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A Sip Before Dying - Chapter Nineteen



Morning dawned much too early on Thursday, sunlight smacking me in the face after another restless night of tossing, turning—this one full of images of David Allen, Vivienne, and Sadie all coming after me with rocks in hand. I tore myself from my warm blankets and stumbled to the bathroom to shower.

Luckily, the reassuring bathroom mirror told me my black eye was fading, and I was able to cover most of it with makeup. At least well enough that I wouldn't have to attend the memorial in dark sunglasses. I dressed in a simple little black dress and low heels that were stylish while still affording me pain-free movement for circulating between the guests and the kitchen.

Conchita and Hector helped me load my Wrangler with trays and equipment, the overflow going in the trunk of Conchita's Camry. Jean Luc rode with me, and Ava had agreed to meet us there to act as my serving help for the afternoon. Per the instructions Vivienne's assistant had left on my voicemail, we drove around to the Links service entrance at the back of the club, where we were directed to the kitchen and the large clubroom where the reception would take place after the service. It was a comfortable room, adorned in tastefully solemn flowers, deep burgundy cloths draped over tables, and a small grouping of armchairs in dim lighting. Along the right wall the staff had set up a long table for us to lay out finger foods and desserts, and a bar stood in the corner where Jean Luc could pour drinks for the guests. He quickly began setting up there, uncorking and decanting the Pinot Noir and chilling the Chardonnay we'd brought for the occasion.

Near the back of the room sat a small table draped in black. A large wreath had been placed on it, behind a heavy looking bronze urn, which I assumed contained the earthly remains of the late Chas Pennington. As much as my opinion of the man fell with each detail of his life I stumbled upon, I felt a pang of sorrow at the finality of the scene. I tried to shake it off, focusing on the job at hand.

Ava stayed behind in the clubroom to help Jean Luc set up, and Conchita and I spent the next hour frying, preparing, and arranging artful presentations on our canapé trays. We had most of them ready by the time the memorial started at two. I left Conchita to the finishing touches and slipped into the back of the functions room where the service was being held.

I immediately spied a somberly dressed Vivienne in the front row, a tissue clutched to her nose. David Allen sat on one side of her and the stoic Alison Price on the other. Needless to say, neither was looking likely to need a tissue that day—David wearing his bored smirk and Alison staring straight ahead with about as much emotion as if she were here to watch a golf match and not bury her son-in-law.

Across the aisle from them sat Jenny with an older couple I took to be her parents. Her mother was an aged, plumper version of Jenny, and the man was tall, with a weathered face that looked like it had seen its fair share of time in the elements. His shoulders stooped slightly, and he coughed into a handkerchief intermittently. Both looked drained, as if the sheer act of sitting upright in a crowded room was almost more than their bodies could bear. I felt a wave of sympathy toward the couple.

The rest of the room was populated with men in suits and women in tasteful dark colored dresses and slacks. I recognized a few faces from my previous trip to the Links, one or two who had been on the Spanish party's guest list, and the distinct profile of Sadie Evans, sitting halfway back in a sharp black pinstripe suit and a little hat with feathers.

The service itself was short and sweet—no long-winded, heartfelt eulogies. A few words were said by a man I assumed to be Vivienne's pastor, offering hope and consolation to the bereaved. I noticed quite a few women in the crowd letting out quiet tears and suddenly wondered how many mistakes Chas had really made. Sadie's eyes, I noticed, were bone dry. Either she had long ago checked all emotion at the door where Chas was concerned, or she was a great faker. Then again, she'd been practically brought up in the boardroom. Maybe Sadie Evans just didn't do emotion.

Music began to play, and the crowd to disperse to pay respects, which I took as my cue to leave, making my way ahead of the crowd to the clubroom to check that we were ready for the onslaught.

Conchita had assembled the blue cheese filet crostini, and was just adding the chopped chives and microgreens. Beside those, truffle risotto bites were laid out on long, elegant white plates, nestled in a bed of fresh sage leaves and spring greens. Everything looked perfect and delicious.

