Authors: Nadia Gordon
Death by the Glass
a sunny mccoskey napa valley mystery
Copyright © 2005 by Chronicle Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher.
Though Napa Valley and the adjacent regions are full of characters, none of them are in this book. This is a work of fiction. Names, places, persons, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is entirely coincidental.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data:
Murder alfresco: a Sunny McCoskey Napa Valley mystery / Nadia Gordon.
1. Women—Crimes against—Fiction. 2. Napa Valley (Calif.)—Fiction.
3. Wine and wine making—Fiction. 4. Sausalito (Calif.)—Fiction.
5. Restaurants—Fiction. 6. Women cooks—Fiction. 7. Houseboats—Fiction.
8. Cookery—Fiction. I. Title.
Book and jacket design by Benjamin Shaykin
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Tales from Ovid
Gray. For more than a month
, the sky over St. Helena had explored the theme. Billowing gray clouds were followed by flat gray clouds, which were followed by gauzy gray clouds, granite-gray clouds, and steely gray clouds. A steady rain fell on the sodden earth, and thick gusts of wind whipped the hilltops, sending showers of sickle-shaped eucalyptus leaves twirling groundward. Vineyard workers layered rain gear over wool and fleece and slogged through the wet to examine the vines, sinking to their rubber-booted ankles in mud. And yet, there were those who did not object. In a town overrun by tourists much of the year, in a region with no shortage of hot days and blue skies, a rainy March was not necessarily unwelcome and many took secret pleasure in it. They stayed home, lit fires, read books, and listened to the gusts of temperamental winds and the patter of drops thrown against windows.
The wet weather broke suddenly. One morning a tender, head-high breeze glided down Main Street. The handful of early pedestrians out patrolling the sidewalks and lingering at corners turned to face it, letting it lift and toss their hair. Moments later, the sun emerged warm and bright. The Napa Valley basked in the first sunshine of spring. Within a week, the landscape was
transformed. Tufts of canary-yellow oxalis blooms sprang up in all but the most disciplined yards, daffodils and tulips emerged from bare soil, and white blossoms popped out of the darkly naked branches of fruit trees. Fresh calla lilies stretched their slender torsos from between great green leaves and uncurled spirals of creamy white flesh.
On the night that Heidi Romero was murdered, Sunny McCoskey went to bed early. She had left the window open and a cold, wet breeze came in, lightly scented with apple blossoms from the tree in the backyard. Tiny white petals drifted in the bedroom window and settled on the hardwood floor.
Hours later the telephone woke her from a deep sleep. It was Andre Morales, the dark-haired, golden-eyed, supple-skinned local chef she’d recently begun to think of as her boyfriend, even if she hadn’t actually called him that yet. He asked her to come out for a late, after-work drink with him and some of the others from the restaurant, and she said yes before she was really awake. After she hung up, she had no choice but to get out of bed and get dressed. It was no good introducing disappointment to a relationship so early on.
In the bathroom, she did her best to put a fresh face on an essentially exhausted head after a long day at work. Luckily the night would lend some cover. She ran her fingers through her short auburn hair, then brushed on eye shadow and mascara. Her green eyes were looking more lively. There was nothing she could do about her hands and arms, which were nicked and scarred with scrapes, cuts, and burns all the way to the elbows from years in the kitchen. Her nails were as short and plain as her palms were callused.
Half an hour later she was standing in the crowded front room of the Dusty Vine, staring at Andre Morales’s shoulder
blades as he pushed his way ahead of her to the bar. The Dusty Vine had endured a remodel in the last months. A former honky-tonk full of regulars and grit, it now boasted Italian furniture and Parisian lounge music. The regulars stubbornly persisted alongside the crowd of would-be and actual hipsters. Andre handed her a beer and led the way to a fresh-looking group gathered in a far corner that greeted them with loud enthusiasm.
After last call, they left her truck in the lot at the Dusty Vine and took Andre’s old Porsche back to his place. An entourage followed.
When they arrived, he set the mood quickly. He put on music, lit candles, opened several bottles of wine, and assembled a station for making gin martinis. He emptied his cabinets of glasses as a stream of guests arrived, mostly members of the young, hardworking, and harder-playing crowd that kept the local gourmet establishments operating. These were the cooks, servers, maître d’s, and bartenders who worked in the business because the tips were good, the job physical, and the hours conducive to days free for school, sports, and artistic pursuits. They were in possession of their freedom, in concept if not reality, and there was an air of confidence about them. They had dreams and futures, and they knew the secrets behind the privileged experiences they sold. That eighteen-dollar salad was made from thirty-cents-worth of arugula and fennel, and the sixty-dollar bottle of wine could be had for twelve dollars at Safeway. They might not own the houses or drive the cars, but they drank better wine and ate better food than the people they served, and they did it without selling their souls. It was this sensation, Sunny suspected, that gave them the stamina to work all night and then go out.
