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A Sip Before Dying - Chapter Eight



As soon as I left the not-so-storybook dwelling of David Allen, I called Ava and begged a ride from her. Friend that she was, she said she'd be there in ten.

I'd just hung up with her, walking down the graveled drive toward the main road, when my cell rang again. It was an unfamiliar number with a 408 area code. Considering every well-funded wine lover in Silicon Valley lived within its boundaries, I picked up.

"Emmy Oak," I answered.

"I'm returning a call," came the female voice on the other end. "Sadie Evans."

The mentee-slash-mistress. "Yes, thanks for getting back to me, Ms. Evans," I told her, juggling the phone to the other ear as I glanced back at the house, as if expecting Vivienne, David, and the butler to be eavesdropping. "I was hoping to discuss some…business with you," I said.

"What sort of business?" Sadie asked, not letting me get away with skirting the issue.

"I, uh, own Oak Valley Vineyard," I started.

"The winery where Chas was killed?" she quickly interrupted

I cringed. Were we to forever be known as that? "Uh, yes," I admitted. "I was hoping to clear up one or two little points with you. About Chas." I held my breath. Clearly she had no obligation to talk to me. But I hoped by being vague enough, it spurred her guilty side to curiosity about what, exactly, I knew. Assuming she felt guilt about sleeping with her partner's husband. "I was hoping we could speak in person?" I pressed.

The only sound I heard on the other end was the white noise of a bad cell connection. Then finally, "I'm driving from Sacramento right now. I'll call you when I get into Sonoma."

I was about to ask when that would be, but she ended the call before I had the chance. Not quite a hard meeting date, but beggars couldn't be choosers.

Nine minutes later, true to her word, Ava pulled up along the main road in her prized 1970s olive green convertible Pontiac GTO. She leaned one tanned arm out the window, her hair pulled back in a ponytail that kept it from flying into her eyes, covered in a pair of shiny aviator glasses, looking like a movie star from a bygone decade. "Need a lift, stranger?"

I grinned. "Thanks." I climbed in and glanced in the tiny back seat. "No Jenny?"

"She offered to watch the shop for me," Ava said, hitching a U-turn.

"How's she doing?" I asked.

"Better," Ava promised. "Still going on crying jags now and then, but it's not the full-on waterworks of yesterday."

"Sounds like it was a rough night?"

Ava nodded. "A two-pinter of double chocolate fudge. I even had to bring out Meg Ryan. With both Tom Hanks and Kevin Cline," she said, referencing two of our fave feel-good movies. "But, like I said, she's doing better today."

"Glad to hear it," I said, meaning it.

"So, what were you doing at the Price-Pennington estate?" she asked, giving me a sly side-eye. "Digging up more dirt on the deceased?"

"Sort of," I admitted. I filled her in on Conchita's eyewitness account on Chas's last moments and my chat with David Allen.

"That guy's a little dark, right?" Ava said.

"You know him?"

"Not well," she admitted. "But I've seen his work at a gallery showing before in town."

"He's an artist?" I asked, thinking of the paintings I'd seen hanging in the guest house.

She nodded. "Not half bad either. Gritty stuff. Not really to my taste, but it's good. Kind of creepy. But I guess that's the point of that kind of art. To get a rise out of people. Make them feel uncomfortable."

I could well see that being David's thing. "David said he saw Chas going down to the cave alone," I told her.

"So, if he's telling the truth—"

"That's a big if," I added.

"—big if he's telling the truth, someone must have seen Chas and followed him down there."

I shivered at the thought. Bad enough someone had killed Chas, but the idea of them stalking him like prey was downright scary. Especially since the stalker had to have been one of my guests.

We rode in silence the rest of the short drive to the winery, but as soon as we pulled up the long oak-lined drive, Ava let out an "Uh-oh."

I followed her line of sight to see a large black SUV parked near the entrance. Instead of pulling into a well-marked parking space, the driver had left it just outside the door to the main building, sideways across three spaces. The entitlement and air of authority could only bring to mind one person.

"Isn't that Detective Grant's car?" Ava said, voicing my thoughts.

I nodded. I couldn't imagine why he was here, but when a violent crimes detective was at your door, it was never good.

We walked into the tasting room to find Grant standing at the bar and Jean Luc behind it, his usually reserved countenance thrown into a mess of waving hands and wild gesticulating in the unnerving presence of Detective Grant. At least I wasn't the only one he set off balance.

