My first thought when I awoke was that I'd been buried alive. I tried to sit up and hit my head against something hard just inches above me. I pushed with my cramped legs, but I could only partially straighten them before they came up against a solid wall. Panic collected in my chest, suddenly making it hard to breathe as I furiously blinked in the darkness. Had someone put me in Chas's coffin instead of the deceased? Was I being lowered into the ground? Had I already been buried?
I forced myself to take slow breaths, focusing. No, Chas was in an urn. He'd been cremated. There had been no casket. So where was I?
I explored with my fingers in the pitch black, ignoring the headache blooming behind my eyes. I remembered being hit on the head…the second time this week. And it was no more pleasant now. I forced myself to focus through the pain. The floor felt…fuzzy? And it was vibrating. No, not just vibrating—moving.
I strained to think back. The last thing I remembered I was standing outside Conchita's car before I'd been hit. It dawned on me. I was in Conchita's trunk.
And someone was driving.
My attacker? Panic surged through me anew at that thought. Where was he taking me? To dump me for dead somewhere? Or worse…to make sure I was dead somewhere?
I shifted, trying to turn over and use my right hand, currently pinned beneath me. I could only wiggle it in the cramped interior, rendering it virtually useless. I reached my left hand up, feeling above me on the trunk's lid for an emergency latch. Unfortunately, it had been years since Conchita had bought a new car, and hers was pre emergency release. Nothing I could get a grip on moved or budged the lid an inch.
I resisted the urge to cry out for help—knowing the only person likely to hear me was the one who'd put me there.
I crawled my fingers along the floor, feeling for anything I could use as a weapon. But all I came up against were the chafing dishes I'd been loading before being rendered unconscious. I silently cursed my bad luck as I felt a cramp in my side. If only I'd been loading in something smaller, I'd have more room. Canapé plates would have been nice.
I closed my eyes, wondering how long I'd been out. How far had my attacker driven already? For all I knew, we could be around the block from the Links or several miles out into vineyards and farmland. Acres upon acres of dark, isolated landscape where it would likely be days before anyone found my body.
I gave myself a mental shake, refusing to think that way. I would find a way out of this. I had to. The winery needed me. Conchita and Hector. Mom. They all depended on me.
I held on to that thought, holding back the hot tears I could feel trying to make their way down my cheeks in the claustrophobic interior.
I'm not sure how much time passed. It felt like hours in the tiny space with only my thoughts of the worst case scenario to keep me company. In reality, it could have easily only been minutes. But finally the car turned, sending me sliding backward into a half empty box of napkins. Then bumpy terrain ensued, jostling me so hard I thought every bone in my body would be bruised. By the time we finally stopped, I was filled with a mix of relief and fear, wondering just what to expect next.
I strained in the darkness, hearing a car door open and shut. Footsteps. Heavy breathing. I tensed, instinctively curling my fingers around a chafing dish lid—the closest thing to a weapon I could find.
One that, as it turned out, would do me little good.
As the trunk lid opened, I was greeted with the shiny muzzle of a gun pointed right at me.
The cold air hit me like a punch, followed by pure fear at the sight of the gun.
I forced my eyes away from the gun muzzle to the person who was holding it straight-armed at me. And all emotion gave way to just one—confusion.
"Get out," she commanded again, her voice hard and direct. Even if she hadn't been pointing a gun at me, I'd have been tempted to comply.
I slowly set the chafing dish lid down and climbed out of the trunk, unfolding my cramped limbs with some difficulty.
"Mrs. Price," I croaked out, hearing the hitch of fear in my own voice. "What is going on?"
"You're a smart girl," she shot back. "You figure it out."
I licked my lips, wishing she hadn't thought I was so smart. Truthfully, I was feeling pretty dumb right about now.
"Okay." I paused, jumping ahead several conclusions. "You killed Chas Pennington."
"Bravo," she said, though there was no emotion in the word, least of all praise. "See, I knew you were too smart."
Up until that moment, I hadn't been. My "smart" money had been on David Allen.
"But why?" I asked. Not that I cared that much anymore. What I cared about was keeping her talking. Prolonging whatever plans she had until someone could find me.
I glanced around. As I'd guessed, we were in a vineyard. Where, I had no idea. Mountains rose to the right, but other than that, no landmarks were visible in the darkness. How long had we been driving? And how long would it take for anyone to realize I was gone? Surely someone would see Conchita's car missing, but I had a sinking feeling that finding it would prove more of a challenge.
