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Authors: Gina Cresse

Sinfandel (5 page)

BOOK: Sinfandel
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Chapter Six



n Monday morning, Quinn Adamson called and asked me to meet him that afternoon, not at his office, but at the
John E. Moss Federal Office Building in Sacramento.

“Federal?” I asked as I wrote down the address.

“I followed your suggestion and spent the weekend auditing weigh tags.”

“That was fast.”

“I got the director to agree to overtime for my staff.”

“So, where did I go wrong?”

There was a brief pause.  “You didn’t.  Your calculations are correct.”


After the War on Terrorism was declared, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms added “Explosives” to their name and relegated the more mundane business of enforcing alcohol and tobacco taxation to a new entity—The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB.

I met Quinn Adamson in the foyer of the Federal building, where he gave me a quick briefing on my role in the upcoming meeting.  As requested, I brought my laptop along to illustrate the discrepancies I’d found. 

A young intern led us down a hallway to a conference room where we were met by two men, Agents Sean O’Reilly and Avery Parker.  O’Reilly’s red hair was cut in a short flattop, and he had more freckles than the Mojave has sand.  Parker was black, his bald head was polished to a brilliant sheen, and he appeared to be the younger of the two.

Parker pointed at my laptop.  “Do you want to connect that to the Datashow?”

While Parker helped me with the equipment, Adamson chose a seat, leaned his elbows on the long table and laced his fingers together.

“We’ve uncovered an—anomaly,” Adamson said.

“What sort of anomaly?” O’Reilly asked as he read a text message on his Blackberry.

“I’m not exactly sure yet.  At the minimum, we’re looking at some extensive record fiddling.”

I smiled at the thought of a judge banging his gavel and declaring a defendant guilty of felony record fiddling.

“Then again, it’s possible we’re looking at widespread fraud,” Adamson continued.

O’Reilly looked up from his Blackberry.  “Fraud,” he repeated, as if he wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly.

Adamson cleared his throat.  “We suspected we had a problem, so I hired Miss Cimaglia to help us sort through the data.  I’ll let her demonstrate her findings.”

I called up a report on my laptop, and it displayed on the large projection screen at the end of the room.  “The varieties in question are Carignane, Grenache, Valdepena and Zinfandel.  The numbers in the first column represent acres of vines planted for each variety.  The second column is a calculation of expected tonnages.”

Parker stopped me.  “But young vines won’t produce as much as mature vines.”

“My calculations include the age of the vineyard, so that has been accounted for.”

Parker nodded, exchanged glances with O’Reilly, and waved me to continue.

“The next two columns show the tonnages that were crushed at all California wineries for the season and the gallons of wine produced from those tonnages.”

O’Reilly pointed at the screen.  “That’s not right.  You allowed for blending?”

“Let her finish,” Adamson said, and nodded for me to continue.

“Yes, I used the minimum varietal percents required by law, so these numbers are the worst-case scenario.”

O’Reilly and Parker began taking notes.

“The last column is a calculation of the yields each of the varieties produced.  As you can see, there aren’t nearly enough Zinfandel vines planted in the entire state of California to produce enough grapes to make this much Zinfandel wine.”

Parker shook his head.  “How do we know that your numbers are right?  Some data-entry clerk could have miss-keyed a number.”

I moved my mouse to a figure on the report and drilled down into more detail.  “The numbers have been audited, but if you want to see the supporting documentation, it’s all here.”

“Can you make us a copy of that?” O’Reilly asked.

I handed him a CD.  “Already did.”

I could almost see the wheels turning in Parker’s head.  “How much are the San Joaquin Valley growers getting for Zin now?”

“A thousand dollars per ton on average,” Adamson said.

“And Carignane?” Parker asked.

“Carignane, Grenache, and Valdepena all go for between a hundred and fifty and two hundred dollars per ton,” Adamson said.

O’Reilly penciled some figures on his notepad, then let out a long, slow whistle.  “We’re talking millions of dollars.”

We all stared at the big screen.  We had identified the what and the why of the mystery.  All that was left was the how, and more importantly, the who.


