Authors: Gina Cresse
When the body of a young apprentice winemaker is discovered while Kate Cimaglia’s Zinfandel grapes are being harvested, Kate has no idea there is a connection between the dead girl and her latest assignment to straighten out the California wine grape harvest database. The last thing Kate needs is a corpse to deal with. She already has narcotics Detective Obermeyer hounding her after a stand of marijuana plants is discovered near her vineyard, and she’s sure her low-life neighbor is the culprit, but convincing Obermeyer isn’t easy. On top of that, her lying, cheating ex, Roger, shows up after ten years and wants to pick up where things left off… yeah, like that’s going to happen, especially now that Kate is convinced Roger is the Grass Valley sniper taking potshots at passing cars in the middle of the night. But too-nice Kate can’t bring herself to turn him in until she knows for sure. To make matters worse, she can’t balance the records she’s been hired to fix and it turns out she’s uncovered a massive case of fraud being committed by… well, she doesn’t know who, exactly, but she’s determined to find out. And then there’s Kate’s vineyard manager, Andy Carmichael, who must have been in the chiseled-jaw line when God was handing out charm. The two of them didn’t hit it off from the start, and Kate’s not sure they ever will, but there are times when she could just… punch him or kiss him, depending on her mood. When Kate finally unravels the mystery of who forged millions of dollars worth of Zinfandel grapes, she discovers that the dead apprentice winemaker figured it out, too. If Kate doesn’t want to suffer the same fate, she has to act fast to save herself.
Gina Cresse is the author of Sinfandel, a light-hearted, fun--and sometimes funny--wine murder-mystery set in California's Central Valley. Gina is also the author of the Devonie Lace Mysteries--a series about a woman who tries to simplify her life by becoming something of a "Storage Wars" star, only she has a knack for buying trouble instead of treasures. You can find out more about her other titles at www.GinaCresse.com.
Copyright © 2012 Gina Cresse
All rights reserved.
Cover design by Terese Knapp
All the characters in this book are fictitious,
and any resemblance to actual persons,
living or dead, is purely coincidental.
For Larry, Roselyn, Rick, Sue,
Terese, Tim, Jim, and Elisa
he August breeze barely moved the curtains away from the open windows in my freshly painted bedroom. I’d kicked the bedspread off hours earlier and only the light cotton sheets covered my legs. As I lay on my back, my mind foggy, I tried to identify the sound that had jarred me out of a restless sleep. Was it a dream or was it those thieving raccoons stealing cat food again? A twenty-pound bag had disappeared in a little more than a week, and I knew my three barn cats weren’t the culprits. I rolled my head on the pillow, glancing at the clock on the nightstand.
I moaned. I would be on a cruise ship in Panama, sleeping like a bear in December, if I hadn’t landed a great consulting job just last week. Thank God I’d bought the trip insurance. I had an eight o’clock appointment with my new employer in Sacramento, which was an hour away from my home in Clements, a small town surrounded by farms, orchards, and vineyards. In three hours I’d have to get up and it could take that long to fall back to sleep. Looking at the ceiling, I felt a nagging awareness that something was wrong. I watched the blades of the ceiling fan turn slowly. It was a pretty fan—brand new, white with brushed nickel accents and tulip-shaped frosted glass shades.
But I shouldn’t be able to see those details at this hour. Maybe the moon was full. Maybe the raccoons had brought a flashlight.
Turning over, I propped myself up on one elbow to see out the window.
Throwing the sheets off, I double-checked the clock. Who would be parked in my driveway at this hour? In only a T-shirt and underpants, I fumbled in the semi-darkness for a robe. The vehicle idling outside my house was aimed toward the road as if it had just come from my barn. It was a white pickup and in the moonlight it gleamed. The silhouette of a man in the driver’s seat, backlit by my barnyard light, gave me a chill.
Who is that creep?
He just sat there, staring at my house. The vineyard manager had brought in a crew to prune the vines last year. They’d show up at this hour, but this was not the right time of year for pruning. I’d made an appointment with a new vineyard manager since the old one had just moved to Napa to make the big bucks, but that was an afternoon appointment, so either he was very early, or I had a stalker on my hands.
