The vineyard was as dark as a rich cabernet. Dion Demopolous stopped and gazed west, across the sprawling sixty acres. At night, deep in the heart of the Willamette Valley, the land belonged to the creatures and critters. The vineyard was at their mercy. The wind rustled the leaves and the trellises creaked under the heavy weight of grapes ready for picking. He could barely see anything in front of him as he trudged up the gravel path toward the behemoth structure that housed Sisters Cellars Vineyard.
It was harvest, the most exciting time of year for a vineyard. Usually several cars would still be parked in the lot, the bay doors open to the deafening hum of the machines working in tandem with the efforts of the growers. Automation meets authenticity, Mina always said. Usually he wouldn’t have been able to hear the crunch of gravel under his feet.
But tonight wasn’t usual.
He’d left his car on the highway outside the front gates. The night was as quiet as it was dark, and a rumbling engine most certainly would’ve awakened Berto, the aging winemaker who lived in the quaint cottage at the base of the hill. Harvest was exhausting for everyone, but more so for someone in his seventies.
Everyone else was gone except for the owner. Mina’s house sat on the opposite side of the production building, and for now, she was asleep. She’d spent the evening watching her beloved Oregon Ducks women’s soccer team playing their rival, Oregon State, but before she retired for some much needed shuteye, she would’ve checked the fermenting grapes, “her children,” one last time.
As for Mina’s wife, Cleo, Dion knew she’d taken a lover and was away, at least for a while.
Twenty paces more and he halted, confronted by his own smiling visage emblazoned across a banner advertising the Wine 101 class that he conducted as the premier sommelier for Sisters Cellars. He looked good, his sandy brown hair parted on the left and his goatee expertly shaped to hide his double chin. They had even managed to highlight the brown of his eyes.
When Mina unveiled the banner, he’d been stunned and a little uncomfortable that his face would greet every visitor. But his mother had joked he had wine in his veins instead of blood. And he was named for Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. When he was a teenager, his brother Apollo (who told him “Apollo” meant “boss,”) told him Dionysus was also the god of fertility. Dion had focused on the wine aspect since he was rather certain the fertility piece wouldn’t be a strength. But the wine, yes the wine…
He was likely to gain the title Master Sommelier after he passed the last section of one of the hardest exams given in any profession, and the idea brought a smile to his face.
Then a strange noise, like the snapping of a branch, halted him once more. He looked off into the trees, moonlit silhouettes playing on the trunks. Was one of those silhouettes a human form?
He blinked and shook his head. He’d enjoyed a few belts of whiskey from his flask before he left his car, needing the proverbial liquid courage for this mission. He glanced again at the ridiculously large banner, guiltily. He’d toyed with the idea that once he passed the test, he’d leave tiny Cheshire, Oregon, for Portland, a doorway to a lucrative and significant career. But now he was reconsidering for many reasons.
He crept around the outside of the production room, passing the enormous grape press, breathing in the distinctly rich aroma of the latest batch, grapes destined to be cabernet.
He veered to the far side of the building to the tasting room door. It was unlocked—as promised. He slid inside and shut the door quietly. Two sconces provided enough light to navigate the room successfully. The lingering cologne and perfume of the day’s last visitors assaulted his acute olfactory senses and he made a face. A Gen X couple had appeared just five minutes before closing, promising to hurry the tasting and vowing to purchase at least three bottles of wine. He shook his head and tried to clear his senses. Why would anyone sabotage one of life’s true pleasures—tasting wine—for a ridiculously priced fragrance that garnered hateful looks from the scent-free crowd?
He flipped on his cellphone’s flashlight as he entered the event room. The enormous Sisters Cellars logo of the three mountain peaks known as “The Sisters” sat in the center of a sprawling mural of the Willamette Valley. It was beautiful art and effective PR. He walked a circuitous route, necessitated by the round tables placed precisely six feet apart for ADA compliance. A bridal shower was scheduled for the next night, one that would net him big bucks in tips as the bartender.
