Authors: Gina Cresse
he cat-food container was heavy and left a trail in the dirt where it had been dragged away from the barn. The intermingled raccoon prints conjured up an image in my mind of how the theft must’ve taken place. When they couldn’t open it, they probably decided to take it back to their place where they could work on the problem without the worry of being caught. It would have taken the whole family of them to move the booty.
I followed the tracks toward the vineyard, where it appeared they’d encountered some trouble getting the container under the fence. I hoped they didn’t head in the direction of the cave, which had been cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape. The homicide people had warned me to stay away from it. If a large container of cat food suddenly appeared in the middle of their crime scene, how would I explain that raccoons—my raccoons, I’m sure they’d say—were the culprits?
The trail led to a small gully where the ground dipped low enough for the container to fit under the bottom rail. I slipped between the rails and continued following the tracks. When the trail took a turn down one of the vineyard rows, I stopped and peered back over my shoulder toward the barn. The harvesting crew would show up any minute. Chewing my bottom lip, I debated whether I should continue the hunt or try again later after I was dressed. Not sure how much of a head start the raccoons had on me, and preferring to retrieve the container while it was still in the vineyard—
it was still in the vineyard—I forged on.
Tromping through the vines in my cut-off sweat shorts, extra-large Dirty Harry “Go ahead punk… Make my day” T-shirt and rubber boots, I was glad the vines were fully leafed out so no one could see me from the road. When I reached the top of the rise, I spotted the container about 100 feet away. They must have abandoned the task when the sun came up, but I was sure they’d be back tonight for their treasure. I started down the row to retrieve it when the sight of another family of vineyard residents stopped me. Black with white stripes down their backs, a momma and three baby skunks meandered along the row from the other direction, apparently curious about the container the raccoon family had brought into the neighborhood.
The sound of diesel engines rumbled at my gate. I stood on tiptoe and peered over the vines. The grape trucks were here.
The container would have to wait. I jogged back toward the vineyard gate, but the big rubber boots weren’t meant for any gait faster than a clumsy waddle.
Glancing over my shoulder as I shoved the gate closed, I saw Andy’s pickup pull into my driveway. The vertical bar that engaged the latch on the vineyard gate was stuck. I yanked, pushed, and pulled on it but it would not budge. I picked up a big rock and hammered on the bar to break it free, but something was jammed in the mechanism. It was a piece of cloth. Using my fingernails, I tried to pry it loose, all the while aware of Andy’s approach from behind, and the view of me in my T-shirt and rubber boots.
“Need a hand?” he said. I could hear the amusement in his voice.
“Sure? Looks like you’re having a little trouble there.”
“No, I’ve got it.”
By the time I worked the cloth free, Andy stood next to me with his hand on the lever. He shoved it over and latched the gate closed. “There. That wasn’t so hard.”
Dangling the strip of red plaid flannel, which looked like someone had accidently caught it on his way through the gate and just yanked free, I said, “You think you can get your pickers to be a little more careful? If I’d been out here in the middle of the night, I might never have gotten it closed.”
“What would you be doing out here in the middle of the night?”
“If it was any of your business—“
“Well, I better get the crew started. Looks like you just crawled out of your hole, so don’t let me keep you.”
I stuck my tongue out at his back as he walked away, but it didn’t make me feel any better.
After I showered and ate breakfast, I sat down at my desk to pick up where I’d left off on the grape harvest mystery. Narrowing down the suspects was not as easy as I had hoped. There was no single winery that appeared to benefit any more than the others by having more Zinfandel grapes available. The conspiracy would have to involve them all, and that didn’t seem likely to me.
It had to be a grower or a group of growers who were passing their generic grapes off as varietals for the higher prices, but which ones? There were too many pieces missing from the information puzzle in front of me to see the whole picture.
As I gazed out the window, tapping my pencil on the desk and hoping for the answer to materialize, I watched Andy harness the Clydesdales and hitch them to the buckboard. The man who had driven the team here yesterday climbed aboard the wagon and took the lines, slapping the team into motion. They maneuvered through the gate and down the road as if they’d done it a thousand times. I wondered how far they had to go to get home.
After they were gone, Andy returned to the vineyard and I could turn my concentration back to my work.