I had just finished adding small wooden toothpicks to the risotto bites for easy handling, when I saw Vivienne and her entourage enter the room.

She stood at the door, receiving hugs, handshakes, and air kisses from the mourners as they filed in. David Allen stood a beat behind her, not, I noticed, greeting anyone. He was wearing his usually sullen expression, though his eyes looked heavy and lidded. I wondered if he'd popped a Xanax before the memorial. It certainly might help calm the nerves…especially if he'd been the one to put Chas in that urn in the first place.

Alison Price stood tall at her daughter's side as part of the greeting line, murmuring to guests as they arrived. While I could just make out mumbled words of sympathy, her eyes held absolutely none of the sentiments she expressed. She looked as if she was going through the motions of polite society but couldn't wait for the final send-off to be over.

Sadie Evans made her way through the line, stiffly air kissing Vivienne. She leaned in and whispered something to the older woman, which had the lines around Vivienne's mouth drawing down into a deep frown. Vivienne's eyes followed Sadie even as she walked away, making her way to the table with the urn, ostensibly to admire the flowers.

I watched the tense exchange, wondering just what Sadie had said. Had it been about the affair? The stolen company funds? The gambling debts?

"Everything is lovely." Jenny Pacheco was suddenly at my side. "Thank you for this."

"Of course." I gave her a quick hug. "How are you holding up?"

She shrugged. "Well, I survived jail." She gave me a wry grin.

I shook my head. "Jenny, I'm so sorry. Believe me—I'm doing everything I can to convince the police of your innocence."

She nodded. "I know. And really, you've done so much already. I-I really can't thank you enough."

I shook my head. "No need to. You'd do the same for me." I paused, looking across the room to where her parents were standing over the bronze urn now, both tearing. "I'm glad they could make it."

Jenny nodded. "Mom wants me to come back to Arizona with them." She paused. "But the lawyer said I have to stay in town. Condition of my bail."

She looked so small and fragile that my heart went out to her. That someone should be dealing with the scary prospect of a lifetime in jail while also working through the grief of losing a loved one just wasn't fair. I was suddenly angry at Grant all over again for arresting her.

Jenny excused herself to be with her parents, and I circulated among the guests, watching Ava do the same on the other side of the room, making sure everyone had a full glass and ample opportunity to sample the hors d'oeuvres. While the mood of the gathering was subdued, the snippets of conversation I caught seemed to be positive about the food and wine pairings. I held on to that cheery thought as Sadie Evans approached me, a half empty glass of Pinot in hand.

"This is good," she told me, gesturing to the glass. "Yours?"

I nodded. "It's a fickle grape to grow, but worth it. I love the subtle blackberry notes."

Sadie sipped her glass again. "It's nice. Not too brash."

I tried not to laugh at the pot calling the glass brash. "Thanks. I'd be happy to supply you with a case if you'd like. We have several set aside."

She nodded. "I just might. Maybe a case of that Petite Sirah Chas raved about too."

I froze, her words sinking in. Along with the implications of that seemingly simple statement. Chas Pennington had only just tasted the Sirah at the Spanish party. The party Sadie had not been at. When had he had time to rave?

"You spoke to Chas while he was at the party?" I asked carefully.

Sadie gave me a blank stare, as if the implication of what she'd just said was slow to set in for her as well. "I…I…y-yes. I suppose I did."

"You were there?" I pushed, feeling bold in the security of the crowded room.

Sadie licked her lips, eyes darting to Vivienne, who stood near the urn, sniffling into a tissue. "Look, Viv doesn't need to know this, okay?"

"You were there." This time it was a statement, not a question.

"Yes," she hissed in a whisper. "Yes, okay, I was there. Briefly." She glanced in Vivienne's direction again.

"When?" I asked, mentally running down the timeline Grant had given me for the drugs being introduced into Chas's system.

"Just after Chas arrived. He called me. We…we'd had an argument before he left for the party."

"About him stalling in asking Vivienne for a divorce?"

Her skin paled a shade under her makeup. "H-how did you know about that?"