 Early the next morning, I was jarred awake by the sound of rumbling diesel engines and men hollering in Spanish.  I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and propped myself up on my elbows to peer out the window.  The pickers were here to harvest my grapes, and Andy was barking out orders and directing truckers to drive across my front lawn.  I jumped out of bed, threw on a robe and dashed out my front door to track Andy down. 

“Hey!” I shouted at him. 

He gave me a face that cried out to be slapped.  “Morning,” he said.

“Get these trucks off my lawn!”

“We have to harvest your grapes.”

I pointed my finger in his face.  “You don’t have to stage the trucks in my front yard!”

His innocent face turned smug.  “Where would you suggest they park?”

“In the damn vineyard!” 

 “But Kate, I knew you wouldn’t want these diesel-belching trucks polluting your pristine organic vines.”  He smiled at me. 

So, this was how it was going to be.  I glared at him for a full 10 seconds before I realized I hadn’t even brushed my hair—which on some mornings had a tendency to look like I’d been through a carwash without a car—before I stormed out of the house like hurricane Kate.  I gritted my teeth, turned on my heel and stomped back to the house.  I would just have to repair the lawn after the harvest.  No big deal.

I pulled on some blue jeans and a T-shirt and headed up to the barn to feed the horses.  I sensed something was amiss the second I stepped into the breezeway.  There in the corner was my brand new raccoon-proof cat-food container, with the plastic hinges chewed in half and the door hanging by the metal snap I’d secured it closed with.  It was lying on its side and all that remained was a few handfuls of cat food.  I kicked the container out of the barn, where it banged against the fence and startled Emlie.  She jumped two feet in the air then stuck her tail straight up and took off at a gallop toward the lower pasture.  Buster took off after her even though the flying cat-food container didn’t seem to bother him at all. 

As I walked out of the barn to pick up after my temper tantrum, I realized the real reason Emlie and Buster had high-tailed it to the other field.  A pair of handsome Clydesdales pulling a large buckboard pranced down the road toward my driveway.  They were dark bays with wide matching blazes on their faces.  Someone had gone to the painstaking trouble to braid their manes and tails as if they were going to the Rose Parade.  Their huge feet were covered with bright white “feathers” which was really silky hair that grew thick around their lower legs.  The man driving the team stopped them in front of my house and skillfully maneuvered the rig around the corner and through the gate while I held my breath. 

Andy saw me watching, and he waved.  “No exhaust in the vineyard!” he hollered, then smiled innocently, flashing those dimples at me.

There’s a word for people like Andy Carmichael, but I’ll be damned if I can come up with it. 

I carried the container back in the barn and removed the snap, poured the remaining cat food into the cat’s bowls, then I threw the box in the big trash barrel and slammed the lid down.

After breakfast and a shower, I powered up my computer to start digging into the rest of the Zinfandel enigma.  Through a process of elimination, I would rule out all the valid records and hopefully be left with a pile small enough to shake out a common denominator.

By mid-morning, I hadn’t eliminated even one percent of the data.  My eyes were crossed and my stomach was growling, so I took a snack break. 

The grape harvesting was going slow, as one would expect when using draft horses to transport the grapes from the vineyard to the trucks.  I hoped that Andy would stop this nonsense tomorrow and bring in the normal tractors to finish the job. 

In the meantime I needed to make another trip to Fisco.  This time I bought a large Rubbermaid container designed to hold tools.  The sales clerk assured me that a gorilla couldn’t get the thing opened unless he had opposable thumbs, which of course they do, but I understood his meaning and took it, along with more cat food.  My Visa balance was racking up quicker than I liked, but thankfully the grapes were on their way to the winery and soon, the first of three grape payments would be on its way to me.

While in town, I stopped at Big Five to pick up my new shotgun and a box of shells.  The thing was heavier than I remembered.  I put it in the trunk of my car and headed home.

I maneuvered my Prius around a grape truck that was ready to take another load to the winery. 