"Why did you kill Chas?" I asked again.
"Why?" Alison repeated, her tone mocking. "Surely you've been nosing around our family enough to know the answer to that. The man was a leech. A criminal. A drain on everyone he met. And I would not have him taking my daughter down with him."
"So, you knew about the illegal poker games?" I surmised.
"How did you find out?"
"David," she spat out.
That surprised me. "David told you?" I hadn't gotten the impression he was close enough to his grandmother for confidences like that.
But she barked out laughter. "Please. That boy couldn't tell a truthful tale if his life depended on it. I had him followed."
I blinked, trying to keep up. "You hired someone to follow your grandson?"
She shrugged. "Brackston was happy to do it."
The name meant nothing to me, which must have shown on my face as she clarified, "Our butler."
Oh! Lurch. "Why did you have Lur—uh, Brackston follow your grandson?"
"I thought he was doing drugs."
Good instincts. Though, in California at least, what David was smoking wasn't illegal.
"I thought if I could prove it, I could have Vivienne force him into rehab."
"You wanted to help him," I asked, trying to see a smidgen of heart in the suddenly cold eyes staring back at me.
She gave that bark of humorless laughter again. "I wanted him away from my daughter. He was almost as much of a drain on her as Chas—emotionally and financially. You know he's almost thirty years old and has never held down a job?"
"I thought he was an artist."
Her eye narrowed. "I mean a real job."
Ouch. While his art wasn't my taste, I could tell he was good. At least, Ava had said he was, and I trusted her opinion.
Ava. My throat clogged at the thought of her. Would I ever see her again? Ever be able to have a Thelma & Louise night over rocky road? I forced back tears, concentrating on what Alison was saying. I had to stay focused if I had any chance of getting out of this alive.
"…dragging my daughter down. She was capable of so much. And all they did was take, take, take."
"Like Chas?" I asked, getting her back on track.
She paused, her grip on the gun going tighter until I could see blue veins straining against her pale skin. I instinctively took a step back, feeling the back of my knees hitting up against the car fender.
"Like Chas," she confirmed.
"So, Brackston followed David to a poker game," I said, drawing out the tale as long as I could.
She nodded. "Brackston talked to a couple of people and found out Chas was the one setting up the games. Not only that, but he was losing. Losing my daughter's money."
"So you killed him?"
"Oh, I'm not a barbarian." Her spine straightened in defense. "I talked to Chas first. Gave him a chance to leave quietly on his own."
"But he refused?" Which came as no surprise. Why would Chas leave? He had the perfect setup. A wife with deep pockets and a blind eye.
Alison confirmed my suspicions, shaking her head. "No. That smug slime just laughed at me. He said Vivienne would never believe me. That he had her wrapped around his little finger. Can you believe the gall of that man? I'm her mother."
I swallowed hard, trying to find anything even slightly maternal about the way that gun was aimed so steadily at my heart. "So what happened then?"
Alison's features darkened, her jaw tightening. "Then he told me just how blind my daughter was to his activities. He said he had his hands in her money and she didn't even know it."
"The company funds," I concluded.
Alison nodded slowly. "See, I knew you knew too much."
If only I had. If only I'd been able to put it together sooner and tell Grant. Or Schultz and his lawyers. Or anyone who might come looking for me now.
I scanned the dark vineyard, hearing nothing but my own breath as a light rain began to fall.
No one was coming. It was me versus Alison. And while I might have her by a good forty years, she was taller, sturdy, and had a gun. Not odds I'd guess even Chas would have bet on.
"What did you do then?" I asked, desperately trying to stall until some magical escape plan came to me.
Alison shrugged. "What could I do? The gambling was one thing. But embezzling from her company? Vivienne could have lost everything if that had gotten out."
"So you killed him."
"It was surprisingly easy, really," she said, her eyes going far away, as if reliving it. "I took it upon myself to order a refill of David's prescription. It's all online these days, you know," she added. "Makes it quite easy and convenient to do. Especially if you know all of the patient's personal info. No one at the pharmacy even blinked an eye when I told them I was picking up my grandson's prescription for him."
"So they were David's pills that killed Chas—not Jenny's?"
Alison nodded. "Unfortunately, the police pinned it on that girl." She shrugged. "But sacrifices have to be made."
