Authors: Ellen Crosby
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #General
“What’s the matter, Lucie?” Quinn said, when I remained silent. “You’re worried there might be something to it, aren’t you?”
The clouds were now dark against a bright sky and the layered lines of the Blue Ridge had blended into a single silhouette, reminding me of a negative from a print photograph. It was too early for the fireflies to begin their balletic performance, but as the birds quieted down, the cicadas’ comforting serenade became more audible. Usually I liked this time of evening, especially in summer, when everything seemed so peaceful.
Tonight, though, I felt restless and jumpy.
“Of course I’m not.”
“You’re a lousy liar, you know that?”
I played with the stem of my wineglass. “I just don’t want Leland to be judged before we have any facts.”
“You know the folks who gossip will say their piece, regardless. Your friends will wait and see what happens. And they’ll stick up for you.” Quinn picked up the bottle and poured the last of the wine into my glass. “Doesn’t the Bible say something about giving wine to those that be of heavy hearts? Come on, drink up.”
I drank, but my heart was no less heavy. The tornado had left its visible mark on the vineyard and it would take a long time for us to recover. But I also feared that by uncovering that grave we hadn’t seen the last of the maelstrom. If I were right, then what was in store would be worse than anything that had happened today.
I fell asleep in the hammock on the veranda. When I woke the next morning I was still in my clothes and the power was still out. The airless house felt like a sealed tomb. Out of habit I headed for the kitchen before remembering no electricity meant no refrigerator and no running water. At least I had a gas stove so I could heat water for instant coffee. The orange juice was nearly room temperature, which meant it wouldn’t be long before everything in the refrigerator went bad. I poured a glass of tepid juice, found a baguette in the bread box, and drank a cup of boiled-tasting coffee.
Upstairs I splashed bottled water on my face and rubbed a damp washcloth over the rest of my body. As I was on my way out the door, Quinn called on the landline to say he’d be in the field with the crew working on cleanup. I promised to join him after checking on Frankie in the villa.
The weather report on my car radio said the temperature would hit the upper nineties but promised low humidity and no rain. A newscaster reported that “only” thirty thousand homes were without power in Loudoun and another ten thousand were in the dark in Fauquier. They were working around the clock but it might take days to get everyone back online. No specifics whether that meant two or ten.
I switched off the radio. A lot of people still didn’t have electricity. Maybe we needed to plan for the long haul. At least the weather
was good news. It had been a hot, dry summer so far, which was terrific for the vines. If we could get past yesterday’s setback, we might still have a good harvest with the grapes we had left. Maybe even a great one.
When I arrived at the villa just after eight, Frankie Merchant had already opened the four sets of French doors onto the terrace and was busy moving the wicker patio furniture back outside. Early morning sunshine made pale stripes on the Persian carpets and quarry tile floor. A light breeze ruffled the floor-to-ceiling curtains and the reproduction tapestry from the Musée de Cluny in Paris that showed winemaking and coopering in the Middle Ages. Half a dozen copies of the tasting notes for our wines blew off the tiled bar and sailed to the floor.
I retrieved the papers and put them back, weighing them down with a corkscrew. Most of the patio tables and the chairs with their green-and-white-striped cushions were still inside, stacked everywhere.
“I’ll help you with these,” I said. “Where’s Gina?”
“Late.” Frankie brushed tendrils of strawberry blond hair off her face. Her cheeks were pink and she was perspiring.
“You look like you didn’t get much sleep,” she said. “Want coffee?”
“Real coffee? I’d kill for it. Where’d you get it? The General Store?”
“You think I’d let myself get grilled by Thelma about what’s been going on around here? Please. I’d rather climb into a tank of piranhas.” She headed for the kitchen and called over her shoulder. “We got our power back at home. Came on around three a.m. I brought in a thermos.”
She returned, handing me a mug. We sank into patio chairs.
“I got here early and brought all the crews’ coolers home so I could fill them with ice water since it’s going to be a scorcher.”
“You’re an angel. I don’t know what we’d do without you.”
She smiled a serene, knowing smile and crossed her legs, swinging a sandaled foot that showed off a perfect pedicure and stylish neon pink polish on her toes.
“Oh, don’t you worry,” she said. “There will be payback.”
I burst out laughing. “Whatever you want.”