His hip caught the edge of a staging table, toppling several crystal vase centerpieces and sending a few dozen sachets to the floor. “Shit,” he hissed and swayed slightly. Perhaps he’d taken one belt of whiskey too many. Fortunately the linen tablecloth muffled the thudding vases. He quickly righted them and plucked the sachets from the floor, grimacing at the ungodly lavender smell.
He glanced up to the balcony that sat above the tasting room where the executive offices were located, as well as the guest room. No lights were on. Tomorrow Mina’s childhood buddy was due to arrive, but tonight everything was quiet, empty and dark. Tonight no one had any reason to be in the building. Mina had forbidden it.
He took a deep breath and pushed through the steel doors that led to the production room. Unlike the public areas, the corridor was well lit since work happened at all hours—but not tonight. He knew tonight would be the only night everyone was gone during harvest.
As he approached the large accordion door, he glanced up at the security camera, its green light flashing hello. No one ever checked the footage unless there was a problem, and it taped over itself every few days. Since his little covert operation would go completely unnoticed, he wasn’t worried. Everyone was far too busy right now with harvest.
A laminated sign had been haphazardly stuck to the door with a magnet. KEEP OUT - HIGH CO2 LEVELS. CO2 was the natural byproduct of adding yeast to the grapes. At least once during each harvest they experienced a day when there were so many grapes fermenting at once, the CO2 levels became unsafe. Work shut down until the grapes completed the most critical step to becoming wine.
Before he pressed the door control button, he visualized his route. He’d grab a mask from the wall and would be in and out in less than three minutes. The door ascended and he ducked inside, heading straight for the safety equipment. Odd, he thought. There was only one mask on the rack. He strapped it over his face and closed the door to contain the CO2. There was no way to smell the natural and odorless gas, which was why at this level it was so dangerous.
As he started across the room, he marveled at the equipment necessary for turning grapes into wine. Two massive steel tanks flanked the left wall. He imagined the pinot gris that would eventually flow out of the tanks and into the bottles. It was some of the best he’d ever tasted and a great success for a winery literally brought back from the ashes. He debated grabbing a glass for just one more taste, but he didn’t want to risk it.
In the center of the room sat the eight fermenting bins, each housing approximately a ton of grapes that would become pinot noir, cabernet, syrah, and malbec. He couldn’t help but take a peek inside at what currently could only be described as a science experiment. Thousands of grapes, still possessing their skins, mixed with various yeasts chosen by Mina, the owner and winemaker. Currently the consistency of oatmeal, the grapes were undergoing a carefully monitored chemical reaction that involved sugar levels, acidity, brix scores, and pH levels. He understood some of it after spending fifteen of his thirty-five years in the industry, but only Mina and Cleo, the viticulturist, understood all of it. Cleo made sure Mina had the best product possible for her part—making the wine and blending finished wines for new products.
He shook his head and chastised himself. For some reason the production room was like Disneyland. He was in complete awe of the winemaking process and easily distracted by all of the machines and tools.
He needed to get moving and get what he came for. He stepped away from the bins, realizing he was parched. He swallowed—and his throat burned. It was worse than any case of strep he’d ever had. He gasped and pulled off his mask. What the hell? He found a slit in the respirator, rendering the mask useless. He swayed and grabbed one of the fermenting bins for support. New plan. He had to get out of there. Now. What he’d come for would have to wait.
He held the compromised respirator to his face, hoping it provided some protection, and stumbled toward the back door. He pushed the control button repeatedly but the door didn’t open. He looked over his shoulder, back at the large accordion door where he’d entered. It seemed so far away. He swallowed again and winced, rusty nails lodged in his throat.
He focused on the red door button that would once again raise the accordion door. He stumbled forward, unsure if his legs were actually attached to his body. He pressed the button again and again but nothing happened.
He no longer cared who heard him. In fact, he couldn’t remember why he was in the production room. His phone! He reached into his pants pocket. Empty. He checked the rest of his pockets. Where was it? He closed his eyes and groaned. He’d used the phone’s flashlight in the event room—and left it on the table. He’d forgotten it after he picked up those stupid sachets off the floor. He was starting to sweat and felt terribly nauseous. He imagined he’d soon vomit the whiskey. Or worse.
