A Sip Before Dying - Chapter Six

After I dropped off Ava and Jenny, I hit the highway for Oak Valley Vineyard. As I passed the rolling hills, lush at this time of year, like a patchwork quilt of pale greens, yellows, and deep emeralds, I thought about Chas Pennington's short but full life. I had to admit, I saw Grant's point in looking at Jenny first. If she'd lost her job, and Chas was running dry as a backup source of funds, she might have been desperate. Especially if Chas's estate really was worth some money. But I had to admit, both Vivienne and her protégé turned business partner had just as much, if not more, motive. While a crime of passion didn't seem Vivienne's style, maybe she'd carefully planned getting rid of her philandering husband. Or, conversely, maybe Sadie was worried about Vivienne finding out about her and Chas and had killed him to keep the affair quiet and maintain her position at Price Digital. Sadie had been absent from the tasting event, but that didn't mean she couldn't have hired someone to do the dirty work for her.

The first thing I saw as I pulled up the tree-lined drive of the winery was a team of men in black jackets that read CSI standing next to the shiny yellow Lamborghini Chas had left behind. I pulled up a few feet away and got out as I watched one of them don latex gloves and break the seal of tape over the doors. The others swarmed over it like ants on sandwich crumbs. One guy used an appliance like a small portable vacuum cleaner to suck up every last particle of dust in the car. Others were using little strips of clear sticky plastic film to lift fingerprints off the dash, steering wheel, and gearshift. They took dozens of photos and put every item they found into Ziploc bags.

I stood there for a good few minutes, feeling like somehow someone should be supervising to make sure nothing was damaged. I had a guess the car cost more than most small homes, and the last thing I wanted was for something to happen to it while it was in my care.

"How much longer?" I asked one of the guys.

He shrugged. "Not much. There's not a whole lot to process. This is just a possible secondary scene."

I nodded, pretending I knew what that meant. I assumed it meant Chas was not killed there, which seemed pretty obvious, given the state he was found in.

I shoved that thought down, willing my brain not to conjure up the mental image of that particular scene.

"Can I call Mrs. Price-Pennington to pick it up?"

He nodded. "Yeah. We should have it cleared in an hour or so."

I thanked him and headed toward my office in the main building.

First, I left a message with Vivienne's housekeeper that someone could pick up the Lamborghini anytime that afternoon. Then I booted up my laptop and pulled up a search engine, typing in Price Digital. A few clicks later, I was looking at a company directory, and I dialed the number for Sadie Evans, listed currently as the company's chief operations officer.

The line rang four times on the other end before a young, pleasant voice answered, "Sadie Evans' office, may I help you?"

"Yes, I was hoping to speak to Ms. Evans. Is she in?"

"May I ask who is calling?"

"Emmy Oak. I, uh, own Oak Valley Vineyards," I told her, trying to come up with a plausible business excuse for asking after the COO.

Though, as it turned out, I didn't need one, as the pleasant voice answered back, "I'm sorry, but Ms. Evans is in Sacramento for the day. Would you like to leave your name and number, and I'll have her get back to you?"

I did, thankful the woman didn't ask what business I had with her boss. I was prepared to spin a story about a wine order her business partner Vivienne had made, but I'd already lied enough that day.

After I hung up, I went back to my laptop, casually checking out what kind of online presence Sadie Evans had. Lots of business articles naming her, mostly as a footnote to something Vivienne had done. A few photos accompanied them, and I had to say, she did look a lot like a younger version of Vivienne. The same auburn hair, though Sadie's was a shade darker than Vivienne's and on the shorter side. She was dressed in similar business attire in the photos, and it might have been my imagination, but she almost looked like she color coordinated her daily wardrobe choices to match Vivienne's. I found a couple of social media pages, but they were mostly boring and underused, consisting of a few vacation photos and congratulations from college friends on her latest promotions. If she had much of a personal life, it wasn't represented online. No mention of kids, a husband, or boyfriend.

Of course, if her boyfriend were married to her boss, I could see why she'd want to keep it on the down-low.

I switched screens and answered a couple of emails, listened to a few messages—mostly from reporters looking for a statement about the murder at the winery—and ignored a small stack of bills. All of which worked up an appetite, as I realized I'd skipped lunch and it was nearing dinnertime already.

