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Some days I wish my life ran backward, because then I'd be ready for the catastrophes. Or at least I'd know whether there was a happy ending. I own a small vineyard at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Atoka, Virginia, where our winters are cold, our summers hot, and spring is the blissful season of growth and renewal. But not this year.
On what should have been a balmy May night, a warm air mass moving up from the Gulf of Mexico looked like it was going to smack into arctic winds sweeping down from Canada, causing temperatures to plummet below freezing. A week before Memorial Day, and Jack Frost nipping at our nose like early March. The weather forecaster on the Channel 2 news at noon recommended bringing tender young plants indoors for the night, "just to be sure." A fine idea, unless you had twenty-five acres of tender young grapes.
A lot of science and math go into making wine, but most people don't realize it's also a hell of a crapshoot, meaning a hearty dose of guessing and finger-crossing figure into the equation, too. Mother Nature can always pull a fast one when you least expect it, and suddenly you're scrambling -- like we were this afternoon.
Normally I play it safe with my money and my business. Last fall, though, an unexpected financial windfall landed at my feet and I did something I swore I'd never do. I spent it. The money would go into clearing more acreage and planting new vines come spring. Literally a bet-the-farm gamble, since we were trying grapes we'd never grown before.
I'd expected Quinn Santori, my winemaker, to be as gung-ho about the decision as I was. Of the two of us, he was the risk-taker. Imagine my surprise when he made a case for planting less and using some of the cash to install wind turbines. Quinn had moved here from Napa eighteen months ago and he was still hard-wired for California, where turbines, which protect the grapes from late-season frosts, were common. I'd lived in Virginia for most of my twenty-eight years and we got that kind of killing frost once in a blue moon.
And since my family's name was on every bottle of wine that left this vineyard, we did it my way. For the past few months we'd cleared land and plowed new fields. Thank God we hadn't started planting yet.
Quinn never said "I told you so" once we heard that weather forecast, but he came close. My father had hired him shortly before he died last year and it had been a marriage of convenience. Leland needed someone to work on the cheap, freeing up money for his gambling habits and low-life business deals. Quinn wanted to make a new start in Virginia after his former employer's decision to add tap water to his wines -- boosting production for a black market business in Eastern Europe -- had earned the ex-boss free room and board at a California penitentiary. When I took over running Montgomery Estate Vineyard nine months ago, I quickly found out that Quinn had a macho streak as wide as the Shenandoah River, a problem with authority, and a habit of speaking his mind with a candor polite folks would call unvarnished. If you happened to be a woman and also his boss, you would call it mouthy.
"Now that we've got our back to the wall thanks to you," he said, "the only way we're going to save our old vines is if we move that freezing air away from the grapes. Since we didn't install turbines, we'd better get a helicopter in here. Expensive as hell, but beats waking up and finding we've got a few acres of frozen grapes we could use for buckshot."
I closed my eyes and wondered how much "expensive as hell" cost -- not that it made any difference. If I couldn't hire a helicopter, we'd kiss about forty thousand dollars' worth of wine goodbye in one night. At least we were only talking about the whites, since they were farthest along.
"I'll get someone," I said. "Don't worry."
"You'd better," he said, "because I look pretty stupid strapping wings to my arms and flapping 'em around the vines like the paisanos do back in the old country. Besides, I got my hands full with the pesticide guys over in the new fields. They gotta get those protective tarps down right away."
"They don't really use wings and flap their arms in Italy, do they?" I asked.
He tucked his fists into his armpits and moved his elbows up and down. "Are you going to make those calls or aren't you?"
I made the calls. Finally Chris Coronado from Coronado Aviation in Sterling said he'd take the job. "I'm not cheap, Lucie," he said, "but I'm good. I've done this before."
He flew to the vineyard later that afternoon to see the fields in daylight and mark the coordinates in the helicopter's GPS navigation system so he could find them in the dark. His partner arrived in a Dodge pickup, towing a bright yellow fuel truck, which he parked near the Chardonnay block in the south vineyard. The pleasure of their company came to seven hundred and fifty dollars an hour for the helicopter, with an extra two-fifty for the fuel trailer.
Chris reckoned the temperature wouldn't dip below thirty-two until three or four in the morning, meaning they would only be in the air for a few hours until dawn. So about thirty-two fifty for the night. Anything a smidge above the freezing mark and we were home, but not free -- they still collected a thousand-dollar retainer and got to spend the night in the warm comfort of Quinn's spare bedroom instead of fighting vertigo flying in near-total darkness above our vines.
