Harvest of Secrets: New Excerpt
By Ellen Crosby
Harvest of Secrets is Ellen Crosby’s latest installment in the Wine Country Mysteries—the search for the killer of an aristocratic French winemaker who was Lucie Montgomery’s first crush and the discovery of dark family secrets put Lucie on a collision course with a murderer.
It’s harvest season at Montgomery Estate Vineyard―the busiest time of year for winemakers in Atoka, Virginia. A skull is unearthed near Lucie Montgomery’s family cemetery, and the discovery of the bones coincides with the arrival of handsome, wealthy aristocrat Jean-Claude de Marignac. He’s come to be the head winemaker at neighboring La Vigne Cellars, but he’s no stranger to Lucie―he was her first crush twenty years ago when she spent a summer in France.
Not long after his arrival, Jean-Claude is found dead, and while there is no shortage of suspects who are angry or jealous of his ego and overbearing ways, suspicion falls on Miguel Otero, an immigrant worker at La Vigne, who recently quarreled with Jean-Claude. When Miguel disappears, Lucie receives an ultimatum from her own employees: prove Miguel’s innocence or none of the immigrant community will work for her during the harvest. As Lucie hunts for Jean-Claude’s killer and continues to search for the identity of the skeleton abandoned in the cemetery, she is blindsided by a decades-old secret that shatters everything she thought she knew about her family. Now facing a wrenching emotional choice, Lucie must decide whether it’s finally time to tell the truth and hurt those she loves the most, or keep silent and let past secrets remain dead and buried.
“You found a human skull?” I said to Antonio. “Just the skull?”
“It turned up when we had to dig up part of the tree root,” he said.
“Why were you digging?” I was irked, hot, and tired, and Antonio knew it. All he and Jesús were supposed to do was cut up the branches of a tulip poplar that had split in two after lightning struck it during a storm the other day and tote everything away. The tree, which had been at least five feet in diameter and probably seventy or eighty feet tall, had come crashing down onto the old brick cemetery wall. It had also taken out the roof and one side of an old fieldstone storage shed.
The storm, with its lashing rain and fierce wind, had been a warm-up act to Lolita, a Category 5 hurricane with a beguiling name and enough scary “worst-ever” attributes hung on it like ornaments on a Christmas tree to prompt mass evacuations in the Caribbean in anticipation of her arrival. Forecasters predicted Lolita would eventually come roaring up the Atlantic coast and barrel through Virginia, scaring the bejesus out of anyone in her path and making everyone at my vineyard more tense and edgy than usual at harvest time.
“We had to dig.” He sounded testy as well. “You’ll see why when you get here.”
Antonio gets prickly when he thinks I’m telling him how to do his job, or if I seem to doubt his word, though he is always respectful. Still, he has some cause to be annoyed because most of the time when it comes to running the vineyard or taking care of our equipment, he’s dead-bang right. He’s also one of the best and smartest farm managers I’ve ever known.
The Montgomery family cemetery sits on a bluff where it commands a breathtaking view of the Blue Ridge Mountains—especially at sunset—which is the reason my ancestor Hamish Montgomery, who received our land as a grant for his service in the French and Indian War, chose that site. Generations of my family have been laid to rest there since the late 1700s. Both of my parents were buried inside the low redbrick walls along with Hamish, and I had no doubt someday I’d join them.
“I’m on my way,” I said to Antonio. “In the meantime, don’t do anything or move anything, okay? Are you sure the skull doesn’t belong to one of the graves? Are you sure it’s human?”
“Don’t worry, Lucita. Jesús won’t go near it.” He spoke as if he were calming an upset toddler, instead of his boss. “He says it’s mala suerte—bad luck. Finding a skull means someone’s going to die. I’m sure it didn’t come from the cemetery and yes, I’m sure it’s human.” He added in that placating tone, “You’ll see.”
“Tell Jesús no one’s going to die. That’s just an old superstition.” I didn’t mean to snap at him, but just now I couldn’t afford to have either of them—or any of our crew—get spooked. Not in the middle of harvest, our busiest time of year.
But as I spoke a gust of wind rushed past me, icy fingers caressing my neck and making me shiver. My grandmother, my father’s mother, used to tell me that was the sign a soul was leaving this world on its way to the next.
Now I was imagining things. It was probably only a stray blast of cold air from the air-conditioning.
Antonio muttered something ominous-sounding under his breath and then hung up. All I caught was the word boda. Wedding. He and Valeria, the mother of his baby daughter, were getting married the week after next at the vineyard, my wedding gift to the two of them. Maybe there were also Hispanic superstitions that involved weddings and skeletons. Dear Lord, I hoped not. Antonio was already jittery enough about this marriage.
I’d been in the barrel room when he’d called me—during harvest we work all hours, seven days a week. Partly because I’d wanted to escape the brutal heat, but also because the lees on last year’s barrels of Cabernet Franc needed stirring. The process is called bâtonnage and we do it to extract more flavor from dead yeast cells and other sediment that slowly sifts to the bottom of a wine barrel. I closed the bung—the stopper—to the barrel I was working on and put the bâton back where it belonged.
Then I texted Quinn.
Going to check on Antonio and the tree. Almost done with bâtonnage. Back soon.
