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A Sip Before Dying - Chapter Seventeen



After breakfast, I called Vivienne. She confirmed that, yes, her mother had mentioned the catering job, yes, she did want us to work the event, and, yes, she was free to see us that morning.

When we arrived at the Price-Pennington estate, the Lurch look-alike butler let us in again, his lurking presence feeling even more resentful of visitors than on our last occasion as he led us to the lounge to await our hostess. Vivienne came in a moment later, again dressed in unrelieved black—this time in a pair of black cigarette pants, high-heeled ankle boots, and a blouse that billowed fashionably around her hips. Her makeup was subdued, though the diamonds at her ears and on her fingers seemed to shine even more brightly, as if in defiance to the somber mood.

"Thank you for coming," she told us, crossing to the bar on the far wall. "Drink?" she asked, pouring amber liquid into a glass.

I shook my head. It was just past ten.

"No thank you," Ava answered politely.

Vivienne shrugged and sipped from the glass. "Suit yourself." She paused, giving me a good look. "Those are some glasses. Late night?"

Instinctively, my hands went to the large frames covering the even larger bruise. "Something like that," I mumbled.

"Anyway, the memorial," she said, all business now. "It's going to be a small, intimate affair. I don't want the masses. No reporters, no media. Just close personal friends." She paused. "No more than a hundred people."

Ava and I were having a hard time finding one friend of Chas's, let alone a hundred. I had a feeling Vivienne had a blind spot where others' feelings about her husband were concerned too.

"You can do that on short notice?" Vivienne asked.

I nodded. "No problem."

"Good. I'm thinking just small bites, trays of things. Nothing fussy. Nothing too heavy."

"I can do some small plates and wine pairings. Maybe some beef filet crostini that would go well with our Pinot Noir. Possibly something with truffle to go with the Chardonnay?"

Vivienne nodded and waved her glass in my direction. "Sure. Fine. Whatever you think is best," she said, clearly not interested in the culinary details.

"Did you have a budget in mind for the catering?" Ava asked, giving me a sideways glance that said she was fishing for more than just the budget.

But Vivienne just fluttered a hand our way again as she took another sip. "Whatever you think is best."

"Really?" Ava pressed. "You're not concerned with costs? I mean, I would think that Chas's passing has been a bit of a financial burden."

Vivienne paused, her glass midway to her mouth. "Excuse me?"

Uh-oh. Had we pushed too far?

"Uh, you know, funeral costs, flowers, lawyers and such…" I trailed off, trying to cover. The last thing I wanted to do was get on Vivienne Price-Pennington's bad side. At best, she could ruin my reputation among the wine loving elite in town with a single word. At worst, she could be a cold-blooded killer, and it was never a good idea to upset one of those.

But she didn't seem to be buying it. She looked from Ava to me. "I don't think your friend did mean that, did you?" She cocked her head at Ava. Her eyes were calculating and cold, and I caught a glimpse of the woman who had ruined more than one life in the boardroom peeking through the grief stricken cougar facade.

Ava blinked, turning to me for help. "Uh, well…"

I decided the direct approach was best and stepped in. "I saw you talking to Joe Trask at the Links yesterday," I blurted out.

Vivienne swung her hard stare my way. For a moment I thought she was going to deny it—her jaw clenched, eyes narrowed. But finally she sighed audibly, her features going slack. "Yes. I agreed to meet Mr. Trask there."

"To talk about Chas's loan?" I prodded.

Her nostrils flared with emotion, but she nodded. "If you can call it that. With the interest he's charging, I'd call it highway robbery."

"Usury," Ava provided. "And it's illegal you know."

"I know," Vivienne snapped at her. "But how would that look to the board, huh? My husband using company funds for illegal gambling and then owing money to a loan shark?"

"Wait—company funds?" I thought of all the expense reimbursement requests we'd seen in Chas's office. Could it be the receipts had been faked in order to get company funds for his poker habits?

Vivienne sighed again. "Yes. Chas was skimming from Price Digital. It's my fault really." She waved her hand in the air as if waving aside any blame we might lay at Chas's dead feet. "He kept asking me for more money, increases to his allowance. At one point I just said no. I mean, it was getting extravagant. I asked what he needed the money for, but he just said he was helping out his family. Which, of course, I endorsed, but, really, how much did they need?"