I decided on a quick Baked Brie Fettuccini—fast, delicious, and decadent enough to be the type of comfort food my bruised ego needed. I quickly set a pot of water on to boil for the pasta, popped the brie in the oven, and set about the calming work of chopping onion, parsley, and garlic, sautéing it all in a pan on the stove as the mingling scents sent my appetite into overdrive. I was just about to open a bottle of our Chardonnay to go with it, when I heard tires crunch on the drive outside. I stepped out to find the white Rolls gliding into our parking lot. Though, behind the wheel was not Vivienne but her mother, Alison Price. Beside her sat Vivienne's sullen son, David, who stepped from the parked car and immediately put a hand to his eyes to shield them from the setting sun. I wondered if David got out much.

"Mrs. Price," I called, greeting her.

She smiled and walked my way. "Lovely to see you again, Ms. Oak, if even under such unfortunate circumstances."

"I'm so sorry for your loss," I told her.

"Oh, he wasn't my loss," she quickly said. "But yes, I'm afraid my daughter is quite broken up over it. David!" she barked, turning her attention to her grandson. "Get that thing washed before it comes home, would you?" She didn't wait for an answer before turning back toward me. "I'm sure those crime scene people have left it an awful mess."

"They seemed very careful," I reassured her.

I watched David scowl behind his grandmother's back and shuffle toward the sports car.

"Hmm." She narrowed her eyes at me, not looking convinced.

"Uh, could I offer you a glass of our Chardonnay before you go?" I asked, gesturing toward the tasting room behind me.

Her expression softened. "Well, I supposed I could take just a moment or two before returning to Vivienne. Lord knows we could all use the drink today."

I smiled brightly at her, leading her by the arm toward the tasting room as I watched David ease himself into the driver's bucket seat and insert the key, roaring the gorgeous little European machine to life. I waved as David reached for the stick shift, causing the gearbox to make crunching and grinding noises. Then, with spurts of gravel from the rear wheels, the car went off down my oak-lined avenue in a blur of chrome and recklessness. After I was quite sure that David had injured none of my beloved oak trees, I joined Alison at the tasting bar.

"I'd apologize for my grandson's rudeness," Alison told me, "but I'm afraid it's all my daughter's doing. She spoiled that boy beyond good sense."

I smiled, making the appropriate clucking noises as I pulled a bottle from the chiller and uncorked it. "No need to apologize. I'm sure he's shaken up about his stepfather as well."

Alison raised one well-plucked eyebrow my way. "Stepfather? Oh my, if Chas wasn't dead already, he'd die hearing you call him that."

"They weren't close?" I asked, pouring a glass for Alison, even though I already instinctively knew the answer to that. I didn't think I'd seen David and Chas so much as speak a word to each other.

"No, not in that sense." She took a sip, clearly savoring the citrus and honey notes, rolling them on her tongue.

I found myself inadvertently holding my breath as I waited for her reaction.

Finally she nodded slowly. "Very nice."

I had a feeling that was the most enthusiasm she ever showed.

"You mentioned David wasn't a fan of Chas's?" I said, trying ever so subtly to steer the conversation back to who might have hated Chas enough to want him dead.

Alison shook her head. "Who can blame him, really? Chas was only a couple of years older than David. I don't know what my daughter was thinking when she brought that man home. But I know what we were thinking."

"And that is?"

"Gold digger," she said simply, taking another sip. A slightly larger one, I noticed.

"You think Chas married Vivienne for her money?" Even as I said it out loud, I realized what a ridiculous question it was. Everyone but Vivienne could guess that one.

The well, duh look Alison gave me said as much. "I'm not one to speak ill of the dead, but that man made a full-time job of spending my daughter's money. It made me sick."

"Did you ever mention this to Vivienne?"

She waved me off. "Repeatedly. But that poor girl was blinded by him."

"He was a good looking man," I admitted. If you went for the Ken doll type.

But Alison shook her head "No, I mean she was blinded by the idea of love. She was so in love with being in love, she couldn't see that rotter for what he was." She shook her head. "She's always been that way. Case in point: her first husband, that Allen lout. Total layabout. Which is where David gets it—it's not from his mother's side of the family, that's for sure."

"Clearly," I agreed, watching Alison put her glass to her lips and let a generous amount of the liquid roll down her throat. I had a feeling I might have to call her a car.

