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Authors: Linda Barnes

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Bitter Finish

BOOK: Bitter Finish
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Bitter Finish

Linda Barnes

to Richard


Knee pads?"


Elbow pads?"


"Extra flannel stuffed in your long johns?"

Feels like ten yards of it." Michael Vincent Spraggue III stared impatiently at the beefy man some ten feet below and cautiously removed his hand from a rickety one-by-three some carpenter had thoughtfully installed as a guardrail. "Strapped, taped, and padded. Just stick a gag in my mouth so I won't have to say this god-awful line when I fall."

Can't be too careful," the stuntman said drily.

"Especially with one of our stars. You ready?"

Spraggue wiped his sweaty palms off on his corduroy pants. From where he stood, on a rough boarded five-foot-square platform at the top of a built-for-the-occasion flight of wooden stairs, he could look down on the basketball hoops at either end of the old YMCA gym on Huntington Avenue.

The distant floor was reassuringly padded with tumbling mats. The steps weren't. He tried not to think about slivers.

He seemed taller than the six feet one claimed on his résumé, too thin for his height. His shoulders were broad enough, but when he took off his shirt every rib stuck out like a spoke. Women tried to feed him; stuntmen recommended extra padding.

He ran the back of his hand across his forehead and hoped the beads of fear-sweat weren't too visible. His face was a careful blank, remarkable more for its mobility than any uniqueness of feature.

Studying it in repose, emptied of emotion, one could note the slight asymmetry that accounted for the marked differences in left and right profiles. His eyes were an odd pale golden-tawny color that defied driver's license description. When asked, he called them brown.

I said, you ready?"

Yeah," Spraggue said reluctantly.

Okay. No fall this time. Just a nice easy roll down the steps."

You sure you don't want to count it out? Slowly?"

It's only ten steps. For a movie. You won't have to do it every night on Broadway."

"Still," Spraggue said, lying down at an angle, "I'd really hate to wind up with any critical portion of my anatomy in a sling."

"That's why I'm here: to make sure you don't."

Spraggue wriggled backward so that his right hip rested on the very edge of the platform, then eased himself down until his shoulder met the first step.

He kept a firm hold on the handrail and glanced below. The platform suddenly seemed to shoot up like an elevator. The foot of the stairs turned into a distant runway. The phone jangled.

He looked up hopefully.

The stuntman frowned. "Three, two, one, now."

Spraggue closed his eyes, released his grip finger by finger, and shoved off with his right foot.

Relax, dammit! Protect your head. Hit on your butt and your thighs. Roll with it!" Spraggue gritted his teeth and thought he could do without the play-by-play. "Now roll when you land. Roll! Good!"

He lay winded, but exhilarated, on the mat. It wasn't that much different from his first high dive. He wiggled his fingers and toes, stretched each extremity independently. No broken bones.

Muted footsteps approached, vibrating the floorboards. "Mr. Spraggue?"

The stuntman must have pointed down at him.

Spraggue turned his head and winced. One muscle, on the left side of his neck, hadn't enjoyed the fall.

"Telephone. Says it's urgent."

He got slowly to his feet, marched into the hallway without limping, and snatched the receiver off the hook.


How many months since he'd heard that gravelly voice? His mouth spread into a slow smile. "Holloway," he said.

Right the first time."

How are you?"

It's about Lenny."

"God, Kate. Again?"

The stuntman lumbered heavily across the hall, gestured up at the clock. Spraggue nodded; if he didn't want any more "star" razz, he'd better keep the call short.

"Look, I'm busy. Are you home?"

I'm at the Napa County Sheriff s Office."

Can I call you?—Wait." He turned his back on the stuntman, lowered his voice. "What the hell are you doing there?"

Having my civil rights violated. It took me forever to get a hold of you, and don't you dare say you'll call me back!"

What's going on?"

"Lenny's missing."

"Who'd miss him?"

We would, dammit!" Her voice dropped. "Michael, it's harvest. The crush is going full tilt. We need him."

