in soft tones on the couch while Veronica straightened a book on the shelf.
“What's wrong with him anyway?”
“I can't answer in general,” Hayley said, “but right now he doesn't want to be here. Said he has better things to do than this. Of course, you'd never know it. If you look closely, that's a horse race schedule he's reading.”
Hayley leaned back in her chair and looked out the side window. “There's a car pulling into the drive. Black Aston Martin. Very cool.”
Ross nodded. “That would be Francesca and Brice.”
“I met Francesca last night.” I rolled my eyes. “That was a pleasant experience. What kind of doctor is her husband?”
“A cardiologist. He divides his time between offices in the city and at the hospital here. They come into the restaurant and drive my staff crazy. Impossible to please. Plus she always wants me to comp her bill, just because her mother owns the building. What sense does that make? Of course, I never do. Let her eat somewhere else.”
“You know she won't. You have the best restaurant in town.”
“Oh, that's right. I do.” He grinned. “Anyway, I've heard her talking at dinner. She's always too loud to ignoreâ”
“Like you try,” I said.
“Do you want to hear or not? Anyway, she doesn't get along with Stephen. Apparently she doesn't think Stephen's doing a good job of running the winery. She could do better if given the chance. Of course, she's also angry with Antonia for that.”
“That's an understatement. She made it clear to me last night how she feels.”
“If you think the stress level in here is high now, just wait until they walk in.”
The sound of heels striking the flagstone foyer grew louder. Stephen wiped his forehead and kept his eyes away from the door, while Veronica fiddled with her pearls until they sounded like castanets. Antonia had returned with Connor and as she turned to the door the smile dropped from her face. The only family member who didn't react was Chantal, who looked bored and sullen.
“God, I hate coming here on Fridays. Traffic was terrible.”
I caught a glimpse of very expensive but serious shoes as they traveled to the bar, where a Coach attachÃ© and handbag were unceremoniously dumped on the floor. Paperwork fell out of her bag. Francesca snatched it from the ground and slapped it on the bar. She looked up.
“What, a party? And you didn't even invite me?”
Her hair was once again pulled into a tight bun, and she wore the same red lipstick. I was struck by how opposite she was from Chantal, now playing with the fringe on the couch pillow.
Antonia greeted her daughter with a slight nod. It was easy to see she was still upset over last night. She kept a tight grip on her cane, and she wouldn't look at Francesca.
“We're meeting to review festival details, and we haven't started yet. Will you be here the entire weekend?”
“Of course. I'm looking forward to some quality time with the family. Besides, I haven't seen all of the improvements Stephen's made.”
The sarcasm was evident in her voice. Francesca enunciated every word, giving it a weight and presence all its own. She must be hell in a courtroom.
Brice stood just inside the door of the library and clutched a cell phone to his ear. He gave a small wave with a manicured hand and turned to continue the conversation.
Francesca poured herself a sherry, perched on one of the bar stools and tapped short scarlet nails against her glass. “I might as well stick around to hear what the plan is.”
“We'll wait a few more minutes. The only person who isn't here yet is Todd,” Antonia said.
“Why do you need to wait for him?” Francesca asked.
“He's responsible for coordinating shifts in the tasting booths.” Stephen had a slight frown.
Connor settled next to me as a brisk knock announced Todd's arrival. He pushed open the glass doors. Once again, he wore jeans and a white fitted shirt. He also had on a Stetson hat that he removed as he walked across the room.
Antonia motioned to him and gestured toward the chair next to her. He smiled and took a seat, resting his hat on his knee. It was unlike Antonia to be so informal with someone she would consider staff. She must really like Todd, and it was easy to see he was comfortable with her.
Marvin watched them over the top of the racing form. Only his eyes were visible, but his brow was furrowed and his hands clenched the paper.
Now that there were men in the room, Chantal lost the bored look and artfully arranged a pillow into the small of her back. She arched and stretched to the best of her ability. It was quite a performance, and Antonia hadn't missed it.
“How is your fiancÃ©e and the plans for the wedding?” Antonia asked Todd, with a side-glance at Chantal.
“Joanne is really good at this stuff. I'm just picking winefor the reception. We're almost done with everything, now that I've asked Penny to be the photographer and she's said yes.” Todd smiled at me.
“That's marvelous,” Antonia said. “You don't have any other responsibilities?”
“That's it. Joanne won't let me pick out music or select any decorations. She swears I'm tone-deaf and knows I'm color-blind, so she took charge of everything else.”
Chantal uncurled from the couch and stood. “Francesca's right. Let's get started. I don't want to be stuck here all night.” She brushed Stephen's hand away and weaved toward the bar.
Francesca looked at her sister. “Why are you even here? You've never taken any interest in the goings-on around here before. As long as your bills are paid, you couldn't care less what happens.”
Antonia raised her hand. “That will do. As a family member, I want Chantal to attend portions of the festival.” She looked at her youngest. “Besides, maybe Chantal will have something to contribute. Perhaps in marketing?”
Chantal shrugged as she reached for the martini still on the bar. With a toss of her hair she tipped the drink to her lips.
Francesca snorted. “Well, Mother, there's your answer.”
A silence descended on the room, broken only by the sound of Brice, still on his phone in the hallway.
“I don't care for cell phones,” Antonia gestured toward the sound. “I think they're rude.”
“He's a doctor, Mother,” Francesca said. “Brice takes his job very seriously.”
“Yes, your very important husband, the doctor.” Chantalpolished off the martini. “A hundred bucks says it isn't a patient on the other end of that phone.”
“Jealous bitch,” Francesca said calmly. “Go drink yourself into unconsciousness.”
“At least I have an excuse when I'm unconscious. You manage it sober and wide-awake.”
“Enough!” Antonia slammed down her cane. “I will not stand for this.”
“I agree. This was supposed to be a pleasant family evening,” Veronica said.
Francesca laughed. “Get real. How many pleasant evenings have you seen since you married into this family anyway?”
“Please, Francesca.” Veronica looked around the room. “We have guests. Antonia, can we go over the agenda for the festival?”
Antonia watched her daughters. “Todd, you start with the overview, and I will step in.”
“Sure.” Todd's calm demeanor took some of the tension out of the room, and he walked through the following week's activities.
The Autumn Festival was the biggest annual fund-raiser for The Kasey Foundation, the town's foster care center. The participants donated a portion of their profits on wine sales, and visitors paid admission. In addition to the wine booths, the festival had a petting zoo, a farmers' market and gourmet food booths.
The festival theme varied from year to year. This year the theme was medieval, and the booths and participants were expected to be adorned in an appropriate fashion. Throughout the weekend, displays of blacksmithing and soap-makingand staged presentations of swordplay would occur in the midway.
Brice came in a few minutes later. He glanced around the room and perched next to his wife on a bar stool. Francesca ignored him, as did Chantal, who'd returned to the couch with her drink.
After Todd covered the basics of the festival and moved on to staging, I wandered over to where Thomas sat.
“Not exactly role models for a perfectly functioning family, are they?” Thomas said under his breath.
“Do they always squabble like this?”
“Are you kidding?” Thomas sipped his sparkling wine. “They're on their best behavior for company.”
“The only one who hasn't had anything to say yet is Stephen. Actually that's not true. You got him to talk.”
Thomas shrugged. “I asked about Chantal, how she is. She sure doesn't look good today.”
We watched as she finished her drink and set her empty glass on the end table.
“He's got to be worried about her drinking.”
“That's part of it. The drinking. The inconsistent behavior. There's been talk of prescription drugs. And the men. Always the men. She throws herself at any guy that goes near her. Anyone but me and Ross, that is.” Thomas leaned closer. “A while back Stephen thought she was interested in Todd. I mean, beyond flirting. It bothered him. He wanted to fire Todd. Antonia wouldn't hear of it. She said Todd did a great job and increased visits to the winery.”
“That sounds like the Antonia I know. The good of the winery before anything else. How did you get all of this out of Stephen?”
“I excel at three things: decorating, dressing and dishing the dirt. I can get anyone to talk.”
At half past nine, the rest of the festival details were finalized. Antonia dismissed everyone with a wave of her cane and the family scattered. Todd and Hayley went out the front, Marvin left through the sliding doors and Connor remained with Antonia to discuss a new grafting technique.
“You guys wait here,” I said to Ross and Thomas. “I didn't know what prints you needed, so I grabbed a bit of everything. I'll be right back.”
I walked down the front steps into the night, where Todd and Hayley stood near Connor's truck.
“I've got postcards for Ross and Thomas. Then I want to bring a stack of prints to the booth.”
“I'll take them down for you,” Hayley said.
“Did you confirm that Marvin gave us the right booth?”
She nodded. “Finally. At first he tried to tell me the map was preliminary, but it said âFinal Copy' right on the bottom. I told him not to try anything and he dropped it. I'm really not his favorite person.”
“I'd be worried if you were.”
I handed her a box then reached into the glove box, where I knew Connor kept a flashlight. “Take this. The main lights are up in the festival area, but the path down is dark.”
Todd and Hayley started down the path that led to the fermentation building and, farther, down the hill to the festival grounds.
I grabbed the box of postcards and returned to the library. Connor and Antonia had poured out the Cabernet. Ross handed me a glass and I took a sip.
“Antonia, this is superb.”
She nodded. “One of our best years.” She pointed to the box. “What are those?”
“Postcards and small prints for the gift store. Ross and Thomas sell my work there.”
“Let me see.”
I spread out the photos by the various seasons and Antonia peered over them. “My winery seems to be one of your favorite subjects.”
“It is. It's beautiful.” I caught her eye. “I mean it. The only winery I think is prettier is my own.”
After I'd given several to Antonia, I boxed up the rest and grabbed Ross by the arm.
“Come on, you two. I'll walk you out.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Ashort time later I stood in the night air and watched as they drove away.
The evening fog had rolled in, a regular occurrence this close to the water. Below, in the clearing, the light from Hayley's flashlight moved through the mist.
As I walked back up the front steps, someone shouted. It sounded like it came from the fermentation building. I stopped to listen. Nothing. I turned back toward the house but hesitated. If someone was ruining the wines, it would need to be now, when the wine was aging in the barrels, before it was bottled. Also, it would be at this time of day, when it was unlikely that anyone would be about. All in all, this could be a pretty good opportunity for me to find something out.
Oddly enough, the possibility that I might actually surprise someone didn't get my feet moving. I wasn't thrilled with the idea of looking for anyone in the dark.
The thing that got me back down the front steps and moving toward the fermentation building was Connor. He'd said getting involved was a bad idea, and I hated the thought of admitting he was right. A quick look around and I'd be out of there. I didn't have a flashlight and picked my way along the path. The fog now rolled in drifts, moving across the ground around me.
The heavy double doors creaked when I pushed them open. Rows of barrels loomed in the semidarkness ahead. If the goal was to surprise someone, I needed to leave the lights off. I waited for my eyes to adjust and crept to the rear of the building.
The only sounds were my footsteps and the soft hum of the fans. I walked slowly down the center aisle. Nothing seemed out of place. If there had been someone in the building, they were gone now.
I turned around at the large metal tanks and retraced my steps. When I reached the middle of the row, there was a crash from outside to the rear of the building, then the whine of an electric motor. There was a shout and the whirl of machinery beyond the back doors.
I ran back, pushed open the rear exit and stumbled outside. In front of me were the two winery crushers. The crusher to my left was on. The grind of machinery and the whirl of spinning blades filled the night air.
I went to the machine and climbed the four metal steps to where the grapes were dumped into the crusher. The moon broke through the fog and exposed the silver lever. I stepped on something as I reached and turned off the machine. Silenced descended. The moonlight was bright now as I looked down into the crusher.
It took a moment for my brain to catch up and for me to realize the crusher wasn't empty, that it wasn't a simple trick of the light. It took even longer to understand the dark stain that covered the steel beneath me. I looked again and turned away. My eyes landed on what I'd kicked. A Stetson hat.Seven
IGRABBEDthe rail, took a deep breath and managed to make it down the stairs before my knees gave out. I collapsed onto the bottom step and stared at the moon until it began to blur. Then I dropped my head between my knees and tried not to pass out.