So that Chris could see where he was going, we needed to put flashlights around the perimeter of the fields he would strafe, our own version of airport runway lights. I figured about forty would do the job. We owned eight.
Randy Hunter, one of our part-time field hands, walked into the tool room in the equipment barn while I was checking the batteries. Good-looking in a rough, tough cowboy way, mid-twenties, with bright blue eyes, curly blond hair, and a few days' worth of grizzle that said sexy, not scruffy. When he wasn't working for us, Randy delivered furniture for an antique shop and groceries for an upscale supermarket. In his spare time he worked out and played local gigs with his band, Southern Comfort. Maybe it was the slow, languid Louisiana drawl or maybe the way those ocean-blue eyes could caress, but Randy had a way of looking at a woman -- any woman -- like she'd been created just for him on God's best day.
"What're you doing, Lucie?" He set his heavy-duty gloves on the workbench and took off his leather jacket. I couldn't help staring. Looked like he'd added another tattoo, this one around his muscular left bicep. Lightning bolts.
"I'm trying to figure out where I can get about thirty more flashlights in the next few hours," I said.
"You could buy 'em in a store," he said with an easy smile, "like most folks do."
"They sell them in stores?"
His eyes flashed appreciatively as he laughed. "What's the rush, needing so many?"
"We need to put them around the boundaries of the Chardonnay and Riesling blocks so they can be seen in the dark. I'll be driving to every hardware store in two counties before I'm through."
"I'm supposed to be moving that shipment you got from Seely's, but if you need to, I can help here instead," he offered. "Long's I have enough time to set up for your party tonight."
I liked the lilt in his voice.
"That'd be great. I could really use a hand," I said. "We'll worry about the plants later."
The sound of furious fiddling came from somewhere near his belt. He pulled a mobile phone out of the pocket of tight-fitting jeans and squinted at the display.
"'Scuse me. I gotta take this. Be right back." He flipped the phone open, cutting off the tune. "Hey, darling. Been thinking about you."
I could see him outside through the window, pacing back and forth as he talked to his lady friend. When he returned, I was struggling with a balky flashlight, trying to unscrew it so I could remove the dead batteries.
"I got that." His fingertips brushed mine and he opened it like the threads had been greased. "There you go."
His frank, wolfish eyes held mine, flustering me so the flashlight slipped through my fingers. It hit the floor and the batteries ejected like torpedoes. He winked and reached down for them, clearly enjoying the sight of my face turning the color of a hot chili pepper.
"So what's that song on your phone?" I needed to divert his attention.
"'The Devil Went Down to Georgia.' Charlie Daniels." He grinned and set the batteries on the workbench.
"You playing it tonight?" I gave up and smiled back at him. That much flirtatious charm ought to be illegal.
"We don't got a fiddler," he said. "And we're nowhere near as good as old Charlie. Besides, we're country rock 'n' roll, not redneck. But we are gonna play 'Georgia on My Mind.'" Another sly wink. "By way of saying thanks."
I laughed. "Good career move."
Georgia Greenwood had wanted Southern Comfort to play at the vineyard tonight at the black-tie fund-raiser, which we were hosting for the local free clinic. The band didn't have the polished sound I would have chosen for this well-heeled philanthropic crowd, but Georgia's husband, Ross, the doctor who once saved my life and now ran the clinic, was paying the bill. He adored his wife. What Georgia wanted, Georgia usually got.
Randy and I divided up the hardware stores and headed in opposite directions.
The errand didn't take as long as I'd reckoned, even though we bought out two stores. When we got back, he came out to the fields to help me. While I attached temperature sensors to the wooden trellis posts, he dug shallow holes and stuck the flashlights in them so the light pointed skyward.
"You sure this is gonna work? A helicopter?" He was on one knee, tamping the earth around the last flashlight. "Kind of seems like burning green wood for kindling, if you ask me."
"The alternative is a pair of wings," I said. "It has to work."
Randy smiled his slow, lazy smile again. "I hope so for your sake. You been working like a dog to get this place running good again ever since your pa died."
"Thanks. I'm trying to."
He stood up and stripped off his work gloves, banging them against a post to loosen the dirt. "If you're all set here, I'm gonna head over to the barn and get my things for tonight."
I knew he meant the old hay barn, which we let him use for band practice. The nearby cows and horses didn't seem to mind the loud music the way his neighbors used to. In return he worked a few extra hours for us off the clock.