I padded down the short hallway to the back door, double-checking the lock and the deadbolt. With all the lights off inside the house, he couldn’t see me. I returned to my bedside phone and dialed 911. The dispatcher answered immediately. “What’s your emergency?”
With my heart racing, my words came with some difficulty. “There’s someone outside my house… watching me.”
“Is he there now?”
“Are you alone?”
“Yes!” The pickup rolled slowly down the driveway, turned around and drove back up behind the barn. “Please send the police.”
“I’ve dispatched a deputy. He’ll be there in a few minutes. Just stay on the phone with me, okay?”
“What’s your name?” the dispatcher asked.
“Kate Cimaglia.” I moved from room to room, window to window, trying to keep the pickup in sight. “He’s gone behind my barn.”
“What’s back there?” she asked.
“Nothing… a gate. God, I hope he doesn’t let the horses out.”
The dispatcher must have sensed my worry. “Just stay in the house.”
Five minutes later, the truck rolled down the driveway to the open ranch gate, paused for a moment then peeled out onto the road, throwing gravel, tires squealing on the pavement until it disappeared behind the vineyards that surround my house on three sides. Two minutes after that, a police cruiser pulled into my driveway and a lone deputy climbed out of the car and knocked on my front door.
“I’m Deputy Stanford. You called about a prowler?” Stanford was young, maybe twenty-five, and probably new on the job, since he’d been stuck working the graveyard shift. Skinny and smooth-skinned, he looked like someone I could probably beat in an arm-wrestling match.
I walked the perimeter of the house with Stanford as we surveyed the property with his flashlight. “He went up behind the barn for a long time,” I told him. Following the flashlight beam, we trekked up to the barn and checked the area behind it. The gate was closed and the chain still fastened.
The warm air smelled of grapes and livestock and dust raised by the horses in the lower field, dry from lack of rain. Across the road, a lone cow bellowed in the darkness, probably hoping all the activity meant an early breakfast. Normally the night would be alive with coyote serenades, screech owls and lovesick frogs, but tonight was oddly quiet. Even the raccoons had made themselves scarce.
“Anything out of place?” Stanford asked, shining his light on the ground along the fence line.
I peered into the compartments of my horse trailer, then made sure my pickup was untouched. “No. At least not that I can see until the sun comes up.”
We walked back to his car and I explained the details of the strange visit. Stanford made notes in a black notebook. Even though the night air was warm, I felt cold and wrapped my robe tighter around my shoulders.
Stanford scratched his chin and glanced at something below the hem of my short satin robe. My legs? It’s always a surprise when men ogle me. I’m not cute, not blonde or busty, but tall and lanky with a mass of dark, curly hair. My mother says I’m beautiful, but her opinion may be somewhat biased. I don’t feel beautiful—at least I haven’t for a long time.
“Angry ex-husband, maybe? Trying to yank your chain?” Stanford leaned back against his car.
“I’ve never been married.”
He gaped at me for a few seconds. I guess my marital status stumped him. “Ex-boyfriend, then? Anyone who might have an axe to grind?”
I suppressed a laugh at the suggestion. I hadn’t even been on a date in three years. I shook my head. “No one who’d stoop to this.” Now I was shivering. “You know what I think? I’ve heard rumors about the people next door.” I pointed across the west vineyard.
Stanford’s gaze followed. “Neighbors?”
Out in the country, the nearest neighbor could be a mile away. In my case, they were just over the first rise, within shooting distance, as I’d learned last year when I’d first bought my little house—which came with two open hand-dug wells, a cave, a seasonal creek, three junk cars and an old dilapidated boat, along with a dozen truckloads of miscellaneous rubbish, and the best part, twenty-five acres of young Zinfandel grape vines.
I had been washing my car in the shade of a mulberry tree when the sound of gunfire pierced the air and bullets whizzed through the branches over my head. The place had been vacant for two years before I bought it, and the neighbors didn’t think to check before they used it as a backstop for target practice. A good dose of screaming in the general direction of the shots put an end to the episode, but since then I’d decided the carwash in town was safer.
“The other side of that vineyard, over the hill. I see cars go in and out at all hours of the night. I bet this guy tonight was at the wrong house.” I wasn’t sure who I was trying to convince more, Stanford or me. “That’s got to be it.”