In California, over half a million acres are planted in grapes. I had to reduce the size of my haystack before I could start looking for the needle, so I decided to look at the data geographically. Since winegrowing regions are broken down into districts and appellations, the most logical next step in my search would be to sort, group, and subtotal the data that way. Studying the results of my query, I felt a sense of pride when I was able to narrow the scope down to the northern San Joaquin Valley. No districts outside that area had any significant discrepancies.
I composed an e-mail to Quinn Adamson and attached the report I’d just compiled. Now that I’d eliminated a huge portion of the data as suspect, I felt confident I’d be able to pare it down to a manageable list by the end of the week.
Just after lunch, Detective Obermeyer showed up, looking grim. “They’ve identified the body.”
It was over 100 degrees outside and I saw a bead of sweat roll down the side of his face. I invited him in and poured some lemonade.
“It was Beth Messina,” he said, then gulped down the ice-cold drink.
“That’s what the guy in the white pickup was doing here that night. Dumping her body,” I said.
“You never got a license number?”
“No. It was too dark.”
“So you couldn’t identify the pickup if you saw it again? Nothing distinguishing about it?”
I shook my head.
“We’re sending divers to search your pond.”
“How come you’re working on this? I thought you were narcotics.”
“We got an anonymous tip.”
“Guy said Beth Messina was the one watering the marijuana out of your pond.”
I stared at him, waiting for the punch line.
“I’m following up on the lead even though the tipster is probably smoking his own dope.”
“You don’t believe him?”
He shook his head. “I talked with her parents, her friends, her coworkers. She doesn’t fit the profile.”
“Why would someone tell you she was watering those plants?”
“Throw me off track. I did a little checking into your neighbor.”
“Mr. Dash Zucker. Two narcotics convictions and one armed robbery, back in the early eighties.”
I felt like all the air had left the room. “Are you kidding?”
He shook his head again.
“How does a convicted felon buy a vineyard in California?”
“The vineyard belonged to his parents. They died, he inherited.”
“And I moved in next door.”
“It was over twenty years ago, and he’s kept his nose clean since he got out…”
“You should be careful.”
The last grape truck chugged out of sight for the day and there was finally peace and quiet in the vineyard. Dusk was still an hour away. Pete’s pickup rolled to a stop at my gate and he climbed out, looking tired. I walked out on the front porch as he sauntered up the driveway.
“Almost done,” he said, gazing at the vineyard.
“Yep. Now that we’re not harvesting the 1850’s way, we should be done pretty quick.”
He smiled and took off his baseball cap to wipe the sweat off his forehead. “Andy’s a good guy. He’s probably just trying to impress you with those Clydesdales, knowing how much you love horses and all.”
“Impress me? I think it’s more likely he’s trying to drive me crazy and put me in the poor house.”
Pete frowned. “Money troubles?”
“I just need to get these grapes harvested so I can get paid. I’ll be fine once that happens.”
“I can float you a loan if you need—”
“I’m fine, Pete. Really. But thanks for the offer. I appreciate it.”
“Well, we should be done picking by Friday, so you just hang in there.” He scratched his chin and leaned on the porch rail. “Any word on that mess they found in your cave?”
“Oh, yes. It was Beth Messina, like I thought.”
Pete’s gaze turned to the toes of his cowboy boots and he shook his head. “Damn shame.”
“Did you know her? I guess she was an apprentice winemaker over at Venezia.”
“I’d seen her around. Nice kid.” He cleared something out of his throat that sounded like welled up emotions. “I better get going.”
Back inside, I turned on the stereo and poured a glass of Merlot to watch what was sure to be a spectacular sunset. The Merlot promised to “open with aromas of ripe raspberry and blackberry with undertones of savory dried spice, sage, and hints of peppermint. Earthy flavors, layered with accents of blackberry jam, toasted oak and vanilla, along with firm tannins balanced by juicy fruit and moderate acidity gave the medium-bodied wine a long finish.” That was according to the label, anyway. I wasn’t sure what a “long finish” meant, but I did like how it tasted.
The news Obermeyer had told me about my neighbor gave me an uneasy feeling. Closing my eyes, I tried to push the worry out of my head for at least a minute. A familiar smell wafted through the windows that I’d opened for the evening cross breeze. I crinkled my nose. A knock on the door startled me and I nearly spilled red wine down my shirt. When I opened my front door, Andy stood there with the Rubbermaid container at his feet.
He reeked of skunk.
I covered my nose and mouth and squeezed the door closed to an inch opening to try to keep the stink out without shutting it in his face.