Andre joked that he liked the way his friends looked next to his furniture. It was true that they were generally young and well-dressed and beautiful. They took up their places beside his modern lamps and on his minimalist, rectangular couches and ottomans as though they had been cast for the roles. A slender girl lay on his shaggy white rug with her Lucite heels and candy-colored toes in the air behind her. He looked around the conversation-filled room with satisfaction. “What a night. Sometimes it all comes together.” He gave Sunny a kiss and headed for a group that hailed him.
Sunny filled her glass with a nameless white wine and carried it around. Andre was talking to a couple that had recently taken over the woman’s parents’ winery and were in the process of revamping its branding and image. Sunny mingled. A woman she knew slightly from various food-related events introduced her to the man she was with. The three of them spoke for several minutes, then were separated by another friend’s arrival. Sunny killed some time with a guy who handled PR at a big winery where the wine was not as good as it used to be. He went to refill his glass and she lingered, wondering what next. Across the room, Andre was engaged in an animated discussion with two slick-looking guys she’d never met. The clock on the kitchen wall said two-twenty. Her social buzz was waning. It had, in fact, bottomed out and come to a complete standstill. She scanned the room for a familiar face. The only person she recognized was a girl from Andre’s restaurant who waited tables. She was being chatted up by a guy with a goatee and a thick chain hanging from his belt loop. Sunny put her glass on the kitchen counter and walked down the hall to the room where everyone had left their bags and jackets. She moved swiftly, without thinking, collecting her wrap and purse and letting herself out the backdoor almost
before she decided to do so. She trotted down the driveway like a fugitive slipping away from a guard.
Outside, a fine mist chilled the air. Shivering in the cold, she walked to the end of the driveway and sat down on the low stone wall that ran up to it. Muffled music and laughter came from the house. St. Helena was not exactly Manhattan. It was not going to be easy to find a cab. She rummaged in her purse for her cell phone, which returned her button pushing with an oblivious blank gaze. She had forgotten to recharge it again. She looked back at the house and its rich cache of functional telephones. Ahead lay a cold night and a dark country road. A lone streetlight cast a fuzzy dome of light in the distance.
Even if she went back inside and called, she would be lucky to reach anyone. There were two cab companies in St. Helena. At this hour, she would be lucky if there was a car on duty. It would take forever to get here. She could walk home faster. Yes, it was dark and she was dressed for a booty call not a hike, but unless she wanted to go back to the party and wait for Andre to extricate himself from his guests, the quickest route home and into her soft bed was a brief, bracing journey on foot. Sunny started to walk.
It could have been worse. She had almost worn the pointy alligator heels, until she remembered the stiletto-eating gaps in the rustic plank floor at the Dusty Vine. Instead, she’d chosen a wispy pair of ballet flats. The rest of the outfit was equally insubstantial. There was a shirt consisting of two puny layers of colored mesh, a pair of light jeans, and a pashmina scarf. Still, she might have been wearing a skirt, for example, or a skimpy dress. She pulled the scarf around her shoulders, tucked the ends into the top of her jeans, and dug her hands into her pockets.
The important part was she could breath again. To walk out into the darkness alone like a social outcast made her want to
leap with joy. There were night people and there were day people, and she was a day person. If she sometimes stayed up all night, it was not in order to be in the darkness or with the party people but because sleep was taking second place to some project or concern. Her favorite time of day was sunrise, and what she liked best about the night was the quiet, not the nightlife.
Her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. The party mumble receded and all she heard were her shoes scuffing softly on the pavement and the buzz and click of night bugs. She saw only vineyard and trees, the road’s white line, and above, hazy stars. The road ran straight as a surveyor’s line in either direction with vineyard on both sides. No cars passed. A sliver moon sat halfway up the sky with Venus like a beauty mark below it.
In the darkness, the landscape seemed to expand. The span of road that could be driven in a few seconds without attracting any special notice stretched out on foot and filled the senses. Roadside plants gave off their fragrances. She passed through each of them like scenery. A wild rose, a musky oak, the lush grasses near a drainage ditch. It was hard to believe downtown St. Helena was only a few miles away.
It seemed to take a very long time to reach the streetlight. Eventually she resorted to counting her footsteps to make the distance pass more quickly. The road was so straight she could close her eyes and count to one hundred without straying far from the white line, and she did so several times before she reached the light at last. As she passed underneath it, it went out with a faint pop. She looked up at the shrinking glow of filament. There were various theories to explain this sort of phenomenon. Catelina Alvarez, the Portuguese grandmother who lived down the street from Sunny throughout her childhood and who taught her most of what she knew about cooking, claimed it was
a person’s aural glow that did it. Whatever the cause, the loss of the solitary light infused the darkness with more power and it pulled at her, as if she would be sucked into its mystery.