Honestly? A lot more than Chas was not giving them, if Jenny's stories of her sick father were any indication. But I kept that opinion to myself as Vivienne continued.

"Anyway, I just finally told him no." She shook her head, her eyes filling with tears as she stared at a point across the room, reliving the scene in her mind. "I should have just let him have free rein with accounts. I mean, we were married."

"Did you know Chas was stealing from Price Digital before he died?" I asked, knowing I had to tread carefully here.

Vivienne let out another deep sigh and looked from Ava to me. "This doesn't leave this room."

We both nodded in agreement.

"I suspected. One of the managers in accounting told me Chas had been submitting a large number of requests lately. She'd even turned some down, but she thought I should know." Vivienne paused, sipping her drink. "So, I looked into it. And she was right. Chas was playing loose with the requests. He was submitting receipts for things I'd bought him, and claiming he needed reimbursement for them." She shook her head. "He doctored some receipts, inflating amounts. Some looked fabricated altogether."

"Did you confront him?"

She shook her head. "No." She paused, licking the mauve lipstick off her lips. "I covered for him." She choked back a guilty sob.

"You covered it up?" Ava asked.

She nodded, holding a tissue to her nose. "Look, I know it wasn't that Chas was bad. He was just weak. Easily tempted. And it was my fault. All of it. If I'd just given him the money he needed, he wouldn't have had to skim anything. So, I covered up the discrepancies."

"Even though he was continuing to gamble?"

She shook her head sadly. "I didn't know what the money was for at the time. I-I just suspected he liked nice things. Honestly, I didn't know!"

But she did know her husband was stealing from her. From the company she'd built from nothing, poured so much of her heart and soul into that she'd neglected her son most of his young life. I wondered…had it mattered what Chas wanted the money for? Or just that he was slimy enough to steal from the hand that fed him?

"You said that someone in accounting alerted you to Chas's receipts," Ava said. "What about Sadie? Did she know?"

At the mention of Sadie's name, the expression on Vivienne's face changed. Gone was the look of nostalgia and regret, replaced by that predatory boardroom shark coldness in her eyes again. "Why would Sadie know anything about it?"

Ava shrugged. "She is your partner."

"Yes, but it's my name on the door," Vivienne said defiantly. She shook her head. "I told you, Sadie didn't like Chas. She said he was dead weight at the company. I don't think she had much to do with him at all."

Except have a secret affair with him. Either Vivienne was truly in the dark about her partner and her husband, or she was a top-notch actress.

Vivienne might not have known Chas was stealing money for gambling, but Sadie had known about the poker games. If she'd found out he was stealing from the company she'd just become a partner in, I wondered how Sadie would take that news.

Maybe Sadie Evans hadn't cared about Chas romantically after all. Maybe this wasn't so much a case of a woman scorned but a woman getting even with a thief.


* * *


Vivienne promised to have her assistant get back to me with the details of the memorial, and Ava and I left her pouring a second glass of whiskey. We found our way out of the house without the help of Lurch and jumped back into my Jeep.

"What do we think of Vivienne's cover-up?" Ava asked.

I shrugged. "We only have her word for it that she did cover it up."

"And didn't confront Chas in a deadly showdown?" Ava finished for me as I wound through the tree-lined streets back toward OakValley.

"Or that Sadie Evans didn't find out."

Ava nodded. "I noticed you asking about her. You think maybe Sadie found out and killed Chas before he could steal more of the company funds?"

"It's possible," I decided.

"I wonder if Jenny knew what he was up to," Ava said, looking out the window.

I spun on her. "What do you mean?"

"Well, just that Jenny covered up his Xanax use. And she did work at Price Digital. Maybe she covered for her brother there, too."

I bit my lip. That was something I didn't want to think about. It could only serve to paint Jenny in a more guilty light.

I was about to voice as much when a text popped in on my phone. I glanced away from the road just long enough to see Detective Grant's name on the display.

"Who is it?" Ava asked.

"Grant."

"Detective Hottie?"

I shot her a look. "He is not hot."

"Liar."

