Steeped in Evil
An Excerpt From
Steeped in Evil
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***

Copyright © 2014 by Gerry Schmitt & Associates, Inc.

1

 

Theodosia Browning didn’t consider herself a wine connoisseur, since tea was really her forte. Fragrant Darjeelings, malty Assams, and her current favorite, a house-blended orchid plum tea that tickled her fancy as well as her taste buds.

On the other hand, how often did a girl get invited to a fancy wine-tasting party at the very upscale Knighthall Winery?

Rarely. In fact, tonight was a first for Theodosia. And her invitation to this lushly groomed vineyard, located a leisurely drive from Charleston, South Carolina, came at the behest of Drayton Conneley, her right-hand man and tea expert at the Indigo Tea Shop. Luckily for Theodosia, Drayton happened to be a dear friend of Jordan Knight, Knighthall Winery’s slightly flamboyant proprietor.

“You see?” said Drayton, grabbing her elbow and steering her toward an enormous trestle table set under a spreading live oak. He was sixty-something and still debonair with a prominent nose and thatch of gray hair. “Jordan managed to produce four completely different varieties of wine.” Wine bottles beckoned like shiny beacons, and attentive waiters were more than willing to fill glasses. “Amazing, wouldn’t you say?”

“Amazing,” Theodosia echoed. She didn’t know if four varieties was a feat worth celebrating, but Drayton certainly seemed impressed. And the grounds of the winery did look absolutely magical this September evening, all lit up and sparkling like a scene from some elegant Austrian fairy tale. Plantation oaks and pecan trees were iced in silvery lights, candles floated in a free-form pool, a string quartet played lively music, and a handsome magician in white tie and tails amused guests with fluttering, disappearing pigeons and sly card tricks.

Drayton handed Theodosia a crystal flute filled with white wine. “This is Knighthall’s White Shadow,” he told her. “Although I’d call it more of a Riesling.”

Theodosia took a small sip and found the wine to be utterly delicious. Crisp and aromatic, with hints of apples and citrus. Not unlike a fine oolong tea. “It’s spectacular,” she replied.

“I told you,” said Drayton. “Lots of folks thought it would be next to impossible to grow grapes out here on Wadmalow Island, but Jordan’s definitely proved them wrong.”

If tea plants could grow here and flourish, Theodosia thought to herself, why not grape vines? Although perhaps a sandier soil was needed? Wasn’t a sandier, rockier soil supposed to prove the true mettle of the grape?

They stepped away from the tasting table and looked around, enjoying the warmth and excitement of the evening and the rather excellent people watching.

“I’d say the crème de la crème of Charleston is here in full force tonight,” said Theodosia. Tanned and toned women in chiffon dresses drifted by, wafting perfumed scents that hinted at lilies and lilacs. Men in seersucker suits also wandered the elegant grounds, sipping wine as well as an occasional tumbler of bourbon. Of course, Charleston folk being the congenial sort, everyone seemed quite preoccupied with the exchange of air kisses and pleasantries, pretending not to notice if they themselves were being noticed.

“The beautiful people,” Drayton mused. “Dressed to the nines just in case a society photographer should happen along.” Of course, he was also dazzling in a blue-and-white seersucker suit—a sartorial Southern statement that was punctuated by his trademark red bow tie.

Theodosia would have denied it, of course, practically laughed in your face, but she was also one of the beautiful people. With an abundance of auburn hair that might have inspired a painter like Raphael, creamy English skin, and sparkling blue eyes, she looked like she might have slipped in from another, earlier, century. She was bold yet tactful, filled with dreams and yet practical for her thirty-some years. Her only flaws were that she tended to wear her heart on her sleeve and often rushed in where proverbial angels feared to tread.

“Jordan!” Drayton called out as Jordan Knight, the owner of Knighthall Winery, came up to greet them. “Congratulations on such a fine turnout.” He turned to include Theodosia. “And this is Theodosia Browning, I don’t believe you two have met.”