"Okay," Spraggue said soothingly, glancing at the stuntman's impatient face. "Okay. So Lenny's flown?"

Gone. For three days. I called the police this morning. And the hospitals. Everyone I could think of. No winemaker would just run off in the middle of the harvest."


"Nothing. Then after lunch, a squad car pulled up in front of the winery. This cop asked me to—to identify someone, if I could. I didn't know—I went with him."


"Some funeral home. I don't know .... Christ, Michael, it was awful."

Lenny? Car accident?"

He heard a long shuddering sigh and then the customary firmness crept back into Kate Holloway's voice. "I don't know who it was. But it couldn't have been a car crash. Even seventy miles an hour into a bridge abutment wouldn't do that to a man."

"Do what?"

"It made me throw up in front of a goddamned deputy sheriff. You know how long it's been since I've gotten sick like that? Maybe when I was five. And then, I made it to the bathroom . . ."

"Take it easy."

It was like he'd fallen off a ten-story building and landed smack on his head. Almost nothing left. And he wanted me to identify that . . . that thing . . . as Lenny."

Kate, go home. Get in the tub. Open a bottle of—"

"Why in hell do you think I'm calling you? For sympathy? They're not about to let me go home and soak in the bubbles. I need you here. With Lenny gone . . . and me in jail . . . and the grapes coming in by the ton—You've got a lot invested in that winery, and if you get here as soon as you can——"

Back up. Why won't they let you go home?"

You must be sleeping, Michael! I call the cops this morning about a missing man, and he turns up dead, practically on my doorstep, and—"

You don't know it's Lenny."

I don't know it's not. Maybe you could look at it. I can't. Not again."

Where did they find the body?"

In that clearing near Mary's Vineyard. With the big rocks and the old rusted-out car we always planned to have towed. In the trunk of the car."



That's still no reason for the police to assume you're involved. Christ, from what you read in the Boston papers, Californians slaughter each other for the hell of it every day. Hillside Strangler, Sunset Strip Murderer. The coast is supposed to be psycho-killer haven, isn't it?"

"Maybe the sheriff doesn't read the Globe. " The phone made a clicking noise. "Look, I've got to hang up. Can you come? Are you working?"

I've got a film. Still Waters. Like the title?"


"Hollywood detective crap."

"So why are you doing it?"

Spraggue rubbed his shoulders, shrugged painfully. "Actors act."

"Even independently wealthy ones?"

"Yeah. Look, I've got some location shots in Boston Sunday. I'm due in L.A. Thursday. I could—"

That's a whole week away, Spraggue."

"Hang on a minute, Holloway." He covered the mouthpiece with his hand, looked up at the clock: four-thirty. "Matt!" he hollered.

The stuntman's lazy footsteps padded across the gym.

"Can you work late tonight?" Spraggue asked.

How late?"

"Late enough to get me ready for the Boston shooting?"

Matt pushed out his thin lips, paused. "That's a lot of punishment" He grinned suddenly. "Still, it's a lot of overtime, too. If you can clear it with the union—"

I'1l take care of it." Spraggue put the receiver back to his ear. "Kate, listen. I'll finish up here tonight. There's a ten A.M. flight from Logan. Five hours minus the timezone change. San Francisco by noon. Napa, a little after one. I'll call the house. If you're not there, I'll go straight to the sheriff's. In Napa?"

Can't miss it. Right in the middle of town."

"Tomorrow, then."

"Great. Good-bye, darling."


"Get a lawyer," Spraggue said quickly.

She'd already hung up. She was always the first to hang up.

Okay," the stuntman said, "this time we do the stairs with the fall at the top, then we'll add the fight and the punch. And then the two other fights. Those we'll have to choreograph. By the numbers. You'll like that."

Spraggue's right eyebrow shot up. "Do they make thicker knee pads?" he asked.


