I didn’t want to kill Paul Noble. Yes, I said I did. Worse, I said it in a public place. In my defense, half a dozen people at that same meeting chimed in. “Get in line” or “join the club” or “you and me both.”
It was a figure of speech, and everyone in the room—twenty-five northern Virginia winemakers like me—knew it. At least that’s what I thought at the time. So when I found Paul hanging from a beam a few weeks later in the old fieldstone barn he’d converted into an artist’s studio, the first thing I thought was, “Oh, my God, someone really did it.”
My second thought was that I could see my breath because the room felt like I’d stepped inside a refrigerator, which was odd on a sweltering July day. A blast of arctic air blew down my spine, bringing with it the faint but unmistakable sickening-sweet stench of death. How long had he been here? A few hours—maybe more— based on his mottled face, bugged-out, vacant eyes, and the slightly blackened tongue protruding from his mouth. I put a hand over my own mouth, swallowing what had come up in my throat. At least the glacial temperature had slowed down decomposition.
A paint-spattered stool was overturned in a wet spot on the carpet underneath Paul. He’d soiled himself—his khakis were stained—but the rug was damp from something else. An empty bottle of wine lay on the rug on its side next to a broken wineglass. I didn’t need to lean in to see what he had been drinking. A bottle of my vineyard’s wine, Montgomery Estate Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. We’d won a couple of awards for it.
It was still possible to make out something in faded gold silk-screen on the wineglass. Nothing I recognized. No logo, no fancy calligraphy of a vineyard’s name or a commemorative occasion, just a cartoonish figure of an empty-eyed man whose hands were clasped over stubs of ears, mouth open in the perfect round O of a scream.
My stomach churned again. I reached out to steady myself on the glass-topped table Paul used for his tubes of paint, palettes, and jars of brushes, pulling my hand back in the nick of time. The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Department would be all over this place as soon as someone—meaning me—phoned in a suspicious death, and they’d check for fingerprints, fibers, and whatever they could find that would tell them who Paul’s most recent visitors had been. No point contributing evidence I’d have to explain later.
I backed out of the barn into a wall of triple-digit heat. Though Paul had made many enemies with the way he did business, that kicked-over stool looked like suicide. Talk about an unlikely person to kill himself. Only two days ago I’d been on the phone with him and he’d been as ornery and mean-spirited as ever.
The only remaining brother of Noble Brothers Fine Wine Importers and Distributors, Paul Noble had the exclusive contract to distribute my wines to restaurants and stores, a monopoly he ran like a tin-pot dictator and the reason so many vineyard owners hated him. If you wanted your wine sold anywhere outside your tasting room, it worked like this: Paul told you what he’d pay for it, and you said okay. Tell him no or “if you think I’m giving it to you for that price, you’re out of your mind,” and no one else would, or could, buy it. Hence the word “exclusive” and the reason he got away with rock-bottom offers that forced more than one small family-owned vineyard to throw in the towel after their profit margin flatlined.
These were hardworking people—friends, not some faceless business ventures. Paul was nothing more than a wholesaler middleman who pocketed a share of someone else’s blood, sweat, and toil. For that we could thank the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed Prohibition but kept a choke hold over the distribution of “demon alcohol,” spawning the Paul Nobles of this world. It wasn’t fair, but it was the law.
Paul had called me two days ago. A Tuesday. The minute I saw his name flash on my phone’s caller ID display, I knew I was in for it. He didn’t waste any time telling me he could no longer buy my Cabernet Sauvignon for the price we’d agreed in the spring, and if I wanted him to take it now, I had to throw in my Sauvignon Blanc, medals and all, for another fire sale price.
“We had a deal,” I said. “You promised.”
He’d caught me as I was walking through the courtyard that connected the barrel room where we made wine with the tasting room where we sold it. In the distance, the vineyard was summer-lush and green, framed by the soft-shouldered Blue Ridge Mountains. I loved this view, especially at sunset when the honey-colored light spread across the fields and gilded the vines like a scene out of a dream.
