Authors: Ellen Crosby
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #General
Mathis tucked his gloves in his pocket. “As long as it takes. Two, three days. Maybe longer. Depends what we find.”
“After all this time what could you possibly find?” I asked. “Surely it’s been too long?”
“You’d be surprised,” Mathis said. “Locard’s principle doesn’t usually let me down.”
I took the bait. “What’s that?”
“A killer always leaves something at the scene of a crime or else takes something away with him.”
He nodded. “Always. That’s why it’s Locard’s
Make no mistake, Ms. Montgomery. There’s no statute of limitations on murder, if this turns out to be a homicide. So if there’s anything else you want to tell us, now would be a good time.”
“Do I need a lawyer?” I asked.
When had the dynamics shifted, transforming me from a helpful public citizen to someone trying to spin what Mathis seemed to imply was an improbable tale: that I really had no idea how a dead body ended up on my farm?
Now that the storm had passed, the woods were again filled with the pleasantly discordant symphony of birdsong and the cicadas’ gentle whirring. A breeze like a warm caress rustled the leaves, carrying the unmistakable baked-earth smells of summer. The tornado seemed like it had happened a lifetime ago.
Mathis and Fontana stood there and watched me.
“You tell us,” Fontana said finally. “Do you need a lawyer?”
“I…no. I don’t.”
Mathis shot Fontana a look that seemed to tell him to back off.
“You’re not being charged with anything,” he said, warming up that rich voice a little. “But if you know something and we find out about it later, you could find yourself in real hot water. Understand?”
“There’s nothing you’re going to find out because I don’t know anything.”
Fontana’s cell phone chirped.
“It’s Noland,” he said. To me he added, “Can you give him directions to this place?” I nodded and he handed me the phone.
Bobby Noland knew the layout of my farm almost as well as I did since he’d spent so much time here when we were growing up. He and the medical examiner showed up in a Jeep with the sheriff’s department logo on the door a few minutes later. Unlike the deputies who were in uniform, Bobby wore khakis and a black polo shirt with “LCSD, Homicide Division” on it. His badge was clipped to his belt. Though he was only two years older than I, his face had settled into the heavyset demeanor of someone who has seen too much evil and cruelty in his work and understands the burden of keeping that knowledge locked away from the rest of us.
The medical examiner, deeply tanned, fiftyish, and lanky, wore a broad-brimmed leather hat trimmed with what looked like a crocodile band and carried a black leather bag. Up close I could see the result of years in the sun in the age spots on his face and exposed forearms, but there was a youthful spark of animation and interest in his eyes as he looked us over.
Bobby pulled a pack of gum out of his pocket and offered it all around. Only Fontana accepted.
“Hey, Biggie. Hey, Vic. Friedman’s coming from the CSU but she’ll be awhile. Junie, you know these guys.” Bobby stuffed gum into his mouth and said to me, “Lucie, this is Junius St. Pierre. The county medical examiner.”
We shook hands. “Nice to meet you.”
“Same here.” He drawled “heah” with a Down Under accent—either Australia or New Zealand, I couldn’t tell. Like Mathis, he pulled a pair of gloves out of his pocket and went over to examine the skull.
“I guess this is what they mean when they say ‘his jaw dropped.’” Junie grinned at Bobby, whose mouth turned up in a small ironic smile. “Poor chap. Wonder what happened to the mandible.”
Mathis and Fontana smiled as Junie winked at me.
“No disrespect intended to this fella, you understand,” he said.
I nodded, used to morgue humor after listening to Bobby talk about his work. “You can tell it’s male? I mean, that he’s male?”
“I can’t be a hundred percent certain until I see the pelvis, but based on the skull I’d say it was an adult male. Probably Caucasian.”
“How do you know all that so fast?” I asked.
“Come here.” I obeyed and squatted next to him. So did Bobby. Junie moved his gloved index finger along the forehead, hovering just above the bone. “In general, males have a heavier browridge over the eyes. It’s called the supraorbital ridge. And the orbits, or eye sockets, tend to be smaller and more square than a female’s, with rounded edges. Males also have more pronounced markings where the muscle used to be attached to the bone, like this one here.” He indicated a rough-looking bump that ran down the forehead above one of the eye sockets.