"Lucky guess," I said, glossing over it so as not to out Jenny's eavesdropping. "So you were pressuring Chas to leave Vivienne?"

"No, you have it all wrong," she said, shaking her head. "It was Chas's idea. He promised me he'd leave her." She paused. "But then he…well, he said the timing just wasn't right yet."

If I had to guess, Chas never had any intention of leaving his sugar mama. He'd been stringing Sadie along with false promises, just like everyone else in his life.

"So what happened after you argued?" I asked her.

"Chas left for the party, but then he called and said he was sorry. He said he needed to see me. It was urgent."

"What did he want?"

Sadie threw her hands up. "I don't know! I never saw him."

I narrowed my eyes at her. "You mean to tell me that you drove all the way to Sonoma to talk to Chas, just to turn around and go home?"

She leaned in closer, her tone confidential. "Look, Chas said he wanted to see me. You don't understand the kind of draw that guy had. He was magnetic, you know?"

No I didn't. But I did know he was dead, and Sadie suddenly had opportunity along with motive. "What happened when you got to OakValley?"

Sadie sighed. "I called him, but he didn't pick up. I waited, tried again. Finally he texted me saying he couldn't get away from Viv after all. He thought she suspected something and was sticking to him like glue. Said she just kept pouring him more Sirah. I waited a few more minutes to see if he could shake her. Then I got sick of it and went home. End of story."

Or at least the end of the story she was telling me. "I thought you said you had broken up with Chas."

Sadie sucked in her cheeks, sizing me up. "I did." She paused. "But he was hard to say no to."

I wondered. It was possible she was telling the truth and she'd fallen under the boy wonder's spell. It was also just as likely she'd driven to OakValley not for a liaison with Chas but to put an end to his stringing her along.

Or possibly to his stealing from her company funds.

"Did you know about Chas's corporate expense requests?" I asked, watching her reaction carefully.

If she had one, she hid it well, her expression not changing. Either that or she'd had a lot of Botox done recently. "What about them?" she asked.

I shrugged. "Nothing," I said. "I just heard he had a lot of them." If she already knew about Chas's theft, she wasn't letting on. And if she didn't, I figured that was Vivienne's business.

Sadie waved me off. "The man had expensive taste. I'm sure accounting vetted them all."

"I'm sure," I murmured. I spied Vivienne accepting a canapé from Ava, then moving through the crowd. She caught my eye and made her way toward us, her mother a vigilant step behind her.

Sadie must have noticed as well, as she took that as her cue to move on, mumbling that she'd contact me about that case of Pinot Noir later. I hoped she meant it.

"Emmy, this is all lovely. Thank you," Vivienne said through a teary smile as she approached.

"Glad I could help," I told her.

"I'm sure Chas would have approved," she went on, nodding as she surveyed the room.

I thought I heard Alison snort behind her daughter, but she was lady enough to cover it quickly.

"He seems to have a lot of friends here," I said, trying not to let my gaze fall on the several mourning women in attendance.

Vivienne nodded. "He was very well liked."

"You are well liked, darling," Alison corrected her daughter. "They are here to support you."

Vivienne frowned. "Not everyone shares your opinion of Chas."

While I had to agree that Alison's remarks might be harsh, she was probably more right than Vivienne on this one. Save for the weeping ladies' club, I had a feeling not many people in the room were actually mourning Chas's passing. In fact, I thought, as I spied David Allen near the bar, there was a very good chance one of them had even facilitated it.

"I was wondering," I said, approaching the subject carefully, "if either of you happened to see David the night before last?"

Vivienne blinked at me, trying to ascertain my meaning. "Tuesday? I-I don't know." She glanced at her mother as if looking to her for the answer.

"What did David do?" Alison asked, narrowing her eyes.

"Nothing," I lied. "I just thought I saw him somewhere, but I may have been mistaken. Was he at home?"

"I wouldn't know," Alison said, eyes still narrow, as if she wasn't buying my vague explanation. "David lives in the guest cottage. He keeps his own hours."

