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A Sip Before Dying - Chapter Twelve



I tossed and turned for a few hours, my body refusing to fall into a deep sleep. I wondered if this was how criminals felt—guilt, fear, and nerves keeping my mind way too active to rest. I finally fell asleep in the early hours of the morning, though I was awakened shortly after by the sound of my phone ringing from my nightstand.

I fumbled for it, only conceding to open one eye to check the readout. But as soon as I saw who the caller was, I bolted awake.

"Mom? What's wrong? Are you okay?"

"Good morning, honey," came my mother's voice on the other end of the phone. "Goodness, nothing's wrong. You're such a worrier."

The adrenaline that had shot through me at seeing her name subsided some. I glanced at the clock hanging above my dresser. 7:15.

"It's early, Mom," I told her.

"Is it? I'm sorry. I've been up for hours."

I yawned, leaning my head back into the pillows. "It's fine," I told her. "I was awake anyway." Hey, I was already going to hell for lying to Grant—I might as well throw a comfort lie in there for Mom too.

"Good. Listen, I wanted to know what you want for your birthday, Emmy?"

"My birthday?"

"Uh-huh. It's coming up, you know."

"Mom, my birthday is in December. It's barely summer."

"Oh." I heard disappointment in my mother's voice. "Is it? I could have sworn it was coming up. I must have lost track of time."

I bit my lip, that sinking weight that often accompanied chats with my mom filling my belly. It was the desperation of losing something you dearly wanted to hold on to and knowing it was totally futile to try.

"It's okay," I told her softly, trying to keep that weight out of my voice. "It's never too early to plan for a birthday, right?"

"I agree," she said, her voice perking up a bit.

"But what I'd really love is one of your apple strudels," I told her.

"Oh, I remember how you used to love those." Mom laughed. "When you were a girl, I had to hide them while they cooled. Otherwise, they'd always be missing a piece."

I grinned at the memory. "Well, I tell you what? For my birthday I'll pick you up and we'll come bake apple strudels together at the winery. Sound good?"

"That sounds lovely."

"It's a date then," I told her, only feeling a little sad that the date was months away. Then again, summer felt like a lovely time for strudel too.

I hung up after giving my mom some heartfelt I-love-you's and promising to come visit her later this week. Though I had no idea if she'd remember the promise or even what week it was.

I shoved that thought down as I got up, showered, and tried to trick my body into thinking I'd had a real night's sleep with a full pot of extra dark coffee. Conchita and Hector had the day off, and I took my third cup into my office with me, checking the emails from our website account.

One from a company promising to optimize our SEO. Three inquiries from journalists and bloggers hoping to get a quote from the owner of the "killer vineyard." And, I realized with a sinking heart, two event cancelations. One a corporate retreat for a streaming site, which had been booked three months in advance, and the other a private anniversary party for a couple who'd frequented the winery in my parents' day. The coffee stung my empty stomach as I calculated how these losses would affect our bottom line this month. Suffice to say, it was not good. Shultz would no longer so much have a seesaw as a lead weight in one hand.

I closed my computer, all of it too depressing, and went into the main kitchen to indulge in some much-needed cooking therapy. Plus, I was starving. And since it was that kind of week, I went for chocolate. I pulled out my mother's recipe for Espresso Waffles with Mocha Sauce—one of my favorites when we used to have Sunday brunches together.

I carefully measured out flour, cocoa powder, and baking powder and soda in equal amounts, before adding in milk, eggs, and butter. Once the batter was gooey, I set the waffle iron to heat and created the signature Mocha Syrup from sweetened condensed milk, strong coffee, and melted dark chocolate—maybe sampling a few nibbles of the chocolate as I cooked.

Once the waffles were crispy and the sauce gooey, I garnished them with raspberries and toasted almonds before digging in.

