The Vineyard Victims by Ellen Crosby is the eighth book in the Wine Country Mysteries series, where the death of a former presidential candidate in a fiery car crash at her Virginia vineyard has ties to a 30-year-old murder, as well as to Lucie Montgomery’s own near-fatal accident ten years ago, as she searches for a killer who now may be stalking her (available November 7, 2017).
When Jamison Vaughn―billionaire real estate mogul, Virginia vineyard owner, and unsuccessful U.S. presidential candidate―drives his gold SUV into a stone pillar at the entrance to Montgomery Estate Vineyard, Lucie Montgomery is certain the crash was deliberate. But everyone else in Atoka, Virginia is equally sure that Jamie must have lost control of his car on a rain-slicked country road. In spite of being saddled with massive campaign debts from the recent election, Jamie is seemingly the man with the perfect life. What possible reason could he have for committing suicide … or was it murder?
Before long Lucie uncovers a connection between Jamie and some of his old friends―an elite group of academics―and the brutal murder thirty years ago of a brilliant Ph.D. student. Although a handyman is on death row for the crime, Lucie soon suspects someone else is guilty. But the investigation into the two deaths throws Lucie a curve ball when someone from her own past becomes involved, forcing her to confront old demons. Now the race to solve the mystery behind the two deaths becomes intensely personal as Lucie realizes someone wants her silenced … for good.
I could see the car speeding toward me on Atoka Road, a small dark speck that was maybe a mile away but definitely traveling well above the limit on the two-lane country road that ribboned out in front of me. The car disappeared into the trough of a hill and then popped up again, accelerating as it grew closer. A cold, hard rain that had fallen for most of this early spring day had finally abated, leaving large puddles in the usual low spots and wet, slippery asphalt that could be treacherous if you took a turn too fast.
The driver was motoring like he had stolen something, fast and careless, weaving back and forth across the road into my lane. By now the car was close enough that I recognized the gold SUV that belonged to Jamie Vaughn, who six months ago had been a candidate for the office of president of the United States. It looked like Jamie was behind the wheel, alone in the car. Even though it was just past noon, I wondered if he’d been drinking. Like me, Jamie owned a family vineyard, and after a devastating loss in November, I’d heard rumors about how he was coping—or more like not coping—though I’d never actually seen him drunk.
He hadn’t shifted back into his own lane, so I leaned on my horn and waited for him to correct himself, then wondered why he didn’t. Maybe he was unwell—a heart attack, a stroke … something. By now we were both approaching the turn to Sycamore Lane and the entrance to my vineyard, heading directly toward each other like a pair of jousters preparing to do battle. I’d have to cut across the road in front of him to make it into the turnoff before he reached it since I assumed he’d keep barreling right past me—or through me if I didn’t get out of the way in time.
One more look at his car and the speed at which he was traveling and I knew I wouldn’t make it without being broadsided. I swerved hard onto the opposite shoulder and my Jeep bounced into a deep, rutted puddle, jolting me so hard my teeth rattled in my head. I swore under my breath and fought to hold tight to the steering wheel to avoid crashing through my neighbor’s split-rail fence. Jamie was driving like a lunatic.
I heard the screech of his tires before I could turn around to see what happened, followed by what sounded like a car engine accelerating. Then the crash—metal smashing into unyielding stone, so eerily reminiscent of my own accident ten years ago. I cut the engine to the Jeep and looked in my rearview mirror.
He’d hit the same pillar Greg had plowed into, and part of it had collapsed onto the hood of his car. I grabbed my phone from the console and my cane from the backseat, scrambling out of the Jeep. By the time I reached Jamie, I’d called 911. The air smelled of gasoline along with the acrid odor of deployed air bags. The impact and the toppled stone pillar had crushed the frame of the car so Jamie’s door was jammed shut, but luckily his window was open. A fine coating of air bag dust had settled over the car interior and on Jamie’s navy blazer and khakis. His dark brown hair looked like it had been coated with powdered sugar. Either he’d already unhooked his seat belt or he hadn’t been wearing one. I guessed it was the latter. Everyone around here knew he drove without buckling up. He’d even got called out on it during the presidential campaign.