"You and Quinn finish down at the new fields today?" I asked.
"Yes, ma'am. I nailed up a bunch of 'Keep Out' signs when Quinn took off to talk to your pilot. I'm glad that spraying chore is over with. Nothing's gonna live in that dirt with what that dude put in it."
"No bugs, at least," I said. "The vines won't mind."
"People mind. That stuff can kill you dead."
"It'll dissipate in three days under those plastic tarps," I said, "but I agree with you. It's nasty."
He shook his head. "Can't figure out why it doesn't kill the vines, if it kills everything else. Anyway, have yourself a good one, Lucie. See you later."
The fund-raiser for the Patowmack Free Clinic had originally been planned as an outdoor garden party. We were holding it over at the Ruins, the burned-out red brick tenant house we'd converted into a stage for plays, concerts, and wine events. More than a century ago the house had been a hideout for Colonel John Singleton Mosby, the Confederacy's legendary guerrilla commander, known as the Gray Ghost. Along with his group of Partisan Rangers, Mosby terrorized Union soldiers in our neck of the woods with surprise raids on their supplies and horses. The tenant house had been one of his many bolt holes until soldiers in blue coats burned it one winter night, trying to flush him out.
Evening gown notwithstanding, the fund-raiser was all work for me, with the ominous distraction of Quinn's regular phone calls reporting on the tumbling temperatures in the fields. As soon as possible I left the catering staff to clean up and joined him at the winery.
"How 'bout we take that candy-cane car of yours out for a spin to see what's happening up close?" he said. "At least we'll be warm when we're sitting in it."
"No making fun of my car or you can check those vines in the Gator," I told him.
I'd bought the red-and-white-striped Mini Cooper convertible from a friend after taking it for a test drive through the vineyard, where it easily navigated the narrow space between the rows of vines. It was the perfect car for zipping through the fields, though I'd learned to slow down on the corners after wrecking the side mirrors one too many times. Tonight the heater alone made it worth the price. The only way to keep warm if you were out in the Gator -- which looked like a tractor bred with a golf cart -- was by laying your hands on the engine hood.
"Damn, it's cold," Quinn said as he got in to the Mini.
"I hope we can pull this off." I started the car. "We've had it if the fruit freezes."
"Talking about freezing, Jennifer Seely called from the nursery while you were at the fund-raiser, all bent out of shape. She dropped off a shipment of bedding plants at the winery this afternoon. Said Randy was supposed to take care of them. She wanted to make sure he'd moved them inside tonight or they'll die. I couldn't find 'em. Did you do something with them?"
"No, and Randy didn't, either. He helped me buy the flashlights and then stuck around to set them up. Maybe Sera did. It was her plant order. Everything she wanted for the border gardens next to the villa and the baskets and wine casks in the courtyard."
"Well, somebody took care of them. There was nothing on the crush pad." He shrugged and changed the subject. "How did the party go?"
"Fine, until the end." I shifted into third as we motored down the dirt service road. "Harry Dye got loaded and decided to give Georgia Greenwood a piece of his mind."
Quinn picked up the thermos I'd filled with coffee and chuckled in the darkness. "Good for Harry. She had it coming. Every vineyard owner around here hates her guts. She'll shut us all down if she gets elected in November and takes that dumbass plan of hers to Richmond."
"First she has to win the primary," I said. "It's not a sure thing."
"She's picking up votes," he said darkly, pouring coffee into the plastic thermos cap. "She could win."
Georgia's dumbass plan -- supported by civic groups, churches, and school PTAs -- would stop vineyards from selling wine directly to restaurants and stores, forcing us to go through wholesalers as middlemen. It would be the death knell of the little vineyards -- family farms, when all was said and done -- whose profit would be wiped out if they had to add one more link to the distribution chain.
But Georgia had invoked Prohibition, claiming it meant less "demon alcohol" out there for our children to get their hands on. In my humble opinion, most kids' choice of beverage was ruled by their wallet, not their palate. I wasn't too worried about a fifteen-year-old with Mom or Dad's credit card trying to con me into selling him a case of twenty-dollar-a-bottle Pinot Noir over the phone. Shutting down vineyards that made pricey boutique wines wasn't going to change teenage drinking habits. They'd still drink whatever cheap rotgut they could get their hands on.
"I don't think she's going to win," I said. "Not after what she did to Noah Seely."