There was a phone in Mina’s office. He had to cross the room yet again to reach the far corner. His feet tangled and he tripped on himself. He grabbed the corner of a fermenting bin to stay upright. He took short breaths to prevent the CO2 from overpowering the remaining oxygen in his body. He needed every bit of it if he was going to save himself.
But all he wanted now was sleep. No use fighting it. And as the CO2 dropped a shroud over his mind, he remembered his plan and knew who had done this to him. He just wished he’d used his final minutes for something meaningful—taking a final taste of that pinot gris.
The long security line wended left and right as the weary passengers shuffled forward, a few gulping final sips of coffee before the stoic TSA agent confiscated their cups. Ari Adams sighed as she and her best friend and fellow real estate agent Jane Frank joined the line. “I really wish you’d sign up for Pre-Check,” Ari said. “As often as you fly to Cali to see Rory, I’d think you’d want to skip this part.”
“Nuh-uh,” Jane replied. “And miss the chance to be frisked?”
“Are you serious? We’re in this line at three thirty in the morning because you want to get felt up by a cop?” Jane just smiled. “Don’t you think that’s a little ridiculous since we’re headed to the location of your wedding?”
Jane picked some lint from the shoulder of her black jacket. “Hey, Rory and I aren’t married yet.”
“If you’re suggesting—”
Jane held up a hand and gave her stuffed carry-on bag a push forward with her Louboutin heel. “I’m not suggesting anything. I’m totally committed to Rory. My days of lewd remarks to women in uniform and committing sex acts in nearby restrooms because of said uniforms…are over.”
Ari rolled her eyes. She’d lost track of how many times they’d almost missed a plane or caused a flight delay because Jane had disappeared with a member of the crew.
“But Rory gave the green light for flirting,” Jane continued. “She knows it would be impossible to completely stifle my overactive libido.”
Ari shook her head. “Rory is a good woman.”
“Indeed she is. And she reaps the benefit of my libido frequently.” She turned on her heel and sauntered forward.
Ari didn’t share Jane’s worldview of women despite them being as close as sisters. According to Jane this trip would finally introduce Ari to the other woman Jane considered a “sister,” her childhood friend Mina Sommer. Over the years Ari had learned tidbits of Jane’s youth in Southern California, which she described as her wild years. On dozens of occasions, usually when she and Jane were consuming a good bottle of wine, they would Skype with Mina, and eventually, once Mina married, her wife Cleo joined the call as well. After their first Skype session, she’d asked if Mina was an old flame and Jane replied, “Weren’t they all?”
Ari had become virtual friends with both of them. With Jane’s prompting, she had shared many of her escapades over the last few years, like finding a dead body in a real estate listing, catching Jane’s stalker, and most recently, solving the murder of her own brother. Mina and Cleo were fascinated with her stories, maintaining that nothing interesting ever happened in their tiny town.
Meeting them in person would hopefully solidify the “friend” title. Ari was a bit nervous, having read many articles about virtual friendships that fizzled after disappointing face-to-face meetings. She doubted that would happen as she knew their respective biographies, which were nothing less than incredible.
Mina had received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry, and after amassing a small fortune working in private industry, she bought her uncle and aunt’s failing vineyard in tiny Cheshire, Oregon. Around the same time, Mina met her soulmate, an environmental engineer named Cleo Vidal. After four years they were thriving and winning awards for their wine.
Jane easily convinced Rory they should marry at the vineyard, and this trip would only confirm what was already decided. Rory had wisely chosen to stay away, giving Jane and Mina reminiscing time. Ari was happy to accompany Jane and fulfill her maid of honor duty, meet Mina and Cleo, and sample the winery’s award-winning pinot noir cleverly named Phoenix.
They finally reached the head of the TSA line. Ari eyed the one female officer—a trim, young thing with short, jet-black hair smoothed back in a ducktail. Most likely family. Ari absently threaded her fingers through her own shoulder-length dark hair, remembering a time when it fell to her waist. Although her girlfriend Molly swore she loved it just as much now as she did when it was long, Ari still wasn’t sure she’d made the right decision to chop off six inches.