“You think they’re dealing in drugs?”
“That’s the rumor I’ve heard, but I have no proof.”
Stanford thought about it, nodded and closed his notebook. “I’ll check with the narcotics division. To be safe, you should keep your gate closed from now on. Maybe even get a chain and lock it.”
I agreed and Stanford promised to drive by the house a few times over the next couple of nights. By the time he left, it was four in the morning. I tried to go back to sleep, but it was pointless. At eight, I called to re-schedule my client meeting; then, after making sure the gate was closed, I headed for town.
I walked into the Big Five Sporting Goods store and took it all in. The place was filled with everything from chic designer clothing to football shoulder pads. Bicycles hung from the ceiling and basketball hoops sprang up out of the floor. Glancing around the huge open space, my eyes finally landed on what I was there for, neatly organized on the back wall.
The guy behind the counter looked like he’d trained with the Navy Seals. The seams on the sleeves of his black T-shirt threatened to split under the strain of his tree-trunk sized biceps. “What can I do for you?” he asked as I gazed at the wall of guns behind him.
“I need a shotgun,” I said. “Something small enough that I can lift it but big enough to make an impression.”
He grinned and looked me over. “You could handle a twenty-gauge without much trouble. Any particular reason you need a shotgun?”
Studying the collection of firearms on the wall, I answered, “I had a sudden urge to exercise my Second Amendment rights.”
“Terrific,” he said. “Let me show you this Mossberg.”
After comparing it to several others, I chose the Mossberg, filled out the necessary paperwork and started the clock on my ten-day waiting period.
rriving early for my re-scheduled appointment, I used the extra twenty minutes to go over my notes. Quinn Adamson had called last week to let me know I’d won the bid for the contract, and after he heard about my background as a software engineer, he said he was confident he’d made the right choice. After spending much of my career working for a large Napa Valley winery, I’d been lured to the Silicon Valley by the promise of well-deserved appreciation, and of course, for the money. I rode the dot.com wave to the top, but when a little voice in my head kept telling me there was no way it could last, I cashed out the stock options my company gave me—one month before they fired me and all my co-developers. I’d always wanted to own a vineyard, so I went shopping for one in Napa. The stock options were good, but not Napa good. I settled for twenty-five acres in the San Joaquin Valley, which came with a newly-planted vineyard, an old farmhouse, and a huge mortgage. In order to reduce the price so I could qualify for the loan, I’d agreed to let the seller keep the proceeds from last year’s crop. To pay the bills, I opened a software consulting business that I operated out of my home office.
Those were the major events that brought me to where I was today, in the lobby of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
A young receptionist led me down a long hallway to the office of Quinn Adamson, who seemed anxious as he directed me to a chair.
“Let’s get right to business, shall we?” he said, then opened a large file cabinet and removed six different forms, placing them side by side in front of me on his desk. “These are samples of the various documents required for tracking, regulating, and enforcing tax revenues for the California wine industry.”
I picked up one of the forms.
“That’s a weigh tag,” Adamson pointed out.
“Right.” Adamson cleared his throat. He seemed nervous. “We compile the information we receive from the growers, the truckers, the wineries, and the retailers and load it into various databases.”
“Databases… as in more than one?” I said.
Adamson sighed. “Yes, Miss Cimaglia, which as I’m sure you realize, is our dilemma.”
“Let me guess. None of the databases are compatible with each other,” I said.
Adamson removed his glasses and rubbed his forehead. “Just between you and me, I inherited this monstrosity from my predecessors. I have teams of programmers whose favorite pastime is sabotaging each other’s work, and I can’t fire them. Believe me, if I’d been consulted at design time—”
“Things would be different.” I gave him a reassuring smile.
“Exactly,” Adamson said, emphatically. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell the Governor.”
“So you need a method to consolidate the data into a usable format.”
“That, and a recommendation for a new system so we can avoid going through this exercise in the future.” Adamson leaned across his desk and motioned me to move closer. “You should know that, though I cannot fire the people under my employ for not delivering as promised, I don’t enjoy the same luxury. I am between the proverbial rock and a hard place. I’ve been given a directive to get this done before next season’s harvest… or else. Even though you’re under contract, there’s a ninety-day rescission period. As long as I have a job…” He raised his eyebrows and moved his head in a coaxing manner, as if inviting me to finish his sentence.