After pouring the cat food into the new container, I snapped the lid shut, then secured it with two metal snaps.  This time, I wasn’t going to be so presumptuous.  If the container was still sealed in the morning, then I’d declare victory, but not until then.

Andy watched me open the trunk of my car and did a double-take when he saw me hoist the shotgun out.  I smiled and waved at him as I carried it inside to slide it under my bed and wonder just what I’d do with it.  I read through the instruction manual but it seemed to be geared toward someone who’d actually fired a gun at least once in their life.

I returned to work on my Zinfandel challenge until everything began to blur and was just about to stop for lunch when there was a knock at my door.  I opened it to find Andy standing there, not looking nearly as arrogant as he had all morning.  “I need to show you something,” he said.

“What?” I snapped.  “The Zen master left the crew unattended?”

He remained stone-faced.  He was up to something, I was pretty sure, but I followed him anyway. 

“Where are we going?” I asked as I trailed behind him toward the vineyard.

“You’ll see.”

“Come on.  Give me a hint.”

“You know you have a cave on your property?”

“Yes.  The original owners dug it, supposedly for cold storage, but I think they were actually running an illegal still.  It was back during prohibition.”

“You ever been in the cave?”

“Once, when I was thinking of buying the place.  What is this about?”  Then I had a horrible thought.  “Don’t tell me you found more marijuana plants.”

He stopped and gaped at me.  “Why, are you missing some?”

“No!  It’s just that they found some plants… never mind.”

We hiked to the far end of the vineyard where some of the pickers had stopped for lunch.  The cave was on the other side of the vineyard fence, cut into the side of the hill and close enough to the creek to be camouflaged by thick willow growth.  We crawled through the fence and I parted the willow branches and started to push through when a strange noise made me stop.  It sounded like static on a radio.  “What is that?”

“You’ll see,” Andy said.

I broke through to the other side of the willows and gawked at the source of the racket—two baby buzzards just inside the mouth of the cave, swaying and hissing at us like a couple of king cobras.  “Oh my God,” I said, smiling at the sight.  “They’re just babies.”

They were so ugly they were cute.  They still had white fluffy down around the base of their necks but stiff black feathers were just beginning to poke out.  Their heads and necks were featherless.  They were big for babies and I wondered just how large momma and daddy were, and where they were, and if they’d be angry that we were peeking in on the kids.

“One of the workers wandered up here looking for shade to eat lunch when he stumbled on them,” Andy explained.

“We should leave them alone.  Their parents are probably out shopping for dinner,” I said.

“I’m afraid that’s not going to be an option.”

“They’re not hurting anything.  Leave them alone.”

Andy frowned and shook his head.  “Look in the cave, behind the nest.”  He took a flashlight from his back pocket and shined it into the cave.

I squinted and leaned a little closer until I could just make out the object his light was focused on.  It was a human body, or what was left of it after the buzzard family had feasted on it. 







Chapter Seven



ll that was missing from my front yard was the big circus tent.  Grape trucks were lined up on my lawn.  Farm laborers’ cars were parked along the road in front of the house.  Six police cars jammed my driveway.  A van from animal control blocked my car in under the carport and the coroner’s wagon blocked the van.  Two Clydesdales, now out of their harnesses, munched on hay I gave them in the lower pasture while Buster and Emlie tried to coax them to the fence for a chat.  A driver tried to squeeze his ambulance through the gate without hitting a police car, and I wondered which Larry, Curly or Mo had called for an ambulance in the first place.  It wasn’t as though the victim might pull through.

One of the courteous officers instructed me to “stay away from the crime scene and plant my butt in the porch swing until the homicide people showed up.”

Sitting there, watching the spectacle, I wondered just how long this would postpone completion of the harvesting of my grapes.

Pete Mercado’s truck screeched to a stop in the middle of the road in front of my house.  He climbed out and gaped at the spectacle that my yard had become.  Shaking his head, he made his way through the chaos and found me in my swing.  “What’s going on?  Why aren’t these trucks moving?”

“Had a little problem,” I said.  “Someone left a body in my cave.”

Pete gazed toward the vineyard where police and county officials moved like a line of ants to a picnic.  “Dead?”