“Look, Lucie, it’s not my fault the economy’s in the toilet,” he said. “I can’t sell it if I buy it at that price now.”
I deadheaded flowers in a wine barrel planter filled with rioting petunias and variegated ivy, snapping off wilted blossoms and thinking evil thoughts about Paul. He could keep our agreement and sell it at the old price, but it meant cutting his own profit.
“Paul,” I said. “Please.”
“Sorry, kiddo. No can do.”
“I can’t even cover my costs if I sell it to you for that price.”
“It’s just for now,” he said. “Things’ll improve and we’ll do better next year. We all have to tighten our belts, you know.”
Paul’s belt went around a waistline that was forty-plus inches. He flew to Europe regularly to negotiate deals on the wines he imported, where he also bought his handmade shirts on Jermyn Street and his bespoke tailored suits on Savile Row in London, his favorite tasseled loafers at Gucci in Rome, and his silk bow ties from haute-couture designers in Paris.
“Maybe we can talk about this,” I said. “Sweetheart, come on. I’m trying to help you here.” He sucked air through the straw of whatever he was drinking. A perfect metaphor for our conversation and the way I felt. “You know as well as I do that unless you meet my price, your wine will just sit in the warehouse. No one will touch it. They’ll buy something else.”
“That’s not true.” I rubbed a small spot between my eyes where my pulse had started to pound.
I knew this game. He muscled me to cut my profit and then he did the same thing to the retailer. Everybody bled but him.
“Look, I gotta go. Someone just walked in. Think it over. You’ve got two days.” He hung up before I could make a stunned reply.
One of the threadbare jokes about owning a vineyard is that it’s a surefire way to make a small fortune: all you have to do is start with a large one. I didn’t have a large fortune when I took over the family business four years ago, thanks to Leland, my father, who never met an investment opportunity—or get-rich-quick scheme—that hadn’t called out to him and his wallet until he died in a hunting accident. After his death, an inheritance from my mother’s estate helped me get back on my feet, but that money was gone after fixing what Leland had let get run down and planting more vines. Throw in a rough spring earlier this year when my winemaker took a break to wrap up personal business in California, and an unexpected hard frost in May that killed half our crop, and I was teetering on the precipice again. Paul’s phone call couldn’t have come at a worse time.
For the next forty-eight hours I’d stewed about that ultimatum and the unfairness of what he was trying to do to me. Finally I decided to drive over to his home outside the pretty Quaker village of Waterford, rather than meet him in his Georgetown office, and tell him to go to hell. That was before I discovered him hanging from a rafter in his barn above a pool of my Sauvignon Blanc.
I shaded my eyes against the hard slant of the noontime sunshine and looked across Paul’s golf-course-perfect lawn to the fields and woods beyond. The main road was a half mile away at the end of his long driveway—more like a private road. A car could have come and gone easily without being noticed, certainly not by any neighbor since the nearest one was down the road apiece. The only vehicle I’d seen after driving through the tree-lined streets of Waterford had been a John Deere tractor on the outskirts of town. The farmer pulled over and waved so I could pass him near the cemetery entrance on Loyalty Road.
Had someone else come by earlier, before I got here? What if he—or she, or they—killed Paul and then staged the hanging so a murder looked like suicide? And what if they were still here, waiting? Was I alone now?
I shuddered and took a long, slow look around the house and grounds. Except for the twittering of birds hidden in the trees and the faint buzz of the cicadas, the place was as hushed and silent as a cathedral.
I pulled my phone out of my purse. Once I called the sheriff’s department, I’d be halfway down the slippery slope, letting myself in for a heap of trouble. First, I was the one who found Paul. Then there was that argument we had the last time we spoke and the fact that I recently said in public that I’d like to kill him—even if it was in jest. Throw in my wine bottle at the scene and the reason I’d come over here unannounced: to have a showdown with the deceased.
On the plus side, I didn’t murder Paul Noble.
I punched in 911 on my phone and made the call.
© 2011 Ellen Crosby