From Cereal Killer
“But what do you mean there’s no cell service?” I wailed,
staring at my phone. Zero bars.
From the driver’s seat, Vicente Domingo flashed his trademark
smirk. Most women in most situations found his roguish,
tall-dark-and-handsome shtick charming. In the best of times,
I found it only mildly obnoxious.
This was not the best of times.
“No worries,” he crooned in his lilting Spanish accent. “I’m sure we
won’t be stuck on the side of the road too long.”
“It’s four thousand degrees outside!” I sputtered.
“You’re exaggerating by exactly 3900 degrees.”
The temperature gauge flicked from 100 to 101. I pointed to it.
“Make that three thousand eight hundred and ninety-nine.”
“Really—don’t worry, quierda. I’ll pop the hood and see if it’s an
easy fix.” He opened the car door, letting in a whoosh of heat.
“I’m not your love,” I muttered as he closed the door behind him. I
traced the BMW’s black leather seat. Shouldn’t a car like this be too
expensive to break down on us?
When Vicente Domingo—a rival PI—had invited me out to the
town of Golden to solve a mystery, I’d been excited . . . and a little
confused. But I definitely hadn’t planned to end up stranded twenty-
seven minutes from our destination, in ten-thousand-degree heat,
while more than seven months pregnant with twins!
How busy was this road, exactly?
After passing Sacramento, we took highway 49 toward Golden,
but a traffic jam a few miles earlier had sent us onto a back road
through the middle of nowhere. I tried to remember how many cars
we’d passed in the last few minutes. I hadn’t been paying close atten‐
tion, but I only remembered one other car.
Surely someone would happen upon us soon and we wouldn’t
roast out here like a pair of Thanksgiving turkeys.
Mmm, Thanksgiving turkey sounds good. My mouth watered at the
thought. Darn pregnancy hormones.
A minute later, Vicente popped back in the car, a wave of heat
“Don’t let out all the air conditioning,” I whined.
He closed the door with a little shrug. “We’re about twenty-five
minutes from my cousin’s house. I’m sure someone will give us a lift.
Luz is well known in town, and I’ve visited enough that someone will
recognize me. I spent whole summers here as a boy, when my grand‐
parents owned the winery.”
I stared out the window. No trees lined this road, but there was a
small grove in the distance. If we ran out of gas and couldn’t blast the
air conditioning, we’d have to walk to those trees to find shade. I eyed
He’d recovered impressively from a gunshot wound a few months
back, but still I doubted he could haul my pregnant rump if my knees
And also…wasn’t this rattlesnake country?
What on earth am I doing here?
A few yards ahead of the car, a huge pile of rocks sat just off the
road. I stared at the rock pile, startled. For a second, one of the rocks
had looked just like one of those sun-bleached ox skulls they used to
set the mood in grim Wild West movies. I blinked a few times, reas‐
suring myself that it was just a white rock and not an omen of
“Worst case scenario,” Vicente continued, “it’s supposed to pour
rain sometime this afternoon. That’ll cool us off.”
I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. Time to focus on something I
could control. I rubbed my temples.
The case. Might as well take the opportunity to talk more about
the case. “So, why exactly did your cousin want two PIs to come inves‐
tigate this vineyard thing?” I asked.
It was the question that had been nagging at me ever since Vicente
had explained the situation—someone was trying to sabotage his
cousin’s vineyard. First, there had been a few threatening notes. Then
an attempted break-in in the middle of the night. Then a ransomware
attack on the vineyard’s computer system.
The ransomware attack had been the last straw. It hadn’t worked—
Luz kept careful backups and had replaced her computer rather than
pay off the hackers—but she’d called Vicente for help.
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After a long pause, he said, “I asked her if I could bring a PI friend
with me. Her friends and neighbors know that her cousin is a PI, so
people will know something is up if I’m asking too many questions. I
figured we could tag-team and keep it quiet that we’re investigating
“So we don’t tip off the saboteur? Won’t they expect Luz to bring
someone in to look into it?”
“Well . . . that’s part of it.”
I stared at him for a second. “Why don’t we want anyone to know
He grimaced. “Luz . . . made a mistake with the winery.”
Suspicion bloomed in my chest. Crossing my arms, I asked, “What
kind of mistake? What have you dragged me into, Vicente?”
He clasped his hands together. “Nothing too terrible. Nothing ille‐
gal. This sort of thing really happens all the time, I’m told. Where to
start . . .”
“You could always try the beginning,” I deadpanned.
“The winery is very profitable. My grandparents bought the vineyard
in the 1970s from a winemaker who was struggling to get by, and they
turned it into something great. Luz chose to carry on the family busi‐
ness. Turns out she’s spectacular at it—she’s won several wine-of-the-year
awards, that sort of thing. Plus, she’s tripled the size of the operation
since she took it over. But she lost ninety percent of the harvest this year
and opted to buy another vineyard’s grapes and make the season’s wine
anyway—labeled as if it really came from her vineyard.”
I sucked in a sharp breath. “Oh . . .”
“It was a rolling blackout. She has a generator, of course, but every
vineyard in the region was scrambling for fuel to run the generators,
and she couldn’t get enough gas in time. So, most of the grapes
“How awful,” I murmured.
“As I said, the vineyard is profitable, but that much expansion
means there is a lot of debt, too. They couldn’t afford to lose a whole
year. I wish she’d come to me before she made the decision. I would
have told her that her name was big enough to ride out the storm—to
just raise the prices on the wines that are coming of age, and to bottle
what little wine they could eke out of this year’s harvest . . . when
that’s ready to sell, market it as a super-rare special edition for thou‐
sands of dollars a bottle. But I guess she . . . was not so confident, or
didn’t think about that option. Companies order from her years in
advance, you see. I can only imagine she was worried about backing
out of contracts.”
“Mmm,” I said softly. “That doesn’t make it right, of course, but she
was in a hard position.”
“Yes, she was.” He slumped back against the leather seat. “In one of
our conversations about the blackouts, she said to me, ‘Vicente, what
if it happens again next year?’ She decided she needed to add solar
panels and batteries to go with them . . . not enough to run the whole
vineyard all the time, but enough to keep processing wine in an
“And that’s a huge expense.”
“Exactly. So I think she must have been worried about how to pay
for it. Would the bank extend her credit if they thought her business
was in trouble from a lost harvest? Would they call her existing debts
due? I don’t know.”
“What a mess.”
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