Authors: Melanie Jackson
Napa without tourists
is probably lovely
, Juliet thought. Perhaps she would come back in March.
?” Esteban asked politely.
Juliet forced herself to focus on Raphael and Esteban. They had given their report on the widow, who was definitely not grieving but was shaken by the scrutiny of the police and
suddenly behaving quite soberly. She was also very interested in when she could get some money from the estate. Her business was in the red and needed money immediately. Apparently there were not enough people who wanted clothes made of multiple dead animals.
“And so what do we know?” Raphael asked.
“This is all intuition but I think that this was a murder without a great deal of premeditation,” Juliet said. “Done by someone competent and resolved but unskilled in killing. At least in killing humans. The killer may have also gained access through Trefoil lands. There are only a couple strands of barbed wire separating the properties and the old vineyard runs all the way down to the road. There is also the matter of the napkin.”
Juliet explained for Esteban’s benefit.
“Does this narrow the field of suspects?” Raphael asked. He tasted the chardonnay he had ordered and seemed happy with his choice. Juliet had risked seeming a heathen and ordered a ginger ale. Her walk through the acreage had left her thirsty and she had a small headache.
“No, not really. Talbert is capable of making a hit look unprofessional
if he wanted to.”
And Talbert was not acting with his usual, scary efficiency.
He might even be said to be vacillating. She had to wonder if that was deliberate, a form of method acting to lull the observant.
Juliet shrugged uneasily. One’s personal life was spread-eagled once governmental arms reached for you. Carissa was figuring this out. She hoped for Edward’s sake that it didn’t come to that but it probably would if a strong suspect didn’t present him or herself soon.
“I can’t logically cross him off. But
… I don’t think he has the nerve. I would also be willing to bet that he has done a recent stint in some rehab.”
“There was nothing in the files,” Esteban began. “But people do not always use their real name
s in these situations.”
“The signs were obvious?” Raphael asked
, not questioning her judgment but admitting that he hadn’t seen them from a distance.
“He just kept talking about feeling safer in small spaces and he’s very pale and shaky. Uber-dependent on nicotine. I could be wrong—and God knows Talbert would lie if he wanted—but I think Edward is … not a good candidate for seizing the moment and committing a murder. Frankly, I don’t even know if he is up to seizing the day.”
Raphael studied her face for a moment.
“Then let us leave the gruesome subjects of death and addiction and enjoy our meal. Esteban, how was southern California?”
“Petitioning for admission to hell
. How can anyone endure the summer in that unbreathable air.…”
It was almost dark when they left the restaurant and for a few moments they were able to enjoy the fiery orange of the dying sun. But the strident glory of the sunset was cut short by the evening wind which brought the mist. Just before full dark, the ocean began heaving its fog over the hills and filling up the surrounding vineyards with thick vapor. The roads had enough traffic on them to remain clear for a while, but in an hour or two they would also be veiled.
Living there was like having a malarial infection—hot then cold, sweaty
in the day and then shivering at night. Juliet was heartily sick of it. They needed to find the killer or else concede defeat and go home.
“Does this always happen?” she asked.
“No, usually it has stopped by now. Of course, with the weather changing everywhere, who is to say what is normal now?”
,” Esteban scolded and dropped his linen jacket over her shoulders. “So, is tonight the night that we visit your bottling facility?”
“I suppose,” Juliet said. Mostly she just wanted to make a cup of tea and then go to bed
, but when duty whispered
lo, thou must
then you just had to get on with it. Their time was limited. They couldn’t stay in their borrowed cottages forever.
“We should dress for the party. Formal attire,” Esteban said.
“You have something in black?”
“I brought my cat burglar clothes,” Juliet admitted.
“Then Raphael will see you home and I shall join you at the quarter of the hour. Warn the guards I am coming. They are probably nervous about visitors after the murder.”
Esteban was punctual. Raphael had called the night guards to tell them to expect a visitor. He was going to play lookout from the terrace while they looked around and would signal them with a lighter if he saw anyone approaching while they were breaking and entering.
Esteban wasted no time once they were out of the car
which he left in the darkest part of the visitors’ lot. There were a few hunched cars there, damp with mist which speckled the dust that covered the vehicles and puddled into drops. There was a faint scent of lavender in the heavy air which now seemed sinister.
Juliet glanced up at the cottages so far removed from their skullduggery. She couldn’t see Raphael but was glad that he was there keeping an eye on them. Once again she had to wonder why she had volunteered for this. She did not like creeping around. At night. In old building
s that probably had black widows and rattlesnakes and skunks hiding in them. Of course, it was this damned feeling of moral obligation that she couldn’t be rid of that had her risking embarrassment and arrest. It insisted that the abuse of her host’s hospitality was acceptable if it meant finding a killer.
And since she was snooping, she was better off burying any shocked sensibilities and get
ting on with the job.
Thank heavens she had gloves.
Security was mostly directed outward, keeping the rest of the world out of the facility and not concerning itself with what went on behind the winery’s wall, so Esteban moved quietly and quickly, but not surreptitiously. Juliet did her best to emulate him as he moved from dark spot to dark spot in a casual, efficient manner. If she wasn’t quite as silent or fleet, the noise of the crushers and the harvesters out in the more distant acreage covered any sounds she made. The machines worked day and night. It had been a banner year and there were a million tons of grapes to be squished and juiced and made into wine.
