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Authors: Jessica Fletcher

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BOOK: Blood on the Vine
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“I don’t really need tea,” I told Bruce.
“I’ll make it for you,” the housekeeper said, heading for a huge six-burner stainless-steel stove.
“We’ll be in Dad’s study,” Bruce said.
“Are you sure we should be there?” I asked as we went down a hallway. “He was found there, wasn’t he?”
“Oh, no, Mrs. Fletcher. He was found in the moat.”
George and I looked at each other.
“You said there was an empty bottle of pills on his desk,” George said as Bruce opened the door to the study.
“There was, but he was found in the moat. That’s strange, isn’t it?”
“Not necessarily,” George answered.
“A bigger concern is whether the police will want to come back and do a crime scene investigation in this room,” I said.
“They won’t,” said Bruce, closing the door behind us. “To them it’s a suicide. Remember?”
Bill Ladington’s study was decorated and furnished as I would have expected it to be, a reflection of a dominating character. But unlike his office, this room was more personal, a quiet refuge where he could retire and indulge in more reflective thought, read a book, think about things other than the day-to-day running of the winery. One wall was dominated by huge blowups of posters for the movies he’d produced, with dozens of photographs of him with recognizable movie stars interspersed between them. The walls were southwestern tan stucco, the carpet purple, thick and plush, the color of royalty. The cherry wood desk was easily twelve feet long, the large swivel chair behind it in tan leather. The wall displayed stuffed animal heads—elk, tiger, leopard, and a few deer. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases, an elaborate bar, and a tan leather couch and armchairs completed the room.
George went to the bookcases and perused what they held while I sat in one of the armchairs. The desk was immaculately clear of papers and other signs that a busy person had been using it. The only items on it were a fancy telephone with a dozen buttons, and a single black leather portfolio.
“This is where the empty bottle of pills was found?” I asked Bruce.
“Was it a prescription drug?”
“No. It didn’t have any label on it. One of those amber-colored bottles.”
“So there was no way for the police to know what had been in it?” I said.
“I guess not. They took it.”
“The police lab will determine what was in that bottle—if anything,” I said.
George took a chair next to me. “Your father had quite a collection of technical books on wine making,” he said to Bruce.
“Dad was serious about making wine,” his son replied. “Lots of people didn’t think he was serious, that Ladington Creek Vineyard was just a hobby of his. But he was determined to create the world’s finest cabernet sauvignon.”
“So he told me,” I said.
“The moat,” George said absently.
“I’ve been thinking about the moat where Mr. Ladington was found,” George said. “It seems unlikely he would take an overdose of some sort of pills for the purpose of killing himself, then get up from behind his desk, leave this room, and go to the moat to die.”
“Exactly!” Bruce exclaimed, coming to his feet for emphasis.
As he did, Mercedes arrived with our tea. She placed the tray on the desk without a word and left. I served.
“Who was here last night when he died?” George asked.
Bruce screwed up his face in an exaggerated attempt to remember. “Let’s see,” he said, rubbing his round chin, “there was Tennessee, Roger, Raoul, my wife Laura, Wade Grosso, Mercedes, Consuela and Fidel, some of the vineyard workers who met with Dad, the security staff, and ... oh, right, Madame Saison.”
“The French vintner,” I said. “Your father told me she was coming. They were involved in some sort of joint venture, I believe.”
“Yeah, something like that,” Bruce said, not attempting to disguise his displeasure.
“And security staff?”
“Three of them. They live in their own quarters at the back end of the main vineyard.”
“Which would be on the other side of the moat,” George said.
“Right, although one of them was here at the house last night. They take turns at the night shift.”
“The suicide note,” I said. “I assume the police took that.”
“Yes, they did,” Bruce replied.
“What did it say?” George asked.
“I didn’t see it,” Bruce said, picking up his cup and saucer but quickly replacing it on the tray because his hand shook visibly. “They just took it.”
“Then how do you know it was a suicide note?” I asked.
