The Merlot Murders (Wine Country Mystery Series #1)by Ellen Crosby
A phone call at two thirty in the morning is never good news. Lucie Montgomery's semiestranged brother, Eli, calls her in France to tell her their father, Leland, has been killed in a hunting accident on the family's five-hundred-acre Virginia vineyard just as the fall harvest is about to begin. By the time he calls, Eli has already made funeral arrangements with what… See more details below
A phone call at two thirty in the morning is never good news. Lucie Montgomery's semiestranged brother, Eli, calls her in France to tell her their father, Leland, has been killed in a hunting accident on the family's five-hundred-acre Virginia vineyard just as the fall harvest is about to begin. By the time he calls, Eli has already made funeral arrangements with what Lucie argues is indecent haste.
It is an emotional trip home -- the first since an automobile accident two years ago, which left Lucie disabled and dependent on a cane. Her family's once elegant home and winery are now shabby and run-down, thanks to her father's penchant for fringy business deals. Eli, also cash-strapped and desperate to support his new wife's extravagant lifestyle, has already convinced their rebellious younger sister, Mia, to sell the debt-ridden estate and reap the profits from the valuable land it sits on, overruling Lucie's protests.
On the eve of the funeral Lucie's godfather, Fitz, a partner in the family business, tells her Leland's death was no accident. Whoever killed him was motivated by the potential sale of the vineyard. It is the last conversation she will have with Fitz. Now the lone holdout preventing the vineyard sale, Lucie realizes she's next in line for another "accident." With her greedy brother, hell-raising sister, and a seemingly cut-rate vintner hired by Leland just before he died, all the suspects are disturbingly close to home. Unsure whom she can trust, Lucie must uncover the truth about the deaths of her father and godfather -- and oversee a successful harvest to save the vineyard she loves.
Set in the historic heart of Virginia's horse and hunt country, The Merlot Murders is filled with fascinating detail about the science and alchemy of wine making.
"A neat whodunit." -- The New York Times
"A terrific kickoff to what promises to be a highly satisfying new series." -- Publishers Weekly
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The Merlot MurdersA Wine Country Mystery
By Ellen Crosby
All right reserved.
I have always been fascinated by alchemy, though I draw the line at black magic. My family owns a vineyard at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and I am sure there is both magic and chemistry involved in transforming grapes into wine. Not as impossible as changing lead to gold, but nevertheless, no mean feat, particularly if you believe -- as I do -- in Galileo's definition of wine as sunlight held together by water.
As a child I read the stories of the philosopher's stone, how only a small quantity could convert a massive amount of worthless metal to gold and, supposedly, when added to wine or spirits, it became the mythical "elixir of life" -- a potion that would cure illness, restore youth, and even grant immortality. Two years ago I moved to Grasse, the perfumed city in the south of France where my mother grew up, to recover from injuries sustained in a near-fatal car crash. I was twenty-six at the time and neither immortality nor eternal youth were much on my mind. All I wanted was to walk again. So I brought my own "elixir of life" hoping it would hasten my cure -- bottles of wine from home.
Philippe, my live-in boyfriend, refused to drink any of it with me. A wine snob and a purist, the only wines he liked were listed in the Guide Hachette -- and they were all French. So I drank my family'swine when he wasn't around.
Like now. This time he had to go to Italy. Another vague story about business and no idea when he'd be back. When he was home -- an increasingly rare occurrence -- he stayed up most nights talking on the telephone, smoking pack after pack of Gauloises. He never mentioned those conversations. I knew not to ask.
I seem to have a habit of getting involved with men who don't sleep at night. A bartender, a paramedic, a law student moonlighting as a cabdriver -- and now Philippe. There was a time when I slept deeply and soundly the minute my head touched the pillow -- "sleeping on both ears," the French call it. But the men who have drifted through my life have gradually turned me into a sheep-counting insomniac.
What kept me awake this night was the mistral -- the dry, cold wind that began blowing from the north sometime after midnight. At sunset altocumulus clouds shaped like giant cuttlefish had turned blood red, a sure sign the winds would come that night. Tomorrow the late-August sky would be the luminous blue of a Van Gogh painting and windsurfers would flock to the beaches in droves. Tonight the mistral brought -- as it always did -- a raging headache.