"Emmy, zank goodness you are here!" Jean Luc said, his French accent more heavily pronounced than normal. "Zis policeman says he needs our wine!"

I turned to Grant. "Our wine?"

"Ms. Oak. Ms. Barnett. Nice to see you again."

"Wish I could say the same," I told him, feeling a frown between my eyebrows. It was one thing to have crime scene techs crawling all over my cellar. But messing with my wine? This was getting personal. "What's going on here?"

Grant produced a folded piece of paper from his jacket, handing it to me. "This is a warrant to search the premises. It includes inspecting all of the wine that was served at the event where Chas Pennington expired."

"Expired?" I took the papers from him. "Geez, he wasn't a carton of eggs," I mumbled.

I thought I detected a hint of a smile from Grant, but it might have been my imagination.

I quickly glanced over the papers, seeing lots of legal mumbo-jumbo that would likely have Seesaw Shultz peeing his pants. "What exactly are you looking for?"

Grant's eyes went from me to Ava, as if not sure how much to divulge. Finally he relented. "Chas Pennington died from ingesting poisoned wine."

There it was in plain English. The headlines were right. Oak Valley Vineyard's wine had killed him.

"Poisoned with what?" Ava asked, stepping forward. "Clearly it wasn't the wine itself that killed him."

Grant nodded. "Correct. Preliminary toxicology results came back that a large amount of alprazolam was in the victim's system."

"Alpra-what?" she repeated.

"Alprazolam. It's an antianxiety medication, often sold under the brand name of Xanax."

Ava rolled her eyes. "Why didn't you just say Xanax then?"

Grant pinned her with a look that paused her eyes mid-roll. I felt immediate sympathy for her. I'd been on the other end of that look before. It was not comfortable. Enough to make one need a Xanax, even.

"So you're saying Chas mixed his Xanax with wine and died?" I asked, jumping in to save her.

"Not his Xanax. As far as we can tell, he was never prescribed the drug."

"And a legit prescription is the only way to obtain Xanax," I countered, heavy on the sarcasm.

There was that hint of a smile again. If I didn't know better, I'd say I was amusing the detective. Too bad I couldn't say the same thing. The only thing I felt in Grant's presence at the moment was annoyance. And maybe a little danger in the way his broad frame loomed over me. And possibly a little heat from the way the flecks in his eyes danced when he hinted at humor. I wondered what it might feel like to be the recipient of a full-on smile from him. I could imagine the little heat erupting into a full-blown lava flow rushing over my body.

I shook the image from my mind, as I realized Grant was talking again.

"…is dangerous enough on its own, but it's even more so when mixed with alcohol," he said. "When drug molecule meets ethanol molecule, the two amplify each other's effects. Working together, they can cause a person to become tired or confused, fall over or pass out. With high enough levels of each, the combined effects would slow down the system enough that it starts shutting off. With enough in the system, one would go into a coma and die."

My skin felt cold imaging Chas's final moments, feeling his body grow from sluggish to unmanageable to the point where even his breathing was too much for him. "So this was an accidental overdose after all?" I asked, ever hopeful.

Grant turned his attention squarely toward me. "Plasma concentrations in patients who are under average treatments for anxiety symptoms show less than a hundred micrograms per liter. Personally, I've seen a level of up to three hundred in addicts. Anything over three hundred is concern for an overdose."

"How high was Chas's?" I asked, hoping to cut the macabre science lesson short.

"Five hundred micrograms per liter."

"Holy moly," Ava mumbled behind me.

Grant's mouth twitched, as if wanting to smile again. Luckily, he was such a stoic guy he was able to keep it in check. "His blood alcohol was also pretty impressive."

"So this was not an accidental overdose?"

Grant shook his head. "No. Someone deliberately gave Mr. Pennington a lethal dose."

"Zis iz a nightmare. Zis iz terrible." Jean Luc was flapping his hands again and muttering half in French and half in English.

I tried to ignore him, focusing on the important parts of what Grant was saying. "How long would it take this Xanax and alcohol combination to kill Chas?"

Grant cocked his head in my direction, as if surprised by the question. "You mean, when did he ingest the lethal dose?"

I nodded.

"The ME's estimate is about an hour and a half to two hours between ingestion and death."

I froze, realizing we'd been going about things all wrong. I'd been looking for who could have followed Chas down to the cave. Truth was, his killer could have been anywhere by then. Chas had likely been poisoned long before. In fact, anyone could have slipped the lethal dose into his wine earlier. At the tasting. At the meal. During drinks afterward.