“Because that’s what they told me. Dad had a small, battery-powered Canon typewriter in here. They took that, too.” He laughed. “Dad had no use for computers. Even using an electric typewriter was a big deal for him.”
“They’ll test it to see whether the note was written on it,” George said.
Our conversation was interrupted by a knock at the door. It opened and Mercedes announced, “Sheriff Davis is here.” She stepped aside to allow him to enter. He was a big man, almost as imposing as Bill Ladington. He wore jeans, a pale green V-neck sweater over a white button-down shirt, and white sneakers. Obviously, law enforcement in Napa Valley was a casual undertaking.
“Sorry to barge in on you like this,” he told Bruce, “but I was passing and thought I’d stop by.”
“Is the drawbridge down?” Bruce asked.
Davis laughed. “It wasn’t, but I rang the bell and announced who I was on the intercom.” He looked directly at me and George.
“This is Jessica Fletcher,” Bruce said. “And her friend, George Sutherland. He’s a Scotland Yard detective.”
“That so?” Davis said, crossing the room and extending his hand to George. “Pretty much out of your jurisdiction, I’d say.”
“Just a tourist,” George said, smiling and shaking his hand.
Davis also extended his hand to me, which I took.
“Jessica Fletcher,” he said. “Sounds familiar.”
“Mrs. Fletcher is a famous mystery writer,” Bruce said.
“Yes, that’s probably where I heard it. I’m not much of a reader so no offense if I haven’t read any of your books.”
“Of course not,” I said.
“Your name came up this morning,” the sheriff said.
“Oh? Why?”
“A writer from San Francisco was in my office. He said he was a good friend of yours.”
“Neil Schwartz?”
“Yeah, that’s him. You are his friend?”
“He’s a pesty guy.”
I laughed. “Sometimes to get a story you have to be a bit of a pest.”
Davis turned to Bruce. “Appreciate a word with you, alone,” he said pleasantly.
Bruce looked nervously at George and me as he followed Davis from the room and closed the door behind them.
“Maybe the police have more interest in Mr. Ladington’s death than his son thinks,” George said.
“I wonder what he wants,” I said, going to the bar and examining the dozens of bottles displayed on the back bar. “I doubt very much if he was just passing by and dropped in for a social visit.”
George laughed and joined me at the bar. We didn’t turn immediately at the sound of the door opening because we assumed it was Bruce. But when we did turn, we were face-to-face with a woman.
“Mrs. Fletcher?” she asked in a heavy French accent.
“Yes,” I said. “You must be Edith Saison.”
She smiled, came to us, and shook our hands. She was of medium height. A pin spot in the ceiling shone down on ink-black hair cut short, causing it to glisten. Her features were sharp and well defined, cheekbones high, chin and nose prominent. Her large, oval eyes were as black as her hair. She wore a black pants suit subtly trimmed in gold and cut to accent her good figure. I judged her to be in her late forties, although she could have been in her early fifties. Hard to tell.
“It must have been a blow having Mr. Ladington meet such a sudden, unexpected end,” I said.
“Yes, it was,” she said. “I still can not believe it.”
“You arrived last evening,” I said.
“Had you spent much time here at the vineyard, and in Napa Valley?”
“Oh, no. This is my first trip. Bill and I did all our negotiations in France or Curaçao. We both have homes there. Bill told me you were going to help him write his autobiography.”
“That isn’t exactly true,” I said. “We did discuss it, but I told him it was out of the question.”
“But he did talk to you.”
“About making wine.”
“About me and our plans?”
“Just in passing. He said you were bringing varietals to graft to his vines.”
“That’s right,” she said. “It’s such an exciting project. The combination of the varietals we’ve developed in France, and the excellent growing conditions here, promise to create a truly superior cabernet.”
I was about to ask whether Ladington’s death changed those plans, but she walked from the room. Bruce and Sheriff Davis returned. Bruce looked as though he’d been given bad news by the large, affable sheriff, but the lawman’s expression was unreadable.
“I understand you’ll be staying here for a week or so, Mrs. Fletcher,” Davis said.
“That’s right, Sheriff.”