Crushers were designed to slice through grapes and any remaining stems. There wasn't any need to call for help. The only thing I'd recognized was Todd's hat. My eyes closed against the night, against what I'd just seen. I sat for a few moments, breathing deeply.
When I could, I opened my eyes and waited for my head to clear. The flashlight swung up the front steps as Hayley returned to the house. I started to yell but turned to look down to the clearing, and the sound died on my lips. Hayley stood next to our booth in the festival area stacking boxes.
My eyes shifted back to the house. Whoever held the lightwas at the top of the steps. The beam arched across the landscape and the entire yard was illuminated. The light swung my way. Even though it was too far away for me to be seen, instinct took over and I ducked. The light lingered for what seemed an eternity. It finally disappeared, and the front door softly closed.
With both hands on the rail, I pulled myself up. I swayed and stumbled back into the fermentation building. The fire alarm was to the side of the door and I hit the switch. The sound blared through the building and bounced off the steel tanks. I turned on the lights. Whoever had killed Todd hadn't turned any of them on, hadn't touched any of the switches. Not that it would matter. It was someone who'd returned to the main house, someone whose fingerprints belonged there. I walked down the row and reached the front doors just as they opened.
Brice shut his phone as he stepped into the building, with Francesca right behind him. She was pushed out of the way by Stephen. Veronica clung to his arm, and both of them now wore robes.
“I've called the fire station,” Stephen shouted.
Connor arrived with Antonia, and he ran to turn off the alarm.
Hayley came through the rear double doors, followed by Marvin.
Chantal was the last to enter the building. She'd changed into red hip-skimming sweats and a midriff top and was out of breath.
“So,” Francesca glanced around. “Not that it's any of my concern, but where's the fire?”
“Todd's dead.” It came out as a whisper and nobody heard me.
“There isn't any fire.” I spoke louder this time. I wiped the dampness from my forehead with the back of my sleeve.
Brice waved his phone in the air. “What kind of game is this? I'm trying to work. I only get coverage in a couple of spots here, and the patientâ”
“That's enough,” Antonia said. “Penelope must have had a reason for setting off the alarm. Now tell us, Penelope”â her eyes turned toward meâ“what it is.”
“Brice, call the police. Todd's dead.”
Brice opened his phone and moved toward me. “Where is he?”
“Since when are you a doctor?”
“He's in the crusher. It was turned on.”
Everyone in the room knew what a crusher could do. Brice stopped and closed his phone. “I'll go check on him, but I don't need to call. The fire department will bring the police and paramedics.” He walked through the rear doors.
Hayley came up to me and pulled me close.
I looked over her shoulder at the faces around me. The shock was evident but seemed to hit Chantal hardest. She moaned, turned pale and grabbed for the door to steady herself.
When Brice came back a few minutes later, he silently shook his head, and Chantal's sobs filled the room.
It felt good to have Hayley's arm around me. I only had a few moments before the police arrived. All I had was the knowledge that one of them had returned to the house. One of them knew something. I took a deep breath and put the image I'd seen from my mind. “Did any of you go outside within the last hour?”
“I was in the library,” Antonia said. “With Connor. The rest of you answer her immediately.”
As the silence resumed, Antonia struck her cane against the cement floor. “Answer her!”
“I was in the breakfast room,” Chantal sobbed, tearstains dark on her red shirt.
“Did anyone see you in there?” The breakfast room had glass doors that led onto the patio, just a short walk from the path.
“I saw her.” Trust Stephen to be able to account for his sister's whereabouts. “Just as Veronica and I went upstairs. The rest of the time, Veronica and I were both in the west wing.”
“I saw Chantal too,” Marvin spoke up. “I also saw Veronica in the kitchen.” He rubbed his hand across raspy chin whiskers.
Veronica pulled her robe belt tighter. “I came back down to make tea while Stephen was in the shower,” she whispered.
“That's true,” Marvin said. “She did. I can see most of the main floor from the winery office.”
Veronica looked at him quickly, as did several others. It must have been strange for them to realize Marvin was able to observe them at will.
“'Course, if we have to answer, then you do too,” Marvin said.
I looked at him. “You know where I was. I'm the one that found him.”
“Not you.” He pointed to Hayley. “You.”Eight
“IWASat our booth.”
“I saw her down there.” I gave Hayley's arm a small squeeze. “She was on the festival grounds when I found the body.”
Marvin watched Hayley. “Before that, before you went to the booth, you and Todd were right outside the fermentation building.” He nodded his head toward the kitchen. “I was bringing back my dinner tray, and there you were, just the two of you.”
“That's where I left him. I walked down the path and he went inside. He said he had something to take care of.”
“Sure. I figured that's what you'd say.”
“Marvin, I just told you I saw Hayley down the hill, next to our booth.”
“Yeah, after Todd was killed.”
“How would she get there so fast?”
Antonia stamped her cane once again. “That's enough, Marvin.” Antonia gazed around the room. “Francesca, where were you?”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.” Francesca shrugged. “No matter. Brice and I've been working in the study the entire time.”
“Not the entire time.” Connor looked at Brice. “You walked out the side door at one point. You were out there for at least fifteen minutes.”
“Yes, damn it, but I was just on the porch. My phone doesn't get good reception in the house and it was an important call.”
That meant Francesca was alone for at least that long as well. Everyone in the house could have slipped away.
Marvin watched Hayley. I tightened my arm around her, but her pale face didn't respond.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
CYPRESSCove doesn't have much of a police force. We don't often need one, and we like it that way. A loud party or a tourist who'd indulged too much was a busy night. The entire force was Chief Lucas and a few deputies. Lucas was young, around thirty, with sandy blond hair and intelligent blue eyes. I liked him.
When he arrived, he had us return to the house while his men taped off the crushers and fermentation building. As he and one of his men questioned us individually in the breakfast room, the rest of us waited with another deputy in the library.
Since I was the one to find the body, he questioned me first, taking notes as I retraced the evening's events. ChiefLucas listened without comment until I told him I saw someone enter the house right after I found the body. He put his pen down.
“Do you know if someone in this family had a problem with Todd or might want him dead?”
“No. Chantal's interest was more than platonic and Marvin is jealous of anyone that shows promise, but Todd was only in charge of the tasting room.” I thought of his wedding day and the photographs I'd never take. “He was engaged to be married.” I thought once again of the sight in the crusher and tried to remember Todd's smile instead.
Lucas nodded. “Go back to Chantal.”
“Chantal and Todd seemed to be close at one point and, knowing her, I can only imagine it was romance she wanted, but I don't know the details. Stephen wanted to fire him but Antonia wouldn't let him.”
Lucas looked up from his notebook. “Boy, that's an unlikely couple. How'd you hear about it?”
“Thomas told me.”
“What would we do without small-town gossip?”
“Okay, there's something else you're going to hear, probably from Marvin. Hayley and Todd were together right outside the fermentation building before she went down the hill. So, they were alone for a few minutes. It doesn't mean anything, but I wanted you to hear it from me.”
“We'll ask everyone where they were at the time.”
“Huh,” I took a deep breath. “I sort of did that already, while we were waiting for you.”
Lucas just looked at me.
“It was the flashlight. I'd just seen one of them going backinto the house. I didn't want anyone to have time to come up with a plausible story. I thought the less time they had to think, the better.”
“Did it work?”
I hesitated. “Not the way I would have liked. From the sound of it, any one of them could have snuck away for long enough to kill Todd and get back.” I told Lucas where everyone claimed to be.
He looked up from his notes. “So, let's put the flashlight going back into the house aside. From what you've said, at one point after Ross and Thomas left, it was only you, Hayley and Todd outside.”
I kept my eyes on his. “That's because someone is lying. Hayley was in the clearing below right after I saw the flashlight on the front steps. Besides, she doesn't have a motive.”
Lucas looked at me. “Thanks, Penny. I'll have to check all the leads, but I don't think you need to worry.”
I didn't feel reassured. Lucas didn't have a vested interest in keeping Hayley safe, and I took little comfort in his words.
“Anything else?” I told him about Antonia's suspicions of someone tampering with the wine. Lucas listened but didn't ask anything when I'd finished.
“It seems unlikely to kill somebody for that, but we'll investigate everyone's motives.”
Connor was the last to talk with Lucas, and I waited with Hayley in the library. I sat on the couch where Chantal had been earlier in the evening, while Hayley stood by the glass doors and watched the events outside. The coroner had just left with Todd.
I checked my watch. It was one in the morning. All of ushad been in this room at nine thirty. The last time I'd seen Todd alive was outside, at nine forty. I'd given Hayley the prints and the flashlight to take to the booth. Todd and Hayley had walked away togetherâTodd to the fermentation building and Hayley to the path. I found Todd around ten after ten. Thirty minutes. Time enough to end Todd's life and change the lives of those around him forever.
The outside lights were still on and police tape surrounded the building. I wondered if Todd knew what was about to happen when he was pushed into the crusher. Did he hear it being turned on? He might have still been alive. Still aware.
The room started to spin, and I broke out in a cold sweat.
Hayley was by my side in an instant. “You don't look very good.”
It wouldn't help either one of us if I told her my thoughts. “I can't seem to get warm.”
I closed my eyes and pictured Todd in this room earlier. I stood and rubbed my arms against the chill.
Hayley had walked back to the window and stared out at the night. “They keep reminding me I was the last person to see him, before it happened.”
“Mostly Marvin, not that he's said anything more. You can see it in their eyes, though. Now I wish I'd stayed with Todd. I should have followed my instincts.”
“Your instincts? You couldn't have known what was going to happen.”
“There was something, though. Something about Todd that seemed wrong.”
“He seemed, I don't know, nervous. Excited maybe. He wasn't paying attention, and he stumbled at one point. Just not his normal self. He kept looking at his watch.”
“His watch. Why would he care what time it was, unless he needed to be somewhere? Maybe he was supposed to meet someone at the crusher.”
Hayley turned to me. “I think you're right. Now that I think about it, he could have been in a hurry to get somewhere. At the time the way he was acting didn't seem very important. Now I wish I'd been paying attention. I feel guilty, even though I didn't have anything to do with his death.”
I kicked myself again for the lost opportunity to see who'd returned to the main house.
At the bar, Francesca's handbag still sat on the counter. My eyes fell on the paperwork that had fallen out. Briefs, motions and a bunch of other stuff I didn't understand. There was also a copy of her bio. Under “Education,” it said, “Attended Layton Law School, Class of 1998.”It didn't say she'd graduated, but it was certainly implied. No mention of any other school. If she'd finished elsewhere, apparently it wasn't as impressive.
Outside, the fog had thickened, and the world was tucked under muted gray. Todd's death would change things. The festival was to start on Saturday, and Antonia had him scheduled for the Martinelli booth. Beyond that, she would need to hire someone for the tasting room.
Lost in these thoughts, I didn't notice when Antonia came to stand beside me.
“Stay for a moment. Please.”
Wisps of hair had escaped from the combs at the top of her head and there were circles under her eyes. It was easy to forget Antonia's age, with her perfect posture and tireless energy. Not now, though. Not as she stood and looked out the window at her beloved winery, divided in two by police tape.
When Chief Lucas was through with each of us, he called everyone to the library and addressed the group. “We have what we need for tonight. I may have additional questions for each of you, so please let my deputy know where each of you is going to be for the next seventy-two hours. Also, no one in this room is to leave town.”
Marvin mumbled something under his breath.
Chief Lucas held up his hand. “You have anything to add?”
“Just making sure you meant all of us.” Marvin turned and looked at Hayley.
Chief Lucas looked over at Hayley as well. “Yes, I meant what I said. Everyone.” His eyes lingered on Hayley, but it wasn't a look that held suspicion, and Hayley looked calm as she returned his gaze.
