Authors: Ellen Crosby
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #General
Those dead eyes seemed to bore through me, and the mouth, or what remained of it, looked like it might have been formed as a scream. Or did I imagine it? I stumbled back from the trench as though whoever it was might rise out of the ground like a Halloween apparition and say “boo!”
What was a human skull doing out here, in the middle of nowhere? Everyone in my family—at least as far as I knew—was buried in our cemetery. Who was this?
We had seen our share of Civil War conflicts since this region had been the territory of the Gray Ghost—the nickname for Colonel John Singleton Mosby, legendary commander of the Confederacy’s most famous guerrilla brigade. Known for daring expeditions and midnight raids on Union supplies and horses, Mosby and his Rangers tormented the enemy with their ability to escape into the countryside and elude capture, hiding behind the miles of stacked stone walls that checkerboarded fields and lined roadsides, or taking shelter in barns and outbuildings offered by the locals. One of those buildings was a tenant house on our land, which Union soldiers burned during their search for Mosby. Maybe these remains belonged to a Union soldier who’d been part of that expedition? A Confederate in these parts would have been given a proper burial.
But the grave was shallow, an unmarked site in a deserted field. No casket, not even a shroud. Besides, the skull hadn’t decomposed
enough to have been here for more than a century and a half. Whoever this was had been left in an obscure spot on purpose. A grave like this said nobody had given up a prayer as they shoveled dirt over the body.
The sound of an engine broke the silence and I stood up to see who it was. Chancellor Miller, driving the Mule, another ATV, like he stole it, raced across the field toward the Gator. I raised my arms above my head and waved. He waved back as he caught sight of me, changing course in my direction. Bruja, his black Labrador retriever, barked from the passenger seat like a parent scolding a child who got lost at the shopping mall. Chance pulled up and cut the ignition, vaulting out of the Mule. The dog followed.
“You all right, Lucie?” He pulled me to him in an unexpected, fierce bear hug. “You’re soaking wet. Shivering, too. Let’s get you out of here.”
He rubbed my arms briskly, trying to warm me up. Chance’s eyes were the same dusky blue as the Blue Ridge, his hair the color of sunshine, and he had a scar underneath his left eye that he said he got when he went after a stranger who was beating a stray dog with a broken whiskey bottle.
In the few months since he’d started working for us, our relationship had never been anything other than strictly professional, though I’d occasionally felt a glimmer of something from him and wondered if he wanted there to be more.
“I’m okay. Nothing broken. I’m fine.” I eased out of his arms, aware of his touch and the surprising odor of alcohol on his breath this early in the day. “What about the others? Was anyone hurt?”
He dialed right down through the false bravado. “You don’t look too okay to me. Why don’t you let me take you to the emergency room? You ought to get checked out. No offense, but you look pretty banged up.”
“As bad as that?” I tried to smile, but my voice wavered. “It’s dirt, not bruises. And thanks, but I don’t need to go to any hospital.”
“Come on, just to check—”
“No. No hospital, thanks.” I shook my head. “What about everyone else? You haven’t said—”
He brushed my arm with his fingers. “All accounted for. No one
hurt. Power’s out, so the villa’s dark, but the generator’s working in the barrel room. Everyone in the crew sat on the courtyard wall and watched it. One of the guys had a bottle of Scotch so everyone took turns. Jesus, God. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
“So the buildings are okay, then? Do you know anything about my house, or—?”
“The winery’s fine. I haven’t seen your house but I’m sure it’s okay, too. The tornado wasn’t moving in that direction.” He spoke as if he were soothing a child. “What happened to you? We were afraid you were…I mean, we didn’t see how anyone could survive out here when that twister came through. Where’d you go? What did you do?”
“I managed to get to the bridge and hide underneath. The tornado went down the middle of the field and missed me. I was lucky.”
I nodded toward the creek as Bruja shoved her wet nose under my hand, seeking attention. She wagged her tail as I bent and scratched her muzzle, grateful for the distraction. I didn’t want Chance to read anything more in my eyes or he’d know I’d expected to die out here, too.
“Damn right you were lucky. What were you doing here anyway?”
I straightened up. “I stopped by the cemetery, then decided to check out the reenactment site one more time. Probably would have made it back to the vineyard before the tornado came through if the Gator hadn’t died on me.”
We were back to being boss and employee. He knew what I meant. The equipment and crew were his responsibility. Just this morning Quinn complained that we seemed to be jinxed because every time he turned around something else had broken down or gone missing. His way of reminding me that he hadn’t been in favor of hiring Chance, even though we’d been desperate for a new manager after Chance’s predecessor took a job at a Charlottesville vineyard to be near his fiancée.
It still irked Quinn that Chance’s easy smile and obvious charm had seduced me into ignoring the thinness of the experience on his résumé. But even Quinn had to admit that when Chance helped out
in the tasting room on weekends—not in his job description—he could have sold bottled dishwater and people would have bought cases of it.
The Gator breaking down was another matter. The dusky blue eyes grew cloudy and his pupils became black pinpricks. Quinn would have given him hell for something like this.
He folded his arms across his chest. “I don’t know how that could have happened, but I’ll get it towed and have a look at it right away. Thank God you’re all right. I’m really sorry about this.”
I didn’t want to say it was okay, because it wasn’t. “Be sure and let me know what you find.”
He nodded, eyes still narrowed at the chill in my voice, but he accepted the rebuke without further protest. “Of course. As soon as I drive you home I’ll get on it. I—hey, girl! What have you got there?”
I whirled around. While we’d been talking, Bruja had wandered away. Now she was gnawing on what looked like a large stick less than five feet from where I’d found the skull.
Another bone. This one was about eighteen inches long.
