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Authors: Nadia Gordon

Sharpshooter

Sharp Shooter

A SUNNY MCCOSKEY NAPA VALLEY MYSTERY

Nadia Gordon

For Lauren, Rebecca, and Jonno

Give the tardy fruits the hint to fill; give them two more Mediterranean days, drive them on into their greatness, and press the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

—Rilke, translated by Robert Bly

1

In the black of the early morning,
Silvano Cruz drove his pickup truck under the fieldstone and ironwork archway announcing the Beroni Vineyards Estate. He drove slowly, leaning forward in his seat to maximize the view of the road and swath of vineyard illuminated by the truck’s headlights. The slightest changes in the land were duly noted—a new growth of stinging nettle near a culvert, a cluster of ragweed, a pockmark indicating a gopher’s presence. As vineyard manager, he found it all of interest. The truck’s approach startled a cottontail foraging at the side of the road and it froze in the headlights, then darted into the truck’s path and back again. Silvano stopped and turned off his lights. After a few seconds he turned them back on and watched the rabbit scramble up the embankment.

At the winery, he pulled into his regular parking spot and got out to stretch. The cool morning air soaked quickly through his work shirt and he buttoned up his denim jacket, glancing up the hill at the Beroni mansion overlooking the vineyard from the top of the driveway. The sky had turned a deep blue and he could see the outline of the palm trees that flanked the big Victorian, and the round tower of the reading room that made the house look like a castle in the dim light. Silvano grabbed his Thermos and
headed for the little John Deere tractor parked just off the road. He pumped the throttle twice, turned the key, and it rumbled awake, more than he could say about himself at this hour. One beer too many at last night’s barbecue had left his mind feeling sluggish, half trapped in the dreams the alarm’s buzzer had interrupted. He poured himself a cup of coffee from the Thermos and sat listening to the engine’s deep-throated purr. The sound was both comforting and disquieting, in part because he couldn’t hear anything else. It was like his wife with the vacuum cleaner. He’d often startled her out of a meditative daze as she marked the carpet with neat lines, oblivious to him calling her name.

The tractor settled down to a softer idle and Silvano put his Thermos away. He turned up his collar and rubbed his hands together before slipping on his work gloves and easing the tractor forward. He gripped the black wheel and squinted, watching for obstacles in the predawn light as the tractor chugged down the dirt track toward the base of the vineyard. He wanted to have a look at the irrigation system down there before the seasonal crew arrived later that morning. They were slated to start harvesting portions of the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes being grown in the lone oak region, what Silvano referred to as C7, area C, section 7 of Beroni’s vast holdings. They were getting a late start, but nevertheless he planned to have the day’s harvest in by noon or earlier, before the sun had a chance to heat up the sugar in the fruit.

Up ahead he could see the artificial lake at the bottom of the Zinfandel acreage, its colors shifting from somber blacks and grays to oily blues and greens as the sky began to lighten. Silvano’s boss, Al Beroni, often told the story of how, forty years earlier when his wife, Louisa, had agreed to marry him, she’d told him that she dreamed of a lake for rowboats and a gazebo for watching them, sheltered from the strong sun. It was a fantasy
better suited to the lush gentility of the south of England than the arid wildness and scrub pines of the northeast of the Napa Valley, but he’d built them for her, along with a three-acre rose garden behind the main house. No one had ever taken a rowboat out on the lake—more of a pond, really—as far as Silvano knew, and the gazebo didn’t get used much except for the occasional wedding. There had been times when he’d seen a group of visiting Beroni cousins and in-laws standing in the empty gazebo like exotic birds in a cage, or one of Louisa’s ladies’ clubs gathered for a picnic, a flock of women in knee-length skirts clutching flutes of champagne and trying not to let their high heels sink into the lawn. The lake was pretty enough, but it was still a waste of valuable farmland in Silvano’s opinion, though it did serve in drought years as a reservoir for irrigation water. Still, what was now underwater could have produced two hundred cases of wine a year, maybe more.

