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A Sip Before Dying - Chapter Eighteen



Salavence Gallery was located in the trendy and touristy downtown area, just off E Napa Street. Sandwiched between an indie bookstore and a coffee shop, the storefront was all glass, several canvases showcasing modern art on display. I pushed through the doors, feeling the whoosh of air conditioning and hearing soft jazz music piped in through the speakers. The reception counter was a stark white lacquer, matching the white of the walls, floor, and ceiling. The entire place had a clinically blank feeling, making the art on the maze of walls scattered throughout the cavernous space pop under the bright overhead lights.

"May I help you?" asked a young woman behind the counter. In contrast to her surrounding, she was dressed in all black, sporting a severe black bob, long sleeved black blouse buttoned all the way up to her neck, and dark eye makeup that took the smoky look to the extreme.

"Hi. I, uh, was hoping to catch one of your artists here. David Allen?"

She nodded. "He's in the back. Installing his latest piece." She paused, giving me a quick up-and-down. "Are you a collector?"

"Maybe," I hedged. I had a feeling that in a place like this, I couldn't afford a postcard, let alone one of the 30" X 40" canvases.

She nodded, grabbing a pamphlet from behind the counter and handing it to me. "His show is next week. You can preview some of the pieces in the back, though." She gestured to the rear of the gallery.

I thanked her and headed through the maze of angled walls displaying various collections of work. Several different styles were represented, though most fell into the modern art category. I paused in front of one collection of landscapes done in abstract, thinking the artist had perfectly captured the warm hues of the Sonoma Valley during fall.

As I approached the back of the gallery, I heard two voices. One that I instantly recognized as David Allen's.

"I need more room. I have three more pieces that have to be in the show."

"Not possible," came the second voice. It was male as well, though high pitched with a nervous edge to it. "We agreed on six pieces. That's the limit."

I rounded the corner and spied the two men standing in front of a wall of the same type of artwork I'd seen in David's cottage. Lots of dark colors, violent strokes, and shapes that left the viewer with a general feeling of unease.

"I'm changing the agreement," David told the other man—a slim, well dressed guy with a twitch in his left eyebrow

"You cannot do that!" he shot back.

"Of course I can," came David's cool response. "I'm a Price."

The other man sputtered, but as he spied me, he shut his mouth with a click.

"Just move some of these other paintings," David continued. He looked up to see me, his face breaking into a smile that was less humor and more predatory. "Well, look who it is. Miss Wine and Die herself."

The second man looked perplexed, like he wasn't in on the joke.

"Emmy Oak," I offered, extending my hand.

He shook it, the name still not seeming to mean much to him. Good. At least this was one member of the public that hadn't heard about the Deadly Winery. I made a mental note to gloat about that to Schultz.

"Macklan Salavence," he told me. "Something I can help you with, Ms. Oak?" he asked, regaining his composure.

"I was hoping David could help me, actually."

David raised an eyebrow my way, the predatory grin spreading. Suddenly I was glad we were in a well-lit gallery and not a dark alley.

Or the dark pathway outside my cottage.

"Well, that sounds like a fun proposition," David said. Though it came out as more of a threat. Or maybe that was just my slightly concussed fear talking.

"I see," the gallery owner mumbled, retreating. "I'll, uh, just leave you two alone then."

I kinda wished he wouldn't, as David took a step closer to me.

Instinctively, I took one back.

"So, what can I do for you, Emmy?" he asked. His lips were still curved upward.

I cleared my throat, drawing courage from our brightly lit surroundings and the fact that two witnesses were in the building. "I was hoping you could tell me where you were last night."

His left eyebrow rose, and the corner of his mouth quirked up again. "I'm flattered you care so much about my nocturnal activities."

"Don't be." I laughed, but it sounded shaky even to my own ears. "Someone was trespassing at my winery last night."

"And you think I'm that hard up for a bottle of Chardonnay?"

"I think you might be desperate enough to threaten me."

For a half a second the smile dropped, and an intense emotion hit his eyes. A dark emotion, almost as unsettling as the painting he was standing in front of.

But just as quickly, he covered it, the mocking grin back. "Someone threatened you, huh? Is that what you're hiding behind these?" Before I could react, he lifted the sunglasses off my face. To his credit, he flinched slightly at the sight of my shiner. "Oh, Emmy. Ouch."

