Authors: Melanie Jackson
If he was willing to use his identity as an NSA agent. If he hadn’t been willing, that raised all sorts of questions.
Which she wasn’t going to think about. Not until after lunch.
“Then let us be off.
You still wish to try that small bistro we saw yesterday?”
ly quaint and has good reviews. It’s probably a bad idea though just because it is popular.”
“Doubtless, but I think we should get out for a while. So let us hope the food is adequate compensation
for the decor.”
The day had reached the pinnacle of unpleasantness by the time they were seated at the ridiculously small table. Every breath was sticky with damp heat and the yellow jackets were buzzing. But not as much as the locals who had gathered at their favorite waterhole to discuss their astonishment but not grief at Carl Owens’ death. She gathered that homicides were rare in their town.
Their waitress was forty and trying to look twenty, a woman who wore clothes that had more fun than she ever did and shoes that had to hurt her. She did not seem inclined to wait on anyone on the sunny patio who did not aggressively indicate that
they were hungry and likely to gnaw her arm off if she weren’t quick enough with the entrees.
Fortunately, Raphael could be as arrogant as a lord and haughty contempt seemed to work just as well
as animal ferocity. They were fed with only a minimally unacceptable wait after placing their order and ahead of the coffee sippers, smoothie suckers, and would-be wine aficionados. After they had their food, being punished by their waitress by being left alone suited them well enough since their conversation was not intended for the general public.
“Esteban may be able to tell us more later
in the day. What little he had was enlightening,” Raphael said, resuming their interrupted conversation. Raphael had not been idle while Juliet was busy entertaining Talbert. He had called Esteban, their private investigator neighbor, and gotten a quick rundown of facts available on the Internet, not all of them from legal sources like Google. Given sufficient time, Esteban could unlimber almost any information.
“There are plenty of people with the motivation to kill Owens. We have to also consider this
crime on the basis of opportunity and character—or lack thereof.” Juliet rubbed her forehead. Even with a hat and the dappled shade from the nearby oak, she was feeling the heat. The available shade ranged from casual to rigorous, which was where she would have preferred to sit, but there were limits to what even Raphael could accomplish.
“Do we include your friend from the NSA on the list of suspicious persons?” Raphael asked.
“Certainly. He was at the party and the time of death has been set between midnight and two. Someone put a bullet more or less between Owens’ beady eyes and that kind of cold-blooded shooting is definitely a part of his skill set. I also think we better go over the cottages when we get back and rid ourselves of unwanted ears.”
, not at all surprised by the suggestion. He had also worked for a certain branch of the government that left him with very few illusions about privacy.
Carissa of the dead animals, she is also a suspect?”
“A soon-to-be ex
, who might be bright enough to figure out that getting everything—assuming it hasn’t been left to the estranged son—might be better than whatever alimony was promised in her prenup? A woman who likes hunting and knows guns as well as having access to a lot of them? Oh yeah. She’s on the list.”
missing son, of course. He is also familiar with guns or so one assumes. Esteban will know more.”
“From what you’ve said, he certainly doesn’t seem to be grieving overmuch and he lives in the area.” Raphael had encountered Edward Owens while giving his statement to the police.
The young man had been shocked and angry, but not sad in any conventional way.
“You also like Schneider, the bitter ex-partner
who may or may not be an embezzler?”
Who is limping this morning because he sprained an ankle in the dark, which could easily have happened if he was walking between the cottages and the vineyard without a flashlight.” Raphael sighed. “Yeah, we have an embarrassment of suspects and that is without any digging for more. All of them had the means, motives, and opportunity—and emotional wherewithal—to kill Carl Owens.”
“But you said that
Carissa and Talbert claim to have been together when Owens was killed. Did he say what they were doing, or is it obvious?”
“No, and I didn’t ask since he would lie if it suited him. Besides, that is one of those trick alibies. Turn it inside out and you have confederates working together to get rid of Owens.”
“Do you think this likely?” Raphael asked.
“No, but everything about Talbert being here—for any official reason—is unlikely. Therefore his interest in Owens must be personal and not work related. And if he wanted to hang around for some reason, an infatuation with Carissa makes a good—if reprehensible—excuse for staying, especially now that Carl is dead.”
Does he wish us to believe that he has fallen for the exotic Carissa?”
I think so. It’s not the strangest thing to have ever happened,” Juliet admitted. “They’re both savages and she is quite striking.”
“But your best guess?”
he persisted. Juliet was good at adding up facts and subtracting the incidentals.
“No. I think Talbert is too cold blooded to experience any of the warmer human feelings. And he wouldn’t risk his career just for a….”
“Brief affair,” Raphael suggested. “But for money? Or fame?”
“Or career advancement. Maybe.”
Raphael nodded and finally sampled his eggplant. He looked more resigned than enthused as he swallowed.
“And the siblings at Trefoil?
We must consider them also?”
“I guess they had reason to kill him, but I just don’t see Seamus murdering someone because they are offering a lot of money for property he would rather not sell.”
“It seems unlikely. Still….”
“There could be other reasons we don’t yet know about,” Juliet finished. “But I would swear that he was genuinely shocked when they found the body.”
Raphael nodded agreement.
