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Authors: Earlene Fowler

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BOOK: Seven Sisters
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“Then we ran through the wine fields because Bliss knew a shortcut and we found Cappy, Willow, and Etta standing in front of the double doors,” I finished.

Nodding, he made a few more notes, then looked up at me, his boyish face thoughtful. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to pick your brain for a moment. Off the record.”

I became instantly wary. He apparently forgot I was married to a cop. There was no such thing as “off the record.” Especially in a homicide investigation. I waited for his question, nervously jiggling my foot.

“You’re pretty connected in the agriculture community here in San Celina County, right?”

“I guess. I’ve lived here most of my life, and my gramma and daddy have owned a ranch here since the early sixties.”

He grinned again. “That Dove, she’s a real kick in the pants. You know, she got me to commit to a donation for their senior citizen center’s new kitchen before I even asked two questions. That’s the first time anyone has finagled a charity donation out of me during a homicide investigation. I was tempted to swear her in as an honorary deputy and set her to questioning folks. We’d have this wrapped up in time for biscuits and gravy.”

“She’s one of a kind,” I agreed, laughing. “How much did she shake you down for?”

“A hundred bucks!” He shook his head. “My own dear grandma Hudson, the Lord rest her soul, would have loved her.”

I smiled, then involuntarily yawned. “Sorry, it’s been a long night. Are you through?”

“One last question. Take some time thinking about it and answer it now if you want or call me at the office.” He pulled a business card out of the inside of his jacket and handed it to me. “I just want your input on what is going on in this family.”

I thought for a moment, torn between the loyalty I felt toward Cappy because of our past association, not to mention the general loyalty among the agricultural community who’d, with good reason, often viewed government officials with more than a little suspicion.

“Well,” I said, “there was probably some friction between Giles and Cappy, because the two things they do are so different, and there might be some disagreement as to how to utilize the resources on their land.”

“Such as?”

“Whether pasture land should be used to raise horses or be covered with wine grapes.”

“Can’t a big place like this do both? Ms. Brown said . . . ” He flipped back through some pages in his notebook. “This property is about eleven hundred acres. Isn’t that enough for everybody? Forgive my agricultural ignorance, but I’m a Houston city boy. My father was an accountant. The only agriculture I’m familiar with was my mama’s prize-winning roses.”

“A good part of their land is probably not productive,” I said. “And often the best pasture and feed-growing land is also the best land to grow grapes. Not to mention the problems with the property being reassessed once they grow grapes on it, which puts it in a higher tax bracket. Keeping Seven Sisters a horse-breeding ranch would definitely keep the property taxes down. That’s about all I know about it. Doesn’t seem like much of a motive for murder. They seem to be working it out okay, from what I’ve heard.” There was that little jibe that Giles made during Cappy’s toast, but that didn’t seem important enough to mention. And there was the comment JJ had made in my office about the winery causing a problem among the sisters, but no doubt he’d found that out when he questioned JJ.

“What about Etta and Giles? How did they get along?”

“I have no idea, Detective. I don’t really know the family well. I mean, our families have known each other for years, but we’re not intimate friends. We don’t run in the same social circle, if you know what I mean.”

He nodded. “I understand this Giles Norton comes from a pretty famous wine family up in Napa Valley.”

“I heard the same thing,” I said, leaving it at that.

He gazed over my shoulder to the saddle behind me, staring at it until I thought he would bore a hole in the thick leather. “Something’s not right with this whole scenario.”

“Oh?”

He turned his attention back from the saddle to me. “Don’t you find it all just a little too . . . neat and organized?”

I sat back in my chair, a bit confused. “Organized? I don’t know what you mean.”

He gave his head a small shake, reminding me of Cappy’s horses. “Never mind, just some ramblings of a suspicious old Texan. Anything else significant you think I should know?”

I hesitated, then said, “I did overhear an argument, but I’m sure it’s nothing.”

He nodded at me to continue, and I told him what I’d heard outside the bathroom.

He asked, “You’re sure you couldn’t recognize the female voice?”

