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A Sip Before Dying - Chapter Seven


On Monday morning, I awoke before dawn again, the cool air seeping through the cracks in the drafty windows, swirling the early morning fog around me as I snuggled deeper into my quilt. I tugged it around me as if to ward off all that I feared the day would bring. Finally I gave up the idea of my protective shroud and stumbled toward a searing hot shower. I did the minimal makeup and threw on a pair of jeans, work boots, and a warm navy sweater just as the sun peeked its head above the hills in brilliant swaths of pinks, blues, and delicate violets.

I left my cottage to join Hector in the field, and we started up the hill, walking toward the burgeoning sunrise to inspect the vines. It was a walk I had often taken with my dad as a child. Hector was silent as we passed along the rows, early shafts of light making the dew on the vines sparkle like gems. He paused to pluck the odd berry and rub his thumb along a leaf here and there. He spoke only when we had reached the topmost point of the property, looking down on my lovely acres. Mom and I had sat there the week after Dad passed. She'd been holding back on her own grief to comfort me, a twelve-year-old. My soul was bound up in those glorious ten acres.

"We're going to have a good harvest, Emmy."

"From your lips to His ears, Hector."

He smiled at me. "He's on our side. He's a wine drinker, you know." Hector winked.

I couldn't help but laugh. A good harvest would be a step in the right direction. But the actual harvesting was going to cost us. If fruit came to bear right now, I wasn't sure we had the funding to turn it over. I'd been counting on event bookings to get us through. Which I'd hoped would pour in after the Spanish event, but so far, the phone had been silent. Scratch that—it had been ringing, but only reporters seemed interested in our winery.

As if he could read my thoughts, Hector put an arm around my shoulders. "It will blow over, Emmy. You know how people are. Think of all the drivers who slow down to peek at a car wreck. But tomorrow there will be another wreck, and everyone will forget about us."

Forget about us. That was almost as horrifying a thought as being branded the vineyard that served poisoned Petite Sirah.

"Does your mom know?" Hector asked quietly.

I took a long shuddering breath. "It's hard to know what she knows these days." I gave him a brave smile I certainly didn't feel.

Last year, when my mom had started forgetting little things, I'd just chalked it up to her age, stress, being tired. Then little things had turned into larger ones, like forgetting what day it was or leaving a pie in the oven for hours until it turned into apple charcoal. The day I'd been visiting for Thanksgiving and found her dressed in an evening gown at 3:00 a.m., insisting that Dad was waiting for her at their favorite local restaurant—which had closed down a decade earlier—I knew I couldn't ignore it anymore. My mom was losing her mind. Early onset dementia, the doctor had said.

She'd insisted on going into a home, not wanting to be a burden to anyone, despite the fact I'd assured her over and over again that she was anything but. Family could never be a burden. But, we were both cut from the same stubborn cloth, and despite her protests that I had my own life and career in LA, I'd insisted on coming home. What else could I do? I couldn't let the winery go down on my watch—not after generations of Oaks had kept it afloat.

Now, Mom had her good days and bad days. The good days were almost harder—those moments where she was fully aware of where she was and what was happening to her. Knowing that she was slipping farther and farther away from herself. That someday she'd just slip away completely, and a stranger who only existed in faraway memories would be living in her body.

I shook off the thought, refusing to turn into a tear-stained mess this early in the day. "I called her last night," I told Hector. "Before I went to bed. I told her about the death and that she might hear some news and not to worry. We have it under control."

Hector nodded, tugging that arm around my shoulder tighter into a hug. "We do have it under control. Don't worry. This will all blow over soon."

Soon couldn't come soon enough for me.


* * *


The first thing I did when I got back to the house was call Vivienne Price-Pennington's number. Predictably at this early hour, I got her voicemail. I left a message saying I'd drop the Rolls off at her house later that morning. While I had promised Alison the evening before that I'd get the car back to her, I was also hoping to catch David Allen at home. I'd yet to speak to the young man, and my mind had been swirling all night with questions I was dying to ask.

