Murder and merlot! The ladies of the Rose Avenue Wine Club are back to track down another killer . . .
When New York transplant Annie “Halsey” Hall starts digging for her tiny SoCal dream vineyard off Rose Avenue, the last thing she expects to unearth is an elderly woman. Between decanting chardonnays and rosés, Halsey and the women of the Wine Club pour over the list of suspects. Could the old woman have bottlenecked her great grandson’s latest scheme? Was it a case of super sour grapes with the local historical society? Or did a devious developer close a killer deal?
With the help of the Wine Club and her enthusiastic yellow lab, Bardot, Halsey must untangle the twisted tendrils of the mystery to clear her name and end a murderer’s reign of terroir . . .
About the Author
Christine E. Blum was born in Shaker Heights, Ohio. At the age of seven, her parents moved to Europe and luckily took her with them. Christine grew up in Paris, Brussels, and finally London, and along the way developed her unique brand of humor. She lives in Southern California where she’s allowed to share a house and pool with her famous yellow Lab, Bardot, who just happens to be able to dive 10’ underwater, has appeared on Animal Planet, and was featured in the New York Times bestseller, Underwater Dogs. When not signing paw-tographs, she can be found lounging by the pool and solving murders. Readers can visit Christine’s website at christineeblum.com.
Read an Excerpt
I said to my yellow Lab, Bardot, while we were trudging up the hill.
"For my birthday they got me dirt??"
As the incline sharpened, so did the weight of the wagon I was pulling behind me loaded with shovels and claws and other garden accoutrements that had been included with this, oh so thoughtful, gift.
Nothing about this early morning trip was pleasant until I had an idea. Slowly and without her noticing, I tied the end of Bardot's leash to the handle of the wagon. She couldn't have cared less because the promise of open space and critters filled her with excitement from her nose to her caudal vertebrae.
I prepared myself and took in some deep breaths from my diaphragm.
"SQUIRREL!" I yelled and then lowered myself into the wagon like a Luge racer starting down the track.
We reached the top in no time, but here was the problem, Bardot hadn't found the squirrel yet. Which meant that we kept on going. She veered right and ran to the only thing better than a squirrel, people. To her excitement, she'd found not just adults but a team of four- and five-year-old Little Leaguers. When she stopped to be adored, I had two choices: do nothing and be convicted of manslaughter or do a self-imposed wipeout to stop the momentum of the wagon. I chose the latter and was dumped out onto the dirt road. A bright yellow kneeling pad with a smiling frog on it landed appropriately across my face. The group, assured that I was okay when I sat up, quickly went back to the Bardot lovefest.
Oh, she's working it all right.
This might be a good point to stop and bring you up to speed.
I am Halsey, which is actually a truncated moniker for Annie Elizabeth Hall, the name on my birth certificate. You can see why I needed a nickname shortly after being weaned. My parents were not playing some kind of cruel joke on me. They just weren't big Woody Allen fans. After that, they did a pretty good job of raising me.
I have my own company writing code and designing websites, a job that allowed me to pack up my toys and move to a Los Angeles beach community after my marriage and life in New York City went up in smoke. That was just over a year ago, and boy, have things changed.
You've met Bardot, she's an American Field Lab versus an English Lab; she's smaller, much leaner, and built with a Ferrari engine. She is hardwired to run through caustically thorny brambles and crash into pond ice to retrieve whatever form of fowl you have shot out of the sky. Since I am not a hunter, and the only ice that can be found three miles from the beach is crushed in a margarita, she has developed other skills. The highlight? She can dive underwater. Deep underwater. Try twelve feet underwater. Which actually saved my life once.
Now to the "they," I refer to the ones who celebrated the anniversary of my birth with a gift of dirt. I am proud to be part of this coterie of oenophiles who call themselves the "Rose Avenue Wine Club," because well, we all live on Rose Avenue and we all enjoy a touch of the grape. Our members range in age from thirty-two to eighty-seven and are an all-female cast of characters that imbibe shamelessly and say whatever comes to mind. Everyone has a story, and last year the group created a new one through crime and murder that now binds us together for life.
More on that later.
I'm not really being fair when I call my gift "dirt." I don't want to appear ungrateful, it really was very thoughtful on many levels and ties me more deeply to my new life in Mar Vista, California.
At the top and east side of Rose Avenue sits a hill that in the 1930s and '40s was home to truck farms producing vegetables to take to market. A particularly rich area for agriculture, Mar Vista historically played host to fields and fields of lima beans giving rise to the title, "Lima Bean Belt of the Nation."
The open land is still preserved today despite continuous offers from drooling developers and is home to a local Little League and a community garden offering six acres of fifteen-by-fifteen-foot plots of incredibly rich soil that seems to defy even the least adept of horticulturists.
My gift is making more and more sense.
I am told that, like any apartment in New York that has running water, people wait for the owners of these plots to die in order to pounce on the coveted patches of soil. That makes my share, which was not the result of a recent death but the final settlement of a probate, all the more special.
When it was time for the young boys of summer to take to the field and when most of the gardeners had dispersed, I righted my wagon, gathered the last modicum of dignity I possessed, and consulted my map for the plot's location. I had skinned knees and elbows, making this thirty-something look more like an overgrown middle grader.