I swallowed a dry lump in my throat. "So why are you taking our wine?" I asked, gesturing to the search warrant in my hands.

Grant shook his head. "We need to check the premises for any residue. We'd like to examine any bottles that were out then. And anything that might have been opened. It if wasn't out that day, we don't need to see it. Just what the public might have had access to."

I breathed a sigh of relief, glad Jean Luc was overreacting on that point.

"But we'll need to look through the kitchen, the glassware, any open bottles or trash on the premises."

I nodded. As far as I was concerned, he could knock himself out with the trash.


* * *


I told Jean Luc to take the afternoon off, before he flapped himself into a tizzy, and asked Hector to keep an eye on Grant and the two uniformed officers who showed up after him, presumably to execute the dirtier aspects of the warrant. Ava offered to stay for moral support, but I figured Jenny and the shop needed her more. I thanked her for the ride and promised to make her dinner soon as a real thank-you.

I left the boys in blue crawling all over my tasting room and ducked into my private office to try to get some work done. A task that was harder than it seemed. Instead of paying attention to the red numbers all over my spreadsheets, my mind kept drifting to Chas Pennington, his time of death, and that fact that no one could have had an alibi for it. Any one of my VIP guests could have killed the playboy. Though a few in particular seemed more likely than the others.

David Allen could easily have slipped the drugs into his stepfather's drink at any point in the evening. I thought back to the marijuana cigarette he'd been smoking for his anxiety. Did he also have a Xanax prescription for the condition? He'd been sitting right next to Chas at the luncheon, with easy access to his stepfather's drink. And Chas had been paying far more attention to Ava's cleavage than to David. In fact, I didn't think anyone had paid much attention to David.

Vivienne, on the other hand, had had Ava's full attention, but even she might have been able to slip away to quickly add a little something extra to her husband's drink. And Chas wouldn't have thought twice about his wife handing him a glass of wine.

Though, at some point in the evening, I don't think he would have thought twice about anyone handing him anything in the wine family. He'd been more than helpful to his killer, guzzling whatever was put in front of him. Had they known him well enough to know he'd do just that?

And then there was Sadie Evans. While she hadn't personally been at the event, it didn't mean she hadn't used her influence and ample funds to convince someone else to do the dirty work for her. Let's face it—every person at the party could have been the killer.

I gave up on the spreadsheets, finding the combination of a dead body and a dying bottom line too depressing. On a whim, I opened a search engine and typed in Chas Pennington's name. In contrast to my search for Sadie Evans, I found plenty to wade through. Several social media pages, all very active and mostly filled with selfies. Chas smiling into the camera behind a pair of sunglasses at the beach, posing with a pine tree backdrop in snowy Tahoe, laughing on a yacht somewhere tropical looking. Any one of them could have been in a magazine. I could see how he'd been a successful model prior to meeting Vivienne.

I scrolled through a few pages, not learning much more about the playboy other than he went on an extraordinary number of vacations, liked the finer things in life, and had precious few photos of his wife on his pages.

Without thinking about it, I typed another name into the search engine: Christopher Grant. His official bio on the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office page came up first. Raised in the Bay Area, graduated from Berkeley, recently transferred from the San Francisco Police Department's homicide division. I wondered why. Seemed a step down to be going from homicide detective in the city to violent crime in the usually sleepy wine country. Was this a demotion?

Social media was scarce for the detective, though I did find a couple of articles in online news outlets briefly mentioning him. Always in glowing terms, talking about the criminals he'd taken off the street.

"Ms. Oak?"

I jumped about a mile at the deep male voice calling my name from the doorway. I looked up to find Grant's frame filling it, and I immediately shut my laptop as if I had been caught with my hand in the cookie jar. Or fingers tapping into his personal business.

"Yes?" I asked, hoping my voice didn't sound as guilty as I felt.

"We're wrapping up upstairs."

I nodded. "Good. Great." I paused. "Find anything?"

"I'm not at liberty to discuss that." The man had an excellent poker face.

I blew out a breath. "I don't suppose you're at liberty to discuss what you're hoping to find either?"

His expression softened, and he shook his head.

"Jenny didn't do this," I told him.

He leaned against the doorframe in a deceptively casual pose. "How well do you know her?"

"We went to high school together."

"That seems like a long time ago."

"Was that an insult?"