I switched on the light and swung my feet out of bed, reaching for my cane, which was propped against the wall, where I always left it. I pulled on one of Philippe's shirts, which was draped over a chair next to the bed. It smelled faintly of his cologne. His scent was about all that was left of our relationship.
The cracked marble floor was cool against my bare feet. When I got downstairs I took a bottle of Montgomery Cabernet Sauvignon from the wine rack, grabbed a glass and corkscrew, and let myself out the kitchen door into the garden.
I brushed against the large rosemary bush outside the door on my way across the terrace to the old stone swimming pool. The massive bank of lavender along one side of the pool was dark and dense against a blue-black sky filled with windblown stars.
Wine is inevitably linked to a place, tasting of the seasonal vagaries of sunshine and rain, the particularities of the soil, the differences in the taste of oak that hint at which forest yielded the trees for the fermenting barrels. I sat on a low garden wall by the pool and breathed deeply, getting quietly drunk on the calming smell of lavender and the velvety smoothness of the wine. But even the heady fragrance of the garden couldn't overwhelm the scent and taste of Virginia as I drank, dissolving time and space, until the wine finally seeped into all the hidden paths that led to my heart.
Though I'd become comfortable and easy with my life in France, I wanted to go home again and rebuild my car-wrecked past. Through the open kitchen window I heard the phone ringing. At this hour it would be for Philippe.
I let it ring.
The caller was persistent. Finally I went inside, bringing the nearly empty bottle and my glass. I sat in a high-backed rush chair and picked up the phone mid-ring.
A man's irritated voice said in English, "God, there you are. It's about time. I've been calling for twenty minutes. How come your machine didn't kick in? What took you so long to answer?"
"It wasn't twenty minutes. You know we don't have a machine. I was outside. Nice to talk to you, too, Eli," I said to my older brother, glancing at the kitchen clock. It read two thirty-five a.m. Not the usual hour for a social call, even if he was phoning from America.
"I have some news, Lucie." His voice was slightly less sharp.
"What is it?" I poured the last of the wine into my glass. To get through this conversation, I'd need it.
Eli and I have not been on the best of terms lately, so we don't spend much time on chitchat. In fact, we don't spend much time on anything. The last time I spoke to him was three or four months ago...or five. The fact that I have been living in the south of France for the past two years has made this chasm something we can blame on the Atlantic Ocean, pretending it's physical distance, not an emotional divide that accounts for the estrangement.
"It's Leland," he said. "He was out hunting. There was an accident."
"How bad?" I asked. But it was very bad, obviously, or he wouldn't have called.
"He's dead." My brother's heroes came from all the violent action movies he watched as a kid, full of emotionless men without tear ducts. Armageddon could be looming but they could handle it no sweat because they were tough. Just like Eli was acting right now. So I was surprised when he added gently, "I'm sorry, Lucie."
"What happened?" I reached for my glass with an unsteady hand and almost knocked it over. I caught it just in time.
"He was alone, out in the vineyard. He had his shotgun with him so he was probably taking out a few crows. No one's really sure what happened, but we're thinking the heat might have gotten to him," Eli said. "He passed out and the gun somehow went off."
I tipped my head and drank the blood-red wine, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand. No way. Even I knew that guns don't "somehow" go off. You have to pull the trigger.
Besides, despite his record on everything else, Leland Montgomery was never careless when guns were involved. He had his share of bizarre habits, like making his children call him "Leland" instead of "Dad" or "Pop" or "Father," but he took no chances when it came to firearms.
"Who found him?" Eli's story didn't quite ring true.
The silence on the other end of the phone lengthened beyond the boundaries of a normal conversation as though the line had gone dead. It happened from time to time especially on international calls, so that on more than one occasion I'd ended up chattering into the flat blackness of a severed connection.
"Eli? Are you still there?"
For the first time his voice seemed to falter. "Hector. He was out with his dogs."
Hector, our farm manager, had been with my family for decades. Next to Jacques, our winemaker, he was the second most important person in the vineyard. He took care of the crew, the equipment, and just about anything else that needed doing.
"Oh God. Poor Hector."