“If you get axed, I’m out of a job.”
“Precisely. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but I thought you should know the stakes here. California is about to go broke and I can’t predict what the future holds.”
California had been broke for a long time, but there was no point in correcting him when we both knew the truth. I gathered up the forms on the table in front of me and stuffed them in my briefcase, which had a small brass label that read: Kate Cimaglia—Data Wrangler.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Adamson,” I said. “I won’t let you down. I’ll need to see the database designs.”
Adamson gave me backup copies of the databases and all the documentation he could dig up, which wasn’t much.
On my way home, I stopped to do some grocery shopping since there was almost nothing worth eating at my house–-unless you were a horse, a cat, or a raccoon. When I pulled up to my closed ranch gate, there was a silver pickup parked in front of it. I stopped in the middle of the road and waited for the driver to realize he was blocking my way and move his truck. Instead, the driver-side door opened and a tall, dark-haired man in Wrangler jeans and a blue polo shirt stepped out. I rolled down my window, preparing to instruct him on all the suitable places he could park his gas-guzzling Chevy that wouldn’t prevent me from getting my groceries put away, when I noticed from this distance, he looked like he could be a cover model for one of those western romance novels—tall, slim, chiseled jaw, deep blue eyes, dimples. The closer he got to my Prius, the shorter my speech got, and by the time he was within smelling range, his Old Spice cologne turned my move-your-damn-truck speech into a welcome-to-my-home song.
“Are you Kate?” he asked, seeming a little annoyed.
“I’m Andy Carmichael.”
Then it hit me. This was the vineyard manager I had a three o’clock appointment with. I checked my watch. It was four thirty. “Oh my God. I’m so sorry. I completely forgot.”
I put the Prius in park in the middle of the road, which wasn’t a problem since it ended just a quarter mile up in front of my neighbor’s house. There was rarely any traffic on the road, except of course for the late night drug buyers I’d told the officer about last night. As I opened the ranch gate, I asked, “Why didn’t you call my cell?”
He took over opening the gate and left me standing there with nothing to do but to watch him, which wasn’t hard. “I did. Left you two voicemails.”
Back at the Prius, I took my purse out and rummaged for my phone, but it wasn’t there. “I must have left it on the charger this morning. I’m so sorry.” I wasn’t usually this ditzy but lack of sleep and fear of last night’s stalker had deprived my brain of the usual chemicals that kept it in balance.
He shrugged. “That’s okay. I’ll just put you on my flaky customer billing plan. Cash in advance.”
I smiled, waiting for him to do the same. When he didn’t, I realized he was serious. When God was handing out personalities, Andy Carmichael must’ve been too busy scolding people while he was in the ruggedly-handsome line.
I cleared my throat. “Where do you want to start?” “Well…” He rubbed his stubbled chin and gazed at the rolling hills around us. “I was hoping to get a look at the vines but it’s getting late. I’ve got another appointment tonight. Zinfandel, right?”
“Yes, twenty-five acres, minus the three acres right here for the house and the horses.”
“If I show up Friday morning at seven, how long will I have to wait for you?”
Oh my God, get over it already
. “I’ll be here and ready at seven sharp. Promise.”
“You have ATVs or should I bring my own?”
A mischievous idea crossed my mind and I smiled. I already didn’t like Andy Carmichael. “I have two quads. You won’t need to bring anything.”
He handed me a service agreement and climbed back in his truck. After rolling down his window, he said, “You can pay me on Friday.”
“I haven’t hired you yet.”
Backing out of my driveway, he looked over his shoulder, being careful not to hit my car. “You will.”
I wanted to say “fat chance,” but I knew he was right. Although I’d worked in the wine industry for years, all of my experience with the grape end of the business started at the crusher, when a truckload of them would be dumped into a big stainless steel hopper to begin their journey to the wine bottle. When it came to growing them, I didn’t know the first thing about vineyards and I needed help.
After he drove away, I pulled the Prius through the open ranch gate, got out and closed it again. In the morning, I’d look into having an automatic gate installed, along with motion-sensor lights.