As he continued down the narrow track, he stared at the gazebo gently lit by the pink and gold glow of sunrise with a mixture of contempt and awe. It had six equal sides and a peaked roof crowned with a white dove lifting off in flight. On five sides a fine white lattice formed a waist-high skirt; the sixth was open and faced the lake, with three crisp white stairs leading down to the small, kidney-shaped lawn. Silvano glanced at the stairs and then back again. He released the throttle and let the tractor settle to a halt. A wake of dust billowed up around him, then subsided. Cautiously he looked again, then turned the key and killed the motor, staying seated until he was sure of what he saw. He wanted to be sure, because a thing like that could rattle a man if he wasn’t prepared.

With the tractor quiet, the trill of a red-winged blackbird cheered what promised to be another warm Indian summer day
by the afternoon. Silvano got down off the tractor. He left his gloves on the seat and walked around to the edge of the dirt track. The gazebo stood less than fifteen yards away. There, on each of the freshly whitewashed steps, he saw long, narrow pools of blood. Raising his eyes reluctantly to the floor of the gazebo, he crossed himself and muttered, “Sweet madre de Dios.”

Sprawled across the floor and long since drained of blood lay Jack Beroni—son of Louisa and Al Beroni—now dead, surely dead. Silvano climbed the stairs at one edge and inched his way around Jack’s body, careful to avoid the blood spread out around it as if this affliction were somehow contagious. He knelt and held his hand in front of Jack’s nose and mouth. He didn’t feel any breath, which didn’t surprise him. He hesitated an instant, then took up Jack’s hand and wrist, pressing his fingers to the place where the pulse should have been. The hand was cold and lifeless, the vein still. Jack’s silver Rolex, chilled by the night, seemed to burn Silvano’s fingers and he let the hand drop suddenly. The resulting thud made him jumpy and he looked over his shoulder, half expecting a man with a gun to be watching him. There could be no doubt about it, Jack Beroni was definitely dead. The thing had been done, the breath was gone, the blood had run out all over his mother’s floor and down the steps to the manicured lawn, freed from his body through a bullet wound to the chest.

Silvano stared. Jack’s normally robust complexion had drained to an industrial shade of bone, the color of computers and cheap telephones. Only his black hair still displayed the vigor and distinguished bearing of its owner’s former self. He lay awkwardly, head turned to one side, legs twisted, eyes wide and mouth a horrible grimace of shock and surprise. He’d fallen with one arm wedged underneath him. Most awkward of all were his feet, sticking up at odd angles in their lustrous black oxfords. The
silk jacket of his tuxedo lay open, displaying a white shirt that Jack had worn unbuttoned in fashionably rogue contrast to the formality of its tailoring, and which was now pierced with a neat round hole over his heart. A dark crimson stain seeped out around the hole. Suddenly the smell of blood seemed to be everywhere, heavy and thick at the back of Silvano’s throat. He hurried back to the tractor, started it, then changed his mind and ran back up to the winery fighting a wave of nausea that finally overwhelmed him as he neared the structure.

By noon the C7 Cabernet Sauvignon harvest was not in; in fact, it had not even begun. Instead, a string of patrol cars had nosed to the side of the road near the lake, fouling Silvano’s neatly sculpted drainage ditch in several places. Half a dozen St. Helena police officers combed the area around the gazebo, which had been roped off with yellow crime-scene tape. Al and Louisa Beroni had come down from the house and now stood off to the side while the police worked. Their arms linked, dressed in neat but conservative attire, he in khakis and a chambray button-down, she in a blue cotton skirt with appliqué pockets and a cream-colored sweater set with pearl buttons, Al and Louisa watched in a dazed state of grief, unable to leave the scene in front of them, as though if they watched long enough the tragedy would reverse itself. Police officers moved methodically away from the gazebo in concentric circles, their steps shortened and eyes downcast in the search for evidence.