I thought about calling Detective Grant with the information that Conchita had seen David with Chas just before Chas had died, but the more I replayed the conversation in my head, the more I realized what I had was far from a smoking gun. Despite how strained their relationship might have been, they were stepfather and son. It was only natural for them to converse. And the fact that they'd been walking in the general direction of the cave was interesting, but it didn't mean David had actually followed Chas down there. Or provided him with his lethal last drink.

I tried to put all thoughts of Chas Pennington's untimely death out of my head as I grabbed a cup of coffee and made my way into my office. I spent the next few hours with my head firmly buried in spreadsheets and paperwork, and by eleven I had a headache brewing from all the negative balances staring at me in glaring red.

I grabbed a quick sandwich for lunch and changed into a cute blue cold-shoulder tunic that brought out my eyes, black skinny jeans, and a pair of nude heels, and then I grabbed the keys Alison Price had left in my care the day before. As I slid behind the wheel of the very expensive Rolls Royce, I was hit with the scent of leather and the faint wisps of Vivienne's perfume. The engine turned over with a gentle purr. Part of me was melting into the luxury of the vehicle, while the other half was terrified to make a move, lest I leave a smudge or scratch that would cost in the five figures to fix.

Twenty minutes of driving well under the speed limit later, I pulled up to the Price-Pennington estate. The same butler in a crisp black and white uniform greeted me at the door and informed me that Mrs. Price-Pennington was still asleep. I glanced at the time. It was almost noon. Someone must have had a worse night than I had.

"Is David available?" I asked the man.

His dark eyebrows rose, as if very few people came calling for David Allen. "He stays out back." He pointed around the side of the estate. "In the guest house."

"Thanks very much," I told him, handing over the keys to the Rolls as I took off in the direction he'd indicated.

While the main house was just this side of decadently enormous, the guest house looked much more similar in size to my own cottage. The same hodgepodge of styles was present here as with the main house though, a Spanish style stucco on the outside of the building, while the wood roof curved in an arch that reminded me of the type of fairy-tale home I'd imagine the three little pigs to come dancing out of at any moment.

I rapped on the wooden door with my knuckles and waited. Movement sounded on the other side, followed shortly by footsteps. Finally the door swung open to reveal David Allen, his hair mussed as if he too had been sleeping in. He was barefooted, dressed in a pair of sweats and a rumpled T-shirt, and he squinted against the noonday sun at me, running a hand through his too-long dark hair to no avail.

"Hi. I'm Emmy Oak. From the winery?" I said. While I'd met him on two occasions now, I realized we'd not spoken a single word to each other, and I hoped he recognized me.

A hope that was quickly realized.

"I know who you are," he stated simply.

"Oh. Good. Well, I just returned the Rolls to your mom, and I thought I'd, uh, stop by and offer my condolences."

"Yeah right," he shot back.

I blinked at him, "Uh, excuse me—"

"Offer your condolences? Cut the crap." His eyes narrowed. "What do you really want?"

I licked my lips. I hadn't expected him to be so direct. Or hostile. He'd seemed surly and bored the times I'd seen him before, but I could tell there was an anger bubbling just below the surface. Without meaning to, I glanced behind me toward the main house, wondering if anyone could hear me from there.

"Well?" David demanded, leaning against the doorframe.

"Okay, let's be real," I agreed. "I wanted to ask you some questions."

"About?"

"Chas."

To my surprise, David smirked. Then he stepped one bare foot back, gesturing for me to come in.

I hesitated, again glancing at the main house and wondering if it was wise to be alone with David here. I suddenly felt a little like the fly asking to hang in the spider's web with him. I took a deep breath, pasted on a smile, and stepped inside.

I wasn't sure what I expected, but the fairy-tale atmosphere ended outside the guest house. The interior was dark, all the curtains pulled. In the center of the room sat a large, plush suede sofa. It took up the bulk of the living room, facing a huge television on the opposite wall. Several gaming systems were attached to it, though the screen was filled with a muted gangster movie at the moment. Guys dressed in seventies garb threatened each other with big guns on a dock late at night. The walls were covered in artwork, mostly dark paintings in various shades of blue, deep indigoes, and violent reds. Discarded clothes littered several surfaces, and a faint scent of marijuana hung in the thick air. While the main estate served as Vivienne's weekend retreat, if I had to guess, David lived here full time.