As I devoured generous forkfuls of the chocolaty heaven on a plate, I picked up my phone and pulled up the photos I'd taken of Chas Pennington's little black book the previous evening. I scrolled through, taking note of the initials next to each date. Several were repeated, as one would expect from repeat players, but none with the frequency of D.A. While it was possible the initials could have belonged to someone else, I'd bet anything it was David Allen. I thought back to how honest he'd been about his dislike of Chas. I'd taken it for a defiant attitude at the time, but now I wondered if he'd played at open hatred of his stepfather to throw me off the real relationships he'd had with Chas—that of gambler and beneficiary. If David had been losing, maybe he figured it was easier to off his stepfather than make good on the debts. Or, maybe Chas had threatened to tell Vivienne that David was gambling, and David had feared being cut off from his mother's purse strings. Either way, it made for a fantastic motive for David Allen.

If it were true.

I had a lot of best-guesswork here but little evidence. And I couldn't ignore the other names on the list. While David's seemed to show up with the most frequency, I had to admit that other initials lay next to the highest dollar amounts. A P.T., for example, had been in for five figures just three weeks ago. I wondered if he'd made good on the debt or if it was still outstanding.

I scrolled for a few more minutes until Ava's number popped up with a text.

You up?

I shot back, Unfortunately.

A beat later my phone rang, Ava's face filling the screen. I swiped it on.

"Hey," I said by way of greeting.

"Couldn't sleep either?" she asked.

I shook my head, even though I knew she couldn't see me. "No. But I have coffee, so I'll live."

"Lucky. Half Calf doesn't open for another thirty minutes."

I grinned. Ava had a serious latte addiction. I'd tried to duplicate her favorite coffee shop's syrupy, foamy concoctions with the cappuccino maker I'd given her for Christmas last year, but she still held out for the real deal from the place next door every morning. A hardship when they opened late midweek.

"What are you up to?" she asked.

"Just browsing the photos we took last night."

"In Chas's office?"

"Shhh!" I admonished automatically

Ava's laugh tickled across the line. "It's not like Grant has your phone tapped."

I wouldn't put it past him.

"He was here, waiting for me to get home last night."

Ava sucked in a breath on the other end. "Uh-oh. I can't imagine that went well."

"No," I confessed. "It did not."

I quickly filled Ava in on the conversation we'd had, the fact that I was pretty sure Grant knew, or at least suspected, we'd been the ones to trip the silent alarm at Price Digital, and the fruits of our in-the-gray-area-of-legal search of Chas's office—namely the contents of his little black book.

"How often did he run the games?" Ava asked.

I scrolled through photos as I answered. "Looks like there's a new entry roughly every week or so. Sometimes more often."

"I wonder how he found these players," Ava mused.

"What do you mean?'

"Well, it isn't as if you can openly advertise an illegal poker game, right?"

I nodded. She had a good point. "If we knew where he found his players, maybe we could identify some of them." While my mind immediately went to David Allen, I tried to think where else Chas might meet wealthy, idle people with time and money to burn.

And one place practically leapt to mind.

"What about the Sonoma Links?" I asked.

"The golf club?" Ava asked.

While Sonoma had a country club proper, anyone who was anyone was a member at the Links—whether they golfed or just enjoyed the above-the-fray gossip over bloody marys in the lounge and margaritas on the terrace. "You think that's where Chas found his players?"

"We know he was a member. And it's the right crowd."

"Yeah, but would any of them cop to knowledge of the games now?"

"I don't know," I mused. "But I'd love to ask around." I paused. "I don't suppose you know any members who could get us in?"

"As a matter of fact, I do," she said, brightening on the other end to almost as chipper as the post-caffeine Ava I knew and loved. "I know him quite well in fact."


* * *


We made plans to meet for lunch at the Links, and I spent the rest of the morning cleaning up the kitchen, doing laundry, tidying up my cottage, and generally trying not to think about the impending doom of my winery failing, Grant suspecting me of minor B&E, and the murderer on the loose. Since the breakfast had lifted my spirits a bit, I decided to make a trip into town to pick up a few things for dinner as well. If life kept at it this way, I might have to go with a one-piece bathing suit this season.

By noon, I was ensconced in a long-sleeved T-shirt style dress in a bold floral pattern that felt right for spring at an exclusive club. I tossed on a couple of silver bangles Ava had made for me last year, and capped it off with a pair of silver wedge sandals. Then I grabbed my bag and hopped into my Jeep.