"That man did nothing but knock my daughter up and leech off her good nature. Of course, after she finally had enough and cut him off, he disappeared, never to be seen again. How's that for gratitude?"

"That sounds difficult for David," I noted.

But Alison shook her head. "David has had every advantage a boy can have. He's squandered them all." She took a generous swig again, falling into silence.

"How was Chas's relationship with his sister?" I asked.

Alison shrugged. "How should I know? I barely knew the thing."

And from the tone in her voice, she had no interest in remedying that.

"What about Sadie?" I asked, carefully.

Alison's glass paused on the way to her mouth again. "Sadie Evans?"

I nodded.

"What about her?"

I shrugged. "Just wondering if she had the same opinion of Chas."

"Sadie worked for Vivienne. What she thought of Vivienne's personal life is irrelevant."

"I thought they were partners."

Alison snorted. Very unladylike. I noticed her glass was also empty. "Vivienne made Sadie. Anything that woman has is because Vivienne gave it to her." She paused. "Last year Vivienne decided she wanted to spend more time traveling, so she made Sadie a partner and had her take over more of the business. Vivienne has earned that right."

I nodded, feeling as if I'd hit a sore spot.

"But then that ungrateful thing took advantage of my daughter's good nature and tried to worm her way into the CEO's shoes. Essentially trying to push Vivienne out of the company she made!"

Clearly Alison was not a fan of Sadie's. I wondered if it was just due to her riding Vivienne's coattails or if it had something to do with Sadie sleeping with her daughter's husband.

"Do you know how much Chas's estate might be worth?" I asked. "Did he have any money of his own? Any shares of the Price Digital maybe?"

Alison shook her head. "I doubt it. My daughter might have been blinded by love, but she's no fool when it comes to business. I raised her that way." The note of pride in her voice was unmistakable.

I smiled, refilling her glass. "Obviously you did a wonderful job." A little flattery never hurt.

And Alison seemed to agree, relaxing a bit more in her seat. "Well, it wasn't easy. I had Vivienne young, at least by today's standards. I was only just eighteen, and her father left us shortly after that. I raised her on my own. And raised her well," she added vehemently. "I gave her every advantage I never had, and unlike David, she made good use of each one—look where it's taken her!"

I had to agree. Vivienne had done well for herself by any standards.

"Anyway," Alison added, downing the contents of her second glass again with gusto. "Viv will cry and moan for a bit, but I'm sure she'll get over Chas. In the long run, this is probably the best thing that could have happened to her."

I decided to be kind and blame her lack of empathy on the Chardonnay.

"Can I get you a ride home?" I asked.

She stood unsteadily on her heels. "Oh. I think maybe that hit my empty stomach harder than I thought."

"I'll call you a car," I promised her, pulling out my cell.

Half an hour later, I'd deposited Alison safely in an Uber with a promise to return the Rolls to the Price-Pennington house the next day, and I was tucked into my cozy cottage with a big bowl of baked brie fettuccini, the rest of the bottle of Chardonnay, and the TV remote as I flipped through the hundred channels of nothing worth watching. I was just about to give up and find a good book to read instead, when I cruised past a familiar face on the screen.

Chas Pennington.

His tanned features filled my television, his bright white smile gleaming as a newscaster's voice narrated the sad tale of his passing.

"Controversial Californian software billionairess Vivienne Price-Pennington has been widowed by the death of her second husband, former male model Chas Pennington. Sources known to this channel have indicated that Pennington collapsed and died soon after tasting wine at OakValley Vineyard, a family-run winery in Sonoma County."

I cringed. Whoever said all press was good press had never been on the business end of a murder investigation. I forced myself to listen to the rest of the story.

"Asked if foul play was suspected, Detective Christopher Grant of the Sonoma County Sheriff's VCI Unit said a full statement would be issued as soon as forensic tests had been completed."

The image on the screen changed, and suddenly we were outside the sheriff's office. Grant stood on a set of stone steps, facing a handful of microphones. Even through the million pixels of TV, the hard, determined look in his eyes made my stomach clench, and I sat up a little straighter.

"This is an ongoing investigation, and as soon as the medical examiner has finished his report, we'll issue an official statement."

"Was it the wine that killed Chas Pennington?" one reporter's voice called from the crowd.

"No!" I yelled at the TV. It was as if I was seeing my career flash before my eyes.

