Authors: A. J. Carton
A Saucy Murder
A Sonoma Wine Country Cozy Mystery
A. J. Carton
Table of Contents
Emma stared out of the arched triptych windows of the family kitchen at the Buchanon Estate and thought to herself, there is nowhere in the world I would rather be and nothing in the world I’d rather be doing. Quite an admission for a just-turned sixty-five year old. But, truly, you couldn’t beat the view. Miles of Sonoma County, California’s undulating, golden, sun-soaked hills lined with blue-green vines dripping purple Zin grapes. Like the backdrop of some famous Renaissance painting, or the score of a Verdi opera come to life. Or the Verdi Requiem.
Stop that! Emma shook her head. Trying to erase Verdi’s gut-wrenching music from her brain. The image of Old Saint Mary’s Church in San Francisco. Of the altar exploding in sunflowers. Of the open casket. Of Mary, her best friend since grade school, suddenly, irrevocably gone. Diagnosed in June. Dead six months later.
Emma searched the Buchanons’ elegant kitchen for some wood to touch. But everything was Carrara marble and stainless steel. She settled for tapping the eco friendly bamboo spoon she was using to stir her tomato sauce. After two hours at a very slow simmer the sauce had finally alchemized from lurid blood-red into the velvety orange-gold of her grandmother’s famous tomato sauce.
Salsa di pomodoro
. No one could ever call
a red sauce.
Why, Emma wondered, in this paradise of sun, golden hills, grape vines, spectacular wine and fabulous food did her mind still go negative? After moving to Blissburg in Sonoma County, California’s wine country six months before, she should be singing the Hallelujah Chorus, not the Verdi Requiem!
Dining with the Stars
, describing her diva grandmother’s favorite recipes, had just been published by a small local press. And one of the wine country’s most famous wineries was featuring her signature tomato sauce recipe as the centerpiece of its annual Opera in the Vineyard fundraiser. In an hour California’s richest and trendiest would join some of opera’s greatest stars for music, wine and the best food Sonoma County had to offer, including hers. Yes, she was in paradise. So why did death keep popping into her head like she was the heroine of a horror movie? Or the loser in some senior game of musical chairs?
Emma shuddered, dropped the bamboo spoon onto the hand painted ceramic Deruta spoon holder the Buchanons provided next to the stove, and bent over to tap the cherry hardwood kitchen floor. Definitely more woody than the bamboo spoon. Maybe, she thought, the answer was that most people found paradise after they were dead.
“Drop something?” asked Sergio, the owner/chef of
, one of Sonoma County’s top ten restaurants, and celebrity chef for the City Opera fundraiser. He stood in the doorway of the Buchanon family’s kitchen dressed in a starched white knee-length chef’s coat. With his ruddy complexion, jet black curls and chestnut brown eyes, he looked like a hunky Renaissance archangel.
“My spoon. I dropped my spoon,” Emma explained.
She grabbed it surreptitiously off the counter, and poised it above the simmering pot – not wanting Sergio to know she’d been superstitiously tapping the cherry kitchen floor. The last thing she needed was for the celebrity chef to think she was a California kook who collected crystals and believed in omens, instead of an accomplished author of a cookbook on northern Italian cuisine.
!” Sergio shouted, covering his face with his hands. “Do not put that spoon back in the sauce. Not after it’s been on the floor. And please, wash your hands. Everything in the kitchen must be
, you know, clean
.” Sergio remedied what he called the English language’s lack of passion by adding
to any word he wanted to emphasize.
Of course, the spoon had never touched the floor. It rested solely on the ceramic spoon holder. But Emma couldn’t exactly point that out after lying about dropping the spoon in the first place. Sergio was a clean freak. Now he thought she was a slob. That was all she needed from one of her daughter and son-in-law’s prominent friends who’d endorsed her
Dining with the Stars
cookbook and promised to push it at his celebrated restaurant.
,” he murmured, having crossed the kitchen to stand by Emma’s side over the simmering sauce. “Color, texture. All
. Since I started featuring your sauce at the restaurant, my
tagliatelle alla salsa di pomodoro
is our best selling dish. One of my customers calls it Eatalian comfort food. Did you know that? Is just like my grandmother’s.”