Quinn Santori had been the winemaker at Montgomery Estate Vineyard ever since I returned home from France five years ago, and as of a few months ago, he was my fiancé. Just now he was out in the south vineyard measuring Brix for this year’s harvest of Cab Franc, a test that determined the sweetness of the grapes and whether they were ready to be picked.
Quinn knows me so well. He texted right back. What’s wrong?
Not sure. I climbed into a dark green ATV that was parked outside the barrel room. I nearly hit Send on my reply and then reconsidered.
They found a skull.
Quinn pulled up beside me in a fire engine–red ATV about thirty seconds after I arrived at the cemetery. I had known he would come once I told him what Antonio and Jesús had discovered. He climbed out of his ATV and walked over to mine. Side by side the two vehicles always made me think of Christmas. Or stoplights.
Anvil-shaped clouds the color of dull pewter moved across the Blue Ridge Mountains and streamed toward us like freighters. We were in for another storm later on, a big one. Lolita, sending us one more warning of what was to come. At least the birds were still singing and the wind hadn’t whipped up yet, blowing through the trees until their branches rustled and swayed like dancers.
Quinn slid an arm around my waist and his kiss landed in my hair, which I’d twisted into a knot to keep it off my neck in the soupy heat.
“They really found a skull?” he asked.
“That’s what Antonio said.”
We walked over to where limbs from the huge tree had already been cut into smaller pieces with a chainsaw. The back of the Superman-blue pickup that had belonged to Antonio’s predecessor and had logged nearly two hundred thousand miles was piled high with leafy cut-up branches. Jesús sat on the tailgate smoking, the chainsaw lying on the ground next to him, while Antonio paced back and forth, his phone clamped to his ear. He was talking to Valeria. I could tell by his body language and that low, solicitous tone of voice.
Antonio was lanky, slim, dark-haired, with skin a warm russet brown, and the kind of soulful brown eyes and easy seductive smile that melted women’s hearts. Tears would flow the day he married Valeria. He had walked across the border from Mexico into Texas when he was twelve and never went back—though he did send money to his mother faithfully as clockwork—and taught himself how to do just about anything that had to do with farming equipment and how to repair it.
Jesús was a short, plump spark plug, strong and dependable, born in El Salvador, possessing a swarthy complexion and a silver tooth that glittered when he laughed, which was often. I always knew when he was around, because there’d be laughter among the rest of the men—he was a joke-cracker—and maybe someone would be singing in Spanish, a song remembered from home. Heart of gold, that was Jesús. I couldn’t imagine how we’d get along without either of them, and Benny, our other full-time worker.
Jesús slid off the tailgate. Antonio stopped pacing and disconnected his call, shoving his phone into his back pocket.
“It’s back there,” he said. “In the shed.”
The four of us walked over together, though Jesús hung back a few paces. The girth and height of the tulip poplar had obscured the little stone shed. It had been built by one of my ancestors as a place to keep shovels, rakes, and other garden implements used to care for the cemetery and the graves. I used it to keep flower vases and a collection of little American flags I put on the graves of my ancestors who had fought in our country’s wars on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July.
With the roof gone and the interior of the shed now exposed to the outdoors, it was clear why Antonio and Jesús had discovered the skull. When the tree split and toppled over, part of the trunk had landed on the roof and a couple of large tree roots had pulled out of the ground, leaving behind a sizable hole. The skull lay there on its own. My first thought was, where’s the rest of it?
It was human, all right. All of the teeth were intact. Whoever it was, he or she appeared to be grinning at us, perhaps surprised—or pleased—to be discovered in such an unexpected way.
“I wonder if the rest of … it … the body is here, too,” Quinn said, echoing my thoughts. “Maybe we should dig a little more and find out.”
I shook my head. It was already creepy enough to realize I’d been walking over a buried skull all these years every time I used the shed. How had I never sensed its presence?
“We have to call the Sheriff’s Office,” I said. “These are human remains. No more digging.”
“It’s next to a cemetery,” Quinn said. “People are dying to get in.”
Jesús and Antonio grinned.
“You’re not funny,” I said to Quinn.
“Sorry. But, seriously, it’s true. Why wouldn’t you find human remains here?”
“The skull is outside the cemetery. It can’t have moved or shifted under the wall, and certainly not this far away,” I said. “Not inside the shed.”
Antonio shrugged. “Don’t look at me. If you want to call the Sheriff’s Office, Lucie, call ’em. Maybe they can tell you.”
“I wonder how old it is,” Quinn said. “I mean, how long it’s been here.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “What I wonder is why there’s no coffin.”
“There’s an easy enough explanation for that.” Quinn gave me a meaningful look. “It would also explain the skull being outside the cemetery.”
I knew where he was going with this and I didn’t like it one bit.
“What do you mean?” It was the first time Jesús had spoken and he sounded ill at ease. “You think it’s el diablo?”
“Don’t worry, Jesús. Quinn’s not talking about anything supernatural. No ghosts. No devil,” I said.
He nodded, seemingly reassured. “Okay. That’s good.”
I knew what I said next would upset him all over again. “Not exactly. What he means is that whoever this is was murdered.”
Copyright © 2018 Ellen Crosby.