But Grant's face remained unreadable. "That is all the sheriff's office has to say at this time."

"No!" I yelled again. "Tell them it wasn't the wine!"

Unfortunately, my TV hadn't magically become a two-way radio, and Grant didn't hear me, instead stepping away from the podium. The shot switched to a couple of newscasters in the studio, who quickly segued into local weather.

I watched without listening, my heart sinking. Was it the wine that killed Chas Pennington? That was the takeaway that every wine enthusiast in Sonoma County would be left with. My killer Petite Sirah. I felt tears of desperation pricking behind my eyes.

A soft knock sounded at my door, and I wiped my eyes with my sleeve before getting up to answer.

Conchita stood on the other side, a pint of chocolate-chip cookie dough ice cream in her hands. One look at me must have betrayed my condition, as she said, "I see you saw the news, too."

I nodded, not able to contain the tears any longer, feeling hot liquid streak my cheeks.

"Here. I thought you'd need this." She shoved the ice cream at me, producing two spoons.

I couldn't help but smile through the tears. "Thanks," I told her, meaning it.

She led me back to the sofa, where we both dug in, and she let me vent a string of curse words—most aimed at the situation in general, though I reserved a few choice ones for Grant in particular for not defusing the reporter's question. "He must have known how that looked for me," I told Conchita.

She clucked her tongue sympathetically. "I'm sorry."

I shoved a spoonful of ice cream into my mouth.

"That policeman said they will know more when the tests are done," she said. "I'm sure then they will see it was poison that killed Chas."

"That's only slightly better," I mumbled, on a roll with my pity party. "We're serving poisoned wine!"

Conchita shook her head. "No, someone put it there."

I sniffled, licking chocolate from the corner of my mouth. "Right. Someone other than us." And Jenny, I silently thought.

"I'm sure the detective will find out who," Conchita said, nodding her plump face.

She had more faith than I did. If Grant was so focused on Jenny, someone else was getting away with murder. "You didn't happen to see Chas's sister at the event?" I asked, hoping for an alibi for Jenny. "Right before everyone started leaving?"

Conchita pursed her lips together, scrunching up her nose as she looked at the ceiling in thought. "No, I don't think I did. Not after the meal. I was in the kitchen cleaning up most of the time. Maybe Hector did?" she added hopefully.

I nodded, though I was pretty sure the detectives had already talked to Hector. "Did you see anyone in the kitchen?" I fished.

Again with the scrunchy thinking face. "In the kitchen? No. But I did see a few people milling around outside. That dead man was one of them."

Which wasn't very helpful as far as alibis were concerned. "When was this?"

"Hmmm…maybe about 7:25. 8:00? The sky was just starting to get dusky."

I felt myself perk up. It had to be right before Chas had drunk the poisoned wine. "Did he have a wineglass with him?" I asked.

Conchita nodded. "Sí, he had a wineglass in his hands. A red—I could tell that from far away."

I bit my lip. The Sirah.

"How did he seem?" I asked.

She frowned. "Drunk. He was slurring his words, swaying."

"Slurring his words?" I repeated, jumping on the phrase. "Was he talking to someone?"

"Sí. And he was smoking a cigar," she went on. "The windows were opened, and I could smell it from inside."

"Who was he with?"

"That young man with the shaggy hair. Vivienne's son."

I felt something tingle down my spine. "David?" From all accounts the two were less than chummy. In fact, I didn't recall ever seeing them speak to each other at the event. "Could you hear what they were saying?"

She shook her head. "Sorry. I was too far away. But I saw the younger guy put his arm around the Mr. Pennington's shoulders, like they were friends. Or maybe he was holding him up, supporting him, you know?"

I nodded, liking this more and more. "Then what?"

"Well, I had to wash one of the pans, then I put some of the dishes away…" She trailed off, her eyes blinking rapidly as she recalled the scene.

I resisted the urge to rush her past the mundane details as I waited for her to replay the moment.

"And then?"

"I remembered I looked up, and they were walking away."

"Both of them? Together?" I asked, trying to stem the excitement bubbling up in my belly.

She nodded. "Yes. The younger man still had his arm around Mr. Pennington. They were walking back toward the picnic tables."

To the back of the main buildings. Or, toward the cave, where Chas had been killed just moments later.

David Allen had been the last person to see Chas alive…and maybe even been the cause of his demise.

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