“I told you, it could have been Cappy or either of her sisters. Have you heard their voices? They all sound alike. Besides, I was just passing by and only caught a bit of their conversation. I didn’t actually stop and . . . ” I paused, realizing I’d just begun a lie.

He grinned, as if he could see the moral struggle inside my head. “So maybe you had to tie your shoe or something,” he said, looking down at my pull-on boots. “Happens to me all the time. Then you just happened to overhear a little more . . . ”

“That’s all I heard,” I snapped, embarrassed.

He uncrossed his legs, his face suddenly serious. “I’ll be in touch if I need to ask you anything else.”

“One more thing,” he said when I reached the office door.

I turned around, waiting.

“If you hear anything or someone inadvertently drops a remark about this situation . . . or you remember something else about that
accidently
overheard conversation, you will give me a call.”

His face was open and friendly, but his voice had taken on a definite authoritarian tone I recognized. Cops. When they’re sworn in I think they’re given a transfusion of dictators’ blood.

“I always cooperate with the authorities,” I answered.

I waited for Gabe on the porch with Lydia and Sam, who’d already been questioned. While we were waiting, a man with a leather medical bag arrived. The family doctor had come to see Arcadia, who was understandably in bad shape. I guess when you were high up enough on society’s ladder, doctors still made house calls.

“Why don’t you call in sick tomorrow?” Gabe said to Bliss as we walked down the gravel driveway to our cars.

She stood a little straighter. “I’m fine, sir. I’ll be at work as usual.”

“Maybe it would be better . . . ” Gabe started.

“He’s right,” Sam said. “You should stay home and rest.”

“I said I’m fine.” Her voice had an edge to it.

“Bliss,” Gabe said, his voice taking on his no compromising
el patron
tone. “I really think . . . ”

“Hey, guys,” I said, interrupting. “She knows how she feels.”

Gabe and Sam shot me an almost identical frown.

“Benni’s right,” Lydia said. “And so is Bliss. Let her decide if she feels well enough to work.”

They turned and frowned at Lydia, whose black eyes remained unmoved by their irritation. “Boys, how many times do I have to remind you that most women do have the mental capabilities to make quite complex decisions? Especially when it concerns their own bodies.”

To my consternation, I was beginning to warm up to Lydia.

She turned and held out a hand to me. “Not quite the best circumstances to meet, Benni, but I’m glad we did. We should have a nice long lunch and get to know each other better.”

“Certainly,” I said, taking her hand and thinking,
I’m not that warm yet, sweetheart.
I turned back to Gabe. “Let’s go home. I’m tired.”

On the drive back home, he was silent, and I knew he was worrying about Giles’s murder, Sam and Bliss, and how it would affect their lives. He was already in the process of moving her in his emotions from being an employee to being his daughter-in-law, the mother of his future grandchild, part of
la familia.
I sighed, worrying about Bliss, too, wondering how she would manage juggling the two. I wanted to bring up the question of whether she should even be working for the San Celina Police Department if her father-in-law was chief, but figured this wasn’t the time to ask. To take my mind off our escalating domestic issues, I turned it to something even more disturbing—Giles’s murder. I had a feeling Detective Hudson didn’t understand how little the Brown family and mine saw each other socially. Being a city boy, he obviously didn’t know that within the ag community there was just as much social hierarchy and class distinction as anywhere. And the Brown family was way above my family socially, even if we did occasionally cross paths during common charity and agricultural events. Then again, now that Bliss and Sam were going to be married and with Gabe’s political status as a police chief, the Ramseys were moving on up the social scale. I rested my chin in my hand and stared out at the dark hills slipping by. As much as I liked Cappy and Bliss, the thought of my family being connected with the Browns, even in the most peripheral way, troubled me. Detective Hudson was on the right track. Something in that family wasn’t right, and whatever it was, it was bad enough for someone to commit murder. And I didn’t want any part of it.

At home, after taking Scout out for a quick walk and giving him a dog biscuit to make up for his lonely evening, Gabe and I settled into our own bed.

“What’s going to happen next?” I asked, turning on my side to face him, too agitated to sleep.

