Not long ago, I had a terrific comment exchange with crime writer and fellow blogger Christine Poulson . At the time, she challenged me to write a story that begins and ends with exactly the same sentence. I accepted the challenge, and I’m delighted to say that Christine agreed to do her own story, also beginning and ending with the same sentence.
Below is the story that came from this conversation. And be sure you check out Christine’s story, which is right here. Try her crime fiction, too – you won’t be disappointed.
‘You’re going to love this place.’
Gabe looked around behind him at the group of people on the bus. Nine of them this time – a nice number. Easy to keep track of, but a big enough group that they’d start talking to each other once they’d visited a couple of the wineries on the schedule. He’d been doing these tours a few years now, and it had gotten to the point where he could almost predict exactly when the ice would break. It hadn’t yet, though.
He surveyed the group. A middle-aged couple – nice the way they were holding hands. What did they tell him? Thirty-third anniversary? That was something these days. Three other, younger, couples. One of them had said this was their year-delayed honeymoon. And there was one young woman in the back. Her name was Stephanie. Alone for the tour, with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. She said almost nothing. He walked back and asked her if she was all right. She said she was. There were a few other quiet murmurs, and some heads bent over the brochures he’d passed out when they first boarded the tour bus. No real enthusiasm yet, but that usually came later, after a few tastings. Now, he went back to the front of the bus and continued his spiel.
‘So, this vineyard’s one of our most popular stops. They’ve got some great, full-bodied reds, and some nice, light, crisp whites, too. And you’ll get to see a little of the actual property. Now, I’ll stop talking and let you get started. Your vineyard host’ll take it from here.’
The group shuffled off the bus, a few people blinking in the strong sunlight. One or two put on sunglasses. Gabe watched them go up the steps to be greeted by their host. He’d been a cop for a number of years before retiring and taking on this job, and he found those skills were still useful. He was good at observing, and could tell when someone needed a break from drinking, or a chance to sit for a few minutes. You didn’t often get trouble on these wine country tours, but he was good at spotting and preventing that, too. A lot of it was in the eyes: glazed with a little too much wine; or bright with excitement and interest. Now he looked again at his passengers as they headed into the winery. Everyone seemed to be comfortable, if a bit reserved. Everyone except Stephanie.
Gabe hurried over to Stephanie and gently pulled her aside. ‘You sure you’re OK?’
‘I am, thanks.’ She gave him a tired sort of smile.
He wasn’t about to pry. He nodded and she joined the group.
Gabe was curious, though. He went back to the bus and looked at his passenger list again to remember her last name. Greenvale. Where had he heard that name? It took a few minutes, but it came to him. Dan Greenvale. A suicide. It made the news because there was a Greenvale Winery here in Temecula at the time. Must be hard on the kid to come back here if she was a relative.
Stephanie followed the rest of the group into the winery, pretending to listen as their guide explained how the place got started. She didn’t need to pay attention; she knew damned well how Marquise Winery began. Now this place, and its owner, Ned Priestly, were raking in money. And that was why she was here.
The tour group followed dutifully as the guide led them out to the vineyard itself. Everyone stopped at the different designated points to look at the young grapes, taste some samples (the Chenin blanc really was nice and crisp), and hear about the process of harvesting and winemaking.
‘Now, here’s a nice treat,’ the guide said. ‘Our owner, Ned Priestly, is here today. Come say hello, Ned.’
A man in his sixties, dressed for the weather in a light sport shirt and khaki trousers, joined the group. ‘Nice to see you all here,’ he said. ‘I hope you’re enjoying the tour.’ Everyone murmured a greeting, and Ned soon took his leave and made his way along one of the trails.
When the tour had finished, the visitors were invited to visit the tasting room, use the restrooms, and, of course, browse the gift shop. Stephanie walked with the group as far as the restrooms. Then, as soon as she saw that no-one was watching her, she went back the way they’d come –to the vineyard itself.
There he was, still fussing with the vines. Stephanie walked up to him.
‘Can I help you?’ he asked. The expression on his face added the word, ‘Sweetie’ to his question.
‘I hope so. You’re Ned Priestly, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, I am.’ His smile widened.
‘Then you’re the person I need. I’d like to go into the business.’
Ned’s smile turned condescending. ‘Well, you know, it takes a long time to learn the winemaking business. You have to –’
‘I know. I grew up in a winemaking family. We owned a vineyard. I know a lot about wine and winemaking.’
Now, Ned was interested. With those looks, if she also knew about the company’s wines, she could sell a lot of them. ‘What do you know about Marquise wines?’
Stephanie moved closer. Her voice got softer, but the edge was unmistakable. ‘I know you and your company took over this winery from a man named Dan Greenvale. I know you used some dirty tactics to get the land and the grapes. I know Dan Greenvale never got over it. He killed himself. I know that.’
Ned was slowly backing away. ‘I – I never – I –’
She kept coming, slowly reaching into the tote she had with her. ‘And you know how I know all that?’
Ned shook his head, flicking drops of sweat as he did.
‘Dan Greenvale was my father!’
It was just a quick glint of silver, but it caught Gabe’s eye. He’d been on his way to gather the group for the trip to the next winery when he noticed Stephanie talking to the owner, and wondered what was going on. He moved close enough to hear, making sure he stayed out of their line of sight. Then he saw Ned Priestly fall, and Stephanie take something that looked like tissues out of her bag to wipe the handle of the knife she’d used. She dropped it and turned away. Gabe waited until she’d slipped back to the main building. Then he called the emergency number.
It was time to leave. The tour group slowly filed back on board the bus. Gabe watched their eyes as they did. No one had had too much to drink – yet. But everyone was starting to talk a little. Stephanie was the last to get on, and went to take her seat at the back. That’s when they heard the siren. People craned their necks, trying to get a glimpse of what was going on.
‘Do you know what’s happening?’ someone asked Gabe.
‘No idea,’ he said. He managed to catch Stephanie’s eye and nodded just enough for her to see. Then, he glanced down at his schedule. ‘OK, our next stop is the beautiful J & J Winery. You’re going to love this place.’