Authors: Ellen Crosby
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #General
“Just what I needed.” She leaned her head back against her chair and closed her eyes. “This is the life.”
Quinn hoisted his beer. “To the life.”
I raised my glass and we drank. His eyes met mine over his bottle before he turned to Savannah. “How’d it go today? Any luck?”
“It went all right.” She cocked an eyebrow and for a second she reminded me of Peter Pan with her gamine boyishness and perky attitude. “I’m done.”
“You finished everything?” I asked. “That was fast.”
“You’re not coming back?” Quinn asked.
She smiled, showing the dimples. “Not for work, at least.”
I saw Quinn’s self-conscious grin and set my glass down, sloshing wine on the table.
“You found what you were looking for, then?” I swiped the puddle with the side of my fist.
“I hope so,” she said. “I’ll know more after I get back to the lab and check things out.”
“Any idea how long that will take?”
Savannah straightened up. “Look, I’m sorry I can’t talk about this, but if I get called into court to testify, you think I’d like to risk being the one who leaked evidence and caused the case to be thrown out on a technicality? The judge would have my butt in a sling unless the sheriff got it first.”
I met Quinn’s eyes briefly with an I-told-you-so look.
“You must have been looking for something small,” he said. “That small bone in the throat, maybe? The hyoid. You could tell if he was strangled if it was broken.”
Savannah studied us like a teacher trying to figure out if we’d cheated by copying each other’s exam papers. “Sure, just like on television. Look, guys, it’s not that simple. Say I did find a broken hyoid. First of all there’s a difference between a postmortem and an antemortem fracture. The crystalline structure in bone after death is different from injury to so-called living bone. Bone with no collagen
in it will shatter like glass. Just because you find broken or fractured bones doesn’t mean it has anything to do with the cause of death.”
Quinn poured more wine into my glass and pointed a finger at Savannah’s nearly empty bottle of beer. “Refill?”
“Sure. Why not?”
He left to get the beers.
“He’s nice,” she said to me.
“How’d you get interested in making wine?”
I suppose I couldn’t blame her for wanting to change the subject, which she’d just done with sledge-hammer subtlety. “Family business. How’d you get interested in skeletons?”
“I majored in archaeology as an undergrad,” she said as Quinn returned with the beers, this time already opened. He handed her one of them and she nodded thanks. “My specialty was Egyptology.”
“Mummies and pyramids?” Quinn asked.
“Mummies and pyramids are only part of it. The ancient Egyptians had an amazing funerary culture in their society,” she said. “When you think of all the artifacts unearthed in roomlike tombs and the fabulous royal cemeteries, you realize how important death and preparing someone for the afterlife were to them.”
“That’s why it’s true what they say about cemeteries. People are just dying to get in,” Quinn said.
Savannah gave him a look that would wilt concrete. “Gee, did you make that up? I never heard it before.”
“Ignore him,” I said. “That’s what I do.”
Quinn smirked at both of us and drank his beer. “It’s a long way from the Egyptians to the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Department.”
“Not as long as you’d think,” Savannah said. “The Egyptians buried their dead in the desert where the preservation of bodies is exceptional. Finally it became sort of obvious that what I really enjoyed was looking at skeletons. Particularly trying to figure out how someone died. So I got a forensics degree in graduate school and then my doctorate.”
“Guess you were dying to do it,” he said.
“Will you shut up?” both of us said in unison.
He grinned some more and leered at us over his beer.
“So now you work full-time for the medical examiner?” I asked.
She shook her head. “They can’t afford me full-time. I only get called in on the cases where there’s been so much decomp the medical examiner can’t do a proper autopsy.”
“What else do you do,” Quinn asked, “when you’re not working for the county?”
“Teach forensics in northern Virginia and D.C. Every so often I get to go back to Egypt to do research.”
“That must be pretty cool.” He eyed her.
“It is. The pyramids are incredible. If you’ve never been, you ought to visit them sometime.”
Her unspoken invitation lingered in the air as a large bird flew out of the woods and sailed above us.
“A red-tailed hawk,” Quinn said, filling the awkward moment of silence. “Look.”
We watched as it turned west toward the mountains, a graceful silhouette against the peach-colored early evening sky. What remained of the sunlight bronzed the treetops as though they’d been burnished and the light breeze felt like a warm caress. Pockets of sunshine filtered through the branches like spotlights, shimmering on the leaves like moving water.
“I ought to be going,” I said. “You two stay and drink your beers.”
“You haven’t finished your wine,” Quinn said. “What’s your rush?”
Savannah swung a leg over the arm of her chair and rocked it back and forth. The red high-tops were dirtier than they’d been this morning.
“Quinn says you’re reenacting the Battle of Ball’s Bluff here pretty soon.”
“The weekend after next,” I said.
“I’d like to see it,” she said. “I know the cemetery quite well.”
“I’ve heard it’s haunted,” I said. “That spirits of soldiers who were never properly buried come back to roam the battleground.”
Quinn snorted. “That is such a load of crap.”
“I’ve heard those stories. And I know people swear by them.
They also claim they see Mosby’s ghost.” Savannah drank her beer. “Sorry, you two. When the spark of human life is gone, it’s gone. A skeleton is nothing more than what’s left after the really important stuff isn’t there anymore.”
“It’s still part of who that person was,” I said. “Isn’t it?”
Savannah looked taken aback. “Of course. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t mean to imply that it’s nothing but a pile of bones. I always show respect for the remains I examine. In fact, when I’m at the museum in Cairo I give my skeletons names.”
“That’s kind of weird,” Quinn said.
