A Sip Before Dying - Chapter Three

I was sobbing. I just couldn't seem to stop. Tears and jerky breaths poured from me as I told the short but not-in-the-least-sweet story of how I found Chas again to the young uniformed officer in front of me. He was furiously taking notes on an electronic tablet whose technology seemed to be just a step beyond his abilities.

"And you said he was dead when you arrived?" He hunched bony shoulders as he stabbed at the tablet, doing a pathetic hunt-and-peck.

"Y-yes," I repeated.

"You're sure?"

I nodded, stifling a hiccup.

"Did you check for a pulse?"

I shook my head. "N-no, but his e-e-eyes were open." I pursed my lips together, trying not to recall the image in my head again. Not that I had much choice. I had a feeling the sight of poor Chas's surprised expression would be frozen in my brain for life.

As soon as I'd stopped screaming, I'd run up the cellar stairs to find both Ava and Conchita there, summoned by my blood-curdling cries. I couldn't remember exactly what I said, since I was speaking through my tears and shaking like a second grader on Pixie Stix. But I vaguely remembered telling them both that Chas was dead in the cellar, at which point Ava had called 9-1-1 and Conchita had sat me down in the kitchen with a cup of warm milk. Not that I'd drank any. I couldn't even stomach the thought of water, the image of those wide, lifeless eyes causing bile to rise in my throat.

Thankfully, Ava had been more coherent than I and had been able to give the dispatcher enough information that half an hour later, the winery was filled with uniformed police officers, crime scene techs, and a stout medical examiner who looked as pale as his patients.

"Did you see anyone else in the cellar?" Officer Hunt-and-Peck asked.

I shook my head. "No, everyone had gone home already."

"Everyone except the staff?"

I nodded.

"Had the deceased been drinking?"

I barked out a laugh before I could stop myself. "A lot."

The young officer frowned. "Define 'a lot.'"

I bit my lip. To be honest, I hadn't actually catalogued Chas's consumption. "I-I'm not sure. I was busy. But I know that Ava said he was getting tipsy during the meal."

"That would be Ava Barnet?" he asked, checking his notes.

I nodded again. "Yes. She's a friend. She was here helping me with the event."

Officer Hunt-and-Peck's radio crackled to life at his belt with some indistinguishable code, and he jumped to attention, responding something back that sounded like a lot of numbers and letters jumbled together. Then he nodded my way and walked off to join the rest of the boys in blue wandering around the winery.

I felt tears backing up behind my eyes again. The tasting room had gone from filled with high powered guests to police officers in a matter of hours.

"Emmeline Oak?" a voice asked.

"Emmy," I replied automatically. I wiped my eyes and looked up to find a tall, broad shouldered man standing before me. Unlike the previous police officers, he was dressed in a pair of jeans, black boots, and a button-down shirt rolled casually at the sleeves, instead of the pressed blue uniform. But the air of authority and command were a dead giveaway that he was a member of law enforcement. He looked to be mid-to-late thirties, his dark hair was just a bit overdue for a trim, and his sharp-angled jaw seemed to have a slightly abrasive texture, which betrayed the fact he'd been on the job for several hours now. His eyes were brown, with little golden flecks in the irises that seemed to dance in a frenzy as he quickly took in the scene before him. While the overall effect was easy on the eyes, his strong stance, hard expression, and assessing gaze gave a hint of danger lying just below the tightly contained surface. Something I wasn't keen on tapping into. I shifted on the hard wooden chair as his gaze pinned me.

"Detective Christopher Grant," he announced, quickly flashing a gold badge that confirmed my earlier suspicion of law enforcement. "With the SonomaCounty Sheriff's Office. You were the one who found the deceased?"

I took a deep breath, steeling myself to tell the tale again. "Yes."

He pulled a small pad of paper from his back pocket, flipping it open to a page of notes. Apparently he'd not gone digital yet like the young uniformed officer. "You didn't move anything in the cellar?"

I shook my head. "No. I already told the officer there"—I gestured to Hunt-and-Peck—"that I only touched Chas's shoulder. As soon as I saw…" I paused, my throat closing up again. "As soon as I realized he was deceased, I ran."

"And was the wineglass broken when you found it?" he asked.

That question was new. "Yes. Actually, that's what alerted me to the fact that someone had been in the cellar."

He nodded, his eyes flitting to the heavy wooden door. "Any other signs of a struggle that you noticed?"

I blinked at him. "Signs of a… Wait. Chas got drunk and fell, right?"

Grant didn't answer me, instead shooting me a hard, unreadable look. "The deceased was here for some sort of party, correct?"

"Uh, yeah." I licked my lips. "It was a tasting event. But, what did you mean by struggle? This was just an accident, right?"

Grant ignored the question. "Who else was at the tasting event?"