I suppose I should have said, "Poor Leland," but it wasn't the first thing that came to mind. There is a French proverb that goes, "In water one sees one's own face, but in wine one beholds the heart of another." I stared into my wineglass and did not behold Leland's heart. To be honest, he hadn't often shown that he had one.
"He'd been out there for hours. Christ, I never saw so much blood..." Eli spoke in that tight emotionless voice again, but this time I heard a fine crazing in the veneer. "Then Bobby Noland showed up."
"Yeah, he just got a promotion. He's not doing patrols anymore. I think it's crime scene investigations or something."
I'd known Bobby Noland since I was in the second grade and he was in fourth. By the time we got to high school, the principal at Blue Ridge High pegged Bobby as the type who'd be getting into trouble with the law when he grew up. He never figured Bobby for being the law. Frankly it surprised a lot of his friends when he stuck around home and joined the Loudoun County Sheriff's Department.
Eli cleared his throat. "Look, I can buy your ticket for you if you want."
"Come on, Lucie, don't tell me you don't plan to come home for this, either."
The "either" referred to his wedding. I hate being baited. He knew as well as I did that I couldn't fake an excuse this time. Not for Leland's funeral. "Don't be ridiculous. Of course I'll be there. I'll get my own ticket."
It was hard to tell if I'd hurt his feelings or he was genuinely relieved that I wasn't putting up an argument. "I suppose we ought to start making arrangements," I said.
"Well, sure. We're not really having a funeral, anyway. A wake tomorrow night and a graveside prayer service on Thursday. You know what a waste of time Leland thought going to church was. No point making him go now."
"I guess not." I swallowed the rest of the wine. "So you and Mia planned the funeral, did you?"
There was a short pause before he said, "Actually Leland planned it himself. He told Mason what he wanted one night when they were driving home from one of the Romeos' weekly poker games. As for Mia, your sister isn't taking this any better than she took Mom's death. She won't talk about it."
Mason Jones was our lawyer and the Romeos were Leland's drinking and poker buddies. The name stood for "Retired Old Men Eating Out." They had regular tables at most of the local restaurants and cafés and their faithful patronage kept more than one place financially solvent.
"Poor kid," I said. "Do you think she'll be up to going to this funeral? I don't think I could take a repeat of what happened when Mom died."
"I haven't exactly asked her. She's been spending a lot of time with a new friend so I don't see her much."
"Oh?" When he didn't elaborate, I added, "Were you joking about Leland planning his funeral after a poker game?"
"If it was anybody else you know I would be, but we're talking about Leland." Eli paused, then said with some bitterness, "Figures, his kids being the last to know what he wanted. You can imagine how I felt, hearing it from Mason."
"I hope he didn't want anything too weird."
"Nope. We got off easy. It's all pretty normal except for the bagpipes. His Scottish blood must have been surging."
Or maybe it was the post-poker Scotch. "Bagpipes, hunh?"
"'Amazing Grace' as the opening hymn and 'Taps' at sunset -- since he was a veteran -- as his coffin is lowered into the ground," he said. "Sunset's at seven forty-two on Thursday, by the way."
Eli would know a detail like that. He owned one of those radio-controlled atomic watches that's never wrong. I could hear him riffling pages. Probably his Filofax, which he usually wore chained to his wrist. He didn't trust electronic organizers.
"Why does it have to be Thursday?" I said. "I'll never get there in time for the wake. As it is, I'll barely make it for the burial."
"Give me a break, Luce. Of course you will. With the time difference, you'll arrive practically before you leave France. Sleep on the plane and drink a gallon or two of water. You won't even be jet-lagged."
"Why can't you delay it? Something's going on that you're not telling me. I know you."
"Don't be an ass." He sounded annoyed.
"I'm not an ass. Don't be crude. You didn't answer my question. Why can't you postpone the service another day or two?" I repeated.
"Because it's all arranged. That's why."
"What would be so hard about unarranging a wake and a prayer service?" I persisted. "Where are you going to get someone to play the bagpipes on such short notice, anyway?"
"I don't see the need to unarrange anything. I've got everything under control."
The floor was becoming quite littered with all the gauntlets he was throwing down. "Fine. Don't tell me," I said. "As soon as I get back I'll find out from someone else."
"You will not." It's hard to understate the overbearing and righteous sense of entitlement my brother genuinely felt because he happened to be born first.