“Not really. The Egyptians believed the way to keep a person alive in the afterlife was by speaking his or her name, saying it out loud. That’s why the enemies of the pharaohs tried to destroy their monuments, carving out or slashing the names. By doing that you erased the person in the afterlife.”
“So you believe you’re keeping someone alive, even though he’s dead, because you say his name?” I asked.
“It’s more like paying homage to the Egyptian belief that a person’s name is an integral part of who he is.”
“And you never sense that person is present—that he’s there, somehow—when you’re talking to him, saying his name?”
“Sorry, no.” She shook her head. “Although I know plenty of people who do believe in that kind of stuff. I even know people who claim to be the reincarnation of Tutankhamen. Or one of the other pharaohs.”
“You must have some interesting friends,” Quinn said.
Savannah smiled. “I attend a lot of seminars, especially ones that relate to ancient cultures. They show up there.”
“Claiming to be Tutankhamen?” he asked.
“In the flesh. We, uh, call them ‘pyramidiots.’ I know that’s not very nice, but some of these people…” She twirled her finger by her temple. “It can get pretty strange.”
Quinn motioned to Savannah’s empty beer bottle and my wineglass. “Another refill, anyone?”
“No, thanks,” Savannah said. “Two’s my limit. Besides, I ought to be going. Thanks for the beers and the hospitality. You’ve been very kind.”
“Why don’t I walk you to your car?” Quinn said.
“I’d like that.” She stood and turned to me. “Thanks again, Lucie.”
“It was nothing.” I started to put the empty bottles and my glass on the tray.
“Leave that. I’ll take care of it,” Quinn said to me. “See you in the morning, okay?”
“Sure. Good night.”
I reached for my cane and left without looking back. Quinn was already talking to Savannah about showing her the barrel room, persuading her not to leave just yet.
When I got home, I went directly outside to the veranda and watched the Blue Ridge disappear into the velvet blackness of the night sky. After a while I went inside and got another bottle of Riesling. Then I lit all the torches in the border garden and all the candles scattered on the tables until it felt like I was sitting in a gilded bath of fire. For a long time, I rocked back and forth in the glider, listening to the night sounds of the cicadas and frogs and the occasional owl, as I slowly drank glass after glass of wine.
Someone once said that if you wish to keep your affairs secret, you should drink no wine. But if there was no one around—and certainly no affair—then it didn’t matter, did it?
Quinn woke me the next morning when the sun was already bright and hot in the sky. I was still in the glider wearing yesterday’s clothes. My empty Riesling bottle lay on the floor and my wineglass sat on the glass coffee table among multiple sticky rings of sloshed wine.
“Now I know why you didn’t show up for work.” He picked up the bottle. “Been drinking up all our profits single-handedly, have we?”
I held my head between my hands. “Please don’t. I feel dreadful.”
“I’ll make some coffee and get the aspirin. Don’t move.”
“Don’t worry.” I lay back down and closed my eyes.
He was back a short while later with two mugs and an aspirin bottle sticking out of the pocket of his jeans. “Here. Drink this.”
He sat down next to me. As usual, he’d brewed coffee strong enough to strip paint.
“Something you want to talk about?” he asked. “I knew you were upset last night when you left. I was going to call you, but things went kind of late with Savannah.”
“It’s okay.” I felt numb, except for a headache the size of Pittsburgh. Did “kind of late” mean breakfast?
“I’ve got some good news. You’ll like this.” He blew on his coffee. “Savannah’s teaching schedule is sort of erratic so she gets days off here and there. She agreed to help us out during harvest when she’s free.”
“She’s going to work for us?”
“Yup. She’s a real quick study. I took her over to the barrel room and showed her around after you left. Gave her a little education about winemaking. She’s excited about doing this.”
I drank more coffee.
“That’s all you’ve got to say? ‘That’s nice’? We could use the help, you know. People like her don’t fall off trees.”
He’d set the aspirin bottle on the coffee table. I shook out two tablets and swallowed them with a big gulp of coffee. He was right. We could use Savannah’s help. I needed to pull myself together and get over any issues I had with how he felt about her. And jealousy. I needed to get over that, too.
“I’m sorry. I guess everything that’s happened the past few days finally caught up with me last night. You’re right. We could use her.” I set down my mug. “Why don’t I shower and change and meet you at the winery?”
“Sure. Come on over when you’re up to it.” He patted my knee like I was a child. “There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
“What?” My heart began thudding against my rib cage.
“It can wait.”
“Maybe you’d better tell me now.”
“If you say so.” He cocked his head. “It’s about the Riesling.”
“Yeah. I don’t want to pick it all at harvest. I’m thinking about leaving about a third of the crop on the vines until the first frost so we can make ice wine.”
Ice wine is a highly concentrated sweet dessert wine made from frozen grapes. No one in Virginia made it because it was such a risky and expensive venture. If the grapes stayed frozen, we could pick them at any time. But a hard frost at night, then warmer temperatures the next day meant the fruit would thaw and start to rot and we’d end up with nothing.
I massaged my forehead with my fingers. “It’s an interesting idea except there’s not a big market for dessert wines. Certainly nowhere near the demand for our Riesling. You know that. Plus we’re one of the very few vineyards in Virginia that make it. I think we’d be better off picking everything now. Look at what we lost already with the tornado damage.”
“Why don’t we have this conversation when you’re not hungover?”
“I am not hungover.”
He patted my knee again and stood up. “Sure you’re not. Go take your shower and wake up, okay?”
I heard tires on gravel as a car pulled into the driveway and stopped in front of the house.
“Expecting someone?” he asked.
“Nope.” Another car followed the first one.