“If there isn't anything else, I'm finished for now.”
Marvin moved to the sliding doors to return to his apartment, and the rest of the family moved in separate directions through the house.
I touched Connor's jacket sleeve. “Can you give me a minute with Antonia? She wants to talk.”
Connor nodded, and walked with Hayley and Chief Lucas to the front door.
Antonia and I took a seat on the library couch. She clutched the silver handle of her cane with both hands.Although the skin was translucent and the bluish tint of her veins clearly visible, she grasped the handle with surprising strength.
“What prompted you to go into the fermentation building? Why were you out at the crusher?”
I told her everything. If she had a killer in the house, she needed to know.
“Do you think he was already dead when the crusher was turned on?”
“I hope so. At the very least I hope he was unconscious.” A chill once again coursed through me. “What do you think he was doing out there?”
“Todd was a conscientious worker, but I can't imagine any reason for him to be out at the crusher, especially at night. His duties were relegated to the tasting room.”
“Hayley said before she left him to go to the festival grounds he was distracted and kept looking at his watch. I think maybe he had a meeting scheduled with someone.”
“If he did, I don't know anything about it. It certainly had nothing to do with work.”
“Hayley feels like she should have known something was wrong with Todd and she let him down, that somehow she could have made a difference. There's only one way to help her. I want to know who did this. I need to, for Hayley's sake.”
“Good. I hoped you'd feel that way. I believe Hayley was the last person to see Todd alive.”
I looked hard at Antonia. “Except for his killer, of course.”
Antonia waved her hand. “I wasn't listening to Marvin. Of course I don't think Hayley did it. She'd have no reason.No, Todd's death is somehow connected to this winery. Someone here gained something from it.”
“Maybe what they wanted was to damage the winery. The sabotage wasn't enough, so someone resorted to murder.”
Antonia pushed herself up on her cane and walked to the fireplace.
“Could someone want to destroy this winery that much, enough to kill?”
Antonia studied her hands, turning the ring on her finger. “I don't know. I don't know what to think at this point. This winery is more than a business. It's my life. You know what I'm talking about.”
I nodded. Aunt Monique had felt the same way. I saw it in Connor and Hayley. More than a business. Creating a memorable wine was an art, a passion.
Antonia turned. “Maybe the goal isn't to destroy the winery. Maybe it's to destroy me.” There was pain in her eyes. “I admit it. I'm a better vintner than an employer. Certainly better than a mother.”
She swept her arms at the glass doors, toward the fields and vineyards beyond. “I realize I'm obsessive about this place. In the early years I had to be. It wasn't easy, you know. Not back when your aunt and I were the only two women owners in California. When my husband died, the kids were even more aware they came second to the success of the winery.”
Uncertainty shone in those steely green eyes, a look that didn't suit Antonia.
“Antonia, you might have made some mistakes with your children.” I shrugged. “I wasn't there and don't know. Either way, it doesn't matter now. Adults make their own decisionsregarding the directions of their lives. Apologize for the person you were then, if you need to, but don't take responsibility for their actions now. They're the only ones who can do that.”
She avoided my gaze and nodded. “I thought I was doing what was best for them, ensuring they had everything they could want. I thought a comfortable home, a good education, and a solid place in the community was enough. Now I'm not so sure.”
Her cheeks held that same touch of pink I'd seen earlier. Coming to stand in front of me, she rested her hands on the silver head of the cane.
“I've never spoken like that to anyone.”
“You need to be careful. There's someone here you can't trust.”
Antonia looked at me. When she spoke, there was strength in her voice. “I'm always careful, Penelope. Something here at the winery holds the answer to Todd's death. Maybe it started with the sabotage. Maybe he found out who it was and confronted them. Perhaps he discovered someone out there tonight and they had to kill him.”
I'd been thinking along the same lines. “When Todd came to see me about his wedding photos, he was upset about something. He wouldn't talk about it, but there was something on his mind. I just want you to be prepared for whatever we might find.”
Antonia's hands trembled slightly, but her voice was steady and her eyes held mine. “You said it yourself. People are responsible for their own actions. My children included.”
A few moments later, we joined Connor and Hayley in the hall and Antonia walked us to the door.
The three of us drove home in silence. Hayley turned tome, her eyes full of fear. I squeezed her hand, but she didn't respond.
I was involved, even if Antonia hadn't asked for my help. There was a cloud of suspicion over Hayley, and I'd do whatever it took to clear her. Beyond that, I'd found Todd and would forever have that image seared into my memory. Finding the person responsible was the only thing that might help.Nine
IDRIFTEDoff sometime near dawn. It was a dreamless sleep, which was probably a good thing. When I got up I went to Hayley's room, but she was gone. I made coffee and joined Nanook and Syrah outside in the warm morning sun. Connor joined me a few moments later.
“Have you seen Hayley? She isn't in her room.”
“She came into the barrel room early. She seemed okay but said she couldn't sleep. I gave her some work to do. Thought it would help.”
I shrugged. “I've been better.”
“You don't have to talk about it. 'Course, if you want to, I'll listen.”
I repeated the conversation with Antonia. Then he sighed.It was the guy sigh. It's when they want to tell you what to do but know that when they try, it's going to end poorly.
Before he could once again launch into why my involvement was a bad idea, the phone rang.
I hate to answer the phone.
I refuse to answer the phone.
I snatched it up before the end of the first ring.
“Coward,” he said.
“I can't believe Thomas and I missed everything.” Ross stopped. “That sounded terrible. I didn't mean to sound callous. Todd was terrific. Are you okay? Todd was hit with a bottle on the back of the head. Then he was pushed into the crusher.”
Small-town gossip at work. “One thing at a time. How do you know Todd was hit and then pushed?”
“The chief was in here first thing this morning to talk to Joanne. She works part-time in the gift store.”
“I suppose Lucas wanted to ask her about Todd. See if there was anything she could add that could help to explain why this happened.”
“I heard most of the conversation. He wanted her to know that at least Todd hadn't suffered.”
“I guess that's something to be grateful for. I'm surprised she came into work.”
“She isn't working. Said she just wanted to be around people. She doesn't have any family in town.”
“When did she start working for Thomas?”
“She goes to school in Monterey. Wants to be a marine biologist, and works there when she's out of school.” Rosspaused. “Lucas wanted to talk to her, so they decided to meet here. We heard the whole conversation.”
No surprise there. “Tell you what. Why don't I come into town for lunch and say hello to Joanne?”
“I think she'll be okay with that, if I tell her you were a witness and want to help Lucas. If you're here soon, you can try my truffle frittata.”
“On my way.”
By the time I was ready to go, Connor was back in the vineyards. I glanced at him as I drove by. A mistake. I got the look. I waved and became engrossed in adjusting the side mirror.
The morning was bright and brisk as I tooled down the two-lane road connecting Cypress Valley to the coast and the town of Cypress Cove.
Monterey, to the north, would be busy for the weekend as tourists and visitors from the south made their way up Highway 1 from Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. I merged with traffic then took the next right and made a sharp left onto Ocean Boulevard, the main artery of Cypress Cove.
If elves were to design and build a town, it would be this one. Angular and moss covered, with every roof pitched, every doorway arched. A temperate climate allowed for flowers year round, which grew in profusion from every available bit of earth.
I narrowly missed an errant tourist in the middle of the road and pulled into the parking lot. A tree-lined path connected the lot to the front of the building and the lobby. I walked to the main entrance, which was shared by Sterling and Beauty and the Bean, the coffee and gift shop. Flowers flanked the door, large pots of marigolds and chrysanthemums in bright yellow and bronze.
Mouthwatering aromas wafted into the lobby. I opened the front door to the restaurant and entered the main dining area.
I headed to the display of desserts, my favorite food group. Pastries and cakes with mountains of whipped cream were housed in glass cases designed to keep out marauders like me. Autumn blossoms, artfully arranged in hollowed gourds, graced the tops of the cases and tables. The whitewashed stucco walls and rough tile floor made the restaurant cool and inviting, even on the hottest days.
I reached into the glass case for a chocolate-covered strawberry and saw the reflection of a woman on the patio. Her head was slumped forward and she wiped away a tear. Slightly plump, with masses of unruly red hair, she looked like a garden fairy herself. Although the sun was warm, she pulled at the moss green sweater around her shoulders.
I walked over to the double doors and stepped into the morning sun. Joanne didn't look up as I dragged a chair over to her side of the patio table. I hated to interrupt her thoughts, to break the silence, but my desire to learn more about Todd compelled me forward.
She suddenly focused her soft blue eyes on me. “Are you Penny?”
“You must be Joanne.”
She held out her hand to shake mine, and there was a slight tremble.
“I feel like I know you. Your photographs are beautiful. I wishÂ .Â .Â .” She stopped.
I knew she was thinking of the wedding pictures I'd never take. “I know. Me too.”
Joanne took a ragged breath. “Ross said you wanted to talk about Todd.” Her eyes held questions.
“Thanks for seeing me. You see, I found him.” I hurried on, before she could ask any specifics I couldn't bring myself to answer. “Also, my niece was the last person with Todd before he, I mean, beforeÂ .Â .Â .”
Joanne closed her eyes, but not in time to stop the tears. “Todd was the nicest person I've ever known. I can't imagine anyone doing this to him.”
“How long did you date?”
“A little over a year. Todd grew up in Monterey. He was visiting his mother when I met him. He grew up as an only child and was really close to her, especially after his dad died. They came into the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where I was doing research. It took him a while but eventually he asked me out.”
“He seemed to like the work he did at Martinelli.”
“I guess. Oh, don't get me wrong. He loved his work. Viniculture came naturally to Todd. He was learning as much as he could about the business and about Martinelli Winery. It wasn't easy for him, though. Marvin Karp is the manager over there, and he always acted like Todd was after his job. Todd couldn't go to him for help and Marvin said some things that upset Todd.”
“I know Marvin. What kind of things did he say?”
“He pretty much let Todd know there wasn't a future for him at Martinelli. I told Todd not to worry about Marvin, but now I think there was something to Todd's concerns. I wonder, if Todd kept showing promise, if there was a chance Antonia might have offered him Marvin's job.”
“Marvin's very good, but if Todd proved better, it's a definite possibility. Antonia's first loyalty has always been what's best for the winery. How did Todd get along with the family?”
Joanne let out a sigh. “Great, at first. Stephen likes whatever his mother likes. And Francesca isn't at the winery very often, so that wasn't the problem.”
“But there was a problem,” I prompted when the silence lengthened.
Joanne looked out over the patio garden. “Have you ever met a woman who couldn't resist the challenge of a new man?” Joanne didn't wait for an answer. “Chantal is like that. We'd just started dating when Todd went to work for the Martinellis, but Chantal threw herself at him. She just can't help herself. Todd didn't want any part of it. Then Stephen got involved.”
“He was angry at Todd?”
Joanne shook her head. “No, funny enough. I mean at first he was. He thought Todd led Chantal on. As if she needed any encouragement. But after Todd told him he wasn't interested in Chantal, Stephen backed off.”
“Did Antonia know about Chantal and Todd?”
“I'm sure she did. Antonia doesn't miss much.” Joanne turned her face into the morning sun and exhaled deeply. “He was so excited when he got that job. He still enjoyed it, even after the drama with Chantal.”
“How did Chantal handle it?”
“Not well. She's used to getting her way.” Joanne paused, biting her lip. “She disappeared for a while. That is, she went on a binge. She likes to party and then she likes to go to the âspa.' At least that's what they call it, but everyone knows the truth. There's a clinic just north of Monterey that the old money in the valley uses.”
I knew the clinic. “Did she check herself in?”
Joanne pushed herself away from the table and we both stood. “Antonia insisted. She makes sure Chantal stays hiddenwhen she gets sloppy. It isn't good for the winery if one of the family members has a problem with alcohol. Or pills. Chantal's been on and off of both, for years.”