2

Sunny McCoskey pulled
a woolly, sea-green sweater over her T-shirt and stepped into a pair of clogs. In the bathroom, she rubbed a tiny dab of pomade between her hands and smoothed her bangs into place, then poked small silver hoops through the holes in her earlobes. She’d been up since four reading yesterday’s newspaper over coffee and oatmeal with raisins. Rationalizing what she suspected was behavior verging on the not quite normal, she reasoned that she was merely making good use of one of the few fringe benefits of living alone, the freedom to indulge her occasional insomnia. Is it a crime to get up in the middle of the night and make chocolate chip cookies and cinnamon twist bread? To wake up two hours early for work in order to catch up on inconsequential personal correspondence and read several newspapers? Only if someone else is trying to sleep, and there was certainly no need to worry about that. She thought wistfully of the Jack Russell puppy she’d seen at the animal shelter last week. If she’d brought him home, there would be the heartwarming
clickity clack
of toenails on the hardwood floors. And probably a yellow puddle in the corner.

She poured the second half of a pot of coffee into her Thermos and added a generous splash from the last of an open
bottle of Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon left over from a splurge of notable excess the night before. She had no business drinking such expensive wine, but how could she help it if Monty Lenstrom was going to offer her his wholesale discount and make it seem like such a bargain? Sunny heard more than thought,
Never cook with wine you wouldn’t drink,
one of Catelina’s many admonitions and a convenient one for justifying the café-con-vino practice that plenty of people in Napa Valley would consider a daily blasphemy against both the bean and the grape. Why make a perfectly good pot of coffee and then ruin it with an inferior wine? Life is short. Good wine or bad, Monty gnashed his teeth whenever he saw her do it, even though she had patiently explained on more than one occasion that a key compound in red wine, the phenolics responsible for the tannic flavor, were also abundant in coffee. The common note drew the two beverages together in a symphony that took some time to get used to, she admitted, but that was exceptionally satisfying once properly appreciated. And since phenolics were rumored to prevent heart disease, her morning quaff was practically health food. She could think of certain French farmers who would be sure to approve.

A string of Nepalese tin bells sewn down a red rope chimed noisily as she shut her front door and went out. The morning was cool and a layer of dew frosted the front yard. The front of her clogs darkened with moisture on the way from the front porch across twenty feet of overgrown grass to the crooked little arch that faced the sidewalk. The sky was just tinged with the first yellow light of dawn. Sunny drew the wet, late-September air into her nostrils. Fall, harvest, damp-leaves-on-the-ground air. It filled her with joy. Sunny, born Sonya, was wry by nature and preferred autumn’s stoic good spirit in the face of winter’s
decline to the brighter ebullience of spring and the arrogance of summer. Most of all she was glad today was Friday. Whenever she looked at the balance in her checking account, she thought about keeping her restaurant, Wildside, open on nights and weekends. Then Friday would come around and she would remember why she liked to keep overhead low and her hours reasonable. Too many restaurants closed because their owners burned out on eighty-hour workweeks, staggering home at two in the morning every night.

She made her way up the street to where her pickup sat waiting, its enormous bed slightly cockeyed with age. Her father bought it new from the Ford dealership in Napa in 1978 and sold it cheap when Sunny said she wanted it a couple of decades later. The root beer–colored side panels and scratchy upholstery reminded her of childhood so forcefully that it still gave her a small spike of excitement each time she hopped into the driver’s side instead of sliding into the middle, her designated riding position most of the time when she was growing up.

She eased out of the sleepy neighborhood and onto Main Street. Even at the crack of dawn, cars were already pulling in and out of parking spaces on the main drag. St. Helena, despite appearances of fashionable wealth, was still essentially a farm town and it woke up early. She studied the cars out front of Bismark’s and the coffee drinkers seated with their newspapers in the window. If Monty or Wade were there, she’d stop and have a scone, but she didn’t recognize anybody and drove on toward her restaurant.

Wildside’s parking lot was empty and she took the furthest spot like always, noticing that somebody had staple-gunned a wanted poster to the fence that lined the back wall of the
property. HAVE YOU SEEN THIS INSECT? it demanded in bold