I grinned. "Okay, he's a little hot." I handed her the phone, turning my eyes back to the road. "Read it for me."

She swiped the text screen open. "Just checking in. How are you feeling?" she read out. Then added, "Aw, the big, bad detective cares."

I shot her a look. "He's just being thorough," I told her.

She shrugged. "He did seem pretty concerned about you last night."

"He's a cop. He has to be concerned." But I could feel my cheeks heating.

"You're blushing," Ava said, a big grin on her face. "Don't tell me you have a thing for Detective Hottie."

"No," I said defiantly. "No thing." My body might have had a minor attraction, but it definitely was not a thing.

I pulled up to the winery and parked next to Ava's GTO, and noticed another car in the lot—a shiny silver Mercedes with vanity plates that read MNYMAN1. I stifled an internal groan, fearing that I knew exactly who the "money man" in question was.

Sure enough, as soon as I said my goodbyes to Ava and made my way into the main building, Jean Luc approached, arms flapping in a tizzy.

"Zee banker man is in zee office, Emmy," he told me, wrinkling up his nose like he'd smelled overripe brie. "And he does not zeem very happy, mon ami."

Fabulous.

I thanked Jean Luc, took a deep breath, and steeled myself for the worst as I walked into my office to find Gene Shultz sitting in my desk chair, casually browsing the spreadsheets that were up on my computer screen as he waited for me. At my appearance, he looked up, a smile taking over his features.

"Emmy!" He shot to his feet, not even looking slightly guilty at having been caught peeking at my financials. His dark hair was going more salt than pepper, but his face was line-free—I suspected with some help of an excellent esthetician in The City—and his hands as he shook mine were excellently manicured. I suddenly felt butch next to him.

"Schultz. Always a pleasure," I fibbed.

"You're a terrible liar, Emmy."

"So I've been told," I mumbled. "Several times."

He grinned at me, showing off freshly whitened teeth that blinded me with their glare. "But, I'm a necessary evil in your life if you want to get this place operating in the black."

"Oh, I wouldn't go so far as to call you evil." I grinned back.

"Well, reserve that judgment until you hear what I have to say."

Uh-oh. I set my purse down on the desk with a thud and sank into the chair opposite my desk—usually reserved for visitors. I was keenly aware of the subtle power shift that Schultz had pulled off by planting himself in the chair behind the desk.

"Rip the Band-Aid," I told him. "What is it this time?"

Before he answered, he paused, studying me. "What's with the glasses?"

"Long story. Let's just say they're a fashion statement."

Gene raised one eyebrow. "Okay, let's say that."

"What did you need, Gene?" I asked, trying not to be short with him. It wasn't his fault I owed money, and the cancellations were pouring in, and I was about to go belly-up.

Gene dug his hand into the briefcase at his side, coming out with a newspaper, which he tossed on my desk.

I leaned forward to read it.

SONOMA'S DEADLY WINERY was the headline that jumped out at me.

I closed my eyes. I counted to ten. I took deep breaths. I opened them and still felt just as furious. So much for Zen.

"As you can imagine, this does not make my investors very happy," Schultz said.

"It doesn't make anyone very happy," I mumbled again.

"And," he went on, "unhappy investors pull the money to go somewhere safer. CDs. Bonds. Not financial institutions that back deadly wineries."

"We're not deadly!" I protested.

Schultz tapped the paper. "But everyone thinks you are. And what they think is what matters."

"No one reads actual papers anymore," I protested.

Schultz cocked his head to the side. "Nice try. It's online too."

"They arrested Jenny Pacheco," I told him, unsure if that helped my case or not.

Schultz shrugged. "That's lovely, but it's not filling seats in the bar, is it?" he asked, gesturing toward our empty tasting room.

I shook my head. "I will. I've got a big party coming up. Lots of influential people there." I did not elaborate that it was the memorial for the victim of the "deadly winery."

Schultz nodded. "Good, good. That's a start. But things need to turn around, Emmy. Quickly. It's one thing for me to keep the wolves at bay and extend your payment deadlines. It's quite another for me to convince said wolves to extend any more credit when they're reading headlines like these." He wagged a manicured finger at me.

I bit the inside of my lip. Credit was something we sorely needed when the harvest came.