“A shame Bill Ladington won’t be around to play host,” Davis said. “Well, I’ll be going now.”
“Are you still considering Mr. Ladington’s death a suicide?” George asked the sheriff.
“I’m not at liberty to discuss an ongoing investigation.”
“Investigation?” I said. “Bruce told me it was definitely ruled a suicide.”
“Well, now, Mrs. Fletcher, even though everything points to Bill Ladington’s taking his own life, until we’ve got the autopsy results, it’s still considered under investigation. But that shouldn’t concern you or Detective Sutherland. You wouldn’t be here to conduct your own investigation, would you?”
Bruce answered for us. “No, Sheriff, they’re just houseguests. When I learned Dad had invited Mrs. Fletcher, I thought it was only right to honor what he wanted.”
Davis’s expression said he didn’t necessarily believe it, but he didn’t press. He bade us a good night and Bruce escorted him from the study, leaving George and me alone.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“About what?”
“About staying. We don’t have to.”
“You’ve already given up our rooms at your friends’ inn.”
“I’m sure we can find something else.”
He went behind the desk, placed his hands on it, and leaned forward, a chairman of a board about to break news to stockholders. “I rather think I’d like to stay, Jessica,” he said, grinning broadly. “Interesting group of characters, perplexing situation, many questions but few answers, and so much to learn about turning grapes into fine wine.”
I smiled and shook my head. “So much for our pledge last night at dinner to avoid murder at all costs.”
George laughed. “Simply a matter of life intruding on otherwise well-laid plans. We should get our luggage from the car.”
Raoul, Ladington’s driver, was in front when we exited the castle and he helped us inside with our bags. Tennessee Ladington awaited us in the foyer, arms folded across her chest.
“Your room is—” she said.
“Rooms,” I corrected. “We’ll need two separate rooms, if that isn’t too much trouble.”
We were shown to a wing in which four empty guest rooms were located. Mine was on the west side, affording a view over the main vineyard where Bill Ladington and I had our conversation the previous afternoon. George’s accommodations were on the east side, separated from me by a short hallway.
“Dinner is at eight,” Tennessee said. “Informal. Cocktails at seven in the drawing room.”
We watched her walk away. When she was out of earshot, I said to George, “This is absolutely bizarre. Cocktails? Dinner at eight? It’s as if no one has died, no talk of funeral plans, no grieving, except for Bruce.”
“Undoubtedly they’re in shock,” George said. “You can never judge people by their reactions to a sudden death. Some fall apart, others forge ahead.”
“Maybe it’s denial,” I said.
“Or they’re all glad to see him gone.”
“What a sad thought,” I said. “I wonder—”
“I wonder whether the murder of the young waiter at the restaurant Ladington owned is in any way linked with his death.”
“One of many things to find out while we’re here,” he said. “See you downstairs for cocktails?”
“Yes. George, are you sure we should stay? I mean, instead of a leisurely week visiting vineyards, we’re smack-dab in the middle of a possible murder.”
“Not an unusual situation for either of us, Jessica.”
“I just don’t want to spoil our week.”
“To the contrary. No better way to forge a close relationship than to investigate a murder together.” He kissed my cheek, stepped into his room, and closed the door. I went back to my room, unpacked, and took a shower. When I was dressed for dinner, I paused at the window overlooking the vineyard. Edith Saison stood alone on the terrace peering out over the vineyard. Bill Ladington had said she’d developed the varietal with her “beau” in France. Would he be arriving? I wondered.
I answered a knock on my door. It was George, dressed in a handsome blue suit, white shirt, and burgundy tie. “Ready?” he asked.
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
“You’re bonny, as usual.”
“Thank you,” I said in response to his calling me beautiful. “What’s the Scottish word for handsome?”
“Braw. Weill-faured.”
“Well, you’re both of those things.”
He held out his arm, which I took, and we descended the wide staircase together. I glanced over and saw the trace of a smile on his lips, which made me smile too. He was enjoying this in a pixieish way, a side of him I’d seen before and found appealing, among so many other sides.
BOOK: Blood on the Vine
2.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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