“As a doornail.”

Pete took off his baseball cap and wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt.  “Well crap.  These loads are scheduled.  Crushers are waiting.  People are breathing down my neck wanting to know where they are.”

“I’m sorry, Pete.  Police won’t let anyone leave yet.  Can’t we re-schedule?”

“How long are they gonna hold this up?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well hell.”  He stomped off back in the direction of his truck.  “I guess I can call Sun-Maid and see if they need any more raisins!”

A perky young woman in a uniform appeared in front of me, pulling on heavy gloves that went all the way up to her elbows.  She had a smile on her face that seemed to be a permanent fixture.  Her blond hair was pulled tight in a neat ponytail and her uniform was clean and crisply pressed.  The insignia on her sleeve indicated she was with County Animal Control.  “The forensics team can’t work the crime scene until we remove the chicks,” she said as she handed another pair of gloves to her partner, who was equally as well groomed.  He took them and grabbed the handle of a large crate, which looked like a heavy duty pet carrier.

“What will you do with them?” I asked.

“Don’t worry,” the woman said.  “We won’t hurt your buzzards.”

Why does everyone assume all the wild creatures on my property belong to me?  A thought flashed through my mind.  “You don’t do raccoons, do you?”

They both shook their heads.  I was out of luck.

“Won’t the parents miss them?  Or be mad and attack you for taking their babies?”  Visions of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” came to mind.

The male partner finally spoke up.  “With all the commotion and human presence around the cave, it’s doubtful the parents will return to the nest.  We’ll take the babies to a facility where they’ll be taken care of until they can survive on their own, and then they’ll be released back into the wild.”

They each took a handle on the crate and headed for the cave.

Andy was busy talking to a bunch of impatient truck drivers, all of them looking at their watches.  They weren’t getting paid by the hour, but by the load, and it didn’t look like any more loads were going out tonight.  The police cars had their trucks blocked in and no one was allowed near the cave who didn’t have a badge.  I couldn’t hear what was being said, but Andy seemed to have changed the mood of the mob of drivers.  After a few minutes, they were all laughing and slapping each other on the back.

Two black Crown Victorias drove up my road and turned into my driveway.  I had no idea where they’d park, but I’d given up worrying about details like that hours ago.  They stopped side-by-side in front of the gate, effectively preventing any more vehicles from coming or going.  Two men climbed out of one of the cars and gazed at the chaos unfolding before them.  Most likely they were the much anticipated “homicide people” I’d been waiting for.  Detective Obermeyer got out of the other car, spotted me sitting on the porch, and waved.

Obermeyer’s presence didn’t go unnoticed by Andy, who watched him like a cat tracking a meadow vole as he walked across the yard toward my porch.

“Heard the call on the radio and recognized the address,” Obermeyer said, then leaned against the porch post and crossed his arms.  “You just can’t get enough of us, I guess.”

“Guess not,” I said.

“So, what’s up?”

“One of the grape pickers found a body in my cave.”

“You have a cave?”

“Yeah.  My buzzards live in it.”

He let out a short laugh, which surprised me.

The two homicide guys flagged down a uniformed flunky who had apparently been assigned to keep an eye on me.  He nodded briefly in my direction then pointed them toward the cave.

Obermeyer cleared his throat.  “Any idea who the body belongs to?”

“I’m pretty sure the buzzards think it belongs to them.”

“You mean there really are buzzards in the cave?”

“Yes.  Animal Control is up there right now trying to round them up so your guys can get inside.”

He shook his head.  “Never a dull moment around here, it seems.”

“I don’t suppose you’ll be involved in the investigation unless that body is clutching a bunch of marijuana.”

Another laugh.  Maybe Detective Obermeyer was growing a sense of humor after all.  “I’ll take a walk up there and see if I can find out what’s going on.  I see the coroner’s here already.”

“Yeah, he was one of the first to arrive.”

Alone again, I pushed the swing back and forth a couple times and watched the big draft horses inspect their new surroundings.  I was about to go toss them more hay since they were twice as big as “normal” horses, when a pizza delivery truck showed up and honked its horn.