He sank into the sofa, leaning back in a relaxed pose that seemed designed to make me uncomfortable in its intimacy. At least if the smirk on his lips and dare in his eyes was to be believed.

"So, what do you want to know?" he asked, arms splayed across the back of the sofa.

Never one to be tempted by a dare, I decided to remain standing. "Everyone I've talked to says you and your stepfather didn't get along."

David raised one eyebrow at me in a devilish arch. "Everyone. You mean my mother and grandmother, don't you?"

I hesitated, not exactly sure I wanted to out the two ladies. "So it's true. You didn't get along?"

David shrugged, pushing hair out of his eyes. Up close I noticed he was older than I'd originally thought. The dark, brooding thing he had going on made me think of a teenager, but the stubble on his chin and faint creases at the corners of his eyes told me he was probably closer to my own age.

"Chas and I may have had words now and then," he said, a hint of humor in the statement. "In fact, I thought the guy was a sleaze. Whoever killed him did us all a favor."

Ouch. "All of you?" I said, jumping on his wording.

David shrugged again. "I can't imagine my grandmother made a play at grief with you?"

I shook my head. "No, she was pretty…"

"Blunt?" David provided. "Yeah, that's her. You never have to guess what's on her mind." He looked up at me and gave me a self-deprecating smile. "Lucky me, right?"

"Who else did Chas's death favor?" I asked.

"Take a number. I hear his sister was his sole heir."

"You hear?" I wondered if Detective Grant had been here to question David Allen already too.

David grinned. "I can have secret sources too, Emmy."

My name on his tongue simultaneously felt sensuous and dirty at the same time. It wasn't just his too-intimate relaxed posture. Everything about his manner seemed designed to make me feel uncomfortable. I wondered if it was deliberate toward me or the way he dealt with life in general. I inadvertently took a step toward the door.

"Your mother seemed broken up," I stated, watching his reaction.

David's eyes met mine, and for a moment I could see genuine compassion there. "Yeah. Viv really loved him."

"Viv?"

He gave me wry smile. "'Mom' was never in my vocabulary. In the corporate world, kids are death to your career. Especially in tech in the nineties. Heaven forbid people would think Viv was maternal." David reached into a little wooden box on an end table by his sofa and pulled out a hand-rolled cigarette. "You don't mind, do you?" he asked, putting it to his lips.

I shook my head, though I had a feeling he would have lit it either way.

"It helps with my anxiety," he mumbled, the cigarette bobbing up and down. "Difficult childhood, you know." He grinned, as if sharing a joke, then lit up while I formulated my next question.

"Is there any reason in particular you didn't like Chas?"

David took a big puff, and I could tell from the smell it wasn't a tobacco cigarette. Musky, funky air came out as he exhaled. "I can think of a few. He ran through my mom's money like water." He paused. "Excuse me—he was running through my inheritance. I forgot we were being real here."

"Didn't your mom have him on an allowance?" I said, thinking back to my conversation with her.

David laughed out loud, his dark eyes dancing at me. "Who sold you that load of bull? Chas?" He shook his head. "Sure, he had an allowance, but all the boy wonder had to do was ask, and cash appeared. He was good like that." He winked at me.

I ignored it, wondering why Vivienne had led me to believe Chas had little access to her money. Had she been embarrassed by the fact she'd given Chas anything he asked for? Or had she been trying to hide something more?

"What do you mean, Chas was good like that?" I asked. "You think Chas was playing Vivienne?"

"Oh, I don't think it. I know it." He took another puff, offering the cigarette my way.

I shook my head, waiting for him to exhale before continuing.

"Chas knew exactly the right buttons to push," he said. "The right moments to play the doting husband, the sympathetic ear, the generous lover."

The way his eyes dug into mine at that last line made my insides squirm. I suddenly yearned for the fresh air and the safety outside the door.