"It was a pretty stupid move," Quinn agreed, "going after Santa Claus."
"Generations of voters sat in his lap and told him what they wanted for Christmas. He fixes up that nursery like you always imagined the North Pole would be when you were a kid. The only thing worse would have been attacking motherhood or the flag."
"Didn't seem to bother Hugo Lang. He just endorsed her." Quinn poured more coffee into his cup. "Wonder how she pulled off getting a U.S. senator to do that. Wait until Hugo gets the VP nod at the convention in August. He'll have coattails from here to the moon."
"He stopped by tonight." I turned on my high beams so I could see in the inky darkness as we went off-road toward the fields. "Right before Harry went nuts. God, that was embarrassing."
"Who cares? Good old Harry. The only vineyard owner around here smart enough to put in turbines." Quinn finished juggling the thermos and cup and leaned his back against the door of the small car so he was facing me. "Where was Ross? Wasn't he around to defend his wife's honor?"
"He left early. Medical emergency. One of his patients went into premature labor with twins. Was that another dig about the turbines?"
"Would I do that?" he asked unconvincingly as I pulled over by the Riesling block and parked. "Here. Have some coffee. It's going to be a long night." He handed me his cup and unscrewed the bottom cap from the thermos for himself.
"Thanks." I warmed my hands on the cup and blew on the steaming liquid. "Hugo spent a long time talking to Georgia. He didn't look too happy about it, if you ask me. They left together, too. It was odd. The whole endorsement thing is odd."
"Odd, how? You think they're screwing?" Quinn perked up. Sex interested him. "Georgia's a knockout even if she is a bitch, but I don't think Hugo'd bang a married woman. The guy's a Boy Scout."
"You can be so vulgar sometimes, you know?" I said. "You never knew Hugo's wife. No one could take her place. He's definitely not...banging...Georgia. Or anyone else."
He laughed, unrepentant, and set the thermos on the floor. "She's doing it. You can tell. She puts out vibes. If you ask me, she's got something going with Randy."
"No way." Our body heat and the steam from the coffee had fogged the windows so it was like being in a cocoon. I turned the defroster on high and raised my voice to be heard over the gusty roar. "Randy could be her son. He'd be more likely to go out with Mia than Georgia."
"Sweetheart, this may come as a news flash to you, but there are some men who sleep with more than one woman at a time. He could still date your sister and have a little on the side with Georgia."
"Georgia shops at Saks and Tiffany's. She and Ross have a Picasso in their living room. Randy's an Elvis-on-velvet NASCAR kind of guy. Sorry. I don't see it. He could be sleeping with ten women, but she wouldn't be one of them."
Quinn made a bad job of whistling "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," then said, "That phone of his goes off all the time. And the song is no coincidence. It's hard not to overhear sometimes. I think he's been talking to her a lot."
"She got him the job playing tonight. Why wouldn't they be talking?" I turned the defroster down, since it had worked its magic.
"Where there's smoke there's fire. You heard it here first." In the newly quiet darkness, one of the sensors went off and we both jumped. "Damn! First one to go. I'll check it out. You stay put. I'll be right back."
I watched his dark, solid figure disappear in the star-filled night. The waxing quarter moon's silvery light caught the tops of the nearby vines so they already looked frost-covered. Hopefully only an optical illusion. Otherwise it would be the beginning of the end. Quinn opened the passenger door a few minutes later, bringing frigid air into the car.
"Show time," he said. "Thirty-two degrees and it's not even three a.m. I called Chris and woke him up. He's on his way. We'd better turn on those flashlights." He reached in the backseat and picked up what looked like two sets of earmuffs, handing one to me. "Here. These are from Chris. Make sure you wear them or you'll go deaf." He paused, then said, "You know, it's going to be really hard to see in the dark. Maybe I should call Hector."
"No. He hasn't been looking too well lately. I'm worried about him. Let him sleep and he can take over in the morning." Hector Cruz, our farm manager, had been with us ever since the first vines were planted twenty years ago. Now he and his wife, Sera, were the only ones left among our employees who remembered every one of our harvests.
"You sure?" Quinn asked quietly.