"I think I saw his car Monday," Vivienne said, still trying to recall. "But really, the days have all kind of blurred together. It's just been so hard without Chas." She sniffled again, reaching for her tissue.

I thought I caught Alison roll her eyes, but she covered it so quickly that I wasn't sure.

"Does David have a girlfriend?" I asked, feeling his alibi for the night of my attack growing weaker by the second.

"David?" Alison said. "Oh, I'd be highly surprised."

Vivienne sniffled louder. "He's all I have left."

Alison's features softened, and she put a strong arm around her daughter's shoulders. "You have me. Come on, let's get you a drink." She nodded in my direction before leading her daughter to Jean Luc's capable hands.

I watched their retreating backs, wondering at Vivienne's last words. Despite their strained relationship, she clearly loved her son. Did she love him enough to be willing to cover for David Allen? He was her child, but if she knew he'd killed Chas, would that be enough to sever the tie? Or would she cling to her one remaining heir even tighter?

"Emmy."

I looked up to find Conchita hailing me from the doorway with another tray of crostini. I quickly crossed the room to relieve her of it, swapping it out for an empty one.

The rest of the memorial went smoothly, the subdued conversations and mumbled sympathies continuing until most of our trays were empty and we'd gone through two cases of both Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir. As the sun began to sink behind the hills, the mourners dispersed slowly—some of the Links members going toward the bar and lounge, while others made their way toward the valet for their cars. Cleanup was fairly easy, considering we'd done the bulk of the prep at the winery. Conchita, Ava, and I gathered chafing dishes, tidied the clubroom, and tried to leave everything as clean, if not cleaner, than we'd found it.

As we cleared the remains of the memorial, I couldn't help my mind rolling over all of the attendees who'd had reason to want the guest of honor dead.

David Allen still held a place as my favorite, his precarious position with Mommy Moneybags feeling like motive enough to want his stepfather out of the picture. If Vivienne had found out David was the reason Chas was visiting loan sharks and stealing from Price Digital, I could well see her kicking David out of her guest house as well as her will. Not to mention, David had a handy prescription for Xanax.

But then there was Vivienne herself. While she played the grieving widow well, Chas had played her well enough that she had plenty to be angry with him over. He'd cheated on her, squandered her money, and stolen from her company. That was enough to break any relationship. And what had Sadie said about the party—that Vivienne was sticking to Chas like glue? Maybe she'd been sticking close not because she suspected he was planning a liaison with another woman but because she was waiting for the perfect opportunity to spike his wine.

Of course that brought me to Sadie herself. While she'd been in the back of my mind ever since we'd learned of Chas's infidelity, she'd seemingly had no opportunity to administer the lethal dose. Knowing now that she was actually at the winery during the time Chas had been poisoned, suddenly painted her in a whole new light. And I could easily imagine no-nonsense Sadie poisoning her former-lover-turned-embezzler without blinking a false eyelash.

And as much as the people in Chas's personal life all seemed to be better off without him, there was also the possibility his death had nothing to do with lovers or liaisons and everything to do with an unpaid debt to a ruthless loan shark. It wasn't a stretch to imagine Joe Trask could have threatened another debtor to slip a little something into Chas's drink. Heck, in that scenario, it was even possible the guilty party hadn't even known what he was putting in Chas's drink or that it would result in his death.

My mind ran over and over all the possible scenarios as I stepped outside with the last armload of chafing dishes to deposit into Conchita's trunk before we left.

The clouds had come rolling in while we'd been inside saying our last goodbyes to Chas Pennington, and the sky was dark. A fine mist permeated the air, threatening real rain later. I fumbled with the key fob to Conchita's Camry, wrangling the trunk open. I was just setting down my load when footsteps sounded on the gravel behind me.

I hoped I hadn't left something behind. I spun around expecting to find Jean Luc rushing up with a stray bottle of Pinot he'd rescued from a fate in the trash bin.

But instead all I saw was a large, indistinguishable object rushing toward my face.

And then nothing but blackness.

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