There was blood on his face from a gash in his head, and he was wheezing as if he couldn’t catch his breath. His internal injuries were probably worse, maybe a gut punch from the air bag or he’d hit the steering column without the restraining protection of the seat belt.
I reached in and shook him gently. “Jamie, it’s Lucie. Lucie Montgomery. Can you move? We need to get you out of here. I smell gasoline and I think your engine is about to catch fire.”
He gave me a confused, glassy-eyed look. “No.”
I yanked on his door, which budged a little. “Help me,” I said, urgency creeping into my voice. “We haven’t got much time. Push against the door, will you? I’ll keep pulling.”
It was the same spot where I’d been trapped inside Greg’s Corvette. The exact same spot. That time the fire department needed the Jaws of Life to extract me, but at least the car hadn’t caught fire. I felt like I was going to throw up.
Jamie reached through the open window and clutched the sleeve of my jacket. His hand was red and raw, probably from air bag burns.
“I’m sorry,” he said, with surprising force. His eyes, now trying to focus on mine, were feverishly bright, and I wondered if he was a bit high, what he’d taken. “Tell him I’m sorry.”
I leaned closer and smelled alcohol on his breath. Maybe he’d mixed booze with pills. “What are you talking about? Jamie … we have to hurry.”
Something slipped through his fingers and fell to the ground, landing at my feet. A MedicAlert bracelet. It must have snapped and fallen off his wrist with the impact of the air bag. I picked it up and shoved it in my jacket pocket. When the ambulance arrived, they would need the information on it.
“Tell Rick,” he said and coughed up blood. “Do you hear me? Tell Rick I need him to forgive me.” He tried to wipe away the blood with the back of his hand. “I’m sorry. So very sorry.”
“Sure,” I said. Anything to placate him. “I’ll tell him. Now come on, you have to help me.”
“No,” he said again, his voice thick with blood. “S’okay. You promise, right?”
“Lemme alone, Lucie. It’s too late.” He coughed, spitting a spume of blood like a projectile. It sprayed over me, stinging my face and leaving a trail across my jacket, my shirt, and my jeans, as shocking as a hard slap. For an instant I froze, then my brain kicked in again.
Get him out of there. He’s choking on his own blood.
“It’s not too late. Dammit, Jamie.” I was losing him. The heat from the fire that had started under the hood was as hot as if I were standing at the open door to a furnace. I tugged on the car door. “Come on.”
I didn’t hear the other vehicle until the brakes screeched as someone pulled up behind me. When I turned around, Mick Dunne, my next-door neighbor, was scrambling out of his Land Rover, hollering as he sprinted toward me.
“Lucie, get away from the car. The engine’s caught fire.”
I glanced at Jamie, who was now unconscious, eyes closed, blood still trickling from one side of his mouth. Black smoke poured from the front of the car and flames appeared through the front driver wheel well and around the edges of the smashed-in hood. The heat burned my skin. My clothes felt like they were becoming congealed to my body.
“I know,” I said. “Mick! Hurry!”
“Get out of there,” he yelled. “Now!”
“Jamie Vaughn is trapped inside. I can’t open the door. Help me!”
Mick reached me and easily scooped me into his arms. He smelled of horses and hay and sweat. “The engine’s going to blow up any second. Come on.”
“No!” I pummeled his shoulders with my fists. “We can’t leave him to die like this. He’s still alive. Mick, he’s your friend.”
Two pops sounded like gunshots and we both flinched. “That’s the tires exploding,” Mick said in a tense voice. “Lucie, dammit, we can’t save him.”