I appreciated the fact that he didn't glance down at my feet, even if we both knew what he was talking about. It had been nearly three years since a car driven at high speed by an ex-boyfriend plowed into the stone gate at the entrance to the vineyard. Only one of us walked away from that accident and it wasn't me. In fact, I did not walk again for a long time -- and the reason I did was due, in no small measure, to Ross Greenwood. Even so, after I got out of the hospital there were months of therapy, then a wheelchair, walker, and finally graduation to the cane I will need forever because of a now-deformed left foot. Quinn and I rarely discussed my disability, and though I knew he thought my knowledge of wine making could fit on the head of a pin -- with plenty of room left for the dancing angels -- he'd never, ever said I wasn't physically up to the job.
"I'll be fine." I put the Mini in gear. "Are you positive we're going to be okay with the helicopter stirring up all the air and that pesticide next door in the new fields?"
"Of course I am." He sounded annoyed. "I told you already. We're in no danger. The guy from Lambert Chemical even called his head office in Roanoke to double-check. We've got tarps on the fields and we're more than three hundred feet away from them. Technically we're safe at anything beyond a hundred feet."
"I hope you're right."
"I know I'm right. He'll be back Monday to haul away his equipment. You can talk to him yourself."
"I thought he took everything today."
"Nah, by the time he finished it was late. So I told him he could leave it out by the fields. No one will go near it. His next job is in Haymarket, so since he's saving money on gas he cut me a break on our price."
"Really? That's good."
"I knew you'd be happy." Quinn got in his share of jabs about my Scottish thriftiness. Or, as he called it, penny-pinching.
Thanks to me, though, the vineyard was now once again running in the black. I ignored the crack, as usual. "I hear the helicopter. Let's go."
Chris had told us he'd only be flying fifteen to twenty feet above the vines, so if we valued our heads, we needed to stay well away when the helicopter hovered over the fields. Under normal circumstances the higher the altitude, the colder the air. Sometimes, though, the opposite situation -- known as an inversion -- occurred and the cold air sat next to the ground with a layer of warm air above it. That's what we had tonight and why we needed Chris. The helicopter could push the warm air down so it was next to the vines where we needed it to keep the fruit from freezing.
For the next few hours, as the cold seeped into my fingertips and toes, Quinn and I grimly hopscotched across the fields, calling to Chris, who trained the helicopter's large searchlight on us, tracking us like a couple of fugitives on the run, as we led him to the places where beeping sensors indicated the temperature had again slipped into the danger zone. Once every hour Chris set the helicopter down to reorient himself. Twice he and his partner refueled.
"Why can't you use your instruments?" I asked during one of the breaks.
"Because we're flying too low. It has to be all visual," he said. "The problem is I can't see anything, and in the dark your worst nightmare is losing the horizon line. Then you don't know whether you're right side up or upside down. That's why I need to get back on land every so often to get my bearings again."
"My God, how scary," I said. "How much longer do you think you need to stay up there?"
"Another hour. Until dawn. Then the sun will take over and warm things up."
True to his word, Chris set the chopper down for the last time just after six a.m. I handed him a check, which he stuck in the pocket of his leather jacket without looking at it. "Call me if you need me again," he said.
"I think this was a onetime deal," I said. "According to the National Weather Service."
"I hope so, for your sake. Sometimes I think those guys use a dartboard to make their forecasts."
Quinn hitched a ride back to the vineyard parking lot with Chris's partner, who needed to retrieve a backpack he'd left at Quinn's place. The two of them took the pickup with the now-empty fuel trailer rattling behind them as it bumped down the dirt road. Then the helicopter lifted off and Chris waved, heading east.
The sunless sky, milk-white a while ago, had turned ash-colored. I collected the flashlights, leaving the sensors so we could continue to monitor the temperature. When I was done, I took the south service road in order to get a look at the new fields. In the distance Randy's neon-orange "Danger -- Keep Out" signs looked almost gay -- bright splashes of color against the plastic tarps, which shone like dull mirrors.
I did not see the parked car, which was partially screened by a grove of bushes, until I was only a few yards from it. Actually what I spotted was the vanity license plate -- "IXMN" -- through a break in the foliage. "I examine." Ross Greenwood's license plate. Then I saw his black Ford Explorer.
What was he doing here? Cold as it was, I started to sweat.
I reached for my cane and got out of the Mini. The body was on the driver's side, on the ground. I nearly tripped over it, since I'd been peering through the frost-covered windows instead of watching my feet. Still wearing the mint-green jersey evening gown and mink jacket from last night's fund-raiser, Georgia Greenwood lay facedown in a pool of frozen vomit congealed near an outstretched arm.
Whatever had made her sick like that, it was clear she was beyond medical help.
She was dead.
Copyright © 2007 by Ellen Crosby