"Chas also knew," he continued, "the right moments to play hurt, offended, and pout until he got his way. Viv was eating out of the palm of that gigolo's hand."

"Gigolo? So you think Chas was cheating on your mom?"

David shot me a look, the wry grin back. "What do you think, babe?"

"I think you call me 'babe' again, and you'll be singing soprano."

David threw his head back and laughed. "Point taken. Ma'am." He did a mock salute, but the way he ended it in a grin that made me think he was picturing me naked took all the vim and vigor out of it.

"What were you and Chas talking about at the Spanish event?" I asked, getting back to my reason for being there.

His eyes met mine, some of the humor leaving them. "It was a long event. We talked a lot."

"Odd, considering you couldn't stand him."

"I never said that," David corrected. "I said he was a sleaze who knew how to play Viv like a fiddle. I had to admire that to an extent."

"You were with him right before he died."

One of his dark eyebrows rose up into his long bangs. "Is that what this is about? The cast-aside son kills the young stepfather in a fit of jealousy?"

My turn to raise an eyebrow. "Is that how it went down?"

He rose from the sofa, and I realized just how tall he was. I'd mistaken his lean frame for skinny from a distance, but up close I could tell it was all sinewy muscle. He took a step toward me, the humor disappearing from his face, replaced with an intensity that had me taking another step backward.

"No," he said, softly. "I didn't kill Chas."

Which was exactly what he would say if he had killed him. "You were chatting with him outside the kitchen after the meal. About what?"

He shrugged. "Life. Love. Blondes." He gave me a meaningful look that was hard to ignore in close quarters.

"Chas had been staring at your friend's…assets…all afternoon," David went on. "I was just reminding him that my mother has eyes. If he wanted to stay in Lamborghinis and Rolexes, it would behoove him to do his staring in private."

"Why would you want to help him stay in your mother's good graces?"

Again with the shrug. It seemed to be his go-to gesture. Or maybe apathy was just his overriding emotion in life. "Like I said, he knew how to play Viv. I happened to need something from dear old Mom, and I had a feeling he could help me get it."

"What did you need?"

He shot me that same wry grin. Okay, maybe David had two go-to looks. "What does anyone need from Viv? Money."

I suddenly felt sorry for Vivienne. You know, unless she was a murderer.

"So you see, kid, I didn't have a motive to want my stepfather dead." David infused the words with sarcasm as he flopped himself back on the sofa again.

My body let out a sigh of relief at the sudden physical distance. "No motive, except that he was running through your inheritance."

The smirk returned to David's face. "Yeah. There's that."

"Where did you go after your chat with Chas?" I asked, fishing for an alibi.

He fiddled with the cigarette again, his eyes not meeting mine. "Here and there. Had a drink. Went outside for a smoke."

"And Chas?"

"He said he was going to track down more of that private reserve of yours. He headed toward the cellar."

"Alone?"

David nodded. "And alive."

Though not for long.

I wondered if I believed him. David seemed as if every move was designed to get a reaction out of someone. The rebellious long hair and dark clothes to get a rise from his mother. The overly familiar manner he had with me to throw me off my game. I wondered what front he'd played with Chas. Overly chummy? Pretending to look out for Chas's interests, all the while stabbing him in the back? Or, in this case, poisoning his drink?

As far as I could tell, David Allen didn't seem to have a job. And he lived on his mother's estate. However casually David Allen spoke about Chas now, if the dead man really had been running through Vivienne's accounts, he posed a serious threat to David's standard of living.

"Was there anything else?" David asked, leaning his arms across the back of the sofa again. "Or do you just enjoy my company too much to leave?"

I cleared my throat. "Uh, no. Thanks." I turned and awkwardly fumbled with the door.

"Come by any time, Emmy," I heard David call before I escaped into the fresh air.

I took a big gulp, wondering if the contact high was to blame for the squirmy feeling in my stomach that followed my name on David's breathy voice again.

Conflicted squirms and marijuana mist aside, one thing was for sure—David Allen had ample motive and opportunity to want Chas dead.

And one very shaky alibi.



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