Midday sunlight warmed the rolling hills of pale greens, yellows, and the deep emerald of the new buds growing in rowed patterns. Even the bare patches that were still darkened with the remnants of crops before the fires were starting to grow back, with sparse patches of green struggling to push through the wet earth, proving that Mother Nature never missed an opportunity for a comeback.

It was a short drive to the gated entrance of the Links, where I gave my name as the guest of one Ken Barnett—Ava's father, who, as she had told me earlier, had been an active member of the club since before it was chic to be so.

I followed the winding drive up a hill much like the one to my own Oak Valley Vineyards. Only, while mine was lined with natural growth oaks, a gravel drive, and wildflowers, the one at Links sported tall, manicured cypress trees, sprawling green lawns, and colorful nonnative annuals in bright blues, pinks, and reds that looked both delicate and abundant.

A valet took my car, and I stepped into the club feeling only a little self-conscious—as if my bank account balance was apparent in my attire. The outfit had looked simple and elegant at home, but here I felt as if every eye could see its lack of designer label.

"Emmy!" Thankfully, Ava hailed me from a table in the lounge almost as soon as I stepped inside. Her friendly smile and upbeat aura eased my tension a little as I air kissed her and sat at the table for three.

"Nice to see you again, Emmy," Mr. Barnett told me, shaking my hand.

"You too. Thanks for the invite for lunch."

"Well, anytime Ava makes time for Dad, I try to accommodate." He grinned at his daughter, the genuine affection hard to miss. I felt a twinge in my chest, wishing my own father was still around to chide me for not making enough time for him.

Ava and I both ordered Caesar salads with chilled avocado-cucumber soup and Chardonnay, while Ken went for a cocoa-rubbed filet and a cabernet. We made polite chitchat as the food arrived, Ken regaling me with some embarrassing stories from Ava's childhood I'd yet to hear, and Ava giving her dad updates on the shop. I zoned out a bit when talk turned to one of her cousins who was getting married that fall, my attention falling on the food that, for all intents and purposes, was my competition. It was undeniably delicious, with attention to details that made the meal. But there was also an overarching sense of desperation to impress both in the seasonings and the presentation. Pretty, elegant, but lacking heart. I could do better. If my balance sheets were any indications, I had to do better.

"…were so sorry to hear about the trouble at the winery."

I realized that Ken was talking to me and pulled my attention back to our host.

"I can't believe someone died at your party, Emmy."

I forced a smile I didn't feel. "Thanks, but the police are looking into it. They're confident they'll find the perpetrator soon," I told him, repeating the promise Grant had given me the night before.

"I actually saw Vivienne earlier. She's planning to have the memorial here," he went on. "Of course, only fitting. The club is the only suitable location. Bud Cassidy's memorial in January was quite impressive. The lounge was packed."

Ava cleared her throat, throwing me a meaningful glance out of the corner of her eyes before addressing her father. "Uh, did you know Chas Pennington, Daddy?" she asked.

"Oh well, I saw him here often, of course. Might have shaken hands with him at a party or two, but I can't say I knew him well."

"What about his stepson, David Allen?" I asked, jumping on the opening.

He nodded. "Yes, he's a member too." He frowned.

I had a feeling David Allen wasn't quite up to Ken Barnett's standards as far as members went.

"Was he here often?" I asked, thinking the indie club scene felt more like David's thing than the golf club set.

"Oh, not often. He came with his mother most weekends for brunch, but that was it. His grandmother accompanied them too. If I had to guess, he came under duress, but one could say that about ninety percent of the men accompanying the ladies to Sunday brunch." He gave me a knowing wink.

"Did Chas come too?" I asked.

Ken frowned and shook his head. "No, not that I can recall. But Chas and Viv sort of did their own thing, as far as I could tell. Chas liked to golf, but I don't ever recall seeing him and Viv on the links together."

"Vivienne didn't golf?" I asked.

Ken nodded, his soft jowls wavering with aftershocks. "Oh, she golfs alright. In fact, she was a very active member of several committees when the Pacific Coast tour came through here last fall."

"You were on that committee too, right, Daddy?" Ava prompted.

