The Fast Money Pawnshop was located in a poorly maintained historic building in the city center of Vallejo. The awning was faded, the windows had bars on them, and a sign screamed in bright red neon that they were open 24 hours.
I beeped my Jeep locked twice, praying it still had all four tires when I came back, and Ava and I pushed through the front doors.
The interior pretty much matched the exterior—seedy, utilitarian, and giving an overall impression of needing some antiseptic and a facelift. Glass cases lined the back wall, filled with all manner of jewelry, collectibles, and antiques shoved together in a jumble that spoke of too much inventory and not enough organization. The walls were covered in framed paintings—everything from modern art to large gilded frames filled with oil paintings of hunting scenes. And a few guitars and guns took up space on the back wall. The overall vibe was claustrophobic and a little sad, knowing all these treasures had been given up in desperation.
A six-foot-six guy dressed all in black stood by the door, arms crossed over his chest, eyes hard and assessing. Clearly security. A younger guy with tattoos up his neck was helping a couple at the engagement ring case, and a girl with about fifteen piercings in her face approached us.
"You here to pawn, sell, or buy?" she asked in a valley girl accent that was totally incongruent with her look.
"Uh, actually we were hoping to talk to Joe Trask," I told her.
"You got an appointment?"
I shook my head in the negative.
"Can I tell him what this is about?" she asked.
I paused, realizing I hadn't come up with a good cover story for being here. I was pretty sure that telling him we'd like to interrogate him about his whereabouts when Chas Pennington was killed wasn't going to get us very far.
But Ava jumped right in. "We'd like to see him about some jewelry," she said. She held out her arm, which was adorned with half a dozen silver bracelets of her own making.
Pierced Girl nodded. "Okay, hold on a sec. I'll see if he's free."
She disappeared into a back office.
"Nice one," I told Ava.
She shrugged. "Hey, if the price is right, I'd sell a couple of these. No reason we can't solve a murder and make a couple bucks, right?" She winked at me.
We didn't have much more time to discuss what the right price was, as Joe Trask emerged from the back, waddling his stocky frame up to the counter. He was dressed in another cheap suit that hung a little too long in the cuffs and tugged a little too tight around the middle.
"I hear you got something to sell me?" he said, his eyebrows hunkered down over beady eyes in a permanent scowl.
Ava stepped forward. "Yes. I have a few silver bracelets. I might like to sell them if you can give me a good price."
Trask took a cursory look at the bangles on her arm, nodded, then pulled out a square board covered in black velvet and laid it out on the glass case. "Can I take a closer look?" he asked.
Ava looked wary but relented, taking the bracelets off and setting them side by side on the black cloth. Trask picked up each one in turn and held it up, checking the marks.
"Where did you get these?" he asked.
"A shop in Sonoma. Silver Girl," Ava said, shooting me another wink.
"Hmm." He made a noncommittal grunting sound in the back of his throat.
"They're one of a kind," she continued. "Genuine argentum silver. Handmade by the artist."
He shrugged. "Well, someone may have sold you that line, but these look mass produced."
Ava frowned. "The artist seemed very trustworthy to me."
"Most con artists are."
"Con artists!" Ava's voice rose, causing the guy with the neck tattoos and the engaged couple to turn our way.
I shot her an elbow to the ribs, and she shut her mouth with a click. But her arms stayed crossed over her chest, her nostrils flaring.
Trask seemed oblivious to her anger and put the last bracelet down. "Yeah, these are cheaply made, probably in China somewhere. I can give you fifteen bucks a piece, but that's being generous."
"Fifteen?" Ava spat out. "I'll have you know, these go for over $100 apiece. Well over."
"Hey, what can I say, girl? You overpaid."
"They are art," Ava ground out through gritted teeth.
He shook his head. "I'll probably just have to melt them down for the silver value."
"Like heck you will!"
Trask looked from Ava to me, his perma-scowl deepening.
"Uh, what my friend means," I said, quickly stepping in before Ava riled up the shark, "is that we're surprised at such a low offer. My friend Vivienne said you did a fair business here."
"Vivienne?" His eyes narrowed at the name,
"Yes. Vivienne Price-Pennington. She's the one who told me about your shop."
Trask's eyes homed in on mine. "What kind of game are you playing, kid?"
I swallowed. "Game? No game. We just want to make a little money on my friend's bracelet—"
"Baloney!" he yelled, piercing me with a look that froze the words on my tongue. "Vivienne Price-Pennington ain't no friend of mine, and I doubt she's a friend of yours." The way he gave my outfit an up and down on that last statement had me seriously planning a shopping day. Was I that obviously not the upper crust?