The young agent wanded a woman who’d set off the metal detector. Ari shook her head. Jane lived for this.
They each grabbed two gray bins and performed the required FAA ballet that allowed them into the airport’s inner sanctum. Ari assumed the hands joined overhead position and exited the scanner without incident. She gathered their things and moved outside the immediate security area, waiting for what would undoubtedly be a show starring Jane and the poor, unsuspecting TSA agent. The only thing missing was the popcorn.
Jane, wearing a crisp, tailored white shirt that clung tightly to her large chest, stepped into the scanner and locked her arms above her head. She closed her eyes, shook her blond mane left and right, thrust her chin to the sky, and froze in place like an actress in a bondage film. When the young female motioned for her to exit and step to the side, Jane’s eyes grew wide.
“Is there a problem, Officer…” She leaned closer to read the agent’s badge. “…Cassidy?”
Cassidy cleared her throat and stood ramrod straight. “Yes, ma’am. I need to check here, here, and…here.” Her blue-gloved hand motioned toward Jane’s left and right hip, as well as her abundant cleavage.
“Do your duty, Officer Cassidy. I don’t mind.” Jane grinned and young Officer Cassidy turned completely red. She patted Jane’s hips so lightly that Ari wasn’t sure she’d actually made contact. “It’s okay, Officer,” Jane coaxed. “I won’t break.”
Cassidy shifted from one foot to the other, unsure how to approach the issue with the cleavage. “Ma’am, are you wearing a bra with a wire?”
“Have you had any surgeries or augmentations—”
“Honey, everything up here is grade-A, one hundred percent real. Wanna see?”
“No, no,” she replied quickly. “I believe you.” She stared at her breasts. “Are you wearing a necklace?”
“Of course,” Jane cried dramatically. “I forgot. I’m so sorry.” She undid the next button of her shirt, pulling apart the fabric so the agent got a clear view of her maroon bra. She withdrew a funky medallion from between her breasts. “Might this be the problem?”
Cassidy cleared her throat again. “Uh-huh.”
Jane reached behind her neck, undid the clasp and freed the necklace. She held it out to the agent, who stood there mutely, her jaw dropped. “Why don’t you keep this?” Jane suggested. She took the agent’s hand and placed the medallion in her upturned palm.
Officer Cassidy whispered a slight, “Thank you,” as Jane swaggered away and took her carry-on from Ari. She threw the young agent one final look and said, “Do you think she’ll remember me?”
“For a long time.”
Their flight to Eugene, Oregon, proved uneventful and their drive through the verdant Willamette Valley toward tiny Cheshire was beautiful in the early morning light. Sprawling acreage went on for miles, mostly farmland or vineyards, and the reds and yellows of the maples and dogwoods announced fall had begun.
According to GPS, Ari was driving up a major state highway, but periodically a dirt road would intersect, an artery to a large farmhouse in the distance. Ari had always wondered how people arrived at those solitary structures, ones surrounded by only field or forest. At these crossroads were often smaller signs for wineries, and Ari noted directions for at least twelve—Mina and Cleo’s competition.
The scenery was relaxing and hypnotic, and Ari found her eyelids drooping. She wiped a hand across her face to stay awake. She glanced at Jane in the passenger seat of their rented Range Rover. Her eyes were closed and she was lightly snoring. Ari poked her arm.
“Hey, it’s your job to keep me awake. And you’re missing all the lovely scenery.”
“Huh? Oh.” She stared out the window for a half second. “Yeah, beautiful.”
“You don’t think this is pretty?”
Jane snorted. “City girl through and through.”
“Then why are you getting married out here?”
“Rory wanted something charming and quaint. And she wanted the ceremony outside California so most of her family would skip it.”
“That’s rather warped logic.”
“You haven’t met her family.”
“Only a few of them. They’re…medieval.”
“Is she going to like living in Arizona?”
“I…think so. She’s tired of California.”
Ari heard the hesitancy in her voice. “How many times has Rory visited Arizona. Twice?”