He nodded again, and Ava and I waited for him to continue as he sipped his drink. "I was. Vivienne could be quite demanding, but sometimes you need that. Point her in the right direction, and she gets things done. And she's not a bad golfer either. Her drive is pretty good, but she's too impulsive to putt well."

That fit with what I knew of Vivienne so far. "It doesn't sound as if she and her husband shared many activities. Any idea what their relationship was like?" I asked.

But Ken clearly wasn't the type to gossip, simply shrugging. "They seemed to get along fine," was all he said.

"What else did Chas like to do?" Ava pressed, giving me the side-eye again. "Was he a gambler, by chance?"

"Well, I don't know about all that." He paused, his gaze going across the room. "Robby!"

A dark-haired man sipping a midday scotch at the bar turned toward our table. Ken hailed him over, and as he approached, said, "Robby used to make up a foursome with Chas on the weekends. He'd know him better."

"Hey, Kenny." Robby nodded to Ava's dad. "And who are these lovely ladies?" His eyes went from Ava to me and back to Ava's cleavage.

"This is Ava. My daughter," Ken emphasized.

Robby's eyes shot back up into a respectable zone, his smile going from eager to mildly pleasant.

"And this is her friend, Emmy. Emmy owns the Oak Valley Vineyards."

"Robby Bettencourt." He shoved a warm palm my way, shaking in greeting. "You're young to own a winery."

"It's my family's," I explained, trying to tamp down the discomfort at how long Robby was holding on to my hand.

"Well, I'll have to come check it out sometime."

"I hope you do." I gave him a big smile as I extracted my fingers from his sweaty grip.

"Uh, we hear that you played golf with Chas Pennington," Ava said, thankfully getting right to the point.

Robby pulled an empty chair up next to her and nodded, his expression going somber at the mention of the dead man. "I did. He had a 10 handicap, but he landed an eagle on the 18th the other day. And that's a par 5 hole."

I had no idea what that meant, but by the way Ken nodded appreciatively, I figured it was good.

"We were wondering, did Chas ever mention any poker games to you?" Ava asked.

Robby's eyes cut from Ava to me. "Poker?"

"We, uh, heard from a mutual friend that he used to organize games. You know, for fun," I said, trying to make light of the situation in hopes he'd open up.

But his expression remained as unreadable as if he'd been holding a full house. "I don't know anything about that," he said.

Ava pouted, making full use of her plump lips and Revlon's Racing Red color that she'd applied liberally. "Oh, that's a shame. They sounded fun."

"You play?" Robby asked, his eyes cutting to Ken. I could tell he wanted to ask more but was treading on thin ice with Dad there.

"Uh, Mr. Barnett, would you mind terribly getting me another glass of Chardonnay?" I asked, lifting my empty one his way with a sunny smile.

If he thought anything of it, he didn't mention it, saying, "Of course. Anyone else need a refill?"

Ava quickly knocked back the contents of her glass and handed the empty to her dad with the same sort of innocent smile I was sure I was not faking well.

As soon as he stepped away from the table, Ava leaned in to Robby. "Listen, you and I both know that it's not just a rumor that there's a regular underground poker game. I'd love to get in on that if I could." She batted her eyelashes at him in the way only a well-endowed twentysomething could get away with.

And it had the desired effect.

Robby's face broke into a salacious smile, eyes going to Ava's chest again. "I knew there was a bit of bad girl in you."

Ava ginned at him, flirting for all she was worth.

"Unfortunately, I'm not sure there will be any more games," he informed us.

"So, Chas was running the games?" I asked.

Robby tore his eyes way from Ava's cleavage with some difficulty, focusing on me for a second. "Yes, he organized the odd game here and there."

"And you played?" I asked, trying to recall if a R.B. had shown up in Chas's little black book.

Robby shrugged. "I may have. But these were just social games. Purely for fun," he added with a big grin.

Yeah right. With a three grand buy-in, these were not "for fun" games. But I played along. "Do you happen to know who else might have been at these social games?"

Robby's eyes narrowed ever so slightly. "Why do you want to know?"

"Uh…"

"Uh, the truth is," Ava jumped in, "we were thinking of organizing a little game of fun of our own. Only, we're not members here." She pouted again.