Joanne leaned on the table. “Somewhere around that time, she started seeing someone else, and she and Todd actually managed to become friends. It was almost like she trusted him because he never let her play her games on him.”
“Who did she start seeing?”
Joanne shrugged. “Todd didn't know. She wouldn't tell him, but it was clear it wasn't anyone good for Chantal. That was when she got badâwith the drugs and drinking, I mean.”
“I wonder if Stephen knows who it was. He seems overly protective, even for a big brother.”
Joanne smiled softly. “Oh, you noticed that, did you? Stephen acts like Chantal is made of glass.”
“How much time have you spent around them?”
“When I wasn't working I went and kept Todd company, so I saw them when they came into the tasting room.”
“Is Stephen always this protective of his sister?”
“Every time I've seen them. It's irritating, but I've never heard Veronica complain about it. She was a nurse in Monterey before marrying Stephen. It seems like she's fit right into that family, but I wonder how it's working. Can you imagine sharing a house with Antonia?”
“Not remotely. How long have they been married?”
“It's been years. Todd heard Antonia tell Veronica to start having children. Antonia wants heirs to continue the family legacy and inherit the winery. Stephen's being groomed to be the lucky recipient.”
“I heard about that. Francesca doesn't hide how much she wants the winery.”
“Well, you've picked up quickly on all the Martinelli family secrets.” Joanne smiled. “It's funny, but Francesca's more like her mother than she'd ever admit. She'd love to get her hands on the winery, but Antonia is determined to leave it to Stephen. I think that's what infuriates Francesca more than anything. Antonia was given an opportunity that she won't give her own daughter.”
“I'm not a fan of Francesca's, but I can understand that.”
Joanne rubbed her temples, her eyes closed.
“Let's go inside.” We walked to the patio door. “Just one more question.” I thought about Todd, and the wedding photos. “Todd came to my house, to ask meÂ .Â .Â .”
“I know, about being our photographer.”
I nodded. “He acted like there was something on his mind. Do you know what that might have been?”
“No. To be honest, we've mostly talked about the wedding the last couple of weeks.”
“If you think of anything, please call me. It would be something to do with the winery. Something that bothered him. Anything that might explain why he was out at the crusher alone that late at night.”
Joanne paled. “Is that where it happened?” She reached out and I grabbed her by the arm. “Lucas said he'd wait to tell me the rest when I was feeling stronger.”
Damn. “He was hit over the head. He was unconscious, and felt nothing.” I held her eye and willed her to believe me. I needed to believe it myself.
She nodded and steadied herself as I held open the door for her. We chose a window table and Joanne stopped and turned to me.
“I understand it wasn't an accident, but I'd assumed it wasa random murder. A robbery that Todd walked in on, or some terrible chain of events. Why all these questions about the Martinellis?”
“I'm just trying to understand what happened.”
Her eyes welled up. She turned to face the window. “I hope you figure it out. I still can't believe he's gone. How could this happen in Cypress Cove? Things like this never happen here.”
Outside, a web stretched from the window frame to the potted marigolds. As a trapped honeybee struggled, a spider descended the spindled thread.
Joanne watched for a moment, then shuddered and turned away. “At least, they never have before.”
“TOfully appreciate the bouquet, twirl the glass several times. This allows the undertones of fruit, in this case pear, to rise from the glass.” Connor held the glass up to the light. “Also, notice the faint amber hue of this wine. This is caused by using more of the Cabernet grapes.”
I poured a glass from the bottle in front of me, picking up where Connor had left off. “In this Syrah, on the other hand, you can see the difference in the color, which is a clear, true burgundy.”
On the first Tuesday evening of every month, Connor and I teach wine-tasting classes in town at the Cypress Cove Civic Center. The class is just an overview of what many consider an art and a lifelong study, but it helps when trying to distinguish between different labels and vintages. The tourists enjoy it, and it keeps our labels fresh in their minds when they return home and wander down the wine aisles in their local markets. In anyevent, Connor and I enjoy sharing our knowledge. The evenings can be fun.
When tasting, you're supposed to refrain from drinking the entire taste. You empty the remainder in the vessel provided and move on to the next selection. In classes given on wine appreciation at the college, I've actually seen that happen.
Here, though, you have a roomful of tourists on vacation. They don't grasp we often have six or seven bottles to taste and, by the third or fourth glass, they don't care. Sometimes you get large parties. Those are the most fun. Tonight it was the Ferrari Club, which had driven the coastal route up from Los Angeles. Twice yearly they came and took over the town for a long weekend. You could tell when those weekends occurred just by the number of times you saw the familiar black horse rearing up, the Ferrari logo, emblazoned on every imaginable piece of clothing.
Halfway through the tasting, Stephen Martinelli appeared in the back of the room. The Martinellis frequently gave classes at the civic center as well. Todd had run the classes, and I wondered who would take over. Stephen must have been checking on when they were scheduled next. He looked up and I caught his eye. I waved briefly and got a slight nod in return.
How did Veronica let him walk around dressed like that? This evening's ensemble consisted of a drab green sport coat and weird pink tie combination.
I nodded to Connor to continue, scooted off the platform and weaved through the Ferrari Club members. Stephen saw me as I worked my way toward him, but that didn't stop him from trying to leave. I caught up to him just as he was about to depart through the fire exit. He would rather set off the alarm than talk to me. Great.
“Hi, Stephen. Got a minute?” I wedged in between him and the door.
“Uh, sure.” He glanced around the room. His hands were in his pockets, and as he shifted his weight from side to side, I was struck again by how someone as vital as Antonia could have produced someone so, well, bland. Maybe that was why he wore those ghastly color combinations. Otherwise, he would have completely matched the brown wall behind him. Actually the wall had more color. And more personality.
“Good group tonight.” That's me. Master conversationalist.
“Uh, yes, it looked like it was.” Silence.
Well, that was fun. Let's try that again. “Did Martinelli have a seminar today too?”
“No. We had one scheduled for tomorrow, but the person teaching was supposed to be ToddÂ .Â .Â .”
Silence. He wiped his brow and avoided my gaze.
“Stephen, do you mind if we talk about last night?”
“I guess not, but I don't know what there is to say. I thought at this point the police would be looking into that.”
“They are, but I have some thoughts on it and I'd really like to get your input.” For results, when I can't think of a lie, flattery runs a close second.
“Uh, do you mind if we sit down over there?”
I didn't mind. Stephen had turned milky pale and was sweating. Better to sit down now than scoop him up after he swooned at my feet. We sat on the bench around the fireplace, which was burning low and steady, just enough to take the chill out of the cool night air. Not that Stephen was cold. He immediately removed his jacket and placed it between us on the bench.
“So, Stephen, tell me about Chantal and Todd.”
My directness appeared to catch him off guard.
“Hum, I don't thinkÂ .Â .Â . Why do youÂ .Â .Â .”
I was out of patience. “Come on. Spit it out.”
“Well, I'm not sure what to tell you. Since you've brought it up, I guess you've heard Chantal was interested in Todd.” He wiped his forehead.
“Yes, and I also know he rejected her. That must have been quite a shock for someone like Chantal. I'm sure she isn't used to being rejected.”
Stephen eyes grew wide. “You can't possibly think Chantal had anything to do with last night. Chantal wouldn't hurt anybody.”
“It isn't always easy to know what people will do when they're upset. I heard you weren't very happy either. Didn't like the hired help rejecting your favorite sister, did you?”
“That's crazy.” He wiped his brow.
Boy, was he sweating.“Is it? From what I saw last night, Chantal's certainly drinking again. Was she more upset about Todd than you might know? It wouldn't be the first time a broken heart was motive enough to kill.”
I didn't like using Chantal's problems as an inducement to get to Stephen. It felt rotten, but I wasn't here to win a popularity contest. I was no expert on looking into murders, but I was a first-class information-getter. You take a deep breath, find the soft spot in people, then press.
Stephen took a ragged breath. “I'm telling you, Chantal wouldn't hurt anyone. Anyone but herself, that is. She didn't have anything to do with last night.”
“How can you be so sure? You said you saw Chantal go into the breakfast room and then you and Veronica went upstairs.”
“Yes. But while Veronica was taking her bath, I went back down to see how Chantal was.”
“How come you didn't say that last night?”
“Veronica thinks I protect Chantal too much.”
Stephen looked away. “Sometimes.”
“So, what happened when you came back downstairs?”
“I wanted to stop her from drinking any more than she already had. She was at the table, crying. I helped her up the stairs and into her room. Then I went back to the west wing. Veronica didn't even know I was gone.”
“But Marvin said he saw Veronica in the kitchen. She said she made tea.”
“She made it before that, while I took my shower.”
Inwardly I groaned. Chantal would have had time to go out the door of the breakfast room, meet Todd, kill him and get back before Stephen returned downstairs. Veronica would have had time before she came up, when Stephen was in the shower. Finally, if Veronica's baths were anything like mine, Stephen had easily had as long as he needed to kill Todd and return to help Chantal up the stairs.
Did Todd have a prearranged meeting with someone at the tanks? Why then? Did he hear something, or follow someone? This wasn't getting me anywhere. “While you were downstairs, did anyone else see you?”
“I don't know. I was only concerned with getting Chantal to her room before Antonia saw what a mess she was.”
“I take it your mother doesn't like seeing Chantal when she's been drinking.”
Stephen gave a mirthless laugh. “She threatened to putChantal back into the hospital for another drying-out session if she didn't pull herself together. With the festival this weekend she's keeping an eye on her.”
“Sometimes protecting someone isn't the best thing for them,” I said in a quiet voice. “Maybe treatment would be good for Chantal in the long run.”
Stephen sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Maybe, but she's been in there so many times and it hasn't helped so far. I just want to protect her, and my mother, from more disappointment.”
“How many times has Chantal been in?”
“Eight or nine times over the years. Her first was when she was only eighteen. That's when I met Veronica.”
“Veronica worked in a treatment center?” I didn't mean to sound shocked, but I'd always found Veronica wound just a little too tight. I couldn't see her as a calming influence on patients being treated for chemical dependency. Stephen's next words validated my skepticism.
“No. Veronica's worked in various departments in the hospital, but never in the drug treatment facility. She was a nurse and now she volunteers, mostly in the office.”
Now that Chantal wasn't the topic, he'd relaxed a bit.
“So you met at the hospital. How?”
“I went into the hospital cafeteria for coffee, and we got to talking. One thing led to another. We married soon after.”
I waited for details, but that was all he had to offer. He didn't smile at the memory and didn't strike me as a man overly in love with his wife.
“So, that's it, then.” Yawn.
It was as if Stephen read my thoughts. “Veronica and I havea perfectly good marriage. Oh, I know it may seem tedious compared to some, but it suits us.”
That, I believed. I couldn't imagine the girls lined up to be married to Stephen, even for the chance to be the next matron of Martinelli Winery, and Stephen had elevated a nervous, high-strung woman to the level of society doyenne. In some circles, this marriage had more going for it than most.
“Back to last night. Did you see anyone else while you were downstairs?”
“No, but I heard Francesca and Brice talking from behind the library door.”
“Were they talking to each other, or on their phones?”
I got a small shrug. “I'm afraid I couldn't say. If I had to guess, I'd say they were probably on their phones.”
Although I didn't say anything, I knew it was possible they weren't in there at all. People have played taped conversations behind closed doors before. I read Agatha Christie.
“If you're going to suspect anyone in the family, though, I'd think she'd be your first choice.” Stephen's voice sounded confident.
“Todd's mother owned about a hundred acres of grapes not far from here. She didn't harvest on her own but sold the crop outright to the surrounding wineries.”
“Nothing you've said so far makes me think Francesca had a reason to want Todd dead.”
“I haven't finished. Three years ago, Francesca went to her with an offer to buy the property. She refused. Somehow Francesca put the squeeze on the surrounding wineries to stop buying her harvest.”
“How do you know this?”
“There are rumors. Stories.”
“So how would Francesca get the wineries to stop buying the crop?”