Anger pricked the back of my throat at the idea Jenny's freedom was a sacrifice Alison was willing to make. "She could get life in prison."
"She was never going to amount to anything anyway. Look at her. She couldn't even keep an entry level job at Price Digital."
"That's because Chas had her fired!" I blurted out in Jenny's defense.
Alison raised one pale eyebrow in a perfect arch, her mouth curving into a smile. "Really? His own sister? Well, you see the man really didn't have any redeeming qualities. I did the world a favor."
I had a feeling a few people would agree with her, but that didn't negate the fact she'd taken a life. Or that she was holding a gun on me. I took a shallow breath, reining in my emotion.
"Why did you choose Xanax to kill Chas?" I asked.
"Well, I knew Chas took them. On the sly." She paused. "He did other drugs too, you know."
That, I did know. But I figured now was not the time to strengthen my smarty-pants image in her eyes. "Oh?" I asked.
She nodded. "Cocaine. His tramp, Sadie Evans, got him hooked. I'd seen him coming home at all hours, high as a kite. Then he'd take his sister's Xanax to come down before facing Viv." She shook her head. "I almost thought I could just wait it out. With the dangerous cocktail he was taking, it was only a matter of time before he offed himself."
"But you didn't want to wait?"
Alison slowly shook her head. "I couldn't. He was going to ruin Vivienne. And I saw my chance with your party at the winery. Vivienne told me Chas would be driving in from the city from work—which I knew meant he was getting high with his tramp. Of course, he'd need to come down before the party, taking a couple Xanax. And I knew how Chas liked to drink. By the third glass, he wouldn't have blinked an eye at a slightly bitter taste in his Sirah." She paused again, a slow, wicked smile snaking across her face. "In fact, he didn't blink an eye. He just drank up."
And died in my cellar.
I shivered in the damp cold enveloping us. As much as Chas Pennington hadn't been much of a humanitarian, no one deserved to die that way.
"What about Vivienne?" I asked. "Didn't you think she'd be devastated?"
Alison narrowed her eyes at me, taking a step forward. "My daughter is my whole life. I've worked hard to give her every advantage. I've invested so much in that girl, made so many sacrifices. And then what does she do? She squanders her life on one worthless deadbeat after another."
The fire in Alison's eyes was enough to scare the bejesus out of me, even if it hadn't had the power of a pistol behind it. As her monologue went on, I put my right hand behind my back, feeling along the rear of the car for anything I could use as a weapon against the increasingly agitated woman.
"Lord knows, her first husband was no saint," she told me. "But I took care of him quickly enough."
"Wait—took care?" I asked, suddenly wondering if Vivienne's first husband was in a bronze urn somewhere too.
Alison smiled. "Relax, dear. He's alive and well. Well, alive anyway. Might have been more well if my daughter hadn't caught him with a prostitute and invoked the infidelity clause of their prenup. She left him with nothing." Her eyes were dark and hard again. "Bubbles was her name. Best hundred dollars I ever spent."
I blinked, realizing just how unhinged Alison was. I was sure Vivienne had no idea her mother had broken up her first marriage. And she'd kept this secret all these years.
"But Pennington," she went on, taking another step closer.
I cringed as that muzzle was getting way too close for comfort. My fingers scrambled behind me, coming up against only smooth, firmly attached chrome.
"Pennington was low rent," Alison continued. "A big step down for her. I was mortified when she announced their engagement. His father was a farmworker, for Pete's sake. I told her he was just a gold digger. But she wouldn't listen." Alison shook her head. "She was always like that, even as a girl. So stubborn. So, I had to step in."
Like I feared she was stepping in now. Panic was building in my chest again, making my hands shake. I had to find a way out. And fast.
"How did you get the Xanax into Chas's glass unnoticed?" I asked, not caring about the answer so much as prolonging the inevitable.
"I simply crushed a few tablets." She paused. "Maybe more than a few. But I wanted to make sure they did the trick. No comfortable comas for Chas Pennington. He needed to be really, truly gone."
I personally didn't see anything terrifically comfortable about a coma caused by drug overdose, but I didn't interrupt.
"I made sure to wear my gloves that day—perfectly appropriate for an afternoon garden party, wouldn't you say?"
I nodded. I had to concede, I hadn't thought a thing about it at the time.