“No, three times. Granted, the third time we went to Sedona the minute after she stepped off the plane…”
“Ah, that’s right. I just remember a few heated discussions about Arizona’s backward ways.”
Jane faced Ari. “There wasn’t anything to discuss. She’s right. When it comes to ridiculousness, especially regarding social issues, there’s no place more back asswards than Arizona. Did you hear about that legislator who wants to outlaw the word homosexuality in schools?”
Ari groaned. “Yeah, I read that.”
“I hadn’t…until Rory sent it to me.”
The seriousness in Jane’s voice was unusual. Jane was the joker, the optimist, the one who lived life as large as possible. Ari was the serious one.
“What are you thinking?” Jane asked.
“Nothing,” Ari lied. When it came to Jane and Rory’s relationship, she saw some red flags other than Arizona, but she didn’t think they were serious enough to warrant conversation. “Tell me more about what Mina and Cleo have been up to. I missed the last few Skype calls.”
“They’re up to their eyeballs in harvest.”
“Should we really be visiting?”
“I asked Mina the same thing. She absolutely insisted that we come now. She knows we need to finalize the wedding venue and she’s really excited that we’re getting married there.”
“I just hope we aren’t in the way.”
Jane picked some lint from her jacket and said, “I doubt it. She’s a complete workaholic who gives a hundred and ten percent to everything she does. What she accomplishes in a day takes most people a week. We’ll just be one more detail. She’ll probably put us to work.”
Jane laughed. “You say that now. Winemaking is hard! It’s tough physically and mentally, but you know Mina. She’s completely driven.”
“Agreed. It’s not surprising her winery is successful. I’ve read that most aren’t.”
“That’s true. A lot of boutique wineries have popped up over the last decade, especially ones owned by retirees. It’s their life dream,” she said melodramatically, clasping her hands. “What they don’t realize is that it’s incredibly expensive and a ton of hard work. Most fold within the first year. But not Sisters Cellars.”
Ari heard the pride in Jane’s voice. “Mina’s made some great wines. I love that cabernet she sent you.”
“And Cleo is the… What is that word for what she does?” Ari asked.
“I can’t remember her official title. She’s the one who takes care of the grapes. The grape mom. I wouldn’t be surprised if she gives names to all of them.”
“That’s smart. They divide the work in half. And Mina got the vineyard from her aunt and uncle?”
“Sort of. The land was originally owned by them for decades and Mina spent her childhood summers up here helping them—until she turned into a teenager.”
“You corrupted her,” Ari concluded.
“Ha, more like the other way around. Anyway, Mina’s aunt and uncle didn’t have any children or other heirs, but they weren’t happy about Mina’s choices. They told her that someday they might leave the winery to her but only if she got her act together. She got her degree, went to work in the private sector, and when they passed—”
“They left it to her.”
“No, actually. Her uncle made some bad decisions and there were gambling debts. Right about that same time she met Cleo on a blind date. Mina showed her the vineyard, which the bank had foreclosed on by then, told Cleo she dreamed of owning the vineyard, and Cleo said they should go for it. By then they’d fallen in love and decided to get married. It took a few years, but they’re finally reaping some rewards. The cabernet is their second wine to win an award and there’s talk about their upcoming pinot gris which hopefully you and I will get to sample. And they were just named best up-and-coming winery in the Willamette Valley.”
“Impressive, but it still sounds like a ton of work.”
“Yeah, but they’re living their dream. They even brought a couple of Mina’s childhood friends into the business.”
“Well, I’m excited to finally meet them.”
“Yeah, me too,” Jane said with a genuine smile.
They spent the rest of the drive discussing a frustrating real estate client who wouldn’t compromise on the features he wanted. Ari had shown him dozens of listings but none of the houses in his price range met all of his requirements. “Thank goodness for the Internet,” Ari said. “At least he’s been doing most of his vetoing by email.”
“Ah, yes,” Jane said. “Here’s to not spending hours driving around for no reason, wasting gas and contributing to climate change.” She sat up and pointed. “There it is, up there at the top of the hill.”
Ari peered down the ribbon of highway—and saw flashing red lights. “Jane, this doesn’t look good.”
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