“Who knows? Francesca's an attorney. Her specialty is real estate law. You go back in California history far enough and you can find everything here was once owned by someone else. A well-placed threat here or there might have worked wonders. But with Francesca, you never know. She can be vicious and very creative.”
“So, what happened next?”
“Like I said, the wineries wouldn't buy the contract for the harvest. It rotted in the fields. Todd's mother didn't have the reserves to suffer that kind of catastrophe. She was forced to sell.”
I looked at Stephen closely. He was enjoying this narrative. His shoulders were back and his voice steady. “AndÂ .Â .Â .”
“Haven't you guessed?” Stephen's smile was grim, not reaching his eyes. “The property was purchased by my lovely sister. Make no mistake, she will have her own winery. Even if she has to steal it.”Eleven
“IHATEto admit it, but Antonia's right. You're too fat and officially on a diet.” I struggled to move out from under Syrah. Having been threatened with diets before, she settled into the warm spot and promptly went back to sleep. No crying for breakfast, which meant Hayley had fed her. I walked into the kitchen where Hayley and Connor sat with coffee.
I yawned. “Did you eat?”
Connor nodded. “Leftover key lime pie.”
“Oh, goodie. Glad I asked.”
Outside the fog was damp and thick. Mornings were like that in Cypress Cove. One day the sky was crystal blue, the next, you could only snuggle under the comforter and wait for a break in the chill morning air.
I walked to the window. “I wonder if this will burn off later.”
“Connor started a fire,” Hayley said.
He nodded at me. He never sat still long enough to be cold. Or to gain weight. I, on the other hand, had no problem sitting still for long periods of time, preferably with a good book, which was probably why I couldn't eat key lime pie for breakfast.
Hayley put her coffee down. “Come on, Nanook. Let's go for a walk.”
They bounced down the back steps and disappeared into the fog.
“I'm going up to Martinelli this morning,” Connor said. “One of their tractors quit and they want to borrow one of ours. Do you want me to bring anything else up to the booth while I'm there?”
I pulled a mug out of the cabinet. “I have some prints of Martinelli Winery that Antonia hasn't seen. The ones I took the other night. Let me get them and some coffee and I'll go with you.”
Connor studied me over the rim of his cup. “I saw you grill Stephen last night after the tasting. He sure was trying to get away. If there was a fire, he would have been right in line to be first out the emergency exit.”
“Fat chance of a fire with him around. He's such a wet blanket, I'd throw him on the flames. Put it out in no time.” I carried my cup over to the window. “And I didn't âgrill' him. I just wanted his take on what happened. According to him, there's no way Chantal had anything to do with Todd's death.”
“I can't see her being the one either.”
“Imagine my surprise. You wouldn't be defending Chantal out of appreciation for her more obvious charms, now, would you?”
Connor grinned. “She is quite âcharming,' isn't she?”
I rolled my eyes.
“I just can't see her going through everything required to kill him. First of all, she'd been drinking pretty heavilyÂ .Â .Â .”
“Unless she was pretending. It was a clear liquid. For all we know it was water, not vodka, she was slugging back all night long.”
He looked at me. “You just aren't going to give her the benefit of the doubt, are you?”
“I need to balance out your urge to rush to her rescue.”
“I'm not rushingÂ .Â .Â .” He stopped. “I'm not going to win this one. Let me just say I'm sure she was drinking.”
“Because she gave me a hug good-bye. I smelled the vodka on her breath.”
The pit of my stomach twisted, and I threw my hands in the air. “Fine, whatever. She was drinking. And I couldn't care less who you hug.”
Connor watched me. “Well, just so long as you don't care.”
I walked to the coffeepot and imagined the kind of hugs Chantal was likely to give. Not a lot of daylight would show between her and anyone she grabbed on to. I poured myself some coffee and when I could continue the conversation, I returned to the table.
“So. It's unlikely she would have been able to carry out any plan to murder Todd, even if she'd wanted to.”
Connor nodded. “She'd have to meet him at the crusher up on the platform, then hit him on the head and push him in. And on top of that, to actually turn it onÂ .Â .Â .”
An unwelcome memory of that night filled me, and the room started to tilt.
Connor stood to grab my arm. “Sorry. That wasn't what you needed first thing this morning.”
“It's still so fresh in my mind. I'm sure it'll get better with time.” I tried to believe my own words. “Actually, I know what you're saying about Chantal and, at the moment, I can't see her responsible either. Unrequited love, though, is right up there as a reason why people get killed. She isn't coming off the list yet.”
Connor took a sip of coffee. “I'll tell you who should be at the top of your list. Francesca. That woman is chiseled out of solid ice.”
I told him about my trip to Layton.
“So she didn't graduate from there. Maybe she went somewhere else. If she doesn't have her degree at all, would she kill Todd if he found out about it?”
“Maybe, and there's more to it.” I repeated what I'd heard about Todd's family's vineyard.
“Todd must have held a grudge against Francesca for forcing his mother to sell, especially since he would have been the one to inherit.”
“It was clear at the MCWGA he was furious with her, but that doesn't explain why Todd was the one who turned up dead, unless he threatened Francesca somehow, or he found a way to get the land back.”
Connor walked to the sink. “Look, you probably don't want to hear this, but I'm going to say it anyway. Someone out there's a murderer, either because they have something to hide, or something to lose. They aren't going to be crazy about you nosing around.”
“I'll be careful.”
He lifted his brow.
“I mean it. I'll try not to let my nose get me into too much trouble.”
He hesitated then nodded. He moved to the fireplace and used the fire poker to push the burning wood to the back.
I felt taken care of. A guardian angel in blue jeans. When I lived in the city, every spare moment was spent at the paper. I think I'd been lonely and hadn't realized it.
It was nice he was here. Someone looking out for me. It'd been a long time.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
ALTHOUGHAntonia kept several full-time staff, it was Veronica who answered our knock at the Martinelli home some time later.
“Come in. Come in.” Veronica's hand held the door and the other fiddled with the ever-present pearls. She wore a neutral sweater set with a matching wool skirt. Who wore pantyhose and heels just to be around the house? Veronica must be working hard to convince Antonia she was ready to step into those matriarchal shoes. In all fairness, though, it was tougher to run a winery than most people realized. If Veronica was this committed to the winery and the Martinelli family, she deserved some credit.
She was a chatty little thing as she led us into the library.
Antonia sat at the desk, going over papers. “Good morning.” Antonia put her pen down. “Would you like some coffee?”
As Veronica turned to get us some, Connor and I declined.
I walked over to the desk. “Here, Antonia.” I handed her the photos. “I took these the other day. I think they'reprobably some of the best photos I've ever taken of your winery.”
Antonia peered at the photos. “The shrubs are all overgrown. They're a mess.”
“That's part of why I like these pictures so much. It makes the whole place look rooted, older.”
Antonia handed the pictures back to me. “The gardeners are here today. You should have waited.”
Who's the photographer anyway? “Well, I like them.” I took them from her and put them back in my bag.
Connor looked amused. “I have the tractor out on the trailer, if Marvin can help unload it.”
“Of course. I'll walk down with you to find him. Veronica, stay and keep Penelope company.” She sounded like she was talking to the family pet.
“Certainly, Mother.” Veronica nodded as Antonia led Connor through the glass doors and into the morning fog.
Veronica perched on the edge of the couch, ankles crossed, but her foot tapped on the floor and she picked at a button on her sweater. This was not a woman used to relaxing. She was a bundle of nerves.
“I love this room.” The walls were covered in peach silk that complemented the cream brocade furnishings. Fresh-cut flowers in Waterford vases rested on gleaming cherrywood side tables. Along the walls, between the sparkling windows, cherrywood bookcases ran floor to ceiling. A ladder on a ceiling track made access to the top shelves convenient. I wondered if anyone had ever taken a flying leap at it to sail around the room. Certainly not the eager-to-please woman sitting across from me.
“It is beautiful, isn't it?” Veronica sprang up. “Would you like to see the family portraits I recently had framed?”
Veronica carried on about old wedding photos and various uncles and aunts. Yawn. I listened to her prattle on about long-dead members of her husband's family and wondered how to bring the conversation around to more recent events.
Veronica solved the problem for me. “The police were here again early this morning, asking the family all sorts of personal questions. I certainly can't believe they actually suspect one of us had anything to do with this nasty business.”
“Actually, it seems reasonable for the police to interview the family first. You were all here at the time, and the reality is most homicides are committed by people the victim knew.”
Veronica reached for a spent blossom in a vase. “I suppose, but after all this family has done for the community, it seems reasonable to expect some special consideration. And as for the notion someone in this family had something to do with that business”âshe gestured toward the back windowsâ“why, that's just ridiculous! Surely the police must realize it was someone who wandered onto the property, probably looking for something to steal. If they surprised Todd, he could have fallen into the crusher.”
“Perhaps, but would someone who wandered onto the property know how to work the crusher?”
“That machine is easy to turn on. You don't need to be strong. I've seen Antonia work it a hundred times.”
Veronica caught my glance and stopped, her hand once again on the pearls. “That sounded terrible. I didn't mean to insinuate Antonia had anything to do with this.” She was pale and seemed to shrink beneath her sweater set.
“I know that. In the end, what matters is how everything looks to the police.”
“You're right. I'm sure it will all work out, but still, please don't repeat what I said. It sounded terrible.”
“Of course Antonia knows how to work the crusher. Everyone who lives on a winery probably knows how to run that machine.”
“Yes, yes. Of course you're right. During crush, everyone in the household is pulled in to help.”
I wasn't going to point out she'd brought the likely list of suspects right back to where she'd tried so hard to avoid: the immediate family.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Ileft Veronica a short time later to walk the grounds. Since Antonia had given her implicit instructions to keep me company, she'd been reluctant to let me go, but she'd poured herself a cup of coffee, and I wouldn't be able to take high-strung Veronica in the throes of a caffeine fit.
The police, no doubt, have a system to figure things out when solving a murder. I'm sure they have a formula or a profile they use. Without anything to go on beyond my gut, I was going with my theory that Francesca did it. Nonscientific, but there it was. She was the obvious one to want Todd dead. He might have confronted her about how she ended up with his mother's land, the land that was supposed to be his. Todd was agitated when he came to see me. I wish now I'd pushed him harder to tell me what was wrong. Then, there was that whole thing about her not graduating from Layton. Just one more thing that didn't add up about her.
I made my way through the side yard, toward the back of the property. Gardeners worked in the beds around the house and winery buildings; the bushes and shrubs were all trimmed back, neat and orderly, just as Antonia preferred.
Fog danced around my legs as I walked across the newly mowed lawn, toward the path down to the festival grounds. I passed the storage buildings but stopped at the winery office. Antonia had sent Marvin to help Connor unload the tractor in the front of the house. I nodded at one of the gardeners, who pushed a wheelbarrow of trimmings past me. When he'd turned the corner, I paused at the office window and peered in.
Paperwork and a ceramic coffee cup, white with the words “Viva Las Vegas”in red, sat on the desk. Beyond the office was a doorway that led to a small apartment. There was an unmade bed and I could see a corner of the kitchen, dishes piled in the sink.
I turned my attention back to the desk. Invoices and a letter opener, a couple of receipts and what looked like a racing form.
I really needed to get better at reading upside down.
I swiveled to look back at the house. Sure enough, you could see most of each room from this window. I would have tried the door but Veronica stood at the back windows watching me, so I waved and continued toward the path down the hill. Below me stood the main exhibit tents of soft white muslin, each topped with the flag of the winery sponsoring that tent. The colors looked muted in the misty gray.
To my left was the fermentation building, silent behind the yellow police tape. I was behind the office now, and out of sight of the main house. I stopped. No doubt the police wouldfind anything in there that could help. On the other hand, Lucas hadn't seemed to take the wine tampering very seriously. Hmm, what to do, what to doÂ .Â .Â .