She cocked an eyebrow as she sipped her coffee. “You think I’m kidding.”
I didn’t know much about Frankie’s past but I did know her children were grown and her husband worked for a D.C. law firm with hours so long he often slept at work. She’d taken this job to keep from going stir-crazy at home. I’d bet money when her kids were growing up she probably ran the PTA and never missed a sports game, concert, bake sale, or field trip. She was probably one of the stalwarts at school fund-raisers, the kind of person everyone counted on because she never let anyone down. Like now.
“I think we should have a backup plan for the weekend,” I said. “In case we don’t get our electricity back.”
“I thought I’d work on that today,” she said. “After I get this place cleaned up.”
Twenty years ago this weekend my parents had sold their first bottle of wine. We’d been planning our anniversary celebration for months.
“You going to talk to Dominique?” I asked.
My cousin Dominique Gosselin owned the Goose Creek Inn, a small auberge founded by my godfather forty years ago that had become one of the region’s most popular and well-loved restaurants. Over the years it increasingly attracted Washington’s high and mighty who liked its cuisine, romantic charm, and distance from the nation’s capital. Dominique probably knew more secrets than the CIA about off-the-radar trysts and furtive romances. Many nights when I dined there the Secret Service hung around being visibly invisible, keeping an eye on some guest and his or her “friend.”
“I thought I’d go over to the Inn for lunch, if that’s all right with you. Get things sorted out.” She grinned. “Your treat.”
The Inn’s waiters and waitresses often helped us out on weekends serving wine in the tasting room or working at our dinners. Goose Creek Catering, which Dominique also ran as part of the Inn’s expanding franchise, handled all our big events.
“You meant it about the payback, huh?”
The landline phone on the bar rang and I stood up.
“Let me,” she said. “You don’t want to take that.”
I heard her end of the conversation. “Sorry, no comment…no,
she’s not available. We sustained a lot of damage from that tornado yesterday and she’s got her hands…no, we’re closed for the foreseeable future until our power is restored…the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Department might be able to answer that…would you like the number?…no?…no problem…good-bye.”
She came back and flopped down in her chair. “I’ve lost count how many of those we’ve gotten.”
“You want to see the messages?”
I shook my head. “Who called from the
I would have thought Kit would have tried to reach me directly.”
Kit Eastman was my best friend since we’d played together in the sandbox and, for the past two years, she’d been Bobby Noland’s girlfriend. A few months ago she’d been named Loudoun bureau chief for the
A story like this would be a big deal for her paper. If it didn’t make the A section, it would at least be above the fold in Metro.
Frankie wrinkled her forehead. “Some guy. I think he’s new because I didn’t recognize his name. He got the standard reply. Maybe Kit’s going to drop by and ambush you here.”
“Maybe Bobby already told her all there is to know, which is nothing.”
Frankie stood up. “Speaking of Bobby,” she said, “he’s coming up the front walk. Looks like he’s got some papers. What’s that all about?”
I took a deep breath. “Search warrant.”
Bobby looked like he’d slept better than I did, but he still looked tired. Frankie offered him coffee and he accepted. She left to get it and he handed me the paper.
“I’m sure you know what this is,” he said, leaning against the bar.
“Yep. I’ve got nothing to hide, Bobby.”
“I know. We’re just doing it nice and legal, that’s all.”
“What are your plans for today?”
Frankie returned with Bobby’s coffee, then busied herself sweeping the terrace.
“We’ve got guys out there with metal detectors right now look
ing for bullets or anything else like that.” Bobby picked up his mug and drank. “Might clear out some of your brush, too, if we need to expand our search. We’ll bag the remains and send them back to the lab. That’s the first priority.”
“You mean you’re taking him apart?”
“What do you suggest? Levitate him? There’s nothing to hold him together, no flesh.”
“Then you put him back together again in your laboratory?”
“Just like Humpty Dumpty.”
“Funny. More like a human jigsaw puzzle.”
There were 206 bones in an adult male. I’d found most of the skull and Bruja had unearthed one of the long bones—maybe a tibia or a femur. How many would Bobby and his crew find?
“It’s the only way to find out who John Doe is and how he got there.”
“So what happens next?” I asked.