“I presume this is what you were after this morning,” he said, pointing at the container.
I nodded, my eyes tearing up from the smell. “Thank you,” I said in a voice muffled by the sleeve of my shirt.
“Your skunks don’t like me much.”
Another nod, then a barely audible, “They’re not my skunks.”
He backed away from the door and turned to leave.
“Wait,” I said. “You’ll probably charge me extra to have your pickup de-fumigated. I have tomato juice.”
Staring down at his feet, he nodded, apparently understanding the offer. “I’ll have to burn these clothes.”
“I’ll run to town and get you something to wear.” I chewed my bottom lip as I contemplated what I was about to say. “One condition.”
He eyed me, suspicious.
“Do you know anything about shotguns?”
ehind the barn, Andy peeled off his clothes down to his boxers and tossed them in the metal trashcan that used to be a cat-food container. I covered my nose with a bandana, handed him a can of lighter fluid and backed off. Even the cats and horses kept their distance. He doused the clothes then dropped in a match, igniting them in a big poof of flames.
“I’ll get the tomato juice,” I said.
“You know it’s a myth about tomato juice. Doesn’t neutralize the smell,” he said as he watched the flames.
“Just replaces it. You have any hydrogen peroxide and baking soda?”
“I think so.”
“And liquid detergent,” he called to me as I headed for the house.
While Andy bathed in the concoction he’d mixed up, I drove to town to buy him some new Wranglers and a T-shirt. He didn’t ask for it, but I picked up a bottle of Stetson cologne, just in case 100 percent stink eradication couldn’t be achieved.
When I returned, he was sitting on the front porch swing with the towel I’d given him wrapped around his waist. Cautiously, I approached him, waiting for the smell to hit me. Surprisingly, it seemed to be gone. I handed him the bag of clothes and cologne. “Hope you like what I picked out.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “As long as they fit.”
While Andy got dressed in the bathroom, I peered in the refrigerator for something to fix for dinner.
“Are you hungry?” I called to him, but he didn’t answer. The stereo was still on and I figured he couldn’t hear me. In the pantry, I grabbed a couple potatoes and a bottle of Pinot Grigio, which featured “aromas of white peach, nectarine, and spring flowers followed by flavors of lemon, stone fruit, crisp Fuji apple and ripe pear.” Standing at the sink, I scrubbed the potatoes, sang along with the music and pondered what a stone fruit looked like.
“I can’t stay for dinner.” Andy’s voice startled me and I dropped a potato.
“Oh,” I said. I hoped he didn’t hear the disappointment in my voice.
“I’ll pick you up in the morning. You have ammo?”
Walking toward my door, he said, “You’ll need more. I’ll bring some with me.” Then he left.
I stared at the door for a moment, then shook my head and hollered, “You’re welcome!”
To take my mind off my many fiascos, I decided to dive back into the only predictable part of my life—my work. Feeling so close to figuring out the “who” part of the mystery, I sat down at my computer and gazed at the list of growers who could have misrepresented their grapes. The list, though significantly shorter than it was yesterday, was still two pages long and contained close to 100 entries. At the bottom of the list, a name caught my eye. Dash Zucker Vineyards had supplied Zinfandel grapes to Venezia Winery. I scratched my head and tried to remember what variety was growing in the neighbor’s vineyard. I’d ridden along the fence between our properties but never paid enough attention to know what kind of grapes he was growing.
The clock said nine and it was dark outside. Of all the vineyards on the list, Dash Zucker’s was one I could get a closer look at immediately. I put on my shoes and checked the batteries in my flashlight. Outside, I rummaged through the gardening shed for a pair of shears and shoved them in my back pocket. To avoid being spotted snooping on his property, I stayed off the road and cut through the vines on my land. I hoped I wouldn’t run into the skunk family.
When I reached the fence, I shined the light through the rails to the other side, looking for clusters hanging in the vines. I’d seen grape trucks come and go from his property for the past week and wondered if there were any berries left. Surely they could not have picked every single bunch.
Finally, I decided it would be safe to climb the fence to find some grapes. Since I’d had to fill two hand-dug wells on my own property, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that Zucker’s place had the same hazards. I didn’t know if he went to the trouble of filling them in, so I had to be careful. Keeping the light aimed toward the ground, I scanned the dark horizon in the direction of Dash’s house. I couldn’t see any lights, so either his house wasn’t visible from where I stood, or he had all his lights off.