The tape left a streak of moisture on my sleeve as I pushed it over my head. I scooted to the entrance, stepped inside, and eased the door closed behind me.
As on the night of Todd's murder, the room was warm and humid. My running shoes were silent on the tile floor and I left the main lights off. No need to advertise that I'd ignored the police tape. Since I wasn't sure where to start, I focused down the center aisle to the double doors that led out the rear of the building. I wasn't in a hurry to open those doors again. The crushers could wait until last.
I let my attention wander to the aisles that ran the length of the building. There were perhaps ten rows on each side of the main walkway, with barrels stacked toward the ceiling. The building was enormous. Four times the size of the fermentation building at our winery.
I made my way to the first row of barrels. It was dark and I walked with care, led by one overhead light. It grew darker the farther I walked into the building. I reached into the pocket of my jacket and grabbed my keys and the small flashlight that dangled from them, an addition after the last time I'd been in this room. I turned it on and swung it side to side. The reflection of the light between the barrels bounced off the floor in the aisles next to me as I moved down the rows. I didn't know what I hoped to find, so I took my time.
Halfway down the second aisle, my brain registered something had changed. It was quiet, with just the hum of the fans in the background. I turned back, retraced my steps and again shined the light between two barrels sitting to my right. Nogleam of tile floor. Something blocked the light. Silently I bent down and directed the light between the barrels. Black pants. Black gloves. Someone stood listening in the row next to me.
My heart started knocking around in my chest and there were black spots in front of my eyes.
“Who's there?” I tried to yell, but it came out more like a whimper. The leg moved and glass broke. Steps pounded on the floor as someone ran down the aisle. I started for the main door and stopped; the steps were headed in the opposite direction. With less-than-lightning-fast reflexes, I realized they wouldn't risk being seen in the front of the building and would use the rear exit. As I turned and ran back I could hear the cost of my hesitation: the sound of the rear doors.
Sure enough, the door stood open and I was alone. I avoided looking at the crushers, ducked under the police tape and walked the twenty yards to the edge of the bluff. Nothing. Turning to my right the hillside loomed in front of me, blanketed by trees.
I walked to the edge of the growth and stepped into the brush. It was darker there, the sky canopied by branches. The trees were thick enough to block the house and other buildings from my sight. The crunch of fallen leaves, brittle under my feet, filled the silence, but other than that it was completely still. Either I was alone, or someone waited for me deeper in the shadows. A crow flew overhead and its cry echoed in the stillness. I listened and looked around. Nothing.
I didn't have a plan if I actually found someone. What was I going to do, tackle them in the forest? To be honest, I'm not the bravest person by nature. A chill ran though me. Forget going any farther. I had to fight just to stay in place. I backed out of the woods, returned to the fermenting building, slippedback inside and closed the door. I leaned against the wall and stopped to catch my breath. I really needed to work out more.
Turning on the flashlight, I made my way down the row the intruder had just vacated.
Halfway down the aisle a broken wine bottle was scattered across the floor. I bent over to look. It wasn't just glass. A brownish powder was mixed in and drifted through the air. Someone had dropped a wine bottle full of something that didn't belong in the fermentation building. I felt along the top of the nearest barrel and was rewarded with the feel of the opening where the cork belonged. Antonia was right. Someone was sabotaging Martinelli Winery.
The base of the bottle was still intact and held some of the powder. I used my boot toe to sift through the broken glass. A basic wine bottle without a label. Whoever had done this could walk around the winery at will and not be noticed. The bottle breaking was bad luck for someone. If I'd passed them outside the building holding the same bottle, I wouldn't have thought anything of it.
I used my foot to push the largest pieces of glass under the barrels, where they wouldn't be seen. Without knowing what the powder was, I didn't want to touch it with my bare hands, so I reached into my purse and grabbed the envelope that held Antonia's pictures. Using a photo, I scooped up some of the powder and put it in the envelope. The building remained quiet as I made my way back to the entrance.
With the doors closed behind me, I scooted under the police tape and made my way around the corner of the winery office.
“Looking for something, missy?”Twelve
MISSY?That used to tick me off, even back when I was one.
I pushed off the wall and towered over Marvin Karp. An easy thing to do since I had five inches on him.
He seemed undaunted. “Yup, there isn't much I miss from that window.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward his office.
Okay, great. He'd seen me come out of the fermentation building. Maybe defiance wasn't the best stance, considering he actually had something on me. He couldn't have been in there with me, because he'd been with Connor, and he wouldn't have seen the person run away, since the back door wasn't visible from here. I wouldn't learn anything from him and turned to walk away.
“I just helped your man unload the tractor.” He hookedhis thumbs into the loops of his jeans as he rolled back on his heels. “You oughta get going. He's waiting for you.”
Damn. Marvin telling me to get going prevented me from leaving just yet. I turned back to him. He scratched at the gray stubble on his chin. Something was different. Today his usual glare had been replaced with something else. Amusement. He was enjoying something. No doubt it was at someone else's expense. Maybe it was that he'd just caught me where I didn't belong, but as I looked at him, I realized it was more than that. He wasn't amused. He was satisfied.
It took a master's touch to turn a bunch of grapes into really good wine. Marvin seemed to have that quality in excess. From what I'd heard, Todd had shown the same promise. With Todd gone, Marvin's position was secure. The timing worked. His office was adjacent to the fermentation building and it would have been easy to entice Todd out on some pretense of winery business.
“So, you said you saw Veronica in the kitchen the night of Todd's death.” I nodded toward the winery office. “From that window.”
His eyes narrowed. “That's what I said, all right. Chantal too.” He jerked his thumb back over his shoulder. “I was right there at that window the whole time, and I'd like to hear someone say different.” His voice rose an octave. “To them, I'm just a hired hand. It would take nothing for them to pin this on me if they could.”
“Oh, come on, Marvin. Nobody's trying to pin anything on you.”
“You don't know much about this family, do you, missy? If you ain't blood, you ain't. They'd stick me with this, or even you, if it kept their own from going down. I've takencare of that, though.” His look of satisfaction returned. “I've taken well good care of that.”
“What've you done?”
“All I'm saying is what I already said, little missy. I didn't leave that spot the night Todd died. I saw what I saw, and that's all I'm saying.”
With that, he disappeared into the winery office. Marvin was amused by causing discomfort to others. I didn't know what he'd done, but I was sure someone else wouldn't find the situation nearly so funny.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
ONour way home, I repeated my conversation with Marvin. I also told Connor about the powder and the unknown person in the fermentation building. I didn't tell him I'd briefly considered looking for the person in the woods. I admitted going under the police tape. That was enough. I didn't feel like facing those piercing blue eyes right then.
When we reached the house we headed down to the offices and the winery lab. Ours was quite small, although some of the labs on larger wineries can be very extensive.
“Let me have the powder.”
I pulled the envelope from my bag. “You don't know what it is. Don't touch it with your bare hands.”
He held it up to the light. “I've got a pretty good idea.”
He poured a bit on a slide and slipped in onto the microscope.
“Yup, it's Brett.”
He stood up and gestured. “Not who. What. Brettanomyces, usually just called âBrett.' See for yourself.”
I peered at the tiny specks. “I think I see something. What is it?”
“It's yeast. In certain wines and in small amounts, it's usually okay. Sometimes it's even a good thing. You said there was a whole bottle of this stuff?”
“Yes, and the cork of the nearest barrel was out.”
He raised his brows. “A few tablespoons of this would ruin a barrel in no time. It multiplies in the wine, and the result isn't pleasant.”
“What does it do?”
“Makes the wine taste bitter and smell like a wet horse blanket.”
Connor carefully folded the envelope and threw it away. Taking the slide, he walked toward the sink. “You need to figure out how to tell Antonia she's got a real problem with someone at her winery. But first, you need to wash your hands.”
I walked back to the house, taking a seat at the desk and thinking through the events of that morning. Someone had taken quite a chance, but to carry the yeast in a wine bottle would almost ensure nobody would question the contents, especially if the person belonged at the winery. Some of the surrounding wineries were jealous of Antonia's success, but I couldn't imagine any of them resorting to this. Once again, Francesca and her anger at Antonia's decision to leave the winery to Stephen came to mind. I wondered where she was right now.
Around noon, Hayley came in. Her search through the kitchen cupboards and refrigerator was loud, and I pushed back from the desk.
Wednesdays were reserved for a standing lunch with mybest friend and cousin, Annie Moore, the town veterinarian. Before Annie came to town the closest vet was in Monterey, and I'd convinced Annie to move here not long after she graduated from UC Davis. She fell in love with Cypress Cove the first time she came for a visit, so convincing her to open a practice here wasn't difficult.
We don't look anything alike. Annie is five-foot-two, has auburn hair and weighs around a hundred pounds. I'm eight inches taller, with streaky blond hair, and weigh decidedly more. The giveaway that we're family is the same sense of humor, which typically bursts forth at inappropriate moments, and a tendency to rush into situations without stopping to ask questions. We also have matching hazel eyes we inherited from our grandmother.
The sun had burned off the morning gloom and was high in the cloudless sky, so I lowered the top on my car, waved to Hayley as she ate on the back patio and pulled into the lane. I turned up the local PBS station, and Vivaldi washed over me, smooth as the fresh autumn air.
I was almost at the turn into town when I spotted a car, nose first in the ditch ahead. I slowed and turned down the music. The car was partially hidden beneath an oak tree. I took a good look at the car. Oh, great. A red Porsche. New. Chantal's car was as easy to spot as she was.
I slowed down to a crawl on the empty road and took another look. Something wasn't right. The car was stopped at an odd angle in the ditch, almost as if it had drifted off the road, and it was pulled too far into the tree. The branches dug into the hood and were going to leave scratches when she tried to back out.
I pulled in beside the car and jumped out, balancing my concern with curiosity. Nobody was inside and the driver's door hung open. The car rested against the trunk of the tree, and the brake hadn't been set.
A sound came from the open field below and I walked toward the embankment. Chantal sat on a rock. She faced down into the valley, toward the creek winding along the bottom. Her normally perfect hair was pulled into a disheveled ponytail, and the loose-fitting jacket and jeans were completely unlike her usual attire.
The car hadn't actually run into the tree, and I could see she wasn't hurt. No longer concerned for her safety, my curiosity took over. While I stood there and wondered how to approach her, she turned. She didn't seem startled. She didn't react in any way. Rather, she released a long-held breath, pushed herself up from the rock and walked toward me. She moved as though the effort was enormous, as if braced against a nonexistent wind.
When she reached me, I was startled at how pale she was. Gone was the red lipstick. Black streaks mapped where tears had fallen. The pain in her eyes was evident and private, and she turned away to face the valley once again.
“I envy you, you know.” Chantal spoke without turning back. “You're surrounded by people who love you. You know who you are. You seem fulfilled. You seem happy.”
Knock me over. A lonely and vulnerable Chantal hadn't occurred to me. I suppose that could explain why she came on to every man she met. To hear her humble admission made me do a quick mental adjustment of my impression of her life.
“You have friends. People you can rely on. Todd and I had that, at least for a while. I really miss him.” She brokeoff, staring into the valley below. “Just not the way everyone thinks. I never felt romantic about Todd.”
“Why do you think everyone assumed you did?”
She turned. “Oh, come on. Look at me.” A small smile touched the corners of her mouth. “Not exactly at this moment, but how I normally look.” She shrugged. “Everyone always assumes if I'm interested in a man, it's sexual interest.”
“Yes, I admit it. I'm a flirt.” Her smile faded. “Never with Todd, though. He was the best friend I've ever had.”
She looked back over the valley. “It's just different with everyone else. Like Stephen. Don't get me wrong, he's a great brother, but I feel like he wants what's best for the family before what's best for me. With Todd it really felt like it was about me being happy.”
“Did your family know how close you two were?”
She studied me for a moment then shrugged. “I didn't hide it. It must have been pretty obvious I preferred his company to theirs.”
“But just as a friend.”
“Just as a friend.”
