The Half Calf was a small coffee shop struggling to maintain a foothold against the larger national chains. Their logo featured a cartoon cow enjoying a latte while lounging on a crescent moon, and their specialty was a caramel-hazelnut latte, which I ordered as I scanned the small groupings of tables for Sadie Evans. I spotted her almost immediately, sitting at a corner table near the back of the shop, her eyes glued to her phone as her finger tapped away on the small screen. She was as slinky as a cheetah, in a dove-gray tailored suit, tastefully done French nails, and the kind of sleek, highlighted hair that spoke of hours in a hairdresser's care.
I grabbed my coffee from the barista and approached her table. I noticed she hadn't bothered with a drink herself.
"Sadie Evans?" I asked.
She looked up, giving me an undisguised once-over. "You're Emmy Oak?"
"Sit." It was a command and not an offer. I had a feeling she made for a very demanding COO.
I sat, sipping my hot beverage as a stall to my opening pitch. Which, as it turned out, I didn't need, as Sadie got right to the point.
"What did you want to talk to me about?" She set her phone down, giving me her full attention. I could see time is money being etched into stone as this one's epitaph.
Okay, I could be direct too.
"Chas Pennington," I replied.
"So you said on the phone. What about him?"
"For starters, he's dead." I watched her reaction carefully.
But if I'd expected any grief from her, I was sorely disappointed. She barely blinked a false eyelash at me.
"So I heard." She was beyond cool—she was mentholated. Reminded me of an actress friend I'd had in LA, Hannah Pratt, who'd claimed sex was highly overrated because it always ruined a great hairstyle.
"The police are investigating it as a suspicious death," I went on.
She arched one well-filled eyebrow at me. "And what, pray tell, does that have to do with me?"
"For starters, it may well come out that you were sleeping with him," I said. Okay, I was taking a bit of a stab without evidence, but I trusted Jenny's gut on this one.
A move that proved to be fruitful as she answered, "Were. Past tense."
"So, you were having an affair with Chas?"
She blinked at me. "I just said that, didn't I?"
"Did Vivienne know?"
Sadie let out a sharp bark of a laugh. "God, no. That woman was as blind as a bat with cataracts where Chas was concerned."
"Even though you all worked together?" I asked. I found it hard to believe Vivienne hadn't caught on. While I knew love could blind a person, Vivienne had been a self-made millionaire by the time she was thirty. The woman was no dummy.
"Look, if Vivienne knew, she never said a word to me about it," Sadie responded.
"You mentioned the affair was past tense. Chas ended things?"
"I ended things," she clarified, her eyes narrowing.
"May I ask why?"
Sadie smirked. "I have a feeling you're going to anyway." She paused, let out a sigh, and craned her neck to the side with an audible crack. "The sex was fantastic, but after a while the complications just weren't worth it."
I knew she was a Hannah Pratt. "What kind of complications?"
"Look, Vivienne is getting older. She can't keep up with the new tech anymore. Her ideas are old school, and so is her coding. It's time for her to retire."
"I haven't heard Vivienne mention anything about retiring."
"You wouldn't. Because she won't do it. She's stubborn like that."
If someone was trying to force me out of my own company, I might be stubborn too. But I kept that thought to myself, instead asking, "How so?"
Sadie shrugged. "She wanted things her way or the highway. But the truth is, she doesn't run anything there anymore. Everyone reports to me, she comes in for board meetings and confuses every issue, and then she leaves me to clean up the mess again."
Which sounded like an interesting dynamic and possibly a good amount of animosity between the two partners, but it didn't explain why anyone would want the boy wonder dead. "Where did Chas come in?"
"Chas was Vivienne's little lap dog. He may have been sleeping with me, but his heart was in Vivienne's purse." She shrugged again. "I got tired of him taking her side."
I took a sip of my latte, wondering just how tired of it she'd been. Tired enough to kill him over it?
"And before you think I had anything to do with Chas's death," she went on, practically reading my mind, "there are plenty of people with a much better motive than petty jealousy."
Now we were getting somewhere. "Such as?" I asked, taking her bait.
A gleam hit her eyes that could only be described as wicked. "Poor Vivienne really didn't know what her boy was up to, did she?"
"And what would that be?" I pressed.
She shook her head. "Chas Pennington was like an Easter egg, all wrapped in gold foil. But once you'd scratched off some of the foil, you could smell what was underneath. And that egg was rotten."
As much as I enjoyed a good metaphor, I couldn't stand her drawing it out much longer. "What was Chas Pennington up to that could have gotten him killed?"
"Cards," she said.
"Cards?" I asked. "Like, gambling?"
Sadie nodded, the wicked gleam practically radiating off her as her red lips curved into a smile. "Poker, to be precise. I guess the life of the rich and idle was too boring for Chas. He had to do something to spice it up."
Something other than sleep with his wife's protégé, apparently. This guy liked things muy caliente. "So Chas was playing poker behind Vivienne's back."
"Oh, not just playing, honey. Chas was arranging the games. He had a regular illegal poker circuit set up."
"And you think maybe someone lost and wasn't very happy about it?"
Sadie shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe they lost. Maybe a bookie didn't like Chas taking a piece of their action. I'm not talking nickel poker here," she said, leaning in on the table again, so close her elbow bumped my coffee. "I'm talking high stakes. He invited me to a game once. I had to pass. The buy-in was three grand."
I almost choked on my latte. "Just for a seat at the table?"
Those were high stakes indeed. "Any idea who his regular players were?" I asked.
Sadie shrugged. "Search me. I told you, I didn't buy in. I prefer to do my betting on the stock market."