"Lots of people."

"Pennington come with anyone?"

I wet my lips again, my mouth suddenly dry. "Yeah. I mean, yes, his wife was here."

"That would be"—he checked his notes—"Vivienne Price-Pennington?"

I nodded, and I inwardly cringed at the name being said out loud. No way was Vivienne going to be a fan of anything Oak Valley related now, no matter how smooth our Sirah was. I silently said goodbye to her future business. "But they arrived separately," I told him. "Vivienne came with her son and mother, and Chas arrived with his sister."

"Jennifer Pacheco." This time Grant didn't have to consult his notes to remember the name.

"Right. Jenny." I paused. "This was an accident, right? I mean, Chas was drunk. We all saw that. He passed out. And…" I trailed off, hoping the detective would fill in that blank for me.

Grant blew a breath out through his nostrils, eyes narrowing at me ever so slightly, as if deciding exactly what information to share. "Mr. Pennington shows signs of having ingested a foreign substance."

"What sort of substance?"

"The ME has not made a determination yet. We'll need to wait for a tox report."

"Tox report…?" His meaning hit me. "Poison? Are you saying Chas Pennington was poisoned!?"

The dancing flecks in his eyes hit me with a hard look again. "I'm not saying anything."

Sure. But his silence spoke volumes. I recalled the broken wineglass beside the body. Had Chas's wine been poisoned? I closed my eyes and thought a really dirty word, imagining all those great reviews for my paella now being replaced by headlines about the poisoned wine at Oak Valley Vineyard.

I realized Grant was talking again and opened my eyes, willing myself to tune in instead of lamenting the impending imbalance of Shultz' Seesaw.

"…and we believe Mr. Pennington expired just after 8:00 p.m. Who was at the winery then?"

I tried to think back, but I hadn't exactly been watching the clock at the time. "I-I don't really know. I mean, I think people were starting to leave then. I was outside, saying goodbye to guests. Some people might have been in the tasting room, still, finishing their drinks."

"Was Jennifer Pacheco still here?"

Something in his voice made my head shoot up, my eyes meeting his. They were still unreadable, but I could tell my answer meant something to him. "You don't think Jenny had anything to do with her brother's death, do you?"

"Just answer the question, please, ma'am."

My turn to narrow my eyes. In the South, calling someone "ma'am" might be a sign of respect, but in California the only people who called a woman in her thirties "ma'am" were either being carelessly condescending or purposely rude.

"May I see your badge again, please?" I asked.

If the question surprised him, he didn't show it, instead pulling the badge from his back pocket again and holding it out in front of himself.

I leaned in, taking a good look this time, and felt my heart sink at what it said. VCI Unit. Violent Crimes Investigations. This was not an accident. Grant was here investigating a crime…a murder.

"You're a homicide detective."

He didn't confirm or deny the accusation, instead returning the badge to his back pocket.

"What time did the victim's sister leave the tasting event?" he asked.

I noticed Chas Pennington had suddenly gone from deceased to victim. I swallowed a dry lump. I'd kill for a glass of water right about now. I cringed. Ouch. Bad choice of words.

"Ms. Oak?"

"I'm not sure," I admitted. "I didn't check the time. But I know that Jenny had nothing to do with this."

"You know Ms. Pacheco well?" His posture shifted.

"I do." I paused. "Well, I did. I mean, we went to school together. And I know she was devoted to her brother."

"How so?"

"Well, she loved him." It sounded lame even to my own ears. "I mean, she said he helped out with the family. He got her a job with his wife's company. They were close."

"Did you know she was his sole heir?"

That took me aback. In more ways than one. Chas Pennington hadn't been discovered more than an hour ago, and already this guy knew more about him than I did. Clearly Detective Tall, Dark, and Dangerous was not one to be trifled with.

"I-I don't know if Jenny even knew that."

"She did." He didn't elaborate, instead changing gears. "Did you see Jennifer Pacheco leave your event?"

I thought back. "Yes. Actually, she left with her sister-in-law. Vivienne. She drove them." I smiled, pleased to provide Jenny with an alibi. Even though I was sure she didn't need one.

Grant consulted his notes. "Witnesses say Mrs. Price-Pennington left at exactly 8:35."

I wondered who the "witnesses" were. Probably Hector. He was very precise with time. Which, normally, was something I loved about him. In this case, the timing didn't help Jenny much. Especially if her brother was already dead by then.

"We'll be in touch if we need anything else," Grant said, shutting his notepad with finality and shoving it back into his pocket. He extracted a business card and handed it to me. "In the meantime, please call if you think of anything else that might be useful."

I nodded, though I had little intention of calling Detective Grant. The last thing I wanted to do was help him prove that Chas Pennington had been poisoned by a glass of my wine.

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