“I can't help it. You sound sincere, but it's hard for me to believe you just wanted to be friends with a manâany man, much less one as attractive as Todd.” I thought of the boyfriend she'd stolen from me years before. “You forget, I've known you a long time.”
Chantal straightened her shoulders and looked me squarely in the eyes. “I understand why you'd have your doubts, but I'm telling you the truth.”
I believed her. For the first time in all the years I'd known her, I believed what she was telling me.
“Okay, Chantal, if that's the case, what happened? Everyone knows you and Todd had a falling-out.”
“I pushed him away. My best friend. He wasn't happy with what I was doing with my life. He was right, but I pushed him away.”
“What were you doing?”
She paused. “I made some really dumb mistakes and one of them, just one of them, was drinking.”
She bit her lip and stared down into the valley.
“Chantal, you don't have to tell me, but if we're going to have this conversation, what were you doing that Todd didn't like?”
She didn't answer.
“I can only imagine a man was involved. Am I right?”
Chantal laughed. “Of course. A woman like me can't be alone for long.”
“Who was it?”
“You'd think the way Stephen keeps an eye on me he'd have figured it out.”
“Who was it?”
She didn't answer, and a hush settled between us.
She turned to me as color crept up her cheeks. “I guess I feel compelled to stir things up in this family. What better way than to sleep with your sister's husband? It was Brice.”
IDIDN'Trespond. For once I was speechless. It was bad enough to sleep with your sister's husband, but Brice? Her pale face and eyes that wouldn't meet mine made it clear she regretted her behavior. She'd made a terrible mistake, and because she'd been so open with me, I tried to hide my disgust. It took a lot of effort.
In the end, I didn't say anything, and she didn't elaborate. We stood for a while, looking out over the valley.
Finally, she turned to me. “Look, I really don't want to talk about it anymore. I just want to stay here alone for a while.”
My cue to leave. “Yeah. Sure. No problem.” I turned toward my car.
I looked back at her, alone with mascara tracking her cheeks, the empty valley behind her.
“Thanks for not saying anything. Thanks for just listening.”
I nodded and walked back to my car, glad that for once I'd managed to keep my opinions to myself.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
WHENI arrived at the restaurant twenty minutes late for lunch, Annie was at the bar. Ross was behind the counter, pouring out a Pinot Grigio. They had their heads together, talking in low voices, but they pulled apart when I walked up. I hadn't had a chance yet to talk to Annie about the night of Todd's death, but if Ross knew, Annie knew. Probably the entire county knew.
“Hi there.” Annie gave me a quick kiss. She made room for Ross as he came out from behind the counter for a big hug. As I let my friends hold me, I thought once again of Chantal, who had everything in the world but this.
I looked at Ross. “It's slow. Why don't you join us for lunch?”
Ross got someone to cover the bar, and the three of us made our way to a patio table, the same one where I'd met with Joanne the day before. I didn't want to talk about Todd, which Annie understood without a single word being exchanged. It might be soon, it might not be for a very long time, but either way, I knew she'd be there when I needed to talk.
Ross is a different story. He's never met a question he wouldn't ask. No amount of information is too much, and as we made our way to the patio he repeatedly launched into a comment, only to stop. His restraint was admirable.
“So, you were running late?” Annie asked.
“Actually I ran into Chantal.”
“What do you mean, you ran into her? In your car?” Ross poured me a glass of wine.
“Just by the side of the road. She was stopped, and so I stoppedÂ .Â .Â .” I couldn't decide how much to say. I'm no stranger to gossip, but for the first time stirrings of sympathy for Chantal, although faint, held my tongue. “I wanted to ask her about Todd, and we got to talking about some guy she was seeing, and what a really bad idea it turned out to beÂ .Â .Â .”
“Oh, you mean Brice,” Ross shrugged. “I heard about that months ago. I thought I'd told you.”
“No. I think I would have remembered that.”
Annie looked at both of us. “Somebody better tell me what I missed.”
“You tell us, Penny, since you actually talked to her, and I would just be repeating gossip.”
“Big shocker. You repeating gossip.”
“You're right. Even I can't believe I just said that.”
Since it wasn't going away and Ross knew the story anyway, I gave them a condensed version of my earlier conversation with Chantal.
Annie poured herself some more wine. “I always knew she didn't have her panties on too tight, but Brice? It's creepy, even if he weren't married to her sister.”
“I think she's sort of lonely,” said Ross.
“Come on,” Annie said.
“Well, I do. She doesn't have any purpose in life. In and out of rehab. Nobody takes her seriously. She's kind of tragic.”
Annie put her glass down. “HELLO. She's sleeping with her brother-in-law.”
“I think you're both right, in a way,” I said. “She is tragic, and she was totally out of line. I'll be back. I want some berries.”
Ross sets out fresh fruit for customers to nibble on while they wait for their lunch. Today it was blackberries, just picked that morning. The last of the season.
The mound on my plate was conspicuously large when I picked up a clipped, short voice rising above the rest. I knew that voice. I popped a berry into my mouth and peered around the plaster column separating me from the table. Well, well. Francesca and Brice. Francesca sat with her back to me, her shoulders held rigid and stiff. Brice shook his head, and his hands waved about as he stressed some point that, unfortunately, I couldn't hear. He finished talking, stopped shaking his head, and waited for an answer. In one of those still moments that happen occasionally in crowded situations, there was a complete lull in the chatter, and Francesca's answer carried across the restaurant.
“I just realized something. Not only are you a cheating bastard, you're stupid too.”
Brice's face visibly paled and he looked like he was carved out of stone.
Francesca threw her napkin on her untouched plate. The scrape of the chair as she rose to leave filled the ensuing silence.
She stomped toward the front door. Every diner watched her go, her snappy little Ferragamos carrying her as fast as they could. I popped berries into my mouth and made my way back to Annie and Ross, where Chantal was still the topic of conversation.
“She makes it hard to like her. Her biggest problem is herself,” Annie said.
“I'm absolutely starving,” I said. “I'm eating.”
“Isn't that the truth.” Ross took a berry from my plate.
“It absolutely is the truth. What's up with Brice? I see himalone all the time. I don't think he and Francesca spend much time together. I'll have the lemon sole. It's delicious,” Annie said to the waiter, who had just arrived.
“Ha, you're right about that.”
“You're both right. The soleisdelicious,” Ross said.
“No, she isn't right about that.” I waved off the injured look on Ross's handsome face.
“What's wrong with my sole?” Ross asked.
“I thought you liked sole,” Annie said.
“The Chicken Buena Vista is delicious,” the waiter suggested helpfully.
I snapped the menu shut. “I'll have the sole. I was talking about Francesca and Brice. He spends a lot of time alone. As a matter of fact, he's alone right now.” I repeated what I'd heard.
“Ouch,” Annie said. “How embarrassing, but certainly no more than he deserves.”
Ross stood. “I can't believe I missed it and it happened in my own restaurant. I'm going over to see if he's still there.”
I looked at him. “At least be discreet.”
Ross sniffed. “I'm six-foot-three, I weigh two hundred thirty pounds, and although I humbly submit it's almost all muscle, I must say I do walk with a bit of a sway. Exactly how discreet do you expect me to be?”
I rolled my eyes. “Already you're making a scene. Just go.”
He returned a few moments later. “Nope. What rotten luck.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
WHENlunch arrived, I assured Ross the sole was perfection. We spent the rest of the meal discussing the fightbetween Francesca and Brice, and whether it was about Chantal or possibly some other indiscretion.
By the time coffee arrived, we'd exhausted the Brice topic and Annie entertained us with stories of several of her patients, including a twenty-eight-pound cat with a thyroid problem. I figured Syrah, at eighteen pounds, wasn't that fat after all. Of course, I didn't say this to Annie, who I'm sure would be inclined to disagree.
After we finished, we wandered through the gift shop, said hello to Thomas and made sure they had my posters and postcards well stocked. I picked up a shot of Martinelli Winery, taken in the early spring, when the vines were just getting their leaves. I still preferred the one I'd taken earlier in the week, with the plants and shrubs large and full.
Annie and I left, turned right on Ocean Boulevard and walked along enjoying the last of the day's warmth. Tourists filled the street, cameras at the ready, their bags filled with souvenirs and local wine, some of it hopefully from Joyeux Winery.
We turned the corner and spotted Chief Lucas and Hayley a short distance ahead. Their heads were bent close and they held hands.
Annie nudged me. “Why didn't you tell me they were seeing each other?”
“I didn't know. She said she was seeing someone but didn't want to talk about it. Didn't want to jinx it. She said it was a new thing.”
“Well, they look pretty cozy. Maybe you'll have a police chief in the family.”
“That explains it.”
“Hayley was the last one to see Todd before he went into the fermenting building, and Marvin tried to make it look like she was the most obvious suspect. Lucas told me he didn't think I needed to worry. He was trying to reassure me.”
They made their way toward us. “I don't want to put Hayley on the spot. She said she'd tell me when she was ready.”
“So let's avoid them. Move it.”
We each made a sharp turn, right into each other. Annie, being so much shorter, took the brunt of the impact. She flailed into a group of sightseers and landed on the sidewalk, along with cameras, bags and a couple of tourists. Stealth mode. Catlike. Yup, that's us.
As I apologized to tourists and helped Annie up, Lucas and Hayley stopped in front of us.
“Hi, you two.” Hayley blushed. “Connor insisted I get off the vineyard for a while. He said working ten days in a row, even during crush, was too much.”
I nodded. “I quite agree.”
“We thought we'd grab a bite, just a quick sandwich, and then I need to get back to work.” Lucas took Hayley's arm.
Hayley blushed a pretty pink and smiled. I don't think I'd ever seen her look quite so happy. “Great idea. Enjoy.”
“Actually, Penny, this saves me a call. Can you stop by the station? There's something I'd like to ask you about.”
“Sure. When do you want me there?”
We agreed to meet in an hour. Annie and I watched as they walked away, Lucas's hand resting in the small of Hayley's back.
“They look so cute,” Annie said. “So, you've got an hour. Come on. I'll keep you company.”
We made our way into Neiman's while Annie speculatedon what Lucas wanted. “You must tell me absolutely everything.”
“I'm glad he wants to see me. I was going to call him anyway. Lucas doesn't know about Francesca getting Marilyn's land.”
“Are you going to tell him about Brice and Chantal?”
“I don't know yet. Chantal made a mistake, but it was stupidity more than anything. I'd like to leave her out of it, but it could be important. If Todd confronted Brice or if Brice felt Todd was interfering in his relationship with Chantal, who knows what might have happened.”
“I'd love to know what Francesca and Brice argued about at lunch,” Annie said. “It might have been about Chantal, but, in reality, Chantal probably wasn't the first one, or even the only one, that Brice was âplaying doctor' with.”
I rolled my eyes. “You have such a way with words.”
“I bet âHide the Thermometer' is one of his favorite games.”
“Stop.” I pushed her toward the elevator. With unspoken agreement, we made our way to the second-floor shoe department. No surprise there. I wanted to try the new style, which, of course, had changed in the last week. I wasn't sure about it. They were back to stiletto heels, only this time the toes were extra pointed. I held up a cobalt-blue pair. The reed-thin, all-dressed-in-black waif of a salesgirl slinked over.
“I'd like to try these on.”
She eyed my feet and all but snickered. “I don't know if we stock them that large. What size do you wear?”
“Nine, which isn't large for my height, by the way.”
“You go up two sizes in these because of the narrow toe. I'll bring a size eleven.”
Already I wasn't sure. Nothing took the shine off a new pair of shoes faster than watching your foot grow two sizes.
We found chairs and waited. When the waif returned with the shoes, I opened the box and held one up.
Annie stared at the shoe.
She rolled her hand side to side. “I'm not sure about the color. They sort of remind me of this special I saw on waterfowl. This one duck had blue feet. A âblue-footed booby.'”
“Right. Size eleven? More like a big-footed booby.”