The thick smoke, which had morphed into a black funnel cloud, now engulfed us. My eyes stung and my lungs felt like they would explode. Over the roar of the blaze I heard Jamie’s agonized scream as the flames spread to the interior of the car, burning it like a funeral pyre.
Mick pulled my head down, jamming my face against his shoulder. “Don’t look,” he said as we moved away from the fire. “Just don’t.”
“Put me down. Get away from me.” My voice was muffled against the scratchy denim of his jacket. I punched his shoulder with my fist, but this time I knew it was too late. “Let me go.”
He obeyed, setting me down as soon as we were out of range of the fire and the vicious smoke. I stumbled away from him and dropped to my knees, gasping as I tried to catch my breath. My cane was somewhere near Jamie’s car. I’d dropped it when Mick picked me up.
“Lucie—” Mick was on the ground, too, coughing convulsively. “Lucie—”
“We let him die.”
Sirens wailed in the distance. I turned away so Mick wouldn’t see my tears. The smoke was now an enormous column that plumed into the sky like a dark, ominous genie. Below it, the fire blazed, turning the car into a charred metal skeleton like the picked-clean bones of an animal devoured by a predator.
Jamie was dead, gone, consumed by the fire.
Mick came over to me, grabbing my arm. “Don’t you ever say that again.” His mouth was next to my ear and his anger cut through me like a whip. “If we’d stayed to help him, we’d have been immolated just like he was. Do you hear me? I saved your damn life.”
He shook my arm hard and dropped it, walking away as the first fire truck roared up Sycamore Lane.
Immolated. Killed or sacrificed by fire.
What a bizarre word choice. Except I was the only person who’d actually witnessed Jamie’s car as it crashed into the wall. Or seen most of it. Not only had it seemed deliberate—he’d aimed directly for the stone pillar and hadn’t slowed down—but he also didn’t help me open the door and free him before the car caught fire.
Everyone knew how devastated he’d been by losing the election in spite of a gracious, upbeat concession speech. His loss had floored everyone—the media, the pollsters, his party … the country. What made it worse was that he’d won the popular vote but lost massively in the electoral college. Jamie’s opponent—now the president—had scooped up the big-prize states, claiming an overwhelming mandate, and even turned a few states the other way for the first time in decades. It had been Jamie’s first time in national politics, galvanized by the belief that he could do something to change the ugly polarization and deadlocked status quo that had mired Washington for decades. His charisma, boyish good looks, and personal charm had soon elevated him above the other candidates in his party so that he’d wrapped up the primaries early in the season, swept through the national convention as his party’s shining star: an appealing new candidate who was smart and telegenic, and possessed the savvy political instincts of a pro. A successful self-made businessman with a multimillion-dollar empire in international real estate, well known for his generous philanthropy, beloved in our community—one of our own—and a devoted family man. Jamison Vaughn had it all.
What had just happened?
And who was Rick, someone so obviously on Jamie’s mind—or his conscience? I realized now his dying request was for me to find him and tell him Jamie was sorry. So sorry, he’d said. Forgive me.
Something so awful that it had driven him to commit suicide? Surely there had to be another explanation for why he drove into my wall. Not suicide, but a tragic accident. Maybe a lethal combination of drugs and booze.
Jamie’s death would be national—no, international—news. As the only witness, there was no way I wanted to tell anyone I suspected it had been suicide and destroy the reputation of a man who had done so much good in his lifetime.
But in my heart of hearts that’s exactly what I thought had happened: Jamie Vaughn had deliberately taken his own life in a gruesome and violent way.
And I was the only one who had witnessed what he’d done.
Copyright © 2017 Ellen Crosby.
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Ellen Crosby is the author of the Virginia wine country mystery series, which began with The Merlot Murders. She has also written a mystery series featuring international photojournalist Sophie Medina, and Moscow Nights, a standalone. Previously she was a freelance reporter for The Washington Post, Moscow correspondent for ABC News Radio, and an economist at the U.S. Senate.