* * *
The shade provided welcome relief as I plopped down beside my garden to be. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the soil had been turned over. With the drought, I had fully expected to see a dry crust from a long time of neglect. I wasn't planning to accomplish much today, this was basically a scouting mission to give me enough to do some substantive online research. You see, my plan was to grow grapes.
"Someday this will all be 'Halsey Vineyards,' Bardot."
She looked around wondering if any of the words in that sentence were euphemisms for "critter." My chore for the day was to start to aerate the soil to get it ready to accept and nurture the vines. This wasn't going to happen overnight, but at least I'd feel like I'd accomplished something.
I chose the shovel with the more tapered head and went to work. The goal was to loosen as much of the old soil as possible. Grapevine root systems like to run deep. This got Bardot curious; she'd never seen me do this kind of activity before. With each toss of the dirt, she peered into the hole, hoping for anything that moved.
Sure enough, after working a section for a bit, I hit something more than dirt. Something that made a clanging sound when the shovel made contact with it.
Great, I've probably hit a main pipe and killed the water for the entire hill.
I looked around to see if anyone could offer guidance, but I was alone. I dropped the shovel and bent down for a closer look. As I cleared a square of soil around the object, I was able to determine that it was a rusted metal box. With a little more digging and some help from Bardot, I managed to loosen it enough to get my fingers underneath and lift it to the surface. It had been painted red at one time, and after tilting it toward and away from the sun, I was able to make out writing that said LA UNION CIGARS.
Cool. I have just the spot for this antique in my office.
When I placed it in the wagon, I could feel something inside shifting. Once again I looked around, this time hoping that nobody was in viewing distance.
I used a small knife and delicately worked on the seal between the lid and the main box. It looked very old and may be worth something, so I didn't want to damage the box any more if I could help it. Like wrestling with opening a pickle jar, I finally heard the sound of air escaping and the lid popped up.
Inside I saw a piece of blue velvet fabric cut to fit snugly in the box. I carefully lifted it and placed it on the wagon. Beneath was a yellowed folded document. It had printed type on it as well as pen and ink handwriting. It all looked very official. When I opened it, I saw the words "DEED" and below the name "Anderson Rose" and the date "April 16, 1902."
I didn't want to risk exposing it to the elements, so I folded it back up and returned it to the box, facedown. On the back was written "Transfer of mineral rights." I hadn't a clue what all this meant, but my heart was racing. As I moved the box, I once again felt the weight of contents moving. It clearly wasn't coming from that light piece of paper. I noticed that the deed and the fabric only took up a small portion of the depth of the box, so there was something under the bottom piece of velvet. Carefully, I lifted the deed up, sandwiched between the two protective pieces of fabric. Underneath was what looked like a men's gold signet pinky ring, and it bore a strange-looking engraved crest and embellishment.
When I looked up, I saw that Bardot was embracing her green paw and had been working feverishly on the far corner of the plot.
I need to nip this in the bud.
"Bardot, no more." She looked at me with a big grin on her muddy face, and promptly went back to digging. I figured "just this once" and secured all the contents of my find back into the cigar tin. I had a fun project, now dirt is good.
I heard Bardot give off a high-pitched whine and noted that her digging had stopped. She was crouching and backing away from the hole.
Then I spotted it, a still partially fleshy, liver-spotted hand that seemed to be reaching out from the grave.
Crap. Here we go again.
* * *
I had no choice but to call Detective Augie, the officer assigned to Mar Vista and someone I know well enough to have on speed dial. And not because we have some sort of civilian/civil servant romance going on. See, when I first moved to Rose Avenue I made an honest mistake and walked into the wrong house for my first Wine Club. How was I to know that there was a dead body in the backyard? It took a lot of work and convincing but ultimately the Wine Club girls and I were not only able to provide enough evidence to Augie to move me off the suspect list, but we also solved the murder. Surely lightning won't strike twice?
Bardot and I waited on the wagon at the top of the hill until the cops arrived. I had pleaded with Augie not to use the sirens, but I guess a couple of overzealous uniforms hadn't gotten the memo. I'll be retelling this story all day to the people on Rose Avenue.
One good thing about announcing their arrival is that I had a moment to think and decided that I'd keep the cigar box and its contents to myself a little longer to do some research. What would it hurt? I'm pretty sure that the two are not connected....
When Augie returned from inspecting my plot and the body, he came over to me and sat down on a tree stump by my wagon.
"Halsey, Halsey, Halsey. What is it about you that attracts death and murderers? This was such a quiet community before you moved in."
"What? I'm a model citizen; besides I didn't discover the body, Bardot did. She's the one you need to talk to; I'm just an innocent bystander."
With that, Bardot relaxed her ears, gently walked over to Augie, licked his hand, and then sat down and gave him her most loving cocked head smile.
I have got to start taking her to auditions.
"This is not a joke, Halsey," Augie said while having trouble pulling his eyes away from Bardot's face. "This body is old but it didn't bury itself. And once again you are the one found at the scene. I'll do what I can, but don't be surprised if I have to bring you in for a talk. I already know that I'll get pressure from above."