I tugged the shoe on. It felt like I had my foot crammed into a pencil sharpener.
Finally, I got the second shoe on. I looked at Annie. “Well?”
“Stand up so I can see.”
I braced myself on the arms of the chair, rose and plunged headlong into a rack of marked-down platforms. By keeping my thighs firmly clamped together and swinging my feet out to the sides like boat rudders, I managed to walk down the aisle, leaving a wake of mismatched shoes.
I paused in front of the mirror and looked back at Annie. “Do you think these are sexy?”
“Not the way you're walking.”
Afraid to do any more damage, I managed to peel them off where I stood, handed them to the waif and apologized for the mess. Having once again donned my sensible flats, we made our way out of the store and into the afternoon sunshine. When we were out on the street, Annie resumed the conversation of Brice and Francesca.
“The reality is that his marriage to Francesca has opened alot of doors he might have otherwise found closed, hotshot doctor from the city or not. You know as well as I do few things impress people in this town like a local family connection. What I'd like to know is whether or not Francesca knew all the time what he was up to?”
“That's a good question.” I stopped at the police station. “She isn't a pushover, not by a long shot, but sometimes people put up with amazing things in the name of love. If she doesn't know about Chantal yet, I don't want to be the one responsible for her finding out. Nobody, not even Francesca, deserves to have their husband fool around, especially with a younger sister.”Fourteen
ATthe door of the police station, Annie extracted from me a promise to tell her everything and walked off. The bounce in her step and diminutive stature would have suggested someone twenty years of age instead of the thirty-eight I knew her to be.
I entered the station and recognized the clerk behind the counter. He waved me in and signaled to Lucas that I was there. Lucas came out of his office, swung open the waist-high counter gate and asked me if I wanted some coffee. When I declined, he poured himself a cup and led me into his office, closing the door.
I caught a glimpse of a file on the desk with Todd Ryan's name on it. Lucas followed my glance and casually scooped it up. He tilted his cup toward the chair in front of the desk. “Have a seat.”
If I wanted Lucas to share with me, I didn't want the deskbetween us. Instead of the chair I chose the couch under the window, open to the afternoon breeze. He seemed to understand what I was up to, but he smiled, turned the chair he'd indicated toward me, and sat.
“Have you remembered anything else about that night you want to share?”
“Nothing I didn't tell you. Why?”
“I'm inclined to believe you were right about that light disappearing into the house. There weren't any footprints at the fermenting building or around the crushers that didn't belong to family members. No fingerprints unaccounted for, no unusual car tracks, no reports of vagrants or people that aren't from here, and believe me, in a town like Cypress Cove, we hear about all of them.” He looked at me. “That means right before and after the murder, you were alone with Todd and his killer.”
I nodded. “Trust me, that's crossed my mind more than a few times.”
“I was just hoping something else might have occurred to you. Let's work it backward. If it was a family member, then it was someone with all of you earlier that evening in the library. What if something was said, something the killer wanted kept hidden?”
“I see what you're saying. I was thinking the killer already knew they were going to try to kill Todd later that night, but what if something was said or done in the library that forced the killer to act?”
I got up, paced around the room, and replayed the evening in my head. Finally I shrugged. “I don't know. I can't think of anything. Everyone seemed to behave normally.” I counted offthe names on my fingers: “Marvin, obnoxious as usual. Stephen tried to keep Chantal away from the bar. Chantal, of course, flirted and drank. Veronica didn't say much. Just sat there and rattled those damn pearls. Francesca was her usual condescending self, along with Brice, who had his cell phone glued to his ear, and, of course, Antonia, who seemed fine. Todd came in late, after everyone else.”
“Why was he late?”
Good question. “I don't know. Stephen said Todd was responsible for coordinating the shifts in the tasting booths. The wineries take turns. Otherwise it's too crowded. Maybe he was late because he was finishing up the schedule.”
Lucas looked over his notes. “Do you think his death had anything to do with the festival?”
“Doubtful. The festival happens every year, but this is the first one since Todd's been with Martinelli Winery. If I had to guess, I still think it's something to do with the winery. I told you the night Todd died that Antonia thought someone was up to something, and since then I've confirmed it.” I told Lucas about the person in the fermenting building. When I mentioned going under the police tape, he raised his brows but didn't say anything. “Todd could have found out who was sabotaging the winery.”
“Okay. Any other reason why you think someone would want Todd dead?”
“Well, Francesca owns some land outside of Monterey. She got it from Todd's mother, and it doesn't sound like Todd was very happy with the way she acquired it.”
“You know you should have led with all of this at the beginning of the conversation. Anything else you care to tell me?” He gave me a stern look and waited.
In the end, I told him about my roadside chat with Chantal, along with finding out Francesca didn't graduate from Layton, as well as her fight with Brice at the restaurant. I didn't know what would help him, so I gave him everything I knew. Besides, I didn't like the look I was getting. He wasn't happy, and I couldn't help itâI cracked like a walnut.
Lucas crossed his arms. “Sounds like I need to have a talk with Brice and Francesca, as well as Chantal. You've been busy.”
“Hey, most of this just dropped into my lap. Except for going to Francesca's law school. And the fermenting building visit. Sorry about that sneaking-under-the-police-tape thing.”
He just watched me.
I stared back. “What?”
“I'm trying to decide if I should tell you what we know or lock you up for unauthorized entry of a crime scene.”
“If those are my only two choices, I'll take the first one.”
Lucas walked over to the open window and watched the street as he spoke. “We didn't find much, but there was one thing of interest. In the crusher next to Todd was a torn corner of a document.”
“A document? What do you mean? Something official? Like a deed or something?”
“Yes. It's still up at the lab, but the preliminary reports show it's older and there's a mark, part of an embossed shape, like an emblem.” He turned to me. “You were a reporter?”
I nodded, confused at the turn in the conversation. “Of sorts. Photojournalist.”
“What are you working on now?” He watched me.
“Nothing. I had a disagreement with my editor at the paper. Since then I've been focused on my own photography. Landscapes mostly. Why?”
Lucas turned back toward the window. He didn't respond. He just sipped his coffee as I started to squirm. “If you see or hear anything, I want to be the first to know.”
He turned and walked to the door of his office. As he opened the door, he caught my eye. “I'm serious about this. And don't enter any more of my crime scenes.”
“I promise.” Yikes.
I walked back to the car and thought about what Lucas had said. An emblem. Something embossed. Like a diploma. Or maybe the deed to property. Or maybe just about anything else.
What I needed was to put the problem away for a while. I pointed the car toward Pacific Coast Highway. The late-afternoon sun was low over the ocean as I pulled the car out of town and made a right on Highway 1. Here, the sea breeze met redwood forests and the air was cool even on the hottest days.
I drove south until I hit Big Sur, where I finally turned around and headed back. I arrived home just as Hayley placed vegetable-and-shrimp kabobs on the outside grill.
I went inside to make rice, one of the few things I reliably cook. Hayley came in behind me and I spoke without turning. “So you and Lucas looked pretty cozy.” I turned, expecting to see the happy smile I'd seen earlier, but the eyes that met mine were strained and red as though she'd been crying. I put my arm around her. “What's happened?”
“I just keep thinking about that night and if there's anything I should have done that I missed. Lucas is great and I think he might be the one, but Todd's death and my being there has strained our relationship. He doesn't want to talk about it and I understand he can't, but when he said for you to meet him at the police station it scared me. I tried to ask him about it but he got all official with me. I'm just worried.” Hayley looked toward the back door. “Connor's coming up in a few minutes.” She took a seat at the counter. “Can I ask you a question?”
I looked at her. She dug her teeth into her lip and there was a line of tension between her brows.
“Sure. Go ahead.”
“It must have been pretty bad when you found him. I guess I just want to know what to do to make it okay. How do you put it behind you?” She gave me a soft smile touched with sadness. Todd had been around Hayley's age. People with that much ahead of them weren't supposed to have their time cut so short.
“Here's the thing. Sometimes things happen in life you can't control.” I brushed back her hair. “There were times at the paper when I hid behind the camera because I didn't want anyone to see my tears. You think you're making a difference when you cover a story and you bring it into the spotlight, but the sad reality is that sometimes things still don't change. It can make you feel helpless. Make you want to hide.”
“So there's no way to make it any better?”
“Sometimes you can't prevent things from happening, and once they're done, you can't change the past. There is a way to deal with the pain, though, because you always control your response. You cry, if you need to. You hurt for a while. But then you look for a way to make a difference.” I held herby the shoulders. “Todd's dead and we can't change that, but if the person that did this to Todd scares me and keeps me from living my life or from finding the truth, then I'm a victim too. I'm not about to let that happen. Sometimes, you fight back.”
Hayley nodded. “I understand.”
“Of course you do. You're my niece.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
ATdinner we discussed the harvest. Connor started with the white grapes first, determined by the varietal and location on the property. Those areas with the most sun ripened earlier. The reds needed more time on the vine and came in at the end.
We didn't talk about the murder, on his part probably because he hoped I'd forget about it and let Lucas solve it, and on my part because I knew he hoped I was going to forget about it and let Lucas solve it.
Let sleeping dogs lie, let men in denial, deny. Connor's sidelong glances throughout the evening told me he wasn't as deep in denial as I would have liked.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Iwoke up to a rare morning without a hint of fog. I rolled Syrah off, let Nanook out the back door and threw on my Michelin Man sweatsuit.
After I turned on the coffeemaker, I went out to the garden to see what was ready to pick. I pulled one weed, then another. An hour went by.
When I returned to the kitchen, Connor was finishing a wholesome breakfast of strawberry shortcake. I rolled my eyes.
“Hey, it's fruit and dairy.”
The phone rang. I let the machine answer, only to hear Ross on the line. “I know you're there, Pen. Pick up.”
I grabbed it. “Hi.”
“Hi, yourself. I saw Annie at the gas station. She said Lucas asked you to go to the police station yesterday after lunch.”
“He just wanted to know if I remembered anything else.”
“Oh, come on. Surely you've found out something.”
“Um,” I mumbled, noncommittal. “How is Joanne?”
“As you'd expect. She went from wedding plans to funeral arrangements for her fiancÃ©. She wants to work, but she doesn't eat and spends a lot of time crying. I don't think she's sleeping either. I'm cooking her favorites to try and restore her appetite, at least.”
“She's in good hands with you and Thomas.” I stood up to stretch. “I might stop by the restaurant later. I'm going over to the festival grounds this morning to finish decorating and leave some more postcards at the booth.”
“While you're there, stop by our booth and we can talk. I have to finish our decorating as well. See you in a bit.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
ITwas sunny but cold when I arrived at the festival grounds an hour later, a day of crisp sunshine but not much warmth behind it.
At one point the festival grounds had been owned by Martinelli Winery, but years ago the land had been donated by Antonia's family to the town for public events. To get to the parking lot, you had to circle around the winery on a back road, which then led into a parking lot for the last fifty yards.
There were only a handful of cars, and I recognized thecatering van used by Sterling. Ross had it parked right up front. I pulled in next to him and grabbed the box of photographs.
The festival was spread out in a grid of five rows, with ten booths each. The ones in the center were reserved for local wineries by invitation only. Only a few of them held any activity.
I cut over to the food section to find the Sterling booth. Two rows over, Ross was hanging a banner over the front counter. He had a good spot in the row of specialty and gourmet food, between the organic turkey sausages and Swedish pancakes. I looked at Ross balanced on a ladder. He nodded at me as he hammered a tack through the banner and into the wooden frame of the booth. I did a double take at his outfit: a purple robe with a faux-fur collar and a large gold crown.
Thomas came out of the booth and waved me over. “Come check out our menu. In honor of the medieval theme Ross is doing leg of mutton. It makes one feel so âKing Arthur.' Speaking of which, I designed our outfits.” He turned to model a full knight's outfit. He wore leggings and sleeves of mesh silver chain, and his chest was covered in a silver-plated sheet. A helmet topped with a purple feather plume sat on his head.