“Oh, God, Bruja, no! Chance, I think that’s a human bone. When the tornado plowed through the field it unearthed a grave. The skull’s over there.” I pointed at the site. “What Bruja’s got could be…more of it.”
He looked from me to the dog, happily chewing on her find. “Bruja! Drop it!”
Bruja looked up with implicit trust in her liquid brown eyes and opened her mouth. The bone fell to the ground and Chance ran to her. The dog’s tail thumped happily against the ground.
“Good girl, good girl.” Chance knelt and examined the bone.
It had absorbed the color of the soil, and both ends had been chewed long before Bruja got to it. I wondered how scattered the rest of the remains were.
I joined him, scratching the dog behind her ears. “Do you think it’s human? It’s big enough to be part of an arm or a leg. Unless it’s from a deer.”
“I don’t know. If it was found this close to your skull, my guess is it’s human.”
He went over and examined the skull. The sun had warmed up the afternoon, melting the hail. Somewhere in the woods a woodpecker rat-a-tat-tatted against a tree.
“Any idea who it is?” he asked.
“None. At first I wondered if it was a Civil War soldier, but now I think the grave’s too new.”
He nodded. “It’s definitely not Civil War. There hasn’t been enough decomposition.”
“You sound like you know what you’re talking about.”
“A few years ago I worked at a retirement home.” He shrugged. “People died. I used to help out when the funeral directors came around. They told me all kinds of stuff about dead bodies and preserving them. How long it takes bone to decay, tissue decomposition, stuff like that. Looks like there might still be some hair attached to this skull, but it’s hard to tell unless we dig some more. I could find a stick and just—”
“Oh, God, please don’t! We really shouldn’t touch anything. In fact, I need to call the sheriff and report it.”
Chance had service on his phone, but when I got through to 911 the woman who took my call sounded harassed and overwhelmed.
“A skeleton?” she said. “I’ll send someone over to check it out, but look, hon, we just had a tornado come through here and my deputies are backed up from hell to breakfast dealing with it. We’ll get to you, but probably not for a while. If the guy’s not bleeding and he’s been buried for a decade or two, another few hours won’t kill him, if you know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean,” I said, and hung up.
“What did they say?” Chance asked as I handed back his phone.
“The dispatcher said it’ll take some time before they send someone on account of the tornado.”
“In that case, let’s get you back to your house so you can clean up and change.”
He traced his finger from just under my left eye along my cheekbone and showed me the smudge of dirt. My face grew hot at his touch.
“Ready?” he asked.
I pointed in the direction of the south vines, hoping he hadn’t
noticed that I was blushing. “Not before I see the tornado damage to the vines. If the power’s out at the villa, then it’s out at my house, too. Which means I don’t have any water since the well pump won’t be working. I’m in no rush to get home.”
He shrugged. “Okay. Let’s go.”
He drove me by the broken-down Gator so I could retrieve my phone, which still showed no service.
“Where’s Quinn?” I asked. “Has anybody heard from him lately?”
“He called the barrel room just before I left to find you, wondering where you were. Said he was on his way back from that winemakers’ meeting. They didn’t even know there was a tornado over in Delaplane.”
“I’d better call him,” I said, “and let him know what happened.”
I borrowed Chance’s phone again and dialed in for my messages. Four, all from Quinn, exhorting me to call him right away and keeping me posted on his current whereabouts as he drove back to Atoka. By the third message he was shouting. The fourth was a long moment of silence followed by a groan and a curse before he hung up.
I dialed his number. He answered in the middle of the first ring, sounding mad. “Where the hell is she?”
He thought I was Chance. “Right here.”
“Lucie? Where have you been? How come you’re calling on Chance’s phone? How come it took you so long to call back?”
“Because we had a little situation with weather here, that’s why. I got kind of tied up.”
“I know, I know. The tornado. I was worried sick about you when I found out about it. Tyler told me you were gone and no one knew where you were. I think he’s been drinking.”
Tyler Jordan was one of our cellar rats and the son of a couple who owned a nearby bed-and-breakfast. We’d hired him to help out with the chores around the winery as a favor to his parents while he tried to figure out where someone who’d double-majored in classical studies and kinesiology in college might get a real job.
“Apparently the crew passed around a bottle of Scotch when the tornado came through. It was unbelievable, Quinn. Like a preview
for the end of the world.” I glanced over at Chance. “I’m going over to look at the new fields with Chance. Looks like it probably passed through there.”
“The new fields?” His dismay was tinged with an extra measure of regret, more so, I thought, than if we’d lost some of our oldest—and most valuable—vines.
I knew why.
The vines in those fields were his, planted shortly after he signed on as our winemaker, the foundation of an ambitious expansion and gamble we hoped would catapult us from small boutique winery onto a national stage. Though Quinn would never admit it, those vines also represented his opportunity to emerge from the oversized shadow of Jacques Gilbert, his predecessor. Schooled in France in Old World ways of winemaking and production, Jacques’ stamp was still evident in our wines, our production, and in the field. Even now, we were still selling some of his wines.
The fact that I revered Jacques and my mother with near-to-saintly devotion had been at the root of most of the passionate debates between Quinn and me.
The loss of the new vines, though they were still a year away from their first harvest, meant it would take even longer before Quinn finally put his imprimatur on Montgomery Estate Vineyard.
“How bad is it?” he asked me now.
“I’ll call you as soon as I know.”
“Hang on, will you? I’m almost there.”
“Where are you?”
“Marshall. Almost to Maidstone Lane.”
“Marshall? Maidstone Lane? It’ll take you at least twenty, twenty-five minutes to get here.”
“No way. See you in ten.”
“Serve you right if you get a speeding ticket,” I said. “Nothing’s going to change if you get here faster.”
He groaned again and disconnected.