“How long do you think he’s been here?” Bobby asked.
“Roughly…I’d say less than forty years. Maybe only thirty.”
“Will it take you long to find out who this is?” I asked.
Junie glanced at Bobby. “Could be easy, could be tough. Depends.”
“Whether anyone ever reported him missing or not,” Bobby said. He stood up and brushed imaginary dirt off his khakis. “People vanish for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes nobody says anything because maybe they wanted the person to disappear.” He blew a bubble and popped it. “If that’s what happened to this guy, we got our work cut out for us.”
It was just after seven when I drove back to the winery parking lot. Bobby told me they’d probably start excavating tonight and would return in the morning. He also said I should expect a cruiser at the vineyard with someone babysitting the grave site.
“Why do you need to do that?” I asked. “It’s completely isolated. No one’s going to go there.”
“Chain of custody,” he said. “You get screwed if you can’t account for evidence every single second from the moment you bag it until you go to trial. Since we’re not recovering all of it tonight, I need someone to make sure nothing happens to that crime scene.”
I climbed the flagstone steps to the porticoed courtyard, which connected the ivy-covered brick building where we sold wine to the semi-underground barrel room where we made it. The whine of a car engine coming down the road broke the evening stillness. A van with “Mobile Crime Scene” stenciled on it barreled toward the
south service road. Probably Friedman, the crime scene investigator Bobby mentioned earlier. She seemed to know where she was going as her lights fishtailed and disappeared from view.
After so many years, could they really find some shred of evidence that tied the killer to the victim? Mathis seemed to think so, but I wondered.
First, though, they had to identify the man with the missing jaw. I wondered about that, too. How long would it take? Who had died out there on my land?
The fan-shaped gravel courtyard was littered with bright blotches of color. Geraniums and pansies, which had overflowed cut-down wine barrels, were crushed and broken on the ground wherever I looked. The hanging baskets had been stripped of the impatiens and fuchsia that had filled them this morning. Their blossoms glowed like jewels in the fading daylight, some clinging to the white portico columns like starfish, others carpeting the ground. By tomorrow we’d have a sodden mess of bruised brown petals to sweep up.
A terra-cotta pot of red geraniums and variegated ivy lay on its side next to an old winepress. I knelt and tried to brush the dirt into the pot with my hands.
“Need some help?”
I looked up at Quinn. “Thanks.”
He took care of the dirt while I untangled the ivy and reset the plants. When we were done, he handed me a broken geranium.
I stared at it. “I could do with a drink.”
“Me, too. Why don’t I grab a growler and we can taste the Sauvignon Blanc?”
A growler is a bottle of wine we filled directly from one of the stainless-steel tanks or oak barrels. Though a lot of science and chemistry go into growing grapes and winemaking, there’s no substitute for drinking it at regular intervals to see how it’s coming along. We need to know how it tastes.
I nodded. “Everything still okay in the barrel room?”
“Yup. Generator’s working fine,” he said. “The villa’s okay, too, except there’s no power. Frankie got all the tables and chairs and umbrellas from the terrace moved inside in time, so no casual
ties there. But we’re going to have to stay closed until we clean up. Frankie said she’d be in early tomorrow to get started.”
Francesca Merchant ran our tasting room and had begun handling all our special events like concerts and festivals.
“If they ever figure out how to clone anything besides animals, Frankie would be my candidate for first human.” I tossed the geranium over the stone wall to the garden below. “How did we manage before we hired her?”
“We had you.”
I made a face. “Why can’t I decide whether that’s a compliment or an insult?”
He grinned. “I’ll get the wine. Let’s sit on the wall and drink here. The sunset’s going to be pretty tonight after that tornado.”
We sat on the low wall with its view of distant rows of vines and ridges of pines and deciduous trees. Framing the scene was the softly contoured Blue Ridge. The sun had turned the ribbon strips of clouds blood colored and the mountains had darkened from heathery blue to violet.
“I heard on the car radio that forty thousand households are without power in Loudoun County.” Quinn poured wine into two glasses and handed one to me. “Another twenty thousand in Fauquier.” He touched his wineglass to mine. “Here’s to not losing everything today.”
