This one won for Best First Line in the annual Coveted Dead Bird event sponsored by the Dead Bird Society of my local Sisters in Crime chapter.
DEAD ON THE VINE
Perry whistled “Onward Christian Soldiers” as she moved the lever of the reloader down, pressing gunpowder into the empty hull.
Soon she had enough ammo to stop a California black bear. Not that one had been seen in her part of the San Joaquin Valley during the last hundred years. But you never knew and she liked to be prepared. She grinned, unaware that lips spread across toothless gums resemble a grimace more than a smile.
The time had come.
Just over the river, a green Volvo wagon entered a long driveway carved from rolling hills covered with grape vines. The driver parked in front of the house, climbed the wooden steps and rang the bell. Deep chimes rang inside, seeming to well up from beneath the foundation.
Ginger could see a woman appear down a hall, though the leaded panes of glass in the door distorted and multiplied the figure as she approached. When she’d visited here as a child, these windows had been grimy, not allowing a view to the interior.
“Welcome to Chateau vin Beaujolais!” A woman about her own age, (thirty said the DMV, thirty-two said her husband, and thirty-five said her birth certificate), stood on the threshold. Blonde hair just swept her shoulders, but a dot of mascara on one cheek marred the perfect complexion.
“Margaret Edwards? I’m Ginger Phillips, Beautiful Home Magazine.”
“Call me Maggie.” As she ushered Ginger into the foyer, Maggie must have caught sight of herself in the entry mirror because she licked a fingertip and ran it under her eye as she scooped up a pair of athletic shoes then dropped them into the window seat.
Ginger eyed the parquet flooring. She never knew this house had hardwood floors. No one had been able to see the floor under the stacks of newspapers.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Miss Phillips,” Maggie said. “And I’m so excited that you want to feature our home in a cover story.”
“We’re interested in the renovations you’ve done as a possible article, but we’ll have to wait and see about the cover. I’m here to take some preliminary pictures and hear about the house.”
“I understand. I just love this home so much, and I know you’ll feel the same after you see it.”
They had reached the French doors leading to the back yard and Maggie threw them open with a flourish.
“Please, come sit on the deck.”
She gestured toward a small table where glasses, an ice bucket, and a tray of cheese and crackers waited.
Maggie sat but Ginger wandered to the railing and gazed out. The vines were full of plump green grapes; round and as perfectly formed as the frosty cat’s-eye marbles she played with as a child. She strolled the perimeter of the deck, looking out at the vineyard and back at the house, as if assessing camera angles and shadows. She was recalling when this deck had been unsafe to walk on. An unwary step could have sent you through the rotted planks.
After a circuit around the railing, she joined her hostess at the bistro table and pulled out a note pad.
“I’m familiar with Beautiful Home Magazine,” Maggie said. “I can’t wait to hear your thoughts about what we’ve done here.”
“Can you tell me how you came to own the house and vineyard?” Ginger asked.
“My husband has always wanted to be a vintner. He grew up in Topeka, not known for its fine vintages. I’m local, from here in the Valley. We were living in LA, working miserable eight-to-five jobs. A couple of years ago, while visiting family, we happened to see a notice in the paper about a vineyard for sale. The vines had a good history of production, but the house and other buildings were a shambles. We made an offer and here we are.”
“Did you or your husband have any experience with viticulture?”
Maggie laughed, a delicate sound echoing off the surrounding vines.
“We didn’t then, but we’re fast learners. Jack is knowledgeable about California wines and has an excellent palate. I’m the handyperson-slash-decorator.”
“And the house – what condition was it in?”
“The structure was severely injured. It’s a beautiful mid-nineteenth century Victorian, but it had suffered through several bungled renovations.”
“You make it sound as if the house has feelings.”
“I believe it does. As soon as we ripped out the wall-to-wall carpet and tacky green linoleum, the wood floors could breathe again. The house took deeper gulps of air every day, and I could literally see it begin to feel better. When we installed the crown molding in the dining room, I swear the house was standing up straighter at the end of the day.”
“What about the previous owners?”
“The elderly woman who lived here had become a pack rat. She collected newspapers and junk. The house was suffocating under it all.”
“I understand it was a family estate forced into foreclosure by the arrival of the glassy-winged sharpshooter.”
“Yes. The vines were infected. That’s one reason we got the whole place at a decent price.”
“How bad was it?”
“The entire vineyard was dying and shriveling, practically before our eyes.”
“And you weren’t worried?”
“We knew we were going to rip the vines out and start again.”
“Even without the infestation?”
“Yes. That was just a happy coincidence. The previous owners were growing Chardonnay grapes for sparkling wine. We want to do blends, so we can start with any white grape. Chardonnay is a good base grape, but we intend to specialize.” Maggie sipped her wine, flashing a brilliant smile at Ginger.
Across the vineyard, a woman dressed in khaki trudged up a dusty slope toward an oak tree. Standing bent and gnarled, its days as sentry over the vines were long gone. Perry remembered children taking refuge in its branches when trying to escape chores.
She dropped the bag containing her scope and food. She had spent a long time thinking about what was the appropriate snack to take to a shooting spree. She settled on the ground, leaned against the tree trunk, and pulled out wheat crackers and string cheese. Cramming her mouth full and chewing while she worked, Perry began to attach the scope to her weapon.
After a few minutes, she dropped to her stomach and wriggled through the brush, commando-style. Propping the rifle stock up with one arm, she peered through the scope, scanning until she could see the figures on the deck. Her deck, made from redwood trees, harvested from the mountains above her beloved vineyard and home. Her grandfather had built this house, planted these vines, crushed the grapes. And her family expected her to walk away from it.
Thanks to an grasshopper, she’d been forced to sell her beloved home to some human parasites. People who thought linoleum evil and probably drank bottled water. All hoity-toity and taking advantage of her. But no more.
Ginger sipped her wine.
“This is good. Sweet. I was expecting dry.”
“I’m glad you like it. We’re expanding into the dessert and breakfast wine markets.”
“Breakfast wine? I didn’t know there was such a thing.”
“Jack has been experimenting and he came up with a blend that tastes just like a mimosa, but it’s wine. We have high hopes for it.”
In spite of herself, Ginger felt awe. “Really?”
“Yes. He’s a talented winemaker.”
“Tell me some more about the house. What other changes did you make?”
“We redid the kitchen. The counters are local granite, quarried in Raymond. And I did a lot of buying over the Internet,” Maggie continued.
“I’m impressed,” Ginger said. And she was. The house had been neglected and remodeled into a shambles by her grandparents. But this woman Ginger had been prepared to hate, was actually nice. She loved this house as it deserved to be. Ginger was glad she’d come to see for herself and not just taken her grandmother’s rantings as truth.
“The house had been homogenized and lost its character. Those people treated this home as if it were just wood and plaster. I’ve returned it to the way it was meant to be. Beautiful, charming. Like an old woman, dressed in red with a purple hat.”
“Or a painted lady?”
“Exactly! I was going for the feel of one of the San Francisco Victorians. Genteel, a bit shabby, but with great lines.”
“Well, you’ve certainly accomplished that.”
Two shots rang out, the reports echoed over the rolling hills. The wine bottle exploded, showering the two women with glass and wine. Ginger stared at Maggie, a dread cold creeping into her soul.
“Oh my God!” Ginger heard her own voice, the words barely distinguishable through the roaring in her ears. She felt herself moving through a thick fog, drowning and sinking, staring at the blood seeping through Maggie’s yellow silk blouse. The red grew, like a wine stain on carpet.