type, illustrating the question with grainy snapshots of the glassy-winged sharpshooter in all its life stages, including larva, various nymph forms, and voracious, sap-sucking, mud-colored adult. Though it had yet to make an appearance, the glassy-winged sharpshooter was the latest in a long line of hungry visitors to threaten the valley. The wine business—and everyone who depended on the wine business, which was the whole valley—was understandably alarmed about the problem, and they watched the sharpies’ progress with dread as they made their way steadily northward county by county. They called them the SUVs of leafhoppers, which were considered trouble to vineyards at any size since they vectored Pierce’s disease, lethal to grapevines. Those in the know said Pierce’s disease would make the industry’s recent bout with phylloxera look like a case of the vineyard sniffles. Every day the local newspapers covered the crisis. A glassy-winged sharpshooter spotted in San Mateo, too close for comfort. A shipment of ornamental shrubs from Southern California, rife with eggs, narrowly intercepted. A case of Pierce’s disease suspected in Fresno. The valley continued to prosper, even as its inhabitants ground their teeth at night, worrying.

Sunny went around back through the restaurant’s tiny garden and opened the heavy door to the kitchen. Inside, she put on a CD of Brazilian jazz and set to work preparing for the day’s lunch. At seven-thirty she heard footsteps coming down the path and Rivka appeared, clad in her usual white tank top and jeans, no matter what the weather. Her hair, long and wavy when it was down, had been braided and wound into two tight buns behind her ears. Rivka had a face like a Mayan temple
carving. Her eyebrows arched above almond-shaped eyes in two bold lines and her nose was well-defined and punctuated with two shapely half-moon nostrils, the left one pierced with a tiny silver stud. She had full lips that curved up in a demure smile even when she was feeling sour or bored. She swayed to the music and said, “This new boy of mine does not know how to dance.”

Sunny said, “He doesn’t know what he’s missing. He’s probably been spending all his nights cooking grapes in test tubes.”

Rivka lifted her black eyes. “I wish that was a joke. I’m a wine widow and we aren’t even married.”

Sunny whistled. “The M word! That must have been some date.”

Rivka tied the strings of a long white apron around her waist. “Actually it was pretty low-key. Cheap food, worthless movie, no sex. If it wasn’t for his sweet face, it wouldn’t have been worth the time.”

“No sex?”

“Rule number three. No sex after ten o’clock unless I’m drunk.”

“I’ve never understood that one,” said Sunny.

“Too sleepy. Conditions not conducive to optimum performance.”

“At least you have the option. Why is it the date-free zone every weekend at my place? I have another hideously wholesome weekend planned. Sports, Riv. I have been reduced to the mind-numbing practice of sports. Why don’t I live in the city?”

Rivka looked incredulous. “You mean San Francisco? You’ve got to be kidding. The numbers are better up here in the sticks. You just keep channeling all that romantic frustration into the cooking and it’s all going to work out fine. Thirty-two is old, but not that old. There’s still time.”

“Excuse me? Thirty-two is only old if you’re a twenty-fouryear-old lassie all full of ‘tude. These things are relative.”

“Maybe so, but you’ve gotta get it in gear one of these days. Use it or lose it.”

Sunny reduced a mound of parsley to a heap of tiny bits with expert precision, the knife moving at terrific speed. “Why don’t I live in Alaska, where the man-babes are plentiful? I hear they’re falling off the man-babe trees, lying around on the ground just going to waste by the basketful.”

“Because you would freeze your ass off,” said Rivka. She slipped into the walk-in and reappeared with an armful of white tubs covered in plastic wrap. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this.”

“What? Tell. Don’t toy with me, Chavez, I’ve been up since four.”

“Not again.”

“Yep. Dish, please.”

“Okay. Alex told me that he would have asked me out a long time ago, but he thought”—she stopped to laugh—”he thought you were my partner.”

“He thought we were a gay couple.”

“Yes!” Rivka bellowed with laughter.

“Well, I guess that explains it.”

“There’s more.”

“Oh, good. I can’t wait.”

“He also thought Wade Skord was your boyfriend. That’s how he figured out we weren’t a couple.”

“That’s lovely. And do we have any idea how widespread this concept is?”

“No idea.”

“Not that I don’t love Wade.”

“I hear you.”