"That's ridiculous. You can't blame me for this! Heck, this is my first time here! If I'd buried a body, then why on earth would I go and dig it up and tell you what I'd found?" I could tell by the look on his face that my logic had struck a nerve.
"Perhaps, but this is how police procedure works. You can go for now, but stay close to home, we'll definitely need a follow-up with you. And take your dog, why does she keep staring at me?"
"She looooves you, Augie, she looooooves you. Must be because you are so sweet."
"Go, get out of here."
I pulled Bardot on the wagon as we went down the hill while humming the k-i-s-s-i-n-g song.
When we returned to my house, wagon with mystery cigar box in tow, I saw my neighbor Marisol staring out from my front stoop.
"Brought you your paper." She grinned, her back gold tooth catching the morning sunlight.
It was early even for her and she was still in her bathrobe, a flannel number with faded miniature roses and snaps for buttons. And fuzzy ankle socks and garden clogs. If I didn't know better, I'd guess that she was still waiting for a callback from her audition for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
"You leave my paper up at the door every morning, Marisol. What makes today so special that I'm also graced with your presence in all your sartorial splendor?"
I say things like this just to mess with her. Marisol and I have a love/hate relationship. Meaning she loves to spy on me and I hate it. At eighty-something, I expect her to spend her days sitting in a recliner looking at photos of the old country, Mexico, and watching telenovelas. But she eschews her heritage and wants to be seen as the all-American girl. With her jet-black dyed hair held back in combs and her landing strip of gray roots.
Truth be told, she saved my life once, and I may have saved hers. There is a love there that runs deep, but no form of torture would make me admit it.
"What are you gawking at? Can't you spy on the neighborhood from your own porch?"
"Shhh," she hissed.
I tower over Marisol at five eight, so I looked over her head and tried to follow her gaze. Despite the earlier wipeout, my hair still had the silky body that comes from almost annihilating it with highlighting chemicals, but I was blond again. And at thirty-five still in the game. Even if a certain bearded man was trying to take me off the market. But we get ahead of ourselves.
"That's what you're staring at, that lady walking her dog? What has she done to get a wild hair up your ass? Look, she's even picking up her dog's poop."
"Give it a minute. Whatcha got in that wagon? Did I hear sirens?"
I ignored her question and watched while the woman bagged the excrement, tied the package in a nice knot, and continued on her way. Just like we all do, having planned our route so our dogs do their constitutional as close as possible to a house where the trash bins are stored in front.
"This is ridiculous. I'm going in."
"Wait for it. Aha!"
The woman, unaware of her audience, stopped in front of house a few doors up, quietly opened the door of the iron mailbox, and dropped the bag inside. She then smiled and went on her way.
"Whoa," I said.
"She and Hawaii used to date. It didn't end well," Marisol explained.
"Hawaii" was her name for the divorced man who now lived by himself and always sported tropical print loose shirts. Underneath hung an ever-increasing belly.
"How long has this been going on?"
"Couple of weeks now; you should see what he does to her," Marisol replied, stepping down from my stoop.
"How do you always know these things??"
She was gone. One of Marisol's trademarks was her ability to vanish into thin air.
"Morning!" Sally greeted me while checking her step counter and breathing from her diaphragm. "Beautiful day like this makes me happier than a New York rat with a stuffed-crust pizza."
If I hadn't lingered another minute, I could have snuck inside the back gate under the radar. I was not ready to face my public yet, I wanted to shower and spend some time revisiting my newly found treasure.
"Hi, I was just getting my paper —"
Behind Sally approached two more Rose Avenue denizens.
"She's got me speed walking, says it's great exercise first thing in the morning. I can think of a far more pleasurable way to work out, and it doesn't involve getting out of bed."
"Tom," Aimee shrieked, giving her boyfriend's arm a love punch. They were festooned with so much digital gadgetry that it was a wonder they could walk at all.
"Glad to see you both," said Sally. "I'm doing Wine Club this afternoon. To celebrate the start of summer I'm pouring icy cold Crossbarn Rosé of Pinot Noir."
"Can I come?" Tom asked.
"NO," all three of us said in unison.
We were punctuated by a car horn and looked to the street where Penelope had stopped.
"Hello, luvs, what's up?" she asked in her cheery English accent.
"Wine Club at Sally's, four o'clock," we all shouted again.
The cars were backing up behind Penelope.
"See you then. Halsey, what on earth have you done to your knees?" I was about to make up a story when a gentle tap of a car horn behind her sent Penelope waving and driving off.
"There's Peggy," Sally said, looking down the sidewalk across the street. "I'm going to remind her that she's bringing her crab-stuffed deviled eggs this afternoon."
Geez, I'm going to need a nap.
* * *
I shut the door, hoping that Bardot and I would finally get some peace and quiet at home in our little slice of paradise. I walked through the "great room" that spans the entire length of the house and includes a large dining and living room area, and went out the back French doors to retrieve my wagon. It was sitting where I'd left it on the other side of the gate.
Excerpted from "Murder Most Fermented"
Copyright © 2018 Christine E. Blum.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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