“To the glass half full. Did you get a chance to talk to anyone else who was at the roundtable?” I asked. “Anybody take a hit like we did?”
“When Harry Dye got back to his place he found he’d lost half of his crop,” Quinn said. “I can’t get hold of John Chappell at Mountain-view so maybe he lost phone service. No idea how bad it was there.”
I drank some wine. “Half the crop? Poor Harry. That’s going to kill him. Maybe we can sell him some grapes.”
Quinn pulled a cigar out of his shirt pocket and fished in his trousers for a lighter. “That’s going to be tough with what we lost.”
“Have you done the math?”
He bent his head and lit the cigar, puffing on it until the tip glowed. “It’s gonna be a big number. Buying and planting new vines, then all that revenue lost waiting three years until the first harvest.
Throw in the expense of buying grapes from somebody else while we’re waiting for our vines to produce, if you want to go that route.”
Though it was common for vineyards to buy fruit from other sources, he knew I didn’t like doing it. Our wines came from our own soil, our own
and I was proud of it.
“I don’t know. I can’t even think straight right now.”
Quinn rubbed his thumb across his chin, the way he always did when he was thinking.
“We lost about two acres, so about twenty grand for vines and labor. As for the production loss, with three tons an acre that’s six tons of fruit times three years of no wine. Nine hundred gallons, all red fruit. Probably ninety thousand dollars, give or take. Buying more fruit, if we decide to do that. About twelve thousand per harvest, so times three. That’s—”
“Thirty-six thousand plus ninety plus twenty.” I tipped my head and swallowed a lot of wine. “Damn. If we don’t buy fruit we’ve lost a hundred and ten thousand. If we replace it, it’s almost a hundred and fifty.”
“Guess we won’t be buying another tractor for a while,” he said.
“Let’s talk about replacing the fruit another time.” I stared into my wineglass. “I really can’t wrap my mind around it tonight.”
For a vineyard to be profitable—or at least, self-sustaining—it was necessary to make a certain amount of wine. Make too little and you go broke. The break-even number, as we’d figured it, was about ten thousand cases. Today’s loss meant we’d be teetering on the precipice.
He refilled our glasses. “How’d it go with those deputies?”
I shrugged as a pair of barn swallows swooped over our heads and flew into the eaves of the arcade.
“They asked a bunch of questions, then tried the good cop/bad cop thing to see if they could scare me into admitting I had some idea who it is out there.”
“And did it work?”
“It spooked me, yes. But I have no idea who he is.”
“Bobby showed up with the medical examiner. I think he’s Aus
tralian. Junius St. Pierre. He said it was an adult male. Caucasian. He’d probably been buried there for thirty or forty years.”
Quinn tapped his cigar with his thumb and ash dropped onto the wall. He brushed it off.
“So it happened while your parents were living here?”
“I guess so.”
“You guess so?”
“Okay, what if it did?”
He shrugged. “Maybe they knew something. Your father—”
I cut him off. “I knew you were going to bring up Leland. My father didn’t murder anyone.”
He pretended to duck. “Whoa, sweetheart. I never said that. You’re being awful defensive.”
He was right. I was.
Leland had hired Quinn shortly before he died, but Quinn had spent enough time with my father to take his measure. A lousy judge of character, a sap for every crummy business deal that came down the pike, and a womanizer. Everyone in Atoka knew it, too. As my godfather, Fitz, used to say about him, when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. Leland had been a man with a chronic itch from all the fleas.
“The minute word gets out about this everyone in town is going to try my father, convict him, and say something like, ‘What’d you expect from Leland Montgomery, anyway?’” I said. “Though they’ll do it behind my back.”
“People are always going to talk. You can’t stop that.”
“What you mean is, I can’t stop Thelma or the Romeos.”
They say three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead. The exception to that rule would be if the one person still living was either Thelma Johnson, who owned the General Store, or one of the Romeos, a cantankerous group of senior citizens whose name stood for “Retired Old Men Eating Out.” Tomorrow morning the number-one topic of conversation around the coffeepot in the General Store would be the body on my farm. Maybe I should just give up and sell tickets.