And are we staying in Napa to see if the police are competent, or do we leave tomorrow as planned?” He was a gentleman and giving her a choice.
and waved a persistent wasp away. They were everywhere. Though she said nothing out loud, she mentally consigned the creature and its kin—singularly and collectively—to one of the inner rings of hell.
“I was ready to go
this morning. I
to go. But now Talbert has me interested. He is acting very strangely.”
“Good. Then I needn’t call Esteban and put him off.
It would disappoint him.”
“He’s coming up?”
Juliet wasn’t all that surprised.
, tonight. He has had a sudden craving for Napa wine and perhaps for something less dull than following corrupt bankers around Los Angeles.”
Juliet glanced around at the other tables. The lunchtime bedlam was calming and Juliet decided that they could probably order dessert without needing to straight-arm their server first.
further fortification against the sun,” she said.
“The lemon sorbet?” Raphael asked and Juliet laughed.
Was it good that he knew her so well?
There was nothing gradual about the coming of the fog that afternoon
and the valley sighed gratefully as it rolled inland. The summer had been the longest and hottest in a decade. The coastal clouds swelled over the crest of the hills and filled up the valley, trapping in the heat which could only gradually escape inland, but at least it blotted out the burning sun. It was heavier than the night before and less perfumed with fallen lavender. Juliet looked out of Raphael’s window and thought that anyone could be lurking in the oppressive, twilit gloom.
“Are we ready to knock on Schneider’s door?” Raphael asked.
They had decided that Schneider would be the easiest of their suspects to talk to that evening. Whether there was an actual grieving going on or not, convention said it would be in bad taste to approach the wife or son on the day of a family member’s murder.
“Yes. At least I am ready to have some lemon cake
and we may as well get on with this.” They had stopped at a small patisserie and picked up window dressing in case their new neighbor decided to accept their invitation for dessert and coffee.
“One would think that you weren’t enjoying our puzzle,” Raphael scolded.
Juliet snorted and pulled on a sweater. The evening was not at all cold, but the damp was unpleasant after the dry heat of the day and she didn’t want it on her skin.
The pavers of the terrace were mostly smooth and the moss and creepers growing between the stones were of a modest height, but
the stones were cracked and worn and she was wearing kitten heels. Juliet stepped carefully as she picked her way over to the third cottage where a porch light burned.
She heard a noise and looked up.
The nocturnal raiders were out, combing the foggy air for dinner. She wished them luck with the mosquitoes.
Her knock was answered so promptly that she could only assume that Max Schneider was either expecting company or
anticipating trouble to come knocking on his door.
“Hello,” Juliet said to his
expressionless, weathered face. He looked like one of those corpses pulled from the peat bog and his skin was so rough you could strike a match on his face. It left her a little taken aback. “I am Juliet Henry. I am staying at the end cottage. Raphael James and I were about to have a bit of lemon cake and wondered if you would care to join us.”
Schneider’s face was frozen in a slight scowl.
“If you don’t feel like socializing with strangers, I could bring you a piece of cake. If you wanted some.” Juliet did her best to look harmless. She must have succeeded, or else Schneider was tired of waiting for whoever or whatever event was pending.
“That is kind of you. I would like that,” he answered
and stepped out of his door. His voice and manners were rusty. That was understandable if he had been in jail. Or perhaps in a hospital. The state of his skin did not seem normal.
As Talbert had said, Schneider was walking with a slight limp
that made him even slower than Juliet. In the distance she could hear the harvesters. The grapes were brought in at night when it was cooler because it made them more stable and preserved the sugars.
“These pavers are dangerous after dark,” Juliet said as she picked her way back to Raphael’s cottage.
“I shouldn’t be wearing heels. I’ll end up breaking an ankle.”
“The winery is not pedestrian friendly,” he agreed after a slight pause. He didn’t volunteer anything about his own accident.
“It isn’t skirt friendly either. I need to stay away from the plants.” Juliet pulled her skirt away from a shrub laden with sticky blue flowers.
“You are an artist?” he asked as she stopped to open the cottage door.
“Yes, but I have a backup career picked out if this one should fail me.” Schneider turned to look at her. Even with the light from the cottage, his face was unreadable. “Apparently I am good at stomping grapes.”
“That’s right. I saw you there.”
“Not my finest hour
, though we did win the stomp. May I introduce my friend, Raphael James. Raphael, this is….” Juliet paused, wondering if she should betray their awareness of his identity. Conversational feints were annoying and she was tired.
Max Schneider,” the stiff face supplied.
If he was taken aback by Raphael’s chair he gave no sign.
Perhaps he had seen it already.
“Please come in
,” Raphael said. “Would you care for some coffee or tea? That red device on the table makes an acceptable beverage.”
Coffee, please.” Schneider pulled out one of the three ladder-back chairs at the small table. They had brought a third chair from Juliet’s cottage.
“I’ll get it,” Juliet volunteered.
They had agreed that though alcohol could bypass the critical faculties, their long-term goals might be better served with less obvious ploys.
“You are here for the art show?” Schneider asked Raphael
, making an effort at conversation.
, but I doubt it will go on now. We had debated leaving but have decided to remain until the funeral. We have yet to pay a call of condolence either and it would have seemed….”
“Graceless,” Juliet suggested
when he paused.