“The detectives will go over the statements to see if anything doesn’t match up. Most likely that’s what they’re doing right now.” He settled deeper into his pillow. “It’ll be a real pain-in-the-ass investigation, what with the prestige of the people involved. Glad it’s the sheriff’s baby, not mine. And I’m especially glad I don’t work a homicide detective’s hours anymore.”

“Who do you think killed Giles? Except for us, there was no one but family members there. Most homicides are committed by family members; I’ve heard you say that. Who would you put your money on?”

“I’d put my money on it’s not our problem.”

“It is our problem in a way. Sam’s marrying into this family. We need to find out which one of them is a murderer before he does.” Gabe’s breath, slowing down as his body neared sleep, smelled like spearmint.

“So, what did Detective Hudson ask you?” I prodded.

“The normal questions.”

“Like what?”

“He probably asked me the same things he did you.”

“Detective Hudson seemed to think I had some sort of insider view of the ag community and of this family.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That the Browns ran in a different social circle. That I didn’t really know them that well. Well, I know Cappy pretty good. And JJ somewhat. But what I know about the rest of the family is just stuff I’ve read in the papers. He asked me to let him know if I hear anything.”

Gabe’s head shifted on the pillow. I could feel his intense blue gaze in the dark. “And you said?”

I laughed softly in the darkness. “That I
always
completely cooperate with law enforcement whenever it’s requested.”

His hand reached over and tickled my side. “Sure you do. Just like the first time we met.”

“I do,” I protested, wiggling away from his hand. “I cooperate with you at least three times a week.”

“Benni, you know it’s extremely important for you to tell Detective Hudson everything you know.”

“I
did.”

“And whatever you find out.”

I was silent.

“Benni.” All his don’t-interfere, this-is-none-of-your-business, leave-it-to-the-professionals, you’re-going-to-really-get-hurt-someday lectures were summed up in that one word. Marriage shorthand. You gotta love it.

“Benni,” he repeated.

“All right, all right,” I promised, laughing.

He grabbed my waist, pulling me toward him. “Ms. Harper, what am I going to do with you?”

“I seem to remember you asking that very same thing the first time I was called into your office.”

“So I’ll do now what I was thinking about then.”

Some time later I said in a groggy voice, “That, Chief Oritz, was highly unprofessional of you. It might even be against the law.”

“So report me to Internal Affairs.”

7

THE NEXT DAY at the folk art museum, before I’d even taken off my Levi’s jacket, the phone started ringing. Though the murder happened too late to make the
Tribune,
it had been carried on the local morning news. Naturally my first phone call was from Emory.

“I’m goin’ to take your name out of my will,” he said, his Arkansas drawl thicker than normal this morning, probably because he hadn’t had his requisite three cups of espresso. “Why didn’t you call me when all this was happening last night? I could have come down and gotten a scoop.”

“For one thing, Gabe would have killed me. He loves you to pieces, Emory, but he hates your career choice. Two, you aren’t even the paper’s crime reporter, so what do you care? Three, you wouldn’t have gotten your lazy butt out of bed to do it anyway, so why are you bellyaching?” I chewed on the tip of my pen, unperturbed by the dramatic noises sputtering through the receiver.

“Since when has what the chief thinks about your escapades ever stopped you? I may not be the crime reporter, but I could have clued her in and garnered a favor of the gargantuan variety, and for your information, I wasn’t in bed, but you are right, I was doing my best to get there.”

“So how did your date with Elvia go?”

“We went to the melodrama down in Oceano. Dastardly deeds and damsels in distress. Reminded me of a day in the life of Benni Harper.”

“Very funny. Actually, last night did remind me of a crazy melodrama. People all over the ranch when the shooting took place, a rich, crazy family, and a detective straight out of central casting. A Texan, no less, wearing honey-colored ostrich cowboy boots and writing in a
Beauty and the Beast
notebook. I tell you, Emory, it felt like a TV episode penned by a sleep-deprived, schizophrenic script writer.”

“Now I’m even more perturbed. I would have surely enjoyed the spectacle. Why wasn’t I invited? I’m family.”

BOOK: Seven Sisters
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