"Right, understood. Turn the tide of public opinion. On it," I promised.

Schultz flashed me his megawatt smile again. "That's my girl. Now, hop to it. And no more of this drama stuff, yeah?" he said, gesturing to the paper.

I nodded. "Got it." As if the drama was my fault. Trust me—a drama-free life was totally on my agenda.

Schultz left, and I stared at the spreadsheets of red for a while, generally feeling sorry for myself. I took my sunglasses off and examined my eye using selfie mode on my phone. If anything, the bruise looked nastier now than it had that morning, the deep purple starting to turn blue and red at the edges.

I absently wondered if more makeup was a good idea as I checked my voicemail.

While I'd been hoping to have one from Vivienne's assistant with details about my one "big party," what I heard first was a local real estate agent who specialized in wine industry properties. Like Gene's investors, she could smell blood in the water, and asked if I was thinking of putting Oak Valley on the market. I had to admit, the price she quoted was tempting. I hit the button to save. Just in case.

I picked up the paper Schultz had left behind, forcing myself to read the article that went with the gruesome headline. It was another soliloquy by the prolific Bradley Wu. The food columnist who'd hailed my meal as "a culminating triumph of the baroque imagination," could now, apparently, only focus on one thing—death by Sirah. He'd worked in phrases like "dangerously deadly vineyard" and "hauntingly handsome young Adonis" to describe the deceased. Accurate if a bit flowery.

I skimmed down, spying a direct quote from David Allen. "My Stepfather was a man of dangerous appetites. Am I surprised one finally came back to bite him? No."

Hmm. It seemed Brad wasn't the only one with a flair for the dramatic.

I glossed over the rest of the article, unable to stop my mind from running through my list of suspects again. Of all the people who had been close to Chas, David seemingly had the best motive to keep him alive—Chas was consistently losing at poker to David and funneling money his way. That was, unless Chas'd had enough of being David's bankroller and decided to tell Mommy on him.

I grabbed my phone and scrolled through pictures of Chas's little black book again, going back over all the entries next to the initials D.A. By the time I'd added them all together, it looked like over the course of the last six months, Chas had owed David into the five figures. Significant. However, not significant enough for David to live off for long if Mommy cut him off for, say, gambling and bleeding her golden-boy husband dry. I thought of the way Vivienne had blamed herself for Chas's stealing. I could easily see her shifting that blame to David if she'd known he was the reason behind Chas's debt.

I put my hand to my temple, wondering where David Allen had been last night when I'd been whacked on the head.

I switched screens on my phone and dialed the home number for the Price-Pennington estate.

Four rings in, the deep voice of Lurch the Butler answered. "Price-Pennington residence."

"May I speak with David Allen please?"

There was a slight pause on the other end. "Mr. Allen has his own line in the guest residence."

Funny it was referred to as the guest residence and not David's residence. I wondered if that was intentional. "Would you happen to know the number?" I asked.

"I would."

I waited, rolling my eyes as silence stretched on. "Could you give it to me, please?"

"May I ask who is calling?" he countered instead.

"Emmy Oak. I was there earlier today," I added, hoping to jog his memory.

It must have worked, as he reluctantly rattled off the digits.

"Thank you," I told him, hanging up.

I dialed the number he'd given me, which rang on the other end. And rang. And rang. Six rings in, I got a generic recording telling me that the party had a voicemail box that was full and to try again.

I redialed the number of the main house instead.

"Price-Pennington Residence," came Lurch's answer.

"Hi, Emmy Oak here again," I told him.

I thought I detected a sigh on the other end, but I forged ahead.

"Listen, David doesn't seem to be answering his phone. Do you know if he's at home?"

"He is not."

I narrowed my eyes at the phone. "Then why did you just give me his home number?"

"You asked for it," came the monotone reply.

I gritted my teeth. "Do you know where he is?"

"I believe he is at the gallery. Now, if you will excuse me." He didn't wait for me to confirm or deny the excusing, as he hung up on me.

I remembered Ava saying she'd seen David exhibiting his work somewhere around town. I did a Google search and came up with the name of Salavence Gallery on 1st Street as the place to find his work currently on display. I noted the address, donned my sunglasses again, and grabbed my keys.

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