"So what's really going on here?" Trask demanded
Ava shot me a look of panic. I took a deep breath. "Okay, fine. We're not here to pawn the bracelets. You're right."
His face softened a scooch with satisfaction. Who didn't like to be right?
"So what are you here for?" he asked.
"Information." I licked my lips, feeling my mouth suddenly dry with nerves at confronting a guy with no regard for kneecaps. "Look, I know you argued with Vivienne over a debt." Which was half true. I knew they'd argued, but what it was over was pure guesswork.
Fortunately it seemed to be a good guess, as Trask nodded. "She tell you that?"
"Yes," I lied.
He nodded again. "Okay, fine. Let's hypothetically say that's true. What's it to you?"
"How much money are we talking?" Ava asked.
"Dollars?" Ava asked.
He shot her a look. "What do I look like, a piggy bank? G's, honey. Five hundred thousand."
Oh wow. That far exceeded anything in Chas's little black book. David must have been gambling elsewhere too. "So Vivienne agreed to pay off her son's debt?"
Trask's bushy brows drew down over his eyes like two unruly caterpillars. "Son?" He shook his head and barked out a laugh. "I guess the guy was young enough to be her kid, but ain't no mother ever married her son before that I know."
I blinked at him, the meaning sinking in. "Wait—it was Chas Pennington who owed you five hundred thousand dollars?"
Trask nodded, his gaze going from me to Ava. "Yeah. I guess your 'friend' Vivvy didn't tell you that?"
I ignored the question, my brain trying to play catch up. If Chas had been running the poker games, he should have been raking in the cash. Sure, he had a spending habit, but I couldn't see him going through all the amounts listed in his book as well as needing a loan that size. At least, not desperately enough to resort to taking it from Trask.
That is, unless those numbers we saw weren't winnings but losses. Could it be that the initials next to the dollar amounts were people Chas had owed money to and not people he'd profited from?
"When did Chas borrow this money?" I asked.
Trask shrugged. "A little here, a little there. Kid liked to play poker."
"So we've heard," Ava mumbled.
He turned his attention to her. "Yeah well, lucky me, he was terrible at it. Kept losing. Said he didn't want his old lady to find out he'd been gambling with her cash, so he needed a loan. You know, just till he could win some back." Trask laughed, showing off a gold incisor, clearly enjoying the humor in anyone thinking they could win back gambling losses.
"And now that he's dead, you're after Vivienne to pay his debt," I surmised.
Trask shrugged. "Hey, a debt's a debt." He paused, looking from Ava to me, his eyes narrowing again. "Look, you're not here trying to say I had anything to do with Chas's death?"
I held my hands up in a surrender motion. "Did I say that?" Trust me, I did not. I was not in the habit of calling big guys with gold teeth and criminal records murderers. Even if the cement shoes fit.
"Look, I had no reason to want Chas Pennington dead." Trask spread two hairy hands out wide. "Why would I? The guy was my best customer. Besides, I knew his old lady was good for it."
I had to admit he had a point. Why kill the goose that was laying golden gambling chips on a regular basis? However, Vivienne Price-Pennington suddenly had a big reason to want her husband dead—a five hundred thousand dollar one. Had she killed him to stop the hemorrhage of money? Out of anger that he'd been gambling behind her back, losing at his own games no less?
"Just curious, what kind of interest did you charge Chas on that loan?" Ava asked
That gold tooth flashed again as Trask did a big grin. "Honey, you don't wanna know."
He was right. We probably didn't. The less I knew about loan sharking, the better for my status as an accessory after the fact.
"Hey, Vivienne should be glad to keep it all in the family, you know?"
I paused. "What do you mean by that?"
Trask barked out a laugh. "I mean the guy Chas paid the most green to was his stepson."
"David Allen?" I blurted out before I could stop myself.
Trask nodded. "Sure. The kid had a knack for winning, from what I hear. He was taking Chas to the cleaners. Or, to here, I guess." He spread his arms wide again, the humor in his face disconcerting considering we were talking about a dead man.
"Chas was borrowing money from you to pay back David Allen?" I clarified.
"And others. Chas lost a lot. But, yeah, the bulk of it went to the stepson. So, like I said, Viv ain't got all that much to complain about."
"Just the interest," Ava mumbled.
Trask shot her a look. "Legal max. That's all I charge. Anyone tells you different, they gonna be sorry."
While I knew he was lying about the first part of that statement, I had a feeling he was being dead honest about the second.
We thanked him for his time and bugged out of there quickly, before we could inadvertently make ourselves sorry for anything.
"So do we believe him?" Ava asked as we pulled onto the freeway.
"I don't see that he has a reason to lie," I responded. "I mean, about Chas's debt at least."