Lugging two grocery bags from my car, I felt like a pack mule. I put one bag down and fumbled in my purse for my house keys. One hand wasn’t enough, so I dropped both bags and reached all the way to the bottom of the purse. Buster and Emlie whinnied from the other side of the barn. Dinner was late. Van Gogh the barn cat, so named for losing a piece of his ear in a fight over a perky little calico, rubbed my leg and sniffed the grocery bags. Just as I found the key, my phone rang. I hurried in, leaving the keys in the door and the groceries on the doormat.
I grabbed the phone. “Hello?” I said, a little out of breath.
“It’s me.” The voice was familiar.
I paused for a long moment. It couldn’t be, could it? “Roger?”
“You sound good,” he said.
I may have sounded good, but I felt as though I’d just been hit in the stomach with a baseball bat, which was something I’d dreamed of doing to Roger for ten years.
“Bet you’re surprised to hear from me, huh, Kate?”
I nodded, only half realizing he couldn’t see me. I wandered into the living room and eased myself down onto the sofa. “How are you?” I finally asked.
“Not too good. My wife left me. I lost my job. I’m living in my car in Virginia City.”
His wife? The jezebel he’d dumped me for? He must’ve married her. I filed that away to analyze later. “Nevada?”
“I was staying at a friend’s place, but that didn’t work out.”
“Are you looking for sympathy?” He’d better not be looking for a place to stay.
“No. I want to talk to you.”
“After ten years?”
“I’ve wanted to talk to you for a long time, I just never had the… Can I see you?”
A million images flashed through my mind. I had no reason to fear Roger, but Stanford’s question last night about ex-boyfriends, and now this unexpected call made me wonder about the coincidence. “I’m not going to Virginia City, Roger.”
“I’ll come there.”
I didn’t want to tell him where I lived. He’d gone to some trouble to find my unlisted phone number. If I agreed to meet him somewhere, maybe he wouldn’t put more effort into finding my address, if he didn’t already have it. “I work. I’ll meet you in Woodbridge for dinner, at the Cactus.”
“When?” he asked.
“Whenever you’re in town.”
“Tomorrow night. I can be there around six.”
“Fine,” I said.
“And I’m buying dinner.”
“Damn right you are.” He owed me at least that. By the time I finally hung up the phone, I realized my back door was wide open, the keys dangled from the lock, and Van Gogh had rummaged through a grocery bag and was dining on the drumstick of an organic free-range chicken.
After replaying the Roger conversation over in my head while I put my groceries away, I decided I had to call Dr. Monica P. Radosovich, the only female large-animal vet within a hundred miles, and also my best friend. We’d grown up together, sharing every Italian and Polish joke we’d ever heard, and making up some new ones along the way. Girl Scouts, 4-H, high-school choir, marching band—no matter what the activity was, Monica and I teamed up like Laurel and Hardy, or Laverne and Shirley, or Larry and Curly… there was no room for Mo in our world.
“You’ll never guess who just called me,” I said.
“Uh… Luigi Pianalto?”
“Who’s Luigi Pianalto?”
“Never mind. Tell me who called.” Monica was always trying to fix me up with one of her clients, or one of her husband’s cousins. Luigi Pianalto was probably an accomplice in her latest matchmaking scheme.
“That’s the one. He wants to see me.”
“Is he nuts? Why in the world would you agree to see that low-life piece of manure?”
“To stop him from continuing to search for my address,” I said.
“Tell me you did not sign up to see that horse’s ass.”
“I didn’t want to, but he’d gone to enough trouble to find my phone number, and I didn’t want him to keep digging and show up at my door.”
“Roger always was a persistent little weasel. When you see him, would you kick him for me?”
I laughed and promised I would.
After I finished telling her the details of Roger’s call, I took a flashlight and hauled a new twenty-pound bag of cat food up to the barn, shoved it into a metal trashcan and slammed the lid down, pressing it tight around the edges. Let’s see those raccoons abscond with my cat food now.
The Cactus was a hip Mexican restaurant in Woodbridge that served raspberry Margaritas and homemade tortillas. Except for the neon sign over the door, the building looked straight out of the 1870s, with wooden sidewalks and hitching rails out front. When I pulled into the parking lot, I spotted Roger right away.