"All the better to keep prints off the glasses. I poured myself a glass of the Sirah, then slipped into the ladies' room with it and emptied the Xanax powder into the glass. It changed the color just slightly, but after stirring it with a straw, it was close enough that I knew my inebriated son-in-law wouldn't notice."
"And you just handed him the tainted wine?"
"Everybody was going from table to table, socializing. I found Chas sitting alone at the family table. His speech was already slurred when I handed it to him. Told him Vivienne poured it for him."
So Jenny's prints on the glass had really been an accident. I could easily see her touching it at the family's table, maybe even to move it further from her brother's reach as the night wore on and he became increasingly drunk.
"You didn't worry about anyone finding the glass later?" I asked.
"Why would I?" she said, her forehead creasing in a frown. "No one could trace anything back to me. The prescription was David's. The wineglass wasn't mine. And the Sirah was yours, dear." She flashed that wicked smile at me again, and I felt a surge of anger that she was fine with me and OakValley playing scapegoat in her plan.
"Was it you who hit me on the head too?" I asked, anger making me bold.
She shook her head, tsking between her teeth. "Brackston was happy to help me with that little problem. As soon as you mentioned the name of that greedy little pawnbroker to me at the Links, I knew you were in danger of getting too close. At least to knowing about Vivienne covering Chas's embezzling. Imagine if her board had gotten hold of that? Not to mention that vampire, Sadie Evans."
She was right. That I found out about Chas's theft, at least. Though, contrary to Alison's assumptions, I'd had no intention of making that information public. Not everyone was a blackmailer.
Or killer, I thought, realizing Alison's patience was wearing thin as she took another step toward me.
I tried to take one backwards, but I was pinned against the car.
"And now, you need to go," Alison told me.
That panic in my chest turned into full-blown fear, adrenaline coursing through my veins like fire.
No weapons. No backup. I was on my own. And it was now or never.
I took a deep breath, sucking in courage I wasn't sure I had. "There's just one thing you didn't count on," I told her, false bravado filling my voice.
She frowned. "What, pray tell, is that?"
"That!" I shouted, pointing to the empty field behind her.
On instinct, she turned to look.
Which was exactly what I'd been hoping she'd do. I took her split second of inattention and leapt forward, shoving my right shoulder into her with all my might.
She cried out, falling backward, her hands going behind her to catch her fall.
But I didn't stick around to see if she was okay, taking off at a dead sprint in the other direction, hoping I could dissolve into the darkness before Alison was able to regain her footing. Or aim.
My feet pounded on the hard ground, arms pumping. I felt brambles and vines scrape at my arms and face, but I didn't stop, running blindly. I followed the straight row to the end of the field, only then zigzagging into another row. I had no idea where I was going or how long it would be before I saw something resembling civilization and safety, but I kept running.
I vaguely heard the sound of a car behind me and had the sudden horrible vision of Alison Price mowing me down in a vineyard, taking out an entire crop of Chardonnay grapes along with me. I resisted the urge to stop, turn around, and see how close she was. I knew every second counted, and I needed to keep moving.
While I wasn't exactly a couch potato, I wasn't in marathon shape either. My thighs burned, and my calves threatened to cramp up. My head pounded with each step I took, the ache wearing on me. I pushed harder, pumping my arms for all they were worth, knowing I was on borrowed time. I couldn't run forever. And sooner or later, that car motor I could hear in the distance would catch up to me.
As if on cue, the sounds of gunfire cracked through the night.
I ducked instinctively, though I had no idea if the bullet came anywhere near me. I couldn't see the direction it had come from. I heard the car now idling, and I knew she was out there. How close? That was anyone's guess.
I felt like my lungs were on fire when I finally saw a break in the fields ahead. Lights appeared and disappeared behind a row of tall trees. Headlights.
I pushed forward with a final sprint of energy, practically throwing myself through the grove of trees as I heard another shot—this time unmistakably closer.
I still wasn't sure where I was, but headlights came toward me on a paved road. I waved my arms in front of me like a mad woman, hailing the driver.
At first I almost thought he didn't see me and would plow me down. But at the last second, he swerved right, pulling up against the embankment. His drivers' side window rolled down, and he leaned an elbow out.
"You okay, miss?" a guy in a trucker hat asked.
I could have kissed him. "Call…9-1-1," I panted.
As his hands reached for his cell, my legs collapsed, the relief too great for them to hold me upright anymore.