I suddenly wondered if any of the big losers from Chas's games had been on my VIP list. Had another party guest seen an opportunity and slipped something into Chas's drink? Xanax was hardly difficult to come by. People in high-stress jobs like my VIPs popped it like Flintstones vitamins.
"Do you know if Chas ever took Xanax?" I asked her, switching gears.
Her eyes narrowed again. "Why? Is that what killed him?"
Not only was Sadie Evans not one to beat around the grapevine, but she was also a smart cookie.
I nodded, figuring the tox screen would be public knowledge soon enough. "That's what the police detective told me."
"No," she said simply. "I never saw Chas pop a Xanax."
"What about Vivienne?" I asked, wondering just who in the family might have a prescription.
"Search me," Sadie said, shrugging. She glanced at her smart watch, indicating I didn't have the money for her time much longer.
"Why did you fire Chas's sister?" I asked.
That question took her off guard. "Jenny?"
I nodded. "She said you fired her out of the blue."
Sadie let out that barking laugh again. "Well, it was hardly out of the blue, but that was not my call."
I frowned. "Whose was it?"
That one took me by surprise. "Her brother? But I thought he was the one who got her the job."
Sadie shrugged. "Look, all I know is that Chas was afraid his sister suspected we were sleeping together and would tell Vivienne. He wanted me to fire her so she wouldn't have anything to go blabbing to his sugar mama about. Honestly? I thought it was a weasel move too. Like I said, the complications just weren't worth it anymore. I mean, great sex is a dime a dozen, you know?"
Sadly, I did not. I tried to remember the last great sex I'd had and came up blank.
"Anything else?" Sadie asked, glancing at her watch again.
I shook my head. "Thanks for meeting with me."
Sadie gave me a curt nod as she stood and hefted her Birkin bag onto her shoulder. "Just keep my name out of it with the press, huh? Price Digital doesn't need to be involved in this mess." The way she said it somehow implied that just because it had happened at the winery, it was my mess. I hoped that was not a prevailing opinion among wine lovers.
* * *
"An illegal gambling ring?" Ava yelled.
"Shhh." I glanced toward the back of the boutique. "Jenny will hear you."
Ava waved me off. "She's napping. A steady diet of tears and tea will do that to you."
I gave her a sympathetic smile. "You holding up okay?"
She nodded. "I'll live. Which is more than I can say for the underworld poker king."
I rolled my eyes. "I don't know that he was an underworld king."
As soon as Sadie had left, I'd taken my latte next door and filled Ava in on everything I'd learned, from Sadie's admission of her affair to the idea of a disgruntled high-stakes gambler and the fact that our suspect pool had just opened up to Olympic proportions.
"So, you think one of the losers at Chas's games killed him?" Ava asked.
I shrugged. "I suppose it all depends how big of a loss we're talking and how desperate his financial situation might be."
"Or hers," Ava added.
I nodded. "Right. Or hers. Sadie said the buy-in just for a seat at the table was three grand."
Ava shook her head. "I am so in the wrong business."
"Yeah, well, that business may have gotten Chas killed."
"Any idea if his players were at the winery event?"
"That's what I'd love to know," I told her, leaning my elbows on the glass case and admiring a silver necklace in a floral design. "That one new?"
Ava nodded. "I just finished it last night. You like?"
"Give me a week. If it doesn't sell, you can call it an early birthday present."
I shook my head. "I can't keep wearing your profits out of here."
Ava grinned at me. "I seem to remember drinking a bottle of your profits the other night. I owe you."
"Two weeks," I relented. "If it doesn't sell then, it can be an early birthday and Christmas present." What can I say? It was a really cute necklace. And I had just the top to wear it with, too.
"You think Chas had a list somewhere?" Ava said, taking the necklace out of the case so I could get a better look. "You know, of his regular players? Maybe some contact info? How much they won or lost?"
"Stands to reason he'd keep records like that," I agreed, turning the silver filigreed irises over in my hand. They were delicate yet still slightly raw on the edges, giving them an imperfect feel totally in tune with nature.
"So where would he keep something like that?" Ava asked.
"Not at home," she decided. "He wouldn't want to risk Vivienne seeing it."
"But Sadie, on the other hand, already knew about the games," I said, seeing where her line of thinking was headed. "You think he kept his record at work somewhere?"
"I think it's more likely. Of course, the police have probably already confiscated all of that."
I nodded, biting my lip. "That is if they knew what to look for. To them, it might just look like a benign list of clients and figures. Without context, it would mean nothing."
Ava leaned both elbows on the glass case and cupped her chin in her hands. "We have the context. Maybe we should take a look through his records ourselves."
"And how would we do that?" I handed the necklace back to her, ashamed to say I was halfway hoping no one else had a thing for irises in the next fourteen days.
"It's not as if Price Digital is Fort Knox. They have dozens of employees who code at all hours. The main doors are never locked. Plus, Chas's office is on the sixth floor, which is mostly the marketing staff, so it's deserted at night."
I shot her a look. "How, exactly, do you know all of this?"
"I may have asked Jenny a few details about Chas's life."
"Know his shoe size too?" I mumbled, heavy on the sarcasm.
Ava cocked her head to the side and put a hand on her hip. "Hey, you want to clear your winery's name or not?"
I sighed, letting out a long breath. "Yes."
"Then it's a good thing I know the layout of Price Digital."
I felt trepidation build in my belly. "Because?"
"Because if we're going to sneak in there tonight to find Chas's secret gambling records, you're gonna need a navigator."