"No kidding," I said, grabbing my glasses back from his hand.

"And you think I did this?" David tsked between his teeth and shook his head. "I'm hurt, Emmy. You must know I hold you in much too high a regard for that."

While it was phrased as a compliment, something about the hint of sarcasm creeping into his voice made it difficult to fully believe.

"I know Chas owed you money," I told him.

If he was surprised by my knowledge, he didn't show it, his cool demeanor remaining in place. "Pity I won't be able to collect now."

"Did he threaten to tell your mother that you were bleeding him dry?"

"Why would he do that?" David asked.

Which I noticed did not directly answer my question.

"Maybe he was desperate. He'd been borrowing from a loan shark to pay his debts."

David paused. "So you've met Trask."

I nodded. "And I know Chas was in over his head. Did he threaten to tell Vivienne everything to get her to bail him out?"

His gaze met mine. "That looks painful," he said, changing the subject as he gestured to my black eye. "I assume you didn't get a good look at the person who did this?"

I paused. "I saw enough," I bluffed, hoping to tip his hand into a confession.

He stared for a beat, and I felt like I was in a silent game of chicken.

Finally he turned to his painting, his expression hidden from me. "Then you know I didn't do it."

"Where were you?" I asked again, realizing he hadn't answered my original question.

"Home," he said, his eyes on the painting, hands shifting the left corner just slightly higher, making minuscule adjustments.

"Your mother can vouch for that, I suppose?"

David shrugged. "I don't know. I didn't see her."

"Your grandmother?"

"Sorry. I didn't kiss Granny good night either."

"So you were alone?"

David turned his sharklike smile my way, showing off a row of teeth. "I didn't say that, now, did I?"

"So you do have an alibi?"

"You make it sound so dramatic, Ems."

The mocking tone was back. I wondered if it was David's brand of flirting. If so, I couldn't imagine the type of lady who might have followed him back to his cottage last night.

"Being knocked unconscious was dramatic," I countered.

Something flickered behind his eyes again. "I hope you catch whoever did it."

"I intend to," I told him, with a lot more gusto and bravery than I felt.


* * *


While I'd hoped to get more from David—like at least the name of the girl he'd supposedly been with last night—I figured the alibi would be easy enough to check out. While the cottage was at the back of the property, there was only the main drive in from the road. Someone must have seen him coming or going. That is, if he was my attacker.

I turned that thought over as I drove home, picturing the dark, explosive emotions I'd seen behind his eyes. David had a prescription for Xanax. He hadn't denied that Chas was threatening to go to Vivienne about the poker games, David's winnings, and the debt. Not only was David's cash cow looking to default on his debt, but he was also threatening to cut off any allowance from Mommy. I had a hard time believing David could live in the manner to which he'd become accustomed on an artist's income. If my theory was right, Chas stood to destroy David's way of life.

If.

That was the problem. I had lots of good theories but no evidence to take them from the realm of if to putting the killer behind bars.

I pulled up the gravel drive and parked in the lot, trying not to be depressed at the distinct lack of cars there. I made my way into the main kitchen and began pulling ingredients. Olive oil, onion, a dry white wine, parmesan cheese. Cooking always cleared my head, and I hoped for the same sort of clarity now as all the jumbled bits and pieces of information I had about Chas flew around in my brain without seeming to fit together anywhere. Besides, I had a memorial to cater the next day, and this was a chance to make a better impression on the society set—a set I sorely hoped had many less somber occasions they'd like to book our winery for in the future.

I settled on a menu of two different savory dishes with wine pairings, and a few plates of fruits, cheeses, and mini cheesecakes and cookies for dessert. For the first savory bite, I grabbed a filet mignon from the refrigerator and seasoned it. My plan was a quick sear, then thinly slice it to top a layer of blue cheese on crostini. A quick garnish of fresh herbs and balsamic vinegar at the last minute would be all it needed to be a delicious, elegant bite. As I'd mentioned to Vivienne, it would pair perfectly with our Pinot Noir.

For the second dish, I settled on a Truffle Risotto Bite fried in an arancini-style to make for an easy-to-eat appetizer. I'd be able to make the risotto base ahead of time, then fry them on site, just before the party, so they'd stay warm and crispy.