Emma’s grandmother and Sergio himself were both from Bologna, a bond the strength of which Emma was beginning to appreciate.
.” He wafted great waves of the rich smelling sauce into his nostrils before picking a clean spoon out of a drawer and tasting it. “A triumph,
,” he nodded, apparently dissuaded by the rich flavor from dumping the whole pot of sauce into the garbage because of the imagined sanitation violation. “Who knew Americans would love something so elegant, so simple? I’ll let it simmer for a half hour longer. To kill any impurities. Then,
He glanced at her critically. “
, you are done. You should go change into something nice for the party. I will take it from here.”
Yes, Emma thought. Better go home and figure out what to wear. She’d be sitting at the fundraiser’s silent auction table next to an autographed copy of her book and a sign describing her generous donation. Dinner for six. Why, Emma wondered, was the thought of preparing dinner for six strangers suddenly making her feel so tired? A year ago she’d have done it in her sleep.
Emma mechanically double kissed Sergio goodbye.
“Change into something nice,” she muttered as she left the room. She wondered if he was being condescending. Or was she just too sensitive?
A hallway connected the kitchen to a small breakfast room with double doors opening onto a side garden planted with multi-colored perennials and herbs. Like the Buchanons’ kitchen, their breakfast room was done to the nines. A Fortuny glass light fixture hung from the ceiling over a round antique breakfast table. The seat cushions of its eight ladder back chairs were covered in a small yellow and white Fortuny cotton print.
But it was the artwork on the walls that caught Emma’s eye. She immediately recognized the Andy Warhol soup cans and an Oldenburg ceramic fried egg. Not reproductions, she noted. Barry Buchanon owned the real thing, arranged side by side with paintings of fruit and desserts looking luscious enough to eat.
Emma let herself out of the house through the double doors into the garden where her daughter, Julie, stood deep in conversation with the winery’s manager.
Julie and her husband Piers had moved to Blissburg with their toddler just three years before. Piers opened a boutique law firm specializing in family wealth. Julie started her own PR firm focusing on wineries. Emma thought her daughter worked too hard for a young mother. But Julie’s business was flourishing; and Buchanon Vineyards was her biggest client.
It was after Emma’s best friend, Mary, died, that Julie and Piers finally convinced Emma to retire from her job as a paralegal in San Francisco and move to Blissburg. Emma had to admit she had never felt happier. She volunteered at the Blissburg Free Legal Services Clinic twice a week. She’d finally got the cookbook published that she’d sidelined for too many years. And just the other day, the manager of Blissburg’s gourmet grocery had contacted her about freezing her famous tomato sauce to sell in their market.
So why, she wondered, did her wandering mind still default to the Big D? Not Divorce, mind you. She’d already survived that. No. At 65, the Big D in her life was Death.
Emma shuddered and shook the thought away, focusing her attention on her glamorous daughter. The trim, dark eyed, dark haired young woman was dressed for Blissburg’s late September Indian Summer heat in tight black Rag & Bone jeans, an Alexander Wang T and three-inch Prada heels. Her father’s good looks, Emma noted ruefully. Julie bore not a trace of her mother’s once delicate, sixties, blue-eyed flower child features. Now, of course, Emma’s formerly blond hair was cut in a thick, short totally grey Vidal Sassoon bob.
Julie caught sight of her mother crossing the garden and motioned her over to where she and the winery’s manager stood talking.
“Emma,” Julie now often called her mother Emma when she was in work mode, “remember your brilliant idea to have that fortune teller client of yours from the free legal clinic read tarot cards for guests during the silent auction?”
Julie accompanied her question with a pointed stare that Emma interpreted to mean either: Do not mention that I nixed the idea, or why on earth are you wearing those dirty sweat pants?
Emma nodded cautiously. Thwarting her headstrong daughter was never a good idea.
“Well,” Julie continued, “Lexie Buchanon just happened to mention that lots of her friends love tarot cards, and that since the Opera in the Vineyard’s theme this year is the Opening Night opera,
Emma interrupted her daughter with a snicker. “You mean
the opera about the confused old bat who mistakenly threw her own infant son into the bonfire, instead of the little prince she’d kidnapped? Whoops! At least I never did that!”