The moon would need a couple more hours and a settling of the mist for it to be either a help or a hindrance to them. She preferred the fixed lights
that didn’t play peek-a-boo with the fog. They could be gotten around more easily.
for all her rationalizations and fear of spiders, it was a relief to finally get inside. The old bottling facility was less sterile and more welcoming than the one where wine was currently being processed, though even with the doors having been opened most of the day, the odor of old wine was still overpowering.
Her flashlight was kept on
a low setting and she had to move carefully among the carelessly stacked crates that seemed to have been abandoned precipitously and then forgotten. Had she not been looking for it, Juliet might not have found the old narrow door that opened onto a firebreak that ran between the building and the Blue Period and Trefoil properties. There were stacks of empty crates piled on an old table and one would think that nothing had been disturbed for years, except that there were fresh marks in the dust on the runnelled floor left by the flaking paint on the worktable’s uneven legs and hand-size smudges in the dust on the tabletop.
Someone had moved this table in front of the door. Probably after Carl Owens was killed.
If the shooter came and went through Trefoil land then who would have moved this table to cover their tracks? The same person who had supplied a gun? Or was it someone covering up things later?
Or had it been moved that afternoon while Edward was exploring the old winery
? Juliet wanted to kick herself for not getting inside the building earlier.
“Your door?” Esteban asked softly.
“I think so. Help me move this table. I want to make sure that the door can actually open. If it’s been painted shut then we will have to go into the other building as well.”
They both took a corner of the table and picked it up with care, being sure they didn’t add to the marks on the floor.
Juliet pushed up her dangling sleeve and tried the latch. It lifted easily. A sniff told her that it had been recently oiled. The door opened silently. Outside were the encircling arms of the vineyard, old vines and ways pitted against the young and modern. The old vines would happily coexist with the new but she doubted the old ways of making wine would have survived being taken over by Carl Owens.
“So, definite premeditation,” she said to Esteban
, closing the door carefully.
They worked quickly to put the table back.
Esteban opened a small cupboard by the door.
“It has been recently opened. The webs are broken. It is about the right size to hold a rifle, yes?”
“Yes.” Either Owens’ gun or the one that had killed him.
Juliet wondered at what point they should go to the police.
Surely they had searched all the buildings after the murder. They could have been the ones who opened the cupboard.
“You are thinking of the law?” Esteban asked.
None of them were inclined
to involve themselves since they didn’t know the local law and couldn’t guess if they were just looking for an easy way out. Certainly, they hadn’t been overwhelmed with their care and speed in the investigation thus far. Though perhaps if they were laggardly it was Talbert’s doing. Maybe they had been warned away.
“Nothing here makes me think of a professional hit,” Juliet said softly.
“No, but we never really believed that was the case, did we?”
From the terrace
Juliet and Raphael could see a few of the Blue Period employees enjoying their bagged breakfasts and coffee at the scattered picnic tables while the fog burned away from the few remaining rows and furrows of unharvested grapes. They had no help from the morning wind which was on vacation somewhere in Hawaii, perhaps conserving its strength for the early spring when it would appear out of nowhere to attack sunhats and loose skirts of those foolish enough to let their Easter clothes emerge prematurely from the closet.
She also had a good view of
Carissa and Edward fighting on the porch of the old house. At least Carissa looked like she was fighting. Edward seemed to be attempting an explanation. Juliet would have put hard money on the argument being about Edward starting up a second, boutique winery and perhaps using cash Carissa was expecting instead of waiting for a settlement.
“The lady is agitated,” Raphael said.
“I wonder if the lady is going to go somewhere. She has her car keys with her.” She was brandishing them.
friend Talbert perhaps?”
Before Juliet could answer, Max Schneider came around the corner of the house. His presence seemed to be the final straw for the enraged female
who stalked off in a leopard-clad huff in the direction of the garage, yelling over her shoulder and then turning fully.
“I won’t let you!” she screamed at them, her voice floating up to the terrace. Even at a distance they could hear the venom.
“I think that I might like to take a drive,” Juliet said, rising and reaching for her purse.
“Go with God.
Take no risks. And call me.”
“I will,” she promised.
Not so amazingly, Carissa drove a red Jaguar. Juliet wasn’t in time to see which direction Carissa chose to go when she left the winery, but since a right would take her to Trefoil and nowhere else, and that seemed an unlikely destination, Juliet turned left and hoped for the best.
A mile on, road
was being perpetrated on the tarmac and a single lane was having to be used in turns by both north and southbound traffic. The delay allowed Juliet to catch up with Carissa. Out of habit she checked the rearview mirror and noted the blue pickup and a dark green compact with tinted windows. She could see the rental sticker in the window.
Once they made it through the detour, Juliet remained as far back from
the Jag as she reasonably could. When they came across another road stoppage, Carissa turned off the main road and started down a small, ill-kept thoroughfare that was headed in the general direction of downtown, albeit in a more winding manner. Juliet and the dark green car which stayed far back followed.
, she thought hopefully, this was some kind of shortcut.
The scenery was pretty with the first brush of color on the leaves, but felt a bit sinister. There were a few small bungalows among the grape fields, perhaps scattered
off the straight line by the curving road so that there was no uniformity or sense of neighborhood. No people were out in the fields and no children played in the yards. No dogs, no cats. Just a few crows hiking on the side of the dusty road. She kept hearing Tom Waits singing about murder in the red barn and hoped they made it to town soon. The loneliness of the scenery was giving her the creeps.