“Thanks for coming,” said Knight as he shook hands with each of them. He was midforties, with a shock of salt-and-pepper hair, watery blue eyes, and a slightly pink complexion. He’d removed his jacket, loosened his tie, and his manner seemed to veer between nervous and ebullient.

“I’m pretty sure I just convinced the owner of the Lady Goodwood Inn to carry my wine,” Knight chortled. In his other, more practical life, he was the CEO of Whizzen Software. Knighthall Winery was his most recently established passion.

“Well done,” said Drayton, clapping his friend on the back.

“Your winery appears to be thriving,” Theodosia told Knight. Being a business owner herself, she knew how difficult it was for a company to succeed, let alone flourish, in today’s tough business climate. And the deck was stacked against upstarts even more.

“We’re starting to gain some traction,” Knight responded. “We have distribution to thirty liquor stores in something like five states. And my son is in the process of helping to negotiate a potentially large deal with a Japanese distributor, as well.” Knight gazed about distractedly. “You’ve met my son, Drew, haven’t you?”

Drayton nodded yes. Theodosia shook her head no.

“I’d love to say hello to him,” said Drayton. “Is he here tonight?”

“Drew’s around here somewhere,” said Knight as he cast a quick glance at the large crowd and shrugged. “He’s no doubt managing all the behind-the-scenes activity.” Now he glanced nervously at his watch.

“Relax,” Drayton told him. “This is your big night. Enjoy it!”

Knight grimaced. “I’m a little antsy about my presentation.”

“What is that?” Theodosia inquired politely.

“In about five minutes,” said Knight, “we’re going to do a special barrel tasting of our new cabernet reserve.” He flashed a perfunctory smile. “We’re calling it Knight Music.”

“Catchy,” said Theodosia.

“We’re pinning all our hopes on this one,” said Knight. “Going for broke.”

“I’m guessing that several of Charleston’s food and wine critics are in attendance tonight?” said Drayton.

Knight nodded. “We invited anybody and everybody who can give us a mention, article, or shout-out. After five years of moving heaven and earth to produce four varieties of muscadine grapes, it’s all come down to this one make-or-break moment.”

“Good luck to you then,” said Theodosia as Knight hurried away.

Theodosia and Drayton edged their way slowly through the crowd, in the direction Jordan had gone. A makeshift stage had been set up just outside a large, hip-roofed barn, and two workers were rolling out an enormous oak barrel. Two Japanese men, both wearing white suits and standing ramrod-stiff, stood nearby, watching intently.

Theodosia gave Drayton a nudge. “Those must be the Japanese distributors your friend Jordan mentioned.”

Drayton nodded. “I read a recent article in the Financial Times about how the Japanese are suddenly head-over-heels crazy for wine. Particularly the pricier ones.”

Sake being so last year,” said Theodosia.

“Everything is cyclical,” said Drayton, trying to sound practical.

“Except for tea,” said Theodosia. “Tea just seems to keep gaining in popularity.”

“And aren’t we glad for that,” said Drayton.

“Excuse me . . . Theodosia?” said a voice at their elbow.

Theodosia turned with a smile and her eyes met those of a good-looking man with piercing green eyes and a mop of curly blond hair. Kind of surfer dude meets buttoned-down lawyer. He was smiling back at her, and with a kind of instinctive knowledge, she realized that she knew him. The man’s name was Andrew something. Andrew . . .

“Andrew Turner,” said the man, filling in the blank for her, bobbing his head. “We met at my gallery a couple of weeks ago.”

“That’s right,” said Theodosia. “Max brought me to one of your openings—you were featuring all sorts of dynamic, contemporary oil paintings as I recall.”

“Where you undoubtedly feasted on cheap white wine and stuffed cherry tomatoes,” said Turner. “The hopeful gallery owner’s stock-in-trade.”

“I don’t recall the wine,” said Theodosia, “but I do remember a wonderful painting that you had on display. All reds and purples and golds. Subtle but also very visceral. The artist was . . . James somebody?”