I grabbed the arborio rice and chicken stock, getting the stock heating while I chopped onions and garlic. The rhythmic movements of the knife and homey scent of chicken broth heating on the stove put me in my zone, blocking out the rest of the world in a warm, steamy cocoon of comfort. I worked quietly, stirring the liquid ladle by ladle into the rice until it had a creamy consistency. Then I added parmesan and the truffle oil before setting it aside to cool. I did a small test batch of fried bites, rolling the risotto into little balls, coating in breadcrumbs, and dropping them in the deep fryer. They only took a couple of minutes before they came out a golden brown. I barely let one cool before my growling stomach forced me to dig in.

The outside was a perfectly crispy crunch, while the inside was decadently creamy. I closed my eyes, leaning my head back as I let the earthy flavor of the truffles mix with the sharp tang of the parmesan on my tongue. This was heaven in one little bite. I think I might have moaned slightly.

"Wow, must be good."

My eyes snapped open, my body tensing and my hand instinctively reaching for the chef's knife on the cutting board. Only as I focused through the surge of adrenaline, it was not an intruder who stood in my kitchen doorway but Detective Grant.

His eyes went to the knife in my hand. "Jumpy?"

I narrowed my own eyes at him. "As one is when they've recently been attacked." I set the knife down with a clatter. "Geez, you almost gave me a heart attack."

"Sorry," he said, his voice softer, as if he really meant it. Some of my anger melted. "I just wanted to check in on you," he went on.

Dang it. The rest of the anger fell away as his dark eyes made a slow sweep of the bruises I'd been hiding all day.

"Thanks," I said. "I'm fine."

"Yeah, you look great." The corner of his mouth ticked upward.

I returned it with a self-deprecating, "I look like a raccoon who let a two-year-old do her eye makeup."

He laughed, the sound rich and deep. The sudden transformation in him surprised me almost as much as his sudden presence. "Well, at least your sense of humor is unharmed." He gestured to the risotto balls on the counter. "Mind if I try one?"

I pushed the platter toward him.

He grabbed one, the crunch audible as he bit in. I found myself watching his expression carefully—purely for professional reasons of course. His eyes fluttered closed for a second, his mouth going slack as he chewed. "Wow. That's good," he practically moaned.

"Thanks." I couldn't help the lift of pride in my voice.

"These for a party?" he asked, gesturing to the large batch of risotto still cooling on the counter.

"Sort of. Chas Pennington's memorial tomorrow." I paused. "I don't suppose there are any new developments?"

Some of the ease left Grant's face at the mention, and I almost wished I'd kept my big mouth shut. "I can't discuss an ongoing investigation."

Rats. "Okay, what about this—any luck finding the creep who attacked me last night?"

"No." His jaw clenched. "But I will."

I almost felt sorry for said creep. Grant looked like he was ready to destroy him.

I decided to switch gears. "I promise wine country isn't always this exciting."

He gave me a questioning look.

"You did move to Sonoma for a slower pace, right?"

Grant paused, popped another bite into his mouth, and chewed thoughtfully. Finally he said, "Right. Slower pace."

I watched him. "That's not the whole reason, though, is it?"

His eyes met mine, and I could tell I was right. The gold flecks darkened, almost as if they were hiding like the secret he was protecting. "Let's just say the change of pace wasn't entirely my idea."

So this was a demotion. "What happened?" I asked, wondering how far I could press this easier side of him before it dissolved into Tough Guy again.

He took a deep breath in, his nostril flaring with the effort. "I suppose it's public record. There was a shooting. Internal affairs got involved. When it was all over, they felt it best if I moved to a new venue."

I digested that, trying to read between the sparsely filled lines. "You shot someone?"

He nodded slowly, his eyes dark. And filled with a cocktail of emotion I couldn't begin to interpret. I could imagine a healthy dose of guilt lay there, but whether it was tempered with regret or anger, I couldn't say.

"When was this?" I asked.

"Last year."

"I'm sorry." As soon as I said the words, I wanted to take them back. I could tell by the way his expression tightened that Tough Guy didn't do sympathy. "I mean, I'm sorry you had to move here. It's got to be a lot less exciting than San Francisco."

He tilted his head in concession. "There are some benefits, though."

"Oh?"

He grinned, grabbing another risotto ball, and tossed it into his mouth. "These, for one."

While it wasn't the compliment I'd been hoping for, I'd take it. "Thanks. But save some for the guests, huh?"

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