Bobby squinted at me like he was weighing how much to reveal. “Take it easy, Lucie. I’m sure we’ll be talking. This guy has probably been here since before you were born. It’s someone else’s story.”
“But you and your deputies already think it has something to do with my family.”
He expelled a long breath and stared at the tapestry as though he might find the answer woven through the threads. “It isn’t engraved in stone, but there are a few things that happen so often in cases like this that you can almost predict how it’s gonna turn out.”
“Such as fifty percent of the time, the victim is found on property owned or controlled by the perpetrator.”
“And the other fifty percent he’s not.”
“True.” He laid a hand on my shoulder. “Look, you’ve got nothing to worry about. You’re not in trouble.”
“All the same, I’m betting it’s the other fifty percent,” I said.
“You could be right.” He finished his coffee and set the mug on the bar. “Off the record, I hope you are.”
After Bobby left I helped Frankie move the rest of the furniture outside and then drove over to help Quinn and the crew with the
cleanup. Whether I was just plain tired or distracted—or both—within ten minutes I sliced up my index finger with my pruning shears like a rube picker.
Quinn saw me trying to stop the blood gushing out of the wound and came over with the first aid kit.
“What are you doing? You almost took your finger off. That cut might need stitches.”
“It’ll be all right. It’s superficial.”
“Give me your hand.” He tore off a strip of gauze and tied it around my finger. “Hold that for a minute. Look, why don’t you go do something else? We’ve got it covered here.”
“There’s so much to clean up—”
“Your head’s not in it right now. Give yourself a break.”
He took my hand and untied the tourniquet, putting antiseptic on the cut.
“I can put the bandage on myself,” I said. “You don’t have to fuss.”
“If you get gangrene and die, you did leave the place to me, didn’t you?”
“You sound so hopeful.”
Did I imagine it or did he hold my hand longer than he needed to?
Early in our relationship we’d agreed to keep our personal and professional lives separate—a promise that hadn’t been too hard to keep since we disagreed on just about everything. Add to that the fact we had nothing in common and didn’t fit the other’s profile of someone we’d like to go out with—he preferred good-looking sexy women young enough to be his daughter while I went for older men who broke my heart—and I knew if we ever got together it would be like the
meeting the iceberg.
But lately, like now, there had been moments when our eyes held each other’s and an electrical current that was new and a little dangerous seemed to pass between us.
I removed my hand from his. “Rumors of my possible demise are premature.”
He grinned. “Go on. Get lost and clear your head.”
“Maybe I’ll go over to the cemetery and see what damage the storm did there.”
He gave me a searching glance. “I hope you don’t find anything.”
I nodded. We both knew he wasn’t talking about storm damage.
The cemetery looked as wind tossed and littered with debris as everywhere else on the farm. The pewter vase that held my mother’s Renaissance roses had tipped over and was wedged between her headstone and Leland’s. The flowers, which I’d picked only yesterday, were wilted and the petals had gone brown on the edges. Most of the miniature American flags I’d placed at each gravestone for the Fourth of July had either fallen over or were tilted at crazy angles like rows of bad teeth. Branches and leaves covered many of the graves and stuck to markers.
I was on my knees tidying the area around Hamish Montgomery’s weathered stone marker when a car drove up the road and cut its engine. I looked over the wall in time to see my brother climb out of his dark blue Jaguar. Eli worked for a small architectural firm in Leesburg, about fifteen miles away. For him to show up at the vineyard in the middle of the day meant he either needed something or he was in trouble—or both.
“Hey, babe.” He closed the wrought iron gate with a clank and threaded his way between the rows of headstones. “Took me awhile to find you. What are you doing here?”
I still hadn’t gotten used to Eli calling me “babe.” Or calling his wife “princess,” though that was a little more fitting.
“Cleaning up.” I moved to the grave of Thomas Montgomery, who had been one of Mosby’s Rangers, and started picking up leaves and small branches.
Eli squatted next to me and clasped his hands together. I knew he was taking care not to get dirty. Today he had on beige trousers and a polo shirt. Probably linen and definitely some designer like Hugo Boss or Armani, since that’s all he wore anymore. My sister-in-law, Brandi, saw to that since she chose his clothes. His shoes were soft-as-butter leather that looked Italian. Oakley sunglasses hung around his neck. It looked, also, like he’d had a manicure.