Holding the flashlight under my arm, I combed through the leaves, feeling for clusters. As I moved toward the road, I wondered if my light was visible to anyone driving by. My fingers finally landed on a cluster of plump grapes that the pickers had missed. I removed the shears from my pocket and clipped the bunch from the vine. Making my way back through my vineyard, I stopped to pick a cluster of my own grapes for comparison.
Placing them side by side on my kitchen counter, I could not tell them apart by looking at them. I plucked a berry from Zucker’s bunch and popped it in my mouth. It was sweet and juicy, like any good grape should be. Doing the same with one of my grapes, I was prepared for an ah-ha moment when I could point an accusing finger at my neighbor’s vineyard and shriek, “Imposter!” But I couldn’t. They both tasted—like grapes. I dropped the Zucker grapes into a Ziploc baggie and put them in my refrigerator.
Luckily the Rubbermaid container had been spared when the skunks let loose on Andy. In the morning, after I fed the horses, I twisted an eye screw into a support post in the barn and cut a length of wire to secure the container’s handle to the wall. The raccoon family would have to bring wire cutters next time if they wanted to take off with my cat food. I filled the cats’ dishes and headed back toward the house just as Andy’s pickup pulled up to my gate. I ran in the house, grabbed my purse and the shotgun and started back out when it dawned on me that he could be of help with my grape question. I retrieved the Dash Zucker grapes I’d taken last night then headed outside.
“Morning,” I said.
“Morning. Just put it in the rack there,” he said, pointing at the gun rack in the rear window.
I handed him the baggie of grapes first.
“Can you tell what variety they are?” I said as I placed the gun in the rack and climbed into the passenger seat.
Andy inspected the grapes in the baggie. “Is this a test?”
“No. I just want to know if they’re Zinfandel or Carignane grapes.”
“Where’d you get them?”
“I’d rather not say.”
He gave me a weary glance, as if he was too tired to pursue the answer. “Well, without seeing the vines they came off of, it’s hard to tell. You can send the seeds to a lab to find out, but that would take some time.”
“So, if I got you some leaves from the vines, then you could tell me?”
“It would be better if I could see the vineyard, but maybe, yeah, I could probably give you an answer. I’d need stems and leaves.”
“Okay, good. I’ll get you some stems and leaves tomorrow.”
Putting the truck in gear, he glanced over at me then pulled out onto the road. “You want to tell me what this is about?”
“It’s a project I’m working on for the State.”
As we drove over the bridge, we saw the divers from the Sheriff’s Department descending on the pond and all questions about grape leaves were forgotten.
“Wonder if they’ll find anything?” Andy said.
“The way my luck’s been going, they’ll probably find Jimmy Hoffa with one of my kitchen knives in his back.”
The shooting range was a twenty-minute drive, near the Mokelumne River. Andy handed me a pair of earplugs and goggles then he explained the shotgun’s safety mechanism and showed me how to rack a round of ammunition into the chamber. At first I was intimidated and not forceful enough, causing the shells to get jammed halfway through the process. He showed me how to eject them and demonstrated the proper method.
“Do it like you mean it,” he said, wrenching the action bar back then pushing it forward again. “Don’t baby it. It’s not a damn flute.”
He unloaded the chamber and handed me the gun for another try. This time, I set my jaw and took command of the weapon. With the round ready to be fired, Andy nodded toward the cardboard target in the distance. I raised the barrel and looked down the sights, holding it out away from my body.
Squinting at my pose, he waved his arms. “Not like that. You’ll bust your shoulder.”
He put his left hand over mine on the barrel and wrapped his right arm around me, pulling the stock into place tight against my shoulder. “This thing kicks like a mule,” he whispered in my ear.
Breathing in his Stetson cologne, I heard myself say, “Mmm….” It was involuntary, like a reflex. In a gallant save, I quickly followed it with, “…Mules sure can kick.”
“Yes they can. Now, don’t close your eyes,” Andy said quietly, then let go of me and stepped back. “When you’re ready, just squeeze the trigger.”
I counted to three in my head, then fired.
It was a noise I wasn’t prepared for and it left me stunned. Even with the earplugs, I heard railroad crossing bells ringing in my head. The smell of burnt gunpowder invaded my nostrils. Up until that moment, I’d had no idea how much power I held in my hands. It scared the hell out of me. I was afraid I’d never have the courage to fire it in a life-threatening situation—and at the same time, terrified that I would.