"Now, that is a crying shame." Back was the salacious grin. This guy had #metoo oozing from his slimy pores.

"So we don't exactly know who to ask. You know, people who can be discreet," I hinted.

"And fun," Ava said, giving Robby a wink.

I think it was the wink that did it. Robby melted right into her sunny charms. "Well, I'm not sure I could give you a definitive list. I think you'd have to ask David for that."

"That would be David Allen?" I asked in what I hoped wasn't too eager of a voice.

Robby nodded. "He was at almost all of Chas's games."

That much I knew.

"He must have owed Chas a good deal," I fished.

Only to my surprise, Robby shook his head. "On the contrary. David had an uncanny knack for coming out ahead."

I cocked my head to the side. "Are you sure?" All the figures I'd seen beside his initials seemed to be large enough to dispute that fact.

But Robby nodded. "Kicked my behind, I'll tell you. Kid had a gift. If I didn't know better, I'd say he was counting cards or something. I told Chas as much, but he laughed me off. Just said the kid had a lot of time on his hands. Watched YouTube videos on how to play poker or something."

I was about to ask more, when Ava's dad picked that moment to return to the table, drinks in hand.

"Two Chardonnays?" he asked.

We each thanked him in turn and took our glasses. Robby took that as his cue to depart, though not before telling Ava, "Let me know if you decide to put together a, uh…game night." He punctuated the statement with a knowing wink.

Ava batted her eyelashes at him, but as soon as he had his back turned on his way toward the bar, she made a mock gagging motion.

"Ava!" her dad chided.

"Sorry." She put a hand on Ken's arm. "But if you ever make eyes at a woman half your age, I'm gonna make gagging faces at you too."

Ken grinned, showing off a dimple in his weathered cheek that matched his daughter's. "If I ever did that, your mother would put me six feet under. Then dance on my grave."

Ava laughed out loud. "Too true."

We finished our meal, and I excused myself to stroll around the grounds as Ava and her dad caught up a bit more. Ostensibly, it was to take in the air, but the truth was the second glass of distraction Chardonnay had hit me hard enough that I knew I needed a walk and some fresh air.

I left the lounge by way of the French doors at the back and wound my way around the massive terrace that overlooked the golf course. I had to admit, I'd only played a few times myself, but the soft carpet of thick green lawn stretching as far as the eye could see had a calming effect, even if I didn't have a club in my hand.

As I strolled, I waved to a couple of people I recognized from my Spanish party, making mental notes to check their initials against my little black book later. Then instantly felt guilty about thinking of every one of my party guests as a potential suspect. I was not a suspicious person by nature, and it wasn't sitting well with me now.

I left the terrace, heading down a small flight of wooden stairs to the ground level, and found a shady spot under a group of trees on the back side of the pro shop. I leaned against the wood siding of the shop, inhaling the sweet scents of pine trees, freshly mowed grass, and a hint of meat being smoked in the kitchen.

It might have been a serene moment, had it not been interrupted by raised voices just on the other side of the building.

My first instinct was to walk away and let the couple argue in private. But I stopped as I recognized one of them. The deep, throaty, and commanding voice of Vivienne Price-Pennington.

Hadn't Ken said he'd seen her at the club making memorial arrangements earlier? I ducked my head around the corner to confirm my suspicions. It was Vivienne alright, decked out in head-to-toe black in a pressed pantsuit that looked uncomfortably out of place in the warm California weather. But whatever she was discussing now, it was not subdued flower arrangements and eulogies. She was deep in a discussion with a stocky man in a cheap suit. Her eyebrows were drawn, her hands gesturing wildly in the air, and I could see by the strain in her posture that this was not a friendly chat.

I leaned forward, halfway hating myself for eavesdropping and halfway wanting to inch closer to better make out what she was saying.

"…how dare you… know who I am… not fair, Trask…"

Vivienne was angry about something, that was for sure. What, I couldn't tell, hearing only snippets of her tirade.

The man—presumably Trask—had a lower voice, much deeper, that came out as a mumbled rumble from my vantage point.

"…don't care where you get it…the last time I agree to this…or else…"

I blinked, the meaning of his words hitting me. Or else.

Vivienne Price-Pennington was being threatened.

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