“Pizza’s here!” one of the truckers hollered.

Andy pulled out his wallet and paid the delivery man, then took a tower of pizza boxes from him and headed for the buckboard.  Someone turned on a truck radio to country music and the party began.

Somewhere in the distance, I heard people shouting and screeching.  Minutes later, the two animal control officers limped toward their van with the crate between them.  They looked like they’d been through a tornado.  Her ponytail was shifted to one side of her head, and both their uniforms were covered in dirt and, what I assumed was buzzard poop.

“Someone move those cars!” the woman shouted.  She was not in a good mood anymore.


When the body was finally removed from the cave, the homicide people came to see me.  Detective Obermeyer listened in on their questions, and Andy hovered within snooping distance, munching on a slice of pizza.

The detectives towered over me, looking at their notes.  The younger of the two peered above his notebook at me.  “Do you own a gun?”

I shook my head.  “No.”  It was an automatic response.

Andy raised an eyebrow at me.

“Oh, wait.  Yes, I just bought a shotgun,” I said.

The older detective smiled.  “Slipped your mind?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact.  A lot has happened since I picked it up today.”

I explained, again, about my mysterious visitor ten days earlier and why I’d purchased the gun.  No one asked the obvious question, so I volunteered.  “Could a family of vultures eat a body in ten days?”

The coroner wandered into the conversation just in time to fill me in.  “The body is actually quite intact considering the conditions it’s been exposed to.  Decomposition is significant, and there is tissue missing, but we should be able to identify her with dental records.”

“Her?” I said.

“Yes.  Female, early to mid twenties, healthy.  Looks like a gunshot wound for cause of death.  I’ll know more after the autopsy.”

“Could it be that missing girl?  Beth Messina?” I asked.  For a brief instant, the thought of the $20,000 reward flashed through my mind, followed by a twinge of guilt.  It dawned on me I had no claim to it anyway.  The reward would go to the laborer who found her, and he’d probably quit and take his family back to Mexico, and my crop would never get harvested, and I’d never get paid, and the bank would foreclose, and I’d live, penniless, on the streets of Stockton. 

“We can’t speculate.  Let’s wait for the dental records before we jump to any conclusions.”

By the time the last police car left, it was dark.  The Clydesdales were spending the night at my place, so I tossed them more hay and filled their water trough.  Andy picked up a pizza box and brought it over to me.  “Is your boyfriend coming back?”

“What b—?  Oh, no.”

He handed me the pizza box, with half a pizza still inside.  “Here.  You probably don’t feel like cooking tonight.”


“Tough day, huh.”

I nodded and headed toward the house.  “Tomorrow, would you please park the trucks in the vineyard and get some tractors to speed things up?”

“You don’t like the big guys?”

“I love the big guys, but I want these grapes harvested now.”

“Sure, I’ll take care of it.”  He took off his baseball cap and ran his fingers through his hair.  “And thanks for putting the boys up for the night.  I’ll take them home in the morning.”

“Who do they belong to?” I asked.  “If they were mine, I’d be here making sure they were getting good care.”

Andy followed me up the porch steps and opened the front door for me.  “They’re mine, and I know they’ll get treated a lot better than I do around here.”

I gave him a startled look, then retreated into the house and set down the pizza box.  Andy stayed outside on the porch.  “Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow,” he called to me then closed the door.

I watched the lights of his pickup pull through my gate and drive away, and I smiled.  A man with Clydesdales couldn’t be all bad.


Morning came too soon and I rolled out of bed like a corpse.  Squinting at the light like a mole fresh out of its hole, I splashed water on my face, slipped my feet into my old rubber boots and headed for the barn.  Lots of whinnies called out to me, anxious for breakfast. 

“Morning, kids!” I called back.  All the barn cats tried to trip me as I stumbled to the barn.  When I got there, I stood in the breezeway, baffled by what I saw, or, rather, what I didn’t see.  My brand new Rubbermaid raccoon-proof cat-food container was gone.

BOOK: Sinfandel
10.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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