His poker face cracked, showing a hint of a smile. "Not at all. I'm just saying people can change quite a bit in a…couple of years."

My turn to smile. The attempt to cover his inadvertent gaffe could have been kind of charming. You know, if he wasn't wearing a gun. "Jenny had no reason to want her brother dead," I reasoned.

"And you think someone else did?"

I nodded. "I do."

"Okay, who?"

I paused, not sure how much to share. But at this point, it could only help Jenny. "David Allen, for one."

"The victim's stepson?"

I nodded. "He thought Chas was a gold digger, and he was one of the last people to have seen Chas alive."

Grant nodded. "Go on."

I couldn't tell if he was taking me seriously or just indulging me, but I forged ahead.

"There's also his wife. Did you know he cheated on her?"

Grant raised an eyebrow. "I thought Vivienne was a client of yours."

"She is. Or, I had hoped she would be." I noticed he hadn't answered my question.

"But you're throwing her to the wolves to protect someone you knew in high school?"

I crossed my arms over my chest. "I'm assuming the wolves," I said, giving him a pointed look, "will only attack if she's guilty."

"And if she's innocent, she'll come sip Merlot from you again?"

I scoffed. "We don't serve Merlot."

That smile hinted again. It was a good look on him. It softened the danger aspect just enough that something more human glinted underneath it.

"Why did you move to Sonoma?" I blurted out.

"Excuse me?" Grant's eyes snapped up to meet mine, all smiles gone, something a lot like anger flashing behind them.

I cleared my throat. "I, uh, heard you're new to the Violent Crimes Unit." I felt my laptop practically thumping like a telltale heart on the table.

"You heard." It was almost an accusation. "You mean you investigated me."

I squared my shoulders, willing myself not to crumble under his tough guy act. Okay, chances were it was not an act. He struck me as an actual tough guy.

Luckily, I was something of a tough gal myself.

"Yes. I did. Tell me you haven't investigated me?"

He stared at me, his expression unreadable. "Emmeline Oak. Prefers to go by Emmy. Average student, voted most likely to marry young. Which makes your classmates all wrong, because you're single, no kids, no attachments."

I shifted in my seat, somehow feeling much too vulnerable under his scrutiny as he went on.

"Attended culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley."

"Which, by the way makes me a member of the CIA," I joked, trying at levity to cover my increasing discomfort that he knew so much about me.

But a small smile was all I got as he continued. "Graduated top of your class, though you've never had a job cooking in a restaurant, as far as I could find. Some private chef gigs, mentions of a few pop-up restaurants in Los Angeles. My guess is you prefer working for yourself. Control freak."

I let out an unladylike snort. "Look who's talking."

"Touché." The corner of his mouth curved up into a full, genuine smile. The movement totally transformed his face, his eyes going from dark to mischievous, creasing with humor and character.

"My turn," I said, feeling a bit emboldened by the softer look. "You're single—no ring," I explained.

He glanced down at his unadorned left hand and gave me one raised eyebrow of admiration at my amazing powers of observation.

"You're something of a workaholic—I can tell by the fact you're never properly shaved."

His hand went to the stubble on his chin.

"And, I'm guessing you burned out in San Francisco and decided to move to wine country for a slower pace of life. Escape the rat race of the Bay Area."

"Sure. Let's go with that."

I tilted my head to one side and studied the flecks in his irises. There was definitely more to that story, but I had a feeling I wasn't getting the unedited version today.

He opened his mouth to say more, however, my cell chose that moment to chirp from my purse.

I gave him the universal one-finger wait sign and checked the readout. Sadie Evans.

"Uh, I'm so sorry. I have to get this…" I trailed off, hoping he took the hint.

"Important business?"

If he only knew. "Yeah."

He nodded. "We'll show ourselves out."

Which seemed only fair since he'd shown himself in. With a search warrant no less.

I waited until he was down the hall before answering my phone. "Hello?" I said, catching it just before it went to voicemail.

"Sadie Evans," she announced. "I'm back in town. I can meet you in thirty minutes."

"Do you know the Half Calf?" I asked, referencing the coffee shop next door to Ava's boutique.

"On Main?"

I nodded into the phone. "That's the one."

"I'll be there. Half an hour," she repeated. Then she hung up.

I grabbed my purse and headed for the door, hoping like anything that I didn't run into Grant and his dumpster divers. Because I wasn't in the mood to explain where I was off to.

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