Spraggue didn't expect any welcoming committee at the San Francisco International Airport. He'd already deplaned from a blissfully boring coast-to-coast 747, strolled down miles of featureless corridor, and was tapping his foot in the Hertz line when he glimpsed Philip Leider, gesturing wildly from a hundred yards down the hallway. No one else answered the fat man's frantic semaphores, so Spraggue waved in return.

"Thought I'd missed you," Leider gasped, his bulk heaving with the exertion of moving two hundred and fifty pounds of middle-aged man.

How are you, Phil?" Spraggue shook hands and gave Leider a chance to catch his breath.

The fat man beamed. "Just fine."

"What are you doing here?"
I spoke to Kate this morning on the phone from the county jail. Asked if there was any way I could help. It's all over the valley by now, you can imagine. She told me you were on the way, so I volunteered to fetch and carry."

"I could've rented a car." Spraggue dismissed with little regret thoughts of the portable tape recorder he'd brought along, the lines he'd vowed to memorize on the drive to the valley. "You must be up to your eyeballs in grapes at your place—"

Waste of money, renting cars. Kate's got transport you can use. Luggage?"

Spraggue hefted a carry-on duffel. "Just what you see."

Good. I'm double-parked. Impossible to find a space."

Spraggue followed Leider's bobbing head out into the pale sunshine. He doubted that Leider had made any attempt to park legally. For such an important winery owner, they ought to reserve a private space. With a doorman.

"To tell you the truth," Leider said, patting the trunk of a deep-red BMW 633 CSi before unlocking it, "I wanted to run down in my new toy. Like it?"

Spraggue nodded appreciatively and Leider opened the passenger door with a flourish. "The
small winery owners of Napa have to stick together," he said.

Spraggue prepared for a gut-wrenching journey. It was obvious even before they got to Highway 101 that the fat man was an incompetent driver. He attacked the gearshift with exasperating clumsiness. Spraggue felt sorry for the car.

"Shocking." Leider mumbled the word under his breath.

Traffic?" Spraggue hazarded. All rotten drivers like someone else to blame.

"Arresting Kate Holloway like that. Like some cheap thug."

"She probably talked back to somebody."

"She would." Leider grimaced. Spraggue wished the man would keep his eyes on the road. "But it is ridiculous. The killer'll turn out to be some nut. They're everyplace, especially around here. Those sixties' kids who flocked to the sunshine to find the answers and can't even remember the questions. You see them everywhere: vacant faces hitching rides to nowhere. Scary-looking sad-faced zombies. I don't pick up hitchers any more. And hitch-hikers, they're taking a gamble every time they get in a car with a stranger"

With all those loonies to choose from, why do you suppose the cops picked on Kate?"

"Sheer laziness. She was there on the spot. What could be neater? Our sheriff's an elected official, you know. The Honorable B. Ridley Hughes."

You sound less than enthusiastic."

"B for bonehead. But don't worry. He won't come out unless there's a chance for a lot of favorable publicity. You'll deal with some deputy or other."

"Comforting," Spraggue said, clinging to the padded arm rest.

All this violence," Leider muttered, his stubby fingers drumming the steering wheel. "Crime on the streets, in the movies, on TV—"

A Toyota gave a yelping honk as Leider cut it off with a quick unsignaled lane change.

On the roads," Spraggue said quietly.

The corner of Leider's mouth twitched. "But it's not the violence on TV I'm most concerned about. Oh no. It's the damned wine ads. Orson Welles hypnotizing people with that gorgeous voice. 'Wine-tasting' schools. Chic little parties with sophisticated guests all drinking swill!"

Spraggue laughed. .

It's serious! They work. Big business is raking it in. Coca-Cola, by God! General Foods! The industry's getting away from us. Small owners are in hot water. Every day you hear about another corporate takeover. Advertising's ruining everything."

The jug-wine market's booming, agreed. But there's still demand for premium varietals—" '

Your average yokel can't tell Mouton from grape juice. He listens to those shills who tell him McDonald's hamburgers are better than the food he cooks in his own home."

BOOK: Bitter Finish
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