I had just spent two years without him bossing me around. I didn't plan on getting used to it again.
"Give me one good reason why not," I snapped. "And I'll do what I want."
There was shocked silence, probably while he dealt with the new phenomenon of my defiance, then he said angrily, "All right, you want to know? You couldn't let it wait until you got home, could you? It's your goddamn godfather. Satisfied?"
"What are you talking about? Fitz?"
"You heard me."
Besides being my godfather, Fitzhugh Pico was my parents' best friend and the owner and chef at the Goose Creek Inn, a local restaurant known for its romantic setting, eclectic menu, and discreet waiters. It was the perfect place to propose marriage -- or end one, keeping a sly tryst under the radar. Soon after my parents planted our first vines, Fitz and my mother collaborated to produce two private label wines for the inn. Not only was he nearly family, he was part of the family business.
"I don't understand..." I began, but Eli cut me off, still furious.
"He's telling anyone who'll listen that Leland's death wasn't an accident. No one can get him to shut up, either."
"Why would he do that? What do you mean, not an accident?"
"Oh, for God's sake. Use your head. Work it out for yourself, Luce."
I sat silently, picking at a strand of loose bulrush on the edge of my seat and thought. Until now I hadn't noticed the whistling sound of the wind as it came through the still-open kitchen door. A pair of moths zoomed frenetically around the overhead ceiling light. One of them smacked into the glass shade and dropped to the floor.
"Oh my God," I said slowly. "Suicide. Leland killed himself and you don't want anyone to know." My voice rose. "You should have told me from the beginning, Eli! Why did you tell me it was an accident?"
"Because it was." Eli yelled. "And you're wrong. He didn't kill himself. But I've got goddamn Fitz telling everyone and his goddamn grandmother that Leland was goddamn murdered! Okay? Now do you understand?"
This time I did knock the wineglass over. It shattered into silvery slivers on the marble floor.
Murders don't happen in Atoka, Virginia. People don't even litter there. Thelma Johnson, who owns the general store, leaves the side window unlatched so the delivery boy from the bakery can climb through to leave his fresh-baked muffins and doughnuts if he gets there earlier than she does. The town is as wholesome and all-American as Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
"What was that noise?" Eli asked.
"A glass...fell over. Eli, did somebody murder Leland?"
"No one murdered Leland. It was an accident, just like I told you." He was no longer yelling, but he sounded tense and edgy.
I massaged my forehead, which was now throbbing not just from a mistral-induced headache, but from this surreal conversation. Eli's story still didn't sound right. He'd left something out. "What aren't you telling me?"
"I am not going into it over the phone. We'll talk when you get here."
"I've got another call. I've got to go. Call me and let me know when your flight arrives. I'll come get you. We'll discuss the rest of it then."
I said, "The rest of what?" to dead air.
I stood up and reached for my cane. In the dim light a large shard from the broken wineglass glimmered faintly. I bent to pick it up and saw the blood on my finger before I felt the knifelike edge slice my skin. It was a superficial cut, long and shallow, but the kind that bled like a geyser. By the time I made it from the kitchen to the bathroom in search of a bandage, a red Rorschach trail spattered the cream-colored marble of the stairs and the hallway.
I got to the toilet just before I threw up. Afterward, I sat in the dark on the cool floor of the enormous old bathroom and leaned my head against the wall, pressing on my finger to stop the bleeding. My head still ached.
Eli's brusque, abbreviated account of Leland's death was more disturbing than if he'd told me every detail. My imagination, left to run riot in the complete darkness of a lavender-scented night, conjured scenes from horror movies. Hector's dogs yapping next to Leland's blood-soaked body, lying there for hours in the blistering late-summer heat. Had he suffered? Had he known he was dying?
I stood up and found bandages in the medicine cabinet. Then I packed my bags.
Later I replayed in my mind that phone conversation with Eli. He'd been more than a little opaque about the details of Leland's death. And he wanted to get the funeral over with as quickly as possible.
Odd that he couldn't -- or wouldn't -- tell me why over the phone.
Was my brother trying to cover up our father's murder?
Copyright © 2006 by Ellen Crosby
Excerpted from The Merlot Murders by Ellen Crosby Copyright © 2007 by Ellen Crosby. Excerpted by permission.
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