Sunny stood over the sink in back and pulled the rough skin off a steaming-hot roasted beet, revealing the slick sanguine flesh underneath. Beet juice stained her fingers and purpled the calluses lined up across her palms at the base of each finger. Blood-red splashes hit the white sink. The back windows stood open wide in front of her, framing a view of the lush vineyards and sea of green, gold, and red leaves that stretched to the east behind the restaurant. Up valley she could see a portion of Howell Mountain. Gusts of cool air brushed her face while she worked, and soon she was lost in thought, remembering previous harvests. The first time she’d worked a harvest, reaching overhead to pick clusters of Sauvignon Blanc for eight hours that felt like sixteen, then the all-night party…The old black phone on the wall behind her jangled. Very few people had the kitchen number; it had to be either her mom, Monty, or Wade.

“Hello?” she said cautiously.

“Sunny?”

“Wade?” Sunny cradled the receiver and rubbed at her stained hands with a towel.

“Hi, Sun. Listen, do you think you could come over here to my place?”

“Right now?”

“If it’s not too much trouble.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I just want your opinion on something.”

“What kind of something? Are you sick? Are you okay?” Rivka gave her a curious look. Sunny raised her eyebrows and shook her head, listening.

Wade said, “Sick? No, no. It’s…Well, I’ll explain when you get here. It won’t take long.”

“Okay. I guess I’ll be there in, um, fifteen or so.”

“Great. Thanks, McCoskey.”

Sunny hung up the phone and turned to Rivka. “He says it won’t take long.”

The road twisted through live oak, digger pine, and bay on its way up into the hills. After a few miles, sturdy trunks of Douglas firs rose out of the red soil, and the hills became Howell Mountain. Sunny rolled down the window and stuck her head out, catching the sweet breeze and picking out the plant smells. It had been a long, hot, dry summer and the turn to fall was welcome. Soon it would rain and there would be chanterelles on the lower slopes where the oak did better than the pine. It was pleasant to be called away from the kitchen unexpectedly, even if it meant the morning would be a crunch when she got back, even if the tone of Wade’s voice worried her. Still, these sorts of alarms were almost always false. He probably didn’t want to say what he wanted in case she wouldn’t come. The time was right for bottling last year’s harvest. It had been aging in barrels for a year now, and Wade would need to free up those barrels soon for this year’s wine. Probably he’d made two or three different blends and he wanted her opinion. She reasoned that if it was a real emergency, he would have said so on the phone.

At the crest she made a left onto a narrower paved road and soon passed the turnoff to the stone pillars and wrought-iron arch that announced BERONI VINEYARDS ESTATE, Wade Skord’s formidable neighbor. The road wound around a bend and along the edge of a steep ravine. At the black mailbox with SKORD MOUNTAIN VINEYARD hand-lettered on the side, she took a right
onto a dirt road that curved precipitously down a slope lined with dense forest. As the grade flattened out, her truck emerged from the trees into bright sunshine, and grapevines took over where forest had left off. The deep ruts that had scored the steep part of the road were replaced by even deeper potholes and a luxurious layer of fine dust. Sunny slowed the truck to a crawl, hoping to minimize the wear and tear on the shocks, not to mention the cloud of copper-colored dust. The vines that lined the road threatened to engulf the truck. Purple clusters of matte-finish grapes hung in graceful bunches every few inches and leafy tendrils arched skyward. Gnarled silver-gray stocks plunged into dark soil. Between the rows, dry weeds made a shaggy straw-yellow carpet.

After a gentle turn at the bottom of the hill, the cabin came into view. It had been built in the thirties after Prohibition, the same time that several acres of the slope above were planted to Zinfandel. Those vines still produced some of the best wine in the valley. Wade had added a large bedroom and kitchen to the original cabin, the exterior of which had weathered to a shade of silvery gray that made it blend into the surrounding forest so well, it was possible to stand on top of the ridge and take in the view without noticing the house at all. A redwood deck, another of Wade’s modifications, extended off the southwest side, looking toward the winery.

Wade was waiting on the deck when Sunny pulled up. He’d taken off his boots to go in the house and now he stood in his white gym socks watching her walk toward him. He had on a gray wool work shirt over a white thermal shirt and dirty jeans and stood there, smiling weakly. Sunny kissed each cheek and looked at him. There was an awkwardness about him, a stiffness
and hesitation that hadn’t been there before. “What’s up?” she asked.

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