Emma noticed Julie cringe. Her jokes, much appreciated by old friends like Mary, often sank into a dead zone between her and her highly successful daughter.
“Mom,” Julie replied, “that confused old bat is one of the greatest mezzo roles in all of Opera. Anyway, a friend of Mrs. Buchanon suggested having a fortune teller at the fundraiser tonight. Mrs. Buchanon loved the idea. I told her you had a gypsy contact who might do it. We’ll even…”
“Roma,” Emma interrupted again.
Julie looked puzzled. “She’s in Rome? Why’s the gypsy in Rome?”
,” Emma repeated, emphasizing the last syllable. “Do not call them the ‘g’ word. They are Roma. That’s their name. Calling them the ‘g’ word is like saying the ‘r’ word to a Native American.”
Julie jerked her head in the direction of the winery manager signaling to Emma that she was staring at them like they were crazy.
“OK. Roma,” Julie backed off. “The question is, can she come? She’d need to be here by 7:00.”
Emma looked at her watch. “I’ll see.” She couldn’t help adding, “Awfully short notice,” and thinking to herself that the young Mrs. Lexie Buchanon, Barry Buchanon’s third, had probably only that morning turned her fragile attention span from Gaultier to Grand Opera. But whatever donors want, donors get, she reminded herself. “I’ll give her a call and ask her. I know she needs the money. How much can you pay?”
Julie looked at the winery manager. “We’ll only need her for about an hour.”
The manager threw up her hands in a parody of surrender. “Short notice? A hundred sounds fair. Lexie will love it.”
“A hundred it is,” Julie repeated. “But ASAP. We need to know, so I can tell Mrs. Buchanon that her brilliant idea worked.”
As Emma hurried off to her car, she was already scanning her cell phone contacts for Carmen’s number. Carmen, Emma thought. Was she really named Carmen? The legal clinic where Emma volunteered as a paralegal had helped her and her family get health insurance a couple of months before. She’d listed her job then as tarot reader. Emma guessed she still desperately needed the money. Thank goodness she’d informally sounded Carmen out about the gig before even suggesting it to Julie.
“Carmen,” she began when the sound of the phone ringing was interrupted by Carmen’s hesitant “hello”.
“It’s Emma, from the legal clinic. Remember that gig I mentioned at the Buchanon Vineyards? Well, I apologize for the really, really short notice, but the party is tonight and it seems Mrs. Buchanon really, really wants a (Emma almost said the ‘g’ word but stopped herself just in time) a tarot card reader there for about an hour during the silent auction. The Buchanons will pay a hundred dollars for your time on short notice and, of course, it will hopefully be good advertising for you.”
Carmen hesitated for only a moment. “Sure, I’ll do it. What time?”
“6:45 to set up,” Emma replied. “Then stay from 7:00 until 8:00.”
“At the Buchanon Vineyards,” Carmen repeated.
“Right. You know where that is?” Emma asked
Carmen answered, “Sure.” Then added, “There’ll be a lot of fancy people there. What should I wear?”
Emma thought a moment. This was way out of her job description. “Something black with a big colorful shawl?”
“And big hoop earrings, and sequin shoes, and maybe a red dot in the middle of my forehead,” Carmen laughed. “Like the movies, right?”
Emma gulped back her embarrassment. “Yes, Carmen,” she finally said. “You’re probably right. Like in the movies.”
Emma rang off and drove her silver Prius five miles south to the 1855 yellow farmhouse on Blissburg’s main drag where she now lived. The old farmhouse was tucked in a rambling garden shaded by a giant magnolia tree behind the tiny Victorian cottage Julie used as her office. Her new home had six rooms – a living room, kitchen, two small bedrooms, and two new baths. Plenty of space Emma had thought when she agreed to move in. For Emma. For her four-year old grandson if he stayed overnight. For a long weekend visit from one of her San Francisco friends. Except now that Mary was gone, her best friend wouldn’t be visiting.