“Richard James,” said Turner. “You have a very keen eye. And as luck would have it, that particular piece is still for sale if you’re interested.”

“Let me think about it,” said Theodosia. She hastily introduced Turner to Drayton, then they all paused as a passing waiter stopped with his tray of hors d’oeuvres to offer them mini crab cakes and shrimp wrapped in bacon.

“Why don’t you drop by again during the Paint and Palette Art Crawl,” Turner suggested. “You know it kicks off this Wednesday.”

Theodosia was about to answer, when Drayton quickly shushed them. Jordan Knight was standing on the stage next to an enormous weathered oak barrel. And it looked as if he was about to begin his speech.

The crowd hushed en masse and pressed forward to hear his presentation.

“Thank you all for coming,” said Knight. “This is such a proud moment for me.” He clasped a hand to his chest in a heartfelt gesture of appreciation. “We’ve labored long and hard to cultivate grapes here in South Carolina.”

There was a spatter of applause.

“And our newest vintage, Knight Music, which you are all about to taste, would never have been possible without the hard work of my manager, Tom Grady, and our many dedicated workers.” Jordan extended a hand toward a red-haired woman who stood off to the side. “And, of course, I must thank my wonderful family. My wife, the amazing Pandora Knight, and my son, Drew Knight.” He smiled as his eyes searched the crowd for Drew. When he didn’t find him, he said, “Though my son seems to be missing in action at the moment.”

There was more laughter and guffaws from the crowd.

As Jordan continued his speech, two workers began to tap the large barrel of wine. They fumbled around on the top, trying to get a spigot going, but it didn’t seem to be working.

“Of course,” said Jordan, playing to the crowd now, “our winery is not without problems—as you can plainly see.” One of the workers tilted the large barrel up onto one edge. The other worker, looking frustrated and brandishing a crowbar, suddenly popped off the round, wooden top. The heavy lid went airborne, spinning in the air like an errant Frisbee, and then hit the stage with a loud bang. At that very same moment, the entire barrel seemed to teeter dangerously.

“Whoa!” Jordan shouted. “Careful there. We’re going to sample that fine wine.”

But the giant barrel, unbalanced and heavy with wine, was more than the workers could handle. They fought valiantly to right it, but were beginning to lose their grip.

Slowly, the barrel tipped sideways and viscous red liquid began to spill out, sloshing across the stage and spattering the crowd. There were sharp cries of dismay from the guests as everyone tried to jump out of the way.

Jordan Knight scrambled for the barrel in a last-ditch effort to avert total disaster. He leaned down and tried to muscle his shoulder beneath the huge barrel. Unfortunately, the laws of physics had been set into motion and he was clearly too late. The barrel continued to tip, rolling over in slow motion like a sinking ocean liner making a final, dying gasp.

The barrel landed on its side with a deafening crash, and torrents of red wine gushed out like rivers of blood.

Now horrified gasps rose up from the crowd as Jordan Knight seemed to stagger drunkenly. He crumpled to his knees, landing hard, and his entire face seemed to collapse. Then an agonized shriek rose up from his lips, blotting out the music and even the gasps from the crowd.

Curiosity bubbling within her, Theodosia pushed her way through the crowd to see what on earth was going on.

And was completely shocked to see the body of a dead man lying on the stage!

He was curled up, nose to knees, like a pickled fish. His head was tilted forward, his arms clutched close across his chest. The man’s skin, what Theodosia could see of it, was practically purple from being submerged inside the barrel of red wine.

Who? and What? were the first thoughts that formed like a cartoon bubble deep in Theodosia’s brain. And then her eyes flicked over to Jordan Knight, who was kneeling in the spill of wine, his pant legs completely soaked with purple as tears streamed down his face and his arms flailed madly about his head.

From the look of utter devastation on Jordan Knight’s face, Theodosia was pretty sure he’d found his missing son.


Steeped in Evil

Steeped in Evil