"So it's not the sleazy neighborhood loan shark who killed Chas?" Ava sounded disappointed.
I shrugged. "I can't think of a reason he would. He's right—keeping Chas alive seems like it was in his best interest."
"Well, I guess the same could be said for David Allen now, too," she mused. "I mean, if Chas was consistently losing money to David, why would David kill his cash cow?"
"Unless Chas got tired of paying David and decided to tell Vivienne about it," I offered.
"But wouldn't Chas have to confess he'd been gambling too?"
I nodded. "True. But who do you think Viv would be more quick to forgive—her hot young husband or her leech of a son?"
"Good point," Ava agreed. "She did seem to have a bit of a blind spot where Chas's faults are concerned."
"Either that," I said, playing devil's advocate, "or she finally opened her eyes and had enough of Chas making a fool of her and killed him."
Ava shook her head. "All these people who had reason to want Chas dead. And to think Grant has locked up the one person in Chas's life who actually liked him."
I would have laughed at the irony if the thought didn't make me picture Jenny in a cold, dark cell alone. I wondered how long she'd have to be there before she got a bail hearing. I prayed Shultz's lawyer was working hard to get her out. And that she could afford to pay his fees when she did.
I dropped Ava off at her loft and drove on autopilot back to the winery, my mind churning over each of our suspects and just how, exactly, each could have done Chas in. They all had ample reasons, all had opportunity—except maybe Sadie, but there was nothing saying she didn't find someone else to administer the lethal dose. In fact, for all we knew, she could have given it to Chas himself, telling him it was any manner of recreational drugs that it appeared Chas was interested in. Chas might not have known the difference. White powder all looked pretty much the same. Especially when you were already drunk off amazing Petite Sirah.
The sun was sinking down behind the hills as I made my way up the gravel drive, creating a watercolor masterpiece of pinks, purples, and pale oranges across the horizon. It was like a postcard, beckoning travelers to the relaxation that awaited them in wine country, and thoughts of murder, gambling, and drugs seemed a million miles away from the serene scene. I only wished they were.
Mine was the sole car as I pulled into the lot, save the staffs'. Another slow day at OakValley.
I locked my Wrangler and made my way into the main kitchen. While I'd shopped for a meal earlier, I suddenly felt the day had drained me, and I was infinitely glad to see Conchita had been there on her day off after all, leaving behind a Mexican Lasagna that had a Post-it with reheating instructions. I smiled to myself. I might be a trained chef, but Conchita was still the queen of her kitchen and left me instructions on how to reheat.
I did, enjoying the ooey gooey cheesy goodness with a glass of Zinfandel on the back patio as I watched the rest of the sun dissolve into the hills, the sky going a warm blue until the first stars started to twinkle above and the air chilled.
I quickly cleaned up and made the rounds, making sure the kitchen, tasting room, and offices were all locked up for the night. I was just closing up the doors to the cellar when, on a whim, instead of locking them, I stepped inside. It was cold and dark, just the way the wines liked it. I tugged my light sweater tighter around myself as I stepped inside and turned on the light switch. I hadn't been down there since I'd found Chas. For one, the police had had the cave well cordoned off for days to process it for evidence. And after it had been released, well, it just hadn't seemed like my favorite place in the world.
I took a tentative step inside.
Predictably, there were few remnants of the tragedy that had taken place there. The glass had been cleaned up, save for a few sparkling shards lurking in the corners as the light caught them. The body was long gone, and the spilled wine had been cleaned up as well, leaving only the slightest stain on the old tiles, indistinguishable from the countless others to anyone who hadn't witnessed the murder scene firsthand.
If I'd hoped for some clue or inspiration about who the killer had been, I was sorely disappointed. Which, as I turned to go again, wasn't surprising, as according to Grant, the killer had likely never been in the cellar to begin with, administering the lethal drugs sometime during the party. While this dark, cold, isolated setting seemed more fitting for a murder, the reality was a party guest had nonchalantly slipped poison into a glass of wine in plain sight during a lively gathering. The thought had me tugging my sweater closer again, a chill hitting my bones.
I turned out the lights and locked the door, walking the path from the cave toward my cottage.
But I only got a few steps when I heard a sound.
I instantly froze, listening in the dark.
I was probably letting my imagination get the better of me. No one was here. It must have been a bird or opossum or some other nocturnal creature. I was alone at the winery.
I shook off the fight-or-flight response surging through me, instead trying to focus on the hot bath, soft bed, and mind-numbing TV awaiting me at my cottage.
Only I never got to it.
Two steps from my front door, I heard the sound again—this time right behind me. I instinctively turned to see what or who was making it